Posts Tagged 'Fairies & Elves'

Beware Old Man Willow


The poem in the above picture is, supposedly, an excerpt from a Somerset folk-song. I say “supposedly” because the source is one Ruth Tongue. Ms. Tongue was an invaluable source of Somerset folklore, publishing numerous books, but she was not a trained researcher, she was a storyteller. As a result, it’s hard to tell if some of her works are genuine folklore or her own creations, and I’ve never been able to find a full copy of the song this excerpt comes from.

Nevertheless, it reflects a genuine belief in British folklore that different trees had supernatural properties. Elm trees were thought to grieve for one another; if one elm died, another nearby may as well. Oaks were thought to be vengeful, and a coppiced oak grove, grown from the stumps of oaks cut down by humans, was not a safe place to be, especially if a carpet of bluebells lay beneath it; that meant it might be home to hostile, dwarf-like nature spirits called Oakmen. Willow trees were more dangerous still, uprooting themselves after dark to follow people around, muttering dark threats.

There are many other such beliefs, aside from the ones in this poem. Oaks were also reputed to wail when cut. Hawthrown trees were supposed to be fairy-haunted. Yew trees were associated with death, and nothing was supposed to grow around them; this one might have some basis in fact, as yew leaves are toxic. There’s a story about a sacred elder tree in Borrisokane that if anyone  tried to burn part of it for firewood, their house would be consumed in an inferno.

This is just a sampling of such beliefs. It simply goes to show that cultures that believed in magic saw it everywhere. Modern fiction sometimes presents the world as if there is nature (which functions according to science and physics as we understand it) and then the supernatural (which does not) but genuine magical beliefs tended not to make this distinction. The magic of trees is just one small example of this philosophy.


DWARVES, PART III: Kings Under the Earth (Who Can Also Comfortably Walk Under Your Kitchen Table)

Dietrich fängt den Zwerg Alfrich by Johannes Gehrts

PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

PART II: Maggot-Men of the Mountains

Scandinavia was one of the last regions in Europe to adopt Christianity, and even then it was a slow process. It was a top-down conversion, with kings and lords embracing the new ways first (often for politically advantageous reasons), and while their subjects might nominally do the same, they frequently did not do so in practice. The old ways endured, but they were altered. Saints were mixed up with old gods or heroes, priests changed the dates of holidays to work with existing pagan festivals, and so on. A lot of compromise and practicality was involved, as well as the occasional burning-at-the-stake.

The same process applies to mythical creatures as well. Spirits and monsters didn’t tie directly into the religion, so it was a little easier to hang onto them than the old gods, especially if a Christian rationale could be created. For example, supernatural spirits who were once probably elves or landvaettir were explained away as the descendants of children of Adam and Eve, who an embarrassed Eve hid from god after forgetting to bathe them. Evidently God was feeling a bit dickish that day, and he turned the children invisible. The hidden people were created. This probably included dwarves, though we don’t have a specific Christian rationale for their origins. Regardless, the pagan Scandinavians might have once imagined dwarves as human-sized earth spirits, with ghostly pale skin and a tendency to explode in sunlight, but that concept evolved.

Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART III: Kings Under the Earth (Who Can Also Comfortably Walk Under Your Kitchen Table)’

BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS: Irish Fairy & Folk Tales

In this series, I’ve talked a lot about books that are purely reference material, providing overviews and general information about their chosen topics. While these sorts of books are fine, if you really want to plumb the depths of folklore you need to read the actual folktales, and I’d like to introduce you to some good collections of them. I’ve talked about fairies a number of times on this blog, including in last week’s list of defenses against the supernatural, so let’s start with a book about them.

Continue reading ‘BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS: Irish Fairy & Folk Tales’

SUPERNATURAL DEFENSES: You’re Gonna Need a Red Shirt and a Cage Full of Birds

The magic circle, by John William Waterhouse

If you’re writing a story about supernatural dangers, you don’t want things ending in the first few pages, so the characters may need some reliable ways to defend themselves. Folklore and legend are chock full of various ways to do this, so per a reader request, I’ve spent the last week digging up some good ones for your use.

These remedies and protections can be played in a lot of different ways in a story. Sure, you could use them as described, but you could also just make them a point of cultural interest, or use their symbolism in a story otherwise devoid of magic. You could undermine them as well, foreshadowing the one crucial defense against a monster, only for the hero to find out it’s all a lot of hot air at the worst possible time. Plus, if you want to create some original otherwordly threat for your story, these might be a good jumping off point for creating your own defenses against it.

Continue reading ‘SUPERNATURAL DEFENSES: You’re Gonna Need a Red Shirt and a Cage Full of Birds’

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.

Continue reading ‘ELVES, PART IV: The Little People will Shank You’

ELVES, PART III: Magical Viking Supermodels


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.

Continue reading ‘ELVES, PART III: Magical Viking Supermodels’

ELVES, PART II: Sociopaths from Another World


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.

Continue reading ‘ELVES, PART II: Sociopaths from Another World’