Thursday, April 30, 2009

Elf Rage II: Learning the Tropes

I posted about the phenomenon of Elf Rage and discovered a (for me) tremendous outpouring of emotion for my readers (who are not normally the most responsive bunch). I had intended the post to be a somewhat tongue-in-cheek description of my feelings on the topic of elves (which I talk about more seriously in my post about nonhuman characters in general), but apparently there's some real passion here. Who would have thought it?

Seriously, then, what's the matter with elves?

The biggest problem facing elves today is that they are a grossly misunderstood, debased version of a much more nuanced original. Much of modern fantasy is descended from Grandaddy Tolkien, and elves feature prominently in his epic. The elves of Tolkien possess many of the traits that define modern elves: tall, slender, and beautiful bodies, a sense of sadness and detachment, an appreciation of beauty and craftsmanship, enormous dignity, and a calm intellectualism that often precludes taking direct action, despite their boundless compassion for life. Some readers miss is that Tolkien's elves are largely inactive during The Lord of the Rings not because they think they're too good for the story, but because they think they're too bad for it. If you read the Silmarillion, Tolkien's elves have a long and elaborate history of screwing up. Sauron, for example, is almost entirely their fault. The reason Elrond and his buddies don't get involved is because they are certain that if they do, they'll manage to botch it up even worse this time, and although they're mostly convinced that the world is doomed, they'd rather not be the ones responsible. Twice.

What some people see is that elves are pretty, old, snooty, pricks. The elves are better than you. You deserve what's coming to you, but the elves don't, and it's probably your fault. Often the elves spend the entire story finding excuses not to get involved in the plot, only to do so at the last possible minute and save the day - compare to the Lord of the Rings, where the elves spend the entire story finding excuses not to get involved only to do so at the last possible minute in a confrontation that has no bearing on the actual conflict, because the real heros (Sam and Frodo) are out of reach.

And then, for some reason, that's what they write. I'm baffled by the prominence of this interpretation of what it means to be an elf. Some really brilliant authors - Tad Williams, for example, in his otherwise brilliant Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn - fall into this trap, and I can't imagine why.

Incidentally, I really do love Tad Williams's work. Except for the elves, I thought Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was great. His Otherland series, beginning with City of Golden Shadows blew my mind, and I can't wait to read Shadowmarch (the series even has its own website - who knew?). I just can't stand his elves.

The second problem facing elves today is something I alluded to in my public service announcement: elves are an old race, a dying people, and it's really past time they shuffled off to the West already.

I believe that tropes - oft-repeated narrative themes - have life cycles. This is probably true of conventional fiction as well, but tropes are more noticeable in fantastic fiction (probably because they have pointy ears, ride in spaceships, and/or have psychic powers), so we can observe the life cycle with greater ease. Tropes are born, budding off parent tropes, the result of the union of two older tropes, or rising on their own out of the narrative unconscious. They grow, becoming more complex and nuanced. They develop relationships with other established tropes, spawn baby tropes of their own, and eventually become old and decrepit.

You can tell when a trope is entering old age when it needs to reinvent itself. This works, for a little while. Creators change the names and the details. You get, for example, the desert elves and drow (ugh.... drow) of Dungeons & Dragons; still essentially elves, but shaped by strange new environments. Eventually, even that doesn't work. The trope has become too tired and worn out - it can't adapt itself anymore. For an example of this phenomenon in action, check out this RPGnet thread about ways to reinterpret elves and make them fresh and new. Note how many of the posters, despite their best efforts, wrote elf-variants who were the same old same old with a thin and largely ineffective coat of paint. At least one of those is mine, by the way.

This is where a trope enters its final stage. Dying tropes can't take themselves seriously anymore. They resort to shallow self-mockery (elves are silly!) or blatant reversals that are just as tired as the original concept (elves that are bad! elves that are ugly! elves that hate the woods!), but none of this works anymore.

I believe that this is where elves are, or will be soon. We're just sick of them, and you can only put so much lipstick on, well, an elf.

Two permutations bear consideration, however. The first is that some tropes will never die. They have such a wide base that they will always find new individuals to carry the torch even when the rest of us are bored silly, or they have managed to situated themselves such that they have become something elemental, unapproachable, supported by a huge number of lesser tropes that continue to feed and care for it into eternity. Consider, for example, the basic "Sword & Sorcery" trope - that one's not going anywhere. Immortal tropes have ups and downs, but they're in it for the long haul.

Secondly, tropes that die don't really go away, they just sink into the narrative subconscious. As I wrote of elves, they may go away, but they might do so only to return when we least expect it.

