Fantasy is replete with legendary beards. Great kings boast glorious full-beards that embody their regal splendor. Wizards are renowned for their flowing beards: a sign of their years of study. Even fantasy races, such as the dwarves, are defined by their big bushy beards – and that’s without mentioning the facial fuzz of dwarf women.
But there’s one fantasy race that stays as fresh-faced as the day they were born: elves.
On first inspection, the difference seems odd. In most fantasy lore, from the Lord of the Rings to Dungeons and Dragons, men, elves, and dwarves can intermingle and intermarry. While they may differ in stature, the general anatomy of these races is seemingly identical. So, what gives?
Tolkien and the Creation of Elves
As with all things fantasy, all roads lead to Tolkien: the father of modern fantasy. Originally, Tolkien asserted that elves could not grow beards. But, as he aged, he changed his mind. In Tolkien’s mythology, elves grew older in cycles. It was only upon reaching the third cycle that elves began growing beards.
Thus, Cirdan – the shipwright – had a long beard at the end of the Return of the King. However, the aged-elf was then around 11,000 years old, compared to Elrond, who was a spritely 6,500 years old. There are exceptions, however. An obscure elf, Nerdanel’s father, sported a beard when he was only around 4,000 years old (around the second cycle of life).
The stylistic choice is an interesting one. Tolkien himself never grew a beard. Though the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon epics, of which he was an expert, are replete with beard-wearing heroes like Beowulf. Why then did Tolkien opt for a fresh-faced aesthetic?
Being nigh on immortal, elves age but never grow old. Beards, therefore, seem a suitable accompaniment, a sign of their wise and ancient longevity. Yet, in our culture, beards are associated not only with maturity but also old age: something the elves never experience. Thus, being locked in youth, it seems fitting that few elves ever grow a beard. It also diminishes the angelic demeanor. I mean, few picture Gabriel or the archangel Michael with a big bushy beard, nor is quite fitting for the elven prince Legolas.
D&D: Can an Elf have a Beard?
Amongst the D&D community, the subject of bearded elves is a hot topic. A few handbooks have stated that elves can’t have beards: a strict hangover from Tolkien’s legendarium. But that doesn’t mean nobody has ever invented a character with one.
If you want to create an elf with a beard, ask your DM. Perhaps you dream of a swashbuckling elf with a debonair Van Dyke, or an ancient elven librarian with a long, plaited beard.
After all, isn’t that the beauty of fantasy? You can create whatever you can imagine?