Monday, May 14, 2007

Worse than Leprechauns

The ever-instructive Bernita inspires me to examine another dimension of fantasy annoyance, with a post whose title is very hard to resist, Little Green Men. The LGMs in question here are not aliens but leprechauns. These of course have fallen on hard times in our commercial age, largely relegated to showing up at bars on St. Paddy's Day to encourage more drinking - a needless task if ever there was one.

Traditional leprechauns were obnoxious little devils, unlike their Disneyfied modern descendents. This is useful to learn, because in the taxonomy of improbable or at any rate speculative races, they are surely in some broad sense cousins of Elves.

I detest Elves. The fault is squarely Tolkien's, not his commercial successors'; they merely adopted his creation, though with far too much enthusiasm. No doubt the good don thought he was doing the Elves a favor. Before Tolkien, they had fallen even further in the popular reception than leprechauns, known mainly as the labor force in Santa's workshop. (By now, surely, they have been outsourced.) Tolkien wanted to restore them to something of their rightful traditional standing - to make them awful, in the original sense of the word.

Unfortunately he want too far, and made them awful in the modern sense. Elves are supposed to be rather dark and dangerous, like practically everything encountered in the forest before park rangers were invented. Tolkien actually did a decent job of this with the forest elves in The Hobbit - while no friends of Smaug or the Dark Lord, they did not exactly roll out the welcome mat for Bilbo and his (admittedly dwarven) companions. By the time Tolkien got to Lord of the Rings, however, he had graduated to High Elves, which he proceeded to make Impossibly, Disgustingly Noble.

More broadly, races in fantasy are a curious thing. They obviously have a good deal in common with aliens in SF, as a projection of or commentary on human traits - and more purely so, since SF aliens retain the speculative element of "what would they be like?" Fantasy races are unburdened with that, free to be pure projection. There's nothing wrong with projection; all imaginative literature, even mainstream, is an exercise in projection, inviting the reader to identify with made-up characters. Projection needs some discipline, however - otherwise it becomes one-dimensional, Noble Elves and Nasty Orcs.

If I were to deal with Elves, I would start from a historical and anthropological perspective. Elves are the Old Race. They must have their origin partly in general human experience - the gremlins who steal one sock out of half your pairs, and arrange for the trunk of your car ("boot," to some of you) to not quite close, so the light stays on and the car battery runs down. Yet they must also provide some far glimpse, refracted through however many mirrors, of prehistoric Europe - successive waves of invaders semi-submerging previous populations, whose last independent remnants long held out in remote regions, the hills and forests.

It is odd that we associate them with Celts, because the Celts were themselves later arrivals, in the last millennium BC - just as it is odd that High Elves have become blond, since the Old Race was perhaps somewhat darker than the average mix of later arrivals; at least there is some folklore to this effect. If you want to picture an elven queen, think Catherine Zeta Jones, not Cate Blanchett. Yet the association of the Old Race and Celts is natural enough. It must have been Celts who encountered holdouts of the Old Race, and told stories about them, before they themselves were pushed into the hinterlands or submerged by the next wave.

The Old Race is no more inherently Noble than the rest of us, though indeed a bit of tragic nobility clings to them, as on this side of the pond it does to the First Nations, and for the same reason: We took their land and left them only memories. Likewise for the same reason they have no particular reason to like us, and even less to trust us. Countless Celtic and Germanic chieftains doubtless played Great White Father, signing treaties (or whatever you did in preliterate times) with no intention of honoring the terms. The last thing the Old Race is out to do is save us from our own misdeeds and blunders.

Give me Elves like that and I'd be happy.


Kedamono said...

mTerry Pratchett would agree with you about Elves. If you ever read Lords and Ladies, you know that he holds them in low esteem.

Elves used to steal children and replace them with changlings. If you didn't put out a saucer of milk, they curdle the rest out of spite.

Elves are awful.

They inspire Awe

People tend to forget that elves would hunt people for sport. No, Tolklien did a whitewash job on them in LOTR, one that they don't deserve.

Bernita said...

Elizabeth Moon's elves are wonderfully snotty.

I'm afraid, Rick, you are a racist and so is Kadamono - blaming all elves for the petty activities of various relatives and clans.

Carla said...

I second kedamono's recommendation of Pratchett's Lords and Ladies. I get the impression that Pratchett thoroughly detests the impossibly noble elves.

