Our Elves, Ourselves

  • Capucine Andre

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Elves and fairies are seldom taken seriously within today’s culture. Elves are seen by most through the lenses of fantasy movies, first and foremost in Peter Jackson’s famous adaptations on screen of Tolkien’s novels and viewed as mere elements unworthy of real attention, let alone academic commentary. Fairies fare even worse as they a relegated to the kitsch and scorned world of little girls and pink prettification which can be perceived in any store catering to children. However, these two images do a great disservice to these creatures as they are very recent and conceal a much richer, mature and ancient cultural importance. This thesis explores the hidden persistence and continuing significance of elves and fairies as cultural presences across a range of literary and artistic texts from the Renaissance to 21st-century postmodernism. The movement of the supernatural figure of the fairy stretches from Greek myth to European literature in the early modern period, then in turn delves into Victorian culture, as the modern concept of fantasy emerges. Lastly, it reaches its apogee in the works of Tolkien, whose influence can still be felt in postmodern cinema and the contemporary culture industry. In tracing the evolution and transformation of fairies and elves across the centuries, my argument notably borrows a key concept from the French scholar Laurence Harf-Lancner: “Morganian Model”, describing a narrative scenario that involves the transition of a human protagonist from an ordinary world coded as real and epistemologically stable to a world of desire and danger represented as an alluring and profoundly threatening alternative to “reality”. By tracing this model narrative through the various texts explored, the argument demonstrates the manner in which elves and fairies constitute a consistent literary tradition, from the premodern to the postmodern. This tradition can be seen in a consistent set of insistent and traumatic problematics tackling power, identity, sexuality and the environment. What the thesis sets out to contest is the still prevalent infantilization and marginalization of elves and fairies and to conversely prove their lasting relevance for understanding our own cultural identities as an eerie distorted reflection of humanity’s deepest fears and desires.
Date of Award2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SupervisorLuke Thurston (Supervisor) & Matthew Jarvis (Supervisor)

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