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.
"Evil" acts would tend to be chaotic because they undermine the commonweal. But fey creatures undermine simply by existing because they are blasphemous. The cows give sour milk and fruits wither on the vine by virtue of proximity to fey.
— Cirsova Goblin Disrespector Magazine [subs open] (@cirsova) October 17, 2018
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.
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.
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.