Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Elf King / Revisited.

How many times I have browsed the poetry of Elves and their ways, only to find the field littered with saccharine addled nonsence, or when I find something more serious ( and Im not thinking of Tolkien's tales in this case) they follow Goethe's terrible ElfKing. Goethe did seem to be a bit of a specialist in horrific tales as his famous Faust in which the unfortunate man sells his soul to the Devil does portray. Written in 1782 and published as 'Der Erlkönig', Goethe's ElfKing derives from a traditional Danish ballad Elveskud. In Goethe's poem a father and son are journeying homeward on horseback at night. The son who is ill with a fever believes he sees and hears the Erl-king. The father tells him that he sees only fog, that he hears only rustling leaves. Nonetheless, the Erl-king tempts the boy to come with him to Elf land. When they arrive home, the boy is dead.

From The Elf King

Not all versions precisely fit this model, for example in many Danish versions of the Elveskud, a character named 'Olav' dances with the elves, sometimes to his death. Vésteinn Ólason's summary of the Icelandic variants of the ballad is that 'Ólafur' rides along a rocky hillside, meets four Elf-maidens who invite him to drink or live with them. He refuses and would rather believe in Christ. One of the Elf-maidens then asks him for a kiss and when Ólafur bends down to kiss her, she thrusts a sword to his heart. Ólafur escapes home to his mother and thereupon dies.

Rulers such as Norway's Olaf Tryggvason attempted to impose Christianity on his subjects, only to see them rebel and overthrow him.
Clearly central to the legends and folk stories is the conflict of Christianity with the Elves who respresent the earlier gods and the spirits of nature. Also revealing is the refference to dancing, as this is an activity often frowned upon by Christian cultures in historical times, because of its very uncontrolability - dancing is an expression of the fundamental power of life and the joy of expressing that vitality.

Goethe's tale about a malevolent Elf king who stole away a child to kill him can only speak about the prevailing negative attitudes of the Christianised Germanic people to the spirits of nature at this time. Ólason's Icelandic account similalrly portrays the cultural conflict of faiths between the existing old  beliefs and the incoming new religion. It is true that many tales do tell of Elves stealing away children to keep as their own and of stealing men or women for lovers or slaves, but such tales have been told in Christianised cultures condenming the earlier ways. It always behoves the well informed reader to consider the source and its context - to find an objective balance if they can.

The Elves themselves have an honourable and long established tradition of being an acknowledged spiritual presence which, similarly as Christian forces, may both punish wrong doing or reward right behaviour. That either world view, one which includes Elves and nature spirits, or one which does not, should demonise and destroy the other is in todays more enlightened perspectives understood to be a step too far. The Elf King and his kin have suffered a bad press, for which reason it is time to rewrite 'The Elf King' in a more positive perspective.

Here then is the Elf King, revisited;

The Elf King

Look behind stars and inbetween skies,
On a windswept-night moonbeams dancing!
From ancient times as in your rhymes,
The far away people advancing....

If you have frowed and otherfolk cowed,
Perhaps too loud, or too cruel or too greedy -
From ElfKing flee before you he does see,
For the Spirits will not hear your entreaty.

Yet if your heart ring true,
The ElfKing will step through -
Bright brows and smiles, sing silver tongued whiles,
With the Wights of the way and the laughter beside you.

My friend and my foe, do you hear him or no,
What the ElfKing in his surety offers?
From Iceland to EngleLand and many more besides,
For leaf, branch and bough are his coffers.

Will you follow his thread,
Beyond realm of the dead and
Become Fairer than sun - be thou fouler than none,
As the LandSpirits revive and restore you?

My friend and my foe, do you not yet know,
Before the Old times were wrought and were woven?
Why is the sky blue, or what secrets wren knew,
And the magical language of morning...

A different race waits at this sacred space,
In goodwill cross the bridge of all knowing.
Come let us find a song for you there,
And dance to the Elf-horns they are blowing.

