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’.
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.”
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.