The Elf in Mythmaking, Embodiment and Social Protest in Pop Culture

In real life, I am a grad student at an arts college in San Francisco, working late on marketing projects, form exploration, and obsessing over typography. But in Dungeons and Dragons, I am a manic depressive elven Bard named Illsinore, who only knows how to play relaxing spa music that lulls enemies into a deep, restful and relaxed state. Illsinore is not particularly heroic. In many battles, he abandons his party to go sleep behind a nearby bush. And in a recent adventure battling skeletal underwater pirates, he refused to fight anything at all, and retreated to a safe location back on the beach, giving a short speech about pacifism.

When I met with my party at the outset, in an office in SOMA, I discovered that everyone was an advanced player but had races and classes all of their own making. Druids, fighters, mages and all were equipped to handle battles and cunning situations with ease. To make my character, I had to roll dice that would give me ability modifiers affecting my role in the gameplay. I scored so high on these rolls that the Dungeon Master said we needed to change the results, especially with my backstory, that I pre-prepared. I couldn’t really be that talented at anything. I was happy to be an elf.

It’s a sentiment I share with many others. As I write this there are countless men and women making prosthetic ears, planning to color their hair, and designing, sewing and crafting their own costumes to become elves for cosplay events at comic conventions and expos all over the world. I have never seen statistics, but between online role-playing games and games like Dungeons and Dragons offering races of characters, I assume the elf class must be extremely popular. Illsinore is actually in a liminal space between Elf and Human. A small, stout halfling perfect for hiding behind bushes and sleeping during gameplay.

With this in mind, I would create a collection of the Elvish form in popular culture that would examine various uses of the elf as a mythical creature, focusing in particular on cultural perceptions and myth building as a counter movement to the Industrial Revolution and ideas of progress in the 20th and 21st century. The collection would be housed in a series of three large rooms, perhaps like a series of connected artist studios. Ideally, these would have ample sunlight from skylights. In particular, I am imagining that some of the spacious studios for photography in our building, that are also sometimes used for temporary dance and performance rehearsal would be divided into spaces of equal size, filled with plant life and a makeshift sculpted forest. This architecture would examine in parts, the roots, body, and branches of the subject matter in a tree metaphor.

In the roots section would be a collection of old manuscripts and vintage books about the lore of elves. Elves have a rich tradition in literature and folklore, going back to original Norse mythology and Germanic roots. They were used in many cases as a stand-in for the concept of the fairy, similar in their original context as magical beings that live alongside humans in the real world. Original manuscripts of The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries would welcome the visitor to this section. In each of the rooms, the large tree recreations would give the viewer the feeling of being in the realm of elves and fairies. These fantastical creatures are seen as extensions of the supernatural natural world, and in this first room at the base, viewers would have to step and navigate over large pieces of tree roots, discovering different texts, including Germanic and Pre Christian writing about the subject, along with connections to older myths and folklore. Just like Dungeons and Dragons, this immersion would allow the participant to play the role of the elf, with minimal need for imagination. The space would give a view of the breadth of the foundations of the construct of the elf, and it would, for all intents and purposes, be fun.

In the next room would be the central section for the modern conception of the elf. The trunk would be a large sculpture in the center of the room, divided into two sections metaphorically and physically to represent two views of elves. The first section would be an idealized view of elves as magical beings that are guardians of magic and conservation, and second would emphasize texts and media in film and gaming about the concept of the “dark elf” Elves and fairies have always had both an ethereal quality but also a vaguely ambivalent and frightening folklore. This allows for fictional creations like Michael Moorcocks’ Elric, a vaguely conflicted tragic hero who wields a sword that saps his life force called Stormbringer. Progressive rock-themed artwork in different album covers of the 1970s by various illustrators inspired by Moorcock would line the walls of the dark elf section. The dark elf section would also have various video game renders of dark elf classes and races for role-playing and texts alluded to in the first room with tales of thievery and trickery from modern sources.

In the other half of the room, for the light section, the more elegant conception of the fairy and elf as an enlightened, magical and gossamer spiritual being would be on display. Original artwork for the Art Nouveau cities for the film The Lord of the Rings would be shown alongside a large screen of the environmental scenes of 3d rendered CG, miniature work and matte painting that created the work in the films.

