Book of Blackbirds: The Difference Between Faeries and Elves

Book of Blackbirds: The Difference Between Faeries and Elves October 10, 2016

[Author’s Note: This piece is in no way meant to disparage either faeries or elves, especially not elves. It is written from my own personal experience as a faerie with elves I have known all over… or at least some parts of them.]

Some think of faeries and elves as two closely related species; some may even use the words interchangeably. This is predominantly the human viewpoint. 1 Still others see faeries and elves as more like races of the same species rather than distinct species of their own. Faeries and elves are in fact probably at least more closely related than horses and donkeys, 2 though in human terms (which terms the elves seem to enjoy using more than do the faeries, who don’t really care what you think), the elves would say it is the faeries who are the donkeys.

a painting of a glow of light dancing through a forest by a pond
Dancing Elves / August Malmström (1866) – Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

And this brings up one of the most distinctive differences between faeries and elves. For all the wisdom that elves do surely possess, they seem to be a bit preoccupied with what humans, or at least some Big Name Pagan Humans, think of them, even going so far as to occasionally drop Big Name Pagan Humans’ big names. 3 This becomes all too evident from the way that some elves have been known in the past to show condescension bordering on arrogance towards the faeries, and to suck up to some humans, who from outside appearances might seem to have glamoured the elves with their woo. 4 While openly insisting that Faerie and Elf have no inherent differences, elves will invariably continue to speak of Elfin as though it were the Golden Shining Kingdom of Light, with Faerieland perhaps relegated to something resembling a run-down suburb – only ever mentioned, somewhat embarrassingly, to satisfy political correctness.

There is also a fundamental difference between the fae and the elf in the way they see the mechanisms of the world around themselves, for example time in particular. “Faerie Time” is a well known phenomenon, and alludes to the fact that those who have been taken by the faeries usually do not realise it when they have been gone for sometimes years during what seemed to them to be only a few hours or days. 5 Elves tend to think of time in a more linear, human way. There are other differences in this regard as well, as in the way elves like things to be more structured, while fairies prefer a more wild spontaneity.

a fairy dressed in a shear robe near lily flowers
Lily Fairy / Luis Ricardo Falero – Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elves sometimes act like humans and like faeries, and faeries sometimes act like humans (and too often like elves). Faeries however are far less concerned whether others (mainly humans) see them in the act of being “fairy-like” and reason that this state is so enviable as to evoke a resolution among the humans to be Just Like Them (it is well known that humans tend to herd, much like sheep). This is directly related to the alternative faerie concept of Holding One’s Tongue, or as the old faerie axiom goes, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” If to a faerie it is not necessary to say a thing, it is not said. If to speak it would only stir controversy and strife, it is not spoken. Any potential commentary is first put to the simple test of “What good will come of it?” 6 While elves set out with the undeniably noble goal of Teaching The World, 7 faeries will wait until those curious enough to seek out faerie knowledge actually come looking for it. 8 In this, as most things, faeries feel that action (or non-action, as the case may warrant) is usually preferable to words. 9

And while we’re on the subject, faeries do not consider it necessarily prudent either to always go about claiming to be a faerie, or an elf, or a witch, or a shaman, or a seer, or especially an empath. Seriously, if a person were a real empath (faerie, elf, witch, shaman, etc.), they certainly wouldn’t need to go around proclaiming it to all far and wide – which is pretty obviously a “hey look at me aren’t I cool” sort of ploy. Faeries are already cool, and couldn’t care less whether you know it or not. Like lions (and unlike elves), faeries do not feel the need to always tell you who they are, as their actions tend to speak for themselves. But I digress.

One cannot talk about elves without noting their tendency to be very elf-centred, elf-absorbed, and perhaps overly concerned with elf ritual, elf appearances, and especially the exhibition of proper elf behaviour. In this they might sometimes come across as a bit full of thems’elves in that they quite obviously feel that everything by and for elves is loads better than anything which isn’t. 10 As a consequence of this apparent attitude, they often appear to be somewhat taken by their own glamour as well as by that of the aforementioned Big Name Pagan Humans, and became practically insufferable for a while after all those movies starring elves were such big hits.  Now I will admit some of those actors looked really great with pointed ears, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t use real elves while filming. (Considering where those movies were made, I could be wrong about this.)

