When JRR Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings wrote of the elves of Middle Earth departing into the West at the end of the Third Age, he was drawing on folklore that viewed elves, fae and their kindred as godlike beings whose great and magical powers faded as humankind grew and spread across the world.
In Norse mythology, the alfar – the origin of our modern name “elves” – appeared to be minor gods of nature. Not only were they human-sized – at least in some of the myths – able to mate with humans, but there was a belief for at least a time that human men could become elves after death.
Equivalent to the elves in Gaelic folklore (Ireland and Scotland) are the sidhe, powerfully magical beings that, in Ireland, are identified as the Tuatha de Danann (“children of the goddess Danu”) – the old gods of the country.
In Irish folklore, after the Tuatha were supplanted (either by other invaders or by Christianity, depending on the source of the story), they either retreated or faded into diminished spirits and became the “Little People” of legend.
An alternate belief, recorded by William Butler Yeats in the late 19th century, was that the Little People were fallen angels whose sins would not allow them to remain in Heaven yet were not so the “weighty” on their souls as to carry them down to Hell.
In France – which gives us the name “fae” from which “faery” and “fairy” are derived – the magical fae were always female. They presided over childbirth and decided the fate of the newborn. These fae were human-sized, or could become human-sized, and there are tales of human men marrying “fairy wives.”
After being relegated for a time to roles ranging from Santa’s helpers to fairy tales for children to being merely “cute,” elves appear to be enjoying a resurgence as writers such as Dunsany, Dennis L. McKiernan and, especially, Tolkien have restored their dignity and…
their ancient power.
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