I love reading the comments on KYL. Sometimes you guys have some really great ideas, and sometimes you guys know just where to poke a hole in whatever fanciful theory I've got out for discussion -- but by and large, it's just nice to see people asking questions and thinking. The bonus to having comments, however, is that I can see where people are confused and put together something to straighten it all out. The subject today is elven evolution -- the difference between the night elves, blood elves, high elves, Highborne, Shen'dralar, quel'dorei, sin'dorei and all those other terms thrown out there that make the simple process of figuring out where all those elves originated incredibly confusing. Elven evolution is fairly straightforward; it's just the extra terminology that throws people.
All elven ancestry starts with the kaldorei, which means "children of the stars" in their native tongue. These guys are night elves, and they are the first elves that ever existed and the elves from which all elven ancestry on Azeroth originates. Don't think of them exactly the same as the night elves we can play in Warcraft today, but as a slightly older version, though they looked virtually the same. Malfurion, Illidan, Tyrande, Azshara ... All of these elves were descendants of the original kaldorei.
Where the kaldorei came from is up in the air, though there are multiple theories. The night elves believe that the kaldorei were originally their own race, a primitive group of nomadic, nocturnal creatures who settled by the Well of Eternity and were blessed by Elune, transformed and subsequently adopting the name kaldorei. Ancient troll legends suggest that those nomads who settled by the Well of Eternity were actually trolls that were turned into the first kaldorei. This is where the crux of that argument about the elves' origins stems from. The elves believe that the primitive group of nomads were simply early elves who hadn't evolved into "proper" elves yet, and the trolls believe that the primitive group of nomads were actually primitive trolls who split off from the Amani Empire.
There were kaldorei that practiced these arcane arts that were not technically quel'dorei -- Illidan Stormrage being a notable exception. He was a kaldorei, but he wasn't really one of those upper classes who were favored by Queen Azshara. There were presumably others who fell under that description -- kaldorei who simply weren't from the upper classes, yet still chose to delve into the arcane arts rather than devote their lives to Elune.
Recap #1: Okay, we have the kaldorei. The kaldorei is the only race of elves at this point, and the quel'dorei is a just another name for a section of that race, the ones that were supposedly "special" according to their class status in society. That's the only difference between these guys: rank in society. Other than that, they're all kaldorei. The common term for kaldorei is "night elves."
But some of the quel'dorei escaped, horrified at Azshara's actions, and followed Malfurion and the others to Hyjal, where Illidan attempted to make another Well of Eternity. He was imprisoned for this, and arcane magic, the magic of the quel'dorei, was banned, punishable by death if practiced. The dragon Aspects created the World Tree, Nordrassil, and charged the kaldorei with watching over the new Well of Eternity to make sure the events of the War of the Ancients didn't come to pass again. As part of the World Tree, the kaldorei were granted immortality.
Not all of the surviving quel'dorei went with Malfurion, however, and not all of them sank beneath the ocean. There was a secret faction of Azshara's quel'dorei known as the Shen'dralar that was thought to have perished with Azshara and the rest; instead, they were just fine. These quel'dorei lived in Eldre'Thalas, the capital city of the quel'dorei of the time, and did not spend their days in Zin-Azshari, which was the capital city where Queen Azshara dwelled.
While Zin-Azshari sunk to the depths of the ocean when the Sundering hit, Eldre'thalas simply got shoved far, far to the south and is currently known as Dire Maul. The Shen'dralar still exist down there, and look just like night elves -- because they are night elves. They're just night elves that are part of that special rank known as quel'dorei.
Recap #2: All elves at this point are still kaldorei, or night elves. There are a section of night elves called the quel'dorei, but they are for all purposes one and the same as the kaldorei we know today; it's just the name that is different. Some of these quel'dorei sank into the ocean and became naga, Azshara included. Some were transformed by the Burning Legion into satyr. Some went with Malfurion Stormrage and the rest of the night elves. And some survived in secret in Eldre'Thalas to the south.
