An elf (plural: elves) is a type of human-shaped supernatural being in Germanic mythology and folklore. In medieval Germanic-speaking cultures, elves seem generally to have been thought of as beings with magical powers and supernatural beauty, ambivalent towards everyday people and capable of either helping or hindering them. However, the details of these beliefs have varied considerably over time and space, and have flourished in both pre-Christian and Christian cultures.
The word elf is found throughout the Germanic languages and seems originally to have meant 'white being'.
Reconstructing the early concept of an elf depends largely on texts, written by Christians, in Old and Middle English, medieval German, and Old Norse. These associate elves variously with the gods of Norse mythology, with causing illness, with magic, and with beauty and seduction.
After the medieval period, the word elf tended to become less common throughout the Germanic languages, losing out to alternative native terms like zwerc ("dwarf") in German and huldra ("hidden being") in Scandinavian languages, and to loan-words like fairy (borrowed from French into all the Germanic languages).
Still, beliefs in elves persisted in the early modern period, particularly in Scotland and Scandinavia, where elves were thought of as magically powerful people living, usually invisibly, alongside everyday human communities. They continued to be associated with causing illness and with sexual threats. For example, a number of early modern ballads in the British Isles and Scandinavia, originating in the medieval period, describe elves attempting to seduce or abduct human characters.
With urbanisation and industrialisation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, beliefs in elves declined rapidly (though Iceland has some claim to continued popular belief in elves). However, from the early modern period onwards, elves started to be prominent in the literature and art of educated elites. These literary elves were imagined as small, impish beings, with Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream being a key development of this idea. In the eighteenth century, German Romanticist writers were influenced by this notion of the elf, and reimported the English word elf into the German language.
From this Romanticist elite culture came the elves of popular culture that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The "Christmas elves" of contemporary popular culture are a relatively recent tradition, popularized during the late nineteenth-century in the United States. Elves entered the twentieth-century high fantasy genre in the wake of works published by authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien; these re-popularised the idea of elves as human-sized and human-like beings. Elves remain a prominent feature of fantasy books and games and thereby continue to have a role in shaping people's understandings of their own real-life identities.
Elves are usually described as a taller human but with more firmer touch to them. In the Lord of the Rings, however, elves were described as human sized (and if anything taller), hence changing the description of elves. They are sometimes known to have long, pointy ears.
In most modern fantasy scenarios, elves are one of the 3 main races (Elves, Dwarves and Humans), although if these 3 are described as the good races, they then become one of 6 races, including orcs, goblins and trolls and/or giants.
Post-medieval elite and popular culture
Early modern elite culture
Early modern Europe saw the emergence for the first time of a distinctive elite culture: while the Reformation encouraged new skepticism and opposition to traditional beliefs, subsequent Romanticism encouraged the fetishisation of such beliefs by intellectual elites. The effects of this on writing about elves are most apparent in England and Germany, with developments in each country influencing the other. In Scandinavia, the Romantic movement was also prominent, and literary writing was the main context for continued use of the word elf, except in fossilised words for illnesses. However, oral traditions about beings like elves remained prominent in Scandinavia into the early twentieth century.
Elves entered early modern elite culture most clearly in the literature of Elizabethan England. Here Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590–) used fairy and elf interchangeably of human-sized beings, but they are complex imaginary and allegorical figures. Spenser also presented his own explanation of the origins of the Elfe and Elfin kynd, claiming that they were created by by Prometheus. Likewise, William Shakespeare, in a speech in Romeo and Juliet (1592) has an "elf-lock" (tangled hair) being caused Queen Mab, who is referred to as "the fairies' midwife". Meanwhile, A Midsummer Night's Dream promoted the idea that elves were diminutive and etherial. The influence of Shakespeare and Michael Drayton made the use of elf and fairy for very small beings the norm, and had a lasting effect seen in fairy tales about elves, collected in the modern period.
The Romantic movement
Early modern English notions of elves became influential in eighteenth-century Germany. The Modern German Elf (m) and Elfe (f) was introduced as a loan-word from English in the 1740s and was prominent in Christoph Martin Wieland's 1764 translation of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
As German Romanticism got underway and writers started to seek authentic folklore, Jacob Grimm rejected Elf as a recent Anglicism, and promoted the reuse of the old form Elb (plural Elbe or Elben). In the same vein, Johann Gottfried Herder translated the Danish ballad Elveskud in his 1778 collection of folk songs, Stimmen der Völker in Liedern, as "Erlkönigs Tochter" ("The Erl-king's Daughter"; it appears that Herder introduced the term Erlkönig into German through a mis-Germanisation of the Danish word for elf). This in turn inspired Goethe's poem Der Erlkönig. Goethe's poem then took on a life of its own, inspiring the Romantic concept of the Erlking, which was influential on literary images of elves from the nineteenth century on.
