When young children, especially girls, wake from an evening's slumber with tangles and snarls in their hair, mothers with a tradition of fairy folklore might whisper to their daughters that they had caught fairy locks or elf-locks. Fairies, they say, tangled and knotted the hairs of the sleeping children as they played in and out of their hair at night.
- "She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes
- In shape no bigger than an agate stone.......
- That plaits the manes of horses in the night
- And bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs,
- Which once untangled, much misfortune bodes."
Therefore, the appellation of elf lock or fairy lock could be attributed to any various tangles and knots of unknown origins appearing in the manes of beasts or hair of sleeping children.
It can also refer to tangles of elflocks or fairy-locks in human hair. In King Lear, when Edgar impersonates a madman, "he elfs all his hair in knots."(Lear, ii. 3.) What Edgar has done, simply put, is made a mess of his hair.
See also Jane Eyre, Ch. XIX; Jane's description of Rochester disguised as a gypsy: "...elf-locks bristled out from beneath a white band..."
German counterparts of the "elf-lock" are alpzopf, drutenzopf, wichtelzopf, weichelzopf, mahrenlocke, elfklatte, etc. (where alp, drude, mare, and wight are given as the beings responsible). Grimm, who compiled the list, also remarked on the similarity to Frau Holle, who entangled people's hair and herself had matted hair. The use of the word elf seems to have declined steadily in English, becoming a rural dialect term, before being revived by translations of fairy tales in the nineteenth century and fantasy fiction in the twentieth.
- Batt, Tanya Robyn; Gail Newey (2002). A child's book of faeries. Cambridge, MA: Barefoot Books. ISBN 1841489549.
- Shakespear's "Lear"
- (Stallybrass tr.) Grimm 1883, vol. 2, p. 464
- Gary R. Butler, ‘The Lutin Tradition in French-Newfoundland Culture: Discourse and Belief’, in The Good People: New Fairylore Essays, ed. by Peter Narváez, Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, 1376 (New York: Garland, 1991), pp. 5–21.