Mark Neumayer

author of the Valda & the Valkyries series

Tag: jrr tolkien

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

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Norse Mythology Quick Hits

Concept art of a female Dwarf

As you can tell by the book I’ve written, I am a fan of the Dwarves. I’ve always been fascinated with them and enjoyed reading their stories in the sagas and in popular culture. But these guys and gals don’t always get the respect that they deserve. We’re not even going to go into the many times Loki cheated them out of their pay or messed with them while they were creating their masterpieces. Even skipping all of that, here are five times the Dwarves got the proverbial short-end of the stick.

The Beard Thing
While not Norse mythology,  I just felt we had to address this one. None other than JRR Tolkien himself served as the catalyst for this. In the notes to the Lord of the Rings he wrote that the Dwarf women looked just like the men. Some people interpreted this to mean that the women have beards just like the men. In the movie version of LOTR we have Aragorn out and out saying this. (Something he never did in the books.) Terry Pratchett took the ball and ran it even further in his Discworld novels with Dwarf females every bit as bearded as the men. I prefer to stick with the sagas. When the Dwarves construct the magical chain Gleipnir they make it from “six impossible things.” One of those things is “the beard of a woman.” So the sagas say it is impossible for women to have beards. With all due respect to Tolkien and Pratchett, I’m going with the saga’s version.

Toasted at Baldur’s Funeral
The gods were heartbroken over the death of Baldur, it shook them to the very core. Baldur’s widow, Nanna, was so upset that she died of a broken heart right there at the funeral. So we can imagine that Thor was not in the best of moods, either. But does that excuse this behavior?

 Thor then stood up and hallowed the pile with Mjolnir, and during the ceremony kicked a dwarf named Litur, who was running before his feet, into the fire.

We have no idea what Litur was doing there. Maybe he was running around when he was supposed to be quiet, but it still seems like a harsh reaction.

The Origin of the Dwarves
Although there are passing references to the dwarves being made of the blood and bones of a sea-giant, the main reference to the origin of the dwarves reads like this:

“Then the gods, seating themselves upon their thrones, distributed justice, and bethought them how the dwarves had been bred in the mould of the earth, just as worms are in a dead body. It was, in fact, in Ymir’s flesh that the dwarves were engendered, and began to move and live. At first they were only maggots, but by the will of the gods they at length partook both of human shape and understanding, although they always dwell in rocks and caverns.

The four corners of the world are each held up by a single dwarf. This is a powerful race renowned for being master-craftsmen, but we’re told they started out as maggots.

The Stoning of the Bridegroom
Poor Alvis, all the dwarf wanted was a beautiful bride and he had one, too. Unfortunately she was the daughter of Thor. The father of the bride didn’t want his daughter running off with this pale-nosed fellow. What is interesting here is that, instead of bashing him with Mjollnir, Thor says Alviss can marry his daughter if the dwarf can answer all of Thor’s questions about the world. We then get a long exchange between the two where Thor asks what the various races of the Nine Worlds call different things. For instance, we learn that the giants call the sun Ever-Bright, while the Elves call it Fair Wheel. This goes on through the night until finally the sun rises and turns Alvis into stone. Looking for love, he ended up looking like a statue.

Short-changed, Big-time
Dwarves are little people, right? The word has come down to us to mean someone of smaller stature. Well, the sagas say they were created “in man’s likeness.” You think that means they looked human – just smaller? Not quite. When Thor sees Alvis he says “What man is this?” Not what short creature, but what man. Check out this article on Wikipedia for more arguments on the subject. There are other references indicating that a dwarf is just like a man except he lives beneath the ground. Somewhere along the line the word dwarf was changed to mean shorter than normal and the entire race got tagged.

I hope you’re enjoying this series on Norse mythology. If there’s any subject you’d like to hear about, let me know and I’ll see what I can do. You can also check out the other entries in this series.

Five Magical Weapons from Norse Mythology

Loki’s Five Biggest Tricks

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