Most people who follow fantasy know about the elves. Ask almost anyone and you’ll hear something like: “Elves? Graceful fairy-type folk. Awful good with a bow. Pointy-eared, close to nature folks.” That is what we know but there is still a lot that we don’t know.
Norse Saga Elves
The Norse sagas provide us with the earliest recorded description of the elves or álfr. The elves seem to be a bit closer to the gods than mortals. Their home of Alfheim is described as being in the heavens. (It is also listed as one of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology.) We are told that humans are sometimes raised up into the ranks of the álfr. Human and elf are even able to cross-breed. King Alf of Alfheim and his line are said to be more handsome than most men due to the presence of Elf in their bloodlines. Elves even seem above the physical restraints of the body, being able to walk through walls and doors. This magical nature extended to their ability to wield witchcraft. The half-elf woman Skuld was so skilled that she could raise the fallen members of her army almost as soon as they were killed. Elves could even become Nornir, going to a child when it was first born and helping to shape its life – pretty much along the lines of the later idea of guardian angels.
The thing that was missing for me was stories about Alfheim, we hardly know anything about it at all. It is named as one of the Nine Worlds but we don’t have any stories that tell us what it is like. We have no adventures that happen there. All of the legends and folktales revolve around elves or half-elves in the world of the humans. This struck me as being so odd that I even worked it into my first novel, Valda & the Valkyries, where I have this odd blind spot accounted for by a convoluted plan set into motion by Loki.
The bard used elves most famously in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but these elves are more a blending of elf and fairy than a pure descendant of the Norse sagas. They do exhibit more of the mischievous nature that elves of folklore possessed. While they are at time referred to as fairies we find the terms almost interchangeable in the poetic sense. We still have elf and fairy exhibiting that great, other-worldly beauty, but they are smaller creatures and their grace is tempered with a truly playful nature. He made them somewhat silly, which is something our next entry never forgave him for.
It is fair to say that JRR has done more to influence the popular conception of elves than anyone else. His version of the elf is the one that springs to mind for most people. For Tolkien, elves were majestic, larger-than-life creatures “admired by every race.” JRR has them as the eldest and noblest of the speaking races. He follows the Norse tradition of elves not being that much different in appearance from humans but nonetheless being of a somewhat higher race. While he wasn’t a full on Luddite Tolkien did care much more for the pastoral countryside and the elves of his stories are the guardians and the very embodiment of nature. He hated what he thought Shakespeare had done to elves, writing:
“I now deeply regret having used Elves, though this is a word in ancestry and original meaning suitable enough. But the disastrous debasement of this word, in which Shakespeare played an unforgivable part, has really overloaded it with regrettable tones, which are too much to overcome.”
We’ll close this off with the elves from the Harry Potter series. These strike me more as elves in name only. Their apperance is more like gnomes or some other sort of fairy creature, to be honest. They are short in stature, fairly ugly, with bat ears and bulging eyes. Their connection to the original source material seems to consist mainly with their magical nature. House elves can perform magic, mostly in the service of their master but are bound by numerous limitations to what they can do. The house-elves are a subservient slave class, certainly nothing like the demi-gods of the sagas.