It may still be possible to see the elves, if you’re willing to risk it. People who take the hallucinatory drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT) often report visions of creatures that look like clockwork elves, or possibly angels. The late ethnobotanist and hallucinogen enthusiast Terence McKenna described these beings as “apparently autonomous and intelligent, chaotically mercurial and mischievous machine elves… whose marvelous singing makes intricate toys out of the air…” “Machine elves,” also known as “fractal elves” or “self-transforming elf-machines,” have appeared in quite a number of DMT hallucinations, though a study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology notes that not everyone uses the exact same terms to describe what they see. The comedian Shane Mauss claims to have met a purple dancing woman during his DMT experiences, and also claims that, when a friend smoked DMT for the first time, this friend—completely unprompted by Mauss—saw the purple dancing woman too, as well as “little mechanical elf things.” At first the friend “was scared of [the elves, and] they were scared of him,” but the elves relaxed when they heard Mauss’s voice.
“You guys know Shane?” the friend asked.
“Oh yeah,” the elves responded. “He comes in here all the time.”
This could all be stoner nonsense, of course. It’s easy to come up with a perfectly rational explanation for these shared hallucinogenic experiences: the workings of DMT on neural pathways, combined with shared cultural tropes and expectations. And since DMT may naturally occur in the brain, perhaps one could argue that people who claimed to have had encounters with elves or fairies—such as William Blake, who wrote about witnessing a fairy funeral—simply had brains that produced an unusually high amount of natural DMT.
But trying to understand elves or fairies through scientific means is a very quick way to murder them. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, himself a believer in fairies, helped to destroy fairy-belief—and his own reputation—by asserting that fairies were empirically real. As a chief promoter of the infamous Cottingley photograph hoax, Doyle insisted that a pair of teenage sisters had taken genuine pictures of fairies. (Years later, one of the sisters would admit that the photos were a hoax. The other sister, however, claimed that all the photos were fake except the last one, which was real.) Regardless, the photos looked fake, even to the audience of the time, and the press had an absolute field day, conflating Doyle with his most famous character. “Poor Sherlock Holmes—Hopelessly Crazy,” began the headline in one American magazine.
You can see why the press had so much fun: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies seemed to be a grand inversion of the Holmesian dedication to scientific proof and logical deduction. But all the mockery doesn’t explain why Doyle wanted so badly to believe, and why he was willing to go to such lengths to prove the fairies real beyond a shadow of a doubt.
To ask whether elves, fairies, or other related beings are “real” in any scientific, provable sense defeats the purpose of the inquiry. What’s much more interesting is why people see them, and why they continue to see them, and why they see such specific, recurring details. Timothy Leary recorded that while experimenting with DMT in 1962 he saw an “…enormous toy-jewel-clock factory, Santa Claus workshop…not impersonal or engineered, but jolly, comic, light-hearted…” and, a little later, “…a huge grey-white mountain cliff, moving, pocked by little caves and in each cave a band of radar-antennae, elf-like insects merrily working away, each cave the same, the grey-white walls endlessly parading by… infinity of life forms… merry erotic energy nets…” Why these specific images? Why machines, why Christmas, why factories, why eroticism, why merriment? And above all, why are the elves so often perceived as working, involved with the act of labor in some way?
First, some definitions. In folklore terms, “elves” and “fairies” are largely interchangeable—the words have different linguistic origins, but the stories about them are essentially the same. Dwarves, goblins, and other local names for “hidden people” also overlap wildly. The Roman lares, household gods, may be related; the academic Diane Purkiss suggests in her book Troublesome Things: a History of Fairies and Fairy Stories that fairies may be related to Greek nymphs and certain Babylonian demons. There’s likely a connection between fairies and the winged Peris of Persian mythology, and the Maori have a tradition of Patupaiarehe—secretive, non-human people who sing beautifully. Hidden or invisible people abound in the world’s cultures, and may even be universal, depending on how much you want to widen your definitions.
