World Crafting: Elves! Oh, the Humanity!

As a primer, I share this video for an alternate rendition of Galadriel being offered the Ring by Frodo (it starts about 4 minutes in if you want to click forward).   I’m one of the minority where I think this was a good animated film (1978), the “acting” was ahead of many 1980s animated films, and this rendition was more accurate to the books than the Peter Jackson travesty that was Galadriel’s Photoshop Effect (included later below).

[YOUTUBE has removed this clip.  🙁  ]

I point this out because Galadriel here has a warmth about her, even with her nobility, as reflected in the books.  She doesn’t have so much of the “Otherness” sense about her that Peter Jackson tried to go for.  Which leads in to this week’s topic…

It came up in conversation recently with one of my beta readers on my draft novel as to whether the elven character felt “too human” or not.  This got me to thinking: how should one handle non-human races in fantasy, and in a broader sense, alien races in sci-fi.  I would argue that setting notwithstanding, fantasy non-humans and sci-fi alien races are essentially different instantiations of the same idea.

Before coming back to elves and faerie, let me turn to sci-fi for a moment.  If I were to describe a spectrum between “totally alien” and “might as well be a human offshoot”, I could put Ridley Scott’s/H.R. Giger’s original alien from the movie Alien on the left side of the graph, and Gene Roddenberry’s host of races (Klingons, Vulcans, etc) on the right side of the graph.  (BTW, has anyone noticed that Vulcans and Romulans are kinda like space elves? Warcraft Orcs are essentially green Klingons.  But I digress.)

There is a concept I want to bring up which I’ve seen called the “sense of Otherness.”  Alien was designed to be completely that: foreign, strange… incomprehensibly Other.  There was no reasoning with the Alien, no motive we could understand beyond their desire to eat and procreate.  Yet, through the series, they display intelligence.  In the case of the Alien, their Otherness went hand in hand with unmitigable threat.   (Another aside:  this reminds me of my risk-management classes and tools we use… identify the vulnerability and threat, quantify the risk, and design control measure to mitigate the risk to within acceptable measures.  Leadership in the Alien movies never got the core idea: there are no acceptable measures of risk with these Aliens, because the risks are unmitigable!)  This is a similar feeling that HP Lovecraft evokes in his writings on the Old Ones, the irreconcilably strange Otherness of the threat.  Of course, not all “Others” have to be hostile–just incomprehensible.  Faerie are sometimes depicted as whimsical, or just harmful only because their ways collide with ours but not because they are necessarily evil.  A great sense of Otherness is brought out in a faerie world in the book Infinity Concerto, where music has power and no one is allowed to sing.  Other examples of “Otherness” (although to a much lesser scale than Alien or HP Lovecraft) in elvenkind or faeriekind is seen in “Hellboy 2”, and in “Pan’s Labyrinth”.

At the other end of the scale we have things like Star Trek.  Gene Roddenberry wanted every one of his aliens to have a humanity that we could connect to.  In essence, they were all human, and this was (I’ve read somewhere) one of the reasons that no aliens ever had eyes that were altered with makeup (this rule might have been relaxed after his death).  Essentially, all his aliens were humans, and Star Trek was more about finding common ground, and celebrating common values, amongst sapient/sentient life no matter where it is from, or what it looks like.  Another fantastic space-opera example of an even more diverse palette of alien life essentially all being human is Farscape.  No matter how alien (the blue plant woman, or the pilot and living ship itself), they all seem to embrace (or oppose if they are evil) classical Liberal ideals, values and ethics.  (Go Gene Roddenberry!)

