Welcome back to Geek.com’s Origin of the species. Each time out we’ll take a look at one of our favorite fantasy, science fiction, or horror races or species, delving deep into history, fiction, mythology and etymology. Check out our previous installments on orcs, zombies, and robots!
I love elves. I’ve loved them for years. Loved them deeply and consistently ever since I learned that my name, Aubrey, is actually an English version of the German Alberich, a name which means “elf power.” While the kids in my elementary school didn’t really understand why that’s cool, I knew the truth: Elves are one of the absolute dopest fantasy races out there, and being named after one was totally cool in 1990s Virginia, even if people didn’t fully realize it.
The trouble – the reason that people didn’t fully appreciate how badass my name was – is that during the thousand-plus years that folks have been talking about them, we’ve drastically altered what the term “elf” actually refers to. These days, when someone says “elf,” chances are that they think of something that more or less resembles Orlando Bloom in the Lord of the Rings flicks. That’s because, as with orcs and most all Western fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s influence looms extremely large.
But the LotR movies aren’t free from other influences, as their depiction of the elves as a martial race with a predilection for archery bears the mark of another elf-heavy bit of fiction: The Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and other Dungeons & Dragons campaign settings. But those campaign settings? By and large they were invented by people who were absolutely in love with the world of Middle Earth and were eager for a way to spend more time there by melding the setting with their wargaming hobby. Naturally, this brings us back around to Tolkien.
An Englishman, Tolkien was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon myth, tradition, and folklore (among other things), which served as a basis for much of his Middle Earth cosmology. But while today we see “English” culture as containing bits of French, Celtic, and countless other traditions, the region, its language, its original religion, and especially its folklore is all Germanic in nature.
Elves, in one form or another, exist in practically all Germanic cultures, from Germany itself to England, all the way up into Scandinavia. Typically, they are heavily associated with forests, fields, and wild places, and are said to be exceptionally beautiful. Outside of that, however, classic depictions of elves vary wildly across cultures, making them out to be everything from benevolent helpers to malevolent predators.
In medieval German texts, for instance, elves are seen as wicked, monstrous figures, but that wasn’t always the case. If you go back further, German elves were seen in a more positive light, as evidenced by names like the aforementioned Alberich, which date from that period. Likewise, ballads of the Middle Ages often position elves as tempters and temptresses, but depending upon the individual song, elves can be positioned as seducers or outright rapists.
While much of Germanic folklore depicts elves as forest spirits existing in our own world but staying hidden from us, Norse mythology takes a different approach. In that particular cosmology, elves are seen as wholly different races, residing on worlds separate from our own. These elves are divided into light elves and dark elves, they possess somewhat more power than humans, though less than full-on gods, and they make their homes upon Alfheim and Svartalfheim, respectively.
Discussing elves – especially dark ones – in Norse mythology is tricky, however, because of none other than Snorri Sturluson. A historian and poet, Sturluson is the primary reason that we, in 2016, still have access to such an abundance of old Norse literature, myth, and folklore. One of his most important works is the Prose Edda, which he wrote, compiled or, most likely, did some combination of the two. It’s a phenomenal piece of work, but the problem is this: Sturluson was a Christian.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a Christian – let me get that out of the way before people in the comments go apoplectic. But at the time that Sturluson was writing, his native Iceland was in the process of conversion from the Norse religion to a Christian one. This process was a slow one that never quite took hold like it did in other European nations, as evidenced by the many people in Iceland who still believe in the country’s elves and “hidden folk.” As a result, Sturluson made certain changes when collecting, adapting, and writing about his country’s beliefs and folklore.
Most of these changes were made in order to bring traditional Norse and Icelandic beliefs in line with Christian ones, and they included potential edits that might have made the Norse patriarch of the gods, Odin, more similar to the Jesus of the Christian religion. Another change, one that has more bearing on this discussion, is the depiction of two types of elves, light and dark, mirroring the angels and demons of the Christian cosmology. Some scholars account for mentions of dwarves living in Svartalfheim, the home of the dark elves, by suggesting that Sturluson conflated the two creatures.
The conflation of elves with other creatures isn’t unique, however, as it also happened again during the Elizabethan era. This time, however, it wasn’t the stout, rock-biting, mountain-dwelling dwarves that got smashed together with elves. It was the fairies.
Germanic, and specifically British, culture has a long tradition of tiny woodland spirits. Sprites, brownies, kobolds, gnomes, and more, they’re all seen as types of mostly benevolent, mostly tiny, mostly magical, mostly hidden creatures. Poets, artists, and playwrights of the period all began to depict elves as just one more type of fairy, reducing their sizes and even sometimes giving them wings like their more flight-based cousins. The most notable example of this is perhaps William Shakespeare’s fairy/elf-heavy Midsummer Night’s Dream, which not only smashes together older concepts like Puck, Robin Goodfellow, and hobgoblins, but also features the king of the fairies, Oberon, whose name is derived from, you guessed it, the German Alberich.
What are your favorite depictions of elves in literature and pop culture? You aren’t allowed to say “The Keebler’s” (they betrayed Dril) but we will accept any and all Vulcans (high elves) or Romulans (wood elves). Santa’s helpers count, too.
Aubrey Sitterson is the creator of the elf-heavy sword & sorcery serial podcast, SKALD, available on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, & Podomatic. Follow him on Twitter or check out his website for more information.