Robin: In books of fantasy elves have often been indistinguishable from fairies. Elf and fairy may be used of the same person, even so particular as person as our Queen Titania is called the Elf-Queen in some stories and poems.

As you would expect therefore, these elves of fairyland are described as of varying sizes, from tiny (flower-sized) to tall (human-sized). The elves in Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter, from 1924, are the taller kind. These elves may well have half-human offspring.

In children’s books of the early twentieth century most often elves are very similar to the jerkin-clad, cap-wearing pixies. These elves are usually boys, cute, jolly and mischievous. They are short, but more child-sized than insect-sized.

You can see these in the Grimms’ tale of “The Elves and the Shoemaker” and in such books for small children as Enid Blyton’s Five Little Elves and Nancy Buss’s The Littlest Christmas Elf.

Family of Elves In modern novels of fantasy, such as Terry Brooks’s Shannara series, elves are generally beautiful, noble and rather serious. They are like humans, only better. Sometimes even taller. They practice a solemn kind of magic and are often great warriors, with sword or bow. The main similarity is the pointed ears!

Professor J. R. R. Tolkein restored the link between fantasy elves and the high elves of Norse mythology. He wrote seriously and at length about the Elven people. Elves, rather than hobbits or wizards, were his passion.

Snorri Sturulson who collected the work of the ancient skaldic poets of Scandinavia wrote in Gylfaginning: “There is yet that place, which is called Alfheim (Elf-world); there lives that people, which is called the light-elves, but the dark-elves dwell down in the earth, and they are unlike in appearance and much more unlike in experience. The light-elves are fairer than the sun in appearance, but the dark-elves are blacker than pitch.”

He says there are three heavens, the highest of which the light-elves alone inhabit. The others are Asgard (the Aesir) and Vanaheim (Vanir), the homes of the Norse gods. The dark-elves live in Svartalfaheim – sometimes described as caves under the mountains – the dwarves are also said to live there, and there is some debate about whether dark-elves and dwarves are the same; also whether there is a distinction between dark-elves and black elves.

Professor Tolkein’s elves are all light-elves, so perhaps he believed the dwarf theory.

Both kinds of elves, though, can be found in Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword and The Hearts and Three Lions, written not long after Lord of the Rings. Set more definitely in the world of Norse myth, they are recognized as fantasy masterworks.

Dark elves do crop up quite frequently in modern fantasy novels, quite often not differing so much in appearance, but very greatly in character. Their clothing and weapons may be black or dark to match. But certainly, most of the high fantasy elves can still be identified as light elves.

In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, the fair appearance of elves is put down to “glamour”, the spell of magical illusion, to disguise their dangerous and manipulative intentions.

In the wizarding world of the Harry Potter series, however, elves are rather different. The bumbling petty bureaucracy that culminates in the Ministry of Magic apparently recognizes no form of life higher than its own. The house-elves are represented as a stunted and servile race.

All these types of fantasy elves will be appearing in the books we will be reviewing.

Read about

Santa’s Elves

Still to come:

Elfland: The King of Elfland’s Daughter and other fantasy novels

Elves in The Lord of the Rings

Half-elves: the offspring of elves and human, as seen in the Shannara novels, Elfgift and elsewhere

House-elves in the Harry Potter series

Elves and Pixies