A New Way of Looking at Elves in Fantasy Literature & Games

I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy and playing games like The Witcher 2 and Dragon Age: Origins lately, and I find myself focusing on elves. It’s fascinating to see how much Tolkien influenced the depiction of elves in popular culture. Even within this all-encompassing version of elf-ness, there are many different angles that could be explored to create something new within the fantasy literature sphere.

Common depictions of elves

So these games and books got me thinking: elves are always kind of depicted the same way, but even in these similar forms, there are issues that nobody really explores. For example, elves are usually “similar to humans but fairer and wiser, with greater spiritual powers, keener senses, and a closer empathy with nature.” While games like Dragon Age portray them as persecuted, second-class citizens, that wiser/fairer bit is generally accurate. In addition elves are usually immortal or extremely long-lived. This fact is what inspired this post.

If elves live longer than humans, then why is it a common theme in fantasy literature and games for elves to have a smaller population than humans? You commonly see elven characters saying things like, “Humans multiply like insects” or “humans are short-lived people with no connection to nature.” Why is this?

It seems to me that an author could create something really interesting if they explored the underside of “elven culture.” While they are normally serene and harmonious, sometimes authors portray elven society as rigid and socially stratified. There’s so much potential there: a society where you live a long time, but are kept limited in the role you’re able to play.

Elven societies in fantasy literature

Also if men multiply quickly, then why don’t elves? Apparently Tolkien wrote about elven reproduction and sexual norms in “Laws and Customs among the Eldar” in The History of Middle-earth, but I haven’t read it so I can’t elaborate. But still, you’d think because they live for such a long time that elves would be having children like crazy. Do they only have one set of children or something? Why do you rarely see works that focus on elven overpopulation? Think of the social implications of that.

Or if elves don’t have lots of children, is that because they have an extremely low birth-rate where their pregnancies, eggs, larvae–I don’t really know how these made up beings breed–rarely carry to the full term? If that was the case, that low birth-rate would influence almost every level of society.

Imagine if a writer explored these things in a fantasy setting. A stratified society dominated by reproductive issues like a low-birth rate or a high infant mortality rate would at the very least be different from the standard “elves as wise, harmonious nature-lovers” you see so often.

Other fantasy tropes and races

What other fantasy races would you like to see explored from a different angle? Sick of technologically-inclined dwarves that mine for treasure all day? What about blood-thirsty orcs or hungry halflings? Let me know in the comments.

Symbolism, Fate, Fantasy, (And Yes, Star Wars, too)

Today’s guest post comes from fantasy author Rachel Hunter (no relation as far I’m aware). Her novel, Empyreal Fate — Part One of the Llathalan Annal Series, is coming soon from Hydra Publications. Now onto the post!

Greetings!

First of all, a large ‘thank you’ to Mr. Hunter for allowing me to post a little something to his blog. It is an honor to be here, and I am thrilled for the opportunity to post about a topic that intrigues me: Symbolism.

What is it and why do we care? First of all, according to the first definition from Dictionary.com, ‘Symbolism’ is “the practice of representing things by symbols; or of investigating things with a symbolic meaning or character.” Indeed. And most of you are probably thinking along the lines of this:

Symbolism

And yes. Perhaps what authors write is completely random and without deeper purpose. Perhaps there is no other reason that the Weasley family’s hair color is red, Gandalf transitions from “Grey” to “White”, Thomas Covenant starts out with a sour disposition, or a certain stone was left overturned – other than the fact the authors woke up one morning and thought, “Aha! I know the most random details to apply, and apply them I shall!” Well – perhaps it’s the psychologist in me, but I disagree. Although not every detail or characteristic in a work is necessarily crucial to the plot, there generally is something relevant or telling that may be gleaned from it. The interesting part is determining whether or not one is reading into the psyche of the actual characters – or into the author her/himself. Now that’s the fun part to determine.

Symbolism can take many forms: colors, shapes, characters, personalities, seasons, events, creatures… even the direction the wind blows or the way a lake ripples in a breeze. But what does it mean? That, my friends, is up to you. The reader – whomever you may be. And that is usually the part I find contention with regarding English teachers and their crticial analysis of various works: it is not that something is supposed to mean one thing or another; rather, it’s the importance of what the symbol means to the reader. The reader is the one who takes the meaning out of a work and carries that meaning inside of her/himself: however great or small the impact. But it is interesting to note the generalizations of certain symbols and the meanings they indeed carry. For example, some common interpretations of symbols are as follows:

  • Seasons:
  • Spring: birth/renewal/“awakening”
  • Summer: maturity/growth
  • Winter: death/stagnation
  • Fall: aging/decline
  • Colors:
  • Purple: royalty/confidence
  • Blue: calm/serene/detached
  • Green: hope/growth/renewal
  • Red: emotion/passion/bravery
  • White: purity/innocence
  • Nature:
  • Water: regeneration/cleansing/renewal
  • Sun: vitality/strength
  • Cavern: womblike/secretive/mysterious
  • Direction:
  • North: hostility/alienation
  • South: warmth/expression
  • East: youth/renewal
  • West: old age/decline

Of coure, there are far more generalizations than that – and those are merely simple observations. It is another thing altogether to delve into the “whys” of particular actions and/or events. Or – “What does (insert object/person/event) signify?”

