Neil Mach

Author – Fantasy Realism

On Myth & Magic episode 76, which aired on April 7, 2021, I talked about how to build belief in your characters, in your plots and even in your author brand. Belief (and belief building) is an indispensable component of fantasy fiction.


As a fan of fantasy fiction, you are most likely an enthusiast and appreciator of ELVES and the Elfin race… but did you know that Elves helps us understand the objective reality of things we cannot see? In other words, Elves contribute to our understanding of belief in hidden things.

In Old Norse the creatures (or elemental constructs) that we know as Elves were earlier called hulder or the (hylja) which means: the “hidden ones” or the “veiled ones.”

Hulder is a very ancient word and it stems from the verb hylja  which means “to hide.” In other words, the ancient Norse peoples believed there were supernatural beings that shared our world, even though they were hidden from us! I suppose if the ancient Norse had any notion of time/space (who’s to say they didn’t?) — they might have said that the hulder inhabit an alternate dimension and that these entities could travel across the threshold (infrequently and fleetingly) and enter into our own dimension… perhaps causing disruption and harm to our timeline.

If Elves cannot be seen (because they are hidden) and they cannot be experienced (because they inhabit an extrasensory dimension), how can anyone believe in their existence?

The same question (of course) can be asked about ghosts, gods, cryptids, demons and angels, etc. but for Elves the commitment to believe in them is even more intriguing (and complicated) because we’re faced with the basic principal of Elves (and their essential ingredient) — and that’s that they are undetectable, imperceptible, and unknowable… in other words, Elves are hyperphysical (in the sense that they exist beyond our physico-chemical senses.) Ghosts come to spook us, Gods inspire awe and bring emotion, cryptids might be (occasionally) witnessed, demons bring ill luck, angels bring tidings… but Elves (by their very nature) remain hidden.

However, when enough people believe in something — in this case, Elven reality — then the thing will have a tangible effect on our real, non-fictional world. It’s at this stage of believing that the hidden thing might be be understood to become part of a shared worldview, and will have a genuine place in our social reality.

To explain what I mean by this, take the Old English etymon for ELF, which is ælf or sometimes ælfe — or even on occasions ylf — (ancient people also used the words elphis and elphen) and see if you can find real place-names (of actual places) using one of these ciphers hidden inside the name. If you can, it possibly means that ELVES became associated with the real-world place, so they once formed part of the social reality of that actual place. We know the people of yesteryear believed in the “idea” of Elves because they even named their places after them! Examples:

  • Alvingham in Lincolnshire, England
  • Olveston (Ælfestun) in South Gloucestershire, England.
  • Eldon Hill, in the Peak District, Derbyshire (first attested as Elvedon in 1285)

You might like to try to find your own

And, likewise, many ancient forenames (and even some hereditary names) included the idea of ​​elfdom. Here are some real ones:

Ælfwine  — literally means “elf-friend” 

Ælfric — literally means“elf-powerful” 

Ælfweard — literally  means “elf-guardian”

Ælfwaru — literally  means “elf-carer”

“A thing has a tangible benefit for society when everyone believes in what is stands for”

Furthermore, something that has no tangible quality or material value can, nonetheless, stimulate a sense of great pride, enormous respect, or enormous worth if: “enough people believe in it.” 

A good example of this is the passionate feeling that a national flag awakens. Another example is a five-pound note (or a five-dollar bill); in reality, these things are just bits of paper that are worth next to nothing, but they “represent” some time invested, the output earned, or the value traded . A five dollar bill is a “real and valuable thing”. A thing has a tangible benefit for society when everyone believes in what is stands for. Elves are the same. They represent something we understand, although, like banknotes, we cannot easily identify or explain it. They are real (although they cannot be easily imagined) because of what they “mean to people.” 

Elves are real because more people believe in the “idea” of Elves than the amount who don’t. More folk believe in the absoluteness of their (unseen) existence than those who don’t… And therefore, like a flag or a banknote, these elemental beings have been part of, and will probably always be part of, our objective & shared reality.

It’s also interesting to contemplate a society that believes in the possibility of a “hidden” race of “different” peoples that hide themselves away in another dimension: is it so we (as a society) can think metaphorically about real-life ethnic “others”? The thoughts can be positive (or negative) but at least we consider the possibility of other tribes, other nations and/or other ethnic groups that live way-beyond our visible realms, as we try to find our place within a larger universe.

It’s also worth acknowledging that our (shared) beliefs about elves and their social roles have varied across time and space: once upon a time, Elves were identified with demons (in fact the earliest Christian prayer book used the word elf to mean Satan) — while some ancient folklorists defined the creatures as “divinities of light” so they regarded Elves as demi-gods. Some folk thought Elves caused disease (elf-shot) while many others thought that elves raped people and stole their babies.

The romantic concept of a “noble elf” only entered into literature in Elizabethan England. Much later, the creatures were became depicted as positive (though they were always moralistic and somewhat haughty) like the Elves found in Tolkien’s legendarium

How much does Legolas equate with the satanic child-abductors of earlier years? Not much. Our social view of Elves has changed, as we have matured. Now compare Legolas with the extraterrestrial aliens you are familiar with from Sci-Fi fiction (the humanoids known as Vulcans in the Star Trek cannon are a good place to start) — and think about how many people believe in aliens… abductions, UFOs, Area 51. Are inter-dimensional, invisible aliens just Elves by another name?

Alone in some hidden places/they stand then very still,
They that are called eluene…are from among the ghosts…

(Extract from the Southern English Legendary, 1270)

Here are some authentic elven derived words you might want to use in your next project:

  • Elfin race: Ælfcynn
  • Of elves: ælfisc
  • Mountain elf: beorgælfen.
  • Field elf: feldælfen
  • Wood elf: wuduælfen
  • Water elf: sæælfen or wæterælfen
  • A nightmare caused by elf: ælfādl

Working on a project with Elves? Tweet @neilmach

words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

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