An Elf Not Off The Shelf

2020-03-17

In the popular imagination, especially among those who’ve read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, seen the Peter Jackson movies based on Tolkien, played Dungeons & Dragons which borrowed heavily from Tolkien, or played World of Warcraft and similar games which borrowed heavily from D&D, elves are tall, beardless, usually pale, pointy-eared immortals.

Before those franchises became popular, though, not everyone had the same idea of what an “elf” looked like. The original (“White Box”) version of D&D contained this drawing of an “elf”:

badly drawn bearded elf from Original D&D

The Rankin-Bass cartoon of The Hobbit portrayed Tolkien’s elves as a sort of bluish-greenish-gray, with round heads and absurdly long limbs. Will Huygen’s art book Gnomes, in a section on other folkloric creatures, depicted “elves” as Tinkerbell-like fairy creatures 10-30cm tall1. The Harry Potter series’s “house elves” were small, ugly, flop-eared creatures wearing rags and doing unpaid labor for aristocratic wizards.

Despite what the D&D Monster Manual may imply, there’s no real consensus on what an “elf” is. All the terms we use for mythological, folkloric, and imaginary beings are imprecise, unsurprisingly as they have no visible referents in the real world. We can all agree on what a “horse” looks like, or a “pig”, or a “dog”, even though all three species – particularly dogs – are quite diverse. We can’t say the same for “elves”.

So let’s see what other kinds of “elf” we might put in our games.

Dwarfs by Another Name

Before the movies or WoW, we had Santa’s elves, who no doubt influenced the jolly fellow from Original D&D, above.

The elves of Elfquest are also about half human height, although they look like a cross between Tolkien elves, Conan-esqe barbarians, and an ’80s glam rock band.

Comics also gave us this fellow, The Elf With A Gun, whose role in Marvel comics was to show up suddenly and shoot characters, apparently for no reason. Comics, man.

Marvel’s Elf with a Gun

As I mentioned in a post on dwarves, original sources on Norse mythology and folklore blurred the lines between “elves” (alfar) and “dwarfs” (dvergar). In part this is why many non-Tolkien elves are so short, and possibly even why D&D elves are smaller than humans.

Imagine a fantasy world where elves and dwarves are all the same species, as much as they deny it. Elves guard the woods and grow slightly taller and thinner, possibly due to poor diet; dwarves grow shorter and gnarled due to hard labor. For that matter, maybe halflings and goblins are part of that same, inherently magical, extremely adaptable species.2

Forest Folk

D&D elves are officially shorter and more slightly built than humans, and in a bid to be more inclusive D&D art of the past decade or so depicts elves with a range of human skin tones. (And not just the Dark Elves.

But, like in the Rankin-Bass Hobbit, maybe elves look only roughly human – humanoid – and couldn’t pass for human without magic or heavy clothing. (Which they wouldn’t wear, because they’re elves.)

green-skinned male wood elf, artist unknown

The comic book series Princeless takes this tack, somewhat. In that book Elves can pass for humans – tall, unusually long-legged humans – as long as they cover their ears and wear human-style clothes. In the series, only one is desperate enough to try this, however, as she’s trying to get from a king’s dungeon to her ancestral forest. Most of them stay in their woods, however, due to humans betraying an ancient treaty and blah blah blah …

While certain RPGs translate this idea into “Wild Elves” and the like, few commit wholesale to the idea of Elves as wholly inhuman. One exception, naturally, is RuneQuest, wherein the “elves” – Aldryami – are plant creatures whose life cycle is bound to the forests in which they live. For those of us who like metaphors in our fantasy, this isn’t the usualy hippy-dippy “becoming one with the earth” schick; these creatures literally are tied to nature, they will quite happily kill anyone who despoils their home forests, and they will not assimilate into human society in any way, shape, or form because it will quite literally kill them. They’re the embodiment of the indifference / hostility of nature, only with bows and arrows.

The Wikipedia article on Elves, at least of this writing, mentions that some authors have tried to “demythologize” elves by claiming legends of elves refer to forgotten indigenous and conquered people. This is a danger in the “Forest Folk” concept: turning the real struggle of indigenous people, who are still very much alive no thanks to us colonizers, into fodder for our elf games. So as instructive as historical parallels are, I’d advise GMs to not lift them wholesale or verbatim.

