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.