47

In many different modern fantasy settings, Dark Elves as a race share some common traits, and can be considered to be an archetype of sorts from which each setting adapt some features to better fit in the specific fictional world.

Just as examples of some of these traits, which can even not be present in a single particular setting, they:

  • are dark skinned, with the exact color being a variation of gray tones;
  • have black, gray or white hair;
  • are being commonly considered "evil": they are usually cruel, aggressive and deceptive;
  • are generally closed to outsiders, if not openly racist;
  • have a social structure heavily based on clans and familial bonds;
  • prefer to live in dark places, often underground or in volcanic areas;
  • were once part of the "High Elves", but then splintered and formed a new different race/society/culture.

and so on. Keep in mind that this list is only a sample. Some examples are the Drow from Dungeons & Dragons, the Dunmer from The Elder Scrolls, the Dark Elves from the Age of Wonders video game series, and so on.


Some considerations:

  • While many other Fantasy races' modern depiction, with all their stereotypical traits can be traced to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Dark Elves aren't part of his Legendarium, at least not in these terms: Moriquendi do indeed exist, but their name of "dark elves" is just meaning that they haven't seen the light of the Two Trees, and not as a specification of a distinct race (in fact, Sindar elves were categorized as Moriquendi as well, and they are part of the "good elves" trope).
    In Tolkien's Legendarium there is also a single character, namely Eöl, who is know as "The Dark Elf", but this was just a nickname, not a specification of his race: he was a Sindar, and was equal to all other Sindars in this respect.
  • There are dark elves (Dökkálfar) or black elves (Svartálfar) also in Norse mythology, of course; but together with other races like light elves, dwarves, gnomes and so on, the modern fantasy depiction of these creatures draws from mythology very loosely; they would fall more into a modern definition of fairies or magical creatures rather than "non-human men" as common in the Fantasy genre. I'm not really interested in answers that detail real-world belief systems that originated the concepts of magical non-human races.

Given these premises, where can be traced the origin of this racial archetype? Which work contains the first example of modern fantasy Dark Elves if considered under these terms?

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    Tolkien certainly has a Dark Elf. – OrangeDog Jan 13 at 12:01
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    Eol wasn't a special breed of elf, but he does hit an awful lot of these points: dark appearance (though armor rather than skin), black hair, arguably evil/cruel and aggressive, isolationist and not fond of High Elves, a strong (albeit not healthy) bond with his son, lived in a dark forest, and presumably used to be a usual member of elven society. I wouldn't be too sure conflation between the Dark Elf and the subgroup known as dark elves played no part in your archetype. – Nolimon Jan 13 at 20:35
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    But, I think it's fair to say that perhaps Eol and Thrandruil may be the seeds of the archetype that later appeared as a full race in works like D&D, thus it is fair to cite them as, perhaps not the first as you are asking it, but certainly the spiritual antecedents from a history of the genre :) – NKCampbell Jan 13 at 20:47
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    The Dunmer don't seem to fit in here as examples of "dark elves." The first two bullet points apply, but the rest either don't describe Dunmer, or else no more than any other mer. In other words, Dunmer are dark-colored elves, but aren't "dark elves" in the sense asked for here. – LarsH Jan 14 at 5:04
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    Come to think of it, the Falmer (en.uesp.net/wiki/Lore:Falmer) are probably a better fit for "dark elves" than the Dunmer are: they actually dwell underground in the dark, and are evil, or at least murderously hostile toward overworlders (along with the other points that most mer share). – LarsH Jan 14 at 18:48
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The first example of the "dark elves" as a distinct dark-skinned, subterranean, evil sub-race of elves may actually be their appearance in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Prior to that, "dark elf" was largely just used as a synonym for evil creatures characteristic of Nordic/Germanic folklore; there was no particular distinction between the Döckálfar (literally "dark elves") and evil Dvergar (dwarves).

First Drow monster description illustration

The AD&D dark elves (or "drow"—the two term were completely synonymous in the first AD&D modules in which they appeared) were originally mentioned by Gary Gygax in the Monster Manual (the first published Advanced Dungeons & Dragons book) in 1977. However, they were only alluded to as one of the minor races of elves (about which little was known) and full statistics were not given for them. A complete description of the dark elves as antagonists had to wait until module G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King in 1978. Their culture was further fleshed out in the subsequent D-series modules, culminating in Vault of the Drow (1978), which depicts their underground homeland, with feuding merchant clans, noble houses, and religious orders.

