Posts tagged ‘elves’

Monday Masterclass: Non-human Races in Fantasy

A few weeks ago I wrote about elves in some detail, but this week’s Monday Masterclass is an overview of all non-human races in fantasy fiction (and when I say ‘all’, I mean the ones I can think of an find reference to on the internet).

Definition

The term ‘non-human race’ should be pretty clear, but let me make it explicit. What I’m talking about here are creatures that resemble humans in form and intelligence, but are not human. Science fiction and fantasy are full of such humanoids. In sf, these beings’ existence s explained by their having evolved on their own home planets in parallel to humans on Earth (although they may be genetically related by their respective planets having been ‘seeded’ by genetic material aeons ago.

In fantasy, human-like species are generally created – either by gods or by other races.

However, sf and fantasy races are often portrayed in similar ways. Non-human races often have a particular characteristic that defines their whole race – they may be war-like or rustic or wise. Where most people would appreciate humans as a race of great diversity containing many contradictory traits, fantasy races are often personifications of a single characteristic.

Another commonality is that, while any given story may have non-human races in – maybe a great variety of such races and with a great number of non-human individuals – fantasy (and science fiction) stories rarely focus on such races or individuals; generally, it is always humans, humanity and human concerns that form the heart of genre fiction. This is probably due to the fact that readers and viewers can more readily empathise with humans than with other races.

Common Races

Humans
All right – this Masterclass is entitled ‘Non-human Races in Fantasy’, but we can better appreciate such species if we understand humans’ place in fantasy literature. Humans, as I’ve said, are usually the protagonists. They are also generally the most widespread, populous and successful race. I suggested that this may simply be due to humans making better characters for your average reader, but you can’t ignore the possibility that its simple anthropocentrism – even racism. Related to this latter point is the fact that much fantasy is set in a quasi-European environment with Caucasian heroes.

Elves
In the Tolkien tradition (which derives from the Norse tradition), elves are wise, beautiful, rather standoffish beings who are in tune with nature and magic. They often represent the very best qualities that people might aspire to: beauty, skill, wisdom, long life/immortality. In Victorian tradition, they are seen more as diminutive trouble-makers. Terry Pratchett made them distinctly malign predators in his Discworld story Lords and Ladies. J K Rowling had rather pathetic, servile elves in her Harry Potter books.

Dwarves
Dwarves, in Norse mythology, may have originally been a variety of elves (svart alfar or black elves) who lived underground and were skilled makers of things – weapons and other artefacts. In most fantasy fiction, dwarves are thick-set, but short – of a height between humans and halflings. They are skilled miners, stone-workers and smiths. They are famous for wearing beards – even the women, according to Tolkien. They are also fierce warriors.

Hobbits/Halflings
Hobbits are a race of short people that appear in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They are, on average, only three and a half feet tall, live in a rural idyll and very much enjoy home comforts such as good food. They are a silmple, conservative folk, but ultimately (as evidence by Bilbo, Frodo and the rest) extremely resilient. They are technically humans, being a distant, diminutive branch of that race. While, in terms of literature, they may be exclusive to Middle Earth, they are common in gaming, where they are known (for legal reasons) as halflings.

Orcs
Orcs are a race of ugly, green- or black-skinned humanoids that are generally about the size of a human, although very muscular. They are violent and unsophisticated and generally evil. In Tolkien, they were created by Morgoth (possibly from captured elves) to be evil foot-soldiers. Later depictions of orcs retain their barbaric qualities, but make them less intrinsically malign.

Goblins
Goblins are a diminutive and ugly humanoid race similar to early modern and Victorian depictions of elves (and numerous other fey creatures). They appear in folk tales of many traditions and may have their origins in Hindu literature. Traditionally, they had some magical abilities. In Tolkien, ‘goblin’ is a synonym for ‘orc’. In gaming, goblins are evil creatures bearing a similar relationship to orcs as halflings do to humans.

Giants
Giants are humanoids of great size and strength and have featured in myths and folk tales from many cultures. Mythical giants are often one of the earliest sentient species to have arisen and, as such, have wisdom, but are also antagonistic towards the gods. Fairy tale giants – as in Jack and the Beanstalk – are rather stupid, selfish creatures. The giants of of Stephen R Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are friendly, valiant and wise. In gaming, giants are usually presented only as monsters.

Trolls
Trolls are large, ugly creatures from Norse mythology. They are generally unpleasant and stupid and have featured in many fairy tales, in The Hobbit and in roleplaying games.

