Älvalek by August Malmström 1866 © National Museum, Stockholm
This beautiful painting, which I would love to see in the flesh one day, is as you can see by clicking on the title of this website, the cover picture for The Rune of Ing. Älvalek means ‘Dancing Elves’ or ‘Dancing Fairies’ but I prefer the former, not only from an Anglo-Saxon perspective but also from a Scandinavian one. These elves, it seems to me, come closest among all the depictions I have seen to the creatures who inhabited the Anglo-Saxon world. The figures are virtually made of light and the face of the nearest elf-girl is reflected in the water. Yet this numinous dance could quite easily be mistaken for a band of mist above a pond. It depends on your especial sight and this is what I like so much about it.
How different is the atmosphere of this painting from the saccharine portrayal of elves that we seem to have inherited. Different also from the quasi-human characters of Tolkien’s fantasy who possess a kind of Celtic influenced culture, in addition to pointed ears*. One could not really imagine the ‘culture’ of supernatural creatures such as those above, except to say that their creator has imagined them as enjoying dancing. Who knows really what they are up to?
The concept of dancing elves or fairies as a means of explaining a strange weather phenomenon belongs to folklore; but the sublime interpretation is Malmström’s own. Apologies for the greenish tinge. It is an inferior web copy of the picture. The cover of the novel gives a far clearer indication of the qualities of this mystical picture. In the foreground to the right of the painting you may observe a tortoise or possibly a fresh water turtle. These antediluvian creatures are a traditional emblem of eternity. From the position of the watching sun I assume this to be a late summer’s evening but it could quite as easily be early morning.
Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards these elvish beings appear to have been uncertain. Sometimes they are lumped in with other monsters, goblins and assorted night-walkers in the fear that folk seem to have had of them. They were certainly associated with causing disease in people by shooting arrows or darts in anger. As Stephen Pollington, the author of ‘Leechcraft’, which I mention in the previous post, points out, this Anglo-Saxon view of infectious illness, as being the result of an attack by an outside agency, predates the germ theory of disease by more than a thousand years. In other words the Anglo-Saxons were on the right track that malaria, for example is quite rightly caused by an external agent. Not the dart of a mischievous elf though.
He then almost suggests that in some ways they were more advanced than the physicians of classical antiquity with their theories of imbalance in the bodily humours. I have to go into bat a little for Greece here because there is a marked difference between the beginnings of a rational approach to the study of medicine and the explanations of superstition. Not that the Anglo-Saxons were not probably rational in their application of herbal knowledge but as is usually the case in the Medieval Age it was always mixed with ‘essential’ supernatural elements.
I also feel bound to say that the Ancient Greeks had a similar idea in regard to infectious disease. Do not the arrows of the archer god Apollo strike a plague into Agamemnon’s army at the beginning of the Iliad? And further, seeing as Homer’s epic poem considerably predates the flourishing of the Hippocratic school on Kos, one might argue that it represents an earlier mode of thinking.
Portion of a sketch made by August Malmström for the later more famous work entitled Älvalek. It is abundantly clear that elves were enticing to the Anglo-Saxons. Elfscine, elf-bright, might describe a beautiful woman. There were elves of rivers and pools (water-elfen), woodland (wudu-elfen), hills and moors (dun-elfen, wylde-elfen), and even the sea (sae-elfen). In this respect they can be seen as similar to the nymphs and dryads of pagan Greece. Elves of either sex were dangerous and appealing to their mortal opposites. Not surprisingly they were inextricably linked with enchantment and the magical aspects of the world in which the people had their own existence.
* Actually re elves and their ears … think I may have been influenced by the films. Not sure Tolkien describes his elves as having pointed ears at all! They are kind of more lofty, more beautiful, more capable and accomplished people really. And of course immortal although they can be killed. They are the ‘first born’ of Tolkien’s creator god Ilúvatar who to all intents and purposes is the Christian God of Tolkien’s Catholicism.