Norse Álfar

Tolkien’s elves are notoriously “pure” and good. Other authors have tried to muss them up a bit, notably Terry Pratchett in Lords and Ladies, where they’re essentially psychopaths that think mortals exist solely to amuse them. (He refers to them later in Hogfather, and they reappear in The Wee Free Men.)

While tales of the Celtic faeries – half the folkloric heritage of English “elves” – provide plenty of bad elf behavior, Germanic elves weren’t quite so pure and good either.

Much of what we know about Norse mythology comes from Snorri Sturluson, who wrote in the 13th century, after Scandinavia had converted to Christianity. His work divided elves into “light elves” (ljotálfar) and “dark elves” (svartálfar or dokkálfar) but that could have been him reinterpreting old stories under a Christian framework. He may have use “dark elves” as a synonym for dwarves (dvergar), who were “dark” mainly in that they lived underground. (source)

There’s also some evidence that “light elves” may have been spirits of dead heroes or lesser godlings with abilities to which humanity aspires. Many tales blurred the lines between various supernatural beings: elves, dwarfs, giants, nature spirits, and gods. (source)

Imagine, then, if the various writers of D&D embraced the demi-godhood of elves from Norse mythology. Elves wouldn’t be funny-looking humanoids who didn’t age and pretended they were better than anyone else. They would be actual demi-gods, or ghosts, or nature spirits.

People of the Hills

To the people of Iceland, elves are nature spirits. (And apparently real, or at least real enough that some enterprising Icelanders will sell you an “Elf Spotter’s Certificate” for $5000.)

“Elf houses” are apparently a common sight in Iceland and other Scandinavian countries. (England apparently has something similar.) Locals will build little houses, or at least the facades of little houses, around the countryside in which elves can pass the night (day?).

Icelandic elf houses

The Icelanders who believe in elves (if any) probably don’t believe they’re actually inch-high creatures who need to sleep in houses. Elf houses are partly the tradition of making tiny offerings to minor gods, partly a social trend (like the traveling gnome prank), and partly an eccentric form of landscaping.

The Victorians popularized the idea of elves being wee little fairies that lived in gardens, as opposed to the approximately human-sized spirits of earlier folklore. We see that influence today in the aforementioned book Gnomes. In the children’s book series and subsequent Netflix series Hilda, the elves are tiny creatures living in tiny houses, invisible and intangible to mortals who haven’t filled out the proper paperwork.

John Crowley’s novel Little, Big offered the idea that the fairy folk have been shrinking over the centuries, as they grew older and mortals believed in them less and less. (In a sense that’s probably true.) Imagine, then, elves live in some Otherworld where they’re all the same size as each other, more or less, but their size in our world depends on their personal power, how many mortals believe in elves, how many mortals believe in that specific elf, and what humans have done to the place into which they manifest. In untouched wilderness they could attain human or superhuman stature. (But if there’s nobody there to see it …) In farmlands maybe they’re two feet (60 cm) high. Add iron railroad tracks or power cables and they’re smaller. And in or around a city they’re only a few inches (10 cm) high. Or maybe they’re mere ghosts, invisible and intangible even when they don’t want to be, incapable of physically affecting our world at all. Only children and the mad can hear or see them at all, and only if they believe …

And so …?

Throughout history – and the word “elf” comes from Old English and earlier Germanic roots – different storytellers, writers, artists, and cultures have used the word to denote a variety of beings. In other posts on dwarfs, giants, and dark elves I’ve implicitly if not explicitly argued that we can define “elves”, “dwarfs”, and other stock creatures in fantasy in new and interesting ways. I’d like readers and game-players to look beyond two game designers’ interpretation of one author’s work to all the possibilities of existing folklore, literature, and art.

Granted, picking names for all these diverse beings might be a challenge. And gamers steeped in D&D and WoW might find your “elves” confusing. One possible solution, used by Talislanta, is to make up names unrelated to folkore or English for your quasi-elves and almost-elves and vaguely elflike beings. Or, maybe pick one alternative, call that an Elf, and let the other players get used to it.


  1. 4-12 inches for those of us stuck with the English system. ↩︎

  2. Or maybe they’re all humans, but because of their strikingly different appearance and culture the plains-dwelling majority considers them only “demihumans”. ↩︎