Elves in fantasy fiction and games

Elves in fantasy fiction and games

In many works of modern fantasy, elves are a race of semi-divine humanoid beings.

Characteristics and common features

Modern fantasy literature has revived the elves as a race of semi-divine beings of human stature who are friendly with animals. Fantasy elves are different from Norse elves, but are more akin to that older mythology than to folktale elves – they are unlikely to sneak in at night and help a cobbler mend his shoes. Fantasy elves differ in many ways from the traditional elves found in northern European folklore and Victorian era literature; although in particular, the "álfar" of Norse mythology has influenced the concept of "elves" in fantasy.

A hallmark of fantasy elves is also their long and pointed ears (a convention begun with a note of Tolkien's that the ears of elves were "leaf-shaped"). The length and shape of these ears varies depending on the artist or medium in question. Post-Tolkien fantasy elves (popularized by the "Dungeons & Dragons" role-playing game) tend to be more beautiful and wiser than humans, with sharper senses and perceptions. Often elves do not possess facial or body hair, and are consequently perceived to be androgynous.

Half-elves and divergent races of elves, such as high elves and dark elves, were also popularized at this time; in particular, the evil drow of "Dungeons & Dragons" have inspired the dark elves of many other works of fantasy.

Elves in modern fantasy literature

Early pioneers of the genre such as Lord Dunsany in "The King of Elfland's Daughter" and Poul Anderson in "The Broken Sword" featured Norse-style elves. However, the "Elves" (capitalized, since they are considered a nationality of sorts) found in the works of the twentieth-century philologist and fantasy writer J. R. R. Tolkien have formed the view of elves in modern fantasy like no other singular source.

The first appearance of modern fantasy elves occurred in "The King of Elfland's Daughter" a 1924 novel by Lord Dunsany. The next modern work featuring elves was "The Hobbit", a 1937 novel by J. R. R. Tolkien. Elves played a major role in many of Tolkien's later works, notably "The Lord of the Rings". Tolkien's elves were followed by grim Norse-style elves of human size in Poul Anderson's 1954 fantasy novel "The Broken Sword".

Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" (1954-1955) became astoundingly popular and was much imitated. In the 1960s and afterwards, elves similar to those in Tolkien's novels became staple non-human characters in high fantasy works and in fantasy role-playing games. Tolkien's Elves were enemies of goblins (orcs) and had a long-standing quarrel with the Dwarves; these motifs would re-appear in derivative works.

Tolkien's Elves

Though Tolkien originally conceived his Elves as more fairy-like than they afterwards became, he also based them on the god-like and human-sized "Ljósálfar" of Norse mythology. His Elves were conceived as a race of beings similar in appearance to humans but fairer and wiser, with greater spiritual powers, keener senses, and a closer empathy with nature. They are great smiths and fierce warriors on the side of good.

Tolkien's Elves of Middle-earth are immortal in the sense that they are not vulnerable to disease or the effects of old age (closer to the concept of Indefinite Lifespan than true immortality). Although they can be killed in battle like humans and may alternately wither away from grief, their spirits only pass to the blessed land in the west called Valinor, whereas humans' souls leave the world entirely.

Tolkien is also responsible for reviving the older and less-used terms "elven" and "elvish" rather than Edmund Spenser's invented "elfin" and "elfish". He probably preferred the word "elf" over "fairy" because "elf" is of Anglo-Saxon origin while "fairy" entered English from French. He certainly felt the need to differentiate "elves", as only one kind of the creatures of "Faërie", from other inhabitants of that land, and lamented the confusion in English between "Fairy" (i.e., Faërie) and "fairy" (i.e., fay or elf). Tolkien also wished to distinguish his elves from the diminutive airy-winged fairies popularized by Drayton’s "Nymphidia". [ Tolkien, J.R.R. (1964). “On Fairy-Stories”. Tree and Leaf. George Allen and Unwin Ltd. Reprinted in Tolkien, J.R.R. (1966). The Tolkien Reader. Ballantine Books: New York ]

Elves within Tolkien's legendarium

Though Tolkien originally conceived his Elves as more gnome-like than they afterwards became, he also based them on the god-like and human-sized "ljósálfar" of Norse mythology. He conceived a race of beings similar to humans but fairer and wiser, with greater spiritual powers, keener senses, and a closer empathy with nature. They are great craftsmen, smiths, and fierce warriors on the side of good. Tolkien's Elves are still very much "human", and although they can be killed by injury or die of grief, and they do age (besides "emotional aging", the males grow beards upon reaching a "third cycle of life"), dead Elves are normally re-embodied after an indefinite period of time — according to Tolkien's "Letters" and other posthumously published writings.

