The trouble with elves & dwarves…

I’m as tired of pointy-eared, nimble elves leaping from rock to rock above a raging river or walking atop drifted snow, as I am of gruff, Scottish-sounding, hammer-toting, gold-loving dwarves, as nimble with dishes and song as they are with axes.

But, much of our modern conception of elves (alfar) and dwarves (svartalfar) began with Norse myth. Actually, a lot of it goes back to JRR, but he pulled directly from the Voluspa’s list of dwarves for the names of his — including “Gandalf” which means something like “Staff Elf.”

Anyway.

My goal was (and is) to be as faithful to Norse myth as possible. So, knowing the tropes and knowing the (over-used) interpretations of elves and dwarves, how could I spin it? As usual, I’m not going to say directly.

However, here are some of my notes from Simek’s Dictionary on how elves & dwarves were portrayed/viewed in the various source materials:

  • Snorri equates dwarves with a sub-group of the elves, the svartalfar. Svart- means “black.”
    • There’s also the ljosalfar (light elves) which Guy Gavriel Kay uses in his Fionavar Tapestry.
    • And if you’ve ever played (A)D&D or read R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden series going the “dark elf” route is every bit as dangerous as Menzoberranzan.
  • Elves seemed to correspond to roles in religious cults while  dwarves were just other types of beings (usually helpful) with whom humans and gods could interact; the dwarves were not originally thought of as small.
  • Dwarves were typically portrayed as wise and skillful (e.g., smiths), as well as miners and custodians of treasure who live under mountains and in rocks.
    • Their magical powers resulted from them having technical ability
    • The weapons and devices used by the Aesir — Mjolnir, Gungnir, Skidbladnir, etc., were all made by the dwarves (thanks to Loki).
  • Alvissmal recounts how the wise dwarf Alviss turned to stone when the first ray of sunlight touched him outside his home’s protection (he got duped by Thor)
  • In Voluspa, dwarves were created from blood of the giant Brimir and the bones of the giant Blainn. But, Snorri describes dwarves as maggot-like beings living in the flesh of Ymir; they were subsequently imbued with reason by the gods.
  • The etymology of the word “dwarf” is obscure.
    • Some scholars say it’s from the Norwegian “dvergskot” for animal disease and/or the Old Indian for “drva-” meaning sickness or weakness which then leads back to an Indo-Germanic root “dhuer-” or damage.
    • But, other scholars have centered on the Old Indian “dhvaras” or “demonic being.” This leads to the Indo-Germanic root dhreugh — which then leads to dream (traum) or trug (deception) in German. In this case, “deceptive picture” would be closer to the original meaning of the original word.

My challenge was to incorporate much of the above while also putting an original spin on it. I think I’ve done that, particularly with what my Svartalvar can do & how they do it (and yes, I changed the “f” to a “v.” Crazy, right?).

Like Snorri, I treat the Svartalvar as a subgroup of the Alvar. Long story short, two groups within the Alvar went through a disagreement which resulted in one group (the Alvar) allying themselves the Vanir. The other group, the Svartalvar, did not.

I frequently allude to the Svartalvar in my first book, but they don’t appear till my second. In my third book (and beyond), they take center stage with several POV characters. Large portions of those future books have been written, but I keep having ideas on how I can further differentiate my Svartalvar and Alvar cultures. Which is fun.

I’m actually chompin’ on the bit to get to those future books, but it’ll be a while — years, most likely — before I do.

mattbishopwrites

New fantasy author working on the first book in series inspired by Norse myth.

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