When people say elves or fairies, however, they usually mean a particular European tradition, one that’s heavily inflected by European—and particularly English—ideas about labor, sex, reproduction, and death. But the space these beings occupy is as mysterious and changeable as they are. “Fairies both are and are not,” Purkiss writes. “They exceed the terms of what is likely or acceptable or sayable in the everyday… The way fairies hover between belief and disbelief is what makes them natural symbols for other things that cannot be said, or cannot be acknowledged, or cannot be believed.”
In other words, elves and fairies represent what’s fundamentally uncomfortable about Western society. It’s not a surprise that “fairies” became slang for gay men in the late 19th century: homosexuality was something that couldn’t be talked about. There were of course a whole host of things that Europeans were unwilling to talk about—the Victorians in particular, those kings of repression—but what we see in a lot of elf stories are fantasies about work, sexuality, oppression, and liberation. The dream of being an aristocrat with servants, or slaves; the terror of being forced to work for others, against your will. Desire and anxiety are closely intertwined in all these stories, and both are equally unspeakable.
Some of the best-known fairy stories are fantasies about someone who can save you from the drudgery and misery of daily existence, often by magically fixing your problems or performing your labor for you. You’ve probably heard some version of the classic Brothers Grimm story “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” in which a poor shoemaker “by no fault of his own” is down to his last bit of leather. Depressed and exhausted, he goes to sleep, but when he wakes up he sees that his leather has been made into shoes—and beautiful ones, at that—by unknown hands. The shoes sell for a good price; the shoemaker buys more leather, and while he sleeps, the leather is once again made into fantastic shoes. This goes on until the shoemaker is rich. “One evening not long before Christmas,” the shoemaker and his wife decide to stay up all night to find out who’s been doing all this work. They wait, and eventually see “two pretty little naked men” making the shoes. In gratitude, the shoemaker’s wife makes them two sets of tiny clothes. The elves come at night and take the clothes. In some versions, they sing, “Now we are boys so fine to see / Why should we longer cobblers be?” Purkiss points out that while this story is “…often sweetened as a tale of pious gratitude,” it’s “actually a warning not to make clothes for fairy helpers.” If you reward servants too much, they might think they’re too good for you. In fact, they might start to wonder why they’ve been laboring for you in the first place.
Stories about elves or elf-like creatures working as domestic servants abound in Europe. There’s the Scottish brownie and the British hob; in Scandinavia there’s something called a nisse (plural nisser), who takes care of barns and can be mischievous or cruel if crossed. Folklore scholar Timothy Tangherlini, who claims he actually saw one on a Danish island in 1984, told Atlas Obscura that a nisse is “not a cute, fun little thing. He reacts completely out of proportion to slights… In tales that were still being told on farms up through the 19th century, there are stories of the nisse teasing the farmhand, then the farmhand teasing right back, and then the nisse comes and kills him.”
Supposedly, the way to appease a working nisse is to give him cream porridge at Christmastime, with a lump of butter in it. Norwegian author Tor Age Bringsvaerd writes that,“in Denmark, it was said that the nisse never ate the butter he received in his porridge. He hid the butter, because in it he was going to fry the souls of everyone he had been connected with here on earth.” The people that a nisse is connected with are, of course, his employers and coworkers on the farm. These employers only pay him once a year, at Christmas, and only then in porridge. No wonder he wants to fry their souls.
Elf stories are mutable, and while elves are usually positioned somewhere in relation to labor, they are not always workers. The symbol changes as the need changes: for every sign, a countersign. Elves can appear in your home and do your work for you, or they can show up and take you to their home instead. The story of “The Elves and the Shoemaker” is followed up in many Grimm collections with a second story about a poor young girl who works as a domestic servant. One day, she receives a mysterious letter, but she can’t read it—she’s illiterate. Her employers read the letter and tell her it’s an invitation from the elves. The servant is afraid to go, but her bosses insist: “They told her that it was not right to refuse an invitation of this kind.” The servant goes to the elven palace and has a wonderful time. The elves ask her to stay for three days, and in the end, she leaves with “her pockets quite full of money.” The servant returns to work only to find that she’s been gone not for three days, but for seven years. “And in the meantime her former masters had died.”
