Leonid L. Korablev
The True Elves of Europe

(The Unfallen Elves of J.R.R. Tolkien)


1. Sources on Elves.

2. Elves in North-Western European mythologies.

3. The Ancestry of European Elves, and Tolkien's possible intentions.

4. Tolkien's not-so-obvious borrowings.


In view of (relatively) abundant references to Elves in surviving ancient and medieval texts, modern connotations of the word 'elf' as well as 18th-19th century related folk-lore ideas appear as grotesque distortions of a waning tradition. Observing the older references, we notice striking similarities between Elves and their counterparts of various names across the mythological landscape of North-Western Europe. We claim that these are traces of an integral tradition, which, with time, gradually lost its integrity and merged with other traditions and/or random elements of folk fancy. It is clear that Tolkien widely used the elements of that tradition in creating his Elves; we maintain that besides being a marvelous achievement of a story-teller, Tolkien's Elves (Eldar, Quendi) were a (veiled) attempt of a scholar at reconstructing the tradition in question. Similar treatment of the Atlantis myth (i.e. providing a 'real' story of which the known myth could be an echo) speaks in favor of our hypothesis.

1. Webster's dictionary defines an Elf to be "a tiny, ...prankish fairy" (or "a small child or being, especially a mischievous one"), in perfect accordance with popular literary usage of Shakespeare and others. However, the word is much older than its current meaning and used to have completely different connotations. There is abundant linguistic and literary evidence that the beings of the same name were treated very seriously and with much reverence all over the ancient Northern Europe, and that the names "Elf" and its analogies in other languages was applied to a separate, quite independently from humans existing race ("folk") of beings, comparable and very often even superior to humans in many respects.


A host of masculine and feminine names in Anglo-Saxon [1], Old- and Middle- High-German, Old Norse-Icelandic, including the element 'Elf' , 'AElf', 'Alb', 'Alfr'.


Gothic   (Alt-) Mittel-      Anglo-Saxon       Old Norse-    Translation
          hochdeutsch                          Icelandic

           Alpbrecht,         AElfbeorth,                    Elven-bright
            Alprecht           AElfbriht

            Alphari,           AElfhere                      Elf-like Warrior
         Alphere, Alfheri

            Alphoh             AElfheah                      High (tall) as an
                                                             Elf; Elven-noble;
                                                             proud, haughty

                               AElfhelm                      protected by
                         (cf. Elfhelm of Rohan)              Elves ? (helm-
                                                             protection by

Albgastir[2] Alpkast                                         Elven Guest

             Alpker             AElfgar         Alfgeirr     Elven Spear

                               AElfnodh                      bold, brave as
                          (cf. Quenya Eldakan)                   an Elf

             Alberad           AElfred         Alfradhr      Elven-Wise
                                                             (counsel from
                                                               an Elf)

             Alpwin,           AElfwine        Alfvinr       Elf-Friend
       (Lombardic) Alboin

             Alfward           AElfweard                     Elf-Ward(en)

             Alfhard,          AElfheard                     Elf-Hardy
             Alphart                                         (Elven-strong)

Albsigis[2]                    AElfsige                      elven victory ?
                                                             wizardry [3])


Albuera[2]   Albwera           AElfwaru                      Elf-protection
                                                             (protection by
                                                                an Elf)

             Alphilt,          AElfhild         Alfhildr     Elven Battle-
             Albhilt                                         maiden (valkyrja)

             Albruna           AElfrun(e)      *Alfrun       Secret counsel
                                                             from Elves or
                                                             prophetess like
                                                                 an Elf

             Alpsuint,         AElfswidh                     elven-swift
    (Lombardic) Alpsuinda

             Alpdrud,          AElthrydh        Elfrida      elven daughter of
            Albedrudis                                       Thor (valkyrja)

Albgiba[2]                     AElfgifu,        Algiva       Elf-Gift

Searle's "Onomasticon" (mentioned by Arundell Lowdham, a character of JRRT's "Notion Club Papers") contains 35 different names of the form AElf + adjective (noun); it mentions 75 recorded bearers of the name AElfwine "Elf-friend".