In Scandinavia too, in the nineteenth century, traditions of elves were adapted to include small, insect-winged fairies. These are often called "elves" (älvor in modern Swedish, alfer in Danish, álfar in Icelandic), although the more formal translation in Danish is feer. Thus the alf found in the fairy tale The Elf of the Rose by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen is so tiny that he can have a rose blossom for home, and has "wings that reached from his shoulders to his feet". Yet Andersen also wrote about elvere in The Elfin Hill. The elves in this story are more alike those of traditional Danish folklore, who were beautiful females, living in hills and boulders, capable of dancing a man to death. Like the huldra in Norway and Sweden, they are hollow when seen from the back.
English and German literary traditions both influenced the British Victorian image of elves, which appeared in illustrations as tiny men and women with pointed ears and stocking caps. An example is Andrew Lang's fairy tale Princess Nobody (1884), illustrated by Richard Doyle, where fairies are tiny people with butterfly wings, whereas elves are tiny people with red stocking caps. These conceptions remained prominent in twentieth-century children's literature, for example Enid Blyton's The Faraway Tree series, and were influenced by German Romantic literature. Accordingly, in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Die Wichtelmänner (literally, "the little men"), the title protagonists are two tiny naked men who help a shoemaker in his work. Even though Wichtelmänner are akin to beings such as kobolds, dwarves and brownies, the tale was translated into English by Margaret Hunt in 1884 as The Elves and the Shoemaker. This shows how the meanings of elf had changed, and was in itself influential: the usage is echoed, for example, in the house-elf of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter stories. In his turn, J. R. R. Tolkien recommended using the older German form Elb in translations of his works, as recorded in his Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings (1967). Elb, Elben was consequently introduced in the 1972 German translation of The Lord of the Rings, repopularising the form in German.
Modern popular culture
With industrialisation and mass education, traditional folklore about elves waned, but as the phenomenon of popular culture emerged, elves were reimagined, in large part on the basis of Romantic literary depictions and associated medievalism.
As American Christmas traditions crystallized in the nineteenth century, the 1823 poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (widely known as "'Twas the Night before Christmas") characterized St Nicholas himself as "a right jolly old elf". However, it was his little helpers, inspired partly by folktales like The Elves and the Shoemaker, who became known as "Santa's elves"; the processes through which this came about are not well understood, but one key figure was a Christmas-related publication by the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast. Thus in the US, Canada, UK, and Ireland, the modern children's folklore of Santa Claus typically includes small, nimble, green-clad elves with pointy ears, long noses, and pointy hats, as Santa's helpers. They make the toys in a workshop located in the North Pole. The role of elves as Santa's helpers has continued to be popular, as evidenced by the success of the popular Christmas movie Elf.
The fantasy genre in the twentieth century grew out of nineteenth-century Romanticism, in which nineteenth-century scholars such as Andrew Lang and the Grimm brothers collected fairy-stories from folklore and in some cases retold them freely.
A pioneering work of the fantasy genre was The King of Elfland's Daughter, a 1924 novel by Lord Dunsany. The Elves of Middle-earth played a central role in Tolkien's legendarium, notably The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings; this legendarium was enormously influential on subsequent fantasy writing. Tolkien's writing had such influence that in the 1960s and afterwards, elves speaking an elvish language similar to those in Tolkien's novels became staple non-human characters in high fantasy works and in fantasy role-playing games. Post-Tolkien fantasy elves (which featured not only in novels but also role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons) are often portrayed as being wiser and more beautiful than humans, with sharper senses and perceptions as well. They are said to be gifted in magic, mentally sharp and lovers of nature, art, and song. They are often skilled archers. A hallmark of many fantasy elves is their pointed ears.
In works where elves are the main characters, such as The Silmarillion or Wendy and Richard Pini’s comic book series Elfquest, elves exhibit a similar range of behaviour to a human cast, distinguished largely by their superhuman physical powers. However, where narratives are more human-centered, as in The Lord of the Rings, elves tend to sustain their role as powerful, sometimes threatening, outsiders. Despite the obvious fictionality of fantasy novels and games, scholars have found that elves in these works continue to have a subtle role in shaping the real-life identities of their audiences. For example, elves can function to encode real-world racial others in video games, or to influence gender-norms through literature.
Images for kids
A chart showing how the sounds of the word 'elf' have changed in the history of English. The chart cites Richard M. Hogg, A Grammar of Old English, Volume 1: Phonology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992). It has also been published in Alaric Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity, Anglo-Saxon Studies, 8 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2007), p. 178 (fig. 7).
One possible semantic field diagram of words for sentient beings in Old Norse, showing a Venn diagram their relationships (Hall 2009, 208 fig. 1).
Thomas the Rhymer in Walter Scott's The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border
Elf Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.