images of elves

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

15.3 (Summer 2015)


Popular Culture



Images of Elves: Examining the Extent of the Tolkienian Transformation, and Subsequent ‘Postmodern’ Visions, Especially in Pratchett’s Discworld, and the Warhammer Fantasy, Shadowrun, and Castle Falkenstein Role-Playing Games
Mark Wegierski

This essay is based on a draft of a presentation co-written with Wojciech Szymanski, M.A., read at the 2014 Fantastic Literature Conference (Supernatural Creatures: from Elf-Shot to Shrek) (Lodz, Poland: University of Lodz), September 22-24, 2014.

There have been numerous images of Elves throughout human history. Elves appear in both Norse and Celtic mythology. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, there is a reference to the prayer of priests driving out the fairies from their glades. Fairies of various sorts memorably appeared in Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, a complex allegorical epic poem, did not have a great influence on the popular image of Elves. By the nineteenth century—especially among the Victorians—the prevalent view of Elves was probably as diminutive, mischievous creatures, most often called fairies. Additionally, one can find in some dictionaries, that “goblin” is a synonym for “elf”.

The arrival of Tolkien’s “sub-creation” is often considered to have considerably altered the traditional image of Elves in the popular imagination. Indeed, he showed them at approximately human size and appearance (except for their pointy ears), a race of noble beings of very high accomplishment and incredible physical beauty, attuned to nature, and generally adept at usually benevolent forms of magic, aging very slowly over thousands of years. They were also skilled at war, especially in archery, and often wielded magical swords. He also typically showed them as highly ethical, in contrast to the usually amoral, capricious portrayal of them in earlier lore.

There were two main types of Elves in Tolkien’s writing, each with a language of their own: High Elves speaking Quenya, and Woodland Elves speaking Sindarin. Quenya and Sindarin are the most extensive of Tolkien’s various invented languages. The relation of the ancient Elven languages to the societies of Middle-Earth at the time of the War of the Ring can be viewed as parallel to that of ancient Greek and Latin to modern European societies—arcane languages known by only a handful of highly erudite persons. Indeed, Tolkien’s Elvish has sometimes been jestingly referred to as “Elvo-Latin”. Interestingly enough, Tolkien tells us that his term for Elves—Quendi—means “Speakers”. (This mirrors the real-world linguistic etymology of the term for Slavic peoples in their native languages—in Polish: Slowianie.)

Tolkien’s so-called legendarium, which is also sometimes called the Arda mythos (after the name used for Earth in the writings), is ostensibly set in the remote past of our own planet Earth. Tolkien adopted the literary convention of claiming that his work was based on various old manuscripts that he had come across, dating back to the earlier periods of Earth’s history. He also jocularly expressed the notion that he would have preferred to have his books published in Elvish!

Elves had certainly impressed themselves on the imagination of Tolkien, being a major preoccupation in his writings. Indeed, much of the “back story” of the Arda mythos, is concerned almost entirely with the Elves, and their long, drawn-out struggle with Morgoth (a Satan-like figure, as well as the original “Dark Lord”—a precursor to Sauron). Indeed, C.S. Lewis is alleged to have said, when Tolkien was presenting his creative endeavours to the Inklings group of friends of Oxford University, “Oh no, not another effing elf.” The Inklings were an important literary friendship society, whose most illustrious members included C.S. Lewis, not only a leading Christian writer, but also the author of the very popular children’s fantasy, The Narnia Chronicles—and Tolkien himself.

The Tolkien stories of the Elves, however, are none too happy ones. They chronicle a long, slow decline. The Elves’ long struggle against Morgoth is heroic, but doomed. Most of the Elves desire at some point to “pass to the West”—the blessed lands where they will live forever in the presence of the deities of the Arda mythos, the Valar. By the time of the War of the Ring, comparatively few Elves have remained in Middle-Earth itself. Also, the destruction of the One Ring actually undermines the protective powers of the three Elven rings—meaning that those of the Elves who remain will soon be fading and diminishing. Indeed, the conclusion of the War of the Ring is the beginning of the “Age of Men”. Thus, the portrayal of the diminishing of the Elves is a classic example of what has been called “thinning” in fantastic literature. Despite the triumph over Sauron, the feel of the conclusion of the War of the Ring remains somewhat “autumnal”.

