ELVES, PART IV: The Little People will Shank You


PART I: Stealing Creatively

PART II: Sociopaths from Another World

PART III: Magical Viking Supermodels

We’ve discussed elves as fairies, and we’ve discussed the older origins of elves, but there’s a third and very obvious option left. It is also probably the least popular. You see, there’s a funny trend with mythological creatures. Initially, when they’re believed in, they’re tall and threatening and powerful. As belief wanes and they become less important to the culture that created them they tend to shrink in stature and become more mischievous or annoying. It’s a pattern that you can see with fairies, trolls, Japanese tengu, and countless others. It’s one major reason why today fairies are generally thought to be diminutive creatures. It’s why when the concept of Santa’s elves was introduced in the 1800s, people accepted it matter-of-factly.

For a long, long part of its history in Anglo-Saxon and later English culture, “elf” often referred to diminutive fairies. They were mischievous and sneaky, often as amoral as traditional fairies, living in forests and under hills, or in an otherworldly elfland. Unexplained tangles in the hair of humans and animals were thought to be made by elves and were called “elf-locks.” Unexplained diseases or mental illness was explained as the result of “elfshot,” invisible arrows fired by the small creatures. Neolithic stone arrows heads were sometimes explained as evidence of elfshot.

J.R.R. Tolkien was drawing strongly on this tradition when he created hobbits. Hobbits have no direct counterpart in folklore, but are rather used to bleed off the “little people” side of elves in a lot of ways. They’re small, in tune with nature, live under grassy hills, are so stealthy as to encourage a reputation for invisibility, are handy with hunting bows, and are often depicted as having the same pointed ears as Tolkien’s elves. He’s also not the only fantasy author to have used elements of the little people. The comic book “Elfquest” has small elves (though they end up being psychic aliens), George R.R. Martin’s Children of the Forest bear a number of similarities, and of course the Harry Potter series had house elves. Still, it’s a largely unpopular approach in fantasy literature, especially high fantasy literature. Tolkien took great pains to make elves seem less quaint or childish and many of his disciples have taken this to heart. The tradition remains, however, and can provide a wealth of inspiration to the writer willing to mine it.

One simple approach is to have both the tall elves and the small elves exist simultaneously, being merely different types of elf. The tall ones might be the elven aristocracy, with the small ones acting as servants or minions who steal babies and enchant mortals for their masters’ pleasure. The Irish poet WB Yeats classified fairies into “trooping fairies” and “solitary fairies” along similar lines. In this regard the smaller elves are essentially leprechauns, hobgoblins, brownies, and all manner of smaller fairies. Alternatively, you could make the idea that elves used to be bigger a prominent part of your story. Perhaps they fed on belief and as it diminished so did they, or perhaps as humanity shoved them into the hidden corners of the world they became shadows of their former selves. In this case they may be resentful of humanity, which certainly explains all the elfshot.

Even moreso than the alfar or fairy approaches, the little people approach is suited towards a very physical race. The alfar and fairy version of elves I’ve previously described draw on traditions that depict elves as more like spirits, and trying to make them into a physical species that shares the Earth with others is doable but requires you to tweak or drop other interesting aspects of the tradition and sometimes you lose good options in the process. The little people elves, however, can exist underfoot almost without notice. They may live amongst humans, offering helpful services, fixing shoes and mending clothes. They may live deep in the forests, striking down trespassers with little arrows or bargaining with them for goods before allowing passage. They can be as magical or as mundane as you like. They may be invisible and capable of curses, controlling animals, and shapeshifting. Or maybe they’re simply so small and full of guile that they inspire legends of magical powers, which they may encourage to ensure their privacy. Perhaps “elfshot” symptoms are just the result of a nasty poison they coat their arrows it.

As for their origins, they could be fairies exiled from the otherworld, or they could simply be a small race who evolved on their own. They could even be stunted humans, warped by magic or natural phenomena. That last one would be a good explanation for why they might steal babies, for if they have the capability to transform them into other elves, it would be a way to survive when times are tough and numbers are low.

Culture could vary widely. If you went with approach of elves being divided into fairy peasantry/aristocracy you have an easy inspiration in actual historical peasants. The smaller elves could be very rustic, practical, down to earth types, not dissimilar to Tolkien’s hobbits in attitude. Elves living amongst humans could wear clothes and have possessions scavenged from human belongings. Forest elves could run the gamut from being a primitive race clad in leaves and furs to a hidden society with intricate hidden cities woven into the trees or built into the hills. One thing you could play with is size. Just how small are they? By the time of Shakespeare, they were thought to be only a few inches tall, riding on birds and living in hollow trees. Scaling up, maybe they’re several feet tall and riding deer like horses. Or maybe they can change their shape at will, throwing the distinction between big and small elves out the window entirely.

The options are limitless. Elves do not have to be something you scavenge from other, better writers. They can be your own creation. Myths and folklore have been around for centuries, and they are constantly being re-interpreted. Why stick with one re-interpretation made by somebody else? Start your own, mixing and matching all three of the concepts I’ve outlined, or go out and find books of fairy folklore or Norse sagas and find a different framework altogether. Elves are popular in fantasy fiction, but they are not a single monolithic concept, and in exploring some of their different facets I hope I’ve given you some ideas for how to approach them differently, whether you’re writing a book, a game, a script, or just messing around with your imagination. And, if you liked what you’ve read so far, I hope you stick around for the next installment, which will be on a different topic altogether.


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