Now that we have seen where elves got their beginning, let’s cross the North Sea for the British Isles to hone in a bit more closely on the elves of English folklore. As we do so, we’ll switch from Old Norse to Old English, a related language where we can spot a family resemblance in some of the terms we have already encountered. In Old English, for example, the equivalent of the Norse aesir is ése (singular, ós). The Old English equivalent of Norse álfar is aelfe (singular, aelf).
Germanic mythology first came to England with the Angles and Saxons in the fifth century. Early on, English elves enjoyed the same positive reputation as their Scandinavian kin. Aelf is found among terms denoting “good” supernatural beings, and thus fit to be used as an element in personal names. Thus, an Old English speaker might name his or her son Aelfwine (“elf-friend”) as easily as Oswine or Godwine (both meaning “god-friend”).
Other terms denoting “monsters” that pose a threat to humans, are excluded from Old English naming practices. There are no names, for example, that include the elements eoten (“giant”), dweorg (“dwarf”), or thyrs (“ogre”). It goes without saying that nobody who loved their child would put the word “ogre” in his or her name. By the same token, it ought to tell us something that putting the word “elf” in a name was perfectly acceptable.
So, at least in the early centuries of English settlement in Britain, elves were largely the same as the Norse conceived of them: powerful supernatural beings on the side of good. They were also considered to be human-sized. Contrary to much popular opinion, these elves were not diminutive beings. After an involved linguistic analysis, Alaric Hall concludes:
[I]t is unlikely that aelfe in early Old English were considered particularly small, invisible or incorporeal. Although it is not conclusive, the early Old English evidence suggests [that elves were] corporeal anthropomorphic beings mirroring the human in-groups which believed in them. This prospect is eminently well paralleled in medieval north-west Europe by the evidence for álfar, the medieval Irish aes sídhe, the inhabitants of the medieval Welsh Annwn, medieval Latin fatae and Old French fées, Middle English elves, and the Older Scots elvis. (Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, 67–68)
Within a pagan context, the elves of Norse and early Anglo-Saxon mythology were numbered with the “good guys.” Although they might work in ways unfathomable to mere mortals, they were generally on humanity’s side in the cosmic struggle against giants, dwarves, and ogres.
When Christianity replaced paganism, however, elves were re-interpreted as creatures of darkness.
By the time of Beowulf (8th or 9th century), aelfe were aligned with “monsters” in common understanding. The writer(s) of the Beowulf saga describe Grendel and his kin as descendants of the biblical Cain:
That fierce spirit/guest was called Grendel, the famed border-walker, he who occupied waste-lands, the fen and the fastness, the homeland of the giant-race—the ill-blessed man inhabited them for a time, after the Creator had condemned him; the eternal Lord avenged that killing on the kin of Cain, because he [Cain] slew Abel. He did not profit from that feud, but the Measurer banished him for that crime, from humankind. Thence all misbegotten beings sprang forth, eotenas and aelfe and orcneas, likewise gigantas, which struggled against God for a long while. He gave them repayment for that. (Lines 102–14, end of fitt I; transl. by Hall, 70)
Rather than being on the side of humans against the giants, now the elves and the giants are kin. In the popular imagination, they became associated with physical ailments in humans and livestock, which they inflicted via the magic of elf-shot. The gods or ése didn’t fare any better: an Anglo-Saxon spell against a sudden stabbing pain seeks to protect the victim from harm, be it from “gods’ shot” (esa gescot) or “elves’ shot.”
Furthermore, elves were said to be the cause of nightmares. The German word for nightmare is, in fact, Alpdrücken, literally “elf-pressure.”
These darker, more malevolent elves eventually become the predominant conception not only in England but throughout the Germanic world. In many locales, even the word “elf” came to be avoided because of its sinister connotations. Thus, for example, In Iceland, for example, one finds the term huldufólk, “hidden people” or even liuflingar, “darlings.” This tracks perfectly with the habit in many parts of the world of referring to potentially dangerous spiritual beings with euphemisms lest they overhear and take offense: “the good neighbors,” “the fair folk,” “the kindly ones,” etc.