Dragons
Dragons were the subject of my very first Monday Masterclass. They – and similar creatures – have been around in mythology and folklore for a long time; Western dragons are usually monsters, while Eastern dragons are usually wise benefactors of mankind. In fantasy, they are a commonly occurring species – although often they lack sentience, and are therefore outside the scope of this article. The dragons of Middle Earth are intelligent servants of evil; other writers have much more sympathetic dragons. Dragons are perhaps the only widely represented non-humanoid sentient race.

Works with Non-human Races

The Wheel of Time
Robert Jordan’s epic series contains a few non-human races, but they are either evil, rare or inhabitants of other dimensions. The evil ones include the Trollocs (which appears to be a portmanteau of troll and orc); these are the orc-equivalents of the world known as Randland and were made from crossbreeding humans and animals. They are taller than humans and have various bestial qualities such as boar heads, hawk heads, goat legs and so on. They are organised in a number of clans.

Their direct masters are a race called Myrddraal, which are Trolloc offspring who resemble their human ancestors. Myrddraal, or Fades, are pale-skinned, eyeless men in appearance and are excellent swordsmen. There is a kind of psychic bond between Myrddraal and Trollocs, so that if a Fade is killed, the Trollocs bound to it suffer debilitating agony.

Ogier are a tall, long-lived race that could be characterised as a cross between elves and giants, with a few dwarf traits thrown in. They grow to about nine or ten feet tall and a 90-year-old Ogier is considered a youth. They have broad mouths and long tufted ears. They love trees and live in magical, localised forests called Stedding; however, they are also legendarily skilled masons and buildings created by them have organic curves. They are reclusive and peaceful, but in the past were known as fierce warriors.

The Eelfinn and Aelfinn are humanoids that have fox-like and snake-like characteristics respectively. They exist other worlds and can only be reached through using magical items. They are difficult to deal with and understand and make bargains with humans that have unforeseen consequences – much like elves of folklore, from which their names appear to be derived.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Steven Erikson’s ten book series (and Ian Cameron Esslemont’s companion books) feature many intelligent, non-human races – which fact illustrates its origin as a roleplaying game setting. They can be divided into various categories.

The invading or foreign races are one that are not native to the world of the Malazan Empire, but originate in the warrens, realms of magic. There are the Tiste Andii, The Tiste Edur and Tiste Liosan – from the realms of Darkness, Shadow and Light respectively. The Tiste races are tall, long-lived and have Asian-like eyes. Their names and origins resemble the original Norse elven races. The fourth foreign race is the Eleint – dragons.

The founding races are native to the world of the Malazan Empire and created civilisation. The Forkrul Assail are an extremely strong, long-lived and quick-healing race that are taller and thinner than humans and have more joints in their bodies. They are famous for adjudicating conflicts by means of killing everyone involved. The Jaghut are another near-immortal race that live in icy environments and are taller and wider than humans and have tusked lower jaws.

The K’Chain Che’Malle are one of the non-humanoid intelligent races in fantasy. They are similar in appearance to bipedal dinosaurs and are divided into two races, long-tails and short-tails – the latter being an engineered race. The K’Chain Che’Malle were the first civilised race in the world. The Imass are a race similar to humans but with golden skin and amber eyes, high cheek bones and heavy brows. They warred with the Jaghut for millennia and eventually made themselves into immortal undead beings in the Ritual of Tellann, becoming the T’lan Imass. The Imass were the ancestors of other races, including the Barghast, Moranth, Trell and humans.

Finally, the Thel Akai were a race of giants that gave rise to the Thelomen Toblakai and other larger than human races.

Orc Analogues

Many works of fantasy have some sort of race that is equivalent to the Orcs of Middle Earth. The Wheel of Time has Trollocs, R Scott Bakker’s The Second Apocalypse meta-series has sranc – engineered, lithe, bestial humanoids that enjoy killing and even raping the open wounds of their victims. Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series has the Shanka, a brutal, bestial warrior-hunter race. The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay has urgach and svart alfar, which appear to be direct analogues of orcs and goblins from Tolkien (Kay worked with Christopher Tolkien on putting together The Silmarillion, so it’s inevitable he drew some inspiration from the creator of Middle Earth).

Fantasy is the literature of good versus evil; these primeval forces require avatars to carry out their ends. On the side of good, we have humans (we like to think), elves, dwarves and so on. The nature of the conflict may be magical or metaphysical in many respects, but, often, it is purely physical. Warfare on an epic scale between humans or beings that closely resemble them on the one hand, and creatures that are morally and physically twisted approximations of humanity on the other, is a mainstay of fantasy stories.

