Elves in fiction

A recent interpretation of a fantasy elf, from the Wesnoth fantasy setting

In many works of modern fantasy, elves are depicted as a race of semi-divine humanoid beings.

Characteristics and common features

Modern fantasy literature has revived the elves as a race of semi-divine beings of human stature who are friendly with nature and animals. Although the álfar of Norse mythology has influenced the concept of elves in fantasy, the elves are different from Norse and the traditional elves found in Middle Ages folklore and Victorian era literature.

A hallmark of fantasy elves is also their long and pointed ears (a convention begun with a note of Tolkien's that the ears of elves were "leaf-shaped").[1] The length and shape of these ears varies depending on the artist or medium in question. Post-Tolkien fantasy elves (popularized by the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game) tend to be immortal or longeval in comparison to humans, more beautiful and wiser, with sharper senses and perceptions, and abilities or crafts that seem alien or magical. Often elves do not possess facial or body hair, are not portrayed fat or old and are consequently perceived to be androgynous.

As a race, Elves are more ancient than humans or other races, mentioned to have flourished in a sort of Golden Age which has been forgotten by other races. That age was often long before other races appeared or were created. Consequently, Elves are often a living relic of a setting's respective fictional mythology and source of its lore.

Half-elves and divergent races of elves, such as high elves and dark elves, were also popularized at this time; in particular, the evil drow of Dungeons & Dragons have inspired the dark elves of many other works of fantasy.

Elves in modern fantasy literature

Early pioneers of the genre such as Lord Dunsany in The King of Elfland's Daughter and Poul Anderson in The Broken Sword featured Norse-style elves. However, the elves found in the works of the 20th-century philologist and fantasy writer J. R. R. Tolkien have formed the view of elves in modern fantasy like no other singular source.

The first appearance of modern fantasy elves occurred in The King of Elfland's Daughter, a 1924 novel by Lord Dunsany. The next modern work featuring elves was The Hobbit, a 1937 novel by J. R. R. Tolkien. Elves played a major role in many of Tolkien's later works, notably The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's elves were followed by grim Norse-style elves of human size in Poul Anderson's 1954 fantasy novel The Broken Sword.

Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954–1955) became extremely popular and was extensively imitated. In the 1960s and afterwards, elves similar to those in Tolkien's novels became staple, non-human characters, in high fantasy works and in fantasy role-playing games. Tolkien's Elves were enemies of goblins (different from orcs) and had a long-standing quarrel with the dwarves; these motifs would re-appear in derivative works.

Tolkien's elves

Main article: Elf (Middle-earth)

Though Tolkien originally conceived his Elves as more fairy-like than they afterwards became, he also based them on the god-like and human-sized Ljósálfar of Norse mythology. His elves were conceived as a race of beings similar in appearance to humans but fairer and wiser, with greater spiritual powers, keener senses, and a closer empathy with nature. They are great smiths and fierce warriors on the side of good.

Tolkien's Elves of Middle-earth are biologically immortal in the sense that they are not vulnerable to disease or the effects of old age (closer to the concept of indefinite lifespan than true immortality). Although they can be killed in battle like humans and may alternately wither away from grief, their spirits only pass to the blessed land in the west called Valinor, whereas humans' souls leave the world entirely.

Tolkien is also responsible for reviving the older and less-used terms elven and elvish rather than Edmund Spenser's invented elfin and elfish (when editors corrected the term to the latter, Tolkien himself was quick to write a correction into the next printing). He probably preferred the word elf over fairy because elf is of Anglo-Saxon origin while fairy entered English from French. He certainly felt the need to differentiate elves, as only one kind of the creatures of faërie, from other inhabitants of that land, and lamented the confusion in English between fairy (faërie) and fairy (fay or elf). Tolkien also wished to distinguish his elves from the diminutive airy-winged fairies popularized by Drayton’s Nymphidia.[2]

The archer Legolas Greenleaf, here portrayed by Orlando Bloom in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, is arguably Tolkien's best known elf.

