Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The word "elf" comes from the Saxon ælf, derived from the Nordic "Alfar", one of several groupings of Dwarfs. However, in Celtic myth elves are more closely related to the world of Faerie, which makes them creatures of light and air, whereas dwarfs are creatures of darkness and earth. In early Folktales there is considerable overlap between the two "species", and the mischievous attributes of dwarfs may be equally possessed by elves – especially brownies and pixies. Goblins and leprechauns are more dwarflike beings, but have many of the attributes of faerie folk. Elves, certainly as depicted by J R R Tolkien but also as portrayed in some early Fairytales, tend to be more graceful than dwarfs, are seemingly ageless, and are generally not warlike. The elf race splits between good and bad, just like the faerie realm. In Nordic myth the good elves live in Alfheim while the black (bad) elves live in Svartheim. The Svarts are shown as dwarfs or goblins; this manifestation was used by Alan Garner in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963).

In Die Elfen (1811) Ludwig Tieck depicted an Elfland indistinguishable from Faerie and with the same time displacement (> Time in Faerie). Throughout the Victorian period, elves and fairies are interchangeable. A subset of fictional elves – brownies – were considered to appeal particularly to children. Brownies derive from Scottish Folklore, where they are depicted as helpful faerie folk who attach themselves to a household and assist in running it; if they are offended, though, their mischievous side surfaces and they become hobgoblins (> Goblins). They are portrayed in this way as elves by the Grimm Brothers in "The Elves and the Shoemaker" (1812); James Hogg described them in "The Brownie of Black Haggs" (1828); memories of these tales inspired Juliana Ewing (1841-1885), who depicted them in "The Brownies" (1865 Monthly Packet). This suggested the idea of calling helpful children "brownies", which is how the name was eventually adopted into the Girl Guides in 1919. Brownies were also popularized in the USA by Palmer Cox (1840-1924) with his illustrated brownie poems in St Nicholas Magazine, which later appeared in the first of several books, The Brownies: Their Book (coll 1887). The popularity of these books meant that the brownie was firmly entrapped in the realm of Children's Fantasy.

It was not until the 20th century that authors sought to establish elves as a distinct part of Faerie, especially as it gave an opportunity to use faerie folk but to distinguish the stories from Fairytales and brownie tales. Elves thus became acceptable adult "packaging" for fairies, and in that sense brought certain adult attributes with them. 20th-century elves ceased to be playful and mischievous: they became secret guardians of Faerie, aristocratic and full of the wisdom of the ancient world. Lord Dunsany took readers some way there in The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924), and Poul Anderson went much further in The Broken Sword (1954), but the transformation was completed by J R R Tolkien, particularly in The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). Tolkien's image of elves now dominates most Genre Fantasy. Typical examples are: the parallel elfin world in Kingdoms of Elfin (coll 1977) by Sylvia Townsend Warner; the haughty Sidhe in Greg Bear's Songs of Earth and Power sequence; the Alfar novels by Elizabeth Boyer; the Elvish sequence by Nancy Berberick; the Arafel tales by C J Cherryh, about the last surviving elf; Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett; and the Elfquest stories by Wendy and Richard Pini.

Other authors have portrayed Wainscots of elves surviving in our world; Jane Curry's Beneath the Hill sequence is a finely structured example. In his creation of the Borribles in The Borribles (1976) and its sequels, Michael de Larrabeiti returned to the original mischievous image of elves.

Different aspects of elves and their kin are covered in the anthologies Little People! (anth 1991) ed Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois (1947-    ) and Smart Dragons, Foolish Elves (anth 1991) ed Alan Dean Foster and Martin H Greenberg. [MA]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.