It’s the time of year when chances are best for spotting an “imaginary being,” perhaps an elf, maybe a gnome.
Like other creatures that live in caves or under the ground, gnomes, trolls and dwarfs are now storing up food for winter. So they’re out and about more than usual. And, as the leaves fall, forest-dwelling Little People such as tree-elves are more exposed than they like to be. If you look carefully, you might just see one.
Although the majority of Little People sightings occur in Ireland, belief in these creatures is common to every country in the world. Stories about them can be found in the folklore of every culture.
We see how widespread this belief is in the many words for tree-elf. In Denmark, such elves are known as hongatar or löfviska. In Russia, they are barstukken. They’re called boruta in Poland, tuomefar in Finland, and Pushkait in Prussian Germany.
A Field Guide to the Little People (Nancy Armstrong, George Moorse) lists 680 different names for such creatures. Hobbit is in the index, but if you check to see what is said about Hobbits, you find no write-up, only this: “Hobbits are not included because there have been no reports of Hobbit sightings to date.”
This suggests all other listings, those accompanied by descriptions, etc., name creatures that have actually been seen.
Tolkien may have invented Hobbits, but dwarfs, trolls, elves and gnomes are well-known in folklore. Even orc is an old word, not unique to Tolkien.
About 1590, an orc, or ork, was viewed as, “a devouring monster; an ogre.” This word, originally from the Latin orco (sea monster) is also responsible for the name of the killer whale, orca.
Dwarf (correct plural is dwarfs) originated in Old Teutonic. It entered English about 1626 when it meant, “pygmy,” and now officially is defined as, “a human being much below ordinary size.” Sometimes called knockers, the dwarfs of folklore live underground and are famous miners. They’re also known as gnomes.
Gnome (1712) was originally a synonym for pygmy. Gnome is from Modern Latin, gnomus. They’re said to guard earth’s underground treasures. Although sometimes gnomes are called goblins, a goblin (1649) is a mischievous ugly demon. Dwarfs and gnomes are not seen as demons. Goblin is a Middle English word.
In Scandinavian myth, trolls, once thought to be giants, are now considered dwarfs. They also inhabit subterranean places — sometimes caves. In English since 1616, troll is from the Old Norse and Swedish word troll (dwarf). The Danish form is trold.
In Austria and Southern Germany, a house sprite is known as a Wichtln. Arrowsmith and Moorse say the word has been misused so frequently that it’s difficult to identify genuine Wichtln.
Wichtln are those elves which do good deeds around households — as in The Shoemaker and the Elves. In Iceland and Norway, such elves are called vaettir. In England, they’re wights.
You may doubt the existence of fairy creatures, but the thousands of tales about them suggest there’s some truth embedded in the folklore.