Throughout The Lord of the Rings, we learn the Elves’ time in Middle Earth is coming to an end, and they are leaving for the “Valinor.”
Also called “The Undying Lands,” Valinor is a large island continent west of MIddle Earth where beings like the Elves, Maiar, and Valar live.
Traditionally, mortal races, such as Men, Dwarves, and Hobbits, are not allowed to enter Valinor. However, at the end of The War of the Ring, we see Bilbo and Frodo depart Middle Earth for the Valinor in a bittersweet ending to the story.
Later, they were even joined by Sam and Gimli, who were both also given special permission to travel there.
This all raises many questions regarding the Valinor, the nature of the Elves, and which beings are or are not allowed in the Valinor. Below, we’ll answer all of your burning questions.
Why Do the Elves Leave Middle Earth?
Elves left Middle Earth to go back to their spiritual homeland of Valinor because the Valar were spiritually summoning them. Elves living in Arda are intrinsically linked to the world and are born with an innate compulsion to live in Valinor. Going back to Valinor is considered the ultimate destiny of all Elves.
When Elves die, they don’t die forever, but their soul, or fëa, returns to the Halls of Mandos in Aman. After a period of waiting, their souls are reincarnated in their physical bodies within the Undying Lands.
Elves that are reborn this way can choose to stay in Valinor, but some are known to have returned to Middle Earth once again. However, unlike the other mortal races, they can never truly leave Arda and continuously reincarnate back into the World.
Throughout Tolkien’s writings, it’s implied that magic is slowly fading from the World. As beings that are intrinsically linked with the fate of Arda, that’s why Elves’ souls are also slowly fading alongside Middle Earth.
Outside of the Undying Lands, Elves also experience the world changing around them while they remain mostly the same. This naturally causes a sense of melancholy after many years and is one of the reasons why many Elves envy the Gift of Men, or mortality.
Returning to the Undying Lands is a more natural way for the Elves to exist because it is like a paradise where nothing fades away. Here, they can also live among the Valar and the Maiar, which would be similar to living among their deities.
Many Elves also decided to start returning to Valinor when Manwe revoked the ban against them after the War of Wrath. This is especially true of the Noldor, many of whom have lived in Valinor long ago.
One of the Silmarils had already been returned to Valinor, and the other two were lost forever, so the Noldor had no more reason to pursue their oath.
With the destruction of the One Ring, the Three Elven Rings would also start losing their power. These rings were able to prevent the fading effect, which is why ring bearers, like Galadriel, also decided to return to Valinor.
Do all the Elves Leave Middle Earth?
We don’t know whether all Elves eventually choose to leave Middle Earth and return to Valinor. However, many Elves do choose to remain in Middle Earth for the time being at the end of the War of the Rings.
Elrond, for example, chose to stay in Rivendell with his sons for a time because they did not feel ready to leave Middle Earth. He could use the little remaining power in his Ring to preserve himself and Rivendell for a while longer.
Galadriel stayed in Middle Earth long enough to witness Arwen and Aragorn’s marriage before departing for Valinor.
Many of the Elves to the east of Middle Earth, such as those living in Lorien, also chose to remain in Middle Earth for the time being. However, we can assume that most, if not all, will eventually travel to Valinor before they completely fade away.
Also read: 11 Most Powerful Elves in Middle Earth
Why did the Elves leave the Undying Lands and come to Middle Earth?
Elves were free to choose whether they want to leave or return to Valinor. Many Elves left Valinor Lands during the Flight of the Noldor to get revenge against Melkor in Middle Earth and retrieve the Simarils he stole.
Fëanor crafted the Simarils to contain the essence of the very Two Trees of Valinor. However, after destroying the trees, Melkor also stole the Silmarils and slew Finwë, the High King of the Noldor.
This led Fëanor and many other Noldor Oath of the Sons of Fëanor that they would wage war against any being who kept the Silmarils from them.
Fëanor and most of the Noldor left the Undying Lands to pursue Melkor, whom they named Morgoth (“Black Enemy”), to recover the gems and exact vengeance.
On their way, the Noldor committed the first of two Kinslayings, during which they attacked the Elves of Alqualondë to take their ships. This led to the Exile of the Noldor, during which many were banned from returning to Valinor.
It’s worth noting that there are Elves who never set foot in Valinor, having always resided in Middle Earth. The Úmanyar and Moriquendi were those that did not follow the Valar to Valinor after the awakening of the Elves, unlike the Calaquendi.
Below is The Rings of Power prologue clip which explains why the elves left Valinor:
Why Did Frodo, Bilbo, Sam, Gimli, and Gandalf Go To Valinor?
