Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Elves

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know that I can be a little obsessive about the fantastical humanoid beings one finds in folklore and popular culture? For one thing, I resist using the word “race” to describe these beings. That term is just too fraught with negative historical connotations in a context where we’re describing persons that look almost human but are regarded by everyone as something profoundly different.

Furthermore, I continue to be intrigued by the analogy between the D&D/Tolkienesque model of multiple fantasy kindreds sharing a world and the actual situation say 300,000 years ago with multiple hominin species sharing planet earth. (A layperson’s definition of a hominin is roughly anything more human than a chimpanzee.)

With my work in progress Shadow of the King nearing completion, I thought I’d share a little of how I personally imagine the kindreds that populate the faerie realm of Saynim. I have tried to keep three goals in mind:

  • Be as true to the folkloric source material as possible.
  • Work with as many non-European folklore examples as possible.
  • Look for connections to what is known or might be postulated about the diversity of hominin species.

I’ll start with elves because, as they’ll gladly tell you, they’re better than everybody else.

ELVES (Homo sapiens pulcher)

Alaric Hall’s PhD dissertation, “The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England” provides a wealth of data about the elves of Germanic mythology. As originally conceived, they were apparently human-sized creatures, and more often took the side of humans than not. Hall also points out that in Old English, aelf was often used as a gloss when translating classical references to fauns/satyrs and nymphs.

For my purposes, I take “elf” to mean those fantastical humanoids that look most human, though often possessing unearthly beauty, and that are most likely to have a physical relationship with humans.

In this category I would place not only the nymphs and satyrs of the classical world but also such creatures as the aes sídhe of Ireland and the peris of Iran. In Cherokee mythology, the Nunnehi are elf-like beings who live high in the mountains. They occasionally venture among humans, joining them in their dances and appearing as attractive humans themselves.

In short, I imagine elves as a subspecies of Homo sapiens and therefore our closest cousins among the Saynim folk. Mythology is, in fact, chock full of elf-human hybrid children. “Half-elves” appear in Germanic folklore, for example, with the likes of Hagen of Tronege and Princess Skuld. In Irish folklore, we find Oscar and Plúr na mBan. Outside of Europe, there is also the Arabic legend that says that Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba from the Old Testament, was in fact the daughter of a jinni.

Elves are creatures of grace, subtlety, and powerful magic, especially when it comes to charms and illusions. They tend to conduct themselves with nobility and grace, even if they are not well born. The “faery courts” of European folklore reflect the elvish conception of refinement and sophistication. At the same time, elves are the haughtiest and most easily offended of all Saynim folk—and woe to the one who causes the offense!

In the earliest mythology, elves were generally on the side of good. It may not be that they followed a moral code that humans would recognize, but more often than not, they could be convinced to be on “our” side. In Germanic cultures, offerings were given to the elves to ensure their good favor. All of this changed, however. By the time of Beowulf (c. AD 1000), elves were listed among giants and demons as enemies of humankind. Now, elves are more often seen as a threat: they blight crops, steal babies, and inflict various diseases on humans and livestock. Interpreters usually attribute this shift to the Christianization of northern Europe, and that’s probably not a bad explanation. In Iceland, where the Old Ways are still prevalent, elves don’t have such a bad reputation. And among the Cherokee, the Nunnehi are still considered defenders of the people.

But then elves shift again in the early modern period. Starting around 1600, elves turn into tiny, comical figures: still mischievous, perhaps, but no longer the creatures of nightmare. Our modern conception of elves as Santa’s helpers or as cheerful shoemakers in the Grimm fairy tale come from this period.

In Shadow of the King, I provide an in-story explanation for this second shift from malevolent demons to diminutive mischief-makers. Perhaps in a later volume I’ll do the same for the first shift from a generally pro-human to an anti-human stance.