Like nearly all others in Middle-Earth, rarely do the elves display any kind of "active" magic found in later fantasy works, but are nonetheless deemed "magic" by the lesser races, due to their vast number of superhuman abilities (keen senses such as sharper hearing and sight, even to the point of night vision, resting the mind and travel simultaneously, foresight, some kind of telepathy, power to control nature to some extent, such as summoning floods, and the power to conjure visions of the past).

Items made by the elves also seem to have enhanced properties, such as the Silmarils, the Palantiri, the "Lamps of Noldor" and eventually the Rings of Power.

Other artifacts appearing in The Lord of the Rings are the appealing lembas bread capable of keeping a "traveller on his feet for a day of long labour", the reinvigorating beverage miruvor, the unusual hithlain rope, which is strong, tough, light, long, soft to the hand, packs close and, even seems to unknot itself to one's command. The elven-cloaks the Fellowship receive from the elves were thought to be "magic cloaks" by Pippin, and although the elves neither confirmed nor denied this; those cloaks function similarly to the cloak of invisibility often used in works of fiction. Lord Thranduil of the Mirkwood Elves used "magic doors" to guard his palace, making it almost impossible for anyone to enter or exit against his will. Certain gifts Galadriel gave to the Fellowship of the Ring, such as Frodo's phial and Sam's box of earth from the gardens of Galadriel, also seem to possess magical properties. This elven "magic" is different from the power of Sauron, as Galadriel stated to Frodo and Sam. Dead elves are normally re-embodied after an indefinite period of time – according to Tolkien's Letters and other posthumously published writings.

In the posthumously published The Silmarillion, elves are mentioned as the "firstborn", the first children of Ilúvatar, the god of Tolkien's legendarium. The elves are sorted into two main kindreds: the Eldar and the Avari. The Eldar were divided into three groups: the Vanyar, the Noldor and the Teleri. In Tolkien's writings, the Noldor, the Sindar and the Silvan Elves, the last two being subdivisions of the Teleri, are the most prominent. The elves were summoned by the Valar to live with them in Valinor, long before the appearance of men and flourished in stature, craft and lore.

In "Laws and Customs among the Eldar", published in The History of Middle-earth, Tolkien elaborates on elvish sexuality, reproduction, and sexual norms. The Eldar view the sexual act as extremely special and intimate, for it leads to the conception and birth of children. Extramarital and premarital sex would be considered contradictions in terms, and fidelity between spouses is absolute. Despite their longevity, the Eldar have generally few children with relatively sizable intervals between each child (their numbers are stated to be in steady decline by the Third Age). Their libido eventually wanes and they focus their interests elsewhere, like the arts. Nonetheless, they take great delight in the "union of love", and they consider the period of bearing and raising children as the happiest stage of their lives.

Other examples

Elves in games

Elvish Lands
(Composer: Aleksi Aubry-Carlson)
Example of the style of music generally used to introduce elves in video games and other media.

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Post-Tolkien fantasy elves (popularized by the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game) tend to be beautiful, fair, and close in size to humans (usually taller, sometimes shorter). A hallmark of fantasy elves is also their long and pointed ears. In gaming, and to some extent fantasy literature, elves as a rule have a greater depth of knowledge (especially regarding magic) than their human counterparts, due to a racial inclination as well as their extreme age. Typically, they are also capable warriors. following Legolas, arguably Tolkien's most well-known elf.

As in the Norse lore, elven-human unions and offspring were possible in Tolkien's saga (a notable example being Elrond, the lord of Rivendell), and in many RPGs, half-elven is a possible race for player characters. Fantasy elves frequently divide up into subraces, such as the High Elves, Wood Elves and Dark Elves found in the Warhammer Fantasy game setting. Especially dark elves (popularized by TSR as "drow") are a common theme in many other fantasy games and to some extent literature. Apart from malice, drow or dark elves are often depicted as being dark-skinned and living underground.

In the modern treatment of elves in Dungeons & Dragons, they are divided up into subraces that include Aquatic Elves, Gray Elves, High Elves, Wood Elves, and Drow. The Forgotten Realms campaign setting's elves (or Tel'Quessir as they call themselves) differ still, replacing the High Elves and Gray Elves with Moon or Silver Elves and Sun or Gold Elves, and adding Wild or Green Elves, Star or Mithral Elves and avariel (Winged Elves) to the Aquatic (Sea) Elves, Wood (Copper) Elves, Drow (Dark Elves), and Lythari (elves that transform into wolves).

