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Archetypology 101: Fact, Fiction, & Fallacies

Episode 2 - Elves Have Left The Building

by Aeon
June 15, 2001  
There used to be a Talislanta advertisement run in Dragon Magazine, back in the day, which boasted of a campaign world that featured "No Elves." This simple phrase says more about elves than I will possibly be able to say in the next few thousand words (although I'm going to go ahead and try anyway). The point being, elves are ubiquitous, to the point where we're only really aware of them by their absence. And this is true both in role-playing games and in real-world mythology.

Every fantasy RPG system has, in one way or another, one or more varieties of elf amongst the playable races. They may be called Elves, or Sidhe, or Faerie Folk, but in almost every case they're the same archetype: tall, willowy, pointy-eared, slanty-eyed, treetop-dwelling, arrow-shooting, magic-casting, sneaky, graceful, beautiful, immortal wilderness-dwellers. And the interesting part is that most of those attributes have remained pretty much unchanged throughout the centuries, even though the end product that we see in today's RPGs is quite different from what the elf started out as. In short, the more things stayed the same, the more they changed; a seeming paradox that speaks volumes about the elven race as a whole.


The word "elf" itself has its origins in Teutonic (ie. Germanic) and Scandinavian mythology as "Alp" (alternately, Alb or Alf), the plural being, of course, Alps. Well, not really. The true plural is alpar, or alfar, but Alps undoubtedly sounds more familiar--it's the same name given to the European mountain range (most typically associated with Switzerland) that dominates the landscape in that part of the world (and it's also a more recognizable plural, which is why I'll use it hereafter). The Alps/Alfs were the inhabitants of those mountains; from the very start, they were tied to the very land they lived on. The Alfs were decidedly supernatural creatures, mountain faeries usually depicted as small, mischievous sprites who brought evil and nightmares in their wake (the word "alp" means, literally, "nightmare.") Though originally perceived as being the spirits of dead Teutonic believers, they became much more defined when Norse mythology grabbed hold of them.

It was Norse myth which divided the Alfs into two distinct categories: the beautiful Light Elves, or Ljosalfar, and the ugly Dark Elves, or Dopkalfar. As with all myths, the specific details about what the Alfs really looked like varied from region to region, and from tale to tale. In some cases, the Light Elves were purely spiritual and removed from mankind, almost angelic, dwelling on the highest level of the universe known as Alfheim (Elf Home) with the God Freyr, lord of the sun, rain, harvests, fertility and prosperity. The Dark Elves, on the other hand, were quite physical, living beneath the ground, under the oceans or in the darkest forests. In the earliest myths, the Dopkalfar are even associated with Dwarves, although from around the time of the Hrafnagaldr (a Norse poem which loosely translates as "Ravens' Song"), the delineation between Elf and Dwarf (Dvergar, or Duergar) becomes quite clear.

The Germanic peoples were not the only ones with Alfs to deal with, however; as with all myth and legend, the elven people cropped up in other cultures as peoples migrated along with their religions. As they did so, the elven delineation between light and dark, good and evil became more clear cut. In Danish folklore, for example, the elves are beautiful from the front, but have hollow, ugly backs, making clear their two-sided nature. In Scottish mythology, the "Sith" (pronounced "Shee") are members of either the Seelie (Light) or Unseelie (Dark) courts, with light (as usual) representing order and goodness, and dark representing chaos and evil (sorta). Likewise, the Celtic "Sidhe" (also pronounced "Shee") are also a divided race, with both good and bad amongst their flock. The most clear example of a "bad elf," as well as the proper pronunciation of the term "Sidhe," can be found in the Banshee; this mythological female elf (often an undead one) carries the moniker "Bean-Sidhe," which looks quite different from Banshee but is pronounced basically the same.

It's important to note that elves were not only a creation of European mythologists, however; they appear in various forms all around the world. Phillipine folklore has the Duende, part of the group of spirits known as Enkanto who represent the world of the dead who live under trees and are often benevolent, sometimes evil and always mischievous. Native Americans had the Nunnehi, subterranean-dwelling immortals. The Japanese have a similar concept of Kami, powerful nature spirits worthy of worship and reverence, yet capable of trickery and deceit. Even Hawai'ians have their own elves, known as Menehune, tiny beings who live in deep forests and mountains. Like most other types of "elves", the Menehune are also associated with ancestral spirits, the natural world, and a trio of other elvish traits which call for a deeper exploration; namely, an inclination towards some degree of invisibility or stealth, a proclivity for archery and long life or immortality.

