Not Your Handmaiden’s Yoda
The idea of an elf varies greatly across time and culture. Earliest descriptions are found throughout the Scandinavian regions; however, even these disagree. While Old Norse texts associated elves with pagan deities, medieval Germans alluded to them as monstrous or harmful, representing a sexual threat. Ironically, almost all surviving codices on elves come from a surprising source, Anglo-Saxon Christian monks who classified the creatures as either 1) demonic; 2) outside the prevailing religious cosmology of that era (it’s possible these stories were told to subvert church authority); or 3) integrated into Christianity without the demonization aspects. This third approach proved to be a turning point for elves and the human imagination alike.
Because the Branches Make Him That Much Taller
Moving forward, elf evolution diverged in significant ways. Germanic sources depicted them more dwarflike, whereas Late Middle-English literature grouped elves with fairies, no doubt due to the country’s appropriation of the French word faerie. Authors such as William Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser considered them tiny entities, more along the order of brownies (wee nocturnal benefactors of mankind) or hobs (household spirits of the kinder, gentler poltergeist variety). It wasn’t until Lord Dunsany’s 1924 novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series that elves regained their human-sized stature. This was not to last, as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books shrank them back to brownie-esque proportions.
Yule Elves Getting Into the Act
A relatively recent offshoot, this iteration of elf dates to an 1850 work written, but never published, by Louisa May Alcott called Christmas Elves (when Little Women’s your calling card, word spreads). On closer inspection, these candy cane kin resemble the not-so-jolly companions of St. Nicholas, prevalent in German-speaking countries, where they served as a foil to the Saint, their primary role being lashers of disobedient children. Though their names vary from locale to locale, the most famous one was Knecht Ruprecht (Farmhand Rupert) who carried a bag of ashes with which to beat children. This segued into the tradition of giving naughty boys and girls stockings filled with coal.
Bonus: These elves give you less than six degrees from Will Ferrell to the Shakespearean sonnet.
This edition of Fairy-Tale Files brought to you by editorial assistant Catherine Walker and poetry editor Jon Riccio.