Monday, October 1, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Elves

It's the first Monday of the month, which means it's time for another entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. Grab your bow and glue some pointy ears on, as today we're taking a look at elves.

From books to film to video games, elves have become one of the most widely used character archetypes seen in works of high fantasy, and like most of those popular archetypes, its persistence in the genre is owed largely to the undeniable influence of J.R.R. Tolkien's seminal epic, The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien's elves were an ancient race of people that shared Middle-earth with equally fantastic beings like dwarves, hobbits, and wizards (and of course, the mundane race of men). Elegant and immortal, these elves would set the mold still used by fantasy writers today.

Tolkien dipped his hands into early fantasy literature and Germanic folklore for inspiration when crafting his race of elves. In Norse mythology, elves were supernatural beings sometimes associated with nature and ancestor worship that would occasionally interfere in the lives of human beings, for good or ill. Their Anglo-Saxon equivalents were not depicted as quite so ambivalent, with Old English texts usually portraying them as mischeivous or downright malevolent. These myths grew and spread through the centuries, with many different kinds of elves taking prominent roles in the modern folklore of various cultures.

Even today, elves persist in the western world via the Christmas elf of children's folklore. Many parents teach their kids the lie story of Santa Claus, who brings gifts to good little children the world over on Christmas Eve. According to the popular story, Santa lives in the North Pole, where he oversees a sweatshop workshop tended by helper elves who build the toys he delivers. This is all very traumatic for the children when they ultimately learn the cold, hard truth. I am not bitter.

Video games have become one of the most common mediums for modern depictions of elves in fiction. Their prominence comes cheifly via fantasy role-playing games, an electronic evolution of tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, which was itself heavily inspired by Tolkien and the authors that followed his lead.

These elves vary, but more often than not they retain some degree of Tolkien-esque flavor. My favorite example, however, is Dragon Age, a series which attempts to subvert the trope by showing a world in which elves have lost their former glory, cast down and persecuted as second-class citizens by the humans of Ferelden.

My own work has yet to feature elves of any kind, primarily because this trope has become so well trod over the years. If I ever do dip my toes into this one, I'll likely make my own attempt at subverting the traditional role elves play in the story, likely doing away with the word itself. Thus far, the muse hasn't brought me anything that would be conducive to the pointy-eared folk.

As someone who loves mythology and appreciates its influence on literature, however, I do still enjoy reading stories with elves, dwarves, halflings and the like, even if they've been done to death at this point. There's something alluring and fascinating to me about the ideas and themes that permeate through centuries of time across multiple mediums and genres (hence the existence of this blog series), and elves are a perfect example. And yes, I did say multiple genres. Fantasy geeks, don't ever let us science fiction nerds make fun of your elves. We have a few of our own.

Recommended Reading:
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Sundering by Jacqueline Carey
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams

Recommended Viewing:
The Lord of the Rings

Recommended Gaming:
The Dragon Age series
The Elder Scrolls series
The Warcraft series


  1. Hi J.W.!

    I'm all about the elves, although there aren't any in my latest writings and scribblings. Pointy ears are a big deal in this house. According to my S.O.:

    The only thing better than Liv Tyler is Liv Tyler with pointy ears.


    Nice nod to Spock too via link, although, you have seen this Bilbo video, right? Brace yourself:

    Happy Monday! :D

    1. Yes, I've seen that video, though until today I'd purged it from my memory as an affront to all that is good and whole in this world. Thanks for bringing it back into my universe, Tracy! :P

  2. Elder Scrolls D&D sets and modules were some of the best.
    Always thought the idea of dark elves, such as those by Salvatore, interesting.

    1. I never had the chance to play any Elder Scrolls D&D sets, sadly. That setting is so rich and huge though, I imagine it would be great fun.

      Dark elves are definitely interesting! They actually go all the way back to Norse mythology as well. In fact, the new Thor movie coming out next year looks like it's going to be incorporating the Norse dark elves, as it's set to take place on a planet called Svartalfheim, which means "World of the Dark Elves."

      Thanks for reading, Alex!