This is a wonderful revenge fantasy, made safe for consumption by the fact that the servant is utterly passive. She doesn’t have to murder her masters and take their money: she just gets to hang out in a cool palace for three days. At the end of her vacation at the elf Airbnb she’s rich, and her bosses are dead. She’s not responsible for anything that happened, and in this rare case, the elves aren’t either. It’s just a lovely coincidence.
But being taken away by the elves was not always—or even usually—a benevolent act. Their homes were perilous, and their invitations never to be refused. In Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness, scholar Carole G. Silver notes that fairies have a fetish for abduction. They “…kidnap mortals for various but unsavory purposes, whether to serve as fairy nurses, midwives, servants, or lovers…” This form of abduction and forced servitude was often called being “fairy-taken.” The fairy-taken could include the dead, especially people who had died in an untimely manner. But a person could also be “fairy-taken” while still alive. Silver calls it being “away,” and says that “be[ing] ‘away’ while physically present in this world meant that while pursuing ordinary tasks one was also in the power—and world—of the fairies.” That is, you could be simultaneously in this world and the other one, going about your daily business, but in a distant and distracted way. “Among the symptoms of this condition,” Silver writes, “were the dazed look and the vacant mind; fainting fits, trances, fatigue or languidity, even long and heavy sleeping, as well as any of the wasting diseases.”
There are any number of medical explanations for these symptoms—tuberculosis, stroke, and epilepsy, among others. But of course it also sounds a lot like depression, or what the New York Times so recently called “languishing”—this supposedly modern phenomenon where people feel sad, exhausted, and dissociated from life. The most important feature of languishing (and the reason that the Times cares) is that languishers have trouble engaging with their work. Fortunately, the Times has a cure: they recommend entering a state of “flow,” which means getting involved in personal projects, doing puzzles, binging Netflix shows, etc. One imagines telling a depressed milkmaid in 18th-century Scotland that she just needed to take some time and focus on herself, you know? The explanation of being “fairy-taken” is far less cloying.
“Fairy-taken” is also a less individualistic explanation than “languishing.” This sadness and inability to work is happening to you, but not because of you. It’s not that you failed to hustle hard enough, or to take appropriate care of yourself—it’s just that there’s something very evil and arbitrary in the world, and it chose to snatch you up. And there’s no solution and no cure, unless you can trick the fairies into letting you go.
Women were more likely to be fairy-taken, and women and babies the ones fully switched out with fairy changelings. In the third and last of the elf-related Grimm stories, a child is replaced by “a changeling with a large head and staring eyes, which would do nothing but eat and drink.” The mother manages to trick the changeling and get her real child back, but most were not so lucky. Changeling babies were usually sickly, and did “nothing but eat and drink.” There are once again lots of scientific and rational explanations available here: a changeling was a baby born with a disability or some sort of genetic illness, and “changelingism” was one way by which parents rationalized a child’s condition. (Parents would also, at times, use changelingism as a justification for mistreating, abandoning, or even killing a disabled child: it wasn’t their baby, but an alien. There were many such reported cases in Europe, from the medieval period through the 19th century.) But the critical factor, and the one that made the child untenable in the parents’ eyes, was that the child couldn’t work. Whatever the child’s exact condition, it was always something that rendered them unable to fully participate in the life of the community, especially in rural farm life, where every child needed to be a laborer.
