Everyone has a clear idea of how fantasy elves – as opposed to their fairy tale counterparts – look and act. They are ancient and wise and possess both great nobility and power. In form Elves stand as tall as men – taller than some – though they are of slighter build and greater grace. They revel in the wonders of nature, the beauty of songs and tales, the glimmer of the stars, and the voice of the waters. They are not always called Elves but, whether it is Tolkien’s Eldar, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lios Alfar, Tad Williams’ Sithi, Raymond E Feist’s Eledhel, Michael Moorcock’s Melniboneans or Katherine Kerr’s Elycion Lacar, these common features make them unmistakable as a fantasy archetype. In the worlds of fantasy role-playing there are numerous divisions and subdivisions of this proud, noble and ancient race – High Elves, Wood Elves, Half-Elves, Wild Elves, Sea Elves, Deep Elves – the list goes on and on. But there is one Elvish race that pops up time and time again in almost every fantasy world, one that is as synonymous with darkness as their fair cousins are with light and goodness. They have many names – Drow, Moredhel, Dark Eldar, Svart Alfar, Norns – but they are best known as Dark Elves.
Dark Elves have actually been around in mythology almost as long as Elves themselves – Celtic folklore in particular is full of tales of the Dark or Unseelie Court, causing mischief and mayhem for both humans and their Light or Seelie Court counterparts. They are also referenced as Dokkalfar or Svart Alfar in the Norse myths. In the Eddas Dark Elves were not truly evil as such, they could mainly be distinguished from Lios Alfar (or ‘Light Elves’) by the fact that they dwelt within the earth and were mostly swarthy, while their cousins lived in Alfheim, located in heaven, and were said to be fairer than the sun to look at. There also seems to have been some overlap between Svart Alfar and Dwarves, although this is done away with by Tolkien in his legendarium, which refers to them as two different races. Tolkien’s Moriquendi seem to be the origin of Dark Elves in fantasy fiction because it is in them that the term ‘Dark’ is first given a specifically negative connotation. In Tolkien’s world, from the beginning there was a division between the Elves who desired the light of the Undying Lands versus Elves who did not wish to leave Middle Earth, implying that these ‘Dark’ Elves willingly tolerated the shadows that the Dark Lord Morgoth had put upon Middle Earth.
The creators of fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons picked up on this distinction and ran with it in their fictional race, the Drow. In fact the term ‘Drow’ comes from mythology rather than fiction. In the folkloric traditions of the Orkney and Shetland islands a Drow is a small, troll-like fairy creature, in general inclined to be short of stature, ugly and both shy and mischievous in nature. Like the troll of Scandinavian legend, with which the Drow (sometimes spelt ‘Trow’) shares many similarities, they are nocturnal creatures; venturing out of their ‘knowes’ (earthen mound dwellings) solely in the evening. Although in D&D the Drow are sinister and evil rather than merely mischievous, it is interesting to note that they retain this nocturnal, subterranean nature. The Drow perhaps encapsulate what are considered the common characteristics of Dark Elves, being known for their aggression, deceit, and stealth. They are brutal and cruel by nature, having little mercy when it comes to cheating, fighting, or anything dealing with the life of another being. They have little respect for even their own kind, at times waging war against each other. However, clans are known to band together, to combat invasions and attacks by other races. They do not mix blood with other races. They lurk in dark places and love the shadows. Rarely will they come into the light for needless purposes, but it is not usually believed light will harm or weaken them. Their weakness varies upon legend, and may include excessive heat, rain, nettles, or the blossoms of some plants and trees. Dark elves generally travel in pairs or groups, as their tendencies towards cheating and theft make them targets for retaliation and violence at the hands of other races.
The above seems to be the template that has been followed both in fantasy fiction and other role-playing worlds ever since. For instance, the Dark Elves of the Warhammer World have lived in exile in Naggaroth, the Land of Chill, ever since they made war on their hated enemies the High Elves under the leadership of Malekith the Witch King. Tad Williams’ Norns are a more elegant version of the Drow, who also live in the coldest part of his fantasy world of Osten Ard, paying tribute to their undead ruler, Ineluki the Storm King. It is the D&D fantasy setting that has produced one of the most famous Dark Elves in fiction – Drizzt Do’Urden – who, in contrast to his dastardly brethren, is actually that rare thing for a Drow, brave, noble and self-sacrificing. Another iconic Dark Elf is Nerevar, the legendary Hortator and King of the Chimer from the fantasy world of The Elder Scrolls. Technically, he is not necessarily a Dark Elf in the game, depending on the player’s race, but he is the reincarnation of the Chimer Nerevar Indoril, once king of Morrowind. Going back to the world of Warhammer, I have to mention one of my favourite graphic novel anti-heroes, the Black Library’s very own Malus Darkblade, a latter-day Elf With No Name, riding his giant lizard across the wastes of Naggaroth righting wrongs and generally kicking butt! One thing is for sure, whether they are playing the role of good guys or villains, the Dark Elf is a mysterious, alluring and constantly evolving fantasy archetype and one that I’m sure is here to stay.