Elves, Elves and more Elves!

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.

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19 responses to “Elves, Elves and more Elves!

  1. AMEN. I too am sick of elves, & also sick of Celtic-tinged urban fantasy. Just… ugh. I never read Elfquest–clearly I missed out!

    (I’m also sick of vampire stories that fetishize vampires having pale, pale white skin–luckily there seem to be lots that don’t, but reading Twilight I was super-grossed out by how Meyer did that.)

  2. I met Wendy Pini at Comic Con back in July! I walked up to her, introduced myself, and thanked her for bucking the dark=evil trend in fantasy. She gave me a huge hug :).

    On a related note, World of Warcraft features the Night Elves, a dark-skinned, matriarchal race of elves who are noble and good.

  3. Actually, what you’re objecting to is not so much Middle-earth, nor even authentic British Isles/Celtic mythos versions of Elves, but the watered-down, sanded-down, Disneyfied, paint-by-numbers Dragonlance/D&D/Extruded Fantasy Products that are set in what Tempest has dubbed “McEurope.”

    The old Elves/Sidhe/Peri are strange. Far more complex and messy than even the Pini characters. Even the “good” ones, the ones who don’t hate humanity and are even friendly towards humans – who supplant them, with iron tools and deforestation and new religions, in pretty much all the versions of the Indo-European tales – are just surreal, operating by rules and norms that don’t make sense even by the archaic standards of Bronze Age society as passed down through many generations of fans and retconners.

    Humans who get pulled into their duels, wars, magical rivalries or amusements do so at their peril (one of the creepiest imo of authentic Medieval fantasies is the Folklore/Mythology updated-crossover ‘Sir Orfeo,’ in which Hades becomes the King of Elfland who has carried away the human king’s wife to be a statue in his garden. It’s so wrong, and it works so perfectly.) People turn into birds, horses, bugs, there are mysterious rules and bindings on powers and actions in addition to the standard of name-magic, the most beautiful and mysterious of the Fay are always eerie and grotesque, too – I once did a course on Irish Epic Cycles and man, that is some messed up – but wild! – worldbuilding. Faerie politics is not something mortals should get mixed up in, but the lure of the alien and ancient is hard to stay away from, even given the option not to enter the Hollow Hills…

    And this all gets tossed and diluted out of the “Tolkienesque” fantasies, but in the original Middle-earth mythos, there are extended commentaries on colonialism/imperialism and high-tech vs low-tech civilizations and injustice – all inter-Elven conflicts – and some fierce indictments of the “might-makes-right” attitude – not to mention the fact that the principle reason there are so few Elves left in Middle-earth is that they were responsible both directly and indirectly for two of the last three Apocalypses. (Es?)

    The whole “No, really, you don’t want us trying to Stop Time and Rule The World again” theme went completely over the head of Jackson & co, along with the canon rendering of Dwarven culture as sophisticated, artistic and noble…

    Oddly enough, the one of the Hellboy comics that I’ve actually read, “The Corpse,” does a pretty good job of capturing both the grotesqueness and the wistfulness of the Celtic mythologies regarding the Good People. (The other bit of pop-culture that doesn’t do a half-bad job in this is Labyrinth – Bowie as the Erl-King is appropriately madcap and terrible. And de Lint sometimes pulls it off, frex in his Jack of Kinrowan stories. But the world of Tam-Lin and the Peri-Banou is just too unconventional and full-of-grays for most modern storytellers to accomodate…)

  4. [ye gods do I hate autosmilies] A lot of the stories about the Sidhe have something of the same feel to me, in fact, as the stories in the Sundjata Cycle – Balla Fasseke in the Chamber of Snakes & Severed Heads, harping them into peace, has always felt like an outtake from the Red Branch Cycle, and Sogolon the Buffalo-Woman reminds me a bit of Macha. There are often very unclear boundaries in Celtic myth between mortal/immortal, living/dead, human/inhuman, and one of the key things in them always is the power of words/music, to bind people to one condition or other, to change reality, or to reveal a hidden truth, the same as a griot’s abilities to do these things.

    (Of course, there are ENDLESS scholarly battles over to what extent the Tuatha de Dannan/Sidhe/Firbolg represent historic warring Bronze and Iron Age cultures IRL, and I don’t pretend to know what’s really what, who influenced whom how, or even where the current scholarly consensus (hah!) is about it all. I’m leaving out entirely the people who say that they were really Atlantean Ascended Masters or aliens with Really Advanced Technology, btw.)

  5. And, of course, there is my basic take on it:

    When you have a group of people who live in trees, commune with nature, and are magical, they’re savage, barbarian, cannibals, or at best, primitives…

    unless they’re white- then they’re Elves.

    I think elves are basically modern fantasy’s way of trying to project a white fantasy of the “Golden Age” into their mythology. After all, peat bog sacrifices and skullcap drinking glasses don’t much make for a Golden Age…

  6. johanna-

    You should check out Elfquest if you get the chance before you leave or across the pond. There are now like 27 trade volumes but the libraries have most of them. Very good.

