Thursday, 19 February 2015

Dark Aelfs -meaning

This is a short background piece about my use of the "dark aelf" (and, earlier, "dark alf").

Modern interest in Tolkien’s work and the success in visualizing that work now permeates every part of Western culture. Convincing characterization and visual representations of elves now cannot fail to bring to mind Orlando Bloom and Legolas, and the other exceptional characters and actors who have brought Tolkien’s epics to life. Sadly, while unintended, this has had a tendency to recast elves in human form, not Tolkien's intent.

Before these developments, elves were anything but human. The older form of the word – the Anglo-Saxon “ælfe” – probably meant slightly different things at different times. But the belief in something called an ælfe persisted for more than a thousand years. It was a belief that was both common and enduring.


Alaric Timothy Peter Hall in a thesis dealing with The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England invokes the concept of “social reality” to explain this:

“Within this framework of historical anthropology, my guiding assumption is that ælfe were a ‘social reality’. They were not an objective reality, like houses and trees, which can be readily perceived in the physical world and, insofar as anything can be, objectively proven to exist. But, as I and my society believe that coins have monetary value or that I am English, a critical mass of Anglo-Saxons accepted the reality of ælfe, and this collective belief made ælfe a social reality. Social realities are not mere fantasies: we cannot, as individuals, wish them away, any more than Beowulf could the dragon; ælfe, no less than the Christian God, could have played a significant role both in societies’ constructions of the world and individuals’ constructions of experience. Indeed, what looks like a social reality from an outsider’s perspective may become an objective reality when the insider’s perspective is adopted (cf. Turner 2003 [1992]). But the insider’s perspective on ælfe can no longer be experienced, only reconstructed, and I have no choice but to admit my disbelief in ælfe’s objective reality, while accepting that objective experiences of Anglo-Saxons could have been construed as experience of ælfe. In this perspective, since there was no objective reality forcing societies to recognise the existence of ælfe—only cultural and social impulses—the study of ælfe is potentially especially illuminating for Anglo-Saxon culture and society: ælfe were, amongst other things, reflections and abstractions of Anglo-Saxons’ changing ideals, concerns, and survival strategies.”

While the concept of "social reality" is problematic, Hall's explanation here raises the central issue: while there is no objective evidence for the ælfe, people within particular society acted as though they were real.  This is a little different from the new meaning of elf – where elves are treated as entirely imaginary.

When I was small, this was not the case. Elves existed, just out of sight: a source of fortune or disaster, a tangible driver of probabilities.

Because of the baggage around the word “elf” I have chosen to use a different word to evoke the beings of my childhood, using the form of the word used by elderly when talking to children. While not the “ælfe” of Anglo Saxon writings or folklore, a simplified form “aelf” evokes the older form while offering a bridge from the modern “elf”.

In the stories I have sometimes gone one step further, referring to a “dark aelf”. The prefix is intended to further ground the being to the heath and home, to evoke mixed ideas of a miner, weapon wielder and mischief maker.  A being with dark eyes or hair – a being capable of gifting good or poor health, travelling rainbows, a seeker of gold. As a child, if you were going to run into one of these, chances are it would be a dark aelf. As an adult, a dark aelf would most commonly encountered as an absence - a missing egg or a lost opportunity.

This again is a little different from a set of meaning that have grown around the term “dark elves”, Some modern genres of games or books have derived monstrous forms that simply didn’t exist, as elves, in folk culture. 

My own “knowledge” of dark aelfs is largely derived from stories told me by my great-aunt – I first described these here

I have changed my useage from alf to aelf following an intervention by a couple of friends who described an american comedic character with that name, and who ate cats. That would never do.

Peter Quinton
February 2015

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