If the fairies took your child, your replacement labor, your future, there wasn’t anything you could do. “They are too powerful to fight,” writes Purkiss, “like some kind of local nobility who come and take food, people, children, as they please.” This image of fairies-as-local-nobility takes on interesting dimensions, particularly in the Irish tradition of the Sidhe (pronounced ‘she’). These Irish fairies (and other “trooping fairies” of a similar kind) would swoop in on horseback and attack travelers on the road at night, leading them astray or harming them. They were like the wind and were associated with it: a mounted, lordly force of pure, anarchic nature. Their attacks might be visited on humans who accidentally invaded fairy property, or they might be totally random. “…A folkloric equivalent to the mob or demos,” writes Silver, “invading the civilized world from the barbaric wilderness, running amuck, taking or destroying whatever was in their path.”
According to Silver, this comparison with the demos is no accident: many of the more conservative Victorian folklorists treated the Sidhe and similar fairies in political terms. They “identif[ied] the fairy hordes with the faceless mob; the elfin peoples’ irrational, anarchic behavior could be seen as analogous to that of the sans culottes of Carlyle’s French Revolution, the Communards of the Paris revolt, and the working-class rioters of Bloody Sunday… For many, they were the demos turned demonic.” In this guise, the undifferentiated fairy mob represented a fear not just of revolution, but specifically that the demos would take over and start acting like an aristocracy themselves. The wild mob was scary not just for the seeming randomness of its violence, but because it could place a monopoly on that violence. The world would be upended, and the demos would become the new lords of the world, mounted hunters who stole and killed without regard for former laws, property, or social status.
So: elves are either cold-blooded aristocrats or the wild demos, either merry workers or resentful, vengeful servants, either kindly helpers or kidnappers, or all of the above, all at once. Have we missed anything? We have, and it’s that eroticism that Timothy Leary mentioned. Folklore abounds with stories of young women meeting handsome fairy knights—sometimes, as in Tam Lin, the woman has to rescue him; in other stories, the fairy knight is a rapist. Purkiss suggest that these stories helped women talk about what couldn’t be talked about: particularly the shame of unwanted pregnancy, especially from rape or incest, or just from sleeping with a guy who made promises he didn’t keep. Male heterosexual fantasies, particularly in medieval romances, often took the form of a human knight sleeping with or refusing a fairy queen or princess, only to be suborned into her world and her service (if he slept with her) or murdered (if he didn’t). Either way, it was a dream about female power, especially the fantasy (and fear) of being dominated, force-femmed into a woman’s world, taken away from the duties and responsibilities of men.
But the most common of these sexual fantasies/terrors—and one that actually appears in many cultures, whether they have a larger tradition of “fairy” societies or not—is that of the animal bride. In the typical form of this story, a man comes across a beautiful, independent woman who is also some kind of animal—a bird, or a fish, or a seal, or something like that. The fairy woman has somehow been separated from her skin or plumage, and the man steals it. Because of this, she’s unable to access her powers and is forced to go with him, becoming both his wife and his servant. She usually excels at domestic tasks, and sometimes is even happy with her weaving or whatever it is—until the day she gets her skin/plumage/clothing back. Then, with few exceptions, she leaves. (Note, once again, that if the fairy acquires her clothes she also regains her sense of self-worth and is able to leave her job, which in this case is also her marriage.)
Many male Victorian folktale collectors found this story deeply disturbing, and rewrote it to be less bothersome. According to Silver, the problem wasn’t the kidnapping and forced domestic servitude; wifehood was often depicted in these stories “as dreary, sometimes as close to slavery.” The problem for the Victorians was that the fairy bride was able to leave. Sure, you could capture a fairy bride, rape her, and force her to work for you, but divorce? Yuck. One prominent (male) editor of folktales for children “believed that the ‘eerie wife,’ in separating from her mate and leaving her offspring, forfeited the audience’s respect,” Silver notes. “Her behavior reinforced the listeners’ sympathy with the husband.” Yet, clearly, the popularity and prevalence of the animal bride story—plus its near universality—indicates that there’s something vital about this image, something anarchic and powerful about a woman who finds a way to leave her marriage-job, even as the Victorians sanitized it into oblivion.
