Elves have been viewed as tiny little creatures, almost like faeries in their stature in contemporary culture. They are often seen as diminutive, mischievous, and capricious little things. However, ancient Scandinavian myth and, more recently, in the worlds of high fantasy and role playing games, elves are something else entirely.
Elves in the writings of Scandinavian mythology were divided into two primary categories: light and dark. These are not merely an indication of appearance but also of dwelling place or environment. The “light” elves lived in a world, much like Heaven and are described as being too bright to look at. The “dark” elves live underground and were swarthy in appearance. A sharp contrast is brought between the two in their nature, though this is not like the popular concept of “light side” or “dark side”, that denotes good and evil. It’s these elements that influenced modern fantasy literature and role playing games.
In the world of Middle-earth, laid out in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and epic The Lord of the Rings, and the history of Middle-earth, The Silmarillion, the concept of a noble race beyond the understanding of humans came into modern public consciousness. Professor Tolkien’s based his elves on the Norse myths concerning elves and also incorporated Celtic ideas. They are fair in appearance and very noble creatures, long lived and wise. Unless an elf meets an untimely end, there is no way an elf can die. They simply diminish and sail “into the West”, which is where the Heaven of Middle-earth, Valinor, lies, just beyond our sphere of Creation.
Tolkien also wrote of light and dark elves, though his lineages and their origins are far more complex than mere “light” and “dark”. There are elves that were considered the highest among them, not staying in Middle-earth but returning to Valinor. There were others who ventured later there but were sidetracked to find their lost leader, Elwë. Some only made it part way before fear kept them from leaving. There were a great number who, after returning to Valinor, decided to return to Middle-earth to retrieve the Silmarils stolen by the demon Morgoth. Their leader was Fëanor, who initiated the Kinslaying, and Fingolfin, his half-brother.
Tolkien spent a great deal of time on the history and cultures of the elves he created, even creating specific languages for them. Quenya and Sindarin are the two most developed of these and all the names and places associated with elves in his books have roots in those languages. Legolas, the elf from Mirkwood, and Galadriel and Celeborn, the Lord and Lady of Lothlórien, in The Lord of the Rings are elves who stayed in Middle-earth, not returning until they had felt it was their time to go into the West.
This concept of light elves and dark elves continues in role playing games as well, from Dungeons & Dragons to World of Warcraft, Warhammer to Skyrim. Commonly light elves are referred to as High Elves and haughtily looking down on all other non-elvish races. The dark elves, contrary to original myths and Professor Tolkien’s writings, tend toward evil, either by their worship of chaotic forces or through some alliance made.
The presentation of high elvish kind in Dungeons & Dragons is similar to Tolkien’s. They are a beautiful race who do not age as men do. They also do not sleep, but enter a trancelike state, similar to Legolas in The Lord of the Rings. They are also divided into many other sub-races as well, based on where they settled in the history of the setting being played. There are also the drow, who are an evil race of dark elves that live underground. Drizzt Do’Urden, who is not actually of evil alignment, is the most famous drow, appearing in a series of popular novels and graphic novels, as well as various video games and board games in the D&D universe.
In World of Warcraft, night elves were part of the original race of elves, from whom all the other elvish races descend. They physically resemble typical dark elves but are not evil as the drow are in Dungeons & Dragons. After the destruction of their source of magical power, the Well of Eternity, they chose to give up that path of living and decided to live more in harmony with the land, instead of over it, protecting it. They live like druids do in reverence of the moon goddess, Elune, and the children of Cenarius, a slain demigod. Some night elves of note are High Priestess Tyrande Whisperwind, priestess of Elune, and Broll Bearmantle, a powerful druid.
