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Postscript on Elves, Dwarves, & Trolls

I’d noticed the odd relationship between the Elves, Trolls, and Dwarves concerning their evolution through mythology and into fantasy roleplaying as it stands today and decided to explore these commonalities and divergences. This is what led me to write Tabletop Meditations #11 through #13. However, there are few things that I’ve not said about elves, dwarves, and trolls such as bringing up the issue of half-races and sub-races including Orcs though I may have (or not as the case may be) touched on them.

The common points between each of the aforementioned races being their beginnings in mythology, their adoption into the realm of fairytale, adaptation into fantasy fiction, and further adaptation from fiction into the world of roleplaying seemed to me to be not only connected but related. Especially since they all originated in Northern European mythology and all at one time or another were also considered different types of fairy-folk.

They had all three begun as separate or mostly separate types of creatures where the lines of distinction in the original myths were still blurry. This is especially true of the elves and dwarves and then after their division between the trolls and dwarves though one was a diminutive race and the other essentially deformed giants. Note that I had avoided a discussion on giants in and of themselves as they are not as entwined with the dwarves and elves, though the birth of the dwarven race seems to owe directly to the lore of giants.

The subject of giants is also very broad and they really don’t change much throughout their existence whereas the trolls though they are essentially giants themselves noticeably change with time though their base nature does not. Trolls also possess several unique and readily identifiable features both physical and personality wise. There is also an abundance of material which brings these features to the forefront and serves as documentation of their evolution as a fantasy race. Essentially the giants’ path from myth to roleplaying is almost identical to if not a bit more plain than the trolls and so I chose follow trolls especially since they are more distinctly prevalent in myth and fairytale as archetypical villains and characters than giants. Not to mention the trolls’ evolution is more demonstrably entangled with that of the dwarves and elves.

Just as well, I also avoided any in-depth discussion of the sub-races derived from the 3 fantasy races only really mentioning the Orcs and Drow, both descendants of the elves. This was mainly so I could keep focus on the pieces and as the sub-races are simply variations on the core race getting directly to that core without explicitly excluding them was the best strategy. In roleplaying games these 3 races are used as a foundation to create variations off of, the elves in particular as demonstrated by the 2 most prevalent and popular of these which happen to be the Orcs and the Drow.

Orcs originally started as a sub-race of elves but embodying all of the opposite negative characteristics of the elves’ positive but the Drow have usurped that role in the minds of roleplayers. I’m not going to write an article solely dedicated to Orcs as it would be very short though there is an overabundance of information on them starting from Tolkien onward but most of it is supernumerary. As the Orcs are not only associated with the elves but derive, especially in Tolkien’s Legendarium, from them the story of their evolution is somewhat redundant with that of the true elves though the etymology of the name is interesting it’s also somewhat problematic.

Orcs are portrayed as a savage, clannish species that is barbarically tribal even though some authors and game designers try to inject some nobility into them, either through the design of their culture or the portrayal of individual characters as racial/cultural representatives of the more noble/human aspects of the Orcish. They have and are undergoing their own evolution in the world of roleplaying fantasy seen specifically in certain attempts at humanizing them. A perfect example is demonstrated in the Palladium Fantasy RPG. “In the right group, orcs, can be as fiercely loyal, heroic and courageous as a palladin [sic]. Orcs of good or aberrant alignment will never betray a friend or ally, or desert him at a moment of need.” [Siembieda, Kevin. 1998. Palladium Fantasy RPG: Second Edition. Palladium Books Inc. MI. 302]

Of course, this new humanization is built on top of the old and familiar. “They have a reputation for being dull-witted, muscle-bound brutes with a wicked disposition.” [Siembieda. 302] The Drow on the other hand are a more recent invention of Gary Gygax for Dungeons & Dragons and are essentially the literal visual and spiritual inversion of classic elves rather than an inferior and corrupted reflection that are the Orcs.

Half-races are another related subject which I also failed to touch upon although they play a prominent part in Tolkien’s Legendarium especially where half-elves are concerned. “The sons of Eärendil were Elros and Elrond, the Peredhil or Half-Elven. … At the end of the First Age the Valar gave to the Half-elven an irrevocable choice to which kindred they would belong. Elrond chose to be of Elven-kind[.] … To him therefore was granted the same grace as to those of the High Elves that still lingered in Middle-earth[.] … Elros chose to be of Man-kind and remain with the Edain; but a great life-span was granted to him many times that of lesser men.” [J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings (1991 ed.). HarperCollins Publishers. Appendix A. 1010]

Basically, men and elves can interbreed but the resulting offspring can choose between an elvish immortality or a slightly enhanced mortal span of life, at least according to Tolkien. Of course, he also mentions another half-race in his work which really doesn’t serve much of an explicit role overall, these are the half-orcs. “Among the Dunlendings who, in the Third Age of Sun, came to Saruman’s banner of the White Hand in Isengard, there were some whose blood, by the sorcery of Saruman, became mixed with that of the Orcs and Uruk-hai. These were large Men, lynx-eyed and evil, who were called Half-orcs.” [Day, David. 1979. A Tolkien Bestiary. Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited. 128]

Both of these human-hybrid races are much beloved and perhaps a little overused in tabletop roleplaying though I guess there could be an argument here to logically classify both half-races as half-elves. This means that somehow the genetics between humans and elves and an elven sub-race, the Orcs, are somehow compatible. A taxonomy between these races, or is it species, might prove a bit problematic but this can be dismissed since the godhead of Tolkien’s Middle Earth created them all in the first place, so magic. Guess that helps to explain half-dragons too.