It could be argued that in regard to the portrayal of Elves in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Silmarillion—the last of which provides the back story to the former works—Tolkien was exercising a form of a “back projection”. He was showing the Elves in the remote past of Earth, presumably before they had mostly declined into the diminutive, mischievous, and capricious “fairy folk” because of the ebbing of magic. So Tolkien’s vision of the Elves may not have been as radical a departure as it might first appear.

This portrayal of Elves “in their prime” has entered much of contemporary fantasy literature. Tolkien is often considered to have both opened up and closed the genre of high-fantasy, because anything that followed his trilogy would tend to be seen as derivative. Indeed, many works, of what is somewhat snidely called “fat fantasy”—referring to the multi-volume series of books—often have the presence of Elves highly similar to those of Tolkien.

This notion of Elves was also significantly transposed into popular culture through the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game (launched in 1974), where Elves are one of the standard player-races, and are very heavily based on Tolkienian notions. Indeed, the exceedingly physically attractive graphic portrayals of various elf-maidens and female elf-mages were perceived as a major focus for the so-called geeks drawn into role-playing games—such female elves, in fact, becoming a cliché of the subgenre.

The Tolkienian notion of Elves could be seen to have triumphed. There were some innovations, in that the writing was frequently “sexed up”, and the major subgroup of “Dark Elves” was introduced—usually called “drow” in Dungeons and Dragons settings. In his Arda mythos, Tolkien had made some mention of Dark Elves as part of the so-called Sundering of the Elves that he had chronicled, but he never wrote about them very much.

Also, one irony of the Arda mythos is that the monstrous-looking, nasty, short-lived Orcs are actually said to have originated from Elves who were transformed through torture and were subject to evil sorceries by Morgoth or Sauron. It has been suggested that Tolkien’s ultimate point may be that it is up to us, as human beings, to morally choose between being more like the angelic Elves or the demonic Orcs.

Another important aspect in Tolkien’s writing was that Elves and Humans could interbreed, producing half-elven, half-human offspring. These figures of mixed parentage are often interesting both to writers and to readers. In The Lord of the Rings, Arwen has to choose between remaining an Elf (and immortal) or marrying Aragorn and becoming a mortal woman. The story that Tolkien claimed was one of the most central in his writings was that of the human hero Beren and the elf-maiden Luthien, set in the era of The Silmarillion. Indeed, the name Beren appears on the gravestone of Tolkien, while the name of Luthien appears on the gravestone of his wife.

As Tolkien portrayed matters, the relations between Elves, Humans, and other races such as Dwarves were often not easy. This provides the basis for wide-ranging dramatic tensions and conflicting expectations between the various races appearing in works of fantastical literature.

In Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara—a work which could be seen as very heavily derivative of Tolkien—the fact that the main protagonist is half-Elven is absolutely critical to the story development. Unlike Tolkien’s Arda mythos, the Shannara series is ostensibly set centuries or millennia after a highly devastating nuclear war on Earth.

After Tolkienian notions had triumphed, it seemed inevitable there would come a “reaction” or perhaps, rather, a “revolution”, and new creative productions would try to play off of these now-ingrained tropes. It could be argued that there has emerged a variety of “postmodern” takes on Elves. By postmodern here, the author means something ironic or somewhat antinomian, fully or partially subversive of the earlier-established grand narrative.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is constituted by magic. Metaphysical ideas of our world (e.g., teleportation, mind-reading, generally the ability to control matter with the power of mind) and fantastic things—e.g., unicorns, elves, trolls, mages, witches—are rather ordinary phenomena on the Discworld. Because of its strong magical field, almost all of that world’s abstract creation is animistic (e.g., the personification of death; hangover; the force responsible for the mysterious disappearance of socks in the washing).

Elves in Pratchett are nothing like those of Tolkien. Here elves kill humans for fun and wreak havoc for the sheer pleasure of it.

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.

Elves are marvellous. The cause marvels.

Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.

Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.

Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.

Elves are terrific. They beget terror.

The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes, look for them behind words that have changed their meaning. No one ever said elves are nice. Elves are bad.

Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies. London: Transworld Publishers – Corgi, 1993, pp. 169-170.

Pratchett’s elves are parasitic beings from other dimension. They use narratives to control their hosts. They lure people with stories created by editing what is remembered and fight their enemies by manipulating their thoughts. They also possess an almost magical ability called “glamour”—the ability to confuse and overawe. They manage to invade Lancre because the barrier separating the worlds was broken by the staging of a play very similar in plot to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Because of the reality leakage thus created, they manage to launch an attack on the Lancre Castle. The invasion is finally averted, but evil is not vanquished. Elves wait for another chance when the layer of reality will be thin enough and people start dreaming too often: they will be there.