Of particular interest in the same "Onomasticon" are names AElfing, AElfmann, AElmanus, AElmon etc. that could be interpreted as "descendant of Elves". Indeed, claiming an Elf for an ancestor was not at all unusual (for example, in ancient Germanic countries [including Scandinavia] this was often the case with nobility); we will have a closer look at such cases later when discussing the sources of 'undiminished' tradition concerning Elves.

We should also mention the usage of 'aelfsciene' ("elven-shining") by the poets of "Caedmon school" to describe the surpassing beauty of Sarah and Judith (Anglo-Saxon Paraphrase of Genesis, VII-VIII, the poem "Judith", IX-X. See "Letters of JRRT", #236). It is interesting that Old Norse 'fridh sem alfkona vaeri' [4] (beautiful as an elven woman) matches this usage quite closely. [Add here Middle-English 'scho was so faire ....as ....an elfe out of an-othire erde'(she was so fair as if an elf-maid from another world) [5]]

Of interest is also the Old Norse-Icelandic kenning for warrior: 'her-gramr rog-ALFR' (war-fierce-hostility-ELF) & many others [6]. [Add here also two Snorri Sturluson's comments about use of "alfr" in kennings for "warrior", see "Snorra Edda", Skaldskaparmal.]

Clearly, the connotations of the name 'Elf' must have changed greatly over the centuries, losing its initial associations with strength, brightness, beauty and wisdom.

Alongside with linguistic, there is plenty of literary evidence connected with 'Elf', 'AElf', 'Alf', 'Alb'. Sources listed below contain descriptions or references to the Elves that would hardly fit with the modern Webster's definition, but are in good agreement with the above bright image of an Elf.

We have separated a number of features, that, in our opinion, characterized the 'original Elves' and got diluted and distorted with time, in each country in its own way. Later we will briefly describe some of the mergings and adulterations of the 'original' image that took place.

These are the features in question. The numbers following a source show which of these are explicitly stated in it as characteristic of the beings called Elves (see a table below for a variety of equivalent names in several Northern European languages).

1. Elves are about as tall as humans.

2. Elves are beautiful.

3. Elves are strong and make fierce warriors.

4. Elves excel in arts (especially music), possess the gift of foreknowledge and can bestow similar gifts upon chosen humans.

5. Dwelling places of Elves are removed from those of humans (e.g. beyond the sea, on islands etc.).

6. Elves possess a speech of their own, distinct from that of humans.

7. Elves and humans can have common children.

Let us now list the sources, grouped by their country of origin. Within these groups they roughly fall into two categories - original texts and works of folklore collectors who interpreted the matter of Elves in the beliefs of their respective countries.

Iceland (Alfar & later Huldu-folk):

Besides the famous 'Elder Edda' and 'Snorra Edda' of Snorri Sturluson, where "Aesir and Alfs", the gods and the Elves, are commonly mentioned together, and a reference is made to their separate speech, different from those of the gods and mortals, in 'Alvismal', there are:

"Hrolfs saga kraka" (XIV-XV): 1,2,4,5,7
"Goengu-Hrolfs saga" (XIV): 1,4,5
"Prests saga Gudhmundar (godha) Arasonar" (XIII): 4
"Nornagests thattr" (XIV): 4,5
"Saga af Tristram ok Isoend" (A.D. 1226): 1,2,3,4,5
"Hrafnagaldr Odhins" (XVII): 4
"Moettuls saga" (XIII): 4; & many others "Riddara & lygi soegur".
"Jarlmanns saga ok Hermanns" (XV) - here Icelandic Elves are already called
 HULDU-FOLK (the Hidden People);
Later of the Huldu-folk we have:
"THorsteins thattr baejarmagns" (XV): 1,4,5
"Koetlu draumur" (XVI): 1,2,5,7
Jon Gudhmundsson: "Tidhfordrif", "Samantektir um skilning a Eddu" (XVII): 1,2,
Torfaeus (i.e. THormodhur Torfason): "Historia Hrolfi Krakii...." [see
        preface](1705): 4,5,7
Finnus Johannaeus (i.e. Finnur Jonsson): "Historia Ecclesiastica Islandiae"
 [vol II, p. 368 ff.], (1774): 1,2,4,5,7
Jon Arnason: "Islenzkar THjodhsoegur" (1862-1864): 1,2,4,5,6,7