Drow high priestess

The images of the drow from these early sources can be found at this site.

Some of the characteristic dark elf features that are mentioned in the question—definitely the close clan associations, and probably the very pale hair—are original to Gygax's drow. Many later examples of dark elves were inspired by the AD&D versions to greater or lesser extents. For example, the Moredhel elf race in Feist's Riftwar saga were explicitly inspired by the drow from the game.

  • I think you may be unduly conflating dökkálfar and svartálfar ... the latter are often thought to be synonymous to dwarves, which isn't true for the former, though. In short: dark != black ... – 0xC0000022L Jan 15 at 12:11
  • I'll point out that those art pieces are from the later version of the module publications (1981 version with color covers). The earlier monochrome-cover versions (1978) have different artwork. – Daniel R. Collins Jan 15 at 14:59
58

The origin of the dark elf / light elf trope can be traced back as far as the 13th century, where Dökkálfar (dark elves)and Ljósálfar (light elves) are mentioned in the Prose (or Young) Edda by Snorri Sturluson. Here, the Ljósálfar are described as "fairer than the sun to look at", while the Dökkálfar are "blacker than pitch". It is unclear whether the distinction between the two types of elves originated with Snorri (and hence can be considered fantasy), or if he was merely recounting an earlier mythological concept. Snorri also mentions svartálfar ('black elves'), but it is believed that refers to subterranean dwarves.

In modern fantasy, the trope dates back at least as far as 1980, with Elizabeth Boyer's novelThe Sword and the Satchel, the first in her World of the Alfar series, which features conflicts between light and dark elves.

Dark Elves also show up in Raymond Feist's Riftwar books (1982 onwards), especially A Darkness at Sethanon (1986), but they don't have dark skin, only dark hair. Dark elves also feature heavily in Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy (1988-1990).

It can argued that dark elves appeared before in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, though the 1977 Monster Manual states that "The 'Black Elves', or drow, are only legend". However, the drow of later D&D books have very much shaped the modern version of dark elves, especially through the popular hero Drizzt Do'Urden. It is thus probably fair to say that modern dark elves mainly are a product of D&D.

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    They go back a further than that in the modern fantasy, given that Gygax came up with the Drow in the 70's, and Tolkien's dark elf (Eol) was published (finally) in the Silmarillion. – KorvinStarmast Jan 13 at 14:05
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    @MarkOlson: Eol was a Sindar and was just called "The Dark Elf". He wasn't a different breed of elf. – Klaus Æ. Mogensen Jan 13 at 14:49
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    Feist's dark elves were the same species as other elves. I believe they did tend to have darker hair, but dark hair was not unknown among the other elves. There was one scene where a dark elf rejoins the others. Once he changed his clothes, he was an elf rather than a dark elf. – Michael Richardson Jan 13 at 22:46
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    Dark elves were in the first edition of Warhammer Fantasy, 1983: whfb.lexicanum.com/wiki/Warhammer_1st_Edition_-Forces_of_Fantasy-_Volume_1 – Borgh Jan 14 at 8:58
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    Re: Advanced D&D: While the 1977 Monster Manual is minimal, by 1978 the drow were given the most extensive statistics in the game (a full 1.5 pages) and placed as primary antagonists in Gygax's G-D-Q module series (the "D" arguably standing for "drow"). These were used as the official tournament modules at the Origins convention in July 1978, published thereafter as TSR's first adventures, and drow appear in a half-page ad illustration in Dragon #20, p. 22 (Nov. 1978), labeled "A Foe Most Evil". Possibly Gygax was being coy in the MM as marketing for product that would be out soon after. – Daniel R. Collins Jan 15 at 14:52
1

AD&D's Drow race also draws heavily on Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melibone series. Elric, along with some of the other characters from the Melibonean mythos, were featured in the original edition of the Deities & Demigods rulebook.

