Elves, Part One: The Origins of Elves

In a comment on my post from 23 Feb, “The Shadows of Our Fantasy Predecessors,” jesswords10 said: “Tell me everything you about elves! *sits with chin in hand and eyes wide open*.”  Well, I could hardly refuse such a request, could I?  And I fully intended to do just as she suggested last week.  Unfortunately, last week I was struck down by a severe cold, and I had to pull from my reserve articles instead.  So, this week, I will fulfill Jess’s request.

And so, without further ado, The Origins of Elves in Norse Mythology:


Frey, Lord of the Light Elves - image from wikipedia

Elves are first and foremost beings of Germanic/Norse mythology, which were later (much later) incorporated into English/Irish myths after the Viking culture had been established in the British Isles for some time.

In Norse mythology, the universe is divided into 3 levels.  On the first/top level, is Asgard, the realm of the Aesir (warrior gods).  Here is also found Valhalla, the huge hall that houses the Einherjar (the dead warriors await Ragnarok).  Also on this level is Vanaheim, where all the Vanir (fertility gods) lived until they eventually united with Aesir.  And finally, here is also Alfheim, the land of the light elves.

On the second level is Midgard, the middle world inhabited by men.  On this level is also Jotunheim, which lay either within Midgard or across the ocean (depending on the source) and was the home of the Giants.  North of Midgard were the Dvergar (dwarfs), who lived in Nidavellir.  And below the ground was Svartalfheim, the land of the dark elves.  There is some debate on the differences (if there are any) between dwarfs and the dark elves, and some argue that they are, in fact, essentially the same thing.

(We won’t get into the third level of the Norse universe, the underworld, because it does not bear on the discussion of elves.)

One of the best resources for Norse mythology is Teutonic Mythology by Jacob Grimm.  Of course, Jacob Grimm is best known now for the fairy tales and folklore that he and his brother Wilhelm collected, but Jacob Grimm was best known in his own time as an expert in Germanic linguistics and mythology.  In his study, Grimm only devotes a few paragraphs to elves.  They were mentioned often in Norse and Germanic mythology, but rarely beyond some name-dropping, so there is very little detail to go on.  In any case, Grimm offers the following information:

The Poetic Edda (one of the great Old Norse texts) often couples the Aesir (gods) and the Alfar (elves) together as if they were equal (or nearly so) higher beings.  Likewise, in the Hrafnagaldr (an Icelandic poem similar in style to the Poetic Edda) opens with the words: “Alfodr orkar, alfar skilja, vanir vita” which means roughly “All-father (which is probably a refernce to Odin, leader of the Aesir) has power, Alfar (elves) have skill, Vanir have knowledge.”  This would indicate that the elves, while perhaps not the same as the Aesir, were divine in nature and were possibly respected for their skill (though stkill in what, precisely, is unknown).

In The Lay of Alvis, a narrator relates all the different names given to heavenly bodies, elements, and plants by various languages, and in so doing mentions the Aesir, alfar, Vanir, and as well as menn (men), iotnar (also called jotun, or giants), dvergar (dwarfs), and denizens of hel (the underworld).  What Grimm points out as important here is that the alfar are very clearly differentiated from the dvergar, as well as from the Aesir and Vanir, making them distinctly their own race of beings and not merely an off-shoot of one or the other as has sometimes been argued.  Grimm, however, also makes note of the fact that several dwarfs are given elf-names such as Alfr and Vindalfr, and that likewise several human heroes and kings of Icelandic folklore have been given titles such as Visi Alfa (“ruler of elves”) and alfa liodi (“one among the elves”).  All this indicates to Grimm that, at the very least, there existed some kind of kinship between elves, dwarfs, and men.

A variety of Norse myths and folklore also tell us that elves closely resembled humans and the two races were capable of cross-breeding, but that the elves were more beautiful than any human could hope to be.  The elves were also said to be semi-divine, and were often associated with fertility and nature spirits.  Some stories also claimed that elves were bound by physical limitations and could pass through walls and doors like ghosts.

For those who are wondering, yes, these Norse elves are the basis for the elves brought to life by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Sillmarillion, and the various other writings associated with the series.  I’m pretty sure this is common knowledge by now, but Tolkien was first and foremost a professor of etymology (aka, linguistics), specializing (like Jacob Grimm) in Germanic languages such as Old Norse, High German, and Old English.  And like Grimm, much of his study of language also included study of mythology (you might be surprised by how much the two are interrelated).  Quite a large amount of The Lord of the Rings was inspired by Tolkien’s vast knowledge of mythology and linguistics.  The elves are no exception.

