Elves have been depicted several times in modern and ancient literature by excellent writers; Tolkien let them play a central role both in his Silmarillion and into The Lord of the Rings. He even invented Elvish languages! He describes them as good-looking immortal creatures with melodious voices and very agile. J. K. Rowling change the classical image of the Elf, depicting it as a domestic creature, wizard’s housekeeper, very humble, minute and gifted with immense powers.
But, what is the origin of this controversial and fascinating creature in literature?
The Elves are originally described by Norse mythology, the mythology that dates back to the Norse Paganism Period, prior to the Christianization of Scandinavia. We have evidence of several beautiful tales – but also ballads, folktales and prayers – from that period that tells us about beings (such as elves, trolls, and others), but also various heroes. The numerous sources are from both before and after the Pagan Period, including also several Medieval manuscripts.
The English word Elf comes from Old Norse and before that from Common Germanic, the ancestor language of both English and all the Scandinavian Languages such as Norwegian and Swedish, and the meaning of the word seems to be related to the world “white” or “whiteness”, but some linguists do not agree completely with this theory.
According to Scandinavian Mythology, the Elf is in symbiosis with nature, seeing it as the Mother of all beings, and it can pass through all the four elements: water, earth, air and fire. Elves have great experience in healing and magic herbs, and they could find hidden treasures in the woods in their sleep. They cannot be seen by humans though.
There are several legends of this mythological figure in history, some of them are not so positive about their behavior, claiming how angry they can be to Humans. So this figure has not always been seen as a good creature. With the Christianity, for example, elves have been identified with demons.
Obviously, most of the elves stories was originally only told and preserved orally. The earliest surviving manuscripts are from Anglo-Saxon England, and in Old English. The tradition of Elves became then a fundamental part also of English and Anglo-Saxon mythology, and here they were seen yet another time differently, as small invisible beings causing damage and illness with their arrows into the woods.
It was first in the nineteenth century that the elves were seen in American Christmas tradition as Santa Claus’ little helpers, with pointy noses and green clothes, making toys in the North Pole for all the children in the world.
I personally love this magic creature, and how such a controversial figure it is, seen differently by people from place to place. This is the real magic of mythology.