To be fair, perhaps elves feel they must behave in this manner in order to maintain elfin integrity, and so as to not be drowned in the midst of so much human mundanity, which is of course always a danger for Faeries as well as all otherkin species. Elves like to think of themselves as being staunchly civilised, which of course is fine for them. To hear them talk however, one might get the impression they think of themselves as some sort of “Master Race” or “Chosen Ones”, the very Pinnacle of All Faeriedom to which all who deem themselves of the faerie race should rightfully and dutifully aspire. 11 Faeries feel that in light of the vast number of unique ways there are involved here of magically dealing with the world, this attitude is a bit presumptuous of elves to say the least, and are usually just glad to make it through another day in one piece. But then, faeries celebrate everything.

Lastly, nowhere are the differences between elves and faeries more obvious than in the contrasting ways in which elves and faeries think about and use Magic. Elfin magic is sometimes trotted out with much pomp and pretence, all sweetness and light, suitably arcane, prim, proper, and official, whereas faeries know full well that faerie magic is feral and beyond any hope of taming, not to mention dangerous as all hell. 12 Elves see their particular magical style imbued with all sorts of deep, esoteric meanings, rules, and ancient traditions, while faeries feel that it is not always efficient, necessary, or even desirable to perform Magic in accordance with high ideals or lofty altruism. 13

two regal fairies surrounded by their court in a focused discussion
The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania / Joseph Noel Paton – Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

And so it may seem to those less familiar with magical beings that there are no real physical differences between faeries and elves, 14 and that any notable differences lie overwhelmingly in the disparate ways in which faeries and elves view the world and their own places within it. But we should not mistake a real difference in kind here for a mere difference in degree. Is there truly a spectrum with faerie on one end and elf on the other, and everyone who claims to be one or the other falling somewhere in between? I personally think there is a bit more to it than that.

Instead, I think a large enough difference in degree does constitute a difference in kind, and there are fundamental differences between faeries and elves that go beyond the purely philosophical. This does not imply by any means that we cannot get along with each other, or that we cannot have lasting and meaningful relationships between the two. 15 In the disclaimer I said I did not intend to disparage elves, and I meant it. I am sure that to the elves their actions are kind and loving and good, 16 and certainly every elf I’ve ever met only has a heart of pure gold. They cannot help being the way they are, any more than faeries can.

Differences do not necessarily always have to be a bad thing, and they certainly do not have to mean that one is better or to be preferred over the other. They are simply different. Even with the differences mentioned here, as well as the ways that modern elves seem to enjoy emulating humans more than is probably healthy from a faerie’s point of view, faeries and elves are a lot more alike than either of them are to humankind, and that’s a fact. But “Viva la Difference!” I say, and if faeries and elves can see beyond our differences, we might just find we can learn something from each other after all. 17

Afterword

Both faeries and elves should take care when dealing with others to not sound so peculiarly new-agey human, nor to fall under the spell of the humans’ sometimes enticing glamour, for this diminishes us. Alas, it has always been thus with the poorly understood Fair Folk, and the surge in popularity among humans of all things faerie in recent years has given rise to a whole heap of meaningless nonsense out there which confuses the issue even more.

The elves, for all their good intentions, seem to utterly ignore the darker side of their own kin, and indeed sometimes appear to have fallen into that trap of “either/or” thinking which the humans find so attractive. Not that faeries are all sweetness and light either; some faeries are pure poison and just as hazardous to your health. But neither faeries nor elves are human, and that is the point – we do not have to behave as humans do; we know who we are and have nothing to prove to anyone.

