In one of the novels I've been working on, I deal with elves and assorted fae. I thought it might be fun to discuss some of the folkore and literature surrounding elves.
In folklore, elves are usually extraordinarily long-lived or immortal beings that often possess magical powers. They've become common fixtures in fantasy literature, entertainment and popular culture.
We've seen them in commercials baking cookies in hollow trees, in film and fantasy literature as bad ass warriors, on TV as would-be dentists and even as video game characters. But where did the legends of these beings spring from?
In Folklore, the term elf and fairy are generally interchangeable. The word elf comes from the Germanic languages (aelf) whereas fairy derives from Latin (fata). Elves and fairies are generally thought of as nature spirits and stories of them are found all over the world. They are also referred to by the terms faery, fairie, fay, fae, Wee Folk, Good Folk, People of Peace or the Fair Folk.
The elves that we are familiar with in fantasy and pop culture stem from the folkloric traditions and mythology of the Germanic and Norse peoples as well as the Celts.
The Norse believed that there were both “light” and “dark” elves, the first a benevolent, shining race of beings and the latter as malevolent creatures bent on harming humans. Stories of the two races of elves appeared in the Prose Edda, but it is unclear whether the distinction between the two types was a creation of the author or a result of the importation of the Christian belief in angels.
J. R. R.Tolkien was influenced by the Norse concept of elves when he created Middle Earth. The light elves of Norse myth inspired the elegant, mysterious inhabitants of Lothlorien and Rivendell, where the dark elves became the orcs. The word orc is derived from the Latin term for monster (orcus), which is also the root of the name of the Killer Whale (orca) and the term ogre.
Tolkien was not a fan of industrialization. He was repelled by the harshness of his experiences during WWI and romanticized the “simple life” of an earlier age. But he wasn’t the first to do so.
In the Victorian age, many adults became caught up in a “fairy craze”, which some scholars believe was partly influenced by the Industrial Revolution. Fairy paintings and stories of the time were rich in nostalgia for a vanishing way of life. The Pre–Raphaelite school of art, in particular, depicted pastoral and woodland scenes from romance, legend and myth, many of which featured elves and fairies.
In Celtic mythology, fae fall into two categories derived from Scottish folklore: the Seelie Court and the Unseelie Court. Seelie are the benevolent fae and unseelie malevolent. The term seelie is thought to be the origin of the English word “silly”. The Seelie court and unseely court fae are similar to the Norse division between light and dark elves. Later, William Butler Yeats, in Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, divided the fae into Trooping Fairies and Solitary Fairies. The Celtic tradition includes many fairy-type creatures, from pixies and brownies to ogres and giants.
Baobhan sith (pronounced baa'-van shee) are femme fatales found in Scottish Gaelic oral tradition. These siren-like creatures waylay male travelers and insist they dance with them. They are similar to Banshees and the Rusalka and Wila of Eastern Europe as well as the sirens of ancient greece. Wila is sometimes spelled as Veela. Fleur Delacourt in Harry Potter is part Veela.
Folkloric and mythological traditions throughout the world feature their own versions of elves and fae. In classical myths we find nymphs, fauns and satyrs.
Dryads are a type a nymph, considered to be the souls of trees. In The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, dryads fight alongside Aslan and the Pevensie Children. A Dryad named Juniper appears in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.
So how did elves become bound up in the Santa Claus legend? Elves have long been associated with Scandinavian and German gift-giving customs, but much of the belief in the USA surrounding Jolly Old St, Nick has evolved largely out of popular culture and advertising.
Back in the sixties, my family used to have a plastic elf who allegedly reported back to Santa when we kids were naughty. Imagine my surprise when I learned of that there is a book now called The Elf on the Shelf. And I thought my Dad invented the custom. Talk about your zeitgeist. Or is that zeitalp? Did all parents get the same idea about these creepy plastic and felt figures at the same time? Not my favorite custom surrounding elves.
It’s not really clear where and when Santa’s elf army cobbled their way into the mythos. Perhaps, like many Christmas customs we observe today, the presence of benevolent elves is a reminder of an earlier time, when people drew together in the shortest days of the year and feasted and made merry in hopes of dispelling the cold and gloom of winter.