I’m sick of elves! Their pale-as-moonlight, arrogant, earth controlling, long-lived, ivory-skinned, lawful-“good” (oh, except when they have black skin, forgot that!) always-hollywood-skinny asses make me throw up in my mouth.
Okay so maybe that’s a little harsh but it’s true. I’m tired of Celtic urban fantasy in general and elves specifically. Although I should say that like any overused trope there are ways to make it new and interesting again, such as Marie Brennan’s Midnight Never Come which linked faerie England with Queen Elizabeth I from her rise to power to her golden age. Those instances aside I’m sick of elves.
Maybe this is because I didn’t have a “proper” introduction to elves. I didn’t read about elves in Tolkien or any of those authors who followed in his tradition. My introduction to the fanciful creatures came from a comic called – Elfquest. Created by Richard & Wendy Pini this series explored a tribe of elves that lived in the forest and their ongoing altercations with both humans and trolls. Eventually they escape and make a trek across the desert where they run into another tribe of elves who’re guess what? Brown! And the Sun-Elves of the desert aren’t more savage and wild than their whiter forest cousins, in fact they view the Forest-Elves in that way while they are more civilized and urbane.
Already Elfquest is a step ahead in the race department with y’know an actual biological basis for elves that dwelled in the sun developing darker skin as opposed to the ricockulous idea that elves going underground and being cut-off from sunlight would darken their skin to midnight black. There is no evilness connected with the darker skin, there are heroes and villains on all sides but beyond even that the villains are all complex. None of the villains are simply evil they all have motivations and reasons for doing what they do and being the way they are.
It’s more than that though. The way the series dealt with sex/love was so innovative and progressive. These elves had bonds between pairings of all genders and even three-bonded relationships. They weren’t shy of their bodies, they had open marriages, they had relationships with many differing levels of commitment and investment as opposed to the normal dichotomy of spouse/partner/mate versus friend. And the different relationships had varying levels of intimacy – some that included sex not only as a benefit but as a tool to connect and keep those connections strong. The series acknowledged the idea of soulmates while also stating that great love was possible and important even without a mating of souls. Basically the elves in this series valued love, family, loyalty and friendships above all else – across all differences. Of course there were also fights with power-mad witches, searching for past ancestry, exploring different worlds and times and being haunted (literally) by someone you both loved and killed.
So after reading Elfquest being introduced to the more traditional fantasy elves was quite a let down. Sure there were occasionally elves that weren’t white but they were invariably the more savage “wild elves” or the universally evil “dark elves”/”drow”. Or if the main character was one of these “savage” or “evil” races then they were a good person but only as an example of how the rest of their race fit the stereotype exactly, the exception that proves the rule.
These elves were rigid and boring and more hide bound than the humans in the stories, they took forever to move and seemed to lack empathy or sympathy and run on pure arrogance…and this was the “pure/lawful good” race? This is what we’re supposed to consider good? This belief that they are always right, this arrogance that they know best. That very idea will sound familiar to anyone aware of colonialist reasoning. And this post isn’t even really getting into the HUGE problems with morality being connected to race, where whiter skin usually marks the race as good and dark skin marks them as evil and the colonialist thoughts that went into the creation of that trope and the racist notions it perpetuates.
Maybe it’s my politics or how I was raised but I much prefer the elves that accept folks for who they are, don’t think they know everything and value emotions and fighting for what’s right above tradition and safety. I’d rather the baseline for elves be ones that come in all different shades with no savagification or evil tied to their skin color. I’d rather if writers wanted to adapt an elf mythos they chose Elfquest over Lord of the Rings. The Elfquest elves take diversity and progressive writing in mind while the elves of Tolkien descent just seem to try and reestablish old stereotypes of race and gender.