“Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.”
– J.R.R. Tolkein
Elves are fascinating creatures of legend, and their roots go deep into our history. And when I say “our”, I mean collective mankind, for although we may think that the concept of elves is a Western European one, you can actually find elf-like creatures in most of the world’s mythology. In the Norse and Germanic cultures they are alfar, supernatural beings having great beauty and long lives, sometimes helping humans, sometimes hindering them. These are the Tolkein elves,for the most part, which is not surprising, as his LOTR saga was based on Norse mythology.
The Celts elves were different; usually smaller creatures, living in barrows or in the Otherworld. Brownies, goblins, and sprites and the like were the Celtic “others”, the human-like creatures who lived alongside humans, generally causing some mischief of a greater or lesser fashion. But there were other elf-like creatures among the British Celts, too. The Irish had the aes sidhe, the Welsh, the tylwylth teg. Again, they were not seen to be particularly helpful to mankind, and one had to be careful not to be cursed or tricked by them. After the onset of Christianity, the stories of elves (which comes from the Saxon word ælf) took another twist. They were described as some of the angels who sided with neither Lucifer nor God during Lucifer’s great rebellion, and so were cast down by God not to hell, but to earth. No longer angels, but not demons either; something in-between. And again, because of this ambivalent nature, encounters with them were frought with danger – they were just as likely to curse you as to bless you.
Other non-European civilizations had elf-like beings in their mythologies. One could make an argument that the Arabic jinn could be their equivalent of our elf; a tricksy human-like creature with whom of whom you must be wary, especially when you make bargains with them. Aladdin’s “genie” is of this ilk – the word “genie” is the Anglicized form of jinni. In Latin America we find the duende, a goblin-type creature who either lures people into the woods or helps lost people out of the woods, depending on which tale you hear. In Japan you find the yokai, who can appear in human form, and again, are either malevolent or beneficent.
Interesting, isn’t it, that every culture seems to have stories about these kinds of creatures, the “others” who are like us, but not like us. And in every case they are untrustworthy beings at best, and downright dangerous at worst.
I think the universality of these stories is one reason why elves are so popular in fantasy books and films. Every culture has a mythology which includes these types of beings, and seeing them come to life in a well-told story brings a delicious shiver of familiarity down our spines.
Another reason, from the author’s point of view, is that they are quite fun to write. Anytime you can get a character who is sly, slippery and not to be trusted, you can find all kinds of good story lines. Add a little magic, and the writer has some great elements to make his or her story much more interesting.
The downside is that elves nowadays are seen as a trope – a tired old element of fantasy stories that no one wants to read about any more. Kinda like the grumpy dwarves, the shimmering unicorns, the magician with the pointy hat. Boring. I mean, how can there be anything new to write about in stories of elves?
So, as a writer, you either have to present the tried and true elf in your story and make the story so good that people love to read it anyway, (which is really the goal whether you have elves or any other trope in it or not, but even more so if you do!) or you have to think of a different way to use them in your story.
It’s a fun challenge. I have tried to do that in my books, to come up with a slightly different explanation for the origins of these creatures, to think of a plausible reason for why elf-legends can be found in every culture.
If you want a little teaser….check out “A Sign” , which is a chapter of Wilding, my first book in my Traveller’s Path series. This chapter is the introduction of my main antagonist for the first book, a Pictish nobleman named Nectan, who also happens to be the King of the Seelie Fey…..