Nathan (vovat) wrote,
Nathan
vovat

Nobody Knows I'm Elvish

Everyone knows what an elf is, right? Well, you probably think you do, but in truth you could have a very different idea from someone else. As I mentioned here, the traditional elves of Scandinavian mythology, the Elves of Middle-Earth, and Santa's diminutive and industrious helpers are actually pretty different. Traditionally, elves were essentially regarded as demigods, human in form but more attractive than normal people, and with connections to nature. Really, they probably aren't too different from nature spirits from other traditions. As with other mythological elements, it's probably a case of similar stories originating in different parts of the world, then being combined when the cultures come into contact with each other, and later fantasists picking and choosing from both the older and newer myths. If you're going for mythological authenticity, it appears that J.K. Rowling's house-elves are really more like hobgoblins or kobolds than traditional Scandinavian elves, and Santa's staff has more in common with dwarves than elves. Then again, the Norse dwarves, or dvergar, are often pretty much interchangeable with dark elves. They mine and forge (jobs that trolls and gnomes are also sometimes given), while the light elves are associated more closely with fertility. Really, it seems that the old Norse records are too contradictory and incomplete to really paint a clear picture of the earliest concepts of elves or dwarves. What we know comes more from later folklore, which portrays elves as mischievous and nasty. To writers like Spencer and Shakespeare, the terms "elf" and "fairy" were basically synonymous, and they were thought of as tiny creatures with human shapes.

While the concept of elves as miniature people with magic powers still lives on today in such forms as the Keebler Elves and Rice Krispies' tiny mascots, much of their role in modern fantasy literature derives, not surprisingly, from Tolkien. His elves reflected, in some ways, those of the earliest known Scandinavian sources, being noble, beautiful, human-sized, functionally immortal, and in tune with nature. They aren't petty and vindictive like the elves of folklore, but instead basically have an Übermensch role in Middle-Earth. Despite Tolkien's obvious prejudice in favor of his Elves, they do have their flaws, like their long-standing enmity with the Dwarves (and it's Tolkien who popularized that plural, although he didn't invent it; I personally prefer it to "dwarfs"). Was Middle-Earth the first fantasy world to show elves and dwarves as traditional enemies? If it was, it might have been based on the references to dwarves as "dark elves," and it's carried over into other universes that include both races. It's not always the case, however. In Dragon Quest III, it's necessary to give yourself the form of a dwarf in able to conduct business with the elves, as the two peoples are friendly. In the Discworld series, it's the dwarfs and trolls who are traditional enemies, although both groups also hate elves, who are glamorous but malicious beings in Terry Pratchett's world. Their glamor allows them a lot of power in harming humans, but dwarfs and trolls can see right through it.

I think Tolkien was also the first to devise the idea that male and female dwarves look the same to non-dwarves, which implies that the women also have beards. Pratchett ran with this concept in the Discworld books, using it for both humor and social commentary. Other fantasy worlds have made female dwarves more traditionally feminine in appearance, without the beards. Come to think of it, Disney's Dopey doesn't have a beard, so is he actually a woman? {g}
Tags: discworld, dragon quest, fairies, fairy tales, harry potter, mythology, tolkien, video games
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