  3. Great post, as always, James! Well-researched and factual, but still conveying enough fascination as to make me long for a bit of magic... and I'm not a hard-boiled fantasy fan, beyond loving LOTR, so that says something. :)

    Oh for crying out loud, Tracy! You just raped Spock in my mind for ever!

    1. Thanks, Vero! I'll always be a science fiction fan first and foremost, but the two genres definitely go hand-in-hand in my mind. They compliment each other very well, and I usually end up alternating my reading these days so it's sci-fi, fantasy, sci-fi, fantasy (with the occasional horror or classic or comic book thrown in).

      Thanks for stopping by, as always!

  4. Great post! I was at the flea market a couple weekends ago and a vendor was selling tabletop D&D type games/campaigns? I asked how much because I really am interested in playing. However, when he told me $39.95, I was like, "Are you on drugs?" lol

    I didn't buy it, but I will continue my research. I never played an elf because their seemed to be too many restrictions for them in the games I played. Same with dwarves and scorpiens.

    1. Haha, how old a set was it? I hear some of the old editions of the games are actually more expensive than the newer ones. Some players prefer the older rulesets, I guess, and the prices go up since they aren't making them anymore.

      One thing I've been looking into is virtual tabletop environments. There's a couple of them out there, if I recall correctly (forget what they're called), and there's also one that's going to be coming out for Steam. It's basically just what it sounds like--you get a virtual tabletop that looks just like a board/mini set up that you'd have in your living room, complete with virtual dice, and you can play with your friends online. I've been meaning to look into it, as I wouldn't mind getting into D&D, but I don't know anyone in my area that plays (plus I don't want to invest in the sets and what not).

      Thanks for reading, Diane!

  5. I dressed as an elf for our office holiday party this year: "Randi the elf! What's your favorite color?" Problem was it was a last minute call and I didn't have make up to make my cheeks I used colored lip gloss instead. Well,JW, let me tell you something.Colored lip gloss DOES NOT like to detach itself from your face, even after ten minutes of scrubbing! Still haven't lived that one down...

    1. That's hilarious, Randi. That's what you get for improvising! I imagine your cheeks were permanently rosy after all that scrubbing. :P

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. Yeah, Spock is definitely an elf! Good call on that. I love sci-fi, too, though, so I consider myself someone who loves sci-fi/fantasy. They really are just two sides of the same coin, I think.

    I love this trope series you have going on here. I'm no big fan of elves because I'm not big on pointy ears, but I don't shun them. They come in all colors, shapes and sizes, as you've mentioned.

    I need to start The Elder Scrolls series! Too many video games (that are super long) and not enough time for them. (Although, right now I'm going through the Metal Gear Solid series chronologically because the world building is so hard to understand, lol.)

    1. I'm with you on sci-fi/fantasy. They really do compliment each other well, and often touch on the same themes and ideas, just from different angles.

      Star Trek actually seems to have had a lot of inspiration from fantasy. You have the High Elves (Vulcans), Dark Elves (Romulans), Goblins (Ferengi), and Orcs (Klingons). It might just be because Star Trek has such a broad number of species (usually, each with their own generalized character traits) that they were bound to have archetype crossover of some kind, accidental or otherwise.

      The Elder Scrolls series is one of my all-time favorites! Beware, if you mean to play the whole series, make you sure you don't give up on it when you play the first two. They're brutal! Insane old-school difficulty and Doom-style graphics. In fact, most people these days just start with Morrowind (which has PS2-caliber graphics and one of the best main storylines in the series). Hope you enjoy it!

      Thanks for stopping by!

  7. I have used elves in my fantasies...but have found my ogres much richer characters. Go figure. I like characters with a lot of baggage, a hint of danger, and a reputation to live up to.

    All hail the mighty ogre. *hehe* Actually, my ogres are family oriented lovers of nature.

    - Mac

    1. Your ogres sound very interesting! That's exactly what I mean when I say I love fantasy stories that twist the tropes around and get new use out of them.

      Thanks for reading, Mac!


Thanks for reading!