Ever wondered where the idea of Elves originated?
Modern fantasy draws from a plethora of influences. We’ve examined the Greek, but what about the celtic and Irish? They are not the only cultures from which we derive modern elves, but as you will see, they are a source of inspiration.
The Irish have a history of what they call the Aos Si, or the Fae folk. Who are they? Across ancient Ireland and the land of the celts were littered something called cairns. These are piles of stones often associated with burial grounds and with the fae. Some believed the fae were immortal beings, almost angelic in nature. To others they were tribes of people connected to the gods. Those who believed this referred to them as the Tuatha De Danann – literally meaning “People of the goddess Danu.” They were a race of gods who were the original inhabitants of the islands of the west, masters of magic and immortal in their life span. Many of these immortal beings were often portrayed as mischievous, as in the case of Shakespeare, or as aloof and above the affairs of mortal man. At the very least they were not to be trifled with. They were to be respected from a distance or avoided altogether depending on your belief.
Where did they come from? That also depends. One belief was they were from beyond the western sea. Sound familiar? A dash of Tolkien anyone?
“A! Elbereth Gilthoniel!
silivren penna míriel
o menel aglar elenath,
Gilthoniel, A! Elbereth!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees
The starlight on the Western Seas”
To some they were guardians of the dead, most likely seen on the shortest day of the year when the dead and the living mingled. A little scary perhaps, but then these otherworldly beings were otherworldly for a reason. Lastly, a substantial group of people believed they lived in a world invisible to ours, but coexisting with it. On certain days, or in certain areas these worlds collided. Where they collided cairns were built to mark the crossing. Some believe that Stonehenge marks one such time and place.
There we have it. From such beginnings are derived many humanoid immortal beings that we read about in our fantasy novels. The more you study history and culture, the more creative you can be in designing your own.
Have you ever wondered how the fantasy genre developed? Do you understand how knowing its history can help you write better fantasy? Join me as we delve into its origins.
Any exploration of fantasy needs to examine the ancient epics. These are tales such as Gilgamesh, Illiad and Odssey. For those who are wondering, epic simply comes from the greek language and means ‘word’ or ‘story.’ Quite fitting really. The original Homeric tales (Named after their creator), the Odyssey and Illiad were created to be spoken orally, and only later written down in the form of a poem.
We can trace their success through medieval literature, with many of Shakespeare’s plays relying heavily on poetry, and then on into Tolkien’s Middle Earth. There are a great many poems and ballads in Tolkien’s works and much of this is due to the foundation on which his worlds are built. Ancient history.
The epics introduce multiple ideas that are now staples of modern fantasy. The Odyssey’s vast journey, exploration of human nature, magical elements as shown by the gods, an examination of spirituality, strange worlds and wars. The epics such as Gilgamesh are successful stories retold today, because despite the archaic language, they contain so many things things we as readers now take for granted.
Do you want strange mythical beasts, how about Centaurs and Minotaurs? Do you want crazy strategic battles, how about Troy? What about magic, then how about the power of the gods? Strange worlds, old mentors, messages in dreams. The epics have them in abundance. In fact, it is even argued Lucian’s “A True Story” was the first ever piece of Science Fiction, penned thousands of years ago. The icing on the cake is perhaps the invocation of the muse. Who amongst us does not at some point refer to our muse? Each of the Greek epics pray to the muse, a daughter of Zeus.
We have much to thank them for. It’s incredible that thousands of years after they were created they are so relevant. The basic structure of story flows from these poems. Don’t be afraid of giving a more modern version a read, or of thanking the ancients for inspiration. All the greats did. All the greats do.
I’m sure you’ve heard it as often as me. Someone states, “Tolkien invented fantasy” which invariably leads to a good many affirmatives. I know true fantasy authors don’t believe this to be completely true, even though we all acknowledge his influence and the sheer brilliance of a man who not only created an entire world, but an entire language and mythology.
I recently once more read a similar statement on a blog about Tolkien creating fantasy. It inspired me to begin a series about the history and origins of the fantasy genre. Consider this the introduction.
You see, Tolkien was very familiar with a great many myths that exist in today’s world. He was the professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University and at another time Professor of English Language and Literature. He wrote a good deal on the legends and myths that influenced Anglo-Saxon heritage. He was familiar with the Odyssey, Ulysses and Plato’s first ever reference to Atlantis. He was familiar with Celtic mythology, the fae and green men, as well as Arthurian myth and legend. He was familiar too, with Beowulf and Norse legends, with the Jewish goddess Lillith, the Greek and Norse gods and no doubt the Egyptians. He was inspired by MacDonald and friends like C.S.Lewis. You see, all of this can be found in his writing. I’m not saying he copied his ideas, I am saying nanos gigantum humeris insidentes. Or as Isaac Newton put it so well, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Tolkien was great because he recognized the greatness that came before him and he built upon it. His world may exist in and of its self, but only because of previous worlds that existed in and of themselves. There is a structure and an archetype to his characters that existed before The Lord Of The Rings, and still exists after. There is the influence of religion and his own catholicism. There is a reason he chose December 25th as the Fellowship’s beginning as well as March 25th for the date the ring was destroyed.
So at the beginning of this series let me simply say this. It is okay to build upon the worlds and ideas of others. It is my hope that as we uncover ancient and more modern takes on fantasy it will inspire, give credence and give depth to our own. Remember, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou