Wrapping up our fascinating fantasy race series is KD Sarge, here to tell us about elves. Like faeries, elves are an extremely versatile race, with many different interpretations, from tall, ethereal creatures to small, trickster types. They tend to be associated with nature and have pointy ears. But I’m going to turn things over to KD so she can educate us.
Pretty Elves and Pointy Things
I love elves.
There. I said it. I’m that girl. I love elves, with their pretty hair and their pointy ears and their blood-covered swords–
Yeah. Those elves. Eventine Elessedil, old and wounded, trapped with a demon in Elfstones of Shannara. Cutter, taking on Madcoil, or any of the other foes that little elf took down with his little bitty shiny sword in ElfQuest. Rayek in ElfQuest, being a magnificent jerk. Movie-Legolas. I love reading the Lord of the Rings, but I didn’t really love Legolas until the movies. I know many fans complained about his stair-skating and oliphaunt killing, but not me. I loved it.
I guess I just love when pretty and bada$$ coincide. I’d like my butt-kicking with a side of eye-candy, thank you very much. So you can guess that when I write fantasy, I want to toss in elves.
It’s not as easy as it looks. Writing elves well is actually hard as heck. Why? Let’s take a step back—what makes an elf an elf?
I asked on Twitter. “I’m writing a blog post about fantasy genre–when I say “elf” what do you think of?” Answers included “immortal forest Vulcans!” and “Tolkien, ElfQuest, magic, nature, big ears, elegance, beauty, wisdom, forests and big old trees.”
Sounds like a good checklist to identify elves: magic, nature, big ears, elegance, beauty, wisdom, forests and big old trees.
I think many readers would point to Tolkien when asked about elves. The stories existed long before he came along, but Tolkien is the one who put the “Fair” in the Fair Folk. He made them Good People. He set the standard.
It’s a high standard. Of those who have read LOTR, who can’t close their eyes and picture Lothlorien? A flet, a mallorn, Galadriel? Yet, to me, there’s something missing. Tolkien’s elves are beautiful and mysterious—and hard to love. Though movie-Legolas is very much like book-Legolas, it took movie-Legolas (helped by Orlando Bloom’s face†, yes, but not solely BECAUSE of that face) to make me love him. This was also aided by having a most wonderful Gimli to play off.
And now I’m into “what makes a good elf?”
On the other end of the spectrum from Tolkien’s distant elves, Terry Brooks took readers into the elven city in Elfstones of Shannara and I’m not sure it was a good thing. In their home city his elves seemed awfully…human. Better organized, a good bit “greener” but yeah. Taken out of the forest they lost maybe too much mystery. I liked Ander Elessedil very much, but he never seemed like an elf to me. Eventine, fortunately, I’d met before.
But do you even remember the elf brothers in Sword of Shannara? Neither do I, because I didn’t research for this post. I wanted to talk about what worked and didn’t work for me, and my measurement was what I found memorable. My intensive research for this post was 1) years of reading fantasy and 2) checking if I had a question on how to spell a name or Elvish word.
“Elf” is one area where it’s too easy to rely on stereotypes. The writer says “elf” and the reader knows all they need to know. It’s an easy trap to fall into. Am I the only one who can’t remember the name of a single elf in Raymond E. Feist’s Magician series? I so incredibly loved parts of that series, but the elves, which ought to be a shoo-in for this particular reader, I barely remember existing except around what happened to Tomas. Magic, nature, big ears, elegance, forests—yep, it was all there. Just exactly elvish, so I forgot to pay attention.
Opposite of that, of course, are Wendy Pini’s Wolfriders in ElfQuest. I could spend the rest of this post and a few more days talking about them, because I remember and adore them all. But I’ll just mention that Nightfall is one of my favorite kick-butt ladies of all time, and get back to my point. Checklist. Thing.
You couldn’t call the Wolfriders elegant. And wisdom—well, Cutter spends most of his travels trying to collect a bit of that. His struggles and successes are marvelous, but still, not many would be asking him for advice. Magic—unlike the Sun Folk and to a greater extent the Gliders, the Wolfriders have very little magic. They have pointy ears, yes, but their huge old tree was burned down, and they had to leave the forest.
In ElfQuest, Wendy Pini took everything I knew about elves and gave it a twist. She populated an entire world with different kinds of elves who didn’t always trust each other, who did things differently, who grew and evolved on their own but still had a fundamental connection on a level that humans just don’t seem to get, that kept them all elves…I had to pay attention. And I loved it.
As the saying goes, I’ve got some big shoes to fill, but I think I’m better off taking my own route. When I sat down to write my own elves, I thought about elves I’ve loved, and why I loved them. The goal was to create a culture that was most exquisitely elvish—with a good twist.
It’s not easy, but it sure is fun, walking in my very own pair of elven boots.
†Full disclosure: I am very fond of Orlando Bloom’s face.
KD Sarge writes fiction in many shapes and sizes. Her Dream’verse novels are available through Turtleduck Press, but they are science fiction. Her elves have not yet been released up on an unsuspecting world, bwahaha. Find her at http://kdsarge.com, or follow her at http://twitter.com/KDSarge.