I wonder if part of the issue in LOTR is that the elves are a bit detached. I see them as rather played-out and passive, as though the world has moved on and they aren't really part of it and don't have that much to do with humans (or hobbits, for that matter). In The Silmarillion, which is much more focussed on the elves' story, I find them much more vivid and interesting.

Elves in Beowulf are mentioned in the same category as Grendel and other monsters 'ogres and elves and evil shades' as the descendants of Cain, so they were definitely seen as dark creatures then. If I remember rightly, later Norse mythology differentiated between dark elves and light elves, though unlike dwarves and giants neither sort seems to figure much in surviving tales so it's not clear what the difference was. I wonder if the idea of light elves got merged with the gossamer-winged fairy type? Possibly very late, because Shakespeare's fairies are cruel and manipulative. I wonder when fairies and elves became benign/pretty creatures? My guess would be Victorian or Disney period, roughly when nobody believed in them any more and they were therefore non-threatening (a bit like the way the Victorians romanticised the Highland clans once the Jacobite risings were a hundred years in the past and the political power of the clans was safely over?).

Nyrath the nearly wise said...

I third Kedamono's recommendation for Pratchett's Lords and Ladies. Pratchett is actually a very knowledgeable and intelligent person, masquerading as a comedy writer.

Pratchett's depiction of Elves is actually quite historical. People called Elves "the Gentry", the "Good Folk", etc. because they were terrified of them. He notes that they share a lot of common features with cats: beautiful and graceful but with a fondness for cruelly playing with weaker creatures until the creature dies of its wounds.

Anonymous said...

Kenneth Hite has a useful suggestion for understanding how Medieval and earlier societies viewed elves: whenever you come across the word "elf" or "faerie" in a poem or folk song, substitute "orc" or "goblin" in its place.


Rick said...

I really need to give Terry Pratchett another try. I read one of his books (don't recall which) and wasn't moved, but lots of people who generally share my tastes seem to swear by him.

I'll have to read more of Moon's fantasy, too - I really, really liked her Heris Serrano books.

The similarity of Elves to cats feels right, though I almost hestitate to say it aloud, lest it produce an invasion of cutesy cat-girls. I like cats, but am acutely aware of the advantage of being bigger than they are.

Evil Elves, though, could get as grating as the Noble ones do. I'd be inclined to see them as essentially amoral so far as humans are concerned.

Carla said...

Elves are fairly amoral towards humans, as cats are towards mice. From the mouse's point of view they look evil, though.

Pratchett's books are variable, but everyone seems to have different views about which are the best. I'd say read two or three, preferably with different subgroups of characters, before deciding whether he's for you or not. I see him as a comic novelist with a wonderful facility for language (reminiscent of PG Wodehouse) who happens to write in a SF/fantasy setting, if that is any help. I think his first books (The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Sourcery) are among the weakest because they don't have much, if any, of a plot. The later books tend to be building on previous books featuring the same groups of characters and make more sense if you've already read the earlier ones, though they will stand alone. I'd start with Wyrd Sisters (especially if you did Macbeth at school, like I did), Pyramids, Mort (you may like the Spirited Princess character in this one), Guards! Guards! or Small Gods.

Rick said...

Carla - I think the Pratchett I read might have been Colour of Magic. Whichever it was, it felt as if he was sending up fantasy conventions at the cost of disrespecting his own world. That I cannot abide, because it destroys the willing suspension of disbelief - if the author doesn't believe in the world, why should I?

Some other books have been hurt by this, such as Diana Wynne Jones' Dark Lords of Derkholm. I swear by her Tough Guide to Fantasyland, but applying that conceit within a fantasy novel doesn't work.

Disrepecting of worlds is something I've sensed more in British fantasy than US, which may mean that it is a cultural difference in how fantasy is "received." Yet no author ever respected his own world more than Tolkien!

Carla said...

Colour of Magic is an extended spoof on fantasy conventions. I don't think he's disrespecting his own world, but he's certainly disrespecting Rincewind the Inept Wizzard. I didn't start with Colour of Magic, and if I had I likely wouldn't have got much further! I like the jokes, but I prefer them hung on a plot.