As mortals, Frodo, Bilbo, Sam, and Gimli were granted special permission to travel to Valinor as thanks for their role in The War of the Ring. As one of the Maiar, Gandalf could freely travel to Valinor and chose to do so after completing his mission in Middle Earth.
As a Maia, or angelic spirit, whose real name is Olórin, Gandalf originally comes from the Undying Lands, like the other Valar and Maiar. His spirit returned to Valinor when he died defeating the Balrog before being reincarnated as Gandalf the White.
To be specific, Tolkien clears up in letters that Frodo, Bilbo, Sam, and Gimli did not travel to the Undying Lands. Instead, they settled on Tol Eressëa, an island off the eastern coast of Aman that was within sight of Valinor.
This is consistent with the fact that mortals are not allowed to reside within the Undying Lands. However, we don’t know if they were ever granted a temporary visit or audience with denizens of Valinor.
Frodo was permitted to travel there so that he could physically and spiritually heal from his wounds from the Nazgul’s Morgul-blade before he passed on.
Bilbo and Sam were permitted to travel with him to aid his recovery and because of their contributions to saving Middle Earth.
Legolas traveled to the Undying Lands later after Aragorn passed away. He invited Gimli with him because of their great friendship, but we can also assume Gimli was granted an exception because of his role in The War of the Ring.
Although it’s not explicitly mentioned, we can assume that Frodo, Bilbo, Sam, and Gimli were allowed to live out their remaining years and pass away peacefully in Aman. Legolas would have likely rejoined the other Elves to live in Valinor proper.
Gandalf, on the other hand, once again became the Maia Olórin, dwelling in the gardens of Irmo for eternity.
Also read: 10 Most Powerful Weapons in The Lord of the Rings
Can Other Races, like Men and Dwarves, Go To Valinor?
Men, Dwarves, Hobbits, and other mortal races of Middle Earth were not allowed to travel to Valinor or The Undying Lands freely. Technically, other races could travel to Valinor, but they would nee permission and special Elven ships to reach their destination.
During most of the First and Second Ages, the continent of Aman was part of the same physical world as Middle Earth. It was, therefore, technically possible for anyone to travel there, although the Valar, or Eru himself, would have probably prevented them.
However, Eru separated Aman from the physical world during the Changing of the World. Only Elven ships could use the “Straight Road” which allowed them to leave the curvature of the earth and enter the ethereal plane where Aman is located.
‘The Doom of the World,’ they said, ‘One alone can change who made it. And were you so to voyage that escaping all deceits and snares you came indeed to Aman, the Blessed Realm, little would it profit you. For it is not the land of Manwe that makes its people deathless, but the Deathless that dwell therein have hallowed the land; and there you would but wither and grow weary the sooner, as moths in a light too strong and steadfast.’The Silmarillion, AKALLABÊTH, The Downfall of Númenór
The quote implies that men would suffer if they attempted to live in undying lands. It was not meant for mortals; they would “burn out” sooner, surrounded by the “light” and the power of their surroundings and that of the other immortal races.
Unlike Elves, Eru gave men the “Gift of Ilúvatar.” This means that their souls will not be physically reborn but will pass on beyond the World to a fate not even the Valar understands, except for Mandos and Manwe.
Also read: Galadriel vs Sauron: Was Galadriel More Powerful than Sauron?
What Happens to the Elves That Stayed in Middle Earth?
Elves that remain in Middle earth too long are doomed to a slow decline as the essence of the World fades. With time, they will revert to “rustic folk of dell and cave,” losing most of their innate power and intelligence.
As the first race created by Eru, Elves are intrinsically tied to the fate of Middle Earth. As the World changes around them and the essence of creation fades, the Elves’ spirits will dwindle with it.
For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.’Galadriel, The Mirror of Galadriel, The Lord of the Rings
Eventually, Elves will become “lesser beings” and probably degrade to a state where they become like “haunts” or “wraiths.” Galadriel herself admits as much to Frodo during their encounter at Galadriel’s mirror.
Tolkien never tells us explicitly what happens to the Dwarves after the War of the Ring. However, we do know that they rebuilt some of their old kingdoms, such as Erebor, and even founded new colonies, such as in the Glittering Caves behind Helm’s Deep.
However, the Dwarves do not experience the same fading effect as the Elves, and they are not tied to the Valar or Valinor in the same way.
Dwarves believe that when they die, their souls will wait in the Halls of Mandos to help rebuild the world after Dagor Dagorath.
We do know that the next age is the Age of Men where the kingdoms of Men flourish, and they become the dominant race of Middle Earth.