Mark Neumayer

author of the Valda & the Valkyries series

Tag: Fast Facts

Fast Facts About the Elves

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.

Shakespeare’s Elves
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.

Tolkien’s Elves
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.”

Rowling’s Elves
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.

If you want to read more about elves I’d like to suggest the following pages for you:
Lord of the Rings wiki page on Elves
Elves from the Lord of the Rings to Shakespeare
Elves page on Wikipedia

Posted by Mark Neumayer

Fast Facts About the Viking Undead

Illustration by Aaron Klopp

The Draugr

Zombies have been a mainstay of horror films and fiction for a long time. It’s not surprising to find out that they also had tales about them in the Norse sagas. There they were called draugr. I’ve been researching them since the draugr play a major part in my next book – Valda Goes Through Hel.  Here are some fast facts about the Norse version of the undead.

Undead Sing the Blues
Although they were described sometimes as having pale flesh or skin as black as Hel, I think the scarier descriptions are those which tell about draugr with an evil blue skin color. The Norse were no strangers to living the rough life and we can expect they were intimately familiar with the various funky colors your skin can take on from various bruises and injuries. Imagine that sickly dark bluish tinge of a deep bruise covering every square inch of someone’s body. You would not want to run into something like that on a dark night.

The draugr have also shown the ability to shape-shift. There stories where they assume the form of various creatures such as a seal, a bull, a horse and even a cat. While that last one doesn’t sound so menacing, once the draugr had assumed a cat’s form it would lay on the chest of a sleeping person and gradually get heavier and heavier until it crushed its victim to death.

That’s Heavy
It wasn’t just in feline form that the draugr possessed great weight. They were said to be heavier than a normal corpse. Some of them were described as having swollen bodies “as big as an ox.” This gave them great strength and they loved to use it to batter down doors and bash their way into the halls of the living. They would even indulge in an activity called house-riding. This consisted of the draugr climbing onto the roof of a house and drumming its heels against the roof to terrify everyone inside while they tried to bring down the rafters.

Hungry, Hungry Haugbui
Haugbui is another name for the undead. The name derives from the Norse word for barrows, or grave, so haugbui are grave-dwellers. The main difference seems to be that haugbui stayed relatively close to their graves while the draugr were more likely to roam the countryside. One of the traits that they did share was an immense hunger. There is a tale of a newly-risen draugr that eats the hunting hawk and dog that were buried with him. The next night he rises again and devours the horse that was buried with him. The third night he attempts to eat his friend who has been watching the gravesite. As a side note, that is indeed a good friend. Personally I think I would have been out of there after the first night.

While our Western image of the zombie draws more from the Caribbean influence of voodoo, it’s good to keep in mind the other traditions that have dealt with the undead. Norse mythology certainly has some great twists on the myths. If you want to read a more about draugr an excellent starting point would be this page from the Viking Answer Lady. Her site is a treasure trove of information about the ancient Norse and their ways.

Posted by Mark Neumayer

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