In the Warhammer Fantasy game setting, the first civilized people of the world were the High Elves (Asur) from the Atlantis-like (though unsunken) island realm of Ulthuan. Early on, the High Elves colonized large parts of the Warhammer world, but following the rise of the Druchii (called "Dark Elves" by others than themselves), a fascistoid movement of corsairs and slavers, the High Elves were plunged into civil war and their power greatly faded. Most of the elves who decided to stay in the colonies took up residence in the deep forests of the Old World, and with time became known as Wood Elves (Asrai). The three kindreds of elves in Warhammer are not separate species but rather separate national groups which epitomise the moral and emotional extremes of the powerful elven psyche – The High Elves are elves at their most noble, morally upright and fair, the Dark elves are elves at their most cruel, vicious and debased. The Wood Elves combine aspects of both in their behaviour, seeming fickle, capricious and dangerously inconstant to outsiders. Unlike Tolkien's elves, those of the Warhammer world are not known to interbreed with humans – a consistent feature of their design in recent years being a concern to differentiate them as much as possible from humans, who they might otherwise begin to resemble too closely. Further, while they may bear physical similarity to the works of Tolkien, GW writers have stated on a number of occasions that their elves where based on the works of Poul Anderson.

Warhammer is also unique in the aspect that Warhammer 40,000, the science fantasy version of the game, features space faring elves under the name of Eldar (a term borrowed from Tolkien) – an ancient race that once served the Old Ones and in the aftermath of a great catastrophe have split into four distinct groups, the Craftworld Eldar, the rustic Eldar Exodites (dinosaur riding eldar in self-imposed exile) the mysterious and acrobatic Harlequins and the fallen kindred, the Dark Eldar.

The universe of the Elder Scrolls computer games also features distinct races of elves (or "Mer" as they refer to themselves) including High Elves (Altmer), Dark Elves (Dunmer), Wood Elves (Bosmer), Wild Elves (Ayleid), ancestors of Dark Elves (Chimer), Snow elves (Falmer), Sea Elves (Maormer), Left-Handed Elves, ancestors of all elves (Aldmer). Interestingly, within the Elder Scrolls both the Dwarves (Dwemer) and the Orcs (Orsimer) are Elven races. However, the Dwemer are not short like other Dwarves and have pointed ears.[3][4]

Azeroth, the fantasy world of the Warcraft computer game series originally featured elves similar to the Warhammer High or Wood Elves. The series introduces the naturalistic purple-skinned Night Elves, who were portrayed more favorably than traditional dark-skinned elves. These elves are the first race to appear in the world of Azeroth; other races of elves descend of them. Despite starting off as magic practitioners, they eventually abandon the use of magic and focus on the powers afforded to them over nature. Starting with Warcraft III, the High-Elves, outcast of the Night Elves, face the destruction of their kingdom, Quel'Thalas, and its capital, Silvermoon. The survivors are thereafter known as Blood Elves and, due to the destruction of the magically-powerful Sunwell, become magic addicts. This faction was at one point part of the alliance alongside the humans, but abandoned the alliance following the events of WarCraft III. Night Elves and Blood Elves are playable races in the World of Warcraft MMORPG.

Nevendaar, the world in the game Disciples II: Dark Prophecy and its expansions features a nation of elves called the Elven Alliance, consisting of the Noble Elves and the Wild Elves, both created by their god Gallean.

Dark Age of Camelot features elves as a playable race in the realm of Hibernia. These elves are supposedly based on the Celtic Sidhe, however bear a striking resemblance to the more human inspired elves of typical D&D fantasy lore.

