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.