The most important for us are treatises of Jon Gudhmundsson hinn Laerdhi 'Learned' (1574-1658?) respecting the nature and the origin of Elves because these preserve earliest detailed written accounts and memories of ancient Norse-Icelandic 'Alfar'; namely, aforesaid "Tidhfordrif" (1644), "Samantektir um skilning a Eddu" (1641), poems: "Fjoelmodhur" (1649), "Snjafjallavisur hinar fyrri" (1611), "THeim godhu jardharinnar innbuum tilheyri thessar oskir", "Huldufolks mal" & etc. Also, Olafr Sveinsson from Purkey (1780-1845) later compiled the "Writ about Hid-folk, or Elves, for Instruction and knowledge of the Realm of Nature" [7], having collected a lot of related folk- tales (testimonies of encounters with Elves). [Belief in Elves is strong even in contemporary Iceland; a certain sociological research claims that more than a half of the population believes in their existence.]

Scandinavia & Denmark (Alfer):

Olaus Magnus "Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus" (1555): 1-5
A. Afzelius "Svenska Folkets Sago-Haefder (1851-): 1,2,4,5
F. Nansen "In northern mists" (1911): 1,4,5,7
A. Faye "Norske Folkesagn" (1884): 1,2,4,5,7
Thor Age Bringsvaerd "Phantoms & Fairies from Norwegian Folklore": 1-5
J. Moe, P. Asbjoernsen "Norske Folke Eventyr" (1842): 1,2,4,5,7
Olav Boe "Trollmakter og godvette": 1,7
Ashild Ulstrup & Wench OEyen "Huldra - den farlege lengten" (1993): 2,4,5,7
W. Craigie "Scandinavian Folk-lore" (1896): 1,2,4-7
B. Thorpe "Northern Mythology", vol.1 (1851): 1,2,4,5,7
We can also mention here Jacob Grimm with his "Teutonic Mythology"
      (1882-): 2,4,5,6,7


One has to mention the heroic sagas about the THidhrek af Bern (who was considered to be a son of an Elf), his knight Alphart, and Hagen [8], the son of queen Odda, who also had an Elvish ancestor:

"THidhreks saga af Bern" (1250): 3,4,7
Numerous later works of the Grimm brothers unfortunately contain many arbitrary elements, as the old image of Elves has dramatically faded in folk- lore [9].


Rev. Robert Kirk (1630-1692), believed to have been taken in 1692 by the Elves [10] to live among them, composed "The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies", a detailed note on Elves derived from collecting local lore and "his own experiences". It is interesting that 114 years later, his successor at the same parish, Rev. Patrick Graham returned to the topic in his "Sketches Descriptive Picturesque Scenery of the Southern Confines of Perthshire" published in 1806 and containing interesting information on the Scottish counterpart of Elves, Daoine Sithe.

Of the latter we must say in more detail. Although not directly "Elves" in most sources, Scottish daoine sithe, Irish daoine sidhe, and even the Danaan deities, Welsh Tylwyth Teg and other beings of Celtic mythological traditions possess the same features and the Elves proper. The sources below allow us to think of North-Western European Elves as consisting of two large groups - the Scandinavian and Germanic branch (with whom the name Elves is usually associated) and the Celtic branch, represented by the above mentioned beings and Trows of Shetland Isles. Indeed, we can think of our 'original' image of Elves as predating both traditions, a common ancestor of both branches. Naturally, Celtic imagination captured and retained a somewhat different image, in perfect agreement with the difference between the Celtic and Teutonic mentality. Thus we have:

Scotland (Daoine Sithe):

Rev. Patrick Graham "Sketches Descriptive of Picturesque Scenery of the
Southern Confines of Perthshire" (1806): 1,2,4,7
J.F. Campbell "Legend of Islay": 4, "Kirkcundbright": 1,2, "Sutherland legend
      #4": 4,5 ["Popular Tales of the West Highlands", 1890-1893]

Ireland (Daoine Sidhe):

We can find all the above features except 6 in old Irish legends of Tuatha De Danaan, as described in "The Book of Leinster", "The Book of the Dun Cow" and other well-known sources. In modern times we have the works of:
Lady Wilde "Ancient Legends of Ireland" (1887): 1,2,3,4,5
W.B. Yeats "Irish Fairy and Folktales" (1893): 1,2,3,4,5
W.Y. Evans-Wentz "The fairy faith in Celtic countries" (1911): 1 through 6