If in dread you have tumbled and trembled and fled,
As tales of dark terrors do deceive thee,
Listen instead to where the river's song led,
Let the enchantment of nature receive thee.

To the secret realms, both here and beyond,
Through the confusion of lifetimes of yearning.
The ElfKing of Old has returned as foretold,
Across numberless years of discerning.

Look behind starS and inbetween skies,
On a windswept-night moonbeams dancing!
From ancient times as in your rhymes,
The far away people advancing....

c Titus. L 2015

~ *** ~
~ * The Elf King * ~
This poem and my perspective on the Elves as supernatural but not necessarily physical beings, is formed by my apprehension of the elves at work in nature all bout me. It is also educed over the years from evidence in diverse sources such as songs, ballads, and folktales. Whilst few people can ever see the Elves, it is my belief that if you have a sensitive mind for spiritual vibrations, perhaps you are a seer, shaman or trance worker, you may see them. Of course if an Elf wished it, as they are masters of magic and manipulate matter easily, anybody could see them.

Dancing Elves - August Malstrom 1866
click on me for full view 

In regard of death being a possible entrance to Elfland, as mentioned in Goethe's poem and also in my own, whilst Goethe appears to have meant this literally, I mean it to be a figurative death. Death of the ego-self, to awaken with a newly revealed awareness of the spiritual immanence of all things - the death in the poem is a metaphorical doorway to a new perception.

In this view, the Elven people would be more like an enlightened tribe or self chosen group perhaps, who rever nature and work with her in ways apparently supernatural and beyond the understanding of more materialy minded men. They might also be a mixture of both, spirits of nature and of nature atuned - earth honouring people.
There are of course other views of the Elves, suggesting that they are infact entirely the spirits or souls of the dead, as can be deduced by their ethereal nature, that they are said to sometime live in Elf hills or mounds under the ground, and often wear grey or grey silver attire.

According to The Lady of the Labyrinth, a Nordic writer on things mythological, ''The Dark Elves represent the souls of the dead that still reside in the world, albeit in the underworld, still able to communicate with the living. They may have been kept in the world by their descendants, who prayed to them and sacrificed to them for their wisdom, their guidance, their healing powers and their protection, exactly as it was said that people could pray to Freyr in his mound after his death...The Light Elves, on the other hand, may very well refer to the souls of the dead that have achieved immortality. Perhaps they have become shining bright and transparent through a descent (or ascent) in the Well of Origin – a feat achieved through spiritual training and initiation, leading to the transformation and the immortality of the soul?''...

In the Old Norse mythological sources, the two contrasting types of  Elves are characterised as follows; The Light Elves (Ljósálfar) who live in Alfheim next to Asgard in the Norse heavens. These are 'beautiful creatures' considered 'guardian angels' and their leader the god Freyr, is the ruler of Alfheim. The Light Elves are minor gods of nature and fertility; they can help or hinder humans with their knowledge of magical powers. They also often deliver inspiration to artists or musicians...
The Dark Elves (Dökkálfar) live in Svartalfheim, they hate the sun and therefore live underground. Since the Prose Edda describes the Dökkálfar as being subterranean dwellers, they may be Dwarves under another name in the opinion of a number of scholars such as John Lindow which would accord with other Germic accounts. Some scholars have also produced theories about the origin and implications of this dualistic concept of Elves. The sub-classification perhaps resulted from Christian influence, by way of importating the concept of good and evil and of angels of light and darkness.

Picture used with credit to the owners
Film frame THOR: THE DARK WORLD with the Dark Elves © 2013 MVLFFLLC © 2013 Marvel.

