Evolution of the Elf in Fantasy Literature

The tall, noble and beautiful elf has become almost a cliche in fantasy at this point, but this was not always so. As Tolkien traces in his landmark essay, "On Fairy Stories," from Spenser’s "The Faerie Queene" and Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" up to his time, elves had been diminutive creatures of mischief, cutesy and not worth taking seriously. Beginning with Tolkien, and his reliance on Northern European mythology to craft his legendarium, analyze this shift in the treatment of the Elf, and what it meant for fantasy as a genre. Also, compare Tolkien’s Elf with a more modern one, and look at recent deviations of the now archetypal elf.

  • Great topic! A portion of this article should definitely be devoted to the portrayal of Christmas elves, as a complete 180 deviation from the kind seen in Tolkein. How did the archetype of a tall, noble, immortal warrior turn into the short, subservient toy-makers (or tree-dwelling cookie-makers, or nocturnal shoe-makers, etc) that's become so ubiquitous in our contemporary lore? – ProtoCanon 5 years ago
  • The writer could also stand to look into pixies/imps/brownies and other fae folk for this topic. More than a few of them have gotten mixed together. – Mariel Tishma 5 years ago
  • Oh, the possibilities.... I'd highly suggest devoting a whole section of the topic to the Christmas elf, since they have about 1000 incarnations themselves. I've seen them as whimsical humans (Buddy in "Elf"), a Nordic-looking stop-motion troupe ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer") and as children with silver-specked cheeks (The Santa Clause franchise). – Stephanie M. 5 years ago

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