Archive for May, 2011

Monday Masterclass: elves

This week I look at elves – their real-world origins in myths and folk tales, and how they’ve been portrayed in various works of fantasy.


The word ‘elf’ comes from the Old English ‘ælf‘, which ultimately probably comes from a Proto-Indo-European root of ‘albh-‘, meaning ‘white’ (also the root of the Latin ‘albus‘). The Germanic word ‘Alp‘, meaning ‘incubus’, is also related to it – it survives in German in the word ‘Alptraum‘ – ‘nightmare’.

The word ‘elf’ is present in various Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian names. ‘Alfred’ means ‘elf-counsel’; ‘Alvin’ means ‘elf-friend’ (and ‘Gandalf’ – the name of a dwarf in the Norse Edda – means ‘wand-elf’). The word ‘oaf’ is a variant of ‘elf’ and used to mean ‘a changeling’ or ‘a foolish child left by the fairies’.

Norse Elves

The elves of Norse mythology were similar to humans in appearance, except for being more beautiful. They were semi-divine beings, possessing supernatural powers. They come in three – or maybe two – or maybe just one type. There are ljósálfar – ‘light elves’, the ‘true’ elves; there are also references to dökkálfar (‘dark elves’) and svartálfar (‘black elves’). These latter may be the same; or one of them (or both) could be another name for dvergar – dwarves. It’s difficult to say for sure as there are few references to elves (of whatever kind) in surviving Norse poetry and prose.

The álfar lived in Álfheimr (‘elf-home’), while the dark elves lived underground or in mountain caves – or, alternatively, in Svartálfarheimr.

Elves were associated with health, fertility and ancestor-worship (and were similar, in this respect, to Roman household deities). Wikipedia has this quotation from Kormáks Saga:

Þorvarð healed but slowly; and when he could get on his feet he went to see Þorðís, and asked her what was best to help his healing.

“A hill there is,” answered she, “not far away from here, where elves have their haunt. Now get you the bull that Kormák killed, and redden the outer side of the hill with its blood, and make a feast for the elves with its flesh. Then thou wilt be healed.”

Folkloric Elves

From being creatures of great beauty, strength and lore in Norse myths, elves changed during the Middle Ages into mischievous, or downright malignant, creatures of diminutive stature (although there exceptions to this description). The mythos of Norse and Germanic elves combined with Celtic traditions, and also perhaps with the Christian demonisation of anything pagan, to produce a being that was a feature of much literature of the early modern period and into the Victorian era.

The story of the Erlking’s daughter (as set down by Johann Gottfried von Herder) concerns Sir Oluf riding to his wedding when he is distracted by elven music. The Erlking’s daughter tries to seduce him with gifts and gold, but he leaves – though not before she strikes him. The next day, before his wedding, Sir Oluf is found dead.

In ‘The Elf of the Rose’, a Hans Christian Anderson fairy story, the elf of the title, who lives in rose blossoms, witnesses a murder and informs the dead man’s lover of the fact while she sleeps. She finds his head and plants it in a pot with a sprig of Jasmine. Although she dies of grief, her brother – the murderer – is killed by the spirits the a jasmine flower.

It’s possible that the earliest depictions of elves with pointed ears date to the Victorian period.

Other Elves and Elf-like Beings

The word ‘ælf‘ was used in Anglo-Saxon translations of Greek and Roman myths to refer to nymphs. The Icelandic huldufólk (hidden people) could be seen as elves (or dwarves). German folklore has moss people and weisse frauen (‘white women’). In Irish folklore, the aos sí (or daoine sídhe or the sídhe) are similar to elves. Welsh folklore has the Tylwyth Teg.

In the folkloric tradition, elves, fairies, gnomes, pixies, hobgoblins and so on are all hard to distinguish from each other definitively; they are all portrayed more or less similarly as very small, michievous beings. The Christmas Elf derives from the elf of early modern folk tale – although it also has similarities with the dwarf of Norse mythology, which was a skilled craftsman.

Elves in Fantasy Fiction

The line between the fairy tales mentioned about and true fantasy literature is blurred, but it is certain that elves were protagonists and antagonists in genre stories from its earliest days. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany is a tale of cross-cultural marriage and anguish; it dates from 1924. The Broken Sword (1954) by Poul Anderson is a Norse-style story that tells of Skafloc, a half-elf who is captured by elves.

