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Minas Tirith Forums » The Ivy Bush » Elf Stereotypes in Literature and Popular Culture
Author Topic: Elf Stereotypes in Literature and Popular Culture
Roll of Honor Gna
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Tolkien's Elves were, for the most part, physically beautiful, slender, noble, wise, attuned to the natural world, and adept at music and poetry. But what about Elves in other stories, myths, legends, and current popular culture?

What are your impressions of elves, from the books you've read, from movies, and even from advertising (yes, discussion of Keebler Elves is perfectly acceptable here)? You can describe the stereotypes in your own words, and/or use quotes.

Here are two examples:

From Gregory Maguire's Wicked:

Elves are green-skinned, small, brittle, stupid, inane, and shallow.

quote:
Elves giggle at everything, do you know that? One of them falls out of an oak and smashes his skull like a rotten turnip, and they gather and giggle and then forget about him.
From the Eddas, Snorri Sturluson:

Light elves (ljósáfar) are near-angelic beings, "fairer to look at than the sun".

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Roll of Honor Athene
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I find the most convincing portrayal of mythical Elves to be the Lords and Ladies from Pratchett.

The are only beautiful until you get up close, and then they are described almost as the 'Greys' of alien conspiracy culture.

The cast glamours on people, destroy their self-esteem, and have no morals or attention span. They are parasitical and take whatever they want without really understanding it.

For some reason I think it more likely that Elves would be bad than good. []

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Thingol of Doriath
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Nice thread...

Wikipedia has a good thread that I once stumbled onto: Elf. It discusses the general appearance of Elves in different European cultures.

I've always felt that Tolkien got his inspiration from Light Elves of Norse mythology. Especially since Elves of other cultures and religions seem to have been minute in stature and often mischievous.

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Roll of Honor Gna
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IIRC, the Elves in Lords and Ladies are cruel for fun, and have absolutely no remorse. The Fairies in Susanna Clarke's Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are similarly cruel, and routinely kidnap humans that they fancy, for entertainment in the Fairy World. The Fairies can assist magicians, but in doing so, they often identify humans with whom they become obsessed, and whom they torture psychologically under the pretense of loving and respecting them.
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Roll of Honor Athene
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Exactly - TP says they would "break the world if they thought it would make a pretty noise".

But they have style. [] []

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Arien the Maia
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In greek folcklore Elfs are divided to two groups, the Xothies and the Telonia.
The Xothies are supposed to be spirits that dwell in something of a flesh, not quite tangible. They are afraid of humans and live in specific places where the music of nature can be heard, such as springs, trees, rivers and so forth.
Their magic power is their voices and their looks, both enchanting. Supposedly the weave little threads around the forest trees when they want to mate and this way the catch a mortal -and temporary husband.
The Xothies are among the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous beings in greek folcklore mythology. They have the ability to steal a person's voice, sight and heart( so the he or she can't feel anything). They have lots of vengence in them and hould you provoque them or insult them you will get caught in their games, which are usualy terrifying for humans. Quite sadistic games really, where the victim usualy dies of terror.
And as for that husband I mentioned, the temporary one, he always ends up dead, hanging from a tree.
Specialy some of the Xothies are supposed to be in position to cast on innocent walkers of the woods a charm of deep sleep from which you can never get out of and in this way they manage to creep into one's head and thought and torture him till he dies in agony.

Now about the Telonia. While the Xothies are only female, the Telonia can be either male or female. Not that it makes any difference. They are ugly shaped Hobbit-sized beings with foul faces crooked legs and big noses. They live in the shadows but they have a thing for villages and houses, into which they can always find a way to creep in. They have a thing with babies, most peculiar. They are attracted by their existance like magnets because they love eating them. But if they listen to a baby crying, they become it's servants till it reaches it's second year of age.
Allegedly babies know this and usualy they cry to save themselfs.

The Telonia are somewhat vicious but in most cases they end up being house spirits that bring good luck and charm. It was said that if young boys don't "capture" a telonio with their crying while they're babies they will never find a wife.

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Thingol of Doriath
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Our very own Wiki once confused Tolkien's Elves with the Elves of German folklore(specifically from the Brothers Grimm's Elf and the Cobbler).

[]

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Snöwdog
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I figured the horns in many artists drawings of elves had to come from somewhere other than Tolkien.
[]

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Elora Starsong
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If we're talking about pop culture, then I am very much afraid that J.K Rowling's take on the Elf subject is relevant to our discussion.

Rowling sees elves as small, ugly, servile and rather stupid. They're comedic relief, coupled with pathetic social consciousness with an all too clever twist. Rowling's elves are house slaves, with no will of their own, who actively resist being freed by nobler minded humans.