The Victorians are also largely to blame for the reason that fairy-belief faded. They loved fairies a lot—far too much. “Diligent as ever in killing the things they loved,” Diane Purkiss writes, “the passionate embrace of Victorian love robbed the fairy of breath.” Victorian fairy tales, bent on moral instruction, made fairies comfortable and cozy. And fairies are supposed to be uncozy, uncomfortable, and ungovernable: eerie brides, rebellious servants, and frightening aristocrats. The cute-ification project really began a few centuries earlier, with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Puck would go on to become especially popular among the elite writers of the time, such as Ben Jonson. In Purkiss’s words:
“Puck comes to swallow up all other English fairies, like some multinational fast-food outlet driving the idiosyncratic greasy spoons out of business. The trouble is that in the hands of an elite, and misattributed to a fairy in which no one believes, fairy activities lose their meaning and potency; when Jonson writes of Puck moving through the house at night, the fairy seems no more disturbing than a cleaner.”
Puck evolved into a domestic fairy, but bereft of the associations with malice and rebelliousness that we see with a nisse, hob, or brownie. Just a small, invisible, less-than-human creature who works without complaint.
The final stage of the cute-ification process, of course, are Santa’s helpers. These days, even the once-ferocious nisse has mostly been diminished to nothing more than “a jolly Christmas elf.” The permanent association between elves and Christmas began sometime in the 19th century, and feels natural—all those domestic servant-elves getting paid on Christmas Eve, one of the only reliable holidays of the year for the working class. As usual with fairy folk, the image is highly mutable, and gives way both to the creepy Elf on a Shelf—a spy for management if there ever was one—and to innumerable parodies of Santa’s elves as miserable, non-unionized factory laborers. Economists have debated whether the North Pole is a sweatshop, and more serious writers have considered the implications of the fact that Christmas in the West depends largely on real-life sweatshops in the East. The image of elves as “hidden people” lingers in the form of the nearly invisible labor of workers in sweatshops and Amazon distribution centers. And the most disturbing bit of all is that, just like the Christmas elves, these invisible workers are supposed to be happy about working. The actor Terry Crews recently starred in a recruitment ad for Amazon, enthusing about how exciting it is to drive a forklift, and the award-winning movie Nomadland depicts working for Amazon as an aspirational, innocuous activity for idiosyncratic people on the move. It’s Christmas cheer, all year round.
The association of elves—and hidden labor more broadly—with factories and mass capitalist production goes back to at least the 19th century. The Dickens novel Hard Times (1854) describes factories ironically as “Fairy palaces,” and implies that the Victorians had mistaken industrialization for magic: “The lights in the great factories, which looked, when they were illuminated, like Fairy palaces—or the travellers by express-train said so—were all extinguished…” Later, Dickens writes that, “the Fairy palaces burst into illumination, before pale morning showed the monstrous serpents of smoke trailing themselves over Coketown.” The image is inhuman, unreal, and ultimately unmagical. The factory is not a fairy palace: only the people riding by on the train—people who don’t work there—could possibly think so. The monstrous serpents are made of smoke, but not for any magical reason: they’re just poisonous industrial exhaust. A power-loom weaver named Old Stephen stands outside the extinguished factory at night, “with the old sensation upon him which the stoppage of the machinery always produced—the sensation of its having worked and stopped in his own head.” The machinery is in his head; it’s part of him. Old Stephen has become part of the machine, part of its invisible labor. A machine elf.
