Elf Rage?

Monday, May 4, 2009 - 4:18 PM

Over at the Burning Zeppelin Experience, there's some excellent talk about Elf Rage, which is something I've both seen and been part of.

I'll be clear. I don't hate elves, or even the concept of elves. I do have elves in my DnD game, and I would cheerfully include them in a fantasy novel. But I hate how they are usually portrayed, especially in modern fantasy literature, and particularly in RPGs. My primary reason for this is simple.

Elves are not humans.

I've touched on this topic before, but it bears repeating. One of the biggest problems in fantasy literature (particularly modern fantasy literature) is that non-human races are basically humans with some odd quirk or physical difference. They are often culturally very limited in comparison with humans, usually only with one basic social pattern ('we love nature' is a fine example). Though this makes a certain degree of sense with particularly long-lived races, as a culture might homogenize itself after a very long time, it's still not very likely. The one exception to that might be if the actual psychology of the race is different from the human norm, but we have already pointed out that in most examples, it Isn't. They act and react like humans, they follow basically human lives under a patina of carefully applied theme, and in most cases are even biologically similar to humans.

That said, my own Elf Rage is mitigated by my acceptance that elves are an archetype of their own. Whatever their depiction, the notion of these otherworldly, beautiful and ancient creatures is ever-present. You may call them something other than elves, and perhaps they have horns instead of pointed ears, but they are still in keeping with the elf archetype. Fantasy stories in particular are replete with the Fair Folk, even if only mentioned. People quickly grasp on to that archetype, and it has been present mythologically for ages. It's easily accessible at its heart, even if the peripheries are silly.

So, what do you do to make an elf separate from the aggravating tropes they've been connected with?

That's the hard part. I do with elves what I do with any non-human race. First I decide what fundamental mode of behavior is intrinsically different in them, and then I carom this facet off of the usual survival mechanisms to see how everything changes. Then I start fitting it into the world I'm placing them, and the rest tends to fall together. I should mention that I am a huge psychology/sociology/anthropology geek, so I have a lot of patterns in my head to play with, and a lot of questions I don't even consciously ask anymore. They just answer themselves eventually.
To make my elves accessible, I do keep a few of the standard concepts behind them, but the way I handle them are considerably different from what I've bumped into in my reading.

My own elves are latecomers. Humanity has been around a lot longer than they have, and one of the big keys to the elf world is that they are trying to understand humans and how they fit into the universe. The elven predecessors, the alfar, did not have a shape of their own. They Became whatever they wanted to be, and that was how they understood something. So, in the beginning, they were clouds and mountains and trees, and in all respects they were clouds and mountains and trees, existing as these things in order to know the greater whole. But then they saw that humans gave meaning beyond what was there, and this puzzled and intrigued them. To the alfar, fire was fire. You didn't need to explain it further than that. To a human, fire could meant security, safety, sometimes emotional warmth, passion, volatility or even anger.

The alfar were astounded, and thought that perhaps humans understood the world on a level that the alfar did not. They did not comprehend symbols at first, but they did what they had always done. They became the symbols in order to understand them. Most of the alfar broke into groups in order to study and meditate on these abstract human concepts, and carefully built themselves a new shape in order to learn. This would be the beginning of the elves, and the relation to human concepts is why elves appear somewhat human. As time went on, some alfar found themselves so deeply absorbed into their study that they lost the power to change again, and these were the first elves, grounded forever into the universe as humans were. Elves are still engaged in their attempt to understand humanity, though some have given up on the process. They've been companions to humanity since the beginning, and though neither really understands the other, humans will always find the elves fascinating and the elves are always drawn to humanity.

The alfar themselves are for the most part gone. Those who did not become elves left the world in shame and outrage because of the studies of one of their own, who found the human concept of corruption fascinating, and built a city to explore it. They leveled the city and departed, leaving behind only a handful of their own to watch over their now-lesser children.

I did keep many pieces of the old elf template. As you can see, I kept the Tolkienesque notion that the elves were connected to one of the world's great evils, innocently stumbling into something that consumed them. The elves do live a long time, but their lifespan depends strongly on what philosophy they were born from. Some only live as long as a human does. Also, this translation of elvenkind accounts for the notion that there must be many different kinds of elf, something that I was merely looking for a good way to explain. If humans have so many ethnicities, why not elves, after all?

So, here you have elves which are walking symbols. Unlike humans, elves really are stereotypes, whatever their personal differences in attitude and opinion. Some elves can always be counted on to be vindictive, for example, and some are always passionate and quick-tempered. It is part of what they are. Humans are amazed at the self-confidence and utter certainty of the elves, and elves wonder at the ever-changing nature of humanity with its shifting boundaries and mutable personalities. This isn't to say that elves do not change their behavior; they do. But elves don't have any illusions about who or what they are. Their illusions are in what they want to become.