The word “alien” essentially means “foreign” or “strange”.  In the real world, foreign cultures are alien to us, as any world traveler knows.  Despite taboo against stereotyping, people *do* tend to act different in different cultures.  They handle interpersonal communications differently.  Some show more emotion, some are more measured.  Some respond to humor different, and there can be a host of expectations and contexts the traveler is unaware of when dealing with locals.  The Japanese office environment is different from the normative American office environment.  I have a personal hypothesis that “culture shock” is a sort of vertigo induced by the simultaneous realization that we’re all the same (we all want  our basic needs met, food and security for our families, etc), yet at the same time we can be worlds apart (culture can cause us to interpret events completely differently and respond according to vastly dissimilar values).  Specifically, I’m reminded of the time a few years back when I had an Afghan interpreter assigned to work with me for six months and assist me in a training mission.  He and I had many conversations where it was obvious we valued similar things (kindness, justice, fairness, etc.).  But then his family brought his cousin to Afghanistan from India (she had grown up in a much more free environment in India, where she could wear western clothing and go to school).  He married her.  He had conversed previously on the topic of the burqa and how it was a family’s choice to wear it or not, and was no longer imposed by government rule since the Taliban had been in power.  In the same conversation he had complained once about the Taliban beating him for not having his beard long enough (his face was shaved clean when he worked for me).  I asked him if he was going to make his new wife wear the burqa when she came to Kabul.  He said, “Of course!”  I remembered yet again that I was in a completely alien culture… it may as well have been another planet.

To bring this back to fantasy, we tend to conflate “cultural differences” with “caricature differences”.  Orcs are mean, Dwarves are gruff and like to drink, and elves are wistful and artistic (and somewhere after Tolkien became arrogant as well).  But, good characters are more than just stereotypes, so in most good fantasy we see the non-human races differentiated by what could otherwise be considered cultural characterizations.  The other side of this is that we writers can fall in the trap of making racial differences solely cosmetic, and race play no bearing on the personality and culture of the character.

Elves take special consideration, in my opinion, and require a bit of extra finesse.  The other common races such as dwarves and halflings already share much in common with humans.  It is not hard to make them believable, and for all practical purposes they could be treated as human races, because they don’t really have a sense of “Other” about them.  Elves, on the other hand, are different.  Of all the stereotypical “good races” found in fantasy stories, they conceptually represent a blend of “human” and “Other”, and the trick is to find a balance.  How do we make elves human enough to relate to and still keep a magical feeling about them?  (I know!  Irish accents! And the more fae we get, the thicker the accent!  *cough cough Kingdoms of Amalur: the Reckoning cough cough*).

Let’s start with elves from folklore.  Rather than repeating the history, there’s a great article on Wikipedia on elves in Germanic and English folklore, and the development of the idea. Overall, they were very much Other, part of faerie folk, and prone to mischief, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, sometimes small and sometimes taller.  Both the sidhe (“shee”) (Robert Jordan’s “Aes Sedai” are totally inspired from the Aos Sidhe) and seelie (the good faerie, whereas the unseelie were the bad faerie) are old gaelic names for elven variants.

Tolkien did a great rendition of elves and set the standard.  He made them as beings of light with human-like attributes, but they were always so much more.  According to Wikipedia, Tolkien originally wanted to call them faerie, but was convinced instead that “elf” was a better name for the market because people would think faeries are gay.  (Later, World of Warcraft would make it all moot and screw Tolkien over with the creation of male Blood Elves.)


Yes, that is the Napoleon Dynamite dance.

Remember how in Warcraft if you clicked on a unit enough you got jokes?  Same is true in WoW.  Male blood elf jokes…

Back to Tolkien.  He kept them apart from mortal life while making them involved in mortal life, and his rendition spawned hordes of people wanting to be elves–often finding their outlets in Dungeons and Dragons.

In D&D, the idea was carried forward, although elves became, in my opinion, more human and less Other.  In Dragonlance, for example, the elves were essentially pointy-eared humans with long lives, magic, and were always pretty.  Nothing else much separated them.  (Now that I think about it, the surface fascination with elves is kinda like the current obsession with Twilight:  vampires are pretty with golden/glittering eyes which sparkle in the sunlight.  Ok, Edward is an elf, not a vampire.  The worst sort of elf.  Maybe this is why we hate Twilight: we’re lied to and tricked into watching a show about vampires, and instead we get elven LARPers.)

The trick with elves is finding a balance.  There are two kinds of elves I hate.  The first are walking bags of melodramatic moroseness.  This is where they give an uber “I’m too unhuman and superior to care about anything” vibe, and speak in slooow dramatic weirdly articulated tones.  They’re usually 18-30 year old women, and found LARPing at role-playing conventions, and take themselves way too seriously.

