Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Why Elves?

Among the myriad of established fantasy races, I continue to find elves captivating. They come in numerous forms and varieties, but I usually enjoy their presence as a reader and a writer.

A number of years ago, I’d written a short story around elves playing a game. There wasn’t much to the story, and it never sold before I locked it away, but on one of my rejections, an editor wrote: “Why elves?” Looking back, I realize the editor didn’t see anything in the plot requiring elves (likely because there wasn’t much of a plot). But at the time, I found it comical. What other race would I have used? For me, it was an exploration of this fascinating race, and I hoped to capture a slice of their lives.

Years later, I figured out that my failure in the story was a lack of plot. I had characters playing a game of no consequence in a generic setting. My next attempt was to take a human character and thrust him into the elves’ environment. What this allowed was an entry-level point of view – someone with limited knowledge of elves who would take everything in and point out anything he found curious or unusual. The character’s observations were my observations as I dreamed of their world and what they were like.

The challenge in writing about elves is to avoid clich├ęs without violating key aspects that make elves what they are. In the end, it becomes a balancing act. But what I find most alluring about elves is their illusiveness - the ineffable qualities that humanity cannot understand. Whether it’s their craftsmanship, magic, language, longevity or intelligence – there are aspects of elves beyond my grasp. Regardless of what I might create, I always want to retain an enigma around them.

Ironically, the mystery I admire creates a superiority I detest. Because elves have inexplicable skills, humans become inferior. And the elves know it. In some stories, humans are prey to the elves’ amoral (or perhaps immoral) whims. Even Tolkien’s elves had a darker side, according to their deeds recorded in The Silmarillion.

Despite their arrogance, I won’t shun the elves. I’m drawn toward them, like so many stories of humans discovering the fey folk in the deep woods, never to return. We need more elves in today’s fantasy.


Unknown said...

I really liked this article.

I have always had a great love of elves, and I like reading about them in other works (books, role-playing games, tabletop, etc). I think they definitely have a place in modern fantasy fiction provided they are used cleverly; no one wants a Tolkien-copied-Elf.

Good article.

Matthew Wuertz said...

Thanks, Alex!

Agreed - a carbon-copy from Tolkien just won't cut it. Not that there's anything wrong with Tolkien's elves, but I think readers are quick to spot them in other works of fiction.