Sunday, December 17, 2006

On Elves and Oafs

When we think about elves we tend to think of them as graceful and (generally) benevolent beings (either that or as Santa's little helpers... but I think those twerps are more closely related to leprechauns).

The latest update to Michael Quinion's World Wide Words came as something of a shocker to me. It turns out that word "elf" is closely related to the word "oaf", which seems to be the antithesis of what elves are supposed to be like! How can this be.

Well, elves didn't always have the benevolent associations that they do in the modern era. Originally, elves were thought of as devious, and often dangerous, beings who were best avoided, nor were they imagined to be creatures of great beauty. In fact, elfs [sic] and goblins were very nearly considered to be synonymous. An oaf was, in fact, the name used to describe a changeling, which is to say an elf's child left in place of a human child. An oaf has the distinguishing characteristic of being uglier and stupider than a normal child.

So where did our modern notion of elves [again, sic] as quasi-divine beings come from? In a word, Tolkien. Tolkien can be thought of as a one-man PR firm for the race. The first thing he did was to change the plural from elfs to elves, which rolls off the tongue much more gracefully. He then created an elaborate mythology and history which gave them the noble bearing that we now assume they possess. Some of the original flavor of elves was preserved in the form of the Orcs which are, in his books, elves that had been corrupted and debased.

Because of Tolkien's influence over modern fantasy (an influence that didn't really take hold until the 60's, which is about the time that the fantasy market exploded into its own genre), the popular conception of elves has been thoroughly altered. It is with some irony that any modern fantasy author that wanted to present a more authentic conception of elves would have to take deliberate pains to overcome their reader's modernist preconceptions. In other words, most people would find "real" elfs to be just a bit too unbelievable.

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