Ok, that’s not at all what I was talking about, but it was funny.

Unfortunately, as much as I like the Peter Jackson films, the Galadriel portrayal at the end of the Fellowship

kinda rubbed me this way (I know, I know.  I’m going to geek hell).

The second kind of elf I hate is one that is so mundane they seem like a modern person speaking colloquial American–humans with pointy ears.  The people were too hip in their language, and I don’t want elves to be that familiar.  I’m sorry Felicia Day.  I love you and you’re awesome, but I hate your elf rendition.


It could be the American accent.  Maybe I just hate American accents in fantasy.  I wonder how Brits feel about English accents in fantasy.  But what I really think is what I said earlier: elves are a mix of the human and Other… every elf, no matter if they are a warrior, wizard, or thief, should still have at least a little feel of magic about them.  Not just elven spell-casters, but every elf from elf-king to elf peasant should have something fae and different.

When storytelling with elves, there’s not one silver-bullet way to do it.  The world crafter needs to have an idea of how much blend of “Other” and “human” they’ll put into the mix.  I want elves to feel foreign, somewhat awesome, but still relatable.  What I tend to shoot for is to try to achieve the degree of otherness you would encounter in a foreign culture, and don’t make it more alien than that.  When writing elves into my stories, I try to either think of non-British Europeans, or better yet, far-east Asians.  I tend more towards the “Gene Roddenberry” theory, in that all the main races of a story should have a human element to them.  The father away they get from human, the more monstrous they become, and more hostile or dangerous for the protagonists.

I also think that whether elves are central to your story or on the periphery plays a role in how much Other you can throw into the mix.  Tad Williams The Dragonbone Chair had elves (sithi) that were quite other, but you never (at least in the first book) got inside their head as a reader.  Once you start narrating from the perspective of an elf and make them a protagonist, it begs for a human-like core the reader (and the author) can relate to.  The more “foreign” they are to the main story perspective (even if they are present through a good deal of it), the easier it is to get away with feeling of Otherness.

Ok, so I’ve wandered a lot in this post.  To bring it all together and summarize:  Elves.  Decide their role in the world, and relative levels of Otherness vs. Humanity in them.  Don’t give them American accents or speak in a hip tone, but give them enough feeling and rationality so as not to become agents of melodrama.  In order to make elves that both feel special and different, while still having a humanity we can relate to, we need look no farther than our own real-world, inter-cultural experiences as a model.

And to close this week, the best random side-conversation in Dragon Age 2:  a conversation between the dwarf and elf companion about frolicking

Cheers all,

Kyle

6 thoughts on “World Crafting: Elves! Oh, the Humanity!

  1. Dorian and Solas (Dragon Age Inquisition, Solas is an elf):

    Solas: I am surprised you do not practice blood magic, Dorian. Is it not popular in Tevinter?
    Dorian: While we’re sharing surprises, you’ve done a lot less dancing naked in the moonlight than expected.
    Solas: Tevinter lore about elves remains accurate as always.
    Dorian: I wanted to see you make flowers bloom with your song, just once.

  2. I have seen the animated version of LOTR and I have read the books and although Galadriel is a lot warmer in the movie and in the books I am siding with Peter Jackson. I love how he displayed her in the movies! 🙂

  3. This is cool. My problem is that I tend to make ALL of my races kinda human in the end. I wasn’t fan at all of Peter Jackson’s Galadriel. Maybe I too was so used to the animated version (great movie, I don’t care what anybody says!).

    And yeah, Felicia Day’s elf sucked. 🙁

  4. Excellent post, this week. I don’t have much to add other than saying that one of the reasons I love elves is that there is a huge body of both modern and ancient lore to draw on for inspiration, which means that there are a lot of ways to approach them. I like the flexibility that this offers.

    I’d like to give a special shout out to Skyrim who gave us multiple races of elf (altmer, dunmer, orsimer, the extinct chimer, etc), and managed to make each of them distinct from the other while also sharing a common history and overall type.

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