The attempt to fit fantasy races into modern-day taxonomy is beside the point failing the concept that, for one reason or another (often essentially irrational) they need to exist within that fictional world. Essentially, a half-race is a plot element or story device rather than a rational element to be quantified or scientifically explained.

Fantasy races as a whole being more than a collection of character traits and in terms of tabletop gaming, bonuses and abilities in the context of story and/or setting. This is especially useful to keep in mind when abandoning Tolkien altogether. Basically, when explaining half-races, species, and taxonomy in a fantasy setting it comes down to just utilizing the minimal amount of rationalization necessary for suspension of disbelief and patch the holes with myth and magic or good-sounding pseudoscience to explain it away.

My aim in writing these 3 articles was to explore the roots of these 3 archetypical fantasy races which are still an integral part of popular fantasy today, their entanglements, and how that shaped the current concepts about these mythic creatures while touching upon the more interesting questions that swirl about them and the concept of fantasy races. The common roots of elves, dwarves, and trolls continue to twist through myth, fairytale, fantasy-fiction, and even each other continually budding off and sprouting new ideas and concepts from the old.

Trolls

They have been and are, from their very inception, the consummate villain whether they be fierce beasts bent on random destruction and death, or mystical monsters that snatch away the hero’s loved ones for some nefarious purpose, or a supernatural arbiter of an unbelievably harsh but ironic justice.

The malformed embodiment of pure malevolence, the flesh-eating troll populates the many worlds of fantasy roleplaying serving almost solely as an adversary ready to slay and be slain. Trolls bring to mind the image of a ravaging giant obviously more beast than humanoid seemingly mindless in all its endeavors save the intent to inflict harm, at least in the minds of today’s fantasy roleplayers.

A troll is a predatory giant demi-humanoid with claws and fangs found in Nordic & Scandinavian myth and in the roots of Norwegian fairytales where they stand as vicious vestiges of an elder and chaotic world. In the Encyclopedia of Fantasy they are defined as: “MONSTERS of Scandinavian MYTH and NORDIC FANTASY; related Shetland myths call them trows. They have affinities with GIANTS (size, general malevolence, fondness for eating human flesh) and earth ELEMENTALS: they are associated with mountains and cold, and often turn to stone on exposure to daylight[.]” [Clute, John & Grant, John. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St Martin’s Press, New York. Trolls.]

They have taken many forms from their inception in Nordic lore through to their adaptation into their fairytale roles as monsters with a penchant for abduction and cannibalism; at one time they were even able to fly. “Besides these [Elves/Dwarves] are the Trolls, who fly hither and thither carrying bundles of sticks, and have power to change their shape.” [Mackenzie, Donald A. 1912. Teutonic Myth and Legend. Kessinger Publishing (Reprint). 13]

The evolution of the concept of trolls has parallels to that of Elves. Like elves they matriculated through lore into fairytales and then into fantasy and Sword & Sorcery fiction then ultimately from there into tabletop RPGs. Also like elves they seem to have had a less than active role in the myths that birthed them serving mainly as an “off-camera” enemy to a certain hammer-wielding god. “[…] Thor was away Fighting trolls and troll women and their wolfchildren in Iron Wood[.]”[Crossley-Holland, Kevin. 2015. The Norse Myths. The Folio Society Ltd., London. 121]

At their beginnings they were closely associated with the gods, as adversarial legions, and there was little distinction between them and dwarves aside from a not yet strictly defined size difference. “In Icelandic myth malignant one-eyed giants, and in Scandinavian folklore mischievous DWARFS, some cunning and treacherous, some fair and good to men […]. They lived in hills and were wonderfully skilled in working metals, and they had a propensity for stealing, even carrying off women and children. […] Their name is Old Norse for ‘demon’.” [Rockwood, Camilla, ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Trolls]

The mythic roots of the troll, both as a fantasy race and monster, penetrate deeply into the mythology of Northern Europe (Norse mythology, the folktales of Lapland and Norwegian fairytales). At their beginnings in Norse myth they were giants born of evil taking their place as the enemies of the gods, this probably the apex of their imaginary existence. “Now by divination did Odin come to know that in Ironwood the Hag, Angerboda (Gulveig-Hoder) was rearing the dread progeny of Loke with purpose to bring disaster to the gods. Three monster children there were – Fenrer, the wolf; Jormungand, the Midgard serpent; and Hel. From these the Trolls are sprung.” [Mackenzie. 90] It is interesting that in the Norse mythology the trolls were the malformed offspring of godling monsters born of the trickster god Loki thereby distancing the trolls from the gods a step further than even the beasts of Ragnarök those who are destined to slay the gods and the world.