Trick or Trait

Even though they were inevitably carved up into dark and light halves, all elves were perceived on some level as being thievish, mischievous, difficult to see and in many cases entirely invisible (stealth and thievery going hand in hand). Numerous legends from the Middle Ages tell of elves stealing livestock from farmers, or taking infants from their cradles and replacing them with changelings. In all cases, the elves or faeries doing the stealing are either incredibly agile or entirely invisible; where elves are divided amongst light and dark, the light ones (associated with air) are much more adept at remaining invisible, whereas the dark ones (associated with earth) are more adept at vanishing from sight once seen.

In one fable, a midwife is taken amongst the elves to help deliver a baby elf (the elves were notorious for their lack of obstetric capabilities), and then kept among them for some time before being released. While among them, she discovers a small vial of silvery liquid which the elves are always rubbing on their eyes before heading out into the world. She sneaks some onto her right eye and is released with a reward of golden treasure. Some days later, she discovers that she can see invisible elves moving among the humans... robbing them blind, totally unseen. She confronts them, and they, discovering what she's done with the magical elixir, strike her right eye blind. Secretive, and malicious when they need to be, are the elves.

But elves aren't always invisible by default, nor do they always rely on magical elixirs; Tolkien's elves of Lorien, for example, were just extremely adept at weaving magic into the form of grey elven cloaks, which are "...a great aid in keeping out of the sight of unfriendly eyes, whether you walk among the stones or the trees."

Obviously, the reason elves must be invisible and stealthy is because they're mythical; if you can easily see something, you can easily disbelieve it. By giving elves, and other faeries, the ability to pop in and out of view, it actually makes their legend all the more believable, akin to gods on more than one level due to the powers they possess.

Even the original Teutonic and Nordic Alps, including the good "Light" Alps, tended to lurk invisibly about in the clouds like demigods and hurl lightning storms down upon mankind. Which is, perhaps, part of where the whole "skill with archery" thing came from; it's certainly not a big leap from lightning bolts to arrows. Both cause death from afar, striking quickly, unexpectedly and with no clue as to the precise location from which the attack came.

But much of the reason that the term "elven archer" is almost redundant is that elves have always been portrayed as physically weaker than humans. While magical and agile, the elves either lack substance altogether (like the airy Ljosalfar) or are frail, weak, short or otherwise deformed in some way (not unusual considering that most mythological creatures have one flaw or another). For the elves, constantly sneaking around in the woods and trying to steal babies and cows from men, the ability to rain death down upon one's enemies is crucial, whether by thunderbolt or elf-bolt (in Scotland, a hard wedge-shaped piece of earth flung up by a lightning strike, attributed to elves). True, the forge is typically the domain of the dwarf, but let us not forget that the Teutonic elves were not merely cousins of the dwarves, but their twin brothers in some cases--two springs sprung from the same source, two weapons forged from the same fire: one axe, one arrow.

Perhaps the most renowned feature of the elf is explained in a Grimm's Fairy Tale about a servant girl who is taken among the elves to live in splendor for a few days as she serves as godparent to a newborn elf. When she comes back home after a few days, she discovers that, in fact, seven years have passed. During her time near the elves, she, too, was affected by their ability to alter time around themselves in some magical way--a type of immortality (a more well-known, and more current, version of the same tale is that of Rip Van Winkle, as told by Washington Irving).

The term "Fairy Tale" is perhaps the best clue as to why elves have this drastically extended life span; the word "fairy" (or faerie) is derived from the Italian "fada" and the Latin "fata," both of which mean "fate." Fairies (and their brethren, elves) are thus intrinsically associated with Fate, and in a sense with the notion of the ancient Greek Fates, who were gods themselves, playing with time like it was thread on a loom.

In every legend, elves are considered to be closer to the divine, to the mysteries of beyond, than mankind is. They are angels, demi-gods, drifters in a divine sea that humanity can only gawk at clumsily. The Ljosalfar live in the clouds with the gods, and Ireland's Sidhe are even considered to be direct descendents of the Tuatha De Danaan, a group of ancient godlike individuals (chief of whom was The Dagda, God of Druidic arts) who invaded Ireland sometime in its mythical past. That makes the Sidhe demi-gods, and that means they share in the benefits of divinity, including immortality. Even Tolkien's elves, influenced by mythology, were trying to hold back time, to give them more time to revel in magic, beauty and eternal youth.