Where Victorian literature portrayed elves as malicious or at least morally ambiguous beings, J R R Tolkien instead took the depiction of elves back to its Norse roots, making them beautiful, noble and partly divine in nature. Tolkien’s writing concerning elves (or Elves – Tolkien capitalises the word; other writers follow suit, but some write it all lower case) spans The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and beyond.

In the mythos of Middle Earth, the Elves awoke in the first age and were eventually discovered by the Valar, who invited them to travel to the Undying Lands. Many of the Elves accepted, but some got lost or otherwise detained on their journey west across Middle Earth. Those who remained were the Elves of the stories of Middle Earth. After the War of the Ring, many of these finally went to the Undying Lands. Those who didn’t apparently degenerated into the elves of folklore – ‘a rustic folk of dell and cave’, according to Galadriel’s prediction.

Tolkien’s elves are immortal (although they may be killed or die of grief), have ‘leaf-shaped’ ears, lack facial hair (apart from Círdan – which may have been a mistake), and have a number of superhuman powers: keen senses, enhanced strength, the ability to read minds and see the future, and the ability to make magical or enhanced items such as the lembas bread and cloaks given to the Hobbits in TLotR.

Elves have appeared in many post-Tolkien novels, in one form or another – many of them either resembling Tolkien’s Elves or deliberately contrasting with them. Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara features Elves, along with along with Men, Dwarves, Gnomes and Trolls. The Elfquest comics by Wendy and Richard Pini have elves that are descended from shapeshifting humanoid aliens that have interbred with wolves (which makes them part of the science fiction genre, technically; arguably, one could even say that Vulcans are sf’s elves). In Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, one group of the near-extinct, near-feral elves, or Sithi, seeks to revenge itself by destroying humankind. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series features elves that are decidedly less than benign: they steal children and use enchantment to fool people into thinking they are beautiful.

In both The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner on the one hand, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry on the other, elves – or similar beings – are referred to by their original Norse names of: lios alfar are benign creatures, while svart alfar are evil and more like the goblins of Tolkien’s works. The Malazan Book of the Fallen has three related races – the Tiste Liosan, Tiste Edur and Tiste Andii. They come from, respectively, the warrens of light, shadow and darkness – thus resembling the three kinds of elves mentioned in ancient Norse literature.


Although elves have become a cliché, they are a firm fixture in the wider fantasy genre. While fantasy authors these days don’t write about such beings per se, they are still provide the inspiration for many aloof, nature-loving, magical races. And in the worlds of gaming – be it tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons or computer real-time strategy games like Warcraft – elves are an essential part of the experience.

Elves are mysterious, often dangerous, but also steeped in sadness. Tolkien’s elves are wise and stoical, but they live so long and experience so much, that eventually they must retire from the world. The elves of folk tales that trick people and steal children are just as melancholy, yearning for things that will only bring them grief in the long run.

Whatever the future of elves within the genre, it will likely be a diverse one, with a range of portrayals from the traditional (and traditional within different traditions: Tolkienesque, fairy tale, Norse mythology) to the original. So far much of the reimagining of elves has been a reaction against Tolkien and towards a medieval model. I’m sure there’s great scope for doing something completely different with elves – the trick will be to retain their essential elvishness.

Sources: Wikipedia, Malazan Wiki, The True Elves of Europe, Timeless Myths, Ask Nicola,,, Fairy Tales Collection, Suite 101.

Friday Fast Forward Rewind

Here are a handful of fantasy-related pieces that piqued my interest this past week. May they pique yours also.

Wednesday Word of the Week: soigné

Post your own soigné sentences in the comments below.

/swɑnˈyeɪ; Fr. swaˈnyeɪ/

1. carefully or elegantly done, operated, or designed.
2. well-groomed.

Also, soi·gnée .

1915–20; < French, past participle of soigner to take care of < Germanic (compare Old Saxon sunnea care, concern)


How would she have preferred it: in terms of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the ’50s school of highway engineering or, most soigné of all, the Embarcadero Freeway?

Source: The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard.

Monday Masterclass: a history of the sword

The sword is an iconic artefact, both in reality and in fantasy. Today’s masterclass takes a look at the development of this weapon in the real world. Unfortunately, this is a very Eurocentric history – I don’t have time today to make it globally comprehensive; also, much of the information I’ve found on the web also focuses mainly on the European tradition of sword-making and use.

