Origins: Elves

In the early stages of plotting a novel, particularly one where worldbuilding of any sort is needed, I spend a lot of time hammering out details which may or may not end up being entirely ignored when the novel itself is finished. The devil is certainly in the details, and for me at least, details add to the verisimilitude of a novel and therefore my enjoyment of it. But for now, let’s talk about elves.

Elves as we know them today: Legolas, Link, Santa’s Little Helpers, a race in Dungeons and Dragons…

But Santa’s elves are really kind of a joke, in my mind. Tolkien got a little bit closer to the origins of elves, but he was a historian of sorts, he did his research. He looked to Finland for the languages, for example. Made his elves tall and fair, and in my research, still brief, I’ve found that to be closer to the origin.

The first question that came to mind was “when did elves develop pointed ears?” It seems such an obvious quirk of theirs, and yet for some reason I was questioning it. It just seemed so arbitrary.

So I went on a search. I learned that elves were thought of as gods in Norse mythology, which was all fine and good, except it still didn’t tell me anything about the ears! Worse yet, even people who studied Tolkien were not in agreement over whether his elves even had pointed ears! Let’s see what JRRT himself has to say about it:

“I am afraid, if you will need drawings of hobbits in various attitudes, I must leave it in the hands of someone who can draw. … I picture a fairly human figure … fattish in the stomach, shortish in the leg. A round, jovial face; ears only slightly pointed and ‘elvish’; hair short and curling (brown).”
JRRT – Letters #27, writing to Houghton Mifflin circa March-April 1938

He does describe pointed ears as ‘elvish’, but there’s much talk about the quotes he puts around the word and whether he meant elves of folklore or his own version of elves. There’s also a reference for the word ‘las’ meaning both leaf and ear, which suggests the ears may have been somewhat leaf-shaped.

So if we assume Tolkien meant for pointy ears, he would have got the idea from the folklore of his day. Clearly I would have to look even further back, before Tolkien.

Of note is another quote by JRRT.

“Elves and Men are evidently in biological terms one race, or they could not breed and produce fertile offspring…”
JRRT – Letters #153, September 1954

Interesting because to me, a half-elf would seem more like a liger or mule… Viable, but a biological dead-end. One could argue an elf and a human are about as similar as a tiger and a lion. Same family, but different enough to be separate. Otherwise what makes elves so special? But obviously I’m not trying to ape Tolkien here, so I do not need a whole race of half-elves.

So back to the Norse. I went back to study the Alfar, the race of demigods in the old Sagas. Much is said about Frey being Lord of the Elves of Alfheim, and about the ljósálfar and the dokkálfar, and how Gandalf was the last king of the elves… except he was a dwarf.

Mythology is always inconclusive, that’s what makes it fun.

But having a mind of scientific leanings, there is still that nagging sensation at the back of my head, the insistent poking of an unanswered question. Short of reading the entirety of the Poetic Edda, I’ve found no reference in Norse myth for pointy ears on elves. Just because I haven’t found it, doesn’t mean it’s not there, but it will take a while to find it.

What frustrates me the most, I think, is that it seems that short of a few Tolkien nuts trying to figure out what Galadriel really looked like, not many people are asking this question. The search continues.


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