R.S. Hunter

Science Fiction & Fantasy Author

Tag: Tolkien

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.

My Response to “On (Moral) Fantasy Fiction II” and Others

Yesterday I read a fascinating post called “On (Moral) Fantasy Fiction II” by Paul Charles Smith that looked at different types of morality in epic or heroic fantasy. He talks about how there’s a difference in Tolkien’s writing when he was writing in a “tragic mode” or when he was writing The Lord of the Rings. It was a highly insightful look into shifts between a “shame” based culture and a “guilt” based culture. I recommend you read it.

In the article Smith mentions that he was partly inspired by the double review of Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin in Strange Horizons back in 2007.

In the review, reviewer Adam Roberts states that Rothfuss’ book doesn’t quite pan out because of the fact that it’s “medieval trappings” merely amount to post-modern anachronisms. He points to specific passages that if you didn’t know were from an epic fantasy book, they’d look like they could fit inside any modern novel.

Roberts contends that Tolkien is able to write more convincing epic fantasy because of his grasp of language and from coming from a different time. While I agree that Tolkien’s experience as a professor and philologist gave him a linguistic edge, I don’t agree with the implication that a modern writer can’t write authentic sounding epic fantasy.

I have my own issues with Rothfuss’ novel–mostly dealing with how Kvothe is able to overcome almost any obstacle and excel at everything. (Roberts does raise a fantastic point about the framing devices used in The Name of the Wind, especially those that pertain to the art of storytelling and how Rothfuss tries to deflect criticism by using some meta jabs at detractors). However, I don’t have an issue with Rothfuss’ use of language and writing style.

How many times have you read an amateur story that attempts to tell an epic fantasy tale only to be turned off by the use of language? People seem to think that using “thou” and “thee” will make their tale more authentic and “old sounding.” Most of the time it doesn’t work. Robert’s doesn’t explicitly state that inverted constructions and archaic vocabulary make or break epic fantasy, but I can’t help but get that impression.

Tolkien was uniquely suited to crafting prose that sounds like heroic verse because of his background and experience. Not every writer has to do that to create epic fantasy. Not every writer should do that. I took a class dedicated to Chaucer, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to try to write in a Middle English-inspired tone, even if I’m writing epic fantasy. It’d come across as stilted, like I was trying too hard. There’s much more to it than just the sound; there are characters, settings, and thematic issues that also shape and guide the genre.

I agree with both Roberts and Smith that there are cultural differences that permeate down to the metacognitive level between our time, Tolkien’s time, and “medieval” times (wherever the setting happens to be based).  But to me, things like where we draw the inspiration for our epic fantasy stories–either from individual achievement or personal defiance against a predetermined doom–are far more important than writing old fashioned and fancy.

What do you think? Am I missing the point here? Is sound/syntax just as important as setting, theme, and characters when it comes to epic fantasy? I want to know what other writers and readers of fantasy think.

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