On the Inheritance series (Eragon)

The Thing About Elves Is...

By Gail Sidonie Sobat

Well, they’re a slippery lot. Hard to pin down. The wee folk. The little people. Fairies. Or is that faeries? Or brownies? Or pixies? Pan or Puck? Sylphs or dryads or nymphs? Goblins or hobgoblins or gremlins or gnomes? Leprechauns or imps or sprites?

Enough to set the mind reeling!

So to begin at the beginning, sort of: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, elf is an Old English word (sometimes spelled ylf/ielf/aelf/alf) which denotes “a class of supernatural beings, believed to be of dwarfish form, and to possess magical powers, which they exercised either to the help or the hurt of mankind. Now a mere synonym of fairy. Sometimes distinguished from fairies a) as a subject species; b) as more malignant.”

But how did these creatures of the stuffy Oxford morph into the vibrant Arya and Islanzad­ and Oromis and those other elves who people (er . . . elfize?) Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle? Well, like so many other creatures of mythology–or to use Tolkien’s phrase, faery–elves have an intricate and fascinating history.

But let’s just get the fairy thing out of the way now, then, shall we? There is no denying that fairies are elves are fairies. The grand master J. R. R. Tolkien himself cites the term “fairy” as “a relatively modern word, hardly used until the Tudor period” derived from the French fae or f©e and with English derivatives ranging from fey to fay to faerie, to fayre, to fairy to faery and etc. But the word has fallen into disfavor–except  …

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