ELVES, PART II: Sociopaths from Another World

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PART I: Stealing Creatively

Cultural views of fairies have changed a lot over the centuries. Once, they were viewed as spirits or beings that looked like humans, only more beautiful and powerful, who lived across the sea or under the earth in an otherworld of eternal spring. They could be terrible or friendly, depending on their mood. Fairyland was notably out of sync with our world, only allowing fairies to visit our world at certain places or times.

For the most part Tolkien’s elves take their cues from fairy folklore. They’re tall, beautiful, and immortal, live under hills[1], or in deep forests[2], or in great shining cities[3]. Time passes differently in their realms[4]. They even have a weird combination of heaven and fairyland out at sea in the form of Valinor[5], very clearly inspired by the Irish tradition that the fairies lived in enchanted islands far out in the Atlantic Ocean.

I could go on and on about the parallels, but the fact of the matter is what’s more interesting is what Tolkien chose to change. The Fair Folk are generally very mercurial in folklore and are less benevolent compared to Tolkien’s elves. Moreover, while Tolkien’s elves do things that seem magical to the people around them, they are decidedly less magical than traditional fairies, who could change their shape (or yours) at whim, could conjure castles of glass, bewitched knights, stole babies and switched them with changelings, and much, much more.

Now, several fictional settings have already used the term “elf” to refer to the taller, more old fashioned sort of fairy, notably Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics (and the associated movies), and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. They, like Tolkien, picked and chose what stuff they kept and what they didn’t. If you want to write fantasy, there’s no reason you can’t do the same.

For example, you could choose to just make “fairy” and “elf” synonymous, two names for the same sort of otherworld being. This is more or less the historical use; Tolkien used “elf” the way he did because it was a word that the Anglo-Saxons adopted for fairies. On the other hand, you could choose to delineate, explaining that there are many kinds of fairies, with elves being only the tall humanesque kind, as opposed to leprechauns, goblins, pixies, and the like. One area that gives you a lot of freedom is just what fairies are, and where they came from. In Irish myth they were a mysterious race from across the sea. In the Middle Ages, the Church’s policy was that they were demons, though various folk beliefs said differently. Really, you can go hog-wild here. Are your elves physical beings or airy spirits? Have they always been around, or did they show up at a specific point? Just how powerful do you want them to be?

The other big thing is how they interact with humans or any other races you choose to include. Fairies are traditionally very unpredictable. Do you want to stick with that for your elves? Well, if you do, why are they like that? Perhaps they have no emotions of their own and simply imitate human feelings out of a bizarre attempt to understand us, oscillating from destructive to helpful in the blink of an eye. Or perhaps their emotions are more primal and powerful than ours, and are difficult to control. Location is a big issue for how they interact with their neighbors. They might live in a magical, otherworldly Elfland, or they may just live in a secluded, magically charged country, far from prying eyes. Do elves trade and have diplomacy with humans, or are they a mysterious race that humans rarely encounter?

One common fairy behavior in folklore is that they steal human babies, leaving changelings (old, withered fairies or inanimate objects made to look like the stolen child, via magical illusions) in their place. Stolen babies are a nice bit of drama for a story. There’s a few different explanations for this behavior in folklore. One is that fairies are a dying elder race and need to infuse their blood with the vigor of human beings, to sustain their species. Another is that while they are not demons, they are beholden to the devil and must pay a yearly tithe of sacrifices to hell. You could use either of these explanations, or come up with your own.

There’s also the big question of how their magical powers play into things. If they can conjure a castle out of the ether, what kind of economy do they have? They wouldn’t need labor or servants to build things or cook them dinner if they can just snap their fingers and make palaces and feasts appear.

This is just basic stuff.  You get even more options available to you as you develop elven culture and individual characters. They may have one culture, or a plethora. Traditionally, fairy culture is very similar to that of human nobles, and you could play with the reasoning behind that. Are elves imitating us, or is it the other way around? Try creating multiple elven nations or kingdoms (either in our world or in Elfland), each with some different ethnic or regional traits. Once you’ve established some baseline elements of their culture, then you can start constructing individual characters. The imperious elf queen who views humans as little more than animals, the elfin knight who has fallen madly and passionately in love with a mortal woman, the exiled elf who wanders human kingdoms as a minstrel.

There’s also no reason you need to limit yourself to a high fantasy setting. There’s always urban fantasy. The Dresden Files books have done a good job of using old school fairies in their own way. If you want to use elves in the modern day, you still have all the old questions with the added one of how they are (or aren’t) coping with the 21st Century.

All these different questions, all these different elements, can be mixed and matched in thousands of different ways. There’s no excuse for re-using Tolkien’s elves (or anybody else’s) when he was drawing on such a rich cultural tradition that is just as wide open to you. It is said there are no truly original ideas anymore, but there can always be new combinations of ideas, and the ones I’ve described above are just a fraction of what’s available. You just need to do a bit of digging, to get under the surface of what others have written, and reach the roots.

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[1] The Elf King’s hall in The Hobbit, Nargothrond in The Silmarillion

[2] The forest of Mirkwood in the Hobbit, Lothlorien in The Lord of the Rings

[3] The city of Gondolin in The Silmarillion

[4] A month seems like three days in Lorien to the heroes of The Lord of the Rings

[5] LotR, The Silmarillion

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1 Response to “ELVES, PART II: Sociopaths from Another World”


  1. 1 Wraith April 13, 2013 at 11:57 am

    Folklore has many, many interesting versions of elves you can spin a story around without meeting the seemingly standard Tolkien references. Given how ingrained those have become in fantasy fiction, a smart author can really play with his audience’s expectations by having his own elves be quite different than they are assumed to be at first!


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