Blood elves were also at one time Highborne Elves in the history of Azeroth, the world in Warcraft, but had renamed themselves in the aftermath of a bloody battle that wiped out 90% of their kind. This battle also destroyed their source of magic power, to which they were addicted and need to find other sources of magic to feed their addiction. They more closely resemble dark elves in other settings than night elves do. They are seeking revenge for this loss which gives them an evil bent as they work for this vengeance and must also find ways to satisfy their addiction. They also will ally with evil races and organizations to meet an end. Some more notable blood elves are Magister Astalor Bloodsworn, in charge of manipulating energies of an inter-dimensional creature, and Valeera Sanguinar, companion of the blood elf king.
In the popular MMORPG Rift, elves are also choosable as a player race. There are two factions of elf: the High Elves and the Kaleri, or dark, rebel elves. The High Elves follow the popular convention of a race of protectors of creation and its secrets. They call the Silverwood home and live apart from the other races. They are led by the Prince Hylas and the High Priestess of Tavril, Shyla Starhearth. The Kaleri are the opposite faction, lured by the promise of power to serve a dark spiritual force. The conflict between them and the Kaleri began when a secret society begun within the religion of the High Elves split to find their own way. Even then, there was infighting within their ranks and the Kelari became deeper and deeper entrenched in the ways of the Abyssal, the forces of darkness. They are led by their High Priestess, Anthousa Mona. These names seem to follow an almost Euro-centric naming convention of Latin or Greek or Gaelic sounding names, as well as the compound descriptive name.
In the Xbox game, Skyrim, elves are divided into three main groups and even the race of orcs is descended from them! The high elves, or Altmer in the game, are an ancient race adept in the arcane arts of magic and are able to regenerate their use of it quickly. They are taller than the other races and also fair of complexion. They also look down on those not elvish. Dark elves or Dunmer, are segregated and nationalistic, living away from others and suffering prejudice. They are stealthy by nature and smaller than the Altmer. Wood elves or Bosmer are a more barbarian styled elvish race, which is quite a unique thing as far as the typical elvish tropes go. Druidic, like the Night elves in WoW, they live in harmony with the forests they call their home and have many stipulations against using wood or consuming vegetation.
High Elves are called Asur in the Warhammer universe and are playable in Age of Reckoning.They look down on other races and have a sharp enmity with the dwarves in their world. Their biggest struggle is with the Dark Elves or Druchii. Early in the history of the world of Warhammer, elves were one people and fought to eliminate the forces of Chaos. Because of these conflicts, the High Elves learned that extremes of emotion can lead to more influence by Chaos. Therefore, any surrender to anger or lust is considered a sign of weakness. The High Elves live lives free from passions but the Dark Elves embrace them. The High Elves are also skilled mages and highly technical warriors with a sword. It was due to the influence of these passions that the Elves were split into two societies. When the succession of the kingship was in conflict, the passing of the throne to the rightful heir Malekith was opposed because of his dealings with Chaos, the manifestations of evil. Being rejected by even the king of the Elven gods because of his corruption, he engineered a civil war that led to the near total destruction of the Dark Elves’ land by a tidal wave. They were then driven from Ulthuan and wander the world in flying fortresses. Dark Elves thrive on slavery and promote pride, individualism and selfishness. All other races are viewed as potential new subjects and slaves to their whims. A popular dark elf is Malus Darkblade, whose adventures were captured in serialized novels set in the Warhammer universe.
Lineage 2 has the familiar races of elves. The light elf race is simply called “Elf” with the dark elves using the “Dark Elf” name. Elves worship a goddess of water and pursue good ends and dark elves worship the goddess of death and practice the dark arts as well, which is why they would be called “dark” elves. They tend to fall along those lines, without as deep of a history given for elves in WoW, Skyrim, D&D or LotR. Names for elves, light or dark, appear not to have a deep cultural significance in the in-game world.
Elves are a rich source of lore and story for any fantasy setting. The differences between the aloof light elves and the tragic dark elves provide a rich background of information and story hooks for many types of games. The examples covered here actually only scratch the surface of what available types of elves there are in popular games and fiction and the histories they have.