The elves of Pratchett, though set in a much more playful world than that of Warhammer Fantasy (chronicled below), are quite similar to the Dark Elves in Warhammer in their being as deadly as beautiful.

Similarly to Tolkien’s realm, the world of Warhammer Fantasy presents more than one type of Elves. Closest to the Tolkienian archetype are the High Elves, or the Asur as they call themselves in Eltharin, their mother tongue. The Asur were one of the first races to arrive and, as the lore suggests, they have lived and prospered for thousands of years before even hearing their first stories of human presence. Initially, they were also the only Elven race of that world until the fight for power and the resulting conflict provoked the Sundering, a schism during which some of their more bloodthirsty brethren were driven out of Ulthuan, the island the Asur had inhabited for millennia.

Thus Dark Elves or Druchii were born. Under the leadership of Malekith, the failed usurper, they fled to the dark land of Naggaroth to plan their future revenge.
The third race of Elves inhabiting the world of Warhammer Fantasy are the Wood Elves (the Asrai). Those are the descendants of those High Elves who moved to the mainland to inhabit lands later taken by men. The High Elves who decided to stay there during one of the wars with the Druchii, when all the other colonists decided to come back to Ulthuan, took the magical Athel Loren forest and from then on grew ever more distant from the remaining two groups.

Although initially one race of tall, fair and slender folk with a lifespan of thousands of years, with the passing of time the three groups began to differentiate.

After the traumatic turmoil of the Sundering, the High Elves changed their outlooks and now seem to praise mainly traits such as purity, nobility, and self-control, which often cause them to be accused of arrogance and aloofness. The High Elves are a class society ruled by the so-called Phoenix King, responsible for military and foreign affairs of Ulthuan and chosen by the Council of Princes; and also by the Everqueen, who governs the internal matters of the kingdom and is a spiritual leader to all the High Elves. Their marriage symbolizes two sides of the High Elven mind.

The exiled Dark Elves of Warhammer Fantasy, unlike the drows from the Dungeons and Dragons gaming system, are not so different in appearance from their High brethren, the only distinguishing feature being their dark hair and perhaps a shade paler skin. Their culture, however, could not be more dissimilar. Contrary to the Elves of Ulthuan, they inhabit a harsh, cold, and dark land full of pine trees and violence. They are lead by Malekith, who was once a great general and a skilled sorcerer of the High Elves, now driven into madness by his failed attempt to legitimize himself as their king in the ritual of passing the flames of Asuryan, the High Elves’ most important deity.

Now a zealot of the Elven war god Khaine, Malekith and his Dark Elves wreak havoc, burn, pillage, and enslave every living being that is unfortunate enough to cross their path, and they do all that with the ultimate goal of reinstating Malekith as the rightful Phoenix King of the Elves. For all intents and purposes, Druchii can be treated as the exact opposite of the High Elves, except for the hierarchical structure of their society.

The last to appear chronologically in the world of Warhammer Fantasy were the Wood Elves of Athel Loren. Initially just a small number of fugitives trying to escape dwarven armies during the War of the Beard (or War of Vengeance as the Elves prefer to name it), they have also grown distant from their High Elven descendants. First of all they have become more chaotic, just like the nature they have been living so close to. The fact that they are ruled by two leaders opposite in nature only strengthens the impression of unpredictability. Both of those elves have been possessed by spirits of antithetical characteristics, with Ariel representing the regenerative, calm and peaceful, and Orion the warring and chaotic side of nature itself.

It is worth noting that in their millennia-long struggle against the forces of Chaos and other races, the High Elves have realized that their numbers are decreasing. There have been many theories to explain the phenomenon, with the leading ones blaming their obsessive self-control and unwillingness to mix with other races. No matter what the true reason is, that fact coupled with the knowledge that the population of Wood Elves has never been large and the Dark Elves every now and then get decimated, may lead to the conclusion that, similarly to the Tolkienian Elves, those of Warhammer Fantasy could disappear in the following few thousand years.

The presence of Eldar in the sci-fi Warhammer 40,000 A.D. (or 40K) series might or might not prove that claim wrong.

Shadowrun: Where Man Meets Magic and Machine, is a role-playing game (originally launched in 1989) that combines fantasy races and other magical beings such as dragons, with a cyberpunk world. Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction portraying a “noir” world that is simultaneously very gritty and high-tech, often with a focus on an articulated cyberspace as a zone into which hackers project their electroneurological consciousness in order to steal important data. Shadowrun has been described as an attempt to combine the writings of Tolkien and William Gibson (the author of the seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, first published in the year 1984). It should be noted that Gibson has said he was especially annoyed at the introduction of Elves into a cyberpunk world!

The initial premise of Shadowrun is a massive upsurge of magical and occult energies in the year 2011 (conceptually explained as a manifestation of the mysterious long cycles of the Mayan calendar). In Shadowrun, the Elves have attributes of physical beauty and skill with magic, but also a nasty streak which, at the extreme, leads them to plot genocide. Here, the notion of Elves is enmeshed with that of the traditional British aristocracy—especially as it has been perceived by left-wing critics. Also, Ireland (called “Tir Na Nog”) has been almost entirely taken over by the Elves. The notion of the Elves’ contempt for other races (including humans) hearkens back to notions in the original Celtic mythology of Elves (or “fae”) sometimes hunting humans for sport. One of the somewhat unusual aspects of Shadowrun is that some of the Elves and other fantastical races are actually former humans who have been transformed as a result of these occult energies. They also arise out of being born as children of human parents, during a period of a concentrated surge of these occult energies. Interestingly enough, it is suggested that the British aristocracy and upper classes actually killed or gave away most of their fantastical offspring who were not Elves, keeping only the Elvish babies. Thus the British aristocracy has become heavily Elven. As part of the “revisionism” of the setting, the Orcs (the word is usually spelled “Orks” in Shadowrun) and Trolls, while physically very strong, and appearing monstrous, are in fact not especially vicious in character, though being somewhat more prone to emotions. They thus almost inevitably become something like an “oppressed proletariat”.

This vision of the roles of Elves, as well as of Orcs (i.e., Goblins) and Trolls, is markedly different from both the cultural and traditional portrayals and the Tolkien model. Indeed it could be called postmodern.

In Castle Falkenstein (original version launched, 1994; Steve Jackson Games GURPS [Generic Universal Role-Playing System] version, 2000), Elves are introduced into a so-called “steampunk”, alternative-history, quasi-Victorian world. Steampunk is usually a subgenre that explores an alternative, nineteenth-century world. It posits that certain technologies (sometimes also including some forms of “real magic”) that were only hypothetical in our own world became available in the Victorian era. (The creation of the Frankenstein monster in fiction is one such example.) In Castle Falkenstein, the whole alternative-history Earth is said to be the creation of Auberon, who is the King of Faerie. (The name is obviously derived from medieval and Shakespearean literature.) Interestingly enough, Auberon forbids the arbitrary killing of non-Elves by Elves, but does give latitude for what are called “Wild Hunts” to take place, usually when an Elf is seriously offended. This is clearly an attempt to blend Tolkienian notions and the original Celtic mythology. In Castle Falkenstein, the whole spectrum of so-called faerie folk derived from Celtic legend appears, such as brownies, pixies, and so forth.

In conclusion, one should note the contrast between Tolkien’s highly ethical (on the whole) Elves and the somewhat-to-distinctly amoral Elves of Discworld, Warhammer Fantasy, Shadowrun, and Castle Falkenstein. The distinction is clear’ for, in Discworld, the Elves could in fact be seen as creatures of evil, and the Elves of Warhammer Fantasy include the distinctly nefarious Dark Elves.

It would be fair to suggest that it was an obvious Christian influence that led to Tolkien’s portrayal of the Elves as usually highly ethical. Tolkien’s Elves are clearly moral actors, in that they make choices with consideration to the moral impact of those choices. They are certainly not the mischievous, capricious fairy folk. It could be suggested that Tolkien’s portrayal of the Elves expressed his desire for a world ultimately based on a deeper reason and order, one where meaningful ethical choices could be made. Interestingly enough, Tolkien’s exercise of the imagination was very careful and disciplined. Antithetical to Tolkien’s imaginative vision is portraying Elves as mischievous, capricious fairy folk, who are amoral “trickster” figures, and who implicitly stand outside a divinely ordained moral order. In this sense, it is beyond question that Tolkien has indeed achieved a major transformation in how we think about and appreciate the lore of Elves.

Mark Wegierski is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.  He has made frequent contributions to these pages on matters relating to popular culture and political theory.

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