Elves: From The Lord of the Rings to Shakespeare, and the Legend that started it all.
Tolkien and the Legend
There are so many different variations of elves today in movies, books, Santa's workshop and all with their own unique appearance and set of qualities; but do you ever wonder what the very first elf looked liked? Were elves always small? Tolkien didn't think so. In fact he says "they're even taller then humans, giant in size and wisdom, and admired by nearly every other race," but it looks like he's the only one. In both A Midsummer's Nights Dream and Harry Potter, elves are depicted as short, ugly creatures, even slaves for a more sophisticated race.
The word elf originally comes from the Latin word albus meaning white, but Tolkien made up his own origin of elves for his series of books The Lord of the Rings. He says the name 'el' means star because the elves were first found under the stars by one of the Valar, an angelic spirit in Tolkien's Middle-Earth, after the God Illuvatar created them.Tolkien was following a tradition long ago of Nordic mythology. Before elves were thought of as 'little creatures' from storybooks, they were thought of as elves quite like the ones from Middle-Earth.
Celtic mythology, which may have been derived from Norse legends, also influenced Tolkien. His elves greatly resemble Tuatha Dé Danaan, people of the Goddess Danu, and are said to have arrived in Ireland before humans. Descendants of Tuatha Dé Danaan, called Sidhe, are also like Tolkien's elves. Both of these Celtic races, like the Norse elves, play a big role in many religions: creatures that are more gifted than humans but not quite like Gods. However, the legends of elves got lost after the appearance of a new religion. As Europe became primarily Christian, people pushed aside the idea of elves, fairies, and any other magical creature that stood between humankind and God. In Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written in the 1300s, a character says:
"In the old days of King Arthur, of which Britons speak with honor, all this land was filled with fairies. The elf-queen, with her jolly company, danced often in many a green meadow.... I speak of many hundreds of years ago. Now because of the great charity and prayers of the holy Friars, there are no elves to see."
However, the story of elves and fairies did not disappear entirely. In time they became associated with small concerns that were puzzling but not nearly important for God. So the idea of house spirits arose: creatures to blame if a plate was mysteriously broken, or to be thanked by a stroke of good luck. That was how elves were depicted in the 1500s and Tolkien made his elves like the lost tradition so the folk tales would last forever.
In David Colbert's 'So you think you know the Lord of the Rings?' Tolkien is stated as forever blaming William Shakespeare for making silly elves and fairies a part of literature. Yet, Shakespeare was not the first to write about elves; but he did it very often, and so well that the idea of his elves stuck in people's mind forever. The best example is Shakespeare's play A Midsummer's Night Dream, set in an enchanted forest when the character Puck describes tiny elves as 'easily frightened' and "sneak into acorn-cups and hide." Tolkien, who loved the idea of magnificent elves, hated Shakespeare's elves and fairies. In The Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien he told one reader that what Shakespeare did was 'unforgivable.'
Tolkien was afraid that he would not be able to change people's outlook of tiny elves, but still he tried. He gave his elves special qualities making them like highly refined humans. Tolkien's elves were intelligent, sensitive, and over the years have acquired a great knowledge; and just like the old legends, they are superior to humans. In his book the Silmarillion, he states that though both races look the same when they are first created, over time the Elves come to be shaped by their 'greater wisdom,' and 'skill and beauty'. That's how they grew so tall.
Tolkien says that elves to do not count their lives by solar years, as humans do. For them, it would be like watching seconds tick by on a clock. One of their years equals 144 human years. Elves may have the look of infinite beauty and youth but some are thousands of years old, in fact they are immortal; which means they are not affected by disease, old age, or any sickness but they can be killed in battle. When they are killed, their spirits come back to their bodies just like ones they had before, and they even have the same memories; kind of like reincarnation. Tolkien was very careful about making the rules on immortality because it was of great importance to him.
As Tolkien explained in many letters, that Illuvatar, God of Middle-Earth, wanted to see how each race would feel about life and death- especially humans and elves. Oddly enough, elves and humans both envied each other. The humans, of course, envy the elves immortality. They try all sorts of things for them to live longer(anti-aging cream anyone?), but all are useless and usually ends ironically in them dying by trying to fight against the Valar to gain immortality. Elves on the other hand find that living forever can be boring, which is understandable, and describe immortality as a painful witness of centuries of evil. Though Illuvatar promised both races a place for them in the new world he creates, elves will have to watch everything they love die before that happens. As Tolkien put it in Letters of J.R.R.Tolkien, the elves envy the humans 'escape' offered from the 'weariness of time.'
Like Shakespeare, J.K. Rowling depicts her elves to be tiny as well in her book Harry Potter. These small creatures are called House-Elves and generally range from 2 to 3 feet in height, are very ugly in appearance, have long bony arms and legs, very high squeaky voices and oversized heads and eyes. They also have traditional long ears, except it is more bat-like instead of elegant. Yet unlike Tolkien's elves, House-elves are not immortal and are able to grow very old as seen above. They are also illustrated to be very obedient, submissive and refer to themselves in third person view.
Another aspect that makes these creatures even more original is their clothing attire, which consists of mostly discarded pillowcases and tea-towels. Since House-Elves are doomed to a lifetime of servitude, their masters can choose whether or not they want to give them a piece of clothing, which signifies their freedom. Yet most of Rowling's elves would consider this act devastating, as this would mean that they had failed in serving their masters. The gesture of giving clothing to magical creatures was originally derived from a book of short stories called Grimm's Fairy Tales in 1812. The story, Die Wichtelmänner, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, or more commonly known as the Brothers Grimm, was later translated in 1884 by Margret Hunt to Elves. The story forewarns what should happen if a person who had accepted help from a fairy offers them clothing. According to the tale, pixies and fairies also consider clothes to be a form of bondage, and see any kind offers or new clothes to do the opposite for House-Elves- a way to enslave the fairy.
Like their masters, House-elves also possess their own type of magic which is generally used in to serve of their masters better. They can also use their magic to travel from place to place which is similar to the wizards spell Apparition. They can perform their magic without permission from their masters or even against their orders, although such disobedience forces them to punish themselves in various painful ways.
Besides Tolkien, Shakespeare and Rowling, there is another more commonly know elf. We see these elves every year in very different forms. In most movies they are shown to look like children that never grow old; but according to the legend, these elves are also very small, almost dwarf-like, youthful, and immortal as well. They too possess magical powers which controls what we see and experience. They are none other than Santa's elves!
Christmas elves originates from Germanic paganism and is said to be 'creatures of light' that live in the heavens. Yet later they were often referred to live either underground, in forests, springs or wells and the location is kept highly secret. In some legends and post-Christian folklore especially in Europe, tales depicted elves as mischievous house gnomes that guarded your home from evil. If the occupant was good, the gnomes would be good to you, but if you were bad they would play tricks on you especially so in days that led up to Christmas. Some of the tricks involved giving you nightmares by sitting on your head while you were dreaming, tangling your hair while you slept, turning your milk sour, and running off with your sausages! People of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland believed that by leaving a bowl of porridge on the doorstep at night will make the elves happy and not subject people to their constant tricks. Today, elves associated with Christmas is seen as symbols to remind children to be good and not naughty.
It was not till the mid-1800s when tales originating in Scandinavia told the true purpose of elves. To help serve Father Christmas! The elves could also still be helpful and mischievous at the same time. Tales suggest that however you were treated by the elves depended on whether you were thought to be naughty or nice.