A humanoid race, elves are typically shorter than humans and have a slender, lithe build and pointed ears. Long ago, the elves were the dominant race on Thedas, and they lived in a civilization based on nature and magic. After the fall of their great city of Arlathan to the Tevinter Imperium and the subsequent generations of slavery, the elves lost most of their cultural heritage and identity. They attempted to rebuild their society in the Dales, only to watch that fall to the Chantry. Since then, their few numbers have been scattered all over Thedas in either forests as primitive nomads or in cities as impoverished outcasts, with little hope of recovery for their culture or their race. They’re now a people associated with poverty, crime, barbarism, and are often used as scapegoats for humanity’s difficulties. Humans use the term “knife ears” as a racial slur. Though most of the elven language has been lost, they once referred to themselves as “elvhen” or “the people”.
Elves of Thedas live no longer than humans, but elven legends state that this was not always the case. Once, they say, they were an immortal and magically talented race that lived in harmony with the natural world and followed the elven pantheon. The first shemlen (a term meaning “quick children” that was used by the ancient elves to describe the humans and denote their shorter lives) they encountered were tribals who came south from Par Vollen. The ancient elves grew friendly with humans, but soon discovered that breeding with humans produced only human babies, while exposure to the “quick children” caused the elves to quicken themselves. For the first time, elves began to age and die.
In fear, the elves withdrew from human contact. Unfortunately, the human tribals gave way to the Tevinter Imperium, who viewed the elves’ isolation as hostility and declared war in 981 Ancient. Elvhenan, the elven homeland, was besieged for six years, but was invaded when the magisters used blood magic to sink the elves capital city of Arlathan into the ground, never to be seen again. As a result, elven survivors were enslaved and evidence of their culture was lost. The elven people lost their immortality and their gods forsook them. The exact details of the war are lost to history.
Elven slaves, under Shartan’s leadership, were among the most fervent supporters of the prophetess Andraste’s uprising against the Tevinter Imperium. The elves joined Andraste in her quest to depose the Tevinter magisters in 1020 TE, and they were rewarded for their loyalty by being granted land in the Dales upon Andraste’s victory. They called their journey to their new homeland the Long Walk. Many perished on the way, some even turned back to the Tevinter, but most continued the walk.
In the Dales, the elves created a second elven homeland and began to restore the lost lore and culture of Elvhenan, including the worship of their former gods. They build their first city, and became isolated from other races. For some years, humans loyal to Andraste’s memory respected their elven allies. But over the generations and as the Chant of Light and the religion of the Maker spread throughout human nations, the diplomatic relationships between the Dales and surrounding human nations turned cold, as the elves refused to be converted while historians speculate this hostility began when the Dalish refused to aid the humans in the Second Blight. Humans claim the war with the elves began when a small elven raiding party attacked the nearby human town of Red Crossing in 2:9 Glory, leading to the Chantry eventually calling an Exalted March against the elves when they had captured Montsimmard and besieged Val Royeaux, claiming they had been attacked by the Dales. The Dalish claim templars invaded the Dales after the elves kicked out Chantry missionaries from their sovereign territory.
As the Dales fell, the elves were forced to abandon their second homeland, and their culture was torn even further from them. Many elves accepted the terms of their human aggressors, going to live in alienages inside human cities and worshipping the Maker.
Though overall treatment varies kingdom to kingdom, city elves are universally held as second-class citizens. Elves are unable to join most legal organizations like the Chantry, and the law often shows a blind eye to their woes. Slavery of elves is still legal in the Tevinter Imperium and there’s a lucrative demand for elven slaves along with servants for nobles.
Having been heavily discriminated by humans for so long, most city elves try to hold onto their remaining heritage. Artifacts from Arlathan like the vhenadahl (literally, “tree of the People”) and an abiding deep pride in their close-knit communities bolster city elves trying to make ends meet in an otherwise hostile world. As such, elves that leave the alienage and try to enter human society are heavily looked down upon.
Those elves who resisted became the nomadic Dalish, maintaining the worship of the elven gods and continuing their efforts to recover the lost culture of Elvhenan. They lead nomadic lives, wandering throughout Thedas. Their clans date back to the ruling clans of the Dales and the Dalish themselves are their descendants.