Elves are an extremely popular fantasy race. Their modern depiction of being graceful and beautiful (if not perfect) beings makes them a favorite among writers. These traits also make them likely candidates for being horribly misused.
In various High Fantasy interpretations since The Lord of the Rings, elves have gathered a certain number of specific traits. They almost always live in forests and tend to be "peaceful and wise", which may or may not involve them being arrogant. Elves commonly fall prey to the monoculture race trap.
One interesting trait that seems to be rooted in Tolkien's original work is that elves (at least some of them) are excellent smiths. To have a sword of elven make seems to be rarer and sometimes better than a similar weapon of dwarf make. (Although this could be attributed to the elves' "perfect race" stigma.)
The Typical ElfEdit
- Extremely long-lived; possibly immortal
- Close to nature
- Beautiful and graceful
- Peaceful and wise
- So flawless that they tend to make the reader want to scream "Mary Sue!"
- The modern "dark elf" does away with the good-and-peaceful trait.
- Terry Pratchett's elves are from a parasite universe; they are rarely related to humans and view the normal world as inferior. They exist to destroy humanity, and can only be stopped with iron, which appears to hurt them.
- Eoin Colfer's elves are, in general, difficult to profile racially- they have specific personality traits as well as being much shorter than the usual elf stereotype and much more technologically advanced.
Origins and HistoryEdit
Elves owe their origins to Norse and Teutonic folklore, where they started out as nature and fertility spirits. Old stories of elves depicted them as humanoid creatures capable of breeding with humans (and indeed, were indistinguishable from appearance) at least some of the time, although they had magical powers, such as being able to pass through solid objects. These elves were said to be divided into two races: light elves, who lived aboveground, and dark elves, who lived below. (The dark elves of old have more in common with dwarves than the modern drow. The word "drow" comes from a race of dark elves said to live in Scotland, which again had more in common with dwarves.)
Scandinavian people later depicted elves as tiny, fairy-like creatures with wings. In Sweden and Denmark, the local elves were human-sized, but hollow from the back. Sweden was also home to female elves who were said to cause disease - the most common being harmless rashes known as "elven blow." However, the diseases inflicted by elves could also be quite deadly.
Elves were said to dance in "elf circles." If a human were to watch such a dance, he would find that years had actually passed in what seemed like the few hours he had spent watching them.
English elves were generally small, mischievous creatures. They were believed to be annoying, although not evil. Shakespeare envisioned elves as tiny creatures, and his use of them in A Midsummer Night's Dream (written in the 1590s) would influence peoples' perception of elves for years. Danish author Hans Christian Anderson also portrayed elves as diminutive creatures in The Elves and the Shoemaker in the 19th century. Anderson's portrayal of elves leaving after the shoemaker gives them clothing was probably inspired by the belief that brownies could be driven off by giving them clothing. (Some said they were they were offended by "inferior" clothing.) In the Victorian era, elves were generally portrayed as tiny men and women in pointed shoes and hats.
The tiny elves would be attached to figures such as Santa Claus, where they remain to this day.
Human-sized elves made a comeback in 1924 with the release of The King of Elfland's Daughter. In this story a young man is sent to fetch an elven princess from the elves' kingdom. They marry, have a son, and the typical fairytale hijinks that occur after marrying a non-human ensue: the princess gets homesick and returns to her native land. (Unlike in most fairy tales, the prince manages to bring her back.)
Tolkien incorporated old-fashioned human-sized elves in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's portrayal of elves served as the paradigm for elves in modern high fantasy.
The modern "dark elves," or Drow, were invented by Gary Gygax for Dungeons & Dragons. Aside from the name, the dark skin, and living underground, they have virtually nothing in common with dwarf-like creatures. Drow were depicted as an entirely evil race (except for a few face-heel turners), living in a violent, matriarchal society. According to the backstory, dark elves were forced underground after a war with the good elves.
- Because elves are immortal, authors are faced with explaining why their populations don't explode. A common explanation is that elves have low fertility rates and/or age extremely slowly. This would work for awhile, but if anything were to happen to devastate the population (famine, natural disasters, war), it would be unlikely that the elves could recover their numbers in a reasonable amount of time. More resilient species would probably drive them to extinction. See Controlling Populations of Immortals for more ideas.
- Elves are often monoculture races. If a writer wants "evil" elves, these elves often belong to a separate race entirely where "evil" behavior is the norm.
- Original Writerium Article