Therefore it is always up to the true seeker of Faerie (or Elfin) to weigh the things they hear and read carefully regarding our faerie natures, tempering this with what knowledge may be learned from studying the real age-old tales and myths from the Shining Lands. You don’t need an elf, or a faerie for that matter, to always tell you how to be who you are. Learn and grow, and take wisdom from wherever and from whomever you may find it – be it faerie, elf, bunny rabbit, or troll. Let your own heart be your guide above all else, and you too may someday find your way to your own Elfin Faerieland. 18

a female elf dressed in leather armor draws a bow
Typical illustration of a female elf in the high fantasy style / Kathrin “Kitty” Polikeit – GPL / Wikimedia Commons

The Real Disclaimer: Let it be known that if a certain humourous essay by a certain faerie were to get back to certain entities, with or without pointy ears, I have it on good authority that it is intended and written all in jest and fun, and the author did not exactly mean to denigrate, derogate, discredit, deride, dismiss, malign, ridicule, scorn, slander, underrate, vilify, or show disdain for any elves, faeries, humans, otherkin of any sort, and especially not magical wizards and the like (though witches are mostly cool about this sort of thing, unless they’re married to an elf, but I digress again), be they living, dead, fictional, or otherwise indisposed. I hope that covers it.

Endnotes:

  1. And also, it seems, the viewpoint of some elves. Many faeries however would beg to differ, as to us this smacks uncomfortably of cultural appropriation. (back)
  2. Faeries and pixies on the other hand are even more closely related than faeries and elves, but that is a topic for another conversation. (back)
  3. “Big Name Pagan Human” may or may not be a morally bankrupt charlatan with questionable ethics, but hey, they have a Big Name all the same. (back)
  4. In general, elves seem to be willing to tolerate and indeed even accept as normal a great deal more “faerie fluff” than do actual faeries, who, while they might find it amusing and good for an occasional laugh, don’t really go in for all that new-age mumbo-jumbo nonsense. (back)
  5. Faeries deem concepts like “cause and effect” to have no real meaning in the holistic view of the Universe, being more akin to the relationship between two sides of the same coin. Events exist whole in multidimensional space and it is the humans who, with their concepts of linear time, divide this up arbitrarily into which part of the whole event is the “cause” and which the “effect”. This doesn’t prevent certain puckish faeries from taking advantage of this scheme however. (back)
  6. That is, the good of all, and not just the good of the faerie in question or her own interests. (back)
  7. This is also sometimes known as “elfsplaining”, and elves are quite good at it. (back)
  8. Even then, lots of luck to the seeker, because they’re going to need it. (back)
  9. This includes endless, convoluted elf-speak, important sounding yet somehow lacking in substance, often delivered as though addressing a student, or perhaps a small child. If one didn’t know better, one might be led to think that elves are more interested in how impressive their elf rhetoric sounds than in what it is they are actually saying, or whether or not anyone else can understand it. Elves of course will counter by stating, “True Elves tm will understand.” Faeries most often respond to elf-speak with, “Wait, what?” (back)
  10. Whether familiar with the elfin language or not, one is still left with the impression that the phrase “elfin humility” is, well, something of an oxymoron and not really a part of their lexicon. (back)
  11. Actual faeries on the other hand feel that the word “high” (as in “high elf”, “high priestess”, etc.) should only refer to the imbibing of certain magical faerie plants and/or liquids, not as a word used to describe yourself (unless of course you have recently been smoking some of those magical plants). (back)
  12. Let’s just say that with elfin Magic you might get a nice little toy, tied up neatly like a Christmas cracker, perhaps some glitter and a happy warm feeling. With faerie Magic, things could possibly die. (back)
  13. Sometimes maybe we just want to find where we’ve laid our glasses. (back)
  14. Except the big one of course, which is the wings thing. Since what appear to be faeries’ wings are actually inputs of cosmic energy rather than real physical appendages, they are not always visible at all times to everyone looking. It is therefore conceivable that elves might just possibly have wings, but we suspect that they do not let on about this in case someone accidentally mistake them for a faerie. (back)
  15. Even horses and donkeys can breed, haha. But seriously, we often hear of “Half-Elven”, being the offspring of human and elf, but what of “Half-Fae”, being the offspring of faerie and elf? That would certainly make for some impressive ears, to say the least. =:-) (back)
  16. And indeed they are so, too. Compared to the behaviour and mischievousness of some faeries, elves are downright angelic. (back)
  17. Not that elves would ever admit to learning anything from a faerie…. (back)
  18. Of one thing you can be sure – anyone who claims to speak for all faeries (or elves), or even for the majority of us, doesn’t. We are a much too eclectic lot for all that. Please then regard everything written herein accordingly. (back)

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