Ever seen the film Polar Express? It’s still one of my all time faves though I must admit that the magic of most of the first part of the movie seems to…I don’t know…get a little jaded when the kids finally reach the North Pole. I’ve always tried to work out why Santa’s polar cap city seems a little…creepy? There I said it. I watched the film again yesterday and I still love it but suddenly thoughts started to formulate. The Elf City at the top of the world just seems too pretty, too perfect yet even somewhat ‘sterile’. There’s something not quite right about it, even though it is presented as Utopian. I’ve been racking my brains as to where I have experienced that feeling of a place before and then it hit me: Frankfurt, Germany. Oh I know…Frankfurt is a modern shiny city of skyscrapers even though it has an old quarter and Santa’s City is supposed to be quaint and cutesy. I used to work in Frankfurt twice a year. Skyscrapers or no, the city is perfect, clean and bright. Even the dogs look scared to crap on the streets. And then we get to the inhabitants of the Polar city: Santa and his Elves. Try as I might I can’t quite love the little dears. I don’t hate them just…meh. So who are these Elves anyway? When did they barge themselves into Christmas traditions? Where did they come from? I decided to investigate.
My only other encounter with Elves in Moviedom and literature has been of the Middle Earth Kind (Lord of the Rings or LOTR for the unwise). Somehow the Elves I met there don’t quite seem to fit the bill has goofy midgets with appalling dress sense. I mean, can anyone seriously imagine Galadriel and Arwen on a production line gift wrapping Y-Fronts and Fererro Rocher while stepping over Reindeer poo? Again for those unfamiliar with who these are, they are tall, long haired female Elves in LOTR who spend most of their days whispering prophecies of doom and death while standing in front of wind machines pouting and looking beautiful. Ohhhhh…maybe that explains Victoria Beckham?? Anyway and can you imagine Santa barking orders at Warrior Elf Legolas? He’d be more likely to get an arrow fired up his jacksy by pointy ears, swift as. So which is the correct depiction of Elvendom – ruddy cheeked little pixies or tall, beautiful, pouting mystics? Well neither apparently.
Elves originate in Nordic and Germanic folklore. Aha! See, I was not so far off the mark with Frankfurt then. Our modern use of the word ‘Elf’ derives from the Old English ‘aelf’ or ‘ylve’. Earliest descriptions of them are found in Norse mythology where they appear to be a race of supernatural beings, ambivalent toward humans with the capability to either help or hinder them. Belief in Elves as real beings which interacted regularly with mankind must have been widespread, ingrained and prevalent among ancient northern European peoples as with the spread of Christianity from the east and south, belief in them was not wiped out. They were increasingly addressed in Christianity as party to forces of evil and not of good. In other words, Elves stood at the front line on the battle between Pagan and Christian Europe for supremacy. In Medieval ages, they increasingly appear in books of the time across Norse, Germanic, Celtic lands and Anglo-Saxon Britain. Sometimes called ‘Alps’ or ‘Addlers‘, prayers against them were found in medical and religious books of the time as Elves were often blamed for illnesses and maladies inflicting humans thought to have been induced by ‘Elfshot’. This seems to have been sudden, sharp shooting pains that could strike both humans or animals at any moment. Both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were scholars of ancient European mythology and they would have been very aware of all the above. Little wonder then that almost every Elf you encounter in LOTR is slung with bow and arrow. More sinister references to Elves enticing humans to their deaths through their dances have appeared in English, Scottish and Norse folklore.
The Germanic peoples seem to have had the greatest fear of Elves or Alps as they were sometimes called. Here they were seen as ghostly spectres or spirits resembling (but not to mistaken for) vampires who would visit humans as they slept to induce nightmares.
Bwa har har…
The cute pixie in red and green is a relatively modern makeover for the shady Elves as they seek to be drawn back into the bosom of mankind. For once , the Coca Cola company seems not to be behind the re-imaging (as they have been credited with doing for Santa). 19th Century popular fiction writing in the USA and writers of pseudo-mythology such as Tolkien are regarded by some as being among those primarily responsible for the rehabilitation of Elves into the modern era.
All in all I wasn’t expecting any of this as I started my investigation into the origin of Elves and neither was I expecting to find that there are still pockets of modern, 21st Century Europeans who very firmly believe in the existence of Elves today. Take this strange story from Iceland reported in UK national mainstream newspaper, The Independent just this week. Literally hundreds of Icelanders are protesting on a regular basis against the building of a new coastal road on the Nordic island because of the damage it might do to the habitat of Elves. I’ve also been to Iceland. Strange lot them. Belief in Elves they can do. Belief in sharing their fishing stocks with their European neighbours they don’t do.
One final reflection after this delve into the sinister past of the Elves. If they are the spooky, shady, malevolent harbingers of illness, nightmares and death that our European ancestors believed them to be, then what’s to be thought of the Ho-Ho-Ho he who rules such a ghoulish rabble? To all parents reading this knowing what you now know about Elves…consider as you deck the halls for Christmas next year. Just who would you have slip down your chimney in the witching hours of a winter’s night and creep into the bedrooms of your slumbering cherubs?