This is one reason why the elves fell prey to themselves in the city of Uryashar, and why there are some branches of the elven race which are feared and despised to this day. And no, that wouldn't be the drow. But the drow are a topic for another day. Most of my Elf Rage is vested in that very specific subject.

So, do I support Elf Rage? To a degree, yes, it is justifiable. But all stories use archetypes, and elves have become just another archetype.

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At May 5, 2009 6:11 AM, Blogger tyra said...

you're a genius. it's really, really cool to watch your brain work--always, but especially when i have some idea what you're talking about b/c i can follow the references.

i'm also getting the impression from some of the things you're saying in this blog that maybe somewhere along the line you changed your mind about publishing...?


At May 5, 2009 9:36 AM, Blogger Carol Hanson said...

This is the difficulty, to find the stone of truth, the archetype, at the center of the nonsense. I think different people find different fragments of stone, too, but as long as they're from the right rock, something works. (The "great evil" means nothing to me, and not the extended life, but other parts resonate at the correct frequency.)

But now I'm really going to have to go into that drow tirade.


At May 5, 2009 10:03 AM, Blogger MCHossman said...

One thing that has always distressed me as a fan of fantasy novels is the almost immediate take on the writer to draw upon known civilizations to incorporate into their writing as a means of trying to make something unique. Sure, they'll come up with their own name for the civilization but the the japanese are still the japanese and arabs are still arabs no matter how many little tweaks the writer gives them. I could give a big crap-o-la to the names they use, it's the ideas that are important me.

Why don't writers go more for the fully created peoples or civilizations? Is it because they are partially writing to address the expectations that readers feel entitled to? Is it because they are falling back on the 'write what you know' mantra I've heard bandied about? I don't know, but it certainly seems like it is a status quo type of approach to writing 'new' things. Personally, I don't like it when I read a passage and think to myself, 'oh, these are the vikings of the world' and continue reading - but seldom are my perceptions ever proven wrong. This may be because of what it is I'm reading (and who) but then why is this the accepted norm?

You've shared this with me before but I admit to this passage as being clearer and more 'accurate' (?) than when we previously spoke. Before I felt I was finding inconsistencies but none of those are presented here.

As with elves, and to be honest I haven't thought of this before your passage here, their interactions with humans might very well be 'anthropolistic' in nature since there are many aspects of 'human culture' they don't have an intrinsic understanding of. That type of approach could very well be misinterpreted as haughtiness and smug from a race who is naturally ethnocentric and/or xenophobic. This also may give an added element to why the traditional 'humans and elves don't always get along' strain that run in so many fantasy settings/novels.

Always a pleasure, and sorry for taking up the space!


At May 5, 2009 11:11 AM, Blogger Montgomery Mullen said...

Tyra: Thank you so much! This is a topic I've thought a lot about, after all... and as for publishing, well, I'm working on it.

Carol: My rant about Drow will probably be posted here soon. Elf Rage! Your comment about different stones from the right rock is a good one. I think that the business of being connected to a 'great evil' is the inclusive notion that elves, being 'purer' beings in some way are therefore capable of being purely bad. Some would just say they are doing things better than we are, including being a bad person. As to the extended life... well, that's one of the more interesting facets of the elf archetype. I'll be talking about that next too.

Hossman! You know I like your commentary here, and I absolutely agree with your discontent regarding cultures in fantasy novels. Part of the problem is that it is actually a lot of hard work to develop a culture which is independent of cultural archetypes that you know. Again, if you are writing for an audience, you want them to be able to relate quickly to your story, and using a cultural archetype does help. Oddly, I'm going to reference Eddings here. Though he falls back on several cultural templates (Viking, Plains culture, etc), he has a couple examples of very interesting cultures. In particular, the Angaraks were very much their own creature despite being walking bad-guy caricatures, but there you saw how an author started with a racial God and fashioned a culture after a single personality.
That said, I find most fantasy authors don't exploit all the opportunities in fantasy settings for culture creation. You can keep realism enough to hook your reader, but the things you can do with environment and psychology are just amazing.
Your comments about elf behavior are something I'm going to touch on next entry, so I'll refrain from comment here. But I had similar thoughts; sometimes, elves in my world are mirrors and amplifiers of human behavior, and humans don't often understand that.


At May 5, 2009 7:53 PM, Blogger Carol Hanson said...

Followup: When I said that "long life" wasn't one of my touchstones, it's because I can imagine elves that still feel like elves even if they live no longer than humans. But I've realized that when I do, they're still part of a longer lived culture, with ancient knowledge passed down in a much stronger, more cohesive way than among humans. So that one I really do have to grant you. As for the "great evil"... it seems to be an archetype that there must have been a great evil in the past. If elves are longer lived, or at least their culture is, then they must have been around. Therefore, because they have more knowledge than humans, they must have been involved? But I'd accept that they were merely witnesses, powerless for some reason or other to intervene.


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