Definition and Etymology

A sword is a weapon made of a long blade with a sharp point and one or two sharp edges; it is held by the hilt, which is protected by quillons or crossguard. Swords are used for slashing, hacking and thrusting (depending on the design and composition), and differ from many other basic weapon types (such as the axe and bow and arrow) in that they have no other purpose but warfare.

The word sword comes from the Old English sweord, from the (hypothetical) Proto-Germanic swerdan, and ultimately from the (also hypothetical) Proto-Indo-European swer-, meaning ‘to cut’.

Bronze Age Swords

The earliest bladed tools made by humans were made from stone, such as flint. Stone, however, is much too brittle to have been made into the long blades required for swords, so it wasn’t until people discovered how to work metal that swords were developed. Simple metalworking – hammering – goes back at least 9,000 years and likely involved the metals gold and copper. Smelting ore to create pure metals may have evolved from annealing – heating beaten metal to restore its malleability. This development led to the creation of bronze about 5,000 years ago, which is an alloy of about 90% copper and 10% tin (different combinations were also used).

Bronze was stronger than copper and allowed knives and daggers to become longer until they became swords (the difference between sword and dagger is essentially arbitrary). Bronze swords were still quite short, however – 20 to 30 inches (50 to 75 cm) in length; longer weapons would have lower tensile strength and break easily. Bronze swords were cast in clay or stone moulds and their edges were then forged to create cutting blades.

One of the earliest swords was the sappara or khopesh, a Sumerian sickle-sword. This was apparently used from the third millennium BCE until 1300 BCE and evolved from the crescent-bladed axe.

In Europe, early swords could be divided into two types: dirks (a type of dagger) and rapiers (swords designed for piercing thrusts rather than hacking and slashing). Such blades were originally cast without tangs (the part of the blade extending into the grip), and instead had hilts of horn or wood riveted to the bronze. These rapiers were broad-bladed – for extra strength – yet light.

Other types of Bronze Age sword include the leafbladed sword – one that, from the hilt, narrows, widens, then narrows again to the point – and the Naue II, a straight-edged and long-lasting design. During the second millennium BCE, the Chinese developed swords with a high tin content, which made their weapons more brittle. In India in the same period, swords were commonly made out of copper alone.

Iron Age Swords

There was actually a long overlap between the use of Bronze Age swords and that of Iron Age weapons. By the end of the Bronze Age, sword makers had reached the pinnacle of design and technology; iron working, by contrast, was still relatively primitive. Although iron would come to be a much more reliable material, in the early Iron Age, bronze and iron swords were fairly equally matched. For instance, Roman writers commented on Gaulish warriors having to pause to bend their iron swords back into shape during battles.

The major advantage iron had over bronze was the availability of the material; tin was quite a rare substance. Bronze Age swords were status items that were owned only by chieftains and the rich. With the advent of Iron Age technology, whole armies could be equipped with swords, a fact that helped the advance of the Greek empire, and later the Roman empire. Densely packed bodies of men fighting in such armies needed to be armed with short swords to avoid interfering with their neighbours (even though iron would ultimately allow for much longer weapons).

The process of creating pure iron for swords involved removing the oxygen from iron ore with a bloomery. Iron ore was heated along with charcoal; the carbon in the charcoal combined with the oxygen in the ore, thus leaving a pure iron ‘bloom’, which was then hammered to remove further impurities. The resulting metal was wrought (or worked) iron.

Iron swords spread throughout Europe during the Hallstatt perdiod – from around 1200 BCE to 600 BCE. When this culture ended, swords were briefly replaced by knives, but were revived with the advent of the La Tene culture (6th to 1st centuries BCE).

Iron Age swords include the Greek xiphos (which was originally made from bronze) and Roman gladius (which was inspired by swords of Iberian warriors; it’s also the origin of the word gladiator); the Romans later developed the gladius into the longer spatha (the word spatha is the root of spade, the playing card suit). At lengths of 24 to 34 inches (60 to 85 cm), the spatha provided a longer reach. When wielded by infantry, it had a sharp point; the cavalry version had a rounded tip to avoid riders stabbing themselves in the foot.

Medieval Swords

The spatha evolved in the late Roman era and beyond –  first into swords of the Migration Period, measuring 28 to 32 inches (71 to 81 cm) in length; then into the 8th century Viking sword. Viking swords were even longer – 37 inches (93 cm) and up to 40 inches (100 cm) in Norman times – but they remained single-handed weapons. A fuller (a groove along the flat of the blade) was used to improve the sword’s flexibility and keep its weight down.

During the late first millennium, the technique of creating swords from steel was perfected. Steel is an alloy of iron and about 1 or 2% carbon. Carbon was added to iron by a process of migration, heating the iron in a container made of a high-carbon substance so that the iron absorbed some of the carbon and thus became steel. The Chinese had another method of making steel – hammering iron and pig iron together.

And this practice of forge-welding metals of differing composition together became pattern welding, of which Damascus steel is perhaps the best known example (although no one now knows exactly how Damascus steel was made); swords made in this fashion could be made harder and tougher than blades forged from single metals. The surface of these blades retained an attractive ripple effect.

Viking swords themselves developed into arming swords – also known as knight’s or knightly swords – which were used from around 1000 to 1350 CE. These weapons measured about 36 inches in length (91 cm) and weighed about 2.5 pounds (1.1 kg). They were single-handed weapons that were used in conjunction with a shield or buckler and were worn by knight even when not in armour. The arming sword was one of  the first to sport the classic cruciform shape by incorporating a more pronounced crossguard.

As the medieval period progressed, swords changed in response to new types of armour. Swords needed to be heavier to be wielded with sufficient force to pierce mail or, later, plate armour. Nevertheless, swords were rarely the ungainly monsters of Hollywood movies. For instance, the two-handed longsword, which was used from the 14th to the 16th centuries, was 41 to 47 inches (105 to 120 cm) long and weighed 3.1 pounds (1.4 kg). The longsword was a quick and versatile weapon, the use of which was taught by schools of swordsmanship.

Renaissance and Modern Era Swords

On the other hand, some swords did become huge. The Zweihänder (literally, ‘two-hander’), also known as a greatsword, was up to 71 inches (180 cm) long and weighed as much as 7 pounds (3.2 kg). One sword, supposedly wielded by the legendary Frisian Pier Gerlofs Donia, is 84 inches (213 cm) long and weighs 14.5 pounds (6.6 kg). Some Zweihänders had long ricassos (a blunt part of the blade close to the hilt) protected by flukes that allowed them to be gripped near the middle. They were used for chopping and batting aside pikes and other polearms.

The arming sword eventually (via the side-sword) evolved into the rapier of the Renaissance period. The rapier was a sword with a long, narrow blade of maybe 39 inches (1 m) and was lightweight at around 2.2 pounds (1 kg). It often had a complex basket or cup encompassing much of the hilt and the ricasso, so that the rapier wielder could grip the sword around the crossguard for better control. Some designs had sharp edges along their length, other only from the middle to the tip and still others were only sharp at the point. Rapiers were popular among civilians and many lost their lives in duels using them.

The next step in the evolution of the sword was the small sword (or dress sword or court sword), which developed from the rapier and was used in the 17th and 18th centuries – and even up to the early 20th century. The small sword was around 24 to 33 inches (60 to 85 cm) long. The sabre, a curved, single-bladed sword was used by cavalry during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Although the development of firearms has made the sword obsolete it is still used by military forces around the world, either as part of regular or dress uniform. Sword fighting in its various forms is also a popular martial art in many places.

Sources: Wikipedia, Bronze Age Craft, Bronze Age Swords, Suite 101, Rise of Civilization, 2-Clicks Swords, Iron Age Armoury, How Stuff Works, ARMA,

Friday Fantastic: Maps of Westeros by Other-in-Law

The above map of Westeros, the continent upon which most of the action in George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire takes place, was created by someone called Other-in-Law – apparently using only Microsoft Paint (the free, basic graphics program that comes with Windows).

Click here to see the massive full version – click on the image to zoom right in for all the juicy detail. More of Other-in-Law’s maps – of specific locations, and one of the whole world of ASOIAF – can be seen here.

Friday Fast Forward Rewind

Another batch of fantasy-related goodies for your weekend reading pleasure.

Writing diary

Yesterday, after weeks of slow preparation – preparation which is by no means complete … not by a long chalk – I started work on the actual text of my novel. Version two of my novel, in fact (the first version was started in November for National Novel Writing Month – I got 16,000 done before I realised I wasn’t accomplishing what I wanted to and needed much more planning).

I wrote a couple of hundred words yesterday and a couple of thousand today. Seems to be going well. I have a better understanding of structure, now, and a good idea of what this story is supposed to achieve, both in terms of plot and theme.

Look forward to more updates in the future.