Are Elves and Fairies the same?
The short answer is that they have often interchangeable since the end of the Middle Ages and particularly since Victorian times. Indeed, there’s good evidence that J.R.R. Tolkien seriously considered calling the inhabitants of Rivendell fairies rather than elves but was deterred by some colleagues. (According to a Wikipedia entry, that was because of a growing association between the word “fairy” and homosexuality, although that seems a silly reason to me, given the fact that fairies had long been beloved creatures in the folklore of the world.)
The long answer is more complicated. Originally, fairies and elves were culturally distinct creatures with different personalities. Elves originated in Northern Europe in German (Teutonic) and Scandinavian (Norse) cultures. Over the centuries they evolved into grumpy, mischievous, and even sinister creatures. Indeed, that’s what they were when they were introduced into Celtic culture by invading tribes from Europe (such as the Vikings and the Saxons).
But the Celtic concepts of elves and fairies also had other influences. According to the Rev. Charles Rogers – a former historiographer to the Historical Society of Great Britain – the early Celts came into contract with Persian mythology, presumably through commerce. That mythology included a creature called a “peri” (which, again according to Rogers, is pronounced “fairy” in Arabic). Although the peri were said to be fallen angels (and thus were originally somewhat evil), they evolved into creatures that were kindly and helpful. In that respect – and in the fact that they were ethereal and had wings – they obviously differed from elves. Yet they were similar to elves in that they occupied a position in Creation that was above that of man.
So at least according to Rogers, the Celtic concept of fairies evolved from both Northern European and Persian-Oriental influences. Of course, scholars since Rogers’ time (he lived in the Victorian era) have had some very different theories about the origin of Celtic fairies. The issue is further complicated by the fact that there’s no universal concept of either an elf or a fairy. For example, Thistle – the heroine of The Never King – is clearly a fairy, yet she doesn’t fly around on gossamer wings. Although wings are almost a requirement for a fairy in modern Western culture, it wasn’t always that way. Indeed, wings became closely associated with fairies only in Victorian and Edwardian times. (Think Tinkerbell in James Barrie’s Peter Pan.)
By the way, if you wish to get a vivid look at “life and manners” in Scotland (and in Great Britain as a whole) during the last few centuries, I can strongly recommend Rev. Roger’s Scotland: Social and Domestic. It is chock full of anecdotes and personalities that would otherwise be lost to history and it really brings the past alive in a way that no history book can. If you’re at all curious, look it up on Google Books and just scan the Table of Contents to see if you’re interested. Personally, I used the chapters on folklore and superstition for The Gudeman’s Croft – the sequel to The Never King and the second book in The Keeper of the Wood trilogy.