Most of the information provided here comes from the following sources: The Norse Myths, introduced and retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland; Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology (follow link for online translation); and a bit from Wikipedia (which is such a useful site for summarizing information).

On Friday, I will discuss elves as they were absorbed into English/Irish mythology and became combined with fairies.  In the meantime: thoughts, questions, additional information?  I, of course, could not discuss everything there is to know about elves (first, because I don’t know it all yet, and second, because whole books have been written on the subject), but if you think I’ve neglected something vital, please let me know.


The Alternate Universes and Gritty Side-streets of Fantasy

Let’s face it, there are so many sub-genres of fantasy, and so many varying opinions on what exactly make  up the difference between each sub-genre, that it is extremely difficult to keep them all straight.  Dark fantasy, high/epic fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy superhero fantasy, mythic fantasy, sword-and-sorcery.  I could go on.  But I’d like to focus on what I think of as two of the bigger sub-genres: high/epic fantasy and urban fantasy.

The most basic distinction made between high/epic and urban fantasy is that the former takes place in alternative or “secondary” worlds that are entirely fictional, while the latter takes place, more or less, in the real or “primary” world and in a contemporary time.  After that, the definitions start to get a little messy.

In my head, I tend to equate high/epic fantasy with most sword-and-sorcery, but this isn’t strictly accurate.  High/epic fantasy, while often set in medieval-ish landscapes and filled with sword-fighters and sorcerers, can just as easily take place in more modernized settings, as long as that setting is not our real world.  For instance, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is generally considered high/epic fantasy despite the fact that the main setting is an alternate universe version of Victorian Oxford (with what might be considered steampunk influences).

Also, high/epic fantasy usually (maybe always, but I don’t like that word “always”…) contains suitably epic conflicts of good vs. evil that involve world-ending consequences.  On the other hand, sword-and-sorcery (according to the Wikipedia page), is generally filled to the brim with medieval-ish or barbaric settings (think Conan the Barbarian, one of the staple examples) and sword-wielding heroes, but also generally involves “smaller” more localized plots with conflicts that involve one person’s fate rather than the fate of whole worlds.

Knowing all that, I still tend to picture knights in shining armor when I think of high/epic fantasy because so many of the best examples contain all the elements of sword-and-sorcery as well as the epic plots and grand-scale stakes.  The ones that immediately come to mind are J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince series, just to name a few of my personal favorites.

Another common overlap problem is between high/epic fantasy and historical fantasy.  However, true historical fantasy should be set in actual real world historical settings such as ancient Rome or World War II, whereas high/epic fantasy should still be set in fictional worlds, though they made be inspired by historical settings.  Take, again, the example of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The first book, The Golden Compass, takes place in Oxford, but its not any Oxford the real world ever saw, and the details of the world are fantastical and entirely made-up by Pullman.

Urban fantasy runs into similar problems.  Everyone agrees that urban fantasy should be set not only in the real world but in a modern/contemporary time, but beyond that it gets confusing.  Someone in a NaNoWriMo thread discussing the differences between high and urban fantasy commented (mostly joking) that urban fantasy always entails a bad-ass woman in leather and high-heeled boots who fights monsters of some kind.  Someone else replied: no, that’s paranormal romance.  Then the question pops up: what exactly is the difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, and someone else added in magical realism.  All three take place more or less in the here and now, and all them contain some element of magic or the supernatural, but all three are still very different creatures.

First of all, magical realism, while it certainly takes elements from fantasy and could be argued as a sub-genre, is generally lumped in with the more literary/mainstream forms of fiction.  Magical realism springs from a literary movement in Latin America, though it has become a wide-spread popular form around the world (especially in Japan).  It is said to “draw upon cultural systems that are no less ‘real’ than those upon which traditional literary realism draws – often non-Western cultural systems that privilege mystery over empiricism, empathy over technology, tradition over innovation” (from Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community by Zamora and Faris).  And magical realism tends to be critical, political, ideological, and postmodern.  Magical realism aims for a message with more intent than most popular fantasy (which is generally focused more on story than on “meaning”).

With magical realism more or less out of the way, we turn our attention to urban fantasy and paranormal romance.  My general stance (and one that seems to concur with Wikipedia – if that matters…) is that paranormal romance is a sub-genre of romance that takes elements from fantasy and gothic fiction but retains is emphasis on women who are swept up in a relationship with a dashing and/or dangerous man who probably has some supernatural characteristics.  Urban fantasy, on the other hand, (while it can, like any genre, contain romantic subplots) remains focused on the fantastical characters and plots.

