When I was a kid, whenever someone talked about elves, the first thing to come to mind were the little people that helped Santa make toys at the North Pole; or those little men that helped the poor cobbler make an abundance of shoes while he slept at night; or those little Keebler elves that made awesome cookies. And don’t forget Snap, Crackle and Pop, the elf mascots for Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. Richard Doyle’s illustrations in Andrew Lang’s 1884 fairy tale, The Princess Nobody, gave us the image of cute little elves, as described in Lang’s fairy tale.
When I discovered Tolkien’s tall, beautiful beings of Middle-earth I thought to myself, “these are elves?” Fairy tales and children’s fiction had given me images of little people with pointy ears in stockings; and I was oblivious to Norse mythology, which is where modern fantasy derived it’s depictions of elves. With characters like Legolas, Elrond and Lady Galadriel, Tolkien sparked a love for elves, and writers of the fantasy genre have been staffing their books with elf characters ever since.
Next to dragons, elves have to be the most widely used mythical character in fantasy. Before fantasy was even a genre in literary fiction, The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany was published in 1924. The novel is a fantasy classic, telling the story of the mortal man, Alveric, who ventures to Elfland to find and marry the lovely elf princess, Lirazel, the daughter of the King of Elfland. Alveric weds Lirazel and they have a son together, but Lirazel grows homesick for Elfand, and Alveric has to search for her again, after she leaves for her homeland. It’s a fantastical story with poetic prose, complete with elements of magic and romance, with a witch, unicorns and a troll as part of the journey. Lord Dunsany’s novel surely is part of the roots of modern fantasy; but Tolkien’s release of The Hobbit in 1937 was big, and, nearly two decades later, The Lord of the Rings became even more significant. Elves in fiction had never been portrayed like what was seen in Middle-earth, and this pretty much set the standard for modern fantasy fiction.
One cannot leave out Poul Anderson’s 1954 (forgotten) classic, The Broken Sword, which is grittier and faster paced than Tolkien’s work; and is heavy in the Norse myth in regards to the elves and the setting. The elves in this book are not worth remembering like Tolkien’s crafted characters.
Elves have continued throughout the works of many fantasy writers in their series for decades; like Terry Brooks with his Shannara books, Raymond E. Feist with his Riftwar Cycle series, as well as the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels. The aim these days is to break the Tolkien tradition of elves; and there was even a period where there was focus on producing more dark and evil elves.
Probably the most famous of the dark elves (or drow—ebony-skinned elves) is Drizzt Do’Urden. Drizzt was created by author R.A. Salvatore, and written about in 18 different novels (introduced in the Icewind Dale Trilogy, but made most popular in the Dark Elf Trilogy). Dark elves are known for being evil (generally) and living underground, but Drizzt chose to forsake his people’s evil ways, taking to the surface, where he learned to be a ranger and eventually became a hero in Northwest Faerûn.
Two compelling series of fantasy fiction where elves were depicted as cruel overlords are the Halfblood Chronicles by Andre Norton & Mercedes Lackey, and the Annals of Drakis by Tracy Hickman. In the Halfblood Chronicles, the elves came from another dimension and took over the Earth, enslaving mankind. In the Annals of Drakis, elves have built an empire where they enslaved many races by the use of aether magic, which makes the slaves forget their past, and they think their lives are fine and noble under the rule of the elves. The difference with the elves in Hickman’s series is that they are not the attractive elves we’ve come to know in the genre. These elves have elongated heads, sharp teeth and black eyes. Basically, they’re kind of creepy; especially when one of the females has a thing for the human hero of the story.
There are so many books that I could point to that harbor elves within their pages. Like many ingredients used in fantasy fiction, this is one that has been used in epic/high fantasy abundantly. Elves have been key characters in high fantasy since the beginning; and there looks to be no end in sight.