ELVES, PART III: Magical Viking Supermodels

Älvalek

PART I: Stealing Creatively

PART II: Sociopaths from Another World

Changing gears from last time, we’re going to dig a little deeper with elves. We’ve already established that “elf” was eventually used to refer to fairies in Anglo-Saxon England, but it has a much older history. There’s a bit of argument about its ultimate origins, but generally the tradition is traced back to the word “alfar” or “alf” on Old Norse. The alfar in Norse myth are enigmatic bunch. While dwarves, trolls, giants and gods get a lot of attention, the alfar don’t. They have a few scattered references here or there in the different sagas and eddas. Still, we can piece together a general overview.

The alfar, or more specifically the “liosalfar” or “light elves” are a race of spirits who live in the heavenly realms with the gods, specifically the realm called Alfheim (“elf-home”), which is ruled by the god Freyr, a fertility figure associated with the sun, rainfall, horses, and boars. Alfar are strongly associated with the sun, being described relative to it, as in the expression that they are “as beautiful as the sun.” They are also connected with ancestor worship and burial mounds, with the implication that sometimes that dead humans can become alfar. Humans can interbreed with them (a few of the Icelandic sagas mention half-elves), so they have some physicality. At the same time, they have various supernatural powers such as passing through walls like ghosts, or the ability to heal wounds and cure illness. They are often described as being superior to humans, but only in the sense that they are more beautiful and mighty, not in terms of morality of character. In fact, they are often compared to dwarves, seeming to have a sort of binary relationship to them, with the elves being tall and beautiful and the dwarves being stunted and ugly; the term dark/black elves is sometimes used to describe dwarves, further emphasizing the link. Indeed, this is likely where Tolkien got the idea for his dwarf/elf feud, which has survived into later fantasy works.

So, that’s a bit of a long backstory. What do we have? Well, the alfar were a race of semi-divine spirit beings living separately from humanity is the long and short of it. This is not a version of them you see very often in fiction. Elements of it crop up now and then, but they often include plenty of Tolkienisms. This means you can go hogwild. There are so many gaps in the stories about the alfar that you can fill them in with whatever you like. As modern fiction goes, this side of elves is relatively virgin territory.

If you want to base your elves on the alfar, there are many ways you can go. First off, how physical are they? Given the “walking through walls” thing they may be spirit-beings, likes ghosts or angels. Being heavenly in nature, maybe they can even fly. Second, where do they live? They could reside in their own heavenly realm, or just a realm cut off from humanity by magical or natural barriers. Finally, you need to establish how they interact with the other non-elves in your setting, whether they’re servant-spirits of the gods, or just another nation and culture like ours.

Once the basics are down, it’s time to have fun. One special place you can play in is appearance. Norse myth doesn’t really describe the alfar beyond general terms; they look like humans, only better. Keep in mind, that’s by Norse standards of beauty. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think they imagined male elves as probably big and strapping, likely with beards. Pointed ears, a common elf trait in fiction, are never mentioned, so you could feel free to throw them out.

You could also play with the whole “light” aspect. Perhaps their hair colors all reflect different shades of the sun at different times of day. Hell, maybe so does their skin. You could have different ethnic groups of elves, ranging from dawn to noon to dusk. You could also play this into their supernatural qualities. For example, perhaps they become invisible when no light is present, or perhaps they emit a corona of light at all times. That last one is a great storytelling gimmick; if an elf has no control over his glow he’ll have a hard time hiding, if the situation calls for it, which could lead to drama. Conversely, perhaps he can control it, increasing the intensity so much that he can blind nearby enemies. If you want to go with them having heavenly origins, perhaps elves dress in heavenly colors of blue and white. That could have entire wardrobes based around all the different shades you see in clouds.

Then there’s culture. If elves are spirits that rub shoulders with the gods then perhaps their society is mostly peaceful because the gods provide for them in return for service.  They might have elvish servants and soldiers in great numbers. Or, on the other hand, consider the myth of Gimle. In Norse mythology, Gimle is an ornate, beautiful hall that will be one of the few places to survive the devastation of Ragnarok, providing shelter to the last humans alive so they can spawn a new civilization. Gimle is sometimes placed in the heavenly realms, populated in elves, who would presumably shelter there as well, in greater numbers. In post-Tolkien fiction elves are often depicted as an elder race, slowly being supplanted by humanity and sometimes resentful of it. What if instead they were destined to inherit the world after man mostly dies off? You could have elves who feel it’s time to speed destiny up a bit and get humans out of the way, and that’s a plot dynamic right there.

The alfar maybe a bit too divorced from the traditional elves of high fantasy literature to appeal to some people. Still, the vague and spotty history of the alfar in folklore allows you to include plenty of other ideas. You can always take the parts of the alfar tradition you like and leave the rest. The greatest strength of this approach is freedom. It’s a version of elves that fewer people are familiar with, which means you can surprise the reader, playing with the definition of what an elf is, while still using and drawing inspiration from the myths and legends that ultimately made elves so enduring in the first place.

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