A few more lines from “Tristram of Lyonesse,” somewhat appropriate to the discussion today.
She sought and drew the gold cup forth and smiled
Marvelling, with such light wonder as a child
That hears of glad sad life in magic lands;
And bare it back to Tristram with pure hands
Holding the love-draught that should be for flame
To burn out of them fear and faith and shame,
And lighten all their life up in men's sight,
And make them sad for ever.
Elves are some of the fantasy creatures that suffer most when authors create their fantasy worlds. In most cases, the authors are not drawing on any of the varieties of legend, but on one specific source—Tolkien—and only a pale version of Tolkien, at that.
1) Elves always seem to be delicately and fragilely beautiful. This may actually come more from conceptions of fairies and fantasy paintings than Tolkien’s Elves, since they were stronger than Men and perfectly capable of wielding heavy weapons, but it’s a commonplace nevertheless. I don’t know why. There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason why elves shouldn’t be able to lift a war hammer or throw someone else around, unless it does come from fairy wispiness, or from role-playing games that make elves weaker than humans so that humans will have a chance at fair play. But that trope makes its way into fantasy that’s not based on role-playing or home to any fairies.
If you have delicate elves, consider why they’re that way. Does it have a basis in the roots of your world, or was it just something you adopted because “that’s the way elves are?” If the latter, then realize that there are a lot of elves out there who look exactly the same. What is served by using this delicacy? It doesn’t even make much sense if you want your elves to be archers instead of swordsmen, since it takes an awful lot of strength in the upper arms and body to draw a longbow.
2) Elves always have pointed ears. This seems to be the main elf signal. Sometimes, it seems to be the only thing that makes elves recognizably elven, because otherwise they act just like humans.
If you make your elves immortal or have longer lives than humans, that in itself will affect them, probably far more profoundly than having pointed ears does. Yet this is the first thing all the humans in the story notice most of the time, the main signal half-elves have, and something stamped firmly into the conception of the elves without a good reason for it. Try to ask yourself what your elves’ pointed ears are doing there. Are they an evolutionary adaptation, and why? If your elves are descended from other kinds of fey or fairies, did those also have pointed ears, and why? If your humans and elves share a common ancestor, which deviated further, humans or elves, in the shape of their ears, and why?
This particular trope I find less troubling than the notion of delicacy and fragility, but it still functions like a cue card in many fantasies: “All right, they have pointed ears, they’re elves, and this is what you’re to assume about them!” It substitutes for character development, just as giving someone red eyes and a weak chin substitutes for actually showing them as evil.
3) Elves are predominately pale-skinned, also for no reason. The only true exceptions I can think of off the top of my head are the dark-skinned drow of the Forgotten Realms, and they’re portrayed as mostly evil (red eyes and all). This probably has a lot to do with Tolkien; Middle-earth obviously doesn’t have a lot of racial mingling. Still, there’s no reason for elves in all fantasy books to be “as pale as alabaster,” or whatever other simile the author feels intent on using. If they’re more at home in natural environments than humans, as just about all elves are portrayed, then perhaps that includes adaptation to their surroundings, as well. Why not have elves who live in deserts with skins the color of sand, or elves colored like the trees in forests, or like great cats if they’re predominantly hunters? It’s hard to see what environments alabaster skin would be a great advantage in, except the far north, and pale-skinned elves are often shown as too fragile to survive there.
If your elves were created this way by the gods and never had to go through a period when they didn’t live in cities and have all the advantages of civilization, then why? Did the gods of the elves not want them to go through evolutionary adaptation? And why, then, are humans usually portrayed as having to climb through stages where they lived in caves or in simpler homes than they have now? Why did the human and the elven gods apparently follow different paths? All interesting questions to think about and answer.
4) Elves are often associated with nature—but only some aspects of nature. Typical fantasy elves live in woods and—well, woods. Sometimes they have grand cities, but they almost never seem to be farmers. (Yet they somehow eat well anyway, and not just the products of forests). There are also sometimes sea elves, though surface-dwellers don’t really get to see what their homes look like. Elves are typically also represented as more aware of animals and trees than humans are, and as having a horror of technology.