Elves, you see, were never cast out of Eden like mankind was. Man must suffer, grow old and die, but elves, being closer to the divine, are the beneficiaries of that which man can never have on this world--eternal life. Elves are the spirits of the dead, and the spirits of eternal life, a reminder of man's mortality and a gateway to the afterlife. They are winter becoming spring, the promise of new blossoms from beneath the snow, of new light coming amidst the darkest days of the year.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the balance between dark and light that the elves represent (the Winter Solstice) comes between December 21st and 25th, during Yule, a time of Nordic divination ceremonies, Celtic fertility rites, all around celebrations and the much more recent, but no less appropriate holiday we call Christmas. Which is when the jolly old elf himself, Santa Claus, gets all his little elves together in his workshop at the North Pole to make and deliver toys to boys and girls around the world.

Which brings me to my next topic...

Little Elf, Big Elf

One quality of elves which varies as widely as one might imagine possible is elvish height. Although most early Teutonic myths group elves in with other small mythological creatures, some elves are typically portrayed as human-sized, with only some slight variance (either slightly taller or slightly shorter) marking them as different. And yet if you consider non- role-playing elves as they're portrayed in our society, you're likely to come up with Santa's elves (who are decidedly dwarven in stature) and the Keebler elves, who are small enough to live in a tree and make cookies all day. Are elves supposed to be big or small?

The Sidhe, in particular, are almost always represented as being tall of stature, to the point of being taller than humans are (albeit more slender). English elves (especially Shakespearean in origin) are puny, diminutive creatures in most cases. Teutonic elves are tiny, airy little spirits, but their Nordic cousins are taller. Role-playing elves (such as those in Dungeons & Dragons) are typically just slightly smaller than humans are, averaging about 5' (1m52) tall. Tolkien's elves were just the opposite, standing on average slightly taller than men, with some 6 1/2 feet (over 2m) tall, or more.

Elves, thus, vary in height as widely as do humans, and then some, with no apparent rhyme or reason to the variance. If there's any means of explaining it, it will have to be Geoffrey Chaucer's Wife of Bath, who tells us in her tale that people used to believe in faeries (prior to the late 12th Century), but they don't any more. Gone were the noble Sidhe, most resembling Tolkien's vision of a noble elven race. Gone, too, were the delicate little fairy-type elves, like Shakespeare would present to us in his "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The elves had shrunk and vanished because, basically, people no longer believed in them. The few stories which remained of the elves became mere "Fairy Tales," fit only for children.

Good thing we had people to write stuff down, isn't it?

The Literary Elf

Elves appear in print in numerous places, from the "aelfs" of the epic Beowulf, to the "alves" of Layamon's Chronicle of Brittain, from "elfin" in Spencer's Faerie Queene, to the spelling we now recognize--"elves"-- in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. But the two biggest contributors to the modern role-playing elf are undoubtedly William Shakespeare and J.R.R. Tolkien. Surprising, really, when you look at how different their elves are.

Shakespeare's contribution to elvenkind comes mainly from his play, "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which features a veritable stew of fairy mythology from several different cultures, drawing together folk tales, mythology and a good dose of romantic Arthurian imagery to boot. His tiny, agile, airy little elves live in a monarchy, ruled over by King Oberon and Queen Titania. They reside in the forest, among the flowers and insects, revere nature, and mostly come out only at night, and then invisibly. They are ostensibly immortal. Oberon comes from Arthurian tales (in particular the Huon of Bordeaux), in which he is evidently of human size and stature and acts like any other king, albeit an elven one. Puck/Robin Goodfellow, on the other hand, is purely a construct of folk tales, also evidently shrunk down from his Irish full-size standing to walk among the wee folk. But aside from their height, they feature all the attributes commonly associated with the role-playing elf (and if one ignores the fact that they are supposed to be tiny creatures when watching full-size human actors portray them onstage, even size is no longer a consideration).