While the presence of intrinsically evil races is a common trope, it also raises certain questions about racism. In as much as the races mentioned above have some intelligence, is it realistic – dare I say fair? – to depict every single individual as irredeemably evil and thus fit for nothing but being hacked to pieces by a hero? Monolithic characterisations of good versus evil arguably reinforces a tribal, us versus them mentality. Stan Nicholls’s First Blood series is rare exception to the rule and reverses the common image to have a band of orcs fighting against humans to save their civilisation.

Conclusion

When used well, non-human races can give a work of fantasy extra colour and vitality, mystery and authenticity. When used poorly, they can be little more than a rehashing of stereotypes. The best fantasy writers tend to use non-human races sparingly, but when they do, they think carefully about the races’ role and history in the world they’ve created. The best non-human races are those that are distinctive, having an alien quality – maybe a subtle one – that differentiates them from both humans and from other non-humans.

These days, it’s difficult to use any of the standard fantasy races (elf, dwarf, orc, goblin) unless you do something vastly different with them. Standard depictions are mostly the province of roleplaying and computer games. On the other hand, being too original can also be a danger – the races can become alienating if their psychologies are difficult to understand – especially if such creatures are fully fledged characters rather than sword-fodder.

And having a race whose sole duty is to be sword-fodder raises other potential problems – if they are intelligent enough to make and use weapons, why aren’t they intelligent enough to form societies, have diplomatic relations with others, have a moral system? The nature of good and evil is a key element of this, and it requires careful consideration of how good and evil forces interact with the world and with each other.

What important non-human races have I left out? What are your favourites (or even least favourites)? What are your thoughts on the subject of non-human races in fantasy?

Monday Masterclass: elves

This week I look at elves – their real-world origins in myths and folk tales, and how they’ve been portrayed in various works of fantasy.

Etymology

The word ‘elf’ comes from the Old English ‘ælf‘, which ultimately probably comes from a Proto-Indo-European root of ‘albh-‘, meaning ‘white’ (also the root of the Latin ‘albus‘). The Germanic word ‘Alp‘, meaning ‘incubus’, is also related to it – it survives in German in the word ‘Alptraum‘ – ‘nightmare’.

The word ‘elf’ is present in various Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian names. ‘Alfred’ means ‘elf-counsel’; ‘Alvin’ means ‘elf-friend’ (and ‘Gandalf’ – the name of a dwarf in the Norse Edda – means ‘wand-elf’). The word ‘oaf’ is a variant of ‘elf’ and used to mean ‘a changeling’ or ‘a foolish child left by the fairies’.

Norse Elves

The elves of Norse mythology were similar to humans in appearance, except for being more beautiful. They were semi-divine beings, possessing supernatural powers. They come in three – or maybe two – or maybe just one type. There are ljósálfar – ‘light elves’, the ‘true’ elves; there are also references to dökkálfar (‘dark elves’) and svartálfar (‘black elves’). These latter may be the same; or one of them (or both) could be another name for dvergar – dwarves. It’s difficult to say for sure as there are few references to elves (of whatever kind) in surviving Norse poetry and prose.

The álfar lived in Álfheimr (‘elf-home’), while the dark elves lived underground or in mountain caves – or, alternatively, in Svartálfarheimr.

Elves were associated with health, fertility and ancestor-worship (and were similar, in this respect, to Roman household deities). Wikipedia has this quotation from Kormáks Saga:

Þorvarð healed but slowly; and when he could get on his feet he went to see Þorðís, and asked her what was best to help his healing.

“A hill there is,” answered she, “not far away from here, where elves have their haunt. Now get you the bull that Kormák killed, and redden the outer side of the hill with its blood, and make a feast for the elves with its flesh. Then thou wilt be healed.”

Folkloric Elves

From being creatures of great beauty, strength and lore in Norse myths, elves changed during the Middle Ages into mischievous, or downright malignant, creatures of diminutive stature (although there exceptions to this description). The mythos of Norse and Germanic elves combined with Celtic traditions, and also perhaps with the Christian demonisation of anything pagan, to produce a being that was a feature of much literature of the early modern period and into the Victorian era.

The story of the Erlking’s daughter (as set down by Johann Gottfried von Herder) concerns Sir Oluf riding to his wedding when he is distracted by elven music. The Erlking’s daughter tries to seduce him with gifts and gold, but he leaves – though not before she strikes him. The next day, before his wedding, Sir Oluf is found dead.

In ‘The Elf of the Rose’, a Hans Christian Anderson fairy story, the elf of the title, who lives in rose blossoms, witnesses a murder and informs the dead man’s lover of the fact while she sleeps. She finds his head and plants it in a pot with a sprig of Jasmine. Although she dies of grief, her brother – the murderer – is killed by the spirits the a jasmine flower.

