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To Elf or Not To Elf: Races in Fantasy Lit

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 | Posted by Jon Sprunk

Evangeline Lilly in The HobbitA long, long time ago, I wrote my first novel. This was decades before I would get published. I was fresh out of college with grand ideas about how my book would set the fantasy world on fire. The story featured a main character that was half human and half elf, who set out to defend his elven kin from a nation of hostile orcs.

Yeah, I know. Not exactly groundbreaking. I’m thankful that novel was never published, more because of the shitty writing than the plot or characters. Yet, it brings up an interesting debate within fantasy literature.

Are races like elves, dwarves, orcs, and goblins fair game for modern fantasy?

Now, off the cuff, I’m inclined to say yes. You can write about anything you desire. Who am I to judge, right? However, while that may be the politically-correct answer, a little more digging turns up some complex issues for the modern writer.

My first introduction to those “classic” fantasy races was Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings saga, and it was continued in my formative years via games like Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer Roleplay. Growing up on a diet of elves and orcs, it was little wonder that I choose to feature them in my own early writing. I suspect that most authors begin by emulating their literary idols, but eventually you need to break away and find your own brand of storytelling. It’s difficult to find your voice when you’re playing in someone else’s sandbox.

But what about authors who genuinely want to write about these races? Here’s why I would advise against it.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight-smallImagine you’re a young filmmaker with her heart set on creating a new science fiction franchise. What kind of reaction do you think you’d get with a script featuring a Jawa warrior who meets a Gungan princess and together they lead an army of Wookies against an evil empire? Unless you held the rights to the Star Wars franchise, you’d be laughed out of the studio exec’s office.

Of course, Tolkien didn’t invent the myths of elves, trolls, and dwarves, but his novels brought them into the genre mainstream, and every one of us who follows afterward takes that legacy into account. I don’t think fantasy lit (or any genre) benefits from continual self-derivation.

Don’t get me wrong. I still love Tolkien, and I go back to read the original Dragonlance trilogy every few years just to reconnect with those wonderful characters. Every genre goes through cycles of stultification and renewal. Ideas become overused, get stale, and then are discarded… until someone comes along and makes them new again.

Yet, I find that I don’t need an elf or an orc to make a particular point. These fantasy races are actually human, just as every character in fiction is based on humanity. A human character can be just as wise and noble as Galadriel, or as wicked as an orc assassin.

At the end of the day, we all have to make our own choices. To elf or not to elf… well, I’ve spoken my mind. But feel free to tell if you disagree.

18 Comments »

  1. Actually, I tend to agree. Non-human characters within any genre should serve a purpose besides being some “cool” thing the author wants to play with. At the very least, the very alien-ness of such characters should come into play. A character need not be an elf to be good with a bow, or to be fast. A character need not be a dwarf to know about mining and gems, or to be dour and grumpy.

    That being said, there are a few authors here and there who come along and tell us something new about such races, and, of course, about humanity.

    Comment by Ty Johnston - October 9, 2013 4:12 pm

  2. Hi Jon,

    With some of the baggage attached to the classic fantasy races, their use in modern fantasy can be tricky. Its not just lazy, but there are often unexamined assumptions about, for example, a race of “Evil humanoids” that have all sorts of bad connotations.

    Comment by Princejvstin - October 9, 2013 4:44 pm

  3. In some ways it’s a shame that Gary Gygax decided to bring elves, dwarves & hobb– I mean halflings — into D&D (a choice which he said was basically an attempt to attract LotR fans) — I think a lot of us were exposed to those D&D gameworlds and novels at a very formative age and now it seems like that’s just the “correct” way to make a world.

    Well, Sword of Shannara is also part of the explanation.

    Comment by Joe H. - October 9, 2013 6:54 pm

  4. Jon–You have said eloquently what I’ve been informally preaching for years. Spot-on, sir–top drawer. In other words: “Damn straight!”

    Comment by John R. Fultz - October 9, 2013 7:48 pm

  5. I just want to emphasize that I’m not calling an author who chooses to use a classic fantasy race “lazy.” If you think you’re showing us something new and exciting, have at it. And we can’t forget there are a lot of readers who don’t mind stories about these races, no matter how derivative they may be. To each their own.

    Comment by Jon Sprunk - October 9, 2013 8:07 pm

  6. You can use elves and their like but you better have a good reason. There’s too much myth and literary history wrapped up in them to just wave them around like in an game setting. I like the whole Star Wars ripoff analogy. Same thing with Dark Lords too as far as I’m concerned.

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - October 9, 2013 8:58 pm

  7. “Is this elf necessary?”

    Which is how I finally trained myself out reflexively throwing in the Tolkienesque races.

    Indeed, once I devised it, it was years before I introduced a non-human humanoid.

    Comment by Mary - October 9, 2013 9:11 pm

  8. Thanks for posting Joe H., so I’ll not feel wholly alone here.

    I would never use hobbits or halflings. To me those are Tolkien’s and Tolkien’s alone. But the dwarves and the elves and the dharrow predate him by centuries. He drew upon their legends to craft his own lore, and IMO that makes them very fair game for others to draw upon.

    The Star Wars Cantina offered us some wonderful glimpses of some fantastic specie possibilities, but they almost all got there via spaceships of some kind. How many of them would have evolved and thrived alongside humans in the temperate zones of a standard Class M planet?

    To me, the elves and the dwarves (and a few others) are natural biological companions to humans, we may even share common ancestry. How else could you explain the occasional half elven, etc. unless we were related somehow? You can even see their shadows in the sturdiness of the Neanderthal and the relative diminution of Erectus. Who’s to say where the tales of these races come from, some deeply buried genetic memory perhaps? I say elves and dwarves are simply additional races of Man, made magical by tale tellers.

