The most recent development in elf-lore is to see them neither as tall, powerful, benevolent beings as in Norse mythology, nor as tall, powerful, sinister beings, as in later Germanic folklore, but rather as small, shy beings who are usually quite helpful to humans. Although they may still be mischievous, they are rarely malicious.
Germanic “House Elves”
One early depiction of this sort of elf is in 1812, in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Die Wichtelmänner, known to English readers as the story of “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” In this story, two tiny naked imps help the shoemaker with his work. When he seeks to reward them with clothing, however, they are so delighted that they run away and are never seen again.
It is debatable whether these Wichtelmänner should be interpreted as elves at all or rather as some other sort of fairy being: kobolds, dwarves, or brownies, for example. The word, itself a diminutive of German Wicht, “wight,” which might better be translated imp or goblin. They seem to have a bit in common with the nisse or tomte of Scandinavia, kindly, diminutive sprites similar to the hobs and brownies of England. At any rate, due to the common translation, they have entered the constellation of images to which English-speakers attach the word “elf.”
Dobby and Company
The depiction of tiny, helpful, industrious elves certainly influenced the house elves of Harry Potter more than either of the previous types. There is even a mythological basis for their aversion to conventional clothing. In English folklore, brownies are a type of sprite that secretly tidy up the house and perhaps do other domestic chores. It is said that they always dress in rags, but are deeply offended if ever anyone offered them more suitable clothing to wear. Do this, the legends say, and they will promptly disappear, never to return.
These domestic sprites are often attached to a particular family. In fact, they are believed by some to be the departed spirits of an ancestor. Such is the case, for example, of the domovoi of Slavic folklore. They may be especially associated with the hearth.
In addition to the nisse and tomte already discussed, other iterations of this sort of “elf” are the Spanish duende, the Irish grogan, the Welsh bwbach. There are also an assortment of faery creatures involved in a number of “working-class” functions: the vazila of Russia takes care of horses; the bodachan buachailleen of the Scottish highlands is a herdsman while his neighbor, the bodachan sabhaill, inhabits the barn; the kilmouli of the Border region is a spinner.
Louisa May Alcott first mentioned elves in a Christmas story in 1856. Sadly, the publisher declined to print the story. A year later, however, Harper’s Weekly published an anonymous poem titled “The Wonders of Santa Claus,” which begins:
Beyond the ocean many a mile,
And many a year ago,
There lived a wonderful queer old men [sic]
In a wonderful house of snow;
And every little boy and girl,
As Christmas Eves arrive,
No doubt will be very glad to hear,
The old man is still alive.
In his house upon the top of a hill,
And almost out of sight,
He keeps a great many elves at work,
All working with all their might,
To make a million of pretty things,
Cakes, sugar-plums, and toys,
To fill the stockings, hung up you know
By the little girls and boys.
It would be a capital treat be sure,
A glimpse of his wondrous ‘shop;
But the queer old man when a stranger comes,
Orders every elf to stop;
And the house, and work, and workmen all
Instantly take a twist,
And just you may think you are there,
They are off in a frosty mist.
Thus, Christmas elves appear on the scene only thirty-five years after Clement Moore gave us the “canonical” depiction of Santa Claus himself. The depiction of these beings varies from story to story, but they are almost always shorter than normal humans. By temperament, they are cheerful and jolly—as befits Santa’s helpers. They usually dress in bright, festive colors.