Infernal Elves

Elf2

There was a bit of a discussion yesterday on Twitter, about elves. Specifically, Alex of Cirsova was musing about the D&D alignment systems and how traditionally, under a three-point system (Good-Neutral-Evil), Evil and Chaotic would be pretty much the same thing.

This is because in more traditional source material (folk lore, legend, myth) and older stories, elves fell under the “fey” umbrella. All those creatures – fairies, elves, dwarves, leprechauns, trolls – were generally lumped together as otherworldly and ungodly.

They were evil insofar as they were pagan spirits, perilous and soulless. In many older stories, elves in particular would make sport of bewitching and ensnaring humans when able. They would steal babies and lure men to their timeless hedonistic fetes under the hills or in fairy woods.

fairy ring

In Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, elves are one of the chief forces of Chaos, appealing to the protagonist’s lust and desire for comfort and cheer in an attempt to beguile and distract him while the war against Law rages on without him.

In Francis Steve’s “Elf Trap,” the elves masquerade as a dirty band of gypsies, revealing their true nature only to a select few, like the poor professor who is caught in the titular snare by a beautiful elf princess. He escapes once, but ultimately loses his life to their wiles.

So what changed?

While I don’t blame Tolkien, I think The Lord of the Rings was the start. The elves of The Hobbit were indeed treacherous and strange, but their kin in Tolkien’s followup story were fair and upright and fought on the side of the good.

LOTR

What with all the proliferation of Tolkien-pastiche and Forgotten Realms-style D&D stories and games (which I must note are not true to the roots of D&D) over the years, elves have become little more than golden-haired, pointy-eared men skilled with magic or bows. They are gypsies and hippies, basically.

It’s unfortunate, because it’s diminished the graveness and the potency that the elf once commanded.

Elf

4 Comments

  1. Rereading Tolkien and reading Dunsany for the first time, it is easy to see how Tolkien’s elves led to the boring, beige elves of today. Both wrote elves with a certain fey otherworldliness to them, but it was much more subdued with Tolkien. His imitators could write elves that were basically 90% the same but different in kind because they dropped that aspect (which I never really noticed until this year).

  2. For whatever it’s worth, I recall reading that according to late medieval legend the king of the elves “tithed” 10% of his people to the Devil every year.

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