Haven't you ever wondered where all our fairytales' characters come from? We could think that they're only a product of our imagination, yet it's more likely that it wasn't actually so, and that the myriad of the fantastical creatures that fill our folklore were, as a matter of fact, based on actual people of flesh and blood. At least, that seems to be the case with the little elves that starred in some of our favorite children's stories.
Although elves have been in the folklore of the western world throughout centuries, the syndrome which may have inspired their creation was only named and studied until the twentieth century. It is a genetic anomaly caused by a shortage of 25 genes, among them the one that carries elastin. When it was first discovered during the fifties, it was named the "elfin face syndrome" due to the fact that the people who are born with this condition share a lot of physical traits with the mythical characters from our beloved fairytales, however, throughout the years, specialists have opted for the more scientific term, Williams Syndrome.
The similarities between people with Williams and our representations of elves are overwhelming. First of all, most of their facial features are pointed: ears, chins, and noses. Besides that, they also have really expressive wide smiles. Secondly, it's not only because of their physical traits that people with Williams have been considered the source of inspiration for the creation of elves. They are also related to them due to their lightness of spirit and how musical they are. According to the Williams Syndrome Association, people with this condition are exaggeratedly friendly, funny, and have an acute sense of hearing that often develops into great musical skills, just like the charming fairytale characters. However, they also present several impediments for their physical and intellectual development. While we could pinpoint the contrasts and similarities, what is interesting is how fairytales have been used in the past to describe an array of disabilities or health conditions.
In Germanic and Nordic folklore, elves were considered benevolent beings. However, during the Middle ages they started to be portrayed as wicked and strange creatures, sometimes seen as baby snatchers. According to biologist Howard Lenhoff, this representation may actually have been a sort of sublimation of the genetic disorder; placing elfishness as the demon-like reason that caused the genetic mutation. An example of this comes later on, during the nineteenth century, with the tale of Rumplestiltskin by the Grimm Brothers, where an evil elf strikes a deal by singing a song to a beautiful daughter of a miller where he promises that all the straw she spins will turn into gold on the condition that in exchange she hands over her first-born child.
Since the birth of the gods to explain natural phenomena, it shouldn't come as a surprise that our society viewed people with a genetic disorder as magical beings. Thanks to science, today we can explain these conditions and we know that they're caused by a rare combination of genes. Centuries ago, people would have viewed with suspicion these physical differences and attributed them to some sort of magic.
Most fairytales and stories that are passed down from generation to generation have used narratives as a way to understand things that deviate from the norm. Disability has always been subject to this narrative and in countless tales characters must overcome a certain disability to find true happiness, an outdated premise that continues to echo in our cultura conscious. Disabilities in fairytales are either used to ostracize or show that virtue can be found beyond a façade. In many cases, disability is a punishment that is given to characters that misbehave, a perfect example? Well Cinderella's step sisters lose their eyes, as these are gouged out by birds, and in some versions of the tale they lose their toes as well in their desire to make their feet fit the dainty glass slipper. That is one side of the coin that shows disability as a punishment, on the other, it is shown as a façade that hides purity and virtue. Think, for example, Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre-Dame. After empathizing with Quasimodo and his plight, you see how your perception to disability changes, he's a character whose physical appearance hides a beautiful heart. We turn to stories because they give us explanations into concepts that we can't grasp with our senses. Some people might be scared of elves, others may consider them magical and pure beings. Our relationship to otherness is based on the stories that we're told and how we actually relate to them.
We have woven a world of fantasy around the things we don't understand. Now we can look beyond the narratives of old and see things clearly and without judgment. At the end of the day, elves are outsiders, they are creatures that live outside of our reality and this distance is a narrative that must be dismantled in today's world. We cannot look at the world through a certain lens only because our stories tells us to do so, nor can we place people in neat, tiny corners because it suits our own perception. I guess, at the end of the day, these historical flashbacks are a delightful way of seeing how we looked at the world in the past and our ignorance, and at the same time, it is equally disturbing because many of the attitudes we would think are outdated prevail to this day. People shouldn't live under the shadows of myths.
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Williams Syndrome Association