Time and time again in illustrations fairies are shown to have pointed ears and this dates back to the early modern woodcuts when fairies are first made into works of art: take for example the small image of Robin Goodfellow below which almost certainly dates to the late sixteenth century.
Where does this notion of pointy eared fairies come from? There are two, related answers to the question. The first is that, in antiquity, centaurs and, most importantly Pan, were shown as part animals, and as such they often had pointed ass or donkey ears. The image here is from the fourth century BC.
The second is that, with the rise of Christianity, and the death of the pagan world Pan and his fraternity were, quite literally, demonized. Demons in medieval art were portrayed as having pointed animal ears that went together perfectly with the cloven goat hoof of the devil.
The fact then that fairies are shown with pointed ears is hardly a compliment, at least it wasn’t in the sixteenth century when any Christian would understand the implication all too well. But by the nineteenth century pointy ears were just part of fairy uniform: though many more ‘realistic’ artists avoided the touch. In the twentieth-century Tolkien did not perhaps have a clear idea about elves’ ears in Middle Earth. But cartoons and films of his universe leapt at the chance of a cheap and a useful symbol of difference. Then there is Spock, a science fiction elf…
And by now pointed ears for a fantasy or offworld creature is almost a reflex.
And perhaps most curiously – what would Pan, St Augustine or, for that matter, Tolkein have had to say about this?! – ear sculpting..