    Yeah, Meyer’s sparkly, pure marble-like white that shines in the sunlight like diamonds vampire skin is one of the reasons I have no interest in those books. Anytime there’s so much focus on the paleness of a characters skin it makes me feel sketchy and weird because it’s always in a connection with beauty which sets up the “ugly dark skin” belief and the absence of books that describe someone’s brown skin as beautiful in any way. It reforces the idea that beauty can only exist with pale skin and blonde hair and blue eyes.

  7. Tommy-
    Wendy Pini is awesome I got to see her at Comic-Con a couple of years ago and she was awesome. Sadly, I didn’t get to speak with her so I’m really glad you got to say that to her did and I love how she reacted.

    I’ve never played WoW (I’m more of a Guild Wars kinda guy) but that might be a reason to give it a try.

  8. bellatrys-
    I really wouldn’t have an issue if authors used the strangeness and alieness more but they seem to want to constantly make them more human. Like you said it’s the Disneyfied/D&D version of it that bothers me so much and the fact that most SF/F writers buy into that and portray that. If the stories were a little more like the actual folktales with horrible twists and creatures who aren’t necessarily cruel but just have a completely different way of thinking I would like them a whole lot more.

    See I didn’t know all that about the Tolkein elves, that makes them supremely more interesting to me. And as for Labyrinth it’s only one of my favorite movies ever. I love everything about the film, the hand filled tunnels, the worms that help her out, the 80’s songs (Dance Magic Dance!) but I do see what you’re saying about it really portraying the capriciousness and casual cruelty and almost childliek want/take/have attitude of the faerie.

  9. Chris-

    unless they’re white- then they’re Elves.

    Sad but true. It’s a way to co-opt the corrupted westernized version of other tradtions and put them onto characters that they can empathize with and it makes me more than little sick.

  10. Didn’t the Pinis put the entire Elfquest archive online? I vaguely recall reading that somewhere…

  11. What bellatrys said. Exactly that.

    The old mythos is deep and even disturbing in its way, and the shallow versions are – well – yeah – shallow, sadly so. And really really irritating for all the reasons you cite as well as just the principle of the thing.

    I really love(d) Elfquest, although interestingly enough it was my (soon to become) spouse who introduced me to it, way way back in the day. But doesn’t it have some girl cooties? I remember people making fun of it, like it was too smarmy and sentimental and romancy and relational, although those were the very things I liked about it.

  12. Another thing I like about Elfquest is the way the females are all drawn as individuals, rather than a different skin on the same mesh. Some of the women are nearly flat-chested (soooooo rare in comics), while others are quite busty. Nice to see some variety.

  13. LurkerWithout-

    This is the first I’ve heard that but I hope it’s true! It would be so awesome to be able to read Elfquest whenever I wanted online.

  14. Kate-
    I don’t remember hearing about it having “girl cooties” but it doesn’t surprise me that it had that accusation levelled at it. The whole “girl cooties” attack is of course gendered bullshit but it’s also used towards any media that tries to diverge at all from the “traditional forms” of F/SF at least that’s how I see it. The focus put on relationships as opposed to just magic slinging and big explosions is obviously girly…because men don’t have relationships?

    Yeah I loved the focus on the relationships, that was the interesting part -eeing how these complex and complicated bonds were navigated. That’s what I read them for anyway.

  15. Tommy-
    That’s very true, the body shapes of the elves and humans were diverse in a way not often seen in comics. Often all the men are mountains of muscle and the women so thin they have to carry their organs in a plastic bag. It’s always good to see folks who don’t have “ideal” bodies (i.e. most of the folks in the world) actually depicted in comics.

  16. http://www.elfquest.com/gallery/OnlineComics3.html

    Elfquest online. 🙂 (Also in the “website” part of the posting.)

  17. I just wanted to know the difference between elves
    and dwarfs but thanks for information.
    THANKS A LOAD

  18. I agree with you completely.
    My first introduction to Elves was thru Elfquest. What attracted me was the brown skinned Elves on the covers of the books.
    Before that, it was a children’s book about Trolls, which I found pretty horrific at age eight. Then, when I was a teenager, Labyrinth came out and I was introduced to Brian Froud. He had a book out around that time about Fairies and some of the stuff in it was pretty nightmarish. I never read Tolkien until I was well into my acult years and after the movies came out. I found it to be pretty bland tho’.
    You are right tho’. I am getting pretty tired of this watered down vampire and Elf junk. But I also understand that the vast majority of this stuff is aimed at 12-year old white girls.
    Sorry, but I like my vampires to be monstrous and compelling, and my Fairies and Elves to be as dark and weird and horrible as the actual folklore.
    Some of the writer’s I think actually capture this vibe are Brian Froud, Marie Brennan, Elizabeth Bear and sometimes Jim Butcher.

  19. i dont really agree…i mean i loved the elves from middle earth but yea they kinda got annoying too…. but i agree bout elfquest! i love it!!! =D

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