These days, elves are usually thought of as either the toymakers of the North Pole or the archers of Middle Earth, though someone with a sweet tooth might think of Keebler’s cookie-makers. While the Keebler variety bears a strong resemblance to Santa’s helpers, the only feature they have in common with the elves of Tolkien’s novels are their pointed ears. Which begs the question, which elf is the true elf?
The most logical way to determine this would be to simply find out which elf came first. Tolkien-inspired elves appear commonly in role-playing games – both the video and tabletop variety, but the Middle Earth elves make their first appearance in The Hobbit, published in 1937, and then more prominently in the 1954 sequel trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. However, the idea that elves were once great beings was established in his earlier writings, beginning in 1916, which were published posthumously in the 1980s as The Book of Lost Tales.
The association of elves with Christmas, on the other hand, dates back as far as 1822, when Clement Clark Moore referred to Santa Claus as “a right jolly old elf” in his classic poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more widely known as “The Night Before Christmas.” Of course, his description of St. Nick does not resemble the North Pole elves at all. In 1856, Louisa May Alcott completed a booked called Christmas Elves; however, this book was never published. The first mention of toy-making elves to be published was a poem entitled “The Wonders of Santa Claus” in an 1857 edition of Harper’s Weekly. Then in 1873, an illustration titled “The Workshop of Santa Claus” which depicted Santa surrounded by toys and elves appeared in another magazine called Godey’s Lady’s Book.
By this account, the North Pole elves would be the clear winners, having been introduced at least eighty years prior to those of Tolkien. However, elves have existed in folklore for much longer. As early as the 1500s, elves were being included in fairy folklore and by the 1800s the two were indistinguishable. They were also closely related to leprechauns which bear resemblance to the Christmas elves of today. However, the elves of folklore were more likely to create mischief than toys. In addition to playing pranks, elves and fairies were known for stealing babies, often replacing them with their own children, referred to as changelings. They were also notorious for enchanting people. The fairies of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are prime examples. Most of the action of the play occurs because Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies, are at odds over a changeling and Oberon creates a love potion, intending to make Titania fall in love with a forest animal. During the play, two men almost kill each other because they are charmed to fall in love with the same woman and another man has his head turned into that of a donkey.
But elves were around even before the 1500s. They first appear in pre-Christian Norse mythology. These elves were often equated with gods. Often described as tall and slim with pale skin and hair, they resemble the elves of Middle Earth, which is not surprising as Tolkien was known to have spent his free time reading and translating Old Norse texts. Much of what is known about the elves of Norse mythology comes from Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century, who broke them down into categories of dark and light elves. This is thought to be an attempt to reconcile the dual natures of the elves, who were known to possess both good and bad moralities, with the Christian concept of angels and demons. The light elves lived above ground and are most closely associated with the common perception of elves. The dark elves, on the other hand, lived underground and are thought by many to actually be dwarves.
It seems that the Middle Earth elves must be the true elves as Tolkien was clearly influenced by the early Norse mythology. However, there is the possibility that neither of these fictional accounts of elves are the true elves. Perhaps, true elves are the ones still believed to be real and not just by children. While in the U.S., most adults would scoff at the idea of believing in elves, that is not the case everywhere. Many Icelandic residents believe in the existence of elves known as “huldufolk” which translate to “hidden people.” According to folklore, these are the children of Eve who were dirty when God came to visit. Because she was embarrassed at their appearance, she hid them from God. To punish her for lying, God responded by hiding the children from her, as well as from the rest of mankind. Road projects have been stopped through a series of mishaps thought to be the work of elves protecting their homes. A 2012 Icelandic law was enacted to protect all places connected to magic and folktales due to their cultural heritage.
As the battle ends, there is still no concrete answer to which elf is the true elf. The Christmas elves predate the Middle Earth elves, but the Middle Earth elves were inspired by the Old Norse elves. However, according to Icelandic lore, the elves date back to the time of Adam and Eve. Maybe they are all the same. Perhaps Eve’s children were hidden in Middle Earth before setting sail for the North Pole and the presence of two hobbits aboard their ship gave them the idea to shapeshift into much smaller beings. Of course, by that logic, Gandalf would have to be Santa Claus.