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.


JH said...

One thing that makes elves and dwarves popular is their mythic power as story elements: Tolkien drew from Germanic, Norse, and (IIRC) Celtic myth when inventing his races, which makes them seem as familiar as fairy tales and fables, and so they have the timeless quality of a reference to the classics when done well.

Of course, that's about all they have going for them at this point, by the time that their use in a story is often a poor copy of a poor copy of Tolkien's mythic adaptations. But it's something that I bring up because often, completely novel races and creatures lack that mythic power. They seem like mutants, superbeings out of comics, or forehead-ridged aliens. This last comment may seem strange when contrasted with, say, elves, who differ in appearance from humans generally by nothing more than pointy ears. But they also have a whole host of associations in modern fiction, popular culture, and legend that make them relevant for what they stand for. A completely new invention does not have that power.

My point isn't that it's bad to make up new races and such. On the contrary, it great! Rather, I'm saying that a new race or creature is going to have to be very interesting on its own, or draw enough from myths and legends that it has the power of relevance and timelessness myth imparts to the best fantasy.

Jewel Allen said...

I confess I have never read Tolkien. But I can see why people define elves and dwarves by that standard.

In Philippine folklore and superstition, elves have different characteristics. I guess it just depends what culture you are from?

Mary B said...

I love something that takes a familiar trope and turns it upside down. I saw something recently about unicorns in a novel. These aren't sweet little fairytale creatures, but massive evil beings bent on taking over the human world.


Marian Perera said...

Good points, GunnerJ, and they raised a question for me.

If a writer was doing a homage to Tolkien, or a traditional/high fantasy, I can see the elves and dwarves having that mythic element you mentioned. But would you feel they had the same effect in any such fantasy, even one where they were humans with pointy ears or short people?

In other words, does a writer have to work to bring out the mythic factor, or is it something that comes naturally? For me, I don't feel it unless it's in a fantasy where the writer is really trying to scale the Tolkien plateau.

I didn't, for instance, feel it in the little of Eragon that I read - there I was only aware of the cliches. Though the book was extremely popular, so maybe the author was able to benefit from that factor.

Marian Perera said...

Hey Pink,

In Philippine folklore and superstition, elves have different characteristics. I guess it just depends what culture you are from?

That sounds interesting, and I wish there were more fantasies which featured creatures of different cultures. I read The Art of Arrow Cutting, which has monsters from Japanese mythology, but there are so many other untapped sources.

What are the elves in Philippine folklore like?

JH said...

If a writer was doing a homage to Tolkien, or a traditional/high fantasy, I can see the elves and dwarves having that mythic element you mentioned. But would you feel they had the same effect in any such fantasy, even one where they were humans with pointy ears or short people?


If you just say, "Ronyle was an elf," than you have already attached a huge number of references, affiliations, and preconceptions to Ronyle in the reader's mind. Digging back to legend and folklore, the German elves were forest imps whose arrows could wither crops, sicken livestock, and strike women barren. Fantasy elves take on more from Celtic sidhe, tricker gods who beguile heroes with their magic. Even if all you have is fantasy fiction itself, you will think of someone who is more graceful, beautiful, older and cautious and maybe more inherently magical. And for better or worse, these assumptions will be hard to unroot, even if Ronyle spends most of his time just being a prettyboy with pointy ears.

On the other hand, let's say you invent a race called "nodkin" with greenish skin and longer than average index fingers; well, there's some potential symbolism to their names, skin color, and odd digits, but if in practice they're just weird looking humans (maybe with a single, overwhelming personality stereotype: "nodkin:habitual cowardice::Klingons:warrior honor"), then there's really nothing to compel me to be interested in them as a fantasy race: they're just a gimmick.

On the other hand, the hack author of Ronyle is perhaps committing a greater crime: he has a host of allusions in his character but uses none of them in any interesting way, much less subverts them or adds a new perspective (such as Filipino folklore about elves, which I would really like to hear more about). He's not using the mythic power of "elvishness," he's exploiting it so he doesn't have to think of anything interesting to do with his character, trusting that a target audience trained on pulp fantasy will do all the work of making Ronyle's race significant.

But even the least demanding pulp readers will get bored of this after a while. At least whoever invented the nodkin is trying to do something original, even if he's not that good at it. After a while readers are going to roll their eyes at a character who's just like everyone else, except prettier and with pointy ears. Eventually - perhaps even over the course of one hackwork novel - they're going to crave even the shallow novelty of the nodkin, or they're going to discover an author like Gene Wolfe who can use the literary and legendary roots of fantasy to their full advantage, and Ronyle will be left in the dust, weeping for his diminishing... market share.

Marian Perera said...

That last comment should have been a blog post all its own. It's a great explanation of the pitfalls present with either choice.

And as a creator of various nodkins, I agree with what you said - it's my way of trying to be as original as possible. The nodkins don't have the power of myth behind them, but that's the price I pay for the fun I have writing them. ;)

JH said...

And as a creator of various nodkins,

I think you're selling yourself short here: while it sometimes seems like your novel races verge on the "mutant/superbeing" side of things (e.g., the Arisen), plenty of others (e.g., the Weaponbearers, Glores, Watchers, and Shaern) are fleshed out and personalized enough to hold interest on there own, despite not having a basis in mythology.

Marian Perera said...

Well, that comment was a little tongue-in-cheek, since I try to make my fictional races as interesting as possible. Though some need work, as you noticed, and some are just not as fleshed-out as I'd like.

For instance, right now the Liquari are just humans with skewbald skins and the ability to see in the dark. Then again, all the characters in stories cannot be three-dimensional either.

The fun of creating new races, though, is that you start out with a blank slate and I think changes to that slate are easier to accept. Imagine having elves with glass instead of eyes. Even if you make it clear that they worship a Crystal, it might not be too easy for the reader to suspend disbelief with regard to the physical alterations.

Whereas if you create crystallines, well, then, of course they have glass instead of eyes. That's what makes them crystallines.

Emmalyn said...

A fascinating discussion, especially as a writer of what I think of as Tolkeinesque fantasy. I have been worried because I didn't bother trying to stick slavishly to the Tolkein model, and wondered if I should try to match closer, to reach Tolkein fans with something they would appreciate. After all, one of the reasons I chose elves and dwarves (among a few other kinds from elsewhere and my imagination) was to provide a familiar basis for readers to relate to. From the comments here, it seems a few things I thought I had based loosely on LoR seem to have been a mistake on my part: I had the impression that the dwarves, elves, and humans were rivals rather than all good guys in the complete sense of allies, and that they were probably regularly at odds with each other, enough to occasionally go to war with each other, even if they were sometimes allies, kind of East and West, US and Russia, England and France. My elves are tall, my dwarves bearded. I'm no linguist and didn't try to provide elvish or other language words. I also thought that Tolkein didn't do as much with the different kinds as he could have, so I tried to do more to make them different, probably unconsciously borrowing from other kinds and stories and sources of ideas to make a more complete kind/culture for each of them, though I'm still told they are too human...

Shameless request for help from an audience that obviously knows the matieral: I welcome comments and opinions on how well I have succeeded or failed with my beings and suggestions to make them better. I'm currently posting one of the elves and dwarves novels, scene at time, on the Fantasy Explorations page of my blog http://home.earthlink.net/~wyverns