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It's a common claim that modern fantasy elves and dwarves are based on those found in Norse mythology, but there doesn't actually seem to be a lot of detail given about them that I have found, particularly elves.

I know the stories of dwarves making things (Thor's hammer etc. and the mead of poetry) which gives a fairly good root for their skill as craftsmen (and possibly also a bit about their personalities).

Are there any other surviving Norse stories that talk about elves or dwarves in more detail?

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Unlike the dwarves, who are actively involved in Norse myth (making artifacts, killing Kvasir and turning his blood into the mead of poetry, etc.) the alfs are on the sidelines for the most part.

They seem to be have been a noble or possible divine group, as they are often mentioned in poetry alongside the Aesir, or gods. (The cosmic poem Voluspa mentions them together, as in "How fare the Aesir, how fare the elves" as if they were somehow equivalent.) In Skirnirsmal, too, Gerdr asks Skirnir if he is an alf, or from the Aesir or Vanir (the two groups of gods).

Snorri talks about dark alfs and light alfs, but it's not clear if that was his own idea or part of Norse belief generally. They seem to have been a lot like Celtic fairies, who were morally ambivalent. This may have bothered Snorri, a Christian.

According to the Prose Edda, the god Freyr is ruler of the alfs, and was given Alfheim (the elves' home) as a tooth-gift, a Norse tradition. (Sort of like the tooth fairy in reverse, as you gave a gift for a baby's first tooth.) The poem Alvissmal gives various species' names for things, including some poetic ones from the alfs:

  1. " 'Heaven' men call it, | 'The Height' the gods,
    The Wanes 'The Weaver of Winds';
    Giants 'The Up-World,' | elves 'The Fair-Roof,'
    The dwarfs 'The Dripping Hall.'"

If you want to know more about elves in Norse myth and folklore, here are some references. The Alaric Hall one is actually his thesis, with only one chapter on Norse elves, so you can skip the rest. The other is a paper. They include a lot of folklore and saga material about the elves, which you might find interesting.

Gunnell: “How Elvish were the Álfar?” in Constructing Nations, Reconstructing Myth: Essays in Honour of T. A. Shippey, Brepols Publishers: 111-30. (pdf here)
Hall, Alaric (2007). Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity. Anglo-Saxon Studies 8. Woodbridge, Suffolk / Rochester, New York: Boydell Press, 2007. (pdf here)

  • Thanks, that's what I was looking for. I did think that the mythology was a little sparse on the details about elves. I will read up on those links. – adaliabooks Apr 10 '17 at 20:25
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First, we really must note that both the "black elves" (Svartálfar) and dwarves were said by Snorri to live in Svartálfaheimr, and that they are commonly taken to be identical; for example, when Snorri tells of the smiths that made Sif's hair, Odin's spear and Frey's magical ship, the Sons of Ivaldi, he calls them black elves, not dwarves (more on this story below).

The elves that are contrasted with the light elves in Gylfaginning are the "Dökkálfar", "dark elves". It's unclear if these are the same as the Svartálfar or not, but given that they are said to live underground, it seems likely to include them in the same group.

Dwarves, regardless of name, appears in quite a few of the norse myths; unlike the (light) elves, who we only know about as a collective, we know of several individual dwarves, and even have Dvergatal a list of Dwarf names in Völuspá (which Tolkien used as a source for his names). It would be too long an answer to name every story in which they appear, so I will give a few examples, and their place in those stories.

  1. The thing that mostly have survived into modern literature is the Dwarves capability as craftsmen. When Snorri continues the story of the crafting of gifts for the gods, he tells of how Brokk and his borther, who are explicitly called dwarves, crafts Thor's hammer, Odin's self-replicating ring and Frey's golden boar. This is told in Skáldskaparmál in Snorri's Edda.
  2. Dwarves are also cosmological figures: the dwarves Norðri, Suðri, Austri and Vestri each sits in a corner of the world sits and together they hold up the sky. This is also in Snorri's Edda.
  3. Dwarves also appears in the stories playing roles that we would otherwise perhaps more associate with the jotuns: Alvíssmál tells of how the dwarf Alviss came to seek the hand of Thor's daughter, Thor says he can have her if Alviss can answer all of Thor's question. Alviss proceeds to do so, but then day breaks and he is turned to stone by the sun.
  4. Similar to this, there is a short story in Ynglinga saga in Heimskringla of how King Sveigðir was fooled by a dwarf to enter a rock and was never seen again.
  5. Dwarves also are important to the backstory of the Völsung cycle: Hreiðmarr, the man that Odin, Loki and Hœnir has to ransom themselves free from after killing his son Ótr, and the Andvari, whom they take the gold to pay for the ransom from, are dwarves. Hreiðmarr also had two more sons important to the story: Fafnir, who is cursed by the stolen gold and turned into a dragon, and Regin, who fosters Sigurd who eventually kills Fafnir.

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