Modern interest in Tolkien’s work, and the success in visualizing that work, now permeates every part of Western culture. Convincing characterization and visual representations of elves now cannot fail to bring to mind Orlando Bloom and Legolas, and the other exceptional characters and actors who have brought Tolkien’s epics to life. While unintended, we have recast elves in human form.
Before these developments, elves were anything but human. The older form of the word – the Anglo-Saxon “ælfe” – probably meant slightly different things at different times – but belief in the ælfe for more than a thousand years ago was probably common and enduring.
Alaric Timothy Peter Hall in a thesis dealing with The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England invokes the concept of “social reality” to explain this:
“Within this framework of historical anthropology, my guiding assumption is that ælfe were a ‘social reality’. They were not an objective reality, like houses and trees, which can be readily perceived in the physical world and, insofar as anything can be, objectively proven to exist. ... But the insider’s perspective on ælfe can no longer be experienced, only reconstructed, and I have no choice but to admit my disbelief in ælfe’s objective reality, while accepting that objective experiences of Anglo-Saxons could have been construed as experience of ælfe.”
While the concept of “social reality” is problematic, Hall’s explanation here raises the central problem: while there is no objective evidence for the ælfe, people within particular society acted as though they were real. This is a little different from the modern meaning of elf – where elves are treated as entirely imaginary.
Alaric Timothy Peter Hall’s argument is, of course, capable of being used to prove diametrical opposites. And I confess to enjoying having an aelf use it to disprove the existence of humans. It is more than just a rhetorical tool, it is convincing because it tells us a little about how we think. And like it or not, we think far too much about elves as just another kind of human. When I was small, this was not the case. Elves existed, just out of sight: a source of fortune or disaster, a tangible driver of probabilities.
Because of the baggage around the word “elf” I have chosen to use a different word to evoke the beings of my childhood, using the form of the word used by elderly when talking to children. While not the “ælfe” of Anglo Saxon writings or folklore, a simplified form “aelf” evokes the older form while offering a bridge from the modern “elf”. During the writing, I tried a couple of different forms, starting with “alf”. That stopped suddenly after a morning with the artist Indya and Sam, who were ruthless in their scorn of me digging up a comic American puppet, one that ate cats.
In the stories I have sometimes gone one step further, referring to a “dark aelf”. The prefix is intended to further ground the being in the hearth and home, to evoke mixed ideas of a miner, weapon wielder and mischief maker. A being with dark eyes or hair – a being capable of gifting good or poor health, travelling rainbows, a seeker of gold. As a child, if you were going to run into one of these, chances are it would be a dark aelf. As an adult, a dark aelf would most commonly encountered as an absence, a missing egg or a lost opportunity.
This again is a little different from a set of meaning that have grown around the term “dark elves”, Some modern genres of games or books have derived monstrous forms that simply didn’t exist, as elves, in folk culture.
My own “knowledge” of dark aelfs is largely derived from stories told me by my great-aunt, conditioned by the wonderful stories of the Icelandic law-speaker, Snorre Sturlason.