Originally, elves were creatures of ancient Norse myth, and they looked like slender, small versions of fair-skinned blond Scandinavian people. As tales of elves spread throughout cultures and then literature, their appearances became increasingly varied.
Elves are most commonly depicted as beautiful beings who can nearly pass as human, but with pointed ears, long slender features and bodies and long straight hair (generally light-colored but sometimes darker). Irish elves were quite different, with an enormous range of appearances from the small green-clad leprechaun or the hideous goblin to the Queen of Elfland, whose beauty is beyond that any mortal can withstand.
In modern literature, most elves are based on J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional elves. Tolkien, a scholar of ancient languages, based his elves on the supernatural beings described in the Norse Edda. These elves were described as luminous human-like beings more beautiful than the sun. Tolkien's elves, however, depart from the traditional view in that they are often dark haired and may not have had pointed ears. Literature, games and movies created after Tolkien's foundational fantasy works often ignored more ancient elvish origins in favor of a more human elf, cementing this template in literary tradition. When modern fictional elves depart from this pattern, they are often described as brownies, fairies and other related mythical creatures.