Tabletop Meditations #11: 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 arbitrary 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 a long evolution started 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.