In the posthumously published "The Silmarillion", Tolkien sorted his Elves into two main kindreds: the "Eldar" and the "Avari". The Eldar were divided into three groups: the "Vanyar", the "Noldor" and the "Teleri". In Tolkien's writings, the Noldor, the "Sindar" and the Silvan Elves, the last two being subdivisions of the Teleri, are the most prominent.

In "Laws and Customs among the Eldar", published in "The History of Middle-earth", Tolkien elaborates on Elvish sexuality, reproduction, and sexual norms. At least the Eldar elves view the sexual act as extremely special and intimate, for it leads to the conception and birth of children. Extramarital and premarital sex would be considered contradictions in terms, and fidelity between spouses is absolute. Despite their longevity, the Eldar have generally few children with relatively sizable intervals between each child (their numbers are stated to be in steady decline by the Third Age). Their libido eventually wanes and they focus their interests elsewhere, like the arts. Nonetheless, they take great delight in the "union of love", and they consider the period of bearing and raising children as the happiest stage of their lives.

Elves in role-playing games

Post-Tolkien fantasy elves (popularized by the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game) tend to be beautiful, fair, slender, and close in size to humans (usually taller, sometimes shorter). A hallmark of fantasy elves is also their long and pointed ears. In gaming, and to some extent fantasy literature, elves as a rule have a greater depth of knowledge (especially regarding magic) than their human counterparts, due to a racial inclination as well as their extreme age. Typically, they are also capable warriors, especially skilled in archery, following Legolas, arguably Tolkien's most well-known elf. Blood Elves and Night Elves also appear in World Of Warcraft.

As in the Norse lore, elven-human unions and offspring were possible in Tolkien's saga (a notable example being Elrond, the lord of Rivendell), and in many RPGs, half-elven is a possible race for player characters. Fantasy elves frequently divide up into subraces, such as the High Elves, Wood Elves and Dark Elves found in the Warhammer Fantasy game setting. Especially "dark elves" (popularized by TSR as "drow") are a common theme in many other fantasy games and to some extent literature. Apart from malice, drow or dark elves are often depicted as being dark-skinned and living underground.

In the modern treatment of elves in Dungeons & Dragons, they are divided up into subraces that include Aquatic Elves, Gray Elves, High Elves, Wood Elves, and drow. The Forgotten Realms campaign setting's elves (or Tel'Quessir as they call themselves) differ still, replacing the High Elves and Gray Elves with Moon or Silver Elves and Sun or Gold Elves, and adding Wild or Green Elves, Star or Mithral Elves and avariel (Winged Elves) to the Aquatic (Sea) Elves, Wood (Copper) Elves, Drow (Dark Elves), and Lythari (elves that transform into wolves).

In the Warhammer Fantasy game setting, the first civilized people of the world were the High Elves from the Atlantis-like (though unsunken) island realm of Ulthuan. Early on, the High Elves colonized large parts of the Warhammer world, but following the rise of the Druchii (called "Dark Elves" by others than themselves), a fascistoid movement of corsairs and slavers, the High Elves were plunged into civil war and their power greatly faded. The elves who decided to stay in the colonies were forced to hide in the deep forests, and with time became known as "Wood Elves".

Warhammer is also unique in the aspect that Warhammer 40,000, the science fantasy version of the game, feature space faring elves under the name of Eldar (a term borrowed from Tolkien) -- an ancient race that once served the Old Ones and in the aftermath of a great catastrophe have split into four distinct groups, the Craftworld Eldar, the rustic Eldar Exodites (dinosaur riding space wood elves) the mysterious and acrobatic Harlequins and the fallen kindred, the Dark Eldar.

The universe of the Elder Scrolls computer games also features distinct races of elves (or "Mer" as they refer to themselves) including High Elves (Altmer), Dark Elves (Dunmer) and Wood Elves (Bosmer). Interestingly, within the Elder Scrolls both the Dwarves (Dwemer) and the Orcs (Orsimer) are considered Elven or offshoots of the Elvish race. [] []

Azeroth, the fantasy world of the "Warcraft" computer game series originally featured elves similar to the Warhammer High or Wood Elves. The series introduces the naturalistic purple-skinned Night Elves, who were portrayed more favorably than traditional dark-skinned elves. This elves are the first race to appear in the world of Azeroth; other races of elves descend of them. Starting with "Warcraft III", the High-Elves, outcast of the Night Elves, face the destruction of their kingdom, Quel'Thalas, and its capital, Silvermoon. The survivors are thereafter known as Blood Elves and is being portrayed as magic addicts. Night Elves and Blood Elfs are playable races in the World of Warcarft MMORPG.