These quel'dorei eventually banded together, and in an effort to try and show the rest of the kaldorei race the power of the arcane, unleashed a magical storm upon Ashenvale. The kaldorei were less than impressed, and though the law stated that these quel'dorei should be executed for their actions, Malfurion and the others couldn't bear to end the lives of so many of their kaldorei brethren, so they were merely exiled. These quel'dorei, led by Dath'Remar Sunstrider, set sail across the ocean and landed on the shores of the Eastern Kingdoms -- thousands of years before the humans had set up any of the kingdoms we see today.
Once on the Eastern Kingdoms, something happened. The distance was too great for the elves to receive the immortality granted by Nordrassil, the World Tree, and they were so far away from the life-giving energy of both it and the Well of Eternity that they physically changed. They shrank in height, their skin lightening to the peach hue of that of the humans, and they were now vulnerable to the elements. These elves, once kaldorei, had physically changed into what we now know as high elves.
Recap #3: Now we have two physically different species of elves. The kaldorei remained on the continent of Kalimdor, along with the leftover quel'dorei secretly making their home in Dire Maul. Then we've got the high elves who are living in the Eastern Kingdoms and physically different from the kaldorei -- they are now their own species, descended from the original kaldorei. Keep in mind that the high elves still call themselves quel'dorei, despite having physically changed into a different race.
When Arthas and the Scourge attacked Quel'Thalas, the high elves scattered even farther. Some remained behind to fight. Others scattered to various parts of the world, which is why you see high elves here and there in places like the Hinterlands. The majority of those who fought at Quel'thalas during the Third War died -- approximately 80% of the high elven population. Not only did Arthas succeed in destroying the Sunwell, he also killed Kael'thas' father Anasterian, the leader of the high elves at the time, and almost managed to wipe out the high elf population completely.
Kael'thas returned to Quel'thalas and his people and renamed them blood elves in homage to the elves that gave their lives trying to protect the Sunwell. During the course of his lifetime, Kael'thas sought out a way to "cure" the addiction his people were suffering from -- the same sort of addictive withdrawal that they'd experienced when the original Well of Eternity was destroyed. While seeking out a cure, he was taught how to siphon magic from various sources to "feed" the addiction, something that he then passed on to his people. One of the best sources for this was demonic energy. This fel magic is what causes the blood elves' eyes to glow green with demonic fire. It's been stated in the Warcraft Encyclopedia that the high elves and blood elves are physiologically the same race.
Recap #4: Still only two different species of elves here. We've got the kaldorei of Kalimdor, or night elves, and the quel'dorei of Kalimdor -- who are still night elves but with a different name. Then we have the quel'dorei of the Eastern Kingdoms, or high elves, a separate race. These high elves have split into two factions, quel'dorei (high elves) and sin'dorei (blood elves). The sin'dorei and the quel'dorei of the Eastern Kingdoms do not get along at all, because the sin'dorei have willingly taken up playing around with demonic energy, something that is pretty abhorrent to any quel'dorei who remembers what the Burning Legion did to Azeroth.
Now we're going to throw a wrench in the works. The term "Highborne" is often used to describe any number of elves, which also generates a heck of a lot of confusion. "Highborne" is simply "quel'dorei" in Common, the language used by the Alliance. Azshara and her followers, the quel'dorei that practice arcane magic, were "Highborne." The "quel'dorei elite" who lived with her in the palace are often referred to as "Highborne elite." The other confusing part of this is that there are two different species of elves using the name "quel'dorei" now. The high elves of the Eastern Kingdoms use it, and the elves of the Shen'dralar down in Dire Maul still use it, despite being kaldorei. Throw in the added confusion of the term "night elf" being used interchangeably with "kaldorei," and you've got yourself a whole mess of terminology.
What should be remembered is that there are only two different species of elves: kaldorei and high elves. Night elf = kaldorei, high elf = quel'dorei, blood elf = sin'dorei, and high elf = blood elf, save the name change and the eye color (which is due to the blood elves' feeding on demon magic). The exception to the high elf = quel'dorei rule are the Shen'dralar, who simply use the term "Highborne" or "quel'dorei" to refer to themselves as a title. They're still kaldorei as a species -- aka night elves.
Still confused? Sometimes I am too -- which is why I made a chart. Colorful charts always help!
Hopefully, this primer helped clarify the somewhat confusing evolution of elves in Warcraft history and answered some questions along the way!