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Journal of English Philology

Ed. by Kornexl, Lucia / Lenker, Ursula / Middeke, Martin / Rippl, Gabriele / Zapf, Hubert

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Elves on the Brain: Chaucer, Old English, and elvish

Alaric Hall1


Citation Information: Anglia - Zeitschrift für englische Philologie. Volume 124, Issue 2, Pages 225–243, ISSN (Print) 0340-5222, DOI: 10.1515/ANGL.2006.225, December 2007

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Because Chaucer, through the mouthpiece of Harry Bailey, described himself as elvish in line 703 of the prologue to The Tale of Sir Thopas, the precise meanings of the Middle English word elvish have attracted a fair amount of commentary. Besides a reassessment of previous work by J. A. Burrow in 1995, the word has recently enjoyed a thorough consideration by Richard Firth Green. Green emphasised that to understand the reference in the prologue to Sir Thopas, we must also consider the semantics of elvish elsewhere in Chaucer's work, in lines 751 and 842 of The Canon's Yeoman's Tale. He argued further that Chaucer's usage of elvish is liable to have drawn connotations from the meanings of its root elf – and ably elucidated these. However, some useful evidence for the meanings of elvish has been passed over. One revealing Middle English attestation remains to be adduced. Moreover, Old English attests once to elvish's etymon ælfisc, as well as to another adjectival derivative of the elf-word, ylfig. The evidence of these Old English words is more complex, but also more revealing, than has been realised. Taken together, this new evidence affords new perspectives on the history of elvish, on what it may have meant to Chaucer, and on the significance of elves in medieval English-speaking cultures. In particular, while Chaucer doubtless kept elves in mind as he used elvish, in ways which Green's research illuminates, the word seems certainly in Old and Middle English to have had developed senses not strictly related to its literal meaning, along the lines of ‘delusory’, while the apparent sense of elvish in the prologue to Sir Thopas, ‘abstracted’, finds parallels in the Old English ylfig.

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