I haven’t seen Thor: The Dark World yet – I’m sure I will in the next couple of weeks. I’m never the first person in line to see superhero movies, but my friends and family generally are, and I usually tag along. I jokingly called last year the Year of the Archery at the movies – between Merida, Katniss, Hawkeye, and probably someone else I’m forgetting, but I didn’t mind. I did see the trailer for Thor – that, and the new Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug trailer when I saw Gravity last week. I’ve peaked into Chadwick Ginther’s newest book Tombstone Blues and I’ve noticed a bit of a trend.
This year, elves seem to be downright mean. Even if one can argue that the Bilbo and the dwarves going to bother a dragon isn’t causing anyone any good in middle earth, you can’t help but not like the elves for hindering their quest. I find I’m in that same category. My beautiful immortals are beyond behaving badly – they’re the whole reason for the grand arc and they’ve dragged humanity into it. And even though I never really explain to the audience about my antagonists (Spoiler: They’re supposed to be Tuatha de Dannan, which aren’t elves per say, but lore suggests that there is some similarity) I can’t help but wonder how, given I wrote the book three years ago, I’m in the trend of elves behaving badly.
Growing up with the Disney Princess tradition (it wasn’t a marketing ploy yet, but the mechanism was in place), I liked everything about elves – they were the perfected version of humanity that didn’t grow old and die, were better than us, and for the most part, better looking. Darned if I didn’t want to be an immortal, bow-slinging beauty in some sort of ridiculous dress.
But I grew up – I mostly realized that dwarves were more down to earth and were probably more fun at parties. And while that Tolkien-dichotomy doesn’t exist in every resulting fantasy work, we see reinterpretations of elves throughout the speculative fiction realm – from the evil drow of R.A. Salvatore and their space counterparts as Vulcans in the Star Trek series, I think we can look at their history and maybe see how we’ve gotten here.
Elves before Tolkien generally speaking were synonymous with fairies. I’ll go into faeries a little more in next week’s post. The earliest recorded evidence of elves in story exists in Norse Mythology, often similar with the dwarves in terms of their handiwork and dealing with the gods and humans – elves could either aid or hinder heroes and other people who crossed their path. Out of the Christian tradition, faeries were thought to be neutral parties – siding neither with God nor with the fallen angels in the war in heaven, hence a moral ambiguity that generally lead to a more sinister interpretation.
Elves behaving badly beyond a certain religious connotation is nothing new though – Terry Pratchett almost exclusively has all denizens of Fairy Land behaving amorally all the time (the possible exception is the Nac Mac Feegle – but I’d argue that while they’re not evil, we can’t say they’ll win any awards for good behavior) and although I’ve yet to read a single book, Drizz’t Do’urden of R.A. Salvatore is essentially the story of a dark elf rejecting his ‘evil’ routes and charting his own path. Despite all of this, the cheerful interpretation of elves hasn’t gone away either – perhaps it’s aggressive Christmas marketing or the lumping them together with other creatures out of folklore, such as brownie and gnomes which have historically, been friendly and usually kind towards humans.
Leprechauns, I will note, seem to remain very faithful to their original mythology and I can’t find many interpretations of them. I suppose it’s the continued reverence for St. Patrick’s day, and all the green beer one can quaff.
But let us assume for a moment that we take a classic, traditional high-fantasy elf. Most of us are probably assuming something rather Tolkien. Perhaps they’re immortal, perhaps they’re tied to the earth, or magical in nature. So the next question is, why would we see them as formidable opponents? They’re not monsters in the physical sense. I suppose one needs only look so far as Greek Mythology as to see reason for the gods to squabble. But elves are historically different then most other species – they’re generally not the savage centaurs or the perverse satyrs, and they’re also not the monsters that vampires and giants tend to be. They’re much like us in shape and form – although, perhaps idealized in many ways, they run into the same basic failings as human beings – greed, suffering from pride, and a general disdain of those they consider lesser. It’s easy to demonize the grotesque and thing that’s different from us, it’s quite different to fight something sophisticated and perhaps something we would want to be.
Elves remain part of both historical mythology and our ongoing cultural depictions. What are some of your favorite interpretations of elves?