Wales (Tylwyth Teg and Gwragedd Annwn):

King Gowran of Welsh Triads (V): 5
pseudo-Gildas's "Description of the Isle of Avalon" (XII): 1,2,5
W. Owen (Pughe) "Geiriadur" (Welsh-English Dictionary, 1803): 1,2 [11]
"The Legend of the Meddygon Myddfai" (ca. 1230): 1,2,4,5,7
Th. Keightley "The Fairy Mythology...." ,1850, W. Sikes "British Goblins "
1880: "The Legend about secret garden of Tylwyth Teg (or Gwragedd Annwn) near
Brecknock": 1,2,4,5
"The Legend about Shui Rhys (Cardiganshire)", mentioned by W. Sikes: 6
W. Howells "The Pembrokeshire Legend" (1830): 1(?),2,4,5
J. Rhys "Celtic Folklore" (1901): 1(?),2,4,5,6,7

Shetland Isles (Trows):

John Spense "Shetland folk-lore" (1899): 4,5,7

Elvish Ancestors.

As we have mentioned above, claiming Elvish ancestry was not at all unusual in ancient Germanic (Scandinavian) lands; similar cases are to be found in Wales & in the whole Gaelic area as well. Such ancestry allowed to perform deeds hard or impossible for mere humans.

In "Das Niebelungenlied" we find that the resistance of the Burgunds endures mostly because of Hagen's (Hoegni) feats, whose Elvish ancestry makes it hard for his mortal opponents to defeat him; finally, he is vanquished by Dietrich of Bern (THidhrekr), who was reputed to be the son of an elf. A later Middle High German song tells of Alphart, a knight of the same Dietrich, who was able to disperse a host of enemies by challenging them one by one to a single fight. In Welsh lore ("Meddigon Meddfai", 1230 AD) we find the story of three brothers, the sons of "gwraig Annwn" (an elvish wife), who, due to virtues of their descent, became famous doctors in Wales. [Add here also similar traditions witnessed by Scottish minister Rev. P. Graham.]

Most interesting is Icelandic "Koetlu Draumur" (XVI c.), where an Elf's love for a mortal woman Katla (consummated in her dream [12]; she bore his son, whom her mortal husband Marr accepted as his own) serves as a reason why later that son of Katla, the sea-traveler Are Marsson (actually well-known through Iceland) could reach the mysterious island of Hvitra-manna-land [13]. This motif is certainly a familiar one to every reader of "The Simarillion". Elvish descendants. Add here also Scyld Scefing ("Beowulf"), Skuld Helgadottir ("Hrolfs saga Kraka"), Merlin ("Robert of Gloucester's chronicle".)

The Family of North-Western European Elves.

We have a whole family of initially similar peoples (beings) who occupy a prominent place in the high myths and folklore of North-Western European nations. The word 'Elf' itself, used in this paper to refer to a single being of the kind, can be traced (see Jacob Grimm, "Irische Elfenmaerchen") to the Old- and Middle High German 'Alb', 'Alf', 'Alp'. Etymology will help us establish a 'family tree' of European Elves; analysis of features attributed to various kinds of Elves in literature and folklore will testify to the tendency of 'deterioration' and 'randomization' of the original high myth.

Originally a fully independent from humans, wise and strong race with time has merged in the minds of the Scandinavians, the Germans, the English, the Welsh and others with the guardian spirits of Nature (dwellers in the forests, rivers etc, Anglo-Saxon 'wudu-aelfen' and 'sae-aelfen' are perhaps an intermediate state of such a merging), malignant sprites and demons that cause illness to men and cattle ("malignant elves" used to be a medical term, alongside with "elf-fire", a cattle disease in Sweden, see Nils Thun, "Studia Neophilologica", 1969), or, in one case, a historical tribe, the so-called 'Alfar' of 'Alfheimar', an area of Scandinavia between the two rivers Raumelfr and Gautelfr. In a few cases the Elves were identified with the souls of the dead (which may have arisen from the confusion between the old barrows and the hills in which the Elves were reputed to dwell [14].)

