Dispel Subtext – Elves (Part 1)
Elves – they‘re everywhere and everyone knows what they‘re about. They‘re slender and graceful, mysterious, aloof, ancient, incredibly skilled and a force for good. They usually come in 3+1 flavors, high, grey and wood, plus the occasional aquatic, desert or jungle elf. Sometimes there are evil dark elves, but that mess warrants a different post. This one is about Elves in all their better-than-human, magical, a bit clichéd glory.
I like elves – probably because their androgyny spoke to the closeted trans kid I was. But I also like their connection to nature, their love for art, and that sometimes they‘re just as awesome as epic fantasy needs them. Paragons have a place there and elves can fill that role perfectly. And as much as I hate the clichés sometimes, they help many players create fun characters for more or less heroic adventurers.
Unfortunately, I don‘t like how many fantasy settings treat them. Some of them tend to be overly fond of them, turning them into superhumans who are good at everything, even morals, except at surviving for some reason or the other. Others become too self-aware, turning their elves either into paragons of evil and arrogance, or into one-off-humans with a talent for magic or deeper respect for nature. Lastly, there are the settings that just have them all – super- and almost human, supremely good and supremely evil. The aforementioned aquatic, desert or jungle elves are born from a similar wish to avoid the cliché, to do elves differently while still having elves, having your cake and eating it too.
It never really works. I think it is, most of all, because people still like the classic Tolkien elf – paragons are hard to hate, even if edgelords succeeded at making grimdark cool for a while. Second, it‘s very hard to get to really different elves from the questions people often ask when creating fantasy races: „What makes these elves different?“ and „What are elves like in this setting?“
The first one gets you stuck with elves and a list of attributes you can exchange, as in „elves, but evil“, „elves, but underwater“, etc.. The second question implies a similar list, shared between most or all elves, with pretty much the same result: You don‘t end up with a fantasy race that stands by itself and allows for variation within, but a homogenous group of humanoids, that stays defined by a deviation from normal elves who are defined by their difference from normal humans. That‘s why this attempt at doing it differently starts with them.
Elves are better humans
Before I really get into it: We probably can‘t get rid of the human inside the elf unless we do away with humanity altogether – people have a hard time not being people. But being aware that elves ultimately are about what we think about humans is something we can do and it helps.
as Tolkien wrote them, are stronger, more dextrous, wiser, more
beautiful and more moral than humans, almost immortal, magically
talented – elves are better than you.
They‘re also sad they‘re dying out, protect their homeland, and are “fairer than the sun to look at”, which, while taken from Norse & Irish mythology, whose writers probably had no concept of whiteness, is racist ideology today, as it was in Tolkien‘s times. They‘re thin, athletic, intelligent and never get sick, which happen to be qualities of Nietzsche‘s and the Nazis‘ Übermensch too.
Associating all that with goodness and with the human ideal elves often represent is a bad idea. And while most fantasy setting don‘t give their elves all of the talents above, many are still there, as are the unfortunate implications. Does that mean we have to get rid of elves? No, but we have to change them – towards another better.
I think we can keep the magic and the longevity – most magic doesn‘t have too many real world implications and I think most people can agree that staying alive is a good thing, at least for a century or eight. The wisdom and perspective of old age probably come with that, as does ample opportunity to become very good at shooting a bow, baking bread, painting or moral philosophy, most likely better than humans. Being in touch with nature is mostly a good thing too, so let‘s keep that, and maybe a tendency towards chaotic goodness, because paragons are fun, but so are honorless ambushes, hedonistic forest communes and disaster gays.
Better elves are worse
What we need to get rid of, though, is the white power fantasy that stands at the origin of modern fantasy elves. More black elves like in the Dragon Prince is a start, and I‘m pretty sure making them canonically genderfluid already pissed off quite a few nazi-aligned transphobes, so thank you, WotC, I guess. But a great part of that original racist fantasy lives on in their superior physical and mental abilities, their very British history as heirs of an empire who now have to protect their home to survive and their worry about the birth rate of the white academic middle class. Writing elves without an imperial past and less worried about their numbers or immigrants shouldn‘t be too hard.
The hard part is the less obvious connection between physical perfection, intelligence, and whiteness that is at the heart of their „better“ and often a core narrative of heroic fantasy. „The hero is smart, strong, dextrous, beautiful and white. Monsters aren‘t.“ One of the obvious solutions is making elves the villain, the other one associating the oppressed group, the Other, with those qualities. While those can make awesome & important stories, they‘re both missing something: the monster‘s flaws often stay the same.
To change that, you need a hero with those same flaws, who, instead of overcoming them, wins the day because of them. Rincewind, the wizard from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld-novels who usually saves the world with his cowardice instead of his courage is a good example. That‘s why I think, the perfect Elven Paragon is a collection of flaws, not skills, knowledge, or morals (as seen by society). The best human, and therefore the best elf, is a fucking disaster!
That‘s it for part one. The next part is going to be about how elves are different from humans and how that can be used to sharpen their profile and create new flaws. Meanwhile: What do you think could make better elves? Can they be salvaged in other ways? Please comment!