elves: Indic counterpart?
Allen W Thrasher
athr at LOC.GOV
Wed Feb 9 16:14:10 EST 2005
Many thanks for the many suggestions, to Valerie, Matthew, Joanna,
Chris, Al, Dean, and Ashok, and thanks and apologies if I have omitted
anyone. The question has obviously brought out the best in many. My
patron asks me to convey her appreciation to everyone. I will broadcast
here what decision she finally takes.
About the size of elves: The idea that elves and fairies are
necessarily small is largely due to Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's
Dream. Many of the traditional stories and ballads about them treat
them as of human size or slightly taller than average. They would
scarcely take away fullgrown humans as companions or lovers if they
weren't. My books about Tolkien are packed up at the moment, but he
derived many aspects of them from various older sources, as far back as
the Norse. He did NOT think of his mythology as being Celtic. Part of
his motivation in writing all his material was that he thought England
(England derived from the Angles) suffered unlike other nations from the
lack of a pre-Christian mythology, so he was writing what ought to have
existed. He thought the King Arthur traditions failed to fulfil this
function precisely because they were mostly Celtic, and were British,
not English. (By the way, C. Scott Littleton in From Scythia to Camelot,
NY: Garland, 1994, argues that the Arthurian traditions are not
originally Celtic but originally Alan, i.e. Ossetic.But a lot of the
Alans finally settled down in Celtic Britanny.) Tolkien did, however,
want with to have elements of an atmosphere found in Celtic literature.
This is perhaps another obiter dictum, but when I was reading Ronald
Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature
and Legacy, Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1991, I was struck by
the fact that he didn't say a thing about fairies, elves, leprechauns,
brownies, et hoc genus omne. I tracked down his email and asked him
about that. He said he did not think they were shrunken pre-Christian
gods, but were always petty tutelary spirits, closely linked to
particular spots, and not really part of "religion" at all, which was
why he omitted them from his book. The main point of his book is that
we know practically nothing about the subject, and most of what is
repeated, whether by scholars or by religionists, has little or no
evidence for it.
Anyhow, many thanks again.
Allen W. Thrasher, Ph.D.
Senior Reference Librarian
Southern Asia Section
Library of Congress
Jefferson Building 150
101 Independence Ave., S.E.
Washington, DC 20540-4810
athr at loc.gov
The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Library
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