Friday, 1 April 2011

A-Z Challenge: A is For Elf!

The Ælfcynn in Redwald are not like Tolkien’s or the Álfar of Norse legend, nor are they like the Celtic Sihde. However, they are influenced by one of my favourite genres: Arthurian literature. In Mary Stewart’s excellent Merlin books and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon you’ll find the inspiration for Redwald’s Elfs.

Rather than being magical high elves they are portrayed as being the remnants of the Neolithic peoples that inhabited Briton, before the arrival of the Bronze Age, and later Iron Age cultures and peoples that pushed them out. There’s also a nod to this in Bernard Cornwell’s superb Warlord Trilogy where he has the superstitious Romano-Briton warriors collecting stone arrowheads, which they call Elf shot, for good luck.

It's a portrayal of the Elfs I like. In Redwald the Elfs, rather than being blue eyed, blond haired, tall willowy (and superior to your character), are savage Stone Age peoples. Neolithic hunter-gathers with black hair, brown eyes, nut-brown skin, armed with primitive stone weapons, and dressed in deer Hyde. They are masters of the woodland not out of choice, but because they have had to retreat into the forests to survive.
Names come in and out of fashion every other generation. Alf or Alfred has been out of fashion in the UK for a while now. For most Brits it’s a name that conjures up images  of old men with flat caps, whippets, and tobacco tins. A world away from the Hollywood pretty-boy Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, but Alf means Elf, and Alfred, the name of one the great(ha!)Saxon kings meant Elf wisdom.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about writing Redwald is learning about Old English. How could this strange foreign sounding language be the root of modern English? I didn’t know. All I knew was I loved the sound of it. I can’t say I understand it yet, I doubt I’m using it correctly most of the time, but I enjoying spending hours trying to track down (ie Google) meanings, nuances, and usage for OE words when I probably should be doing something more productive.

The Elves of Redwald are Ælfcynn; meaning Elf kind, or the Elf kin. In Old English you pronounce all the letters in a word. So the Saxons would have called the little garden pond fishers Guh-nomes. Actually they called them Swearðælfe, but you see what I mean. When two words are squished together like Æ (which I spend an inordinate amount of time cutting and pasting because I can’t remember what the ASCII code is), they’re pronounced in a squished together way. So as far as I can tell the OE pronunciation of Elf or Ælf is something like ‘aye-lf’ or Alf. So A is for Elf!


  1. Great stuff, and a great campaign setting. Can't wait to read more.

  2. I like this. REH does something similar in "People of the Dark", "The Lost Race," and related stories--and of course so did Machen in The Novel of the Black Seal. Of course, they took a decidedly more horror turn on their elves/fairy-folk.

  3. Actually, I always say gah-nomes. =) I also say ka-nig-hut and ga-noo. Silent letters are for wusses.

    Love the post. I really enjoy hearing about the origins of legends and mythology, and the varying cultures take on them.

    Great to meet you! (I'm here from A-Z)

    India Drummond

  4. I, too, rather like the hint of Machen-ness in this approach. Your posts are briliant. Very educational while remianing interesting and entertaining--and it all goes towards a setting that is just begging for fiction to come out from it. You are doing great stuff here!

  5. Another pro-Aelf fellow,here. I've done the same thing with Halflings in my Anglo-Saxon flavoured Onderland setting.

    Are the Aelf-cynne Cro-Magnon?

  6. Thanks for the positive comments. Really appreciate it.

    @ Tray and Netherworks, I obviously need to get hold of and read some Machen. Cheers for the recomendation.

    @India Hello. Cool to see some non OSR A-Zers are finding their way into our strange little part of the interwebs. I always say Ker-nite. Interestingly the OE Spelling is Cniht but what that describes is something more akin to squire.:D

    @Matt. Hey Matt good to see you about again! No, they're modern humans. I'm thinking probablly a bit like the hunter-gathers just before the period people in the British isles started builing stone circles all over the place.

  7. You must, indeed, read some Machen. An unusually perceptive discussion can be found here: ;)

  8. Hey, Matt the link didn't work out, but I searched around and found a post about Machen. Interesting stuff. Also explains why I haven't been aware of his work. I'm not at all knowledable when it comes to the pulp, and Weird Tales side of things. Same with Horror.

    Any particular Machen story that would make a good introduction to his work?

  9. If you want to see how Old English connect to out modern vernacular, I suggest picking up copy of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales or the Nortan Edition of Sir Malory's Le Motre D'Arthur, which are Middle English.

    Sentence structure is very similar to Old English, but many of the word are in their transitional stage.

  10. Hey, Ian

    I did include a para or two about Chaucer and ME in my first draft of the post, but edited it out for brevity and because it was wondering off point a little.

    Anyway, the gist of it was . . .

    . . . a few years back The BBC produced an animated series of The Canterbury Tales (with a great cast). They broadcast each tale twice. Once in modern English, and once in Middle English. I sat watching one of the ME versions and at first it was unintelligable,a dn sounded completely alien to me. Then I kinda tuned in and could understand what was being said. But only if I kept focused, and kept concentrating on. As soon as I stopped working at it, it kinda tuned out into something I couldn't understand. Weird.

  11. Yeah, I often get hyperlinks screwed up on comments. I meant to link to this: Tales of Arthur Machen and the Supernatural. His most famous weird piece is The Great God Pan. Trey referenced perhaps my favourite story, The Novel of the Black Seal, which is relevant to this subject, as is The Shining Pyramid

  12. Hey, cheers Matt. That's the post I found. Cheers for the recomendations.