The following is all from a paper I wrote for "Vikings and Their Literature," an upper-division English class taught by proffesor John Weinstock here at the University of Texas. I thought it was informative enough to put up on E2.
The Fair Folk: Elves and Dwarves in Norse Mythology
Throughout the lays and sagas of the people of pre-Christian northern Europe are references to the mysterious elves and the earthy dwarves: supernatural beings existing somewhere between mankind and the gods in the hierarchy of Norse mythology. Together they are sometimes called the y tylwyth têg, or the "fair folk." They often serve as catalysts for the accomplishments of the old Norse heroes, but there are also several stories centered around individual elves and dwarves themselves. There are enough characteristics common to every dwarf and elf in the stories to assume that the fair folk had a constant and well-defined place in Norse mythology.
Elves and dwarves are vary similar, and, in fact, the term dvergar, meaning "dwarf" or "dwarfkind," may refer to a particular subgroup of the âlfar; the class of beings known as elves. In the Prose Edda, Snorri describes two types of elves: dark and light. In describing Álfheim, home of the elves, he says "there live the people called the light elves, but the dark elves live down in the earth and they are unlike the others in appearance and much more so in character. The light elves are fairer than the sun to look upon, but the dark elves, blacker than pitch." However, an analysis of the original work Prose Edda by Jacob Grimm reveals that Snorri named the homeland of the dwarves Svartâlfaheim, or home of the svartâlfar: the black elves. This is a different word than that which was used for the "dark elves," döckâlfar, suggesting two classifications of beings. This means one of two things: either the terms "dark elves" and "dwarves" refer to the same mountain dwelling smith people, or there are not two but three types of elves: light, dark, and black.
There is some other evidence to support the theory that dark elves and dwarves are synonymous. First, the description "black as pitch" seems ideally suited to a race of creatures which live underground, fear the sun, and spend their lives forging weapons, valuables, and other items of power. Also, in the prose edda, amidst a list of dwarven proper names, are the names Ganndálf and Vinndálf, meaning "sorcerer-elf" and "wind-elf," respectfully. In my opinion, "elf" probably refers to a generic class of powerful supernatural beings, to which the dwarves, and possibly the norns belong. The term "elf" is used much more loosely in the lays than "dwarf," and seems to carry less specific common characteristics. Although "elf" usually always to something separate than "dwarf," there is a sense that it is an umbrella term for elves that are not dwarves or norns.
Dwarves and elves have many common characteristics. They are both more wise and powerful than man and less so than the gods and giants, although elves are often associated with the Æsir and the dwarves with the giants. Dwarves and elves both age quickly, yet live long. They are both small in stature, with dwarves being the size of a child. All of the fair folk seem to be thievish or have mischievous tendencies. Members of both races may have shapechanging abilities, the ability to become invisible, and the gift of prophecy. These may or may not be common traits to all the fair folk.
Elves in Literature
There are only two prominent elven characters in the literature that I have read: Volund from The Lay of Volund in the Elder Edda, and Skuld from Kind Hrolf’s Saga. Volund, or Weland as he is also known, is a good example of a character who is elven in the more generic sense, rather than clearly belonging to a specific class of supernatural creature. He is called "The Master of Elves," and "Lord of Elves," and displays several supernatural characteristics. He was married to a valkyrie for a time. He created things, like the dwarves do, and is described as the "most skillful of men." Volund is called a "man." He is called both man and elf in the lay, and this ambiguity makes sense if the ambiguous definition of the term "elf" is accepted. Volund ends up using trickery to win his freedom, and this too seems indicative of his elven status: he is wiser and more cunning than the average man.
The only other definitely elven character that I know of is Skuld, from King Hrolf’s Saga. She is not the protagonist of a story, like Volund is, but rather an obscure and mysterious antagonist. Her mother, an elf maiden, is first introduced as a poor traveler seeking shelter at King Helgi’s door from "foul weather." Mistaking her for a man, King Helgi let her sleep in his bed, but later realized that she was in fact a beautiful woman, and forced himself upon her. After the deed was done, the unnamed elf gave him a prophecy: that Helgi must go to his boathouse in one years time to collect their child, warning that he would "pay for it" if he did not.
