Anyone who’s ever read or seen any work of fantasy has heard of an elf. But there seem to be three different types of elves that appear ubiquitous throughout lore. From high fantasy like Lord of the Rings to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream to Santa’s little helpers, elves seem all over the place. There seem to be three basic categories: The Sprite, The Gnome, and The Human-like. In my own work, I’m looking to craft my own new definition of an elf. To do so, it is almost essential to revisit and explore the basics before trying to create something new.
The sprite can be characterized as tiny elves with wings. Think Puck from the dark fantasy manga, Berserk (I’d say anime, but he didn’t make an appearance in either the film or the show). I would even go so far as Tinkerbell falls under this archetype, but she is named a fairy in Peter Pan. Interestingly, in Berserk, I think Puck veers into Tinkerbell territory of being only able one emotion at a time or only being able to feel the emotions of others. Of the three, these guys are the most in tune with nature, using magical powers based in flora.
I have no better name for this one. It’s the “Santa’s helper” archetype, which, to me, seems more of a gnome than an elf. Actually, a dwarf for a comparison would make sense as well, since both are short. If you want to learn more about the history of this kind of elf, which stems from Germanic paganism, check out this blog post. The opening of the movie Elf does a great job explaining the internal consistency of its definition.
Last, but not least, are The Human-like. You know the ones. Legolas of Lord of the Rings, Iorveth of The Witcher, the Altmer of Skyrim—they share a few things in common. They tend to be tall, they tend to be lithe, and they are super old and functionally immortal. Except in Lord of the Rings where a whole bunch of them die during. Longevity could be an exploration at a later time. Another distinction many role-playing games (RPG’s) have is that they go into separating them into light and dark, with the light elves living among the flowers and trees, with the dark elves living in caves.
So where does this leave me as an aspiring fantasy author? For the realm in my work, combining the beauty and physique of the human-like elves with the magic of the sprite serves the greatest purpose for plot and character development. I am keeping the dark versus light distinction with a botanical twist, which will be explored as the plot thickens and magic becomes more of a deciding factor within arcs.
P.S.: If anyone wants to recommend any cool elf-lore that isn’t so human-centric, don’t be afraid to tweet!