Of the cases above, the first two represent a 'logical merging' of a folklore element whose function became unclear with the entities whose function is well-connected with the everyday life of a people; logical, that is, if we assume that every part of folklore has to have a specific 'function'. More examples of mergings and introduction of random elements will follow; now let us list the names the Elven kinds were known under in Europe conjecture on their relation. We must keep in mind that in many cases the original name has become a 'taboo', supplanted in everyday usage by an euphemism of sorts, for the fear of possible harm or out of courtesy to its bearers, unless indicated otherwise, the plural of a name is given.

Althochdeutsch,                                 Alb, Alf, Alp
Mittelhochdeutsch                               fem. Elbe, pl. Elben, Elber

Anglo-Saxon                                     aelf, pl. ylfe (*ielfe)

Old Norse-Icelandic                             alfr, pl. alfar (Ljos-alfar)

later Icelandic                                 alfa-folk, huldu-folk
                                                   ('hidden folk")

Norse  (Norway)                                 alfer, elver, elvir

Danish (Denmark)                                alfer (elle-folk)

Swedish                                         aelfvor, aelfvar

Dutch                                           alven

Shetland Islands                                trows

Faeroes                                         huldu-menn (huldu-folk)

A few other races should be mentioned here, because of their overwhelming
similarities with the above:

Wales                                           Tylwith Teg ("Fair Family")

Gaelic (Ireland/Scotland)                       Daoine Sidhe / Daoine Sithe
                                                ("Dwellers of Hills" / "People
                                                                    in peace")

                                                Tuatha de Danaan

The Family Tree of Elves

                          Original true Elves
      |                                                 |
    Celts                                            Teutons
      |                               __________________|_______________
      |                               |                 |              |
 unknown Elves              Scandinavian alfar          |         Anglo-saxon
were in Ireland and              |    |                 |              |
Britain before arrival     Icelandic  |__ Swedish      MHG      ylfe (*ielfe)
of Tuatha de Danaan      (Ljos-)alfar |    aelvor     Elbe(n),     aelfsciene,
      |                      later    |               (Elber)     (aelfscinu)
Tuatha de Danaan           Huldufolk  |__ Danish     got mingled       |
 (cf. Noldor)    Wales:    (Alfafolk) |   alfer,     with zwerge    AElfric's
 supplanted    Tylwyth Teg,   (+some  |  Ellefolk       |            glossary
unknown Elves    Gwragedd     celtic  |               German            ylfe=
 to:  |          Annwn     influence) |__ Faeroese    translation    classical
      |________ (gwreigedd       |    |   Huldefolk   of Ovid's        Nymphs:
      |          anwyl ?)        |    |              "Metamorphoses"   wudu-
      |                          |    |___ Norwegian    + Nymphs;      elfen
      |__________ Scotland:      |          Elvir       through        & etc
      |           Daoine Sithe   |        got mingled   German transl.  |
      |                |         |            with        of           some
Sons of Mill (Mortal   |_ Shetland Is-s    Huldrefolk   Shakespeare    French
Men) won Ireland from        | Trows             |     appeared as   influence
Tuatha de Danaan and         |                   |      tiny elfe    M-E eluys
called them at first         |    German ________|________|          (La3amon,
('aes side' or 'side')       |    transl.        |                    Chaucer
then "mixed" them and        |     of            |                    & etc.)
unknown Elves and            |    "Elder         |                    +faerie
named all of them            |     Edda"         |                      |
Daoine Sidhe                 |   by Luning:      |                      |
      |                      |   elbe=alfar      |                 distortion
      |                      |       |           |                  of the
      |                      |    K. Maurer      |                 image of
      |                      |  elbe=Huldufolk   |                   elves:
      |                      |       |           |                 Shakespeare
      |                      |       |     ______|                  Drayton
      |                      |       |     |                         Dryden
      |__________________ JRR Tolkien re-creates _______________________|
                             original elves as
                              *** Quendi ***

Tolkien's not-so-obvious borrowings.

