Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Elves and dwarves
So I write a lot about different races in fantasy, but I’ve never said anything about the two old faithfuls, the elves and the dwarves, until now.
When I first started writing fantasy stories, I had a race of slender winged creatures who were the descendants of elves, and another race of short people with storage hollows in their chests – they were the descendants of dwarves, so they kept their tools in those hollows. Specifying that they were related to elves and dwarves was, I suppose, either the literary equivalent of keeping the training wheels on the bike or an assurance to the reader that no matter how fantastic my races might seem, they had their origins in Tolkien’s tradition.
After a while I realized that there wasn’t much point in trying to keep a foot in both camps. So I made up my own races, and didn’t write about elves and dwarves until now. Actually, it went beyond not writing about them – I didn’t want to read about them either. After Tolkien, I’d read enough DragonLance and Forgotten Realms novels to be thoroughly burned out on them.
One problem with elves and dwarves – a persistent problem, because a lot of fantasy writers seem to start out with these two staples – is that they follow the Tolkien pattern slavishly. The elves are all beautiful pointy-eared archers who play beautiful music and look beautifully sad. I’ve critted more than one query where they’re sad because their race is dying out. Dwarves are less common (or fleshed out), but they’re all gruff, bearded short people who mine and battle the forces of evil with equal enthusiasm.
I only realized how bad this was when I read an article on dwarves and a writer commented on a dwarf character of hers.
“And she's always going on about how her Ma used to cook the best rats... She also likes the taste of elf ears. :P”
Until then, it hadn’t occurred to me that the dwarves could be a hostile, violent race which might even be responsible for the elves dying out. I knew that in Middle-Earth, relations between the two races were not the most cordial, which was why the friendship between Legolas and Gimli was so important. But in every single book and story I’d ever read, dwarves were good guys.
Why not subvert that? A world where dwarves were intelligent and powerful antagonists, marching to war in armor they had made themselves, devising siege engines to take down castles, mining beneath defensive walls… that would be intriguing. Even the elves have had books where they were the antagonists – Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies is head of the line, though the elves in Dark Sun seem like self-centered opportunists much of the time. I’d like to see more of that kind of thing, as long as the elves weren’t called Dark Elves or Night Elves or Evil Elves to distinguish them from their radiant counterparts.
Even if the elves and dwarves weren’t antagonists, their cultures and physiologies could be fleshed out and tweaked to be as individual as possible. Rather than setting such a story above ground, where the dwarf is usually a Token Alien, why not have a human go underground into a dwarf city? That would be a great way to illustrate a very different society with its own needs and customs.
Tolkien elves and dwarves were best written by Tolkien.