Tolkien's contribution cannot be overstated; it is only because he obviously drew on earlier myth that he does not stand alone in creating what we recognize today as the archetype of the elf. His elves bear traces of both Teutonic origins (in their dealings/relationships with dwarves, for instance, as well as their airy, otherworldly, godlike origins) and Celtic influences (size, standing, military prowess, etc.). Tolkien's elves call themselves Eldar, the People of the Stars; an appropriate moniker, since they, like the gods and demigods who live amongst the stars, are immortal, immune to disease, illness and natural death. His elves also have enhanced vision and perception, the ability to work magic (i.e. "The Art") inherently and naturally, and a proclivity for archery, bardic singing and woodscraft. All of these qualities are associated in one way or another with mythological elves, and all are brought together here to create for us an amalgamated elf archetype.

Tolkien's elves are not wholly drawn from classical mythology, however; one contribution that is almost entirely of Tolkien's creation is the concept of many different types of elves, outside of the "light" and "dark" delineation. For example, a tribe of elves which stayed behind when others moved onward became the Sindar, or Grey Elves. Then there are the Noldor (Deep Elves), Teleri (Sea Elves) and Vanyar (Light Elves). Other elves, based on where and how they live, can be roughly equated to High elves, or Wood/Sylvan elves, concepts familiar to role-players. Tolkien's elves are also alleged to be the source of the orcs, who are portrayed as their dark, twisted cousins; this is yet another nod back towards Teutonic and Nordic myth, where we have light and dark spawned from the same point of origin.

Elven Roll Call

The archetypal role-playing elf, then, is the sum total of all elves that have come before her: no more, no less, and in many cases straight down the middle. Rather than be pixieish or gigantic, she is of slightly-smaller stature than her human companions. Rather than dwell under the earth, or in the sky, she dwells in tree branches, approximately halfway between. And rather than trying to be one type, she is all types: grey, dark, light, high, wood, sylvan, wild and more.

The most traditional sorts of RPG elves are the high elves (and their cousins, the slightly more bulky grey elves). These are, for the most part, some sort of cross between the Irish Sidhe, the Germanic/Nordic Ljosalfar, and Tolkien's elves of Lorien, carrying lofty names, regal attitudes, a longer tradition and a sense that they are descended from gods and demigods and the Tuatha de Danann, as the case may be. Their names alone suggest their standing and attitudes: Lothlorien the Golden, Lady Galadriel, Glorfindel, and so on and so forth. King Oberon and Queen Titania are originally high elves, even though they appear somewhat less regal in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." They are beautiful and bright and powerful and smart, if a bit cold and calculating and vulcan in nature. These are the sorcerers and conjurers and druids.

Much more wild and untamed are the wood elves (aka sylvan elves or, at their extreme, wild elves). These are a cross between the smaller, faerielike creatures of English and Teutonic myths and Tolkien's own wood elves (most familiar to those who've only read The Hobbit). Wild and natural and untamed and savage, they live amongst the forest as if they were part of it. Tolkien's Legolas is one of them, as is Shakespeare's Puck/Robin Goodfellow. Crow, the rapid-fire archer from the oft-forgotten film Hawk the Slayer, is also among their kind, as are the elves in the movie Legend, and the comic book epic known as Elfquest. These are wolf riders, spear-throwers, vine-swingers and trackers, rangers and barbarians and rogues.

Newer, and arguably more popular, are the dark elves, better known as Drow, direct descendents of the Nordic Dopkalfar, or Black elves, who lived beneath the earth and kept out of the sunlight. They are traditionally seen as more magical and evil than their surface-dwelling cousins, but are not always relegated to living beneath the surface of the earth. To be certain, the best known Dark elf is undoubtedly Drizzt Do'Urden, a traditional Drow, but others of note include: the Dragonlance saga's Dalamar, who is a "dark elf" not because of his skin color but because he is an outcast; Drew Hayes' large-eared Lusipher, who's featured in the comic book Poison Elves; and the Star Wars Jedi Master himself, Yoda, who first appeared as an outcast Jedi-in-hiding living in a dark burrow in a backwoods swamp planet, practicing powerful magics in secret. If that's not the definition of a Dark Elf, I don't know what is. Dark elves are typically either powerful magicians or warriors, or both, having access to magic powers and knowledge that others do not.

(For the record, Drow is pronounced properly as "Drou", to rhyme with "how now brown drow?"; if you get stuck saying "Droh", just try to think of the Drow's Germanic origins, and other Germanic terms such as LoweBRAU and FRAUlein.)

