Fantasy Elves and their True Nature

Zak Smith has written an interesting blog post on elves in fantasy gaming and literature. Elves in fiction draw from two conflicting archetypes. There are the elves of Tolkein’s Middle Earth, noble and wise, and if they ever seem otherworldly or callous it’s because they take a long term view of things that shorter-lived races cannot fully understand. Then there are the elves of Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld, callous and cruel because that is their very nature, seeing lesser races as mere playthings. Both, of course, draw from northern European folklore in which things are far more complicated and morally ambiguous.

In the gaming world, D&D squares this dichotomy by having two distinct subspecies of elf, the “good” elves modelled on Tolkien, and the Drow, who represent the bad guys.

Zak Smith comes up with an alternative take. In his cosmology, elves believe that everything, from trees to food animals to tools and buildings has a soul and an inner life, and that’s reflected in the elven attitude towards everything, including “lesser” races.

Metaphysical faith–like all ideas requiring morality and power to work in concert–implies both profound contradiction and a willingness to ignore it. Your average elf will totally stick his or her foot in a shoe while totally believing the shoe has thoughts and desires the same way most of us have decided we simply couldn’t function if we continuously contemplated the totality of the plight of the chicken we eat or the homeless human we walk past on our way to get it.

The usual fantasy trope is that the evil elves are a distortion–that elfness is natural and noble, and that some drop of venom must have found its way into the formula to create the cruel ones. But in actuality the elf is already poisoned: it isn’t faerie. The elf is organized, technologized, militarized, civilized, and it draws psychological comfort from imaginary lines between its consciousness and that of things that don’t move on their own.

His conclusion is that “evil” elves as exemplified by D&Ds’s Drow, rather than representing noble elves who have fallen, represent the elves in their natural state. Noble Tolkien-style elves are those who have managed to rise above their own nature. It’s an interesting twist on the D&D default.

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20 Responses to Fantasy Elves and their True Nature

  1. Zak Sabbath says:

    I didn’t say the “good” elves have risen above–
    I said the good ones are sympathetic to humans and dwarves, etc because they are more like elves than objects are.

    So they’re good simply out of self-serving attachment, not real goodness or generosity of spirit. And they don’t feel quite as ease about it

  2. PaulE says:

    Christian philosophy says that nothing is evil in origin. Tolkien wanted his work to fit with this, but was “retro-fitting” to the stories later in life. His Orcs were therefore the big problem. If Evil cannot create, how did they exist ? And if they were in some small way related to humans, could they be redeemed ?

  3. Tim Hall says:

    If I’ve understook Zak properly, his elves are evil (in Christian terms) or sociopathic (in psychological terms) at least from a human perspective. But they give the superficial appearance of being good out of pragmatic self-interest.

    If I’ve remembered my Middle-Earth back-story correctly, Tolkein’s orcs were elves corrupted by Morgoth, a fallen angel who was Middle Earth’s analogue to Satan. They come over as demonic beings; there’s no suggestion that they can be redeemed.

  4. PaulE says:

    It is worth remembering how little LotR says about this. The story as you stated it is from The Silmarillion, but that was edited and published by his son after his death. Creating a consistent story was part of the editorial work and masked over where competing ideas existed.

  5. PaulE says:

    Going back to the point about the Christian view. God would not create something as “evil by nature” and evil cannot create (that is something that is repeated in LotR from Christian writings). Therefore, logically nothing can be “evil by nature” and Tolkien wanted his stories to reflect this. The trouble was, a lot of it didn’t, and major changes would have been necessary.
    So my (extremely laboured) point is that Tolkien would not have accepted “bad by nature” for any of Middle Earth’s creatures- even the obvious ones.

  6. Tim Hall says:

    But where does that leave orcs?

  7. PaulE says:

    In a mess. Same with the desire to rewrite the stories into a “round world ” model, or to have a realistic explanation of the solar system. It was incomplete work on these fundamental principles that prevented publication as much as anything else.

  8. Tim Hall says:

    Heh. At least Charlie Stross decided to abandon his space opera setting from “Singularity Sky” and “Iron Sunrise” after two novels because he realised it had too far many holes.

  9. John P. says:

    Just skimmed through the entry for “Elf (Middle-earth)” on Wikipedia and concluded that some people really do have too much time on their hands. You can really over-analyse a subject sometimes.

    Personally, I’ve never forgiven Tolkien for starting the joke that you can’t tell Dwarven males & females apart because they both have beards and dress the same. That’s just lame & lazy. The Castle Falkenstein RPG explanation is far more imaginative. That says that dwarves are only male and, being derived from faeries, breed with female faeries – so the children grow up like their parents (sons short & stout, daughters tall & slim) and the family gatherings are rather incongruous by mortal human standards.

  10. John P. says:

    BTW, I thought orcs being in a mess was a natural state of affairs?

  11. Synthetase says:

    “Just skimmed through the entry for “Elf (Middle-earth)” on Wikipedia and concluded that some people really do have too much time on their hands.”

    Heh, I know people who speak Elvish and give lectures on grammatical structure.

  12. Tim Hall says:

    I know someone who can speak Klingon and used to front a prog band :)

    @John P
    Though Terry Pratchett has done some interesting riffs on that Tolkien joke, and used it as a lens for issues of gender and sexuality.

    Gloranthan dwarves are something else again. They’re magical-techological constructs who don’t reproduce sexually, made rather than born, and have no gender in human terms.

  13. PaulE: the origin of Orcs wasn’t only stated in The Silmarillion, the Lord of the Rings is quite explicit about it. In chapter 4 of book 3 Treebeard says:

    “But Trolls are only counterfeits, made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness, in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves.”

    I think it’s likely that Tolkein from the start, and consistently, intended Orcs to be corrupted Elves. I can’t think of any contradiction in earlier writings (Lost Tales, etc.)

  14. PaulE says:

    David – Trolls as counterfeits made from stone is quite a different idea to having ruined Elves so much that some were then Orcs. The contradiction is between Treebeard’s statement and the apparent independence of some Orcs (e.g. via the overheard conversation of Shagrat at Cirith Ungol).

  15. Synthetase says:

    ” I know someone who can speak Klingon and used to front a prog band :)

    One of the people that I know that can speak Elvish also speaks Klingon. He’s language nerd (can you tell?) ;)

  16. Paul – Ok, yes, there is a difference in meaning between those ideas.

  17. PaulE says:

    Apologies if I seem to have hijacked this page into an in-depth Tolkien discussion.

    John P – The explanation for Dwarf women seems like an off the cuff retort to a bar-room critic. Maybe that is what happened :-)

  18. John P. says:

    Synthetase – Does he use the Klingon setting on Google too?

    Paul E – If it was a Dwarven bar, it would have been “off the cut” retort, delivered with the edge of a large bladed implement.

    Do you think fantasy RPGs have a bias towards elves? I seem to recall that Warhammer elves had a better average than all the other races for example.

  19. Synthetase says:

    “Synthetase – Does he use the Klingon setting on Google too?”

    I don’t know. I’ll ask him.

  20. Synthetase says:

    He has used it, but prefers English Google (he’s a native German speaker).