The classical root of the troll twists from myth into folktales and eventually fairy tales particularly those of Scandinavia. They were adopted by folktales in Lapland in the far north of Finland as supernatural antagonists then collected into fairytales in Norway at various times especially in the 19th century with Asbjørnsen & Moe being the most notable today of those collector-editors of folk & fairytale aside from the German Brothers Grimm. In the Norwegian tales trolls were synonymous with mortal fear of the dark and wild places of the world. “Every Norse child had heard […] that giant trolls laired under country bridges, preying on livestock, shepherds, and farmers. […] The Lapps gave a wide berth to the northern mountains, assuming that trolls chose places large enough in scale to suit their size. The same wariness of mountains applied to other countries, and trackless forests were also regarded as unsafe.” [Constable, George ed. 1985. The Enchanted World: Giants and Ogres. Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia. 86]

Trolls invaded vast tracts of wasteland and began to take up residence in the familiar haunts of fairy-folk, wild woods, dark forests, shadowy canyons, windswept mountains, and occupied ruined castles and old shanties in the middle of nowhere. “In the old days, the Lapps rarely ventured north towards the Arctic coast: They were hardy people, but all knew of the land in the north called Trollebotn, or Troll Bottom, a wind-swept waste haunted by huge, murderous beings. No Laplander cared to face those trolls, some of them three-headed, some with more hideous deformities, all malevolent and filled with hatred for humankind.” [Constable. 79]

In these tales the concept of trolls is similar to elves in that their, the trolls’, identity merged with that of fairies becoming a part of the realm of fairy for a time even exhibiting the level of mystical power associated with such beings. However, trolls were always nasty. They ran the gamut from being vicious supernatural predators with awesome magical powers to simply giant slavering beasts that happened to be very formidable against even the strongest warrior.

The fairy tales of note concerning trolls are, at least in my opinion – Three Billy Goats Gruff (the troll lives under a bridge and threatens the titular Billy goats), The Ash Lad who had an Eating Match with the Troll (where a farm boy tricks a troll into committing hari-kari), Soria Moria Castle (where trolls  with 3 and even 9 heads make an appearance), The Golden Bird (where trolls are caretakers of wondrous treasures & enchanters of a prince to whom they’ve cursed into the form of a fox), The Companion (troll-hags are slain and there’s a potential troll-wife in a princess who was described to “wear a troll-hide” but was restored by the hero who beat the hide off of her).

In these tales trolls also seem to exhibit a trait which definitely distinguishes them from their true-fairy brethren, they are viciously, even sadistically, vindictive.  For example in the tale titled Troll’s Stone – After her and her husband’s failure to lure any herdsmen or the village priest to their cave so that they could eat them, the she-troll sends her husband to the frozen lake to catch fish where he promptly lays on the ice, he’s lazy, and freezes to death while fishing and as he was late with dinner his wife decides to go out to find him. Finding instead his frozen corpse on the ice and unable to drag his body back home she promptly snatches up his catch and: “Before she went, she said, “A curse on thee, thou wicked lake! Never shall a living fish be caught in thee again.” Which words have indeed proved fatal to the fishery, for the lake since then has never yielded a single fish.” [Booss, Claire ed. 1984. Scandinavian Folk & Fairy Tales. Crown Publishers, Inc. 630]

Trolls always seemed to direct this particularly vicious side towards humans especially those who refused to hold fast to ancient traditions and arcane treaties with the elder world of the trolls even as the trolls themselves faded and sank into the shadowed places of the earth.

The Trolls in Resslared best exemplify the balance of the trollish sense of justice. In the tale the local trolls “were wont to borrow food and drink, which they always returned two-fold.” [Booss. 282] The people of the village had a certain understanding with them and lived with the trolls peaceably. Eventually of course, the old residents died off and new people began to replace them who were not as “charitable” as their predecessors while the trolls lived on. Eventually, as fairy tales go, “[o]ne day the “mother” of the Trolls went, as was her custom of old, to a cottage, and asked the housewife if she could lend her a measure of meal.” [Booss. 282] Needless to say the housewife refused this and every additional request of the old troll lying that all her cans were empty, her cows farrow, and the like. So as justice is served in such stories: “The housewife laughed in her sleeve, and thought that she had escaped the Trolls cheaply; but when she inspected her larder it was found that she had really told the truth to the Troll woman. […] Ever after that the plenty that had heretofore been was wanting, until finally the people were compelled to sell out and move away.” [Booss. 283]

A perfect example of pure viciousness on the part of a troll is in the tale The Trolls in Skurugata – Once a hunter named Pelle Kant trespassed on troll territory. “It is generally understood that Trolls, when their territory is encroached upon by mankind, withdraw to some more secluded place. So when Eksjö was built, those that dwelt in the vicinity moved to Skurugata, a defile between two high mountains whose perpendicular sides rise so near to each other as to leave the bottom in continual semi-darkness and gloom.” [Booss. 251]  It is in this place that the hunter, Pelle, decided to go shooting and then as the hunt was unsuccessful cursed and raved aloud that the trolls had cursed his gun. So a troll woman makes an appearance and offers a poodle for him to shoot instead. He ties the unfortunate animal to a tree and shoots it through the head only to discover afterward that it was actually his own child wrapped in a dog’s hide. The troll woman then rewards him with a dollar piece which always reappears in his pocket when spent which he proceeded to use to drink himself to death.