Nevendaar, the world in the game and its expansions features a nation of elves called the Elven Alliance, consisting of the Noble Elves and the Wild Elves, both created by their god Gallean.

Dark Age of Camelot features elves as a playable race in the realm of Hibernia. These elves are supposedly based on the Celtic Sidhe, however bear a striking resemblance to the more human inspired elves of typical D&D fantasy lore.

RuneScape has elves as a race in Gielinor. They dwell west in the hidden valley of Isafdar, perhaps inspired by Rivendell. Some elves mistrust humans, dwarves, trolls and gnomes, and humans may not enter their capital city. The elves worship Seren as their chief deity, and they are believed to have originally come from another world. They use crystal magic, and one elf dwells below the Champion's Guild as the elven champion. Along with these elves are "Dark Elves" who have turned against the elves to worship the god Zamorak. Also, mourners in Ardougne city are elves.

The elves of Glorantha (setting for the role-playing games RuneQuest and HeroQuest) share little with Tolkien's elves but their connection with forests and their preference of archery - they are mobile, humanoid plants.

Countering the Tolkien tradition

Conversely, elves of the Tolkien mould have become standardized staple characters of modern fantasy to such an extent that breaking the norms for how an elf is supposed to be and behave has become an end in itself.

Wendy and Richard Pini's "Elfquest" comics (and novels) have elves descended from non-corporeal spacefarers, adapted to the world where they were stranded first by magic, then in part by a shapechanger crossbreeding with wolves, and breeding that bloodline with some of the original elves. The resulting wolfrider elves are diminutive in stature and have a neolithic culture (trading few metal items with other races).

An early example of this would possibly be the Krynnish elves of the Dragonlance series. Although superficially similar to standard fantasy elves, these elves were much more morally ambiguous and less consistently sympathetic, and were prone to blaming humans for any calamities which occurred in the world, as well as engaging in periodic bouts of genocidal conflict.

The parodical "Discworld" novels by Terry Pratchett feature extradimensional creatures called elves, that go back to the old myths of cradle-robbing fairies. The Discworld elves have no imagination or real emotions, and therefore such things as children, artists and musicians fascinate them. They also have copper based blood and are extremely vulnerable to iron (as it disrupts their finely-tuned magnetism-based senses), and therefore use stone-headed elf-shot for their arrows. Though actually only vaguely humanoid in appearance, they bewitch humans with their "glamour", making themselves seem incomparably fair and godlike, and worthy of our worship. Eventually, they subdue us through sheer charisma, and only strength of mind and avoiding superstition (which they feed on) can keep them at bay. Elves in Pratchett's world represent the dangers of submitting oneself uncritically to the supernatural. The books "Lords and Ladies" and "The Wee Free Men" are about an encounter with "the fair folk".

The best-selling "Harry Potter" book series by J. K. Rowling features elves who are slaves that resemble brownies or goblins more than modern high fantasy elves. Rather like the elves ("Wichtelmänner" in the German tale) in "The Shoemaker and the Elves", Rowling's house-elves are released from servitude when they are given clothes. They also speak in the third person.

"Radiata Stories" features beings called Light Elves which have an appearance more like a fairy or pixie than of a traditional elf.

Elves in the best-selling "Artemis Fowl" series are portrayed quite differently from those in Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings". Being only about three feet in height, elves have pointed ears and are at least fifty years ahead of human technology. They have guns and are quite different from the normal fairy tale elf. They are intelligent and have a strong sense of what is right and what isn't. They love flying both in crafts and with mechanical wings. The main elves in the Artemis Fowl series are Captain Holly Short and Commander Julius Root.

In Robert A. Heinlein's science fiction novel "The Puppet Masters", a race of methane-breathing elf-like beings inhabit Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. There elves are described as being a bit smaller than humans and having "a little rosebud mouth, which seems always smiling". They fall victim to terrifying slug-like parasites, capable of attaching themselves to any living being and completely controlling him, her or it. The parasites, riding on elves' shoulders, then try to do the same on Earth but are repulsed after much fighting, and at the end of the book humans head for Titan to settle accounts with the parasites and try to save the elves.

In Mercedes Lackey's SERRAted edge universe elves are tied to humans. Neither race can live without the other, unlike Tolkien's aloof and separate elves. Also the elves in her universe work on and race cars professionally, not something usually seen in high fantasy.

