I have told you of the laws and customs of the Eldar in marriage, my mortal friend. And my answering has given rise to more questions from you. Are Elves doomed to be loveless for our long lives if we wed not? And what means this word ansereg that I let slip in speaking of elvish warriors and their consolations? Truly, I do not know if I am right to answer you fully. But I will tell the tale of the strange ways in love of the High Elves, and of the custom of ansereg. Tales may be shared, when deeds may not be.
The loves of the Elves began at the mere of Cuivenen, where our people first arose. Before our laws were strong, it is said, Elves loved given spouses and friends alike while new words were made. When we divided into clans and houses, we made our laws, and we followed them dwelling in Middle-Earth and in the lands across the Sundering Seas. Then came the exile of the Noldor. A fury of change fell upon the Elves when the Noldor returned to Middle-Earth and the War of the Jewels began. As our language changed at that time, so too did our customs.
For the High Elves, exile was a time of strife, of sunderings and widowings. More elf-men than elf-women went to exile, and by our laws, the Noldor do not wed again even when bereaved. Yet we still feel passion and care, and so we turn to one another. To keep our laws while easing hearts, friends of the same kind turned lovers, men with men and women with women. If mortals have words for such loves, I have not heard them, so I speak simply.
For this reason as well we speak little to mortal folk of ansereg. Prepare to listen, but first swear to me that you will keep secret what I say.
The word ansereg refers to rituals created to strengthen warriors against the pain and duress of battle, and to harden them against torment if captured. This custom came about after Maedhros son of Fëanor endured a great torment in Thangorodrim. Maedhros was saved at the price of losing a hand, and the tales say that the shadow of the pain stayed in his heart. He conceived ansereg that he might master that shadow in himself, and fear torment no more. Thus Maedhros was the first to submit in its circles.
In the Quenya of the High Elves, the term began as angserce, which means iron-blood. In Sindarin, the word of the same meaning was ansereg, and this became more greatly used. For a time these customs were also called Maedhros' Way, but that name fell out of favor after Maedhros' rape of a Silmaril and his death.
The practice of ansereg spread among the warriors of the High Elves, especially those who served the sons of Fëanor. They were surpassing proud, and would not be excelled in any art of passion or endurance. It may seem strange to you that this became seen as art, but for many years the High Elves who besieged Morgoth had the luxury of time and thought. Do not forget that Elves endure and feel differently from Men. We may bear much pain and wounding, and heal in a day what may take a mortal a month to repair. Yet I have heard that this changes as Men grow to their prime and strength, and Elves fade.
Ansereg being a practice of the Noldor, Thingol, king of the Sindar Elves, banned its practice from Doriath when word of it came to his court. And since that time the customs of ansereg have differed as the dwellings and languages of our people have. Of the Sindar elves, many disapprove of ansereg. Other Sindar take it to them deeply, although they criticize the Noldor for wringing out torments too great, and bringing ansereg into the practices of their guilds and houses. In turn, the Noldor often frown on the Sindar ways of ansereg, not holding it meet that they should reck so much of power or rank in the practice of ansereg, nor demand that honor should overlap with servitude. The Silvan wood-elves know little of ansereg but are often rough and thrawn in their own ways. Elvish speech that sounds fair to a mortal's ears may have harsh meaning.
You ask if ansereg is practiced only by elf-men. It is done by elf-women too, for many torments await women, and not only shield-maidens. It takes terrible courage, a great will to survive ill-use and force, instead of letting the spirit fly from the flesh. Yet its practice is very rare and secret among women. I know little of it, save that the women array for the ritual in garments of white and silver, instead of black and silver as do the men.
What are the laws of ansereg? Its practitioners are bound by the laws of the Eldar, as in other intimate matters of the body. It is not engaged in with close kin, nor with mortals - or if it is, none have spoken of it to me. It is not spoken of lightly. A time when ansereg is done between two is called a trial; the standing one does the work of torment, and the kneeling one bears it. At times there is a watcher, to make sure that all bides honourably, in respect of the trust that is given. It is when this trust is betrayed that ansereg is darkened. And I have seen this turned astray. It is very evil to see how it breaks the spirit.
To return to the matter of a trial. The pains of trials do not damage beyond wounds that may heal, yet hours of torment may be wrought thereby, and blood may be loosed. We do not bind or use gyves, unless this is the focus of the trial; a useful one, yet surpassing dull. Rather, the sufferer must remain still by their own courage. There have been cunning devices made to inflict the torments of ansereg, but because metal and leather are luxuries, they are rare. More often items to hand, plants and tools, are adapted. Inventiveness in this matter is considered a sign of skill at ansereg.
I knew that you would query how all this suffering falls in the same realm as matters of lust. It sounds cold to describe the mere laws of ansereg. They do not bring the enchantment of such trials to the mind. Dream instead that you yourself kneel within the drawn circle of ansereg, watching someone tall and stern pace a circle about you thrice before the first strike. Your flesh will scream, but also sing with heat and coolness. Gentle touches may fall on you as well, so that the heat of arousal will fuel your endurance. You will fear, and yet rejoice in your courage, and yearn to celebrate it with the one who helped you find it. Conversely, place yourself standing in the circle of ansereg, with a fair elf lightly clad kneeling before you, bound by honour to try and endure whatever you give to his body. Such power can intoxicate you as you stand. Might you not long to possess as much as you can of that beauty and honour, or to console the brave for their suffering afterwards? Once a formal trial is ended, and any watchers depart, passions may be fulfilled if both parties have free hearts. When a trial is entirely private, suffering may be bound up with lusts evoked to fulfilment - or to a hungry abstinence. Desire raised in trials is not always fulfilled.
The most common claim against ansereg is a simple one; that it does not accomplish its purpose of hardening warriors. Can this ever be said in sooth? Who left the dungeons, after entering and withstanding the tortures of Morgoth and Sauron? Who was slain when they would not betray? Those who failed were the ones who crept forth again as evil's spies and thralls.
What is certain of ansereg is that it creates fellowship, even passion, between those who practice it. I would dare to hold that it has value in this, and also that one might gain strength and knowledge of the spirit from enduring its trials. By this I hold it meet, even that it has beauty. It may seem strange to you, but I have witnessed trials more graceful than dancers, and heard cries of withstanding that moved me more than minstrels' song.
Few indeed abide by the ways of ansereg today, compared to the extent of old. Its last high hours were in Lindon and in Eregion, that elf-realm now fallen. Alas for Eregion, and for Celebrimbor the Silver-Fisted! I hear that there are some cabals of ansereg among the wood-elves of the East, and it is true that a few of those who knew this way of old still dwell in Imladris and at the Havens. But ansereg is becoming forgotten and strange in Middle-Earth, just as Elves wed less and bear fewer children as the time of our fading draws near.
Now you ask me to tell you tales of things that you claim you would not dare venture. Yet the act of speaking them would place too much power upon me in your eyes. So I will say no more of these matters. Do not be angry at my silence, or think that I merit you less, wise and good among mortals. Sometimes such a quiet is meet between friends.