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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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steepholm steepholm
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Eerie Ears and Pointless Points
When young I associated pointy ears primarily with Mr Spock - although I see that Bram Stoker describes Dracula's too as being "extremely pointed", and that's reflected in most portrayals (it must admitted that Dracula's ears have been overshadowed by his teeth). The spitefully spiky pine elves who were the most frightening denizens of my youthful Rupert annuals had pointy ears, I suppose, but then everything about them was pointy.

That elves have pointy ears is one of those things everyone knows, and Peter Jackson has probably helped spread the meme further (there's an interesting discussion here about how and whether Tolkien himself intended his elves' ears to be pointed); but where does the idea originate? Certainly you can see examples in the work of Arthur Rackham and Cicely Mary Barker - but what about earlier artists? And is it purely an artistic convention, or does it have literary corroboration?

Would the players have been gluing points to their ears for the first performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream?

I have never seen a pointy eared Puck, but now that you mention it I wonder why

Ian Holm sported pointy ears as Puck at the RSC in 1962:


.... and again in 1968:


He definitely has the facial features and physique to go with them

Edited at 2015-02-14 06:41 pm (UTC)

Yes, there's definitely a drop or two of green blood in his veins. (Oh hang on, that's Mr Spock again...)

Ian Holm sported pointy ears as Puck at the RSC in 1962

I really like the look of that production.

(no subject) - grondfic, 2015-02-14 08:32 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sovay, 2015-02-14 08:35 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - grondfic, 2015-02-14 08:40 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - sovay, 2015-02-14 09:15 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - grondfic, 2015-02-14 10:11 pm (UTC)(Expand)
And is it purely an artistic convention, or does it have literary corroboration?

It's enough of a convention by 1923 that it turns up in L.M. Montgomery's Emily of New Moon:

In all else, he thought, she was like the Starrs—in her large, purplish-grey eyes with their very long lashes and black brows, in her high, white forehead—too high for beauty—in the delicate modelling of her pale oval face and sensitive mouth, in the little ears that were pointed just a wee bit to show that she was kin to tribes of elfland.

and is remarked on by other characters:

"I wanted this," said Emily, waving her farewell-summer.

"And you have it! Do you always get what you go after, even with death slipping a thin wedge between? I think you're born lucky. I see the signs. If that big aster lured you into danger it saved you as well, for it was through stepping over to investigate it that I saw you. Its size and colour caught my eye. Otherwise I should have gone on and you—what would have become of you? Whom do you belong to that you are let risk your life on these dangerous banks? What is your name—if you have a name! I begin to doubt you—I see you have pointed ears. Have I been tricked into meddling with fairies, and will I discover presently that twenty years have passed and that I am an old man long since lost to the living world with nothing but the skeleton of my dog for company?"

"I am Emily Byrd Starr of New Moon," said Emily, rather coldly. She was beginning to be sensitive about her ears.

She was beginning to be sensitive about her ears.


It does seem so well established by the early 20th century that it's hard to believe it's an invention of the late 19th.

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(no subject) - sovay, 2015-02-14 09:19 pm (UTC)(Expand)
The earliest illustrations that I've seen of Shakespeare's faerie plays don't show elves with pointed ears. Like this one, Thomas Stothard's Oberon and Titania (1806).

For that matter, Holinshed's Weird Sisters are not hags but sibyls.


True, that. I just had a look at Jones's sketches for Oberon, too, and the ears there appear wonderfully round. Drayton's "Nimphidia" makes no mention of ears at all.

Ah. Here's a Puck "after Sir Joshua Reynolds" with amazingly pointy ears. Very much in the satyr mode. Late 18th century.


Edited at 2015-02-15 05:55 am (UTC)

Indeed, I think you may have found the missing link between satyrs and elves. Call the Fortean Times!

Edited at 2015-02-15 08:16 am (UTC)

I always supposed it was something to do with improved hearing, possibly focusing noises from overhead (dragons?), but it may just be a minor erogenous zone, like detached earlobes.

Because most mammals have pointy ears, and elves go back to the early nature deities.


While pointed ears appear to have been the goat-ears of the satyr and tiny size goes back at least as far as Shakespeare, elfin features (pointed, drawn-out, unearthly) have a much more recent origin.

When Queen Victoria was a little girl, it was possible to see in London a little person billed as the Sicilian Fairy, exhibited by a man calling himself Doctor Gilligan. Only 19 inches tall, the Sicilian Fairy may have been Italian or Irish--she knew enough English to hold a conversation--and caused quite a stir in her old-fashioned costume with its Elizabethan ruff. Many wealthy people paid to visit her and paid the premium required in order to handle her like a doll. She dropped dead of "consumption" (almost certainly tuberculosis) while working.

The contradictory but in any case awful facts of her life only came out later. Her parents appear to have been working-class musicians, again either Italian or Irish, and they had entrusted her to Doctor (sic!) Gilligan with the understanding that he would take her to a better climate for her failing lungs. Instead he camped out in London and wrung as much money out of her as he could. She may have been nine years old; she may have been as young as three. Her father appeared after her death and pleaded to be allowed to bury his daughter decently, but her body had been sold by then and the anatomist who had bought it had him escorted from the premises. Her skeleton is still on exhibit.

I cite the above from my memory of a book about the lives of human sideshow exhibits whose title I unfortunately do not recall, with help from a potted biography at primordial dwarfism dot com. Pictures of little Caroline in her working costume are online, but only on sites that are still treating her as a freak,* so I won't link to them. But you know how some Victorian painters were the first to portray fairies with (ETA big eyes and) those long, pointed faces, with the lower half projecting outwards and downwards much more than is common (ETA: and those little delicate chins)? That's a form of primordial dwarfism** called Seckel Syndrome.** That's Caroline Crachami.

*Nitwits of today still burble on about "Sicilian Fairy Magic" and other exoticist woo.

**Don't Google these with image search unless you have a very strong stomach. Caroline Crachami was at one end of a spectrum that goes to some awful places.

Edited at 2015-02-17 04:20 pm (UTC)


I don't have a strong stomach at all, so I will refrain from Googling, but I'm grateful for the information. That's a very interesting line of enquiry, and I'm wondering too whether it may not lie behind some changeling stories. (And I feel very sorry for the children involved if so.)


Here's that portrait of Caroline Crachami in her exhibition costume I was talking about. This is at Find A Grave, without the freak-show talk.


Re: WARNING: DOWNER - steepholm, 2015-02-19 08:04 am (UTC)(Expand)
Re: WARNING: DOWNER - jenny_islander, 2015-02-19 03:32 pm (UTC)(Expand)