In Elizabeth Moon's trilogy The Deed of Paksenarrion features, as well as elves of the Tolkien type, another kind called the iynisin or the unsingers. Where the elves believe the singer made the world so they sing to make things, the iynisin try to unsing creation, corrupt and destroy.

In the comic book series Poison Elves, writer/artist Drew Hayes depicted elves as rogues, thieves, and killers rather than the peace loving forest dwellers depicted by Tolkien. His central character, Lusiphur is a trench coat wearing, urban creature more apt to sulk in a tavern than frolic and sing in the woods. An assassin, Lusiphur is prone to fits of violence — often slaughtering hordes for the slightest insult or minor inconvenience. His weapons alternate between knives and swords and a magic pistol with an unlimited supply of ammunition (rather than the longbow associated with characters such as Tolkien's Legolas).

In the Warcraft series, the High Elves, a Tolkien-modeled society, experience a fall from grace when their homeland is overrun by the undead Scourge. Their seeming perfection is revealed to be full of holes, as a latent addiction to magical forces begins to corrupt the few surviving members of their race. Eventually, they become the Blood Elves, taking on a vengeful mindset and gradually becoming dependent on demonic magic to sate their addiction. Most telling about the change in their character is that they have apparently enslaved a being of pure Light in order to gain powers normally reserved for the good-hearted Paladins.

In the universe, the elves trade in their divinity and immortality for a greater affinity with nature. they are often shown shunning all manner of artifice and metal, instead favoring weapons made of wood and trained animals. their knowledge of magic shifts from the classic arcane spellcasting and focuses on nature aligned spells such as blending in, animating wood, controlling animals, and entering predatory rages. a notable exception is the Lorwyn elves, who's obsession with beauty occludes everything else.

Elves on the Big Screen

Crow the elf is arguably the most memorable character in the 1980 swords and sorcery film "Hawk the Slayer", with his "rapid-fire/machine-gun-action" archery skills.

In the 1986 fantasy film "Legend", a young lad is aided in his quest to save a unicorn by a band of wood elves, most notably their leader, Honeythorn Gump.

And as mentioned earlier in this article, Orlando Bloom portrayed a live-action version of the Elven prince Legolas Greenleaf in Peter Jackson's critically-acclaimed "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy of films.


*Tad Williams's "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" trilogy focuses heavily on a long-lived, fair-skinned, magical race known as the Sithi, which are described as elves in all but name.

*Christopher Paolini's "Inheritance Trilogy" also features elves of a highly Tolkienesque persuasion.

*Wendy and Richard Pini's long-running comic books "Elfquest" attempts to avoid the usual Tolkienesque elven clichés by placing their elves in a setting inspired by Native American rather than European mythology. It later turns out that the elves are actually the descendants of a shape-shifting alien race rather than mythological beings.

*Arguably the most popular elf of recent fantasy literature is Drizzt Do'Urden, the Drow hero of R. A. Salvatore's acclaimed Forgotten Realms-based fantasy novels.

*Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry series includes both lios alfar (light elves) and swart alfar (dark elves), using variations on the original Norse or Icelandic terms. They play parts corresponding, respectively, to Tolkien's Elves and to his Goblins (a.k.a. Orcs).

*Gael Baudino's Strands of Starlight series centers around elves who appear human, aside from slightly pointed ears. Formed by the living universe at the earth's inception for healing and aid to all living creatures, they can be killed and die from grief, but do not die of old age. Their spiritual powers allow them to change the physical world at will, see in the dark, talk to plants and animals, heal anything short of death, and see the future and past. Natil, the eldest of them, is four and a half billion years old.

ee also

* Elf (for elves of folklore and mythology)
* Aldryami
* Avariel (winged elves)
* Dark Eldar (Warhammer 40,000)
* Dark elf
* Drow
* Elf (Dungeons & Dragons)
* Fey'ri
* Eldar (Warhammer 40,000)
* Elenari
* Elvaan
* Elves (Elfquest)
* Elf (Middle-earth)
* Elvish language
* Hylian
* High elf
* High Elves (Warhammer)
* House-elf
* Mer (elf races of The Elder Scrolls)
* Sithi
* Wood elf
* Wood elves (Warhammer)


External links

* [http://www.the-avariel.com www.The-Avariel.com] Forum for the design of Avariel Elf winged costumes.
* [http://www.camelotherald.com/article.php?id=116 Sidhe (Dark Age of Camelot)]
* [http://druchii-war.proboards56.com Druchii-war] Lore & Roleplay

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