    I’ve wondered about the preponderance of humans in much fantasy of late. Except for the occasional monstrous race, we humans seem to be largely alone on the stage, save for Peter Jackson’s movies.

    Have we hunted all the other demi-humans to extinction already?

    Comment by Gruud - October 9, 2013 9:26 pm

  9. Gruud brings up a good point. While in the last couple of decades there has been some push back against non-human races in fantasy, there will come a tipping point when elves and dwarves and the like will probably be “new” again. It mike just take the right author with the right story to do so. Is it so impossible elves could come to be what zombies are to horror fiction, or vampires?

    And, actually, I intentionally stay away from most non-human races in my own fantasy writings, but this post has got me thinking. If I WAS to tell an elf’s (or orc’s or dwarf’s, etc.) story, how would I go about it? It seems kind of like a challenge, and I will have to think long and hard about this one.

    Comment by Ty Johnston - October 9, 2013 10:08 pm

  10. When I find them, I treasure books with different nonhuman races — Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts, e.g., or China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. Or Steven Erikson’s Malazan books, of course.

    Or, hell, look at the Green Men of Barsoom.

    But let there be no doubt that I do love me some elf/dwarf/orc action, if done well.

    Comment by Joe H. - October 9, 2013 10:39 pm

  11. I’ve never been tempted to use Elves or Dwarves in any of my fiction. I’ve just never been that enamored of them.
    But then again, I’ve also never played D&D or read much in the way of “derivative epic fantasy” barring two Brooks novels.

    Comment by sftheory1 - October 10, 2013 8:13 am

  12. Interesting reading and some interesting comments. I actually got so sick of the awesome elves who can do no wrong vs. the evil orcs situation that for years I purposely avoided such books. Always thought the orcs got a bad deal and even wrote some orc centric short stories – which were never published. Am sure that’s more my poor writing than the fact they were about an orc hero…

    Recently there have been a few books about orcs. Mary Gentle’s – Grunts! (well that’s not so recent) was of course a bit of a ground breaker in terms of portraying orcish heroes and also moving away from the evil dark lord setup. Stan Nicholl’s orc books are pretty good, and of course Morgan Howall’s – Queen of the Orcs series is also in my opinion an excellent read.

    But your point, do they have a place in modern fantasy. Well yes, because even though they all deal with orcs, I think the nature of orcs has been far less developed than that of elves in literature, so the template is a bit more vague and as such each author has come up with an innovative take on what could otherwise be a passé theme.

    Parting shot, what I really don’t think has a place in modern fantasy is the half-orc, half-elf, half-breakfast serial etc. come on, basic chromosomal differences if they are all indeed mammals to start with! One can suspend ones belief that an alternative intelligent race is out there, but unless one wants to explore a common ancestor then the likelihood of inter species breeding – short of some sort of diabolical magical intervention is just not on.

    Comment by Tiberius - October 10, 2013 10:11 am

  13. @Tiberius

    Not sure why “basic chromosomal differences” is such a big deal for fantasy literature to ignore. It seems to me that logical consistency is key, not whether our own universe’s laws of genetics (or any other natural laws for that matter) apply to a fantasy world or not.

    Let fantasy authors construct their worlds the way they want.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - October 10, 2013 10:57 am

  14. I suspect there’s room for everybody, from Terry Brooks to China Mieville.

    I would like to see fewer elves in trees. I tried living in a tree briefly, for about an hour. It was awful.

    And as for the dwarves and their caves? Sheesh, caves are unremittingly damp.

    Which brings up the question of why orcs never build cities.

    Nevermind. I digress.

    Comment by markrigney - October 10, 2013 11:43 am

  15. @ James McGlothlin

    You got me there. I was airing a pet peeve. But in context of the article with modern day focus on dna all over the media there are plenty of armchair geneticists out there who may find it interferes with their suspension of disbelief.

    But for sure let people write about what they like. To close, my RPG of choice RuneQuest has a chaos creature called a broo. It can hybridise with pretty much anything.

    Comment by Tiberius - October 10, 2013 12:26 pm

  16. I like Poul Anderson’s elves. Dangerous, esoteric bastards drawn mostly from the original myths. Maybe it’s the history buff in me, but I find that I respond best to fantasy elements that hearken back to their original meanings and contexts. Makes them seem more vivid, I guess? My attention wanders when I feel an author throws in the standard races because they’re just riffing on Tolkien or others.

    Comment by andy - October 10, 2013 12:53 pm

  17. Jon, speaking as a guy who hardwired old-school dwarves and dragons into a fantasy world, I think I sort of agree with you. Doing something that invokes the shadow of someone like Tolkien is a tremendous risk and no one should do it without forethought.

    On the other hand, sometimes longshots pay off.

    Comment by James Enge - October 10, 2013 1:06 pm

  18. “Which brings up the question of why orcs never build cities.”

    Orcs never build cities because they are more precocial than we are, or elves and dwarves are. Like, say, spotted hyenas. Newborn hyenas spend their days in dominance fights with their littermates, which often result in serious injury or even death. (Sounds orc-like to me. 0:)

    But precocial species do not learn things as swiftly and adeptly as altricial species. Their difficulty in learning new tricks has trapped them without the abilities they would need for a city.

    (I conjured this notion up because I’ve been playing with the notion recently.)

    Comment by Mary - October 11, 2013 11:25 pm


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