Throughout my readings, I have identified several symbols that hold particular meaning to me. But, again, the interpretations of one may be completely opposite in meaning to another. As an example, I would like to share a few interpretations of others relating to various works that I have found quite thought-provoking:

Mark Murdoch interprets the ‘Eye of Sauron’ (as found in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series) quite interestingly. Here is what he has to say:

“Sauron lacks corporeal form and is depicted as an all-seeing eye at the top of an obelisk-like structure. The all-seeing eye is an ancient Egyptian symbol traced back to the solar cult of Aton and is commonly associated with power groups like the Illuminati and the Freemasons. Note, too, another Egyptian connection: Egypt was known as the black land, and Mordor is also the black land.

Sauron then can represent the dark force behind the power elite who have ruled civilization throughout history. The Freemasons use the eye to depict The Great Architect of the Universe, the demiurge or, as the Gnostics refer to him, Ialdaboth, the false god.

As the all-seeing eye, Sauron sweeps the land in search of the ring and in search of knowledge. Here is another clue. For as Freemason Francis Bacon stated: knowledge is power. The all-seeing eye seeks power, seeks to control and dominate all it beholds.

All of this — the dark lord, the false god, the power-seeking ruler — leads us back into ego territory again: the all-seeing eye or all-seeing “I”? Even the phallic obelisk on which the eye is perched is representative of the pronoun “I.”

Yet Sauron is not just another representation of the ego. Sauron represents the capstone eye to a pyramid of power. For as Tolkien tells us of the power of the One Ring, no matter who believes themselves to wield it, it is ultimately Sauron who is in control. All of the magical rings were bound to his One Ring.

This suggests that all of our individual ego strivings towards power flow upward into a greater network of power from which an elite few can control the many. We see this revealed today. The greatest threat to individual freedom is centralized, corporatized power — the New World Order.

We are all wired into Sauron through our rings, our individual egos.”

Todd McCaffrey – son of Anne McCaffrey (author of Dragonriders of Pern series) – takes note of the various cultural differences and beliefs relating to the dragon. He sums up mans’ general fascination in a brief interview with NPR:

 “I think dragons are a really fundamental embodiment of our wishes and dreams,” McCaffrey says. “They are incredibly powerful,” he adds, “and they embody the best of humans and their aspirations.”

Dragon's Fire

Justin Bruce shares his opinion of religious and historical influences in George Lucas’s Star Wars:

“Although not quite as powerful in Star Wars as the symbolism of religion, I believe that there is a strong historical influence behind many of the scenes in the film.

In religion, I compared the character of Darth Vader to Satan’s second-in-command, Beelzebub, because Vader takes orders only from the Emperor Palpatine, but is in command of virtually all of the destructive forces operating from the Death Star. Likewise, Beelzebub is in command of Satan’s legions of fallen angels, or more specifically, demons. Since World War II, many have classified the actions of German commander Adolf Hitler as Satan-like due to his extreme evil qualities and persecution of the Jewish. Hitler was effective enough at commanding his forces that most actually enjoyed the horrible acts that they carried out on the prisoners of war in their captivity. Although it is not likely that George Lucas intentionally designed Darth Vader to be perceived in this manner, with the other comparisons between historical events and Star Wars, it is not difficult to place him in this role.

After escaping the Death Star, Luke Skywalker must return to destroy the center of evil operations before it is within range of destroying the rebel encampment. After receiving the initial strike from evil forces at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, that set up World War II, America was forced to retaliate with strikes on the enemy. Just as the Jedi strike on the Death Star was a valiant effort against overwhelming odds, many of the strikes in World War II suffered heavy losses, but were overall successful. The Allied bombing raids on Berlin, Germany, from November 1943 to March 1944 were effective at damaging the city, but almost 600 bombers were lost in the strikes. This is reminiscent of the strike on the Death Star, in which most of the Jedi fighters were destroyed, but the center of Empire operations was annihilated.

The historical aspect of Star Wars that I have found most comparable to the German forces in World War II is the title that Lucas has given to the Empire soldiers. They are known as Imperial Storm Troopers, just as Hitler’s soldiers were called Storm Troopers. I find this far too close to be coincidental, and this strengthens the symbolic link between Adolf Hitler and Darth Vader.

Whether George Lucas intentionally intended these religious and historical allusions in Star Wars is uncertain, but many have felt their presence in the film. This interpretation is probably one reason why Star Wars enjoyed so much success as a science fiction film.”