Starting at about 1841 Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe collected together folktales from around Norway many of which concerned trolls. In these tales Christianity has a significant part to play representing an opposing force to elder and very hostile pagan forces (embodied primarily in the trolls). It is the wave of the new world overwhelming the old fully represented in the struggle between the hero and the troll(s). Once again it seemed that the trolls were nearing new heights as potential opposition to the divine though now even the sound of church bells could hurt and even kill them. “Should they be within the hearing of church bells, or otherwise fall under religious influence, their power is destroyed.” [Booss. xiv] The new power of Christianity was overpowering the older world of faerie.

Of course in these tales trolls were also granted the ability to sniff out “Christian blood” as well as having certain thirst for it. In the story The Boys Who Met the Trolls in the Hedal Woods – “The boys were all ears, and listened well to hear whether it might be an animal or a Forest Troll which they heard. But then it started snorting even harder and said, “I smell the smell of Christian blood here!”” [Asbjørnsen, Peter Christen & Moe, Jørgen. 1960. Norwegian Folktales. Pantheon Books, NY. 10] Trolls were the enemy from the elder chaos opposing the emerging god of light and its new order. “All at once the Troll came, and he was so huge and burly that he had to go sideways to get in through the door. When he had got his first head in, he shouted, “Ugh! Ugh! I smell the smell of Christian blood!”” [Asbjørnsen & Moe. 70] – from the tale Soria Moria Castle.

It is at this point that J.R.R. Tolkien makes his appearance once again in the ephemeral world of faerie and that of the elves, dwarves, and trolls. He redefined their birth as a race of pure unadulterated evil. “It is thought that in the First Age of Starlight, in the deep Pits of Angband, Melkor the Enemy bred a race of giant cannibals who were fierce and strong but without intelligence. These black-blooded giants were called Trolls, and for five Ages of Starlight and four Ages of Sun they committed deeds as evil as their dull wits allowed.” [Day, David. 1979. A Tolkien Bestiary. Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited. Trolls]

He refined the behavior of trolls including their level of stupidity, to be fair they were not very bright in the fairytales either (see The Ash Lad who had an Eating Match with the Troll for example), their strength, and their raw savagery. “They desired most a diet of raw flesh. They killed for pleasure, and without reason – save an undirected avarice – hoarded what treasures they took from their victims.” [Day. Trolls] The appearance he ascribed to his trolls though was not carried over into the popular figure of the troll but which did link the creatures more closely to the earth than they had been since their inception though he did leave their vulnerability to sunlight untouched. “Trolls were rock hard and powerful. Yet in the sorcery of their making there was a fatal flaw: they feared light. The spell of their creation had been cast in darkness and if light did fall on them it was as if that spell were broken and the armour of their skin grew inwards. Their evil soulless beings were crushed as they became lifeless stone.” [Day. Trolls] A curse which is prominent in gory detail in certain tales.

“Just then, the sun appeared at the rim of an eastern ridge. […] With a hoarse cry […] Her great bulk swelled, until her eyes were black and her skin taut and shiny. Then she burst in a blinding spray of blood. Slowly, the loose skin collapsed and crumpled toward the rock edge, shriveling into a boulder that still bore the troll wife’s face, its mouth wide in a silent scream. Trolls could not survive the sun. It turned them to stone.” [Constable, George. 1985. The Enchanted World: Night Creatures. Time-Life Books Inc., Chicago, Illinois. 28]

Tolkien did cement their size and strength in the popular imagination however which was then further refined in a later work of sword & sorcery and this is where current tabletop roleplayers will start to recognize the monster that stalks the underworlds of their imaginations. The tough specimen of troll found in the novel Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) by Poul Anderson is the model used by Gary Gygax for his troll “which regenerates even as it is hacked apart and must be burnt piecemeal.” [Clute. Trolls] That very work is listed under “inspirational and educational reading” in Appendix N of the Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979) evidence of its direct adaptation by Gygax.

“Trolls are horrid carnivores found in nearly every clime. They are feared by most creatures, as a troll knows no fear and attacks unceasingly. Their sense of smell is very acute, their infravision is superior, and their strength is very great.” [Gygax, Gary. 1978. Advanced D&D Monster Manual. TSR Games. 97] This is the very image of what is now considered a troll reimagined as a nightmare predator and fodder-monster of RPGs.

