Are we talking Santa’s Helper or are we talking Legolas?
You would think that elves would be easy to put your thumb on and nail down. But when you think about it the term elf is used in many and diverse ways throughout our cultural lexicon. I will attempt to start from the beginning, discuss the verious versions and then move on to more popular culture.
Old Norse – In Norse mythology, the elf was an achievement to be reached as much as it was another race. Several of the heroes of the Norse Pantheon ended up becoming elves after they passed from this life to the next one. The elves, at least the ‘good’ kind lived in Alfheim and were also associated with the idea and concept of fertility and to those gods of their beliefs that had to do with fertility. In most Norse mythology (that of the Vikings) dark or evil elves are known as dwarves and other elves are referred t as light elves. In either case, these elves are roughly human in appearance, they are roughly the same height but they are heroic in their deeds and actions, they are the race of legends.
Welsh – Fair-Folk, also closely tied to faeries, the fair folk of the Welch mythology (told in the Mabinogion), are elves of a sort. The Fair Folk are denizens of the Otherworld, they are the fairy folk but they usually don’t appear as our ideas of fairies, they are smaller then man but they have magical properties and are tied very critically to nature and the earth.
Germanic – The Germanic form of the elf – elb – found themselves changed from just a natural mystical creature to a prankster or a disease causing being due to the influence of Christian traditions. Before this point, the elves had been much like the elves of Norse mythology – grand beings that fouhgt bravely and whose heroic traditions were to be emulated.
Old English – It is in Olde English that we first see the idea of the elf being an archer (this figures into the modern version of the elf). There is, in the history of Scotland and Northern England the idea of being elf-shoot – or having the elf-arrow or elf-bolt strike you.
There every herd, by sad experience, knows How, winged with fate, their elf-shot arrows fly,When the sick ewe her summer food forgoes,Or, stretched on earth, the heart-smit heifers lie. – William Collins (1750)
The idea of elves effecting people was also tied into people receiving an elf-lock (a tangle in the hair) or an elf-stroke (a sudden paralysis). It is in Olde English that elves also take on a more sinister look and some of their magical properties. Elves are associated with demons and magic in a lot of English societies oral traditions. In fact there is a belief among some scholars that the term oaf comes from the idea of people being struck dumb by elfen enchantments.
Tolkien – Tolkein takes a lot of different pieces into account when he developed his elves for Middle-Earth. Tolkien, as is the case for so many of the mystical creatures and races we are dealing with, left his mark indelibly on pop-culture. Though written in 1937, his books and his development of elven society is a concept that is still with us in role playing games (table top and digital) and in fantasy literature today.
Tolkien’s elves are larger then humans, they are skilled warriors, long lived (almost immortal in some cases) and they are much wiser then humans. They are the protectors of the forests and have their own hierarchy. This has been carried over into almost any other place abd genre that deals with elves, down to the pointy ears.
House Elves – In the realm of Harry Potter, created by JK Rowling, house elves are the slaves ans servants of the wizards and witches. They are very powerful beings that have allowed themselves to be controlled and enslaved by the wizarding community. And though I am not fond of Dobby in the movies, ion the books he and Winky are two of my favorite characters.
Christmas Elves – This concept came about in the 19th century. Santa’s helpers are known to be elves. They are smallish, nimble of finger and they are great toy makers. I would think they are more what most of us would think of as gnomes, but apparently the gnomes don’t mind being confused with another race and the elves don’t care for the extra publicity.
‘Evil’ Elves – If there is a good side to the modern concept of elves then there has to be a dark side as well. In the case of elves you have many versions of the dark elf. My favorite version is the Drow from Dungeons and Dragons. The Drow are the opposite of the typical elf in every way. They are not forest dwellers, but live underground. They are not out to teach mankind but to destroy it. Instead of pale, fair skin and blond hair, the Drow are ebony or purplish in color with white hair that gleams in the torch light of caves. Love the Drow!