The rise of machines and industrial capitalism is often cited as one of the other major reasons for the decline of fairy-belief in England and elsewhere. Most people agreed that the fairies were leaving, and radical 19th-century writers in particular blamed the destruction of the forests and the larger taming of nature. Silver quotes from an 1876 novella by Walter Besant and James Rice, in which Puck appears and, in Silver’s opinion, “sounds like William Morris” when he says that “‘the smoke of the factories poison us; there are hardly any forests where we can lurk; no rivers but are foul with refuse; hardly any commons but are enclosed by the Lord of the Manor…’”
Of course the most famous instance of elven departure—an image closely tied to the rise of machines and industrialization—appears in the pages of Lord of the Rings. But there’s another association there, another critical historical factor which, according to Purkiss, was an additional “terrible blow to the fairy: the outbreak of the First World War.” Fairy-belief did not seem possible to most people after a war in which so much awful, meaningless death had happened; this is part of why, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle insisted on the reality of the Cottingley photographs in 1920, he was so roundly mocked. The world had moved on from the fairies. J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote so movingly about the farewell of the elves, fought in the First World War. Nearly all his friends were killed, and at one point in the trenches he became very sick with a fever. In that fever he dreamed up the first of his Middle-earth stories: not Lord of the Rings, but a story about a human man named Tuor who winds up in the elven kingdom of Gondolin. The city is very beautiful, and Tuor falls in love with an elven princess, a fairy-bride of his own—but Gondolin is invaded, and nearly everyone is killed. Tolkien dreamed that the elves were dead, and they were: they had died into fiction.
Subsequent fictional representations of the elves have often borrowed heavily from Tolkien, and from his worst and most reactionary qualities; they have also borrowed from the cute-ified Victorian domestic elves. It’s almost unnecessary to talk about the house-elves in Harry Potter—plenty of critics (including me) have already pointed out how horrible it is that J.K. Rowling’s magical world, and its magical boarding school in particular, is propped up by the labor of happy slaves. But I will add, having read Diane Purkiss’s excellent book, how grotesque it is that the house-elves are intended to be cute.
Purkiss has much to say about this “highly modern word ‘cute.’ What happens in cuteness? What happens when we coo over something ‘Oh, how cute!’ What kind of desire is this? It is the desire to rescue the cute object, cuddle it, take it home, nurture it, give it love—in other words, to buy it.” The house-elves in Harry Potter are very cute and buyable indeed: you can purchase a seemingly infinite variety of Dobby dolls. But to be cute isn’t just to be consumable—it’s to be rendered nonthreatening. Dobby is the only house-elf in the series who shows any interest in freedom (a freedom which is marked, as usual in these stories, by the presentation of clothes). And Dobby is killed in service of Harry, his master in all but name; because Dobby is a “free elf” who can choose only to die. The issue of the enslavement of the house-elves is not resolved within the pages of the Harry Potter series; all the characters grow up and stop really associating with or worrying about the elves, who—we are left to suppose—must carry on industriously. I hope the house-elves save up their butterbeer and boil some children alive.
Otherwise, elves remain popular in fiction, usually not as the cute laboring kind but as the sexy, cruel, aristocratic kind. Books about attractive “fae” characters were all the rage a few years ago, particularly in fantasy novels by women, marking the ever-present fantasy of being taken away from this vale of tears and hard work to a profane, erotic paradise. One of the most popular of these is the Court of Thorn and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas, which a friend of mine has described, accurately, as “fairy smut.” Beyond the spicy sex scenes, the books actually do something quite interesting, especially in regards to the broader history of elf stories.
The first volume in the series is an adaptation of Tam Lin, in which the human heroine must rescue her “High Fae” boyfriend from a cruel fairy queen. The heroine succeeds—and then, in the second book, her Tam Lin turns out to be an abuser. Escaping his feudal court, the heroine ends up in a different city in another part of the fairy realm. What’s remarkable about this city, Velaris, is that it is directly and explicitly capitalist. Characters pay rent; the heroine is paid a salary by the lord of the city (who is soon to be, of course, her new fairy boyfriend). This is a magical world, so there’s no need, in theory, for rents and salaries. The residents of the city could live in artistic indolence with all their needs met, but capitalist Velaris is apparently the best that can be imagined. The protagonist’s new, improved, fairylord boyfriend gives her houses and beautiful dresses: he’s really nothing more than a billionaire boss, a Christian Grey with sexy wings and tattoos.