But if they save the day when they do, I'm going to be really annoyed.


Mike said...

Half of my hate for elves is actually purely cosmetic. i.e., despite the fact that I actually RESEMBLE the stereotypical elf (tall, slender, long hair, pretty) I HATE the way elves look. I actually really really REALLY hate that they almost never have facial hair. When it comes to D&D or somesuch I can never bring myself to play one because of that. They're just too goddamn "pretty" for their own good.

But I think there are two real reasons that I hate elves. One is that, Tolkein aside, they really ARE basically snobbish pricks in 90% of the fantasy that is written. Take Dragonlance for example. Elves EVERYWHERE, but the only elf that was at all cool (Laurana) was the one who basically acted like a human. All the other elves basically serve as a cautionary tale for how not to act.

And my other big thing about elves is that they are hideously overrepresented. They're fucking EVERYWHERE.

In D&D 4e you have Drow, Elves, Half-Elves, AND Eladrin. There's probably a lot more. More than any other race, Elves have a million subspecies and I am just generally sick of it. I don't like Dwarves that much either, but Elves are far worse on that regard.

jeeperstseepers said...

One of my favorite Discworld novels is Lords and Ladies. The elves in it do have some of the stereotypical characteristics of elves, but they're frickin' creepy. A couple of the scenes with them read like horror scenes. I think it's awesome.

J said...

Bah, I like elves. Americans are so barbaric most of the time, even snooty elves are a good opportunity for expression of artistically integrated civilization. :-P

Scattercat said...

I don't recall the Sithi coming in to save everyone in MS&T. In fact, I mostly recall them being assholes about the whole thing not because they were "too good," but because they were the aggrieved parties to begin with! That is, the Sithi are more like very cultured orcs than elves, if we're comparing to Tolkien. They were betrayed, marginalized, and demonized by the humans. When one of their own goes rogue and starts trying to destroy the humans, well, who can blame them for not immediately jumping on the Save the World train?

I think it's a mistake to see every "snooty pretty race" as a "bad elf." Sometimes it's something else entirely, but in one's hurry to slot everything neatly into tropes and boxes, one misses the nuances.


One interesting thing to consider: Magic: The Gathering. Elves have been constantly reimagined and reinterpreted, though they're usually primarily Green-based (and thus big on "nature.") There are standard Elves, the Elves of Wirewood who were getting all mutant-y and blended with trees, and then the Lorwyn and Shadowmoor blocks. The Elves in Lorwyn were Black and Green and were obsessed with beauty and perfection to the point of hunting down other races as "eyeblights." In Shadowmoor, the "dark mirror" of Lorwyn, the elves were WHITE and Green, dedicated to preserving whatever beauty they could find in a ruined and ruinous world.

Lots of similarities, but all very different creatures with different ideas and philosophies.

kindli said...

I have first hand experience with Elves: I was Mrs. Claus' Executive Elf for the Very Long month of December. I coordinated her Tea Parties, wore business casual and answered Stupid Questions from Annoying Children.

The Annoying Children were surprised someone one as tall as me (5'10) could be an Elf - hence my Executive Elf title (I dealt with the world beyond the N. Pole). In their world Elves are short (more like dwarfs) and slave away at the North Pole all day.

I know Santa's Elves were not quite what you had in mind, but they are just as unreal as the rest of them, so you should included them.

Mark said...

@ Mike:

I see. Maybe you are an elf. A secret elf.

Anyway, it looks like we're on the same page about a lot of Elf Rage. Elf Proliferation and Speciation, Elf Snootiness, Elf "Logic." Elves as a bland fantasy catch-all that are there just because they "should" be.

@ jeepersteepers:

I'd say that those are less elves and more faeries, and faeries have a long and proud history of being kind of awful. Take Changeling: the Dreaming, and more so the sequel, Changeling: the Lost, and many of the YA titles with faeries in them, like Wicked Lovely (which I haven't read - just to be clear). Faeries are reliably much more interesting than elves, but they aren't always the same thing.

In Tolkien, for example, faeries are mentioned (the Took with a faerie wife) but never met. Elves, on the other hand, are all over the place.

@ J:

Dirty elf-lover :-).

@ Scattercat:

I'll grant you that some of Magic: the Gathering's elves are kind of nifty. Horned elves with a mad-on for the ugly is kind of cool. That said, you can only stretch elves so far before they snap. And while I kind of like the idea of a snapped elf...

I'll have to check the end of the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. That's how I recall it, but I could be wrong. It has been a while and I'm far from perfect.

@ kindli:

Santa's elves aren't really on my radar, but I'll contemplate the matter and see what pops out.