It’s possible that the earliest depictions of elves with pointed ears date to the Victorian period.

Other Elves and Elf-like Beings

The word ‘ælf‘ was used in Anglo-Saxon translations of Greek and Roman myths to refer to nymphs. The Icelandic huldufólk (hidden people) could be seen as elves (or dwarves). German folklore has moss people and weisse frauen (‘white women’). In Irish folklore, the aos sí (or daoine sídhe or the sídhe) are similar to elves. Welsh folklore has the Tylwyth Teg.

In the folkloric tradition, elves, fairies, gnomes, pixies, hobgoblins and so on are all hard to distinguish from each other definitively; they are all portrayed more or less similarly as very small, michievous beings. The Christmas Elf derives from the elf of early modern folk tale – although it also has similarities with the dwarf of Norse mythology, which was a skilled craftsman.

Elves in Fantasy Fiction

The line between the fairy tales mentioned about and true fantasy literature is blurred, but it is certain that elves were protagonists and antagonists in genre stories from its earliest days. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany is a tale of cross-cultural marriage and anguish; it dates from 1924. The Broken Sword (1954) by Poul Anderson is a Norse-style story that tells of Skafloc, a half-elf who is captured by elves.

Where Victorian literature portrayed elves as malicious or at least morally ambiguous beings, J R R Tolkien instead took the depiction of elves back to its Norse roots, making them beautiful, noble and partly divine in nature. Tolkien’s writing concerning elves (or Elves – Tolkien capitalises the word; other writers follow suit, but some write it all lower case) spans The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and beyond.

In the mythos of Middle Earth, the Elves awoke in the first age and were eventually discovered by the Valar, who invited them to travel to the Undying Lands. Many of the Elves accepted, but some got lost or otherwise detained on their journey west across Middle Earth. Those who remained were the Elves of the stories of Middle Earth. After the War of the Ring, many of these finally went to the Undying Lands. Those who didn’t apparently degenerated into the elves of folklore – ‘a rustic folk of dell and cave’, according to Galadriel’s prediction.

Tolkien’s elves are immortal (although they may be killed or die of grief), have ‘leaf-shaped’ ears, lack facial hair (apart from Círdan – which may have been a mistake), and have a number of superhuman powers: keen senses, enhanced strength, the ability to read minds and see the future, and the ability to make magical or enhanced items such as the lembas bread and cloaks given to the Hobbits in TLotR.

Elves have appeared in many post-Tolkien novels, in one form or another – many of them either resembling Tolkien’s Elves or deliberately contrasting with them. Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara features Elves, along with along with Men, Dwarves, Gnomes and Trolls. The Elfquest comics by Wendy and Richard Pini have elves that are descended from shapeshifting humanoid aliens that have interbred with wolves (which makes them part of the science fiction genre, technically; arguably, one could even say that Vulcans are sf’s elves). In Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, one group of the near-extinct, near-feral elves, or Sithi, seeks to revenge itself by destroying humankind. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series features elves that are decidedly less than benign: they steal children and use enchantment to fool people into thinking they are beautiful.

In both The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner on the one hand, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry on the other, elves – or similar beings – are referred to by their original Norse names of: lios alfar are benign creatures, while svart alfar are evil and more like the goblins of Tolkien’s works. The Malazan Book of the Fallen has three related races – the Tiste Liosan, Tiste Edur and Tiste Andii. They come from, respectively, the warrens of light, shadow and darkness – thus resembling the three kinds of elves mentioned in ancient Norse literature.

Conclusion

Although elves have become a cliché, they are a firm fixture in the wider fantasy genre. While fantasy authors these days don’t write about such beings per se, they are still provide the inspiration for many aloof, nature-loving, magical races. And in the worlds of gaming – be it tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons or computer real-time strategy games like Warcraft – elves are an essential part of the experience.

Elves are mysterious, often dangerous, but also steeped in sadness. Tolkien’s elves are wise and stoical, but they live so long and experience so much, that eventually they must retire from the world. The elves of folk tales that trick people and steal children are just as melancholy, yearning for things that will only bring them grief in the long run.

Whatever the future of elves within the genre, it will likely be a diverse one, with a range of portrayals from the traditional (and traditional within different traditions: Tolkienesque, fairy tale, Norse mythology) to the original. So far much of the reimagining of elves has been a reaction against Tolkien and towards a medieval model. I’m sure there’s great scope for doing something completely different with elves – the trick will be to retain their essential elvishness.

Sources: Wikipedia, Malazan Wiki, The True Elves of Europe, Timeless Myths, Ask Nicola, Dictionary.com, MMORPG.com, Fairy Tales Collection, Suite 101.