That's an interesting distinction between British and American fantasy. I don't really read enough to comment, so take this with a pinch of salt, but I noticed what might be the same thing from an opposite angle - I found some US fantasy authors to be a bit on the serious and portentous side for my taste. I like a bit of irreverent humour and there's a very fine line between humour and disrespect.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I'm outing myself as another Pratchett fan. :) Wyrd Sisters is one of my favourties (I have a soft spot for his witches, anyway), another is Masquerade.

We tend to forget how the humans in LOTR see the Elves, but it's an aspect that adds to the overall image. Look at Éomer's fear of the Lady of the Golden Wood, and even Faramir, learned and wise and not prone to take folk-lore at face value, says it is better to leave the elves to themselves because humans will never truly understand them. They are strange and powerful, not only noble and of everlasting serenity.

Tad Williams drives that aspect further with the Sithi in his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy. The Sithi are ancient, alien, powerful, unpredictable, and sometimes cruel. And their dark brothers, the Norns, are no longer willing to accept humans in their world and fight them much like a cat fights an unwelcome mouse family. No D&D clichés here. ;)

Little fun info: In Iceland, there is a Deputee for Elves and Fairies who has to make sure that their homes are not destroyed by road building projects and such. I kid you not - the great ring road had to change way at one spot were it was about to run through a Fairy Hill. Accidents happened, the deputee was called in an talked with the locals, and it tunred out the little ones were pissed at the noise in front of their door.

It's interesting to see that stock Fantasy creatures undego a reevaluation these days. There is a German book series about the dwarves, Jim Hines has written a trilogy about Goblins, and Scott Oden plans a book about the Orcs - warrior tribes in an alternate Mediterranean, as far as I can guess from his blog.

There's more than one reader/writer tired of the clichés.

Rick said...

Carla - yes, some US fantasy writers can be terribly Portentous. Or pretentiously terrible.

Gabriele - good point about the LOTR humans' attitude toward Elves. We see them mostly through elvophile hobbits' eyes, which colors the impression we get.

Carla said...

Gabriele - that's a great story about the Icelandic ring-road! By the way, are 'elf' and 'fairy' different words for different creatures in Icelandic, as in English?

Rick - true that most of LOTR is told through the hobbits, who have a rather romantic view of elves. Eomer's view is probably the one you'd find in English/Norse society (which considering the Rohirrim are clearly based on the early English and/or Norse would make perfect sense). Tolkien seems to be showing that Eomer's view is mistaken prejudice, though, and Eomer does change it at the end, so I think it's still fair to say that Tolkien shows his Elves as noble and high-minded. (I always wonder how well Arwen was actually accepted as Queen of Gondor, though).

By the way, someone's just produced an entire scholarly tome on elves in Anglo-Saxon England. At £45 it'll have to wait for inter-library loan, though!

Rick said...

Carla - I love that title, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England - it would be exactly the same if elves were a regular part of life, and the author were just looking at their experience in AS times.

The mention of health reminds me of elf-shot in Lest Darkness Fall.

Davyd said...

I know this post is almost 4 years old - but I've been enjoying reading through the archives, and wanted to share something.

When running an RPG, I had a player with a Faerie ally, and needed to sort out if this was a "good" or an "evil" fae. To make it clear how I saw the fae, I explained it thus: The "evil" fae burns down your barn because he likes to see you hurt and hear the horses scream. The "good" fae would never do that, of course - pain is bad! No, the "good" fae will burn down your barn because fire is pretty.

Of course, it pretty much sucks for the horses either way....

Rick said...

Welcome to the comment threads! Glad you're enjoying the archives.

Yes, it does suck for the horses either way ... but I like your characterization of 'good' v 'evil' Old Ones.

Slaughter said...

You ever play the turn-based strategy game series, Age of Wonders?

Very good games with a excellent tolkenian storyline.

The Elves there are generally noble, but also have the capability to the incredible douches.

On the other hand, humans there are short-sighted and have no reverence for the things of old, so they're like this big barbarian horde that wrecks the Elven empire with their rampant population expansion. Some elves flee and rebuild under the daughter of the king, the others go underground, reunite with the Dark Elves, unite under the King's older son and prepare for vegeance. That's what starts the plots of the games.

One thing I like about it is that its not a simple good vs evil war in the first game (the one with the best storyline): It will eventually turn into a four-sided war, including two sides of "good guys" and one side of justified baddies. Do play.