Fantasy Kindreds of Saynim: Ell Folk

Ell folk are next in my survey of the fantasy kindreds of Saynim.

ELLING (Homo neanderthalensis parvus)

You know what kind of creatures I’m talking about. You’ve seen them in popular culture since forever. These beings are represented by Old World brownies, nisse, and other domestic sprites as well as tiny but magically powerful “little people” of Native American lore.

But what do you call them? The easy answer would be to simply call them “little people”: a term often used especially for the North American branches of this family. But in the real world, “little people” can also refer to humans with certain genetic conditions that make them unusually short. The term is not a slur, but it can be confusing even so. There are plenty of terms that describe the little folk of a particular culture: brownies, duendes, kwanokasha, leprechauns, oogweshia, tomte, yunwi tsunsdi, yumboes, etc. But I needed a collective term that crossed cultural boundaries.

The ancient Greeks spoke of pygmies. Of course, this is also a highly problematic term, but it got me thinking. “Pygmy” comes from pygme, the Greek word for “cubit,” and members of this wondrous tribe were said to stand only about one cubit tall: about 18 inches. (Other groups were said to be three spans tall or about 27 inches.) I wondered if there was a unit of measurement that could become the basis for a made-up collective term for all of these various beings.

As it turns out, the ell is just such a unit, and it has the added benefit of being a bit ambiguous. Originally, an ell was the length of an adult male forearm, or anywhere from 18 to 24 inches, roughly the same as a cubit, so very fitting as a workaround to avoid using the word pygmy while keeping the connotation of “a person who is as tall as this particular unit of measure.” But in later times, a longer ell came into use. A Flemish ell is 27 inches long. A Scottish ell is 37 inches. and an English ell is 45. All of these fit nicely with the sizes that are usually reported of these sorts of tiny humanoids. Finally, “ell” is reminiscent of ellyll, a Welsh fairy being that is smaller than the tylwyth teg (the Welsh version of what I’m calling “elves”).

Ell folk (or ellings) are a dwarf subspecies (in the biological sense of the word) derived from Homo neanderthalensis. They are literally dwarf dwarves. Biologically, there are two ways a dwarf species can evolve. The first is to shorten the length of pregnancy and infancy. A second path is for the length of pregnancy to stay the same but slow down the growth of the fetus. This second path results in smaller brain size and tooth size. For my ell folk, the first path seemed best, as mythology certainly makes them no slouches in the intellect department. They’re usually about a Scottish ell tall, but there is a fair bit of variation in different populations. They don’t possess the brute strength of dwarves and trolls, but they are small enough to crawl through small or constricted passages.

As a rule, ell folk are hardworking and earnest. Most are content to farm the land or work as woodsmen, stonemasons, or in other professions. They are also often mischievous pranksters, however, especially against those who are lazy or negligent in their chores.