The scaly stone-hide ascribed by Tolkien now fully shed and their subhuman appearance now exaggerated to its fullest. “Troll hide is a nauseating moss green, mottled green and gray, or putrid gray. The writhing hair-like growth upon a troll’s head is greenish black or iron gray. The eyes of a troll are dull black.” [Gygax. 97] They are also mostly bestial and are more brutish and dangerous than ever. “A troll attacks with its clawed forelimbs and its great teeth. […][A]fter being damaged, a troll will begin to regenerate. […][T]his regeneration includes the rebonding of severed members. The loathsome members of a troll have the ability to fight on even if severed from the body; a hand can claw or strangle, the head bite, etc. Total dismemberment will not slay a troll, for its parts will slither and scuttle together, rejoin, and the troll will arise whole and ready to continue combat. To kill a troll, the monster must be burned or immersed in acid, any separate pieces being treated in the same fashion or they create a whole again […].” [Gygax. 97]

In the popular imagination Trolls lurk in ill-lit (often slime-plagued) subterranean lairs and are ugly, smelly, often giant, and always viciously evil. They are not as codified as the Elves though, aside from the ideas of the sun turning them into stone and their eating flesh. Most trolls found in roleplaying games have retained the ability to regenerate found in Gygax’s AD&D, however this ability is not always carried over. Strangely enough, the popular concept of trolls has splintered the magic-slinging elder-world denizen of fairytales from the monster-enemy concept of sword & sorcery and RPGs to the point that trolls have bifurcated into two separate species: the RPG Troll and the troll of fairy-stories.

Born in the cold forge of Nordic myth trolls trickled down through history in folktales and then fairytales where they served as the hideous man-eating monster lurking about the wastes at the edge of civilization just waiting to snatch away women and eat livestock and children. Sword & Sorcery fiction trans-mutated them into veritable juggernauts, more than a match for any warrior who would dare confront them face to ugly face. They are the embodiment of every repugnant aspect of mankind sitting in their lairs among the hoard of treasure looted from the corpses of their victims, striking out blindly at the sunlit world in which they have no place.

Trolls like elves were transformed and added to by storytellers and writers until they reached their core forms in fantasy games today but unlike elves they seemed to spring forth fully formed very close to what can still be recognized as (if not already named) a troll being thought up from the ether as antagonistic monsters from the very beginning.

Elves

Elves, the humanoid embodiments of beauty and grace armed with the wisdom of ages as well as a not insignificant amount of magical power. They are ubiquitous in modern fantasy but once upon a time Elves, Dwarves, Goblins, and fairies were synonymous and virtually the same thing.

The popular concept of an “elf” is a tall, angelically beautiful humanoid akin to a human being with a pair of pointed ears possibly armed with a head full of arcane knowledge. In concept elves have mutated from obscure references in ancient myth and then into the fairies of Victorian nursery stories ultimately taking their core modern form in the work of J.R.R Tolkien. In a way, the transformation of the “elf” resembles, at least superficially, the evolution of one of the most infamous characters in literature, Lucifer.

“[O]n the second day of creation, one of the archangels, in fact the highest archangel of all, had through pride attempted to set himself up to be worshipped as an equal to God (2 Enoch 29.4-5; cf. 1 John 3:8). The Latin translation of Isa 14:12 names this individual “Lucifer”.” [Van der Toorn, Karel. 1999. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Second Edition. Brill Academic Publishers, The Netherlands. 246] This reference in the King James Bible was to be taken by John Milton and shaped as Tolkien did the elves, into the character of Lucifer the fallen angel onto which the popular idea of the Devil/Satan persona hangs.

Lucifer “Light-bearer” in Latin; used in Classical mythology with reference to the planet Venus as a morning star. The name appears in Isaiah 14:12 – “How art thou Fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” –[…] the misinterpretation of this passage resulted in Lucifer being added to the list of names associated with SATAN; it became popular in this sense following John MILTON’s use of it in Paradise Lost (1667).” [Clute, John & Grant, John. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St Martin’s Press, New York. Lucifer] The Devil had (or has depending on your beliefs) many names but the one most identified with the archfiend nowadays is the popularized one, his name before the fall. The current concept of elves in popular culture has followed a similar line of evolution as the Evil One but first, what exactly is an elf as defined in the popular culture of today?

Elves in the popular mind are the humanoid embodiment of beauty, grace, and wisdom and of a race each of whose members are effectively immortal. They are beautiful, skilled, wise, and may wield some mystical powers. When it comes to roleplaying games (RPGs) they are often one of many such creatures segregated into categories referred to as “Races”.

The term “race” when used in the context of RPGs and this article, refers to a character classification based on assumed or actual genetic stock (in actual taxonomy it would be Species) that determines special benefits and penalties within the game as well as any other flavor or baggage that comes packaged with it. There is some controversy attached to this idea as fictional races served as narrative devices washing out individual identities of its members in favor of coloring the whole as evil hordes or semi-metaphoric masses for some other purpose by the author(s). This in turn translated into RPGs where a character’s race began to predetermine certain aspects of the character regardless of any other factors especially when it comes to moral predestination, i.e. the “evil races”. For now, and in this article “Race” in the context of RPGs will be treated more as character modifying packages with no attached moral predetermination.

The modern idea of the elf began as vague references in various mythic cycles, in particular the Nordic, Scandinavian, Teutonic, and Germanic myths, beginning as creatures of near god-like power and then with time reducing to evil dwarves and tiny fairies. Strangely enough, dwarves began as ‘dark’ or ‘evil’ elves of the earth only later to retain their diminutive size and craft abilities as their cousins the  ‘light elves’ regained their stature.