In the final room, the individual branches would flow from the trunk into a large canopy, which the visitor could become lost in, replicating the otherworldly drift into imagined spiritual and natural, magical consciousness, as they found Art Nouveau lockets placed around the trees of modern conceptions of the elf, from the work elves of Harry Potter to a sea of cosplay photos of modern public recreations of the elvish form. Reproductions of airline magazine advertisements to purchase Lord of the Rings memorabilia in-flight from the 2000s would be collected, and video captures of gameplay in forests in the Legend of Zelda would fill the remaining parts of the collection.

The collection contains many references and direct artifacts of popular culture, showing the movement of the elf as an otherworldly creature a century ago to the more modern conception of the elf through cosplay as a human possibility. By aligning themselves and dressing in the style of an elf, the participants engage in a possibility of elvish being. Supernatural, ecological, with a belief in magical realism, the act of becoming an elf is rooted in a dissatisfaction with the social and aesthetic qualities of modern or postmodern life and express a new concept of human embodiment which allows the transformation into an otherworldly being. It’s a statement against the aesthetic and mainstream, canonical and technological realities of the present moment in time. What the collection shows is that this movement is in part due to the design choices in the mainstream expression in film in the Lord of the Rings series, which imagined the elf without the characteristics normally expressed in writing: small in stature, mischievous and dangerous. Reinvisioned as humanoid in appearance these concepts of the elf are Romantic in their architectural style, conservationist and supernaturally spiritual.

In The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, which opens the exhibit, it is hypothesized that the smallness of the elf and fairies are a metaphor for the old, traditional beliefs of the pre-modern era, extending back to Neolithic peoples who built stone circles throughout the United Kingdom. With their abandonment, they became symbolically small. The inclusion of this text at the onset, which was written by Walter Evans-Wentz, also known for his work in translating the Tibetan Book of the Dead, orients the collection as a forward movement tracing back to the first conception of the elf and fairy as representations of Pre Christian Ireland. This room foreshadows the second two rooms. Influential with the romantic poet W.B. Yeats, this expression of mystical possibilities of supernatural beings serve as a way to align the nationalist concept of Irish Identity with more traditional views. It is a rather problematic ethno-centric conception.

The collection is meant to be explored. By creating a wayfinding system and architectural element of the forest and giant tree in the physical space, the visitor is encouraged to role play in the space and become an elf. The tree not only reflects the habitat of the elf in modern conceptions but also represents the early stage and theories of the elf and fairy that Evans-Wentz suggests. The visitor should feel very small and in an unfamiliar world, showing the stark difference between our modern concept of humans as being destructive and dangerous to nature and a concept where nature itself is a threat to the safety and comfort of the human. Fairies and elves were originally seen as dangerous, inhabiting deep forests in shadows, and only coming to the world of the human to frighten, steal, and capture people.

It was over time that the elf became to be seen as a steward of nature, and it really became mainstream in the popular films of Lord of the Rings. As mentioned previously, the break that is formed between the late 19th century and the modern era in the avant-garde can be firmly rooted in the quality of line in mark making. In Art Nouveau, curves and organic forms served to inspire a generation that responded to the Industrial Revolution with a counter form of aesthetic and social protest. While the film of the Lord of the Rings takes its inspiration from Tolkien artists of the latter half of the 20th Century, these artists, in turn, were directly influenced by architecture and design of the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movement. It is particularly interesting that this new expression of idealized human form took place at the dawn of the modern internet, in which the encoded language of the built technological site design is literally called the “box model.”

The collection seeks to make all of these realities of the concept of the elf a tactile and exploratory experience. It may be quaint to position an environmental argument using beautiful and ornate architecture, given the urgency of our particular moment in time ecologically, but it is nonetheless a fascinating diversion, both Utopian and Nostalgic. The collection seeks to show both didactically and experientially the concept and envisioning a journey over time as a human impossibility into a mode of identification and personal transformation. These examples, in the final room show not only the role-playing and imagined forms of elf-becoming but also the ubiquity of the elf in video games and fantasy conventions.

While, under the Evan-Wentz concept of the diminution of the ancient forms of spirituality and religion as a reduction of the elf in stature to a small creature waning in its influence in the world, the elf has never been stronger. While magic may indeed be a passing existence, predicated in the journey of the last elves in the Lord of The Rings into a mythical allegory for the passing memory in the “Land of The West”, the collection shows the breadth and permutations of the reactivated elf world. Illsinore did not leave the real world to disappear in a land beyond a sea. He is just being lazy and sleeping his way until the next adventure, which will come by chance at the roll of the dice, and by the paladin, mage, and druid being available to join him.

Artist, designer, and composer living in the East Bay.