Helgi ignored this warning and one day three years later, the elf woman returned and gave Skuld, their daughter to him, telling Helgi that he had freed her from a spell, and that he would now "reap the benefit." Soon after, he left on a voyage and ended up getting killed by King Athlis, leaving his son Hrolf as king. Later, Skuld married a king named Hjorvarth, with Hrolf’s approval. Hrolf then got his new brother-in-law to hold his sword while he adjusted his belt, which, according to an ancient custom Hjorvarth evidently forgot, made him Hrolf’s underking. Obviously, Skuld and Hjorvarth were quite upset by this.
Years later, after Hrolf had assembled his champions, and they had gone on many adventures, Skuld convinced her husband to go to war against Hrolf. She lead an "endless" host against the king, who eventually fell in battle with the aid of her sorcery. Skuld was technically a half-elf, but the only mention of this is a single line naming her mother an "elf-woman." Nevertheless, she embodies the essence of the elven character. She and her mother are mysterious and shadowy, and any information about them is suitably vague: nothing is known about the spell which led Skuld’s mother to stay with Helgi. She also has clear magical powers, creating a "storm of enchantment" in the final battle with Hrolf. She is a supernatural, powerful, and mysterious force who makes a classic end of the king Hrolf, giving him an appropriately unwinnable battle to die gloriously in.
Dwarves in Literature
Snorri tells us in the prose edda that dwarves were originally maggots who lived in and fed on the dead giant Ymir’s flesh, from which the earth was made. This immediately associates them with the earth, very appropriately since they were thought to live in the earth, rocks and mountains, and shun the sunlight. Material creatures, they are adept at mining, forging, crafting, and loving gold. They lead simple, proud, honest, and long lives.
The primary use of dwarven characters in Norse literature is to create treasure or items of power. By the gods’ request, they created the fetter Gleipinir to hold the wolf Fenrir until he would break free at Ragnorak. Skidblanir was the "best ship and built with the greatest skill," and it too was built by dwarves, this time as a gift to the god Frey. In the Nibelungenlied, Sigfried acquires the Nibelung treasure at the foot of a mountain where he took it from the dwarves who were mining it there. They had asked Sigfried to count and divide their treasure for them, but had accumulated so much that he couldn’t do it, and so the dwarves got angry and attacked him. Unfortunately for them Sigfried proved too powerful: he killed the dwarves and took the treasure for himself.
Although Sigurd of the Elder Edda did not get his treasure from dwarves like his Nibelungenlied counterpart, his foster father Regin was a dwarf. He has his own lay in the Elder Edda, and in it, he reveals some of the characteristics common to dwarves. Regin’s brothers Otter and Fafnir change their shape and turn into an otter and a dragon, respectfully. Also, the fact that Regin was planning on betraying Sigurd and taking the treasure from him after he killed Fafnir shows the greed common to many dwarves. Another lay, the Lay of Alvis, has that title character, a dwarf, engaged in a competition of wisdom with Odin. Alvis proves to be very wise, as many dwarves are, but not as wise as a god.
There is a strong, multi-faceted relationship between dwarves’ short height, their proficiency at making things, and their earthy homes. Obviously, being short makes them closer to the ground, symbolizing their connection with the earth. They mine things from mountains, and make things out of earth-born materials. Dwarves share come common abilities with the elves, but these seem to be limited. For instance, their shapechanging ability seems to be limited to animal and earth dwelling forms, rather than changing their appearance into other people, as for example, Skuld’s mother did. They seem to have some magical talent which is made manifest through the creation of enchanted weapons and other items, but little else. I like to think of them as elves, but with an earthy focus.
Elves and dwarves have a well defined place in Norse mythology, but at the same time remain vague and ambiguous. A lot of what we know about them are generalizations from common themes found in specific examples of dwarven and elven characters in the literature. There are too few authentic mythological reference materials like Snorri’s prose edda to really remove the ambiguity surrounding the nature of the fair folk. But, in my opinion, this is quite appropriate, for no other creatures in Norse mythology are quite as mysterious as the elves and dwarves.