And of course, no summary of famous "elves" would be complete without a look at the half-elves of the world. These poor souls are, depending on what RPG you're reading, either the result of a happy, if unusual marriage between a human and an elf, or the bastard offspring of a savage attack on an elven maiden. In either case, they suffer the same fate as their dark cousins the Drow, forced to wander aimlessly in search of themselves and others like them, always existing on the verges of both elven and human civilizations. The most famous is undoubtedly Tanis Half-Elven, from the Dragonlance novels, but others of similar fate include Tolkien's Elrohir, Dior and Arwen, and the pair called Elros and Elrond, who were given a choice between mortality and immortality: Elros chose to be a mortal, Elrond chose to immortal.

Outside the obvious realm of fantasy literature, we must also consider two science-fiction candidates for half-elf. First is Spock, who is half-human and half-vulcan. Certainly, the Vulcan race shares many of the same attributes as the High Elves do (intelligence, power, logic, physical prowess, isolationism), and Spock's battle with his human emotions and interactions with his human companions are in many ways the same as those of any other half-elf. The other candidate is one oft overlooked by science-fiction and fantasy fans alike--Luke Skywalker, of Star Wars fame. This Jedi knight doesn't know who his father is, is incessantly wandering the world looking for himself, bounces back and forth between the world of the "elf" (Yoda's Dagobah) and the world of his human companions, and is filled with powerful untapped "magical" Force which comes from his father, Anakin Skywalker.

"But," you say, "Anakin Skywalker was no elf!" And to this I reply, were not the Sidhe descended from the gods, and was not Anakin revealed to be of divine birth in Episode I? And if that's not enough to convince you, consider that another spelling of "Sidhe" is "Sith". And who is Anakin Skywalker but Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith? Coincidence? I think not. Darth Vader is a Dark Elf, his son a half-elf, his mentor a wood elf. Who's the high elf in all this? Perhaps I'm the high one for suggesting it, perhaps not. I'll let you be the judge of that. [Hint: look up the Norse "Vanir", and note the tangled, militaristic, magical and incestuous tangle he's involved in with twin children named Freya (rhymes with Leia) and Freyr (who possesses a sword that magically emerges from its sheath.), and a dude by the name of Honir (first syllable rhymes with Han). Fun stuff.]

This One Goes To Elven

Elves exist all around us, from fantasy literature and role-playing games to thinly-veiled appearances in popular science fiction stories. From their earliest appearances as airy spirits, on through periods of nobility and warfare, and through to their diminution to being cookie makers and Santa's little helpers, elves have always been a part of mythology, and thus it's no wonder that they've always been a part of role-playing games.

Elves are, ultimately, all things to all people. They are big and small, light and dark, good and evil, helpful and mischievous, mortal and immortal. they represent what humanity was, and what it could be. They are the best and the worst of the humans who believe in them, and today's role-playing elf represents that thin line quite well. As the summation of all that's come before, the role-playing elf archetype is pretty darn effective, balancing the fantastic and the realistic in one neat little pointy-eared package.

In Iceland, roads are still, to this day, re-routed around hills, trees and rocks that are believed to be inhabited by elves. In England and Ireland, building projects have been halted when "fairy trees" were discovered to be in the way. And all around the world, once a year, millions of children wait eagerly for a red-suited, jolly old elf to magically zip down their chimney to deliver them presents.

Indeed, humanity has a real need for elves, because they allow us to touch the fantastic. Santa Claus lives, and with him, so do all the elves who came before him.

Next time: the rogue TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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All Archetypology 1010 columns by Aeon

  • Episode 11 - In Closing... April 30, 2002
  • Episode 10 - Human, All Too Human March 19, 2002
  • Episode 9 -- Death Before Dishonor January 31, 2002
  • Episode 8 - To Be Orc Not To Be December 21, 2001
  • Episode 7 - Roll up for the magical mystery tour November 27, 2001
  • Episode 6 - Kings under the mountain October 18, 2001
  • Episode 5 - Rebel without a CAWS September 18, 2001
  • Episode 4 - In a hole in the ground... August 17, 2001
  • Episode 3 - Thick as Thieves July 13, 2001
  • Episode 2 - Elves Have Left The Building June 15, 2001
  • Episode 1 - Holy Rollers May 23, 2001
  • Who Are You? April 20, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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