Born in Kisbacon, Transylvania (today Băţanii Mici, Romania), he studied in Székelyudvarhely (Romanian: Odorheiu Secuiesc) and later in Budapest. He went as a student with Job Sebesi to collect folklore elements. The result was a collection of Transylvanian tales, which was met with so much positive critique, that the young Elek Benedek cut short his studies. He worked at first as a journalist for Budapest Hírlap ("Budapest Newspaper") and for other newspapers.
He was a member of Parliament between 1887 and 1892. In his speeches he engaged in youth literature, folk poetry, folk language and public education.
In 1889 he founded, together with Lajos Pósa, the first Hungarian literary magazine for young people, Az Én Újságom ("My Magazine"). He was the editor of Jó Pajtás ("Good Fellow") with Zsigmond Sebők. He also edited a series of books for youth, called Kis Könyvtár ("Small Library"); this later appeared as Benedek Elek Kis Könyvtára ("Small Library of Benedek Elek"). In 1900 he joined the Kisfaludy Group, a group of famous Hungarian writers and poets. He also wrote poems, dramas, novels and historical fiction books, but the most famous were his fairy tales.
In 1885 the Székely Tündérország ("Szekler Fairy-land"), which contains the first original fairy tales from tha authors, appeared. Six years later, in 1891, the Székely mesemondó ("Szekler Storyteller") appeared. Benedek's biggest challenge was the Magyar mese- és mondavilág (World of Hungarian Tales and Legends), which appeared in 5 volumes between 1894 and 1896. This book was dedicated to the Hungarian Millenia.
After the Treaty of Trianon (which transferred sovereignty over Transylvania to Romania), he went back to his native village, Kisbacon, where he edited the youth magazine Cimbora ("Friend") until he died.