The manuscript containing one of the earliest known references to the word “elf” has been digitised by the British Library and is available to view online.
Royal MS 2 A XX is a late-eighth-century royal prayerbook from the Kingdom of Mercia.
On the lower half of f.4v is a prayer which involves an exorcism: “I conjure you, devil of Satan, of (an/the) elf, through the living and true God […] that he is put to flight from that person”.1
This could be a reference to an elf or some being with the name “Elf”. Either way, the association with evil is clear. This may reflect pre-Christian beliefs in Anglo-Saxon society, with the scribe using “elf” to help his audience understand Satan with a comparison to a more familiar concept.
That “elf” was used to refer to an evil creature (or creatures) in Anglo-Saxon England should come as no surprise to those familiar with the following line and a half from Beowulf:
eotenas ond ylfe ond orcnéäs
In Letter 236, Tolkien commented that “[i]n all Old English poetry ‘elves’ (ylfe) occurs once only, in Beowulf, associated with trolls, giants, and the Undead, as the accursed offspring of Cain.” That Tolkien could not bear such a negative association is clear from his prose translation of the above passage: “ogre, goblins, and haunting shapes of hell”.2
- Translation from Alaric Hall, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England (Boydell, 2007), p. 72.
- J.R.R Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, 2014).
Daniel is an Officer without Portfolio and Trustee of The Tolkien Society. Elected in 2014, he is mainly responsible for the Society’s digital operations, including this website.