We have kids, so, like many families these days, we have Elf-on-the-Shelf. Actually, we have two. Cookie and Rocky come every year like clockwork and my kids love to find where those scamps hide each morning. And of course, starting on the 21st, they’ll leave elf gifts under my kids’ pillows for the last few days leading up to Christmas.
In the meantime, (yes this is elf related) I am planning on novella for my Brimstone Inc.. It will be a Christmastime release titled To Thine Own Elf Be True for 2021. I’ll start writing this story sometime around next March, but I’m already doing my pre-work to determine the details. For me that means researching elf lore and deciding on how my own elven world will work.
Which got me thinking…how are Santa’s Elves so different from, for example, Tolkien’s Elves? And what other kinds of elves are out there? I thought I’d share some of my early findings starting with what wikipedia says on the topic (I’ll be researching this with more sources, of course, but I’m just getting started):
According to wikipedia, the concept of elves seems to have started in Norse mythology and grown in common belief in medieval Germanic countries. There are many different accounts, but most accounts agree that elves were “magical beings with supernatural powers.” The character of elves seems to differ between regions and time periods, though most seem to point to elves being more harmful than good–playing tricks on humans and deceiving them.
First Documented Elves – Good Looking, Magical
The first elves appearing in manuscripts show up in medieval England where they are sometimes linked with nymphs. However, most often they are tiny, invisible demons who afflict humans and livestock with illness. They had a medical term for it: elf-shot. Sounds a lot like cupid right, but not with a good reason?
In Middle English, they take on more human forms, gather some sexual allure, and start to blend with fairies. For example, we see them in Geoffrey Chaucer’s satirical Sir Thopas where the title character sets out in quest of the ‘elf-queen’, who dwells in the ‘countree of the Faerie’.
Elizabethan Era – Small
In Elizabethan England, the concept of elves eventually mixed up with that of fairies, while German folklore most often mixed them together with dwarves. The influence of Shakespeare and Michael Drayton made elves and fairies very small creatures, and had a lasting effect seen in fairy tales about elves collected in the modern period.
Victorian Era – Pointed Ears & Stocking Caps
English and German literary traditions both influenced the British Victorian image of elves, which appeared in illustrations as tiny men and women with pointed ears and stocking caps.
1800s – Santa’s Elves
Mostly thanks to the poem now referred to as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, we now got the Christmastime concept of Santa’s elves. Again tiny creatures with pointed ears and stocking caps, they help Santa in his toy shop.
1900s – Tolkien’s Elves
Most modern fantasy elves draw their concept from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. These elves tend to be human sized, but more beautiful and wiser than humans, with sharper senses and perceptions. They are said to be gifted in magic, mentally sharp and lovers of nature, art, and song. However, they kept their pointy ears from the Victoria Era.
Modern Day – Changing It Up, But Still the Same
Still, we do see some alternate concepts of elves in modern day literature and movies. Sort of. Each new take still incorporates many of the now-standard ideas of elves. For example, J.K. Rowling’s depiction in her Harry Potter novels puts elves back to being little, magical creatures with pointed ears, but more humbled in the role of servant-slaves. Or, in the animated movie Rise of the Guardians, Santa’s elves are still tiny with pointed ears and stocking caps, but they’re not the true helpers. Instead abominable snowmen are the actual workers.
What are your favorite concepts of eleven lore? Do you like the pointed ears? Are you more drawn to the magical aspects? Do you have a favorite elf from literary or movie depiction? What do you think I should incorporate into my upcoming story?