Blood Bowl? It’s like American football, but with elves. Arcanum is steampunk with elves; Shadowrun is cyberpunk with elves. The Witcher is Wolverine if he was a monster hunter who investigated outbreaks of Polish folklore. But, you know, with elves.
“It’s like X with elves” has become a cliched way to describe fantasy games because elves are almost ubiquitous in them. Yet, at the same time, elves are widely despised by players. Sometimes they’re criticized for being too perfect, seen as “Mary Sues” or snobbish elitists compared to their counterpart dwarfs who are so down-to-earth they literally live in the ground. Either that or elves are written off for being “pansies”, beautiful and androgynous in a way that contrasts strongly with beards and beer bellies. (Deciding whether I mean dwarfs again or the stereotypical player of video games is left as an exercise for the reader.)
Elves have their fans too, of course. I’m pretty sure every girl I’ve dated since 2001 had a crush on Legolas, and in many RPGs they’re the second most popular choice after humans. Developers keep putting them in games for a reason. To understand what makes them an essential part of so much fantasy – and it’s not just Orlando Bloom – we have to go back to their mythological roots.
Some of the earliest representations of elves come from Old Norse sagas in which the “alfar” are namechecked without being very involved. They seem aloof and mysterious not because they’re described that way but because they’re absent, set-dressing rather than characters. This makes details scarce, though The Saga of Thorstein, Viking’s Son cemented them as good-looking by mentioning those with elven blood are “fairer than any other people save the giants.”
There’s an overlap between the alfar and the Norse gods, the aesir, that suggests the distinction is academic. Only when Snorri Sturluson wrote down the Prose Edda in the 13th century did we get firm details as he separated the fair Ljósálfar or “light elves” from the underground Dökkálfar or “dark elves”. He also mentioned Svartálfar (“black elves”) who may be another name for the Dökkálfar or even for dwarfs – again, there’s a sense of overlap between different classes of supernatural beings.
This is also true in Germanic stories about elves, which they called “alps” or “albs”, who encroach on the mythic territory of dwarfs and other creatures. Their elves are less the god-like beauties of Norse myth and instead mischievous crooked-nosed nature spirits, deceitful creatures responsible for spreading sickness. In Germany elves were also at fault for giving people bad dreams – the German word for nightmare is “albtraum” which literally means “elf dream”. Similarly, before the germ theory of disease was understood Anglo-Saxons blamed “elf-shot” for illness, while Scandinavian elves spread a rash with “älvablåst” or “elven breath”.
The Tuatha De Danaan of Irish legend initially weren’t elves at all. They began as gods and, via a roundabout journey during which they were also legendary mortals of the past, eventually merged with the aes sidhe of Scottish mythology and turned into elvish beings who lived in mounds. Similarly the elvish Morgan le Fay became a mortal sorceress in later Arthurian stories, and forest-dwelling Oberon was an elf in a French poem and then became the dwarf Alberich in the Nibelunglied. The elastic medieval understanding of mythic creatures resists easy cataloguing, and is hard to reproduce in a D&D Monster Manual.
However, ballads and romances did begin to give elves specificity. As with the Prose Edda, once stories started being written down, recognizable patterns emerged. In the Danish Elveskud ballads an elf attempts to seduce a virtuous knight, a behavior repeated in the romance Thomas the Rhymer and the ballad Tam Lin. These elves were otherworldly beauties like the alfar, but were also sexually predatory. Elfland was ruled by a Queen who took mortal paramours and in several versions those mortals must escape her realm after a time or become part of a tithe the elves regularly pay to Hell.
In Elizabethan England elves became more regal. Edmund Spenser’s poem The Faerie Queen used Elizabeth herself as the model for its title character, and Shakespeare returned Oberon to elfhood by making him their king in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The French loanword “fairy” had become interchangeable with “elf” in English by this point and while English elves were regal they also began to shrink. In Nymphidia: Or the Court of Faery by the poet Michael Drayton, Oberon wields an acorn cup as a weapon in fights with a wasp and a glow-worm before angrily riding off on an ant.
Victorian England doubled down on the idea of elves as tiny harmless pixie people. The magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book first showed them helping Santa make children’s toys on the cover of an 1873 issue, and the German story Die Wichtelmänner was translated as The Elves & the Shoemaker in 1884 though the little people of the original story were never called elves. Victorian artists began to depict elves as small and often winged in the kind of Christmas card tweeness that defined the era. Richard Dadd’s painting The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke was an influential example.
Estella Canziani’s 1914 watercolor The Piper of Dreams was one of the last popular fairy paintings, turned into postcards and sent to English soldiers in World War I. Elves had come to represent a kind of vanishing Englishness – apt since the Celtic word Albion shares the same root – acting as stand-ins for both courtly nobility and rural idyll. The Piper of Dreams shows a Puck-like figure under a tree surrounded by fairies, piping to a bird and a squirrel. English soldiers carried prints of this image with them as a talisman representing what they fought for, though its dream-magic elf had his source in Germanic stories.