Good or bad, tales of Elf magic and mischief do abound in all of the regions where they are found. For examplethe Norwegians call the Elves music Huldraslaat: they say it is in the minor key, and of a dull and mournful sound. The mountaineers sometimes play it, and pretend they have learned it by listening to the underground people among the hills and rocks. There is also a tune called the Elf-king's tune, which several of the good fiddlers know, but they would never venture to play it, for as soon as it begins both old and young, and even inanimate objects, are impelled to dance, and the player cannot stop unless be can play the air backwards, or that some one comes behind him and cuts the strings of his fiddle. Despite this, Tolkien maintains that “Elvish singing is not a thing to miss, in June under the stars, not if you care for such things.”...

The Horns Of Elfland by Bernard Sleigh
click on me for full view


The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear, how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on field or hill or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Land spirits (Old Norse Landvættir) are possibly also Elves by another name, as these are the localized animating spirits of the land. Some scholars have suggested that landvættir are chthonic in nature, spirits of the dead, but others have interpreted them as nature spirits, since they sometimes live in land that has never been populated. Hilda Ellis Davidson argued that stories such as that of Goat-Björn imply that they were already there when the settlers arrived in Iceland. The distinction between gods and land spirits in the pre-Christian religion of the Norse and other Germanic peoples is not clear-cut.  Land spirits nevertheless wield considerable influence over the well-being of the land and all who depend on it. The pre-Christian Germanic peoples seem to have taken great care to maintain the Land spirits’ favor. For example, the first law code of Iceland (930 CE) instructed those entering the country by ship to remove the dragon-heads from their boats when they sighted land, lest they frighten the land spirits.

Viking 'Dragon Ships'

In Scandinavia and Iceland Elves often came to be known as the Huldufólk (Icelandic hidden people from huldu- "pertaining to secrecy" and fólk "people", "folk"). Building projects in Iceland are sometimes altered to this day to prevent damaging the rocks where Elves or Huldufolk are believed to live. According to these Icelandic folk beliefs, one should never throw stones because of the possibility of hitting the huldufólk whom you may not see as they are mostly invisible as mentioned above. In Faroese folk tales, Huldufólk are said to be "large in build, their clothes are all grey, and their hair black. Their dwellings are in mounds, and they are specifically called Elves. They also dislike crosses, churches and electricity, the former two not surprising given the Christian Churches historical war of ideology against other faiths and of displacing the earlier pagan deities and traditions.Worship of the Elves or Land Spirits was often the hardest part of Paganism for Christians to try to destroy.

Angsalvor - Nils Blommer 1850 - Elfs/Faeries Dancing
click on me for full view 

Elves, Land Spirits and similar beings do not relate to the position accorded them by the earlier Christian theological context of the 'evil other' and have an existence entirely independant of and predating that perspective. Judged in their own context, Elves and such spirits are, whilst admitedly complex and unpredictable, nevertheless potentially benign, even good natured beings who will help a worthy cause. They will also punish a trouble maker as so many fairy tales atest - If you make the Elves' angry, perhaps by behaving cruelly, making too much noise, showing greed or malice, then these forces of nature could cast misfortune before you. Sounding a little like a karmic delivery system, the Elves can be seen then as guardians of right action - think Tolkien rather than Grimm brothers and their originally very dark folkstories/ fairytales which were never intended for children. The first edition of  'Grimm’s Fairy Tales' was scholarly in tone, with many footnotes and no illustrations. It was only after the Grimms had published two editions primarily for adults that they decided to editing and censoring a shorter edition for middle-class families. 

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

German folklore, with which Goethe would have been familiar, has by contrast tended to the conflation of Elves with Dwarfs and also portrayed them as more consistently monstrous and harmful. This in itself is a curious condemnation as in Germanic mythology the Dwarf is portrayed as being who dwells in mountains and in the earth, but is variously associated with wisdom, smithing, mining, and crafting - all positive and productive traits. Dwarfs are often also described as short and ugly, although some scholars have questioned whether this is a later development stemming from comical portrayals of the beings. The negative associations continue as Germanic Elves were thought to give people nightmares and to steal children, leaving a changeling in its place, such children were called Oafs. Popular superstition claimed these oaf children were ugly and stupid.
Shakespeare even used the term spelling it “auf” in his plays. It became set as being spelled “oaf” in the 17th century and meant 'idiot child' or 'halfwit'.