“Originally a dwarfish being of Germanic mythology, possessed of magical powers which it used for the good or ill of mankind. Later the name was used for a malignant imp, and then for FAIRY creatures that dance on the grass in the full moon and so on.”  [Rockwood, Camilla, ed. 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, 18th Edition. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Elf]

Elves are defined in Bulfinch’s Mythology as: “Spiritual beings of many powers and dispositions, some being evil, and some good.” and goes on to say that: “The Edda mentions another class of beings, inferior to the gods, but still possessed of great power; these were called Elves. The white spirits, or Elves of Light, were exceedingly fair, more brilliant than the sun, and clad in garments of a delicate and transparent texture. They loved the light, were kindly disposed to mankind, and generally appeared as fair and lovely children. Their country was called Alfheim, and was the domain of Freyr, the god of the sun, in whose light they were always sporting.” [Martin, Richard ed. 1991. Bulfinch’s Mythology. HarperCollins Publishers Inc. New York, NY. 302]

Here elves already possess much of what the modern roleplayer associates with them even the vague relationship with the moon. However, they seem to have a lot more mystical power than usual and are a bit small being akin to children at this point. Also elves seem, as Lucifer in the bible, to appear more as references though the elves play little if any active parts in the myths that birthed them. “Light elves and dark elves and the inhabitants of Niflheim are mentioned in the myths from time to time, but they do not have an active part to play in them.” [Crossley-Holland, Kevin. 2015. The Norse Myths. The Folio Society Ltd., London. Xxxviii]

It’s somewhere at this point that elves and fairies begin to become confused although it’s not very clear that elves were fairies to begin with or vice versa. “The other common English term for an individual fairy was “elf”, and this derived not from Latin but from the Nordic and Teutonic languages, reaching England with invasions from the Continent. In Scandinavia, the word for “elves” was alfar, which – appropriately, since fairies were tied to things of the earth – had to do with mountains and water.” [Constable, George ed. 1984. The Enchanted World: Fairies and Elves. Time-Life Books. Alexandria, Virginia. 10-11]

To complicate things elves were divided into good and evil strains as well. “The alfar of Scandanavia were believed to be divided into good and bad branches: the Liosálfar, or Light Elves, who were air dwellers; and the Döckálfar, or Dark Elves, whose kingdoms were beneath the ground.” [Constable. 11.] As they became increasingly delineated from dwarves they also lost their explicit relationship with the deep earth. “[I]n Celtic myth elves are far more closely related to the world of FAERIE, which makes them creatures of light and air, whereas dwarfs are creatures of darkness and earth.” [Clute, John & Grant, John. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. St Martin’s Press, New York. Elves.]

Elves and dwarves were also segregated by morality at this time more commonly known as alignment in tabletop roleplaying circles. “In Nordic myth the good elves live in Alfheim while the black (bad) elves live in Svartheim. The Svarts are shown as dwarfs or goblins[.]” [Clute. Elves] It is at this point dwarves can be left behind as they branch off in another direction away from elves. As dwarves and goblins became Svarts and began to split from the general faerie host elves seemed to melt further into the mass especially when elves reached the Victorian era. “Throughout the Victorian period, elves and fairies are interchangeable.” [Clute. Elves]

The 19th century saw an unprecedented growth in children’s fiction with the late 19th and early 20th centuries being referred to as the “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” [according to Wikipedia]. This mode of fiction often incorporated fantasy elements specifically fairies and faerie folk and among those, elves proved extremely popular. Of course, elves again began to mutate to suit their audience. “A subset of fictional elves – brownies – were considered to appeal particularly to children. Brownies derive from Scottish FOLKLORE, where they are depicted as helpful faerie folk who attach themselves to a household and assist in running it; if they are offended, though, their mischievous side surfaces and they become hobgoblins […]. Brownies were […] popularized in the USA by Palmer Cox (1840-1924) with his illustrated brownie poems in St. Nicholas Magazine, which later appeared in the first of several books, The Brownies: Their Book (coll 1887). The popularity of these books meant that the brownie was firmly entrapped in the realm of CHILDREN’S FANTASY.” [Clute. Elves]

As time marched on past the Victorian era fantasy writers began to adopt the ancient image of the elf as a vestige of an elder world though still leaving the elf firmly in the realm of fairy. Namely Lord Dunsany in The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) and Poul Anderson in The Broken Sword (1954) where the elves regained their stature but were still inextricably linked with the world of faerie. It wasn’t until The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) that elves, though still relics of an older world though not necessarily a wholly faerie realm, gain what is the core of the modern concept of elves. “It was not until the 20th century that authors sought to establish elves as a distinct part of Faerie [.][…] Elves thus became acceptable adult “packaging” for fairies, and in that sense elves ceased to be playful and mischievous: they became secret guardians of Faerie, aristocratic and full of the wisdom of the ancient world.” [Clute. Elves]

This is where J.R.R. Tolkien, a name forever linked with high fantasy and very specific fantasy races including the aforementioned Dwarves and Goblins among others, comes into the picture to sculpt the idea of elves into a more familiar form than they had heretofore taken. “Thus Eru, the One, who the Earthborn know as Ilúvatar, created the fairest race that ever was made and the wisest. Ilúvatar declared that Elves would have and make more beauty than any earthly creatures and they would possess the greatest happiness and deepest sorrow. They would be immortal and ageless, so they might live as long as the Earth lived. They would never know sickness and pestilence, but their bodies would be like the Earth in substance and could be destroyed.” [Day, David. 1979. A Tolkien Bestiary. Mitchell Beazley Publishers Limited. 84]

