ELVES, PART I: Stealing Creatively

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The modern fantasy genre draws on a lot of disparate literary sources, from Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter to Robert Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories, but the biggest of all is J.R.R. Tolkien. He really solidified the concept of a fantasy world, apart from our own, set in a quasi-medieval period where humankind interacted with supernatural forces. One particular element he made commonplace was the visualization of supernatural creatures as just another sort of people, made of flesh and blood, with their own cultures and traditions.

This brings us to elves. In fantasy settings these days you’re bound to run into at least one of four mythical creatures, guaranteed: elves, dwarves, dragons, and sometimes orcs. Or, at the very least, something so similar it’s hard to tell the difference.  Elves were a big part of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and they were a very particular type. You probably know it well, if you’ve read his works; pointy ears, loves nature, good with the bow and arrow, big on arts and crafts.  You have also, most likely, seen them in plenty of places other than Tolkien’s books, the Dungeons and Dragons games probably being the most notable.

Tolkien was mainly drawing from Celtic and Teutonic traditions, mixing elements of folklore and myth, stripping away a lot of the more overtly magical stuff, and hammering out something he liked. Unfortunately, most fantasy writers seem to have simply copied his model and then tweaked it by adding or subtracting elements from it, as opposed to going back to the source material Tolkien was working from.

This is, simply put, derivative. It’s taking the original creation one author painstakingly created without bothering to make the effort of creating something all your own. Things don’t have to be that way. If you want to use elves in your stories, there’s no reason you can’t look back at the myth and folklore yourself and create your own version. In the interest of helping you to do exactly that, over the next three updates I will be posting three different ways to tackle elves from three different perspectives.

You see, Tolkien drew on his inspiration for elves from three primary sources: Celtic myth and legend, Norse myth and legend, and Anglo-Saxon folklore, and the history of elves as a concept is tied up with all three. Every version of the creatures you’ve heard of is somewhere in there, from Santa’s helpers to Orlando Bloom. Join me next week as we look at elves in the Celtic tradition, which is the one that probably influenced Tolkien the most.

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1 Response to “ELVES, PART I: Stealing Creatively”


  1. 1 Saronai April 21, 2013 at 10:19 am

    I love elves so much, in all their forms, even if they’re derivatives of Tolkien elves. However, one of the best pieces of feedback I ever received was from a writing buddy who challenged the elves in my own works (which were similar makes but drew on the source lore as opposed to Tolkien). I am much more happy now with my kyri races (named for the writing buddy whose challenge helped make them more than the same old elves) and doubt anyone could accuse them of being Tolkienesque elves with a different name.

    In short, I’d agree with your thoughts on trying to create something inspired by primary source rather than a derivative of someone else’s primary source-inspired creations :).


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