That famous postcard picture was likely seen by a young J.R.R. Tolkien, but his vision of elves was shaped more by Norse sagas than Christmas cards. He chose the name elves rather than fairies and convinced his editors to allow him “elven” rather than “elfin” to signpost his intent: to restore some of the grandeur of mythic elves. Tolkien particularly disliked Shakespeare’s version of them, and would eventually regret calling his characters elves due to “the disastrous debasement of this word, in which Shakespeare played an unforgivable part”.
Like the elves of the Norse, Tolkien’s were beautiful and divided, with categories like the Silvan Wood Elves distinct from the Noldor High Elves. They were human-sized and capable of interbreeding with humans, though without the tendency to abduct good-looking people or conduct deals with demons. He emphasized their love of nature, and mainly via Legolas popularized the idea of them as skilled archers – although the traditional belief in elf-shot and their role in some versions of the Wild Hunt myth may have been an influence there.
In The Wife of Bath’s Tale Geoffrey Chaucer described elves as having vanished “manye hundred yeres ago” – they were already old news in the 14th century. Tolkien’s elves were also on their way to vanishment, reduced in number and preparing to sail to the West and out of Middle-Earth. If they remained, as Galadriel says, they would “dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.” The elves of Middle-Earth know their future is to diminish, to become the shrunken parodies of fairy art, yet through Tolkien they were resurrected into something closer to their earlier, mythic form.
While other fantasy writers like Lord Dunsany and Poul Anderson also wrote elves that differed from the Peter Pan variety, Tolkien’s original additions became part of the core version of elves later fantasy would follow. The rivalry with dwarfs that helped define their separateness was his, and in a letter to his publisher in which he called their ears “leaf-shaped” he inadvertently created the pointed ears they’d have in later artwork. His naming conventions, and his description of “keen elf eyes” all became de rigeur among later writers.
Dungeons & Dragons adopted Tolkien’s elves with very few changes, though co-designer Gary Gygax would deny the influence (particularly once the Tolkien estate got in touch to complain about the similarities). D&D elves aren’t purely Tolkien but they do have the pointed ears, affinity for archery, and rivalry with dwarfs that were all Tolkien’s inventions. D&D even follows his preference for the spelling “dwarves” rather than “dwarfs”.
In translating the long-lived and highly skilled elves into mechanical terms, D&D made them overpowered in a way that contributed to players’ dislike. In 1993 Colin McComb entrenched this in a supplement called The Complete Book of Elves, which painted them as not only superior but smug about it in a way that shaded over into outright racism. The Complete Book of Elves was so unpopular it dogs the author to this day – McComb worked on the video game Torment: Tides of Numenera, and one of that game’s Kickstarter rewards at the $2.5 million tier was a video in which he apologized for writing it.
In choosing how to portray elves in video games, plenty of designers followed D&D‘s lead, not least in games explicitly based on the RPG like Baldur’s Gate where elves are hoity-toity and easy to hate. There have been notable attempts to subvert the obvious cliches as well, as in Dragon Age where elves are a widely despised underclass. Those who live in cities are exiled to ghettoes while those in the wilderness are forced into a nomadic lifestyle. In the Witcher series elves are also subject to bigotry, and join other non-humans in a reactionary group called the Scoia’tael, siding with their traditional dwarf enemies against the greater threat of humanity. Yet even with these twists, the elves of both Dragon Age and the Witcher broadly remain the same pretty Celtic archery enthusiasts.
The Elder Scrolls, Warhammer, and Warcraft all split elves into subtypes just like Snorri Sturluson did, and whether they’re called dark elves, blood elves, or dunmer, there’s always the one faction that exists to contrast with the others. The dunmer of The Elder Scrolls are perhaps the most atypical, gray-skinned people who were twisted by a curse to have red eyes and ash-flesh, who worship their ancestors to the point of summoning their spirits for aid and either live as nomads or in cities of unlikely architecture.
In all these depictions, there’s a sense of wanting to do something different with the archetype while still leaving it recognizable, finding new ways of having our elf cake and eating it too. Some games achieve that by going back to the sources, as in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Among its subdivided elf types are the Summer Fae, who blend the Arthurian and Shakespearean visions of elfhood. In each generation they play out a repeating saga called the Great Cycle, born into roles whether knight or queen or monster that they act out as written, before dying and being reborn in the next cycle. Like nature or Broadway, they have their seasons.
All these different versions of elves suggest why they’re enduring fantasy icons. From gossamer fairy ballerinas to immortal nature spirits there’s plenty of varied source material to draw from. Like dragons or wizards, their presence lets us know which playground we’re in and what tropes to expect, but there’s depth enough there to surprise us, whether with a completely new take or an unexpected old one. Elves are both immediately familiar and infinitely malleable, like the fantasy genre they’ve become a shorthand for.