Although Tolkien never made a secret of his sources, it is quite astounding how many of the folk- and place-names in "The Lord of the Rings" and "Silmarillion" correspond precisely to ancient Norse-Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon and other ones that were actually used for things associated with Elves. This seems to corroborate our hypothesis that in creating his Elves Tolkien might have been thinking of reconstructing the 'original' image that, should such an original exist, was reflected in various Elves of North-Western European mythologies. A striking example of this approach is provided by his treatment of the Atlantis myth. The story of Numenor is not only an example of a fascinating mythical image employed by a master story-teller to produce a compelling story with a moral purport of his own, but rather an amazing attempt to provide the real story that with time took the form of the familiar myth (or, rather, familiar mess of ideas associated with Atlantis). And in the middle of it all stands the 'original' name of the Downfallen land and people, Atalante (in ancient Elvisn language 'Quenya'), which is, of course, Atlantis given its 'original' meaning.

We claim that this approach, this challenge of reconstructing the 'original' image behind the current mythological mess pervades all of Tolkien's work, and that creating linguistic proof of its authenticity as in the case of Atlantis-Atalante is not a singular occurrence either. Let us offer a list of names Tolkien chose to use for his creations and their historical counterparts.

* Cala-quendi, the Elves of Light - Vikings knew the Ljos-alfar, also the Elves of Light, who lived in remote world of their own, Ljos-alfa-heimr, presided over by Yngvi-Freyr. The king of Vanyar, the noblest kindred of Tolkien's Elves who never left Valinor (blessed realm over the sea) for Middle-earth (Midhs-gardhar) and dwell there with the gods till present day is called Ingwe.

* Elda-mar, the Elvenhome - We have already mentioned Ljos-alfa-heimr, its word-for-word translation. In "The Book of Lost Tales" and "Ambarkanta" Tolkien suggests a 'lost' Anglo-saxon AElf-ham, an intermediary name of the same meaning.

* Alqua-londe, the Elvish Haven of the Swans - In Middle English the land of the Elves is called Eluen londe

* Eles-sar (name), "the Elven Stone" - Cf. Germanic personal name Alb-stein, Anglo-Saxon AElf-stan, Modern German Elb-stein usually interpreted as a sacrificial stone "upon which victims were broken" or stones in which (inside) "Elfs" sat. (Swedish aelf-qvarn) Tolkien (apparently) restored the true meaning of this old Germanic name as "Elven (gem-)stone (!), jewel of Elves".

* The sundering of Elves. (Vanyar, Noldor, Teleri) - A classification of Elves was not unfamiliar to speaker of Anglo-Saxon, with 'wudu-aelfen' (forest- elves), 'sae-aelfen' (sea-elves) & etc.... (Cf. also "The Noldor are....the Sword-elves", and Old Norse-Icelandic kenning for warrior 'sverdh-alfr' of the same meaning.)

This article is a much abridged version of the original Russian text. Unfortunately, no electronic copy of the Russian original exists.


[1] Listed 35 extant forms (R. Jente, E. Foerstemann, vol.I)

[2] Hypothetical (unattested) form

[3] Cf. comments of J.Tolkien to his edition of Anglo-Saxon "Exodus", 1981, pp.66-67 (sige-tibre)

[4] "Strengleikar" (XIII cent.) Thanks for info. to Einar G. Petursson (doktor phil., Stofnun A.M. a Islandi).

[5] "The Wars of Alexander" (about A.D. 1450)

[6] See "Lexicon Poeticum" by Sveinbjoern Egilsson\Finnur Jonsson

[7] "Alfasoegubok" ('eitt skrif, sem ahraeri Huldufolk edhur Alfa til frodhleiks og thekkingar a natturunnar rike'). [See Jon Arnason "Islenzkir thjodhsoegur og aeventyri."]

[8] Of conceiving Hoegni (Hagen) see "THidhreks saga" ed. by C.R.Unger (chapters 169, 170 A,B).

[9] See especially their preface to "Irische Elfenmaerchen".

[10] Daoine Sith(e)

[11] Author has been kindly provided with it by Arden Smith (Berkeley University, C.A.).

[12] Icelandic 'leidhsla' (vision; guidance, being "led" in a vision through some (invisible before) places).

[13] Cf. F.Nansen "In Northern Mists", vol.I, pp.377-78

[14] See "Flateyjarbok", vol.II (Olafs thattr Geirstadhaalfs).

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