I always found Tolkien's early mingling of the Elf concept with the gnome concept a curious one. Perhaps this is where Rowling gets some inspiration for her house elves.... perhaps they are more gnomish that elvish...

I never really saw the two, elf and gnome, as interchangeable. Rather I saw them as different creatures entirely.

And a nod must be given to the faerie influences from English, Irish and Western European tales. I see faeries as a sort of antecedant to Tolkien's elves. Oberon, and puck... and in modern literature culture, the faeries of "Johnathon Strange and Mr Norrell" absolutely superb - fey, otherworldly, devoid of human sensibilities, incredibly powerful, sometimes casually cruel, perilious in the utmost to human beings.

I dare say I have just commited Tolkied heresy according to some people, but so I see the matter.

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Eluchil
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quote:
Especially since Elves of other cultures and religions seem to have been minute in stature and often mischievous.
Actually, there is a quote from On fairy-stories on that, but I don't know if it's appropriate to post that here ...
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Roll of Honor Gna
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quote:
but I don't know if it's appropriate to post that here
Appropriate, schmappropriate. Go ahead and post it- I'm not some uptight Plaza Patrician. []
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Thingol of Doriath
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quote:
I always found Tolkien's early mingling of the Elf concept with the gnome concept a curious one. Perhaps this is where Rowling gets some inspiration for her house elves.... perhaps they are more gnomish that elvish...

I never really saw the two, elf and gnome, as interchangeable. Rather I saw them as different creatures entirely.

Thanks for bringing that up Elora. I have a lot of trouble reading The Book of Lost Tales(Tolkien) for just that reason. "Gnome" for me brings up images of ugly small creatures or small, elderly garden-dwelling creatures with pointy red hats. So... reading stories from the First Age with Gnomes instead of Noldor just doesn't work for me. []
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Roll of Honor Thorin
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I believe the first edition of The Hobbit even mentioned Gnomes a time or two.
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Eluchil
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OK Gna (and sorry for the typos, I don't have an electronic copy of this text) :
quote:
As for diminutive size: I do not deny that the notion is a leading one in modern use. I have often thought that it would be interesting to try to find out how that has come to be so; but my knowledge is not sufficient for a certain answer. Of old there were indeed some inhabitants of Faërie that were small (though hardly diminutive), but smallness was not characteristic of that people as a whole. The diminutive being, elf or fairy, is (I guess) in England largely a sophisticated product of literary fancy. It is perhaps not unnatural that in England, the land where the love of the delicate and fine has often reappeared in art, fancy should in this matter turn towards the dainty and diminutive, as in France it went to court and put on powder and diamonds. Yet I suspect that this flower-and-butterfly minuteness was also a product of 'rationalisation', which transformed the glamour of Elf-land into mere finesse, and invisibility into a fragility that could hide in a cowslip or shrink behind a blade of grass. It seems to become fashionable soon after the great voyages had begun to make the world seem too narrow to hold both men and elves; when the magic land of Hy Breasail in the West had become the mere Brazils, the land of red-dye-wood. In any case it was largely a literary business in which William Shakespeare and Michael Drayton played a part. Drayton's Nymphidia is one ancestor of that long line of flower-fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae that I so disliked as a child, and which my children in their turn detested. Andrew Lang had similar feelings. In the preface of the Lilac Fairy Book he refers to the tales of tiresome contemporary authors: 'they always begin with a little boy or girl who goes out and meets the fairies of polyanthuses and gardenias and appleblossom... These fairies try to be funny and fail; or they try to preach and succeed.'

On Fairy-Stories.



[ 07-12-2006, 11:59 AM: Message edited by: Eluchil ]

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Arien the Maia
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Over here, and in my head as well, I never mixed elfs with faeries.
We call the first Xotika -accent to {a}- and the second Neraides.
Their distinction is clear not only in terms of size, since the Elfs are considered to be either like short humans, or human sized, while the fearies are tinny people, usualy formless that can be percieved only as dots of light.

In Greece the faeries have no wings, butterfly or other. They are very well in position to fly without them since they are weightless. They also defy the liminations of space and time since the can be anywhere anytime no matter the distance.

They do not have stable houses, and they don't sleep in flowers. Usualy they don't sleep at all.

The Elfs on the other hand have their own civilisation, living areas, architecture and so forth.

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Elora Starsong
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My besyest childhood friend, Angela, and I used to ask each other this question:

Are Elves really faries without wings... or are faries really Elves with wings?? []

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Thingol of Doriath
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*checks back*

No wings! []

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Eluchil
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[mode MANDOS on] Well, wings would explain why Legolas could walk on the snow [mode MANDOS off] []
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