In English literature of the Elizabethan era, Elves became conflated with the Fairies of Romance culture and assume a diminutive size, living mainly in forests but also underground in hills or rocks, as well as in wells and springs, traditional haunts for nature spirits and displaced pagan deities. Shakespeare's Elves, as in the Midsummer Nights Dream, were tiny, winged creatures that lived in, and playfully flitted around, forest and flowers. English male Elves were often described as looking like little old men, though Elf maidens were invariably young and beautiful. 19th-century Romanticism attempted to restore the Elves to full stature and from there the Elves entered the 20th-century awareness in the wake of the published work of Tolkien. Tolkien's fantasy Elves as depicted in  the Lord of the Rings trilogy, are slender, human-sized, and beautiful, with fine, almost angelic features drawn largely from his research into Scandinavian folklore...

For more on the English context of Elves,
see my post on The Elf Knight & The Faerie Queene here.

With a view to the contemorary reality of Elves, I can do no better than recommend Serena Roney-Dougal's book 'The Faery Faith'. Serena Roney-Dougal who has a PhD in Parapsychology (the exploration of psychic phenomena; telepathy, clairvoyance and psychokinesis etc) presents her accounts which incorporate the latest views of quantum science, which identifies that our own cognition is a causative effect influencing the outcome of physical events, with the earlier magickal traditions which by various means sought to interact and cooperate with these energies at an elemental level and beyond. She also succinctly and simply portrays an enlightening insight into how the myths and legends of yore present an insight into other levels and realms of existence coexisting with our own reality and goes on to provide many inspiring accounts of how the same Fae and Elven energies of earth and beyond are now resurgent in more modern myths and experiences of Fairy and Elven visitations, ghostly presences and Ufo abductions.
I particularly liked this quote that she included which describes a 'place' outside of physical space ''Faeryland exists as a super-normal state of consciousness into which people may enter in dreams, trance, ecstatic condition or for an indefinite period at death...it can have no other limits than that of the universe itself' (Lady Gregory 1979).''

As to wether the Elves really exist, or still exist, or are just the product of an imaginative mankind projecting a frame of reference onto the wildness of nature, you will have to decide for yourself. Personally however, as I believe that mobile phones use rare minerals which have invisible electromagnetic properties, as quantum theory postulates that we create the world as we envison it and as quantum entanglement shows that objects infintely seperated can influence one another instantaeneously - so to is there room in this earthly realm for more than meere mortal philosophy. Open that door to perception and take a look.....

The Elf King dancing to mourn the passing of summer and to celebrate the arrival of autumn....

May the Good Elves be with you!


  1. Thank you for directing me here, dear Elf. I enjoyed the whole post and look forward to more.

  2. Just finished reading and again, I've learned some new things. I especially liked hearing the history of the Elves in Scandinavia and Iceland. I watched Jordskott and enjoyed it. I grew up with the images of Tolkien's elves and fell in love with them from my first reading of Lord of the Rings. Here I am, some 50 years later, still searching for them in the woods and listening for their music. I did actually hear it once. Thanks again and here's a link to a documentary I watched on youtube. Elves, Ghosts, Sea Monsters and Ghosts in Iceland. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRjatXe5bis I think you would like it. And I thoroughly enjoyed your poem. Perhaps some moonlit lit night I will catch a glimpse of the Elf King dancing in the woods. Blessed Be

    1. Elderberry, the history of the Elves is fascinating and Jordskott seems such a pertinent drama in these times of environmental destruction as earth spirits rally to stop it. Im glad you heard the Elves' music, having once heard establishes a link that can never be taken away - a bridge if you will. Looking forward to sit down with the video link you shared, thank you.
      Bright Blessings along your pathway ~