Elves In Mythology and Fantasy
When most people think classic fantasy, they might think Tolkien, and then they might think elves. And with good reason: elves have been in fantasy for a very long time, and they’ve been a topic for discussion and varied debate on Fantasy-Faction before. I also talked about elves and their place in fantasy with Iron Elves author Chris Evans, and throughout all the discussion, whether they have a place in fantasy any longer became a moot point.
Whether you like your elves tall, pale and ethereal or impish, small and mischievous there is a place in mythology or folklore from which they originate. While one incarnation long predates the other, the (now) Tolkienesque image of an elf, and the more European folklore presentation of a brownie-like creature are both depictions of elves throughout the history of European mythology and folklore—modern or otherwise.
If we go right back to the beginning, and somewhere beyond Earth—or Midgard, rather, in this instance—we’ll happen across not one, but two races: the Ljósálfar (Light elves) and the Dökkálfar (Dark elves). The Ljósálfar lived in Alfheim, while the Dökkálfar lived in Svartalheim. Depending on the theory or representation, these elves were small, tall, short or otherwise too ethereal to really pin down a description. Either way, they were creatures of great beauty and great darkness respectively. Attested solely in Gylfaginning—which is the first book after the prologue of the Prose Edda, believed to have been written circa 1200 by Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson—the Ljósálfar are said to live in “Álfheimr” (“elf home” or “elf world”), while the Dökkálfar dwell underground and look—and particularly behave—quite unlike the Ljósálfar. High describes the Ljósálfar as “fairer than the sun to look at”, while the Dökkálfar are “blacker than pitch”.
Some scholars have suggested that the dark elves were merely dwarves, but the fact that the dwarfs are stated separately as living in Nidarvellir suggests otherwise. Naturally it’s hard to know, since the mythology is so very old by this point and the sources we have to consult are so painfully few and far between compared with the surviving texts from other mythologies. The oral tradition is likely to blame for this.
Sticking with the Ljósálfar for now, if we take a look at their mention in Norse Mythology, we find that Freyr was their god. Now, another name for this god—one that appears much older, depending on which source you consult—is “Yngvi”. If we take a peek into Tolkien’s work again, it might not be surprising, given his penchant for mythologies such as these, to find “Ingwë” as the name for the High King of the Elves in the West.
A quick hop, skip and a jump over to England and Scotland (particularly Northern Middle English) tells a slightly different story about Álfheimr. In Scotland, Alfheim became “Elphame” or “Elfhame” and its ruler is the faerie queen; often called the Queen of Elphame, especially in ballads such as Thomas the Rhymer. Despite the fact that most modern interpretations of fae and faeries involve miniature creatures, this is not strictly true of this particular faerie queen, especially given the established Gaelic tradition of fae and “elves” in their mythology (namely, the Sídhe), and it is quite possible that as shown in this children’s illustration to accompany the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, the Queen of Elphame was not especially small or tiny.
As we move away from Norse mythology and venture into English and Gaelic folklore, we begin to find that the notion of the elf in general begins to shift. Instead of being benevolent creatures or minor deities, we find tricksters and fiends, like in the ballad “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight”, where the elf seeks to murder Isabel. Curiously, when we looked at the role of dragons in worldwide mythology, we found that as we travelled around the world, the more mid-westerly the mythology, the crueller the dragon. Norse dragons and Asian dragons were far more benevolent than their various counterparts.
However, the Dökkálfar were not kind or benevolent, and the tradition of the “dark elf” has changed very little from the Norse concept. Whether Drow, Dark Elves, or Black Elves, the idea of dark skinned and/or darkness-dwelling creatures, and seen far more in fantasy roleplaying games and video games than in literature, the idea of a darker race of elves seems to appeal enough that it has endured.
Moving with this, elves aren’t always an ethereal, “higher” race and neither are they always “dark”. Take the elves in the Dragon Age setting, for example; they are a second-class race that was stripped of their homeland and culture throughout history. Now a divided race—with many living in “Alienages” in human cities, while others are highly sought after slaves, with the rest living in forests as they desperately try to rediscover and reclaim their lost heritage—the elves are as far removed from their original mythological concepts as they are from Tolkien’s representation of them.
If we run with this and go down the avenue of whether to call an elf an elf, or whether to call the same thing something else entirely, we reach a crossroads: in one direction we have the elves that flock under the banner of classic mythology and folklore, and those that present elves in an essentially new skin. Sam Sykes shict and Richard Morgan’s dwenda are the ones that first come to mind. Naturally, these races aren’t strictly elves, they are just likened to elves by us in the same way that a fictional culture that dons floating, roomy trousers and fights with slender blades would be likened to Japanese and other East Asian cultures. In a sense, we as readers always seek to see something familiar. It might be that, in fact, aside from the pointed ear cusps and natural slenderness, that a race we perceive as elven might be as far removed from elves as chalk is from cheese. It’s just the way we are. In Elspeth Cooper’s Songs of the Earth it might be difficult not to see her “shipsingers” as elvenesque, when they are given the name “sea-elves”, despite the fact that Cooper herself implies on her blog (in the “about” information on the sidebar) that there’s “not an elf in sight.” These shipsingers that Masen happens across are a race unto their own, but we see what we perhaps expect to see, not what is necessarily given.
Elves used to be a way of exploring race; a way of injecting something different. Now, with how endangered elves are in epic fantasy, it’s different to actually involve elves. The concept has come full-circle. There are newer and more relevant ways of exploring race, and as many writers look to different sources within modern SFF for inspiration, the elf gets less of a look-in—until someone decides to be neoclassical and invite them back, or to give them a complete makeover. Either way, somewhere along the line there will be a consideration of their mythological origins; whether with a literary nod of the head, or a complete rejection of the traditional concept.
 Faulkes (1995:19-20).
 Francis James Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, “Thomas Rymer”.
Title image by Mokinzi.