I genuinely enjoy Sarah J. Maas’s books and I think of them often. I thought of them the other day while looking at images from the billionaire heiress Ivy Getty’s wedding, which featured flowergirls with butterfly wings, looking exactly like cutie-pie Victorian fairies. “It’s just like everything I could have dreamed of and more,” Vogue quotes Ivy Getty as saying. “So it’s wild when something so magical comes true because you’ve thought about it but didn’t actually think it would.” Magic does indeed still exist in a way, and dreams still come true in this world—just only if you, like Ivy Getty, are outrageously rich.
“In effect,” writes Silver, “[the Victorians and Edwardians] who asserted the fairies were actual rather than imaginary did so with a sense that their reality was a protest against sterile rationality, evidence that the material and utilitarian were not sole rulers of the world.” And here we start to understand what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was doing with the photographs, even if he went about it in absolutely the wrong way. If he could prove that the fairies were real, then it might prove that magic is still alive, that it isn’t all money and factories and overworked human beings whose minds have become machines. It might mean that the world still lives, and we haven’t destroyed it yet. Silver refers to an encounter that the folklorist William Sharp claimed to have had with an informant who knew the fairies. “‘They’re not dead,’” the informant reportedly told Sharp. “‘They think we are. They do not change.’”
It’s a terrifying thought: that we are the ones who are dead, living in a dead world, unable to imagine anything other than money and cruelty and hierarchy and work, endless work. Unable, even in our erotic fantasies—which should be the most fertile ground of our imagination—to picture much else besides kindly billionaire bosses. Even the once-ubiquitous animal bride story has devolved into the mechanical: the independent, more-than-human woman has become a robot, an A.I., or a replicant: a machine elf, in another sense. In her highest form, the robot bride takes the noncorporeal form of an A.I. (see Lucy, Her, the holographic girlfriend in Blade Runner 2049), safely removed from a gross, natural body. “Once out of nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing,” wrote William Butler Yeats, another believer in fairies. We have fallen out of nature, and all we see are machines.
But of course, not every culture believes in a dead, mechanized world. This is largely a problem of the West, and even then, not the entirety of the West. In Iceland, the second happiest nation on earth, superstitions still linger. The people of Iceland are cagey about their elf-belief, and a 2019 article in Iceland Magazine says that, despite polling to the contrary, nobody really believes in elves. “Having lived our whole lives in Iceland we have only ever met a handful of people who actually believe in the existence of elves. At the same time public opinion polls indicate otherwise. Perhaps the opinion polls are skewed by responses from hidden people?” (Yes, this answer is so cute I want to squeeze it, buy it, and take it home with me.) The authors go on to explain the problem with these polls: they ask only if people believe in elves, yes or no. “For many people the question is a bit more complex.” Yes or no is the wrong question, and naturally yields the wrong answer. Do you think the world is alive with possibility, or not? Is it all over? Is this the world as it is, as it always will be? Is endless work for bosses the best that we can expect?
As is often the case with any story about elves, meanings mutate and proliferate; what looks like a story about death and the dead, labor and loss, might be a story of liberation after all. Much of the time when DMT users perceive machine elves, the elves are merrily transforming, changing, and building. The elves may be mechanized, but they are not the mechanical made desperate. Their world isn’t a place of dead machines, or dead labor, but one where work is genuinely joyful, and creation is fun. What does it take to get there? Do we just need the right outfit? Or is it, like the breaking of any spell, just a question of belief?
Max Alvarez once wrote for this magazine about labor, and how the world that underlies this one—the one that supplies the shiny, cutesy, Christmas overworld with pretty objects and toys—feels like a land of the dead, an underworld. But if we are unmagically imprisoned in the land of the dead, by cold and boring money, then that means we can escape. It’s perilous out there, of course, and what we see may frighten and discomfit us, but what good is a magical world that isn’t a little bit scary?♦
Lyta Gold is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Protean and Current Affairs, and she hosts the podcast Art for the End Times on The Real News Network.