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Article

 

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.

Elves - dancingIf 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”[1].

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.

Elves - elf queenA 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[2]. 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.

Sam Sykes' shictIf 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.

[1] Faulkes (1995:19-20).
[2] Francis James Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, “Thomas Rymer”.

Title image by Mokinzi.

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10 Comments

  1. Great article (as a Norseman, I appreciate the nod), and still quite sad that these great creatures have faded from the glory they once had.

    I suppose with the progress society makes, it changes the need for old props. Here’s to aliens landing and making elves relevant again!

  2. Amy Keeley says:

    I love elves, but I have to admit I got a little tired of them. I’m looking forward to a new interpretation that’s true to the myths/folklore but gives us a really nice twist on them.

  3. Elves have their place. But I, too, am on the lookout for something new and different.

  4. An interesting article. I’ve always assumed the orcs are Tolkien’s interpretation of the Dökkálfar – they’re essentially twisted, evil elves who live underground.

    I like a story with elves when they’re well handled, but authors sometimes reach for them as a default option. Incidentally, I can recommend Poul Andersen’s The Broken Sword, which uses the Norse Ljósálfar and is very much based on Norse mythology.

  5. AJ Zaethe says:

    The decline in elves has come because people no longer wish to escape their world, they have accepted war and turmoil. The result? They now look to escape themselves. If anyone has noticed, fantasy and sci-fi are delving not into the scopes of worlds and cultures, but rather the personal and inner self. We see this with a lot of first person novels, a lot of urban fantasy with contemporary elements, and of course the over whelming flood of female protagonists (nothing remotely wrong with that). As a result, we see fewer and fewer races within fantasy. No one knows what it feels like to be another race, or know another race really. They only know their culture and because they suffer from the world (War in Iraq and so on) they don’t want to deal with other worldly problems anymore, it is becoming too much, so they want to know about personal problems and conflict. They want to see contemporary work they can relate too or know much about. They want that strong connection not the detachment of another world. Look at Magic the Gathering, they too have created a person level of fantasy. It is about the planeswalkers you get to know, not about these other worlds and what not. A shame if you ask me, I think you can do both well. But we will see what happens in the next few years to come.

    • Nhla says:

      Wow, no one has really put this into words for me in the right way before. You’re absolutely right. As a writer I was starting to develop the same problem (I call it that because as a reader I know how detrimental it is to the overall product). But I do believe there still a few great authors who are able to incorporate the two to create magic (e.g J.K Rowling with harry p). Really something to think about. Thank you for voicing it so well

  6. You taught me so many new things I actually didn’t know about elves! You post the history of elves in the way I wanted to recently about trolls, though I didn’t know as much about them as you do elves. Very succint, thank you!

  7. nox lumen says:

    As a reader, I rather liked that while The Dresden files were definitely urban, that there was a great deal of echo to the old folk tales, including the both sinister and seductive reputation of the fey through the ages.

    That said, as a woman, and one of the many who thought Orlando Bloom looked real nice as a pointy eared blond, want to know why the romance writers seem to have completely overlooked this area of supernatural seducer when the vampires get so much love. Given the choice between a glowwy magic elf and a sparkly vampire, the elf wins in my book. Not to mention interbreeding is not a new concept but one that has lingered through folk lore.

  8. Jackson Grey says:

    Best. Author. Bio. EVER!!!

    And this was excellent. Kudos!

  9. I am a fantasy writer and dungeon master. Long ago I ceased using the archetype of the elf, eschewing it for the grittier and more accessible world of mortal kind. As a young kid, I played elf and half elf characters frequently, but when I hit junior year in high school I was a Dungeon Master looking around the table at five player characters all choosing to play as humans, with no prompting from me. I think magic needs its limits in order to let the human spirit remain at the center of the drama. And Elves can upset that balance. I don’t like having wizarding towers in every town, or magical barriers preventing demons from attacking. . Why send a swordsman to rescue someone when they can be teleported? For me, as I wrote my first novel, “The Cost of Haven” I didn’t even consider elves. In the sequel “The Height of Pillar,” I created an alternative to them, called the Anadrene, even writing around fifty pages from the point of view of an Anadrene female protagonist. I ended up scrapping all of it. Beause it was far too literal. I have since moved the character into the shadows, given her less explanation and more mystery, and took away her pointy ears. I think Elves have had their day. Tolkien wrote all there was to write about them and did it with utter grace. It is critical to not overdo the elf theme. Elves resonate with us as readers because real humans once dreamed them up and we still dream them up today. For the characters in a book, elves should be a dream, to me, this is the most authentic way to engage with the concept of elves.

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