Tolkien forever transformed the elf from fairy tale denizen into the majestic demi-angelic beings the idea of which forms the core of today’s idea of the creatures within his Legendarium which includes the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. They were beautiful, human-size, wise, and gifted with certain supernatural talents. “These people were the Quendi, who are called Elves, and when they came into being the first thing they perceived was the light of new stars. […] And further, when the new light entered the eyes of Elves in that awakening moment it was held there, so that ever after it shone from those eyes.” [Day. 84]

It was from Tolkien’s Quendi that the core of what would morph into the Elf fantasy RPG race came when adapted by Gary Gygax for Dungeons & Dragons. It was also Tolkien that completely broke the dwarves from elves making them into completely unrelated races within his elaborate Legendarium. “Elves, certainly as depicted by J.R.R. TOLKIEN but also as portrayed in some early FAIRYTALES, tend to be more graceful than dwarfs, are seemingly ageless, and though mischievous are not warlike.” [Clute. Elves]

Gary Gygax kept the heart of the elf from Tolkien and reintroduced some elements reminiscent of their fey origin. “They concern themselves with the natural beauty around them, dancing and frolicking, playing and singing unless necessity dictates otherwise. Because elves love nature, they are not fond of ships or mines, but of growing things and the lands under the sky.” [Gygax, Gary. 1979. Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide. TSR Games. 16] This as compared to Tolkien’s model and this: “Elf (plu. Elves) Fairies of diminutive size, supposed to be fond of practical jokes. (Anglo-Saxon, ælf)” [Rockwood. Fairies.] It was after this that the elven race was born as RPGers currently know it along with their occasionally controversial brethren: the black-skinned subterranean Drow (an evil elven sub-race) whom followed in 1977.

Elves at this point, aside from the seemingly endless parade of variants, were completely apart from Dwarves, Goblins, Brownies, and generally other faerie-folk which had themselves become fantasy races in their own rights each with their own variations and so-called sub-races. Even the equally ubiquitous Orc, another invention of J.R.R. Tolkien, began as elves within the Legendarium only to be transformed by their creator (his inspirations from myth notwithstanding) into a wholly ‘evil race’.

“Within the deepest Pits of Utumno, in the First Age of Stars, it is said Melkor committed his greatest blasphemy. For in that time he captured many of the newly risen race of Elves and took them to his dungeons, and with hideous acts of torture he made ruined and terrible forms of life. From these he bred a Goblin race of slaves who were as loathsome as Elves were fair. […] These were the Orcs, a multitude brought forth in shapes twisted by pain and hate. The only joy of these creatures was in the pain of others, for the blood that flowed within Orcs was both black and cold.” [Day. 198] As a result Orcs are perceived as a race of essentially demi-human monsters completely unrelated to elves in most current RPG games as well as in the minds and imaginations of players.

The elf as they stand now in the tabletop RPG world is the picture of physical beauty and grace, possessed of wisdom seemingly drawn from the experience of their ancient (and usually dwindling) race almost as some sort of racial memory, and with a penchant and natural born talent for the magical arts. “Magic fascinates elves, however, and if they have a weakness it lies in this desire.” [Gygax. 16.] They have also had some of their fairy nature added back into the mix. “Their humor is clever, as are their songs and poetry.” [Gygax. 16.]

Basically, elves had been elevated far above their former status as simple fairy-folk in effect regaining their initial high-position in popular myth but all the while inhabiting an earthly station among the other mortal races. By being the most beautiful race in existence but also the most capable particularly when it comes to their level of wisdom and magical ability they lessen the abilities of the other races in comparison. Due to this near perfection especially when self-perceived, elves can become somewhat insufferable as characters particularly when the game or story is treating them in such a way as to give this mode of thought (and in effect, behavior) credence.

This has led, somewhat justifiably, to a certain level resistance in the gaming community against anything having to do with elves, good or evil. This distaste for anything elvish arises not only as part of fatigue due to their omnipresence in fantasy but as a reaction to their seeming perfection above all other races and how many choose to portray them. Take a human character as opposed to an Elven character for example: an elven wizard is more wise and powerful than a human one, an elven druid is much more in tune with nature if not almost one with it, and an elven ranger is essentially legendary whereas a human ranger is on the face of things, second rate.

When you have an elf especially one that is constantly speaking down to their fellow adventurers in-game on a habitual basis this breeds more than a little resentment and leads to the destructive stereotyping of elves in general. In an apparent attempt to assuage this problem before it should raise in-game, or perhaps because it did immediately arise, Gary Gygax wrote in the Advanced D&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979): “If elves tend towards haughtiness and arrogance at times, they are not inclined to regard their friends and associates as anything other than equals.” [Gygax. 16.]

