This review is intended to examine the development of representations of elves and fairies in British culture between the twelfth and the seventeenth centuries. It will argue that a very clear two-stage evolution in those representations can be found in literary sources, from an inchoate range found in different kinds of text, with no apparent collective identity, to a coherent sense of a kingdom, to which the common word ‘fairy’ could be applied, to an intense interest in, and discussion of, the nature of fairies. The first development occurred in the late middle ages, and the second after the Reformation, and both were pan-British phenomena. These literary changes were, moreover, paralleled at each stage, and perhaps responsible for, changes in perception in culture at large. The alterations in representations of these non-human beings, with no clear status in Christian theology, may have wider implications for an understanding of late medieval and early modern cultural history.