The colonialism behind fantasy's vaguely Irish Elves

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One more for the list… the Dalish tribe/type of elves in the Dragon Age games (well, DA2 especially) are really Irish, as I recall. Not quite Darby O’Gill and the Little People “begorrah and top of the morning to you”, but very gaelic in accent and broad cultural strokes.


Tolkien’s elves were more Welsh than Irish: he intended their language to be somewhat Welsh-like in its phonology. (Well, one of their two main languages, anyway: the other was meant to be reminiscent of Finnish, IIRC.)


It gets even weirder – Sindarin, the modern Elvish language, is Welsh-like, but the ancient Elvish language Quenya is Finnish-like! It’s a bit weird how Tolkien, who was a skilled historical linguist, could design a world in which these two very different languages were somehow related.


And also, the word elf itself and much of the ancient mythology of elves have Germanic roots. Tolkein’s elves always struck me as being somewhat more, shall we say, Aryan than Gaelic.


I saw it more as a reflection of Celts as seen by the Saxons and the Danes. Though there are some parallels to the Sidhe as seen in the Book of Invasions, I think the good professor was drawing more on Celtic mythology when he fleshed out Rivendell. Besides, even back to Roman times there was interaction and trade between the Celts and the Germans, so much so that often Roman historians would get the two ethnic groups mixed up.


Just because it is spoken by the same people (and since the Elves are undying, it is literally the same people) does not mean that the languages are related.

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Well, Elves do have children, even if the parents don’t die except by violence, so it isn’t true that the population is unchanging, but yes, you are right in that some of the original elves from the beginning of the world were still around thousands of years later in the Third Age. Which makes one wonder why any sort of linguistic change happened at all. Maybe Sindarin is like Esperanto and some elves created it deliberately.


Or it represents some unknown to outsiders dynastic struggle.


Tolkien wrote some great characters, but his world-building truly was a race fantasy dumpster-fire fundamentally centred on the English, and how the English saw everybody else in their most generalising and othering moments.

Part of it was probably from his traumatic experience in war, and another part was informed by basic domestic prejudices.


And then you have the modern-ish Druid influence on the characters, again associated with the Celts:

Veneration of the living natural world, ancestors, Holy trees. “Awen” is the flowing spirit of the deity which can be called by saying “A-I-O” which certainly reminds of many of Tolkein’s characters.

Tolkien’s elves are part of an effort to provide England with an epic mythological cycle to match those of other Germanic cultures and reflect that approach. They’re mostly derived from what he’d have understood as Anglo Saxon with a soupçon of British (or at least welsh) and other sources.

What he thought of as elves reflect a later, Christianized idea of Anglo Saxon England’s elites. (Recent linguistic research reveals weirder goings on with OG elves1). If anything I think he would have been averse to specifically Gaelic influences, though it was the age of romantic celtomania and unavoidable.

The irishization of elves comes with D&D and other Tolkien imitations elaborating those elements in the text until they dominate. This was interesting – a mutation of influences – but it becomes a common ancestor for almost everything in pop culture elfdom. By the time it gets to Dragon Age or whatever, our elves are deeply inbred creatures. (And as is pointed out here and elsewhere, tend to make poor vehicles for anticolonial narratives)



It probably started as a way to make their D&D campaign more immersive.

Only I guess it wouldn’t be D&D since they have both those things. They would be dreaming of the future with something like, “Mortgages and Municipal codes”, “Office work and Online games”


Papers and Paychecks according to a very old cartoon


I have not heard the podcast, but I have read a lot of Tolkien, including the “Lost Tales” and the notes printed up by Christopher Tolkien. Tolkien was trying to create a mythology of England. In the same way that England was a mix of Welsh/Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Norse/Danish and even Roman/Greek peoples/cultures, his mythology mixed elements from all these sources. In the late 1900’s early 20th century there was a Celtic Revival from writers like William Butler Yates etc. This brought a lot of Irish Mythology back to the attention of modern readers. Part of this was the Tuatha De Danaan. These were immortal (elves check), beautiful (elves check) beings, not gods or demi-gods, something in between. Definitely not leprechauns or insect winged fairies. Big 6 or 7 foot tall heroes and queens that lived underground in hills and ancient burial mounds, under lakes or across the sea on islands to the west. Time in their homes/kingdoms passed differently than elsewhere. The Mirkwood elves in The Hobbit lived in underground in caves. Rivendell and Lothlorien were not caves but time did run differently there (in the books, because of 2 of the 3 rings) but the major kingdoms in the Simirillion were underground including Nargothrond and Menegroth. All the elves in The Lord of the Rings were always going to “the West”. This was Tol Eressa, the elvish island off the coast of the lands of the gods. In Irish myth this is Hy Breasil or Tir na Nog. Even the idea of the “fading of the elves” is Irish. It came from the time of the 11th century when a lot of the Irish myths were written down. The Normans (English) were just beginning to invade and settle in Ireland and the poets were injecting criticism into the themes of stories. The theme was that in the good old days, the Gaelic families, the heroes of old, wouldn’t put up with this, but the current (11th century) families were shadows of their former days and the power and glory of the heroes of old was fading from the world. The idea that the Tuatha De Danaan were once more glorious, beautiful and powerful in the past but fading away got stuck as part of their story. Of course, there was a related theme from Greek Mythology about the golden, silver and bronze ages where the age of heroes was better and the current age is a crude shadow of the past. Other people seem to think the fading theme came from Tuatha De Danaan fading with the coming of Christianity. That was not a medieval theme but more of the modern revival. This “fading” theme runs through Tolkien and is a major part of the Elvish character. Tolkien may not have taken the language from Irish Gaelic, but the Elves were 80-90% Tuatha De Danaan.




Pink Hearts,Yellow Moons, Orange Stars, and Green Lembas!


William the Bastard never conquered Carlisle. We shall have our independence again.


Don’t eat the green Lembas. It’s moldy.

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Are Irish folk offended by this? Because Elves are the coolest motherfuckers in Middle Earth!