Enlist Today

At the same time, my novel – Empyreal Fate – has its share of symbolism. Although I shall not spoil anything for you here, I will mention that the Laymeur flower (as depicted on the cover) lends nicely to the concept of ‘Fate’. But again, it’s all perspective. Although readers may find various connections and interpretations that I have not even thought of, I hope that the relationship between the two is readily identifiable on an abstract level. If not, I would be thrilled to discover what readers make of the relationship – what they internalize – as well as what they make of the other ‘hidden’ elements. Just remember: whatever the work and whatever the subject – a symbol attributes meaning through the lenses from which the reader views it. Not all interpretations are the same, and there is no “right” or “wrong”. Rather, the significance of a symbol comes in when once decides for himself: what does it mean to me?

Empyreal Fate - Rachel Hunter

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Characters Count: Keeping Them Consistent

Engaging characters can make or break any story. You could have the coolest setting in the world  and a mind-blowingly awesome plot full of ups and downs, thrilling twists, and a dramatic conclusion, but they would amount to a fat load of diddly (squat optional) if your readers don’t care about your characters.

Readers Notice Inconsistencies

I just finished going through the first round of content edits and revisions on The Exile’s Violin. One of the common threads that ran through the editorial notes centered on my characters and their…character (for lack of a better word). I’d written them behaving one way earlier in the book, but by the end they were reacting to things in ways that just weren’t them. I didn’t keep my characters’ character consistent. And if my editor noticed, you can bet your ass that readers would pick up on it too.

Novel writing

For example, my main character, Jacquie, comes across as a no-nonsense type of young woman, one that may have anger issues, in the opening chapters. However as I was reading later chapters, she was doing things that were completely out of character. Trying not to cry after a setback instead of getting angry. Feeling ashamed instead of not caring what other people thought–especially when she hadn’t done anything wrong. She didn’t have that spark that made her interesting in the beginning.

Avoiding Flat Characters

All the writing advice gurus talk about making sure your characters change and grow–avoid flat, two-dimensional characters! But there’s a difference between character growth and inconsistency. You better break out your red pen and do some rewriting when you see these kinds of mistakes.

Red pen

Having a character learn to care about other people rather than just themselves, that’s growth. When two characters develop romantic feelings for one another in an organic, unforced way, that’s growth. When a character hates eggs in chapter 2 but then spends the rest of the book only ordering omelettes, that’s an error. So when Jacquie starts crying all the time (seriously it was embarrassing how many times I’d put that in there), it looked like her behavior was coming out of left field. I rewrote those sections to have her keep her original attitude. As a result, her character stayed more consistent, but still retained room for growth.

You can turn inconsistencies into genuine growth though. Using that egg example: you could add reasons into the story, plot points, dialogue, etc. that shows why that character learns to love eggs to the point where they’re eating omelettes for every meal. That would be growth.

It’s all about how you present it to the reader. You can show them a character’s behavior in one instance and say, “This is fact. This is how my character acts.” That’s all fine and dandy. But if you then show the character acting differently in a similar situation and say, “This is fact. This is how my character acts” they’ll call BS. No author wants to have their readers call them out on something like that. It’s just plain embarassing.

Starting the Revisions Process

I just got the first round of comments and suggestions back for my debut steampunk novel, The Exile’s Violin. This is super exciting and scary at the same time. On the one hand, the initial feedback I got in the email with the manuscript notes was good. The word “riveting” might have been used in the first sentence. So yes, that’s always positive.

Still I haven’t opened the marked up manuscript file yet. I’m kind of scared to do it. I mean before I read the email, I was afraid that my editor was going to read my manuscript and think, “Bleh, why did the company agree to take this mess on? This isn’t worth publishing.”

I mean that didn’t happen. And besides, if an editor really thought something was that bad, then my manuscript probably wouldn’t have been good enough to get accepted and to this point anyway. So that fear is just irrational. I know.

So why haven’t I opened the file yet? I don’t think I have “Editor-Phobia” as outlined in a guest post by Muffy Morrigan on Christine Rose’s blog. I’m not afraid that my editor is going to completely cut my voice out of the story. No, I think the thing I’m worried about the most is that I have an irrational fear of my own writing.

I don’t like the sound of my own voice on recordings. And similarly, I don’t like rereading things I’ve already written and revised on my own. And finally, despite all the advice that says to do this, I also hate reading my stories out loud. For some reason just thinking about reading things I’ve already written makes me cringe. It’s something I have to get over. If I want to keep growing as a writer, I know I’m going to have to learn to look at my works with a more critical eye.

Well if there was ever a time to toughen up and just get to it, this is it. My book is an actual thing that is being published. It will be a product people can buy and read. But if it’s going to get to that point, I got to take this first step. Who knows, it might end up being fun, and undoubtedly it’s going to make The Exile’s Violin stronger.