But attitude no matter how justified it may be is not the only way elves have gotten under the skin of some gamers. Racial issues have also arisen probably due in part to a pedestal being included with the elven race especially since the portrayal of elves as not just perfect but popularly as Caucasian. This in turn has justifiably injected controversy into one their better known variations, the subterranean Drow whom are seemingly meant to be a literal negative image of the prototypical Caucasian elf.

The Drows’ black skin and white hair being the reverse of the fair-skinned, dark-haired light-elf but they are also marked as an evil race. The predestined evilness of the Dark Elves ensuring a perception or moral inferiority on the part of the Drow as opposed to their cousins. The culmination of the superiority of the elf and their black-skinned and evil sub-race has ignited more than a few furious debates about racism in roleplaying.

Ultimately, we arrive at the defining traits of elves in the popular imagination: beauty, grace, effective immortality, and wisdom. In addition to these amazing inherent abilities they are also equal in stature to humans. “Their size would be the same as that of Men, who were still to be created, but Elves would be stronger in spirit and limb[.]” [Day. 84]

Elves are physically beautiful; they are flawless and pretty, with both the females and males of the species being beauteous possessing near angelic features. “Their hair is like spun gold or woven silver or polished jet, and starlight glimmers all about them on their hair, eyes, silken clothes and jeweled hands. There is always light on the Elven face, and the sound of their voices is various and beautiful and subtle as water. Of all their arts they excel best at speech, song and poetry.” [Day. 84.]

Elves are graceful that is, they possess a natural elegance of movement often translated as Dexterity into RPGs or some extra ability with certain items or weapons or at tasks/skills that call for maneuverability such as balance and especially at handling the bow and arrow.

Elves are also effectively immortal, that is they cannot die from old age or natural causes; they tend to get stronger and of course all the more wise as they age but they can still be killed as can any other mortal. “Elves would not grow weak with age, only wiser and more fair.” [Day. 84]

The wisdom of elves permeates the whole race and is rarely a wholly earned thing through experience but rather inherited. All elves tend to have a high level of good sense and practicality but also a deep reservoir of knowledge retained from their elders occasionally almost more as a racial memory in certain cases. They have access to knowledge and wisdom collected by and as the natural cultural sedimentation of a most likely very ancient civilization. “Elves were the first of all people on Earth to speak with voices and no earthly creatures before them sang.” [Day. 84]

All of these strong points and advantages do seem to paint the elven race as a race of superior humanoids that excel at everything. However, there are certain aspects of their character which does seem to arise not just with roleplayers, especially those who honestly take heart in elven superiority, but come packaged together with them as the flip side of their positive aspects.

With superior wisdom there would come with it a supreme arrogance which may not only diminish the capacity for good judgment but the possibility of completely counteracting it. This arrogance would only increase with age as the elder of the race would have experience in many instances where their wisdom won out and so would become more and more reliant on it eventually too much leading to a disease of destructive arrogance among the elder race as a whole as the young would, and somewhat rightly, always yield to the guidance maybe even the tyranny of the old.

Another fundamental attribute which has its own balancing flip side is elvish beauty. Such a gaggle of beauties would not see extreme beauty as an exception but as a fundamental, anyone else less attractive than the accepted low point, which would be unfairly high among a race of angel-faces, would be shunned as disgusting or even suspect especially if beauty is considered a virtue in and of itself. Elvish beauty can lead to a sublime superficiality where they would immediately pass judgment based on the level of physical attractiveness of any given individual. Giving them a penchant for judging others based on appearance which would be both harsh and unfair when in comparison to their own almost supernatural beauty.

Elvish beauty may also lead to expectation and the arrogance of the beautiful when surrounded by those who worship beauty and are not as attractive as their foci, after a while an elven adventurer among the rabble may not only resent the others as underserving of their company but also expect to be waited on or treated in a superior manner as compared to their non-elven companions.

Their longevity as well can with enough time become a negative where the elves fall victim to the senility of a vanishing civilization and the supreme arrogance of those that have seen it all as well as a seemingly fatal lethargy or disinterest in the outside and younger world and races. Basically this would be the final nail in their collective coffins with a senile culture falling victim to a plague of utter arrogance and superficiality with a final and apocalyptic apathy to mark their pitiable end. But I guess that depends on the setting. These negative aspects are a part of their being as much as the positive especially in the context of active RPG campaigns.

Thus, the current picture of the elf is one of a beautiful, graceful, immortal, and wise race of (mostly) benevolent beings even if they may be a bit playful or mischievous at times with great skill at the bow and with magic. In current tabletop RPGs elves adhere to these basic qualities and have gained innumerable others based on their author(s) increasing the number of elven races and sub-races exponentially. Weirdly, this brings us back to the case of the Prince of Darkness due to the sheer variety (at least in name) of elves. “Intertestamental and later Jewish texts ascribe the Devil a variety of names and activities.” [Van Der Toorn. 246]

All-in-all elves as they appear in the current state of RPGs is the result of long evolution starting in the dim recesses of mythology to the nursery tales of the Victorians to the Legendarium of one of the most famous of all authors of fantasy. It is in the worlds and games of the tabletop that the fantasy existence of elves has been deeply probed and explored revealing controversy and their more negative aspects discovered and hopefully overcome.