RuneScape features elves as a race in the game's fictional world of Gielinor. They dwell to the west in the land of Tirannwn. Elves once inhabited much of the Kingdom of Kandarin under Queen Glarial and King Baxtorian, but following the death of Glarial and the disappearance of Baxtorian, retreated west over the mountains, and their continued presence in the world has passed out of the common knowledge of most other races. Some elves mistrust humans, dwarves, gnomes and trolls, and humans may not enter their capital city of Prifddinas. The elves follow the goddess Seren, who led them to Gielinor through the 'World Gate' during the First Age. One elf dwells within the Champions' Guild as the elven champion, while a number of elves serve in the Army Recruitment and Mobilisation Society as formidable wielders of magic. The 'dark elves' of the Iorwerth clan have taken over the elven capital of Prifddinas and turned against the elves to serve a "Dark Lord". Members of the Iorwerth clan are also present in and under the supposedly plague-stricken human city of West Ardougne, disguised as plague doctors. There are also some remaining elves of the other clans, who are now forced to hide as they fight to take back power, and now reside within the hidden lodge of Lletya, as well as within other small camps and areas across Tirannwn.

In the Heroes of Might and Magic series, Elves are divided into two sub-species:

Elves of Glorantha (setting for the role-playing games RuneQuest and HeroQuest) share little with Tolkien's elves but their connection with forests and their preference of archery – they are mobile, humanoid plants.

In the roleplaying game The Burning Wheel Elves have a unique attribute, Grief. Grief is the result of living an endless life, while watching tragedy, death and destruction unfold. Elves who advance their Grief attribute past a certain point, wither away, or pass on to the West. Elves in Burning Wheel are otherwise much like their Tolkien counterparts.

The science fiction role-playing game Fading Suns features the fictional extraterrestrial races of the Ur-Obun and the Ur-Ukar, which are essentially science fiction renditions of elves and dark elves (somewhat akin to the Eldar and the Dark Eldar in the setting of Warhammer 40000 mentioned above).

In the highly popular role-playing game Perfect World International elves are portrayed as winged elves. The Winged Elves have small wings on their head (only for appearances) and wings on their back for which they can use to fly to certain places. The Winged Elves are in tune with nature and use magic or bow and arrows. The Winged Elves reside in the City of the Plume, a unique city filled with trees where most of the houses are built in trees.

The Tales series of video games features elves in some of its titles, including Tales of Symphonia and Tales of Phantasia. Tales of Vesperia also features a race of elf-like beings known as Krityans.

The Final Fantasy series features elves and elf-like races in some of its titles, including the Elvaan of Final Fantasy XI and the Elezen of Final Fantasy XIV.

Countering the Tolkien tradition

Conversely, elves of the Tolkien mould have become standardized staple characters of modern fantasy to such an extent that breaking the norms for how an elf is supposed to be and behave has become an end in itself.

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

Portrayal in film

Crow the elf is a role in the 1980 swords and sorcery film Hawk the Slayer, using "rapid-fire/machine-gun-action" archery skills.

In the 1986 fantasy film Legend, a young lad is aided in his quest to save a unicorn by a band of wood elves, most notably their leader, Honeythorn Gump. In the film, elves appear to age backwards, as observable by the elder Gump being younger in appearance than his fellows and by one of the elves remarking, "I'm not as old as I used to be!" while picking himself up after a tumble.

Most adaptations of John R.R. Tolkien's books, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies in particular, as well as Harry Potter series, feature elves as supporting characters. Dark elves feature as major antagonists in fantasy superhero movies Hellboy II: The Golden Army and Thor: The Dark World, as well as in low fantasy TV series Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. High Elves of Azeroth briefly appear in Warcraft adaptation. In The Shannara Chronicles TV series, elves are among major protagonists.

Elves and their connection to Swedish folklore are dealt with in the Swedish horror film Marianne.

See also


  1. Tresca, M. J. (2011) The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games. McFarland & Company, Inc.: Jefferson, p. 34
  2. Tolkien, J. R. R. (1964). "On Fairy-Stories". Tree and Leaf. George Allen and Unwin Ltd. Reprinted in Tolkien, J. R. R. (1966). The Tolkien Reader. Ballantine Books: New York
  3. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
  4. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
  5. Pratchett, T. (1992); Lords and Ladies, pp122-123; Victor Gollancz Ltd: London
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