As I said in my last post, it’s difficult to determine exactly how Dark Elves fit into Norse mythology, as information about them is scant. Snorri Sturluson mentions the Ljosalfar (Light Elves) and Dokkalfar (Dark Elves), claiming that the former live in a heavenly world called Alfheim and are fair and radiant in appearance, while the latter dwell underground and are “blacker than pitch.” He mentions the Svaltalfar (Black Elves) in a different context, but I don’t know that they’re any different from the Dokkalfar. Their world, Svarltalfheim, is one of the lower ones. The main Dark Elves mentioned in the myths are the sons of Ivaldi, who crafted Freyr’s ship, Odin’s spear, and replacement hair for Sif. They were in competition with the dwarves Sindri and Brokkr, who made other valuable items for the gods. The Dark Elves might in fact be the same as the dwarves, although it’s not entirely clear. Regardless, I have to wonder if the idea of metal-working elves was what gave rise to our modern idea of elves as toymakers for Santa Claus.
As I’ve mentioned before, it seems like elves are regarded in popular culture in two different ways, the cute ones of Santa’s workshop and Keebler cookies, and the noble ones of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. Tolkien addressed Light and Dark Elves in his work, although his explanation was that the Light Elves had seen the light of the Two Trees of Valinor, while the Dark Elves never had. His Dwarves were, of course, totally different.
There’s a brief mention of Light Elves in L. Frank Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, in which they seem to be the fairy guardians of light itself. The King of the Light Elves arrives at the council of immortals with his two princes, Flash and Twilight. Of them, Baum tells us, “Prince Flash bore a lightning-bolt in his right hand and a horn of gunpowder in his left, and his bright eyes roved constantly around, as if he longed to use his blinding flashes. Prince Twilight held a great snuffer in one hand and a big black cloak in the other, and it is well known that unless Twilight is carefully watched the snuffers or the cloak will throw everything into darkness, and Darkness is the greatest enemy the King of the Light Elves has.” So is Prince Twilight constantly trying to overthrow his father? There are no Dark Elves in Baum’s work, at least as far as I know, but perhaps they could exist as well. If so, maybe Twilight was a child produced by an attempted union between the two sorts of elves. There’s a character in the play The Tik-Tok Man of Oz called Flash, but I think it’s just an alternate name for Kaliko. It’s also the name of the King of the Lightning in Frank Joslyn Baum’s The Laughing Dragon of Oz, and a recent editor makes clear that this is the same character as the Elf Prince.
While I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons (hey, I’d like to someday), I have to acknowledge its significance to modern fantasy, and it made Dark Elves into their own sort of creature. Known as the Drow, from the Celtic “trow” that has been identified as a fairy being much like a troll, they live deep underground and have a violent, chaotic society. They’re important in the Forgotten Realms setting, which is known for having introduced Drizzt Do’Urden, a Drow who is unusually heroic.
It’s well known that the original Final Fantasy took a lot of its mythology from D&D, so it’s not too surprising that Drow would show up. The character Astos, King of the Dark Elves, is trying to overthrow the government of Elfheim.
While just referred to as a Dark Elf in the original English translation, I believe later ones specifically call him a Drow. While no other characters are specifically identified as Drow, there are generic enemies called Dark Fighters and Dark Mages that are pallet swaps of Astos, and hence presumably Dark Elves as well. 8-Bit Theater makes a more explicit D&D reference in giving Astos a son named Drizz’l, a swordfighter and master of spiders who becomes a significant recurring character as a member of the Dark Warriors.
While he seems to be the only member of the team who has even the slightest bit of common sense (he even calls himself “the smart one” in one comic), he’s also quite haughty and overconfident, as pretty much all elves in the story are. Final Fantasy IV has a character known simply as the Dark Elf, the only elf to appear in the game. He has stolen the Crystal of Earth from Troia, and lives in a cave with a magnetic field that makes metallic weapons impossible to wield. His speech pattern in the original Japanese is rather formal, but the Super Nintendo translation makes him speak ungrammatically and in all capital letters. He has access to a lot of spells, and at first the party doesn’t appear to be a match for him.
Edward saves the day (for once) by broadcasting a song that charms elves from his harp to the Whisperweed, which enables the party to use their weapons again. For the last phase of the battle, he transforms into a dragon.
I have to wonder if there’s a racial component to the division between Light and Dark Elves, since it seems that their skin color is the main thing that separates them. Later materials have wisely tried to avoid this, as with Tolkien’s dividing them by location rather than genetics, and Gary Gygax claiming that the Drow were the descendants of elves who were driven underground due to their nasty natures. As such, their darker complexions would presumably have been a result of their subterranean living, rather than the other way ’round. Marvel Comics tends to give their Dark Elves blue skin rather than pitch-black, although they were apparently Caucasian in their earliest appearances.