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  • 2
    As we’re looking for the earliest example could you edit in the year of when they first appeared? – TheLethalCarrot Jan 14 at 21:41
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    Can you add links to some external reference about the Drow being inspired by Elric of Melniboné? – Sekhemty Jan 14 at 22:01
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    While included, are you sure the Drow draw on Melibone? Elric is an albino who differs in appearance from the rest of his elfin race. They do not live underground but on an island. His people would be considered cruel at times, but "their actions are determined by tradition and by the search for pleasure and new sensations". While they are definitely 'cruel and aggressive', I'm not sure it could be said the Drow are based on Melnibonéans. – HBlackorby Jan 14 at 22:27
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    I would also need a citation to be convinced that drow were inspired by Melniboneans. Gygax wrote (ENWorld Q&A, 17th February, 2005): "the Drow race is EVIL, more so than the Melnibonean one of Michael Moorcock's creation :uhoh:" That's at least ambiguous about whether they were inspiration or not (and the most direct comment I can find on the issue). – Daniel R. Collins Jan 15 at 15:08
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    Melnibonéans do share some of the traits typical of the dark elf archetype, such as racism, extreme cruelty, slavery, and extreme body modification of said slaves... – Andres F. 2 days ago
6

As reported by some users in the comments of this question, even if in Tolkien's Legendarium there is not a whole race of typical fantasy "Dark Elves", there are some single individual characters with particular traits, and some places, that could have served as inspirations for the later archetype as popularized in example by the AD&D's Drow.

  • Eöl: He was a Sindar elf living in Beleriand during the First Age; despite his look was not much different from a typical Sindar elf (he was fair-skinned, and like most of his kin possessed dark hair), he was nicknamed The Dark Elf; he typically wore dark clothing and had personality traits that could be considered somewhat "evil" (he was deceitful, cruel and vengeful), and was reported to love night and twilight; he despised the Noldor "high elves", and after the creation of the Girdle of Melian he became an isolationist and went to live alone in some dark outskirts of the forest of Doriath.

  • Thranduil: He was a Sindar elf and the King of the Elves of Mirkwood during the times of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, living in his underground halls; he could generally be considered a "good" character (he had active roles in many wars and confrontations against Sauron and his agents and was reported to have cordial relations with Dwarves and Men who lived near Mirkwood); but under the premises of the historical enmity between Elves and Dwarves and the fact that The Hobbit was written with a point of view centered on Thorin's Company, in this novel he was depicted as an antagonist with negative traits: he was rather proud, arrogant and unwelcoming, and his stance towards the Dwarves was openly hostile; he was also described as being rather isolationist and not wanting to let the outside world meddle too much with his Kingdom.

  • Thranduil's Realm itself, along with Thingol's Menegroth and Finrod's Nargothrond both located in Beleriand during the First Age, were subterranean strongholds delved beneath mountains or hills, and considering their size were under all respects underground cities.

  • I don't agree that he was deceitful. As for cruelty - let's say he was harsh. As for the Noldor - he despised the occupiers of his land who presumed to lord over him; I don't remember that he had anything against Noldor as such. About Thranduil - being an ass doesn't really make him dark :-P – einpoklum Jan 14 at 23:28
  • Some accounts describe Eöl as having somewhat tricked and enticed Aredhel with enchantments to make her become his wife, and about the Noldor, despite not wanting to be ruled, he also considered them responsible for the return of Morgoth. – Sekhemty Jan 14 at 23:34
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    Come on - you know those accounts are racist smears. "Oh no, Aredhel could never fall for a guy like that, he must have put some black magic spell on her." Yeah, right... – einpoklum Jan 14 at 23:38
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    Tolkien's elves and orcs are not representative of angels. An argument can be made for the maiar as angels. – erickson Jan 16 at 4:49
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    @Chronocidal Most people would agree Uruks don't fit the "dark elf" archetype :) If I remember correctly, Tolkien himself wasn't entirely sure about the origin of the Orcs, saying they were twisted elves in some writings, saying other things in other writings. – Andres F. 2 days ago
-2

One could argue that Tolkien's Orcs were the first Dark Elves, given that they used to be elves, and all other traits apply (except maybe for the clans).

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  • 1
    Whilst one could indeed argue this could you expand on this a bit more? It is very brief so editing in more evidence, reasons to think this, etc. would help a lot. – TheLethalCarrot Jan 16 at 11:00
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    Most people would agree Tolkien's orcs don't fit the dark elf archetype. Tolkien himself was unclear on the origin of the Orcs anyway, saying different things in different writings. – Andres F. 2 days ago

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