Last time we had a look at the tropes associated with dwarves in fantasy writing. We could not, therefore, go any further without looking at their counterparts and occasional rivals, elves.
Although the depiction of dwarves in modern media has been greatly influenced by Tolkien, he practically re-invented elves. Before Tolkien, the elf in folklore took various forms, from mischievous or helpful pixie (as in The Elves and the Shoemaker), to otherworldly beings like spirits or demons, to the hidden inhabitants of wild and mystical places (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). They were occasionally conflated with Germanic dwarf tropes, and sometimes blamed for sexual crimes, represented as being more akin to fairies than humans, and sometimes many of these at once. These are, in a sense, Classic Elf and, unlike Classic Dwarf, they are not the staple they once were. It is Tolkien’s reinvention which is the new fantastical norm, and from it we get the following, non-exhaustive list of tropes associated with elves in contemporary fiction:
- Ethereal or lean build
- Love of nature
- Love of magic
- Dislike of and historical rivalry with dwarves
- Flightiness or capriciousness
- Disdain for races with shorter lives
- Pointy ears
- Low fertility
- Opposition to a particular evil person/force/race
- Use of the bow and arrow
- Superior reflexes
- Delicate constitution
- Cannot grow beards
Much like the tropes associated with dwarves, these tropes have often been the staple of authorial shorthand and, like the dwarven tropes, are most interesting when interrogated.
Neo-Elf (which comes in both vanilla and cackling-with-unrestrained-evil flavours) is tall, superhuman, and (sometimes inexplicably) currently occupied with not ruling the known universe. There is no shortage of fiction which draws attention to an elf’s long life, and may even mention how that affects their psychology, but few really portray it in an interesting or believable way, thus missing the point of a device which was important to Tolkien’s narrative. In works which follow more closely in his footsteps, the decline of a long-lived people is often a central narrative theme, often alongside the decline of magic, the pointless grudges held by peoples with long memories, and so on. Neo-Elf is often also a competent sea-farer and a capable craftsman, although Neo-Elf industry is not interested in the technological themes present in Classic Dwarf. Neo-Elf creations tend to have an organic quality or, at least, to shy away from gritty forges or sterile laboratories. Even the weirder elves (drow, Age of Sigmar
elves alfs alfalfas aelfs) tend not to stray from these constraints.
The main problem with Neo-Elf, though, lies in the fact that most of their attributes are stated rather than shown. In particular, the angst about having or losing long life or immortality is always recreated as though it were a human experience. Thus, in Dragonlance and Warcraft we end up with what should be alien psychologies being easily understood. Treebeard did a better job of demonstrating an alien, long-lived psychology than Neo-Elf usually does. Likewise, despite having centuries to master (for example) warfare or magic or Thai cuisine, in these works, there are always, inexplicably, humans who can do it better.
Neo-Elf persists, despite how rickety it is. In your own writing, you may wish to consider what would actually happen if a society of effectively immortal, naturally talented wizards existed, and how that might be one of the driving forces in a setting, rather than a backdrop for plucky underdogs to explore.
Space Elf can usually be identified by a combination of psychic power, longevity, humanoid appearance, and technology so advanced that it is unclear how one would begin to interact with it. Thus, in addition to WH40k’s eldar and Starcraft’s protoss (pictured), Star Trek’s Vulcans and Romulans can also live here quite comfortably.
In many ways, Space Elf is better at exploring what Neo-Elf leaves unquestioned: Space Elf usually became dominant in its little corner of the universe, and then some disaster caused the fragmentation of empire, and all that is left is a dwindling remnant with an enormous chip on its shoulder, a chip that is quite understandable when, to Space Elf, memories of the Good Times(tm) are still fresh in his memory. Space Elf’s psychology is, therefore, often more truly alien. The Khala of the protoss is an obvious example, but the eldar farseers’ willingness to manipulate the “lesser” races of the galaxy to preserve what is left of their civilization is, although amoral and callous, at least somewhat understandable in the context of a galaxy in which no-one can just kiss and make up.
Elf Noir is the closest thing to a deconstruction elf tropes tend to get (although, of course, Pratchett does do the occasional turn: Lords and Ladies springs to mind). Where Elf Noir really shines, if you will pardon the mixed metaphor, is in exploration of precisely what Neo-Elf misses: what is the end-point of elf superiority? For Tolkien, the natural goodness of the elves prompts them to retreat from the world. In Warhammer and The Forgotten Realms, it is the need to have a game in which everyone is on a roughly equal footing which causes them to stick to their five square miles of wood.
elven aeflweiss aelfir longevity, magical aptitude, and superiority complexes have all combined to lead them to conquer and oppress. The stories therefore follow guerrillas (drow) who are leading a mostly futile resistance against their imperial overlords. Drow are given a more anthropomorphic personality which, on the one hand, undermines my point somewhat, but also provides are more sympathetic framework for the players, who can then choose whether to be pointy-eared gumshoes or a spider-worshipping mutants as they please, and not just because the spider goddess will lay eggs in their brains if they choose poorly.
Spire hints at what more contemporary fantasy should be doing: even by taking the standard, uninspired tropes above, elves have the capacity to be really weird and frightening, and it would be good to see more of that.
Elves in the Divinity universe are another example: they practise ritualized cannibalism and their tree-worshipping tendencies are at least in part because the trees is where some elf souls go after corporal death, spreading the gestalt consciousness of elven ancestor spirits throughout the forested world. This is a dark spin on the trope of elven isolationism: given their aloofness, it is no wonder that Divinity’s elves have a reputation for being bloodthirsty cannibals, even though said cannibalism is, in fact, a reflection of their natures (they can glean memories from flesh) which has cultural and spiritual ramifications.
Long-lived and prosperous
Elves are often reduced to stylish but mono-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, placeholders for reverence of nature whilst despising the less fortunate. Fiction is starting to do more interesting things with them, but there is still a glut of beige nonsense which needs to be dispersed before these tropes become well and truly exhausted.
What do you think? Are there any other kinds of elf out there? Any good examples that I missed? And which fantastic folks would you like me to discuss next time? Let me know in the comments below.