One person on the NaNoWriMo thread mentioned above commented that urban fantasy tends to be very gritty.  While this is, of course, a generalization that won’t always hold up, I agree with the overall image.  And unlike paranormal romance (and the comment about bad-ass women in leather and high-heels), urban fantasy does not always center on a female main character.  Sure, there’s Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, but there’s also Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files (which is completely awesome, by the way).  And just to complicate things further, there’s also Martin Millar’s The Good Fairies of New York (also awesome).

For further thoughts on the differences on urban fantasy and paranormal romance I direct you to a blog that specializes in Urban Fantasy and their post “Urban Fantasy vs Paranormal Romance.” It’s an older post, but useful.

Here is also an interesting guide from The YA Fantasy Guide: “Identifying Your Fantasy Novel’s Subgenre.”

Finally, some wikipedia pages, ’cause really, who doesn’t love wikipedia:

High Fantasy

Sword and Sorcery

Urban Fantasy

Paranormal Romance

And now, I really must go, before this post gets anymore ridiculously long than it already is.  But I’d love to hear any other thoughts on sub-genres.  Disagreements with my classifications, further suggestions on definitions and differences, etc?

Important Update: New Look, Same Me; Plus: My 10 Favorite Fantasy Series for Children

As you may have noticed, the blog has a new name and a new look.  I have mentioned a few times that book I was reading We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media by Kristen Lamb, and how I planned to implement some of the suggestions from the book.  Well, the time has come to kick off the rebirth of my blog.

The changes are as follows:

1)     I am no longer using my nickname Yami but my real name, Amanda Rudd.  It is the name I plan to publish under someday, and I want to make it searchable and recognizable.  The new title of the blog reflects that.

2)     The blog will no longer be a conglomeration of whatever happens to come to mind; instead I intend to focus on writing and reading fantasy and science fiction (though I may occasionally wander into other aspects of the written word).

3)     While changing the title of the blog I have also changed the URL address.  I paid the fee to have wordpress automatically transfer people from the old address to the new address, so hopefully everyone will be able to find me even through old links.  But I would greatly appreciate it if you would take just a minute to subscribe to the new address.

4)     There is a new “About” page.  Please take a look.

5)     The plan is to post consistently on Wednesday and Friday.  I usually post in the evenings, so for those (like me) who like to go through the day’s blogs at night, you should see mine in Wed. and Fri. evenings, or look for them on Thurs. and Sat. mornings. (I will be in L.A. all of next week, but I’m hoping to get posts for next Wed. and Fri. queued before I leave.)

6)     The header image is from a commissioned digital painting by my friend and outstanding artist, Denitsa Petkova.  Her DeviantArt profile is Exarrdian.

So, that’s the important update information.  But to kick-off the new focus of my blog, here is a list of my top ten favorite fantasy series for children.  This list includes only those series that are generally considered acceptable for the independent readers age group (9-13 yr olds).  Also, this list is no particular order.  I cannot put my favorite things in a hierarchical order to save my life.  I just don’t think like that.  I love everything!  With that said, here’s my list (links go to either omnibus, box set, or first book of each series):

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Redwall Series by Brian Jacques (see my previous post here)

Oz Series by L. Frank Baum

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

The Dark Is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede

His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

Inkheart Trilogy by Cornelia Funke

Artemis Fowl Series by Eoin Colfer

Yes, most of these are older series; most of them are the ones I grew up with.  And yes there are, of course, many other good fantasy series’ for children.  I used to work at a bookstore in the children’s section, and from conversations with children, parents, and fellow employees, I learned about many good and popular series: Warriors, Pendragon, The Sisters Grimm, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, etc.  But I have only listed here the ones I’ve actually read.  (I have read the first Percy Jackson book, which was very cute, but I haven’t gotten around the rest of them.)  Also, if I had included YA series, the list would be ridiculously long and include such things as: Tamora Pierce’s Tortall Series and Circle Series, The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor, Laurie Stolarz’s Blue is for Nightmares Series, and Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy, just to name a few.  Also, I know my list is missing Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time books, which are considered classics, but I must admit to the embarrassing factor that I’ve never actually read them.  I keep planning on it, but…  Well, I’m sure I get around to them eventually.

Thoughts on the rebirth of the blog?  Thoughts on my list fantasy series?  Which series am I missing?  Drop a line in the comments!

(Sidenote: Even though its not quite midnight yet, I’m counting this as my friday blog.  I’ll be on a plane tomorrow, but I wanted to make sure this got up first.)