This is very nice in a New Age type of way, of course, but it gets boring after a while. Metal is not unnatural. Nor is fire, or ice and snow, or tundra and taiga, or thick jungles. Where are the elves who live in those kinds of areas? They would probably have developed on at least one fantasy world. But they don’t seem to be in evidence most of the time.
There might be a reason for not associating elves with metal, because of the old legend that iron harms them. However, most fantasy books don’t seem to draw on this legend. They just draw on the stereotype of elves as happy dancing singing forest creatures, and don’t say anything about an actual vulnerability or allergy to iron.
If you have elves in forests, try to think about why they’re there. Humans in most fantasy worlds live in diverse places. If elves are longer-lived and capable of great achievements, are they really going to be too dumb to figure out ways to live in those places?
5) Elves will be affected by their longer lives. This is another reason not to make them humans decked out with pointy ears. They are likely to be more experienced than humans at dealing with enemies, and not to be caught in the trap of repeating history, because they will have seen it before. They may not respond as well to sudden crises.
However, that’s no reason to portray humans as the ultimate saviors of the world each and every time. Supposedly, elves in fantasy want to pretend that nothing has changed, and so they get left behind by history. Yet that doesn’t really make sense if they’ve lived through centuries and had time to see how the world has changed. Tolkien’s Elves certainly try to hinder time with their Elvish Rings and mourn the passing of the mortal world, but that’s at least partially because they know they’re doomed to fade with it or else go back to an immortal land. Most elves in fantasy don’t have that choice—they have to change with history because there’s no other place for them to go—but still hide their heads from change and try to make things timeless that aren’t.
If your elves are like this, answer yourself (and your readers) one question: How did they ever build a great civilization or defend it in the first place?
6) Elven societies don’t have to be monarchies. Most of them are, though, and the king or queen is usually hostile to humans, or else withdrawn from the world and fading. Surely, though, if elves have had those long lives to live, they would have seen the problems with monarchies and worked out some way to avoid them. Having a slow or sneering monarch on the throne seems like a large problem.
No system of government is perfect, probably, and there might be some legitimate reason for elves to have monarchies that is tied to their history in your world. But often they seem to have all the disadvantages of long lives in their civilizations—cumbersome traditions and unwillingness to change—with none of the advantages—past experience and the insight that comes from actually living through history while other races die too quickly to see the long-term consequences of their decisions. Try to have both in evidence, not just the slowly declining and dying societies that seem to be the norm, while elves stand around and wring their hands and don’t really know what to do.
7) Elven societies don’t have to be the epitome of delicacy, either. When they live in cities, elves seem prone to live in minarets and delicate spires and domes, or else tree-villages linked by wooden walkways. Yet no matter where they live, they’re never dirty, they produce no trash, and there don’t appear to be any elven chamberpots or elven unwashed linen.
This is no more realistic than a human society functioning the same way. The difference is that authors writing human societies in fantasy will sometimes make some nod in the direction of realism, such as mentioning a chamberpot or garbage in the streets. Elven societies are still turned into antiseptic visions, though, and all without the benefit of antiseptic.
It might be fun to try to invent explanations for this. Do the elves have a system of running water? Is every piece of trash they produce indistinguishable from the material of their buildings? Do they have invisible servants that do the laundry and empty the chamberpots, or are they perhaps too constipated to need chamberpots? (This last seems to be a common problem of fantasy elves). There are answers that could fit the picture of a well-developed society, though perhaps not the picture of a completely natural one. Try to find them.
8) Don’t swing to the opposite extreme and make your elves saviors, either. This is somewhat rarer than making the humans saviors because they aren’t fading, but on occasion it happens. Elves are so wise and special and wonderful ohmygod that the other races are portrayed as their children. These elves are gurus, sages and elders and smug teachers that fit all the worst stereotypes of knowing high priests or monks. The other races are practically in awe of them and swoon at the sight of them.
These elves are just as annoying, or more so, than the timid vegetarians cowering in their forests and wringing their hands. Some people at the least would probably feel envy and resentment of them, or get bored with their teaching and go away, or discover at least some of the teachings on their own (especially if you have other long-lived races like dragons or dwarves in your world). Yet this never seems to happen. One of the reasons I find it impossible to read the Mithgar books by Dennis McKiernan is that his Mithgar elves are like this. It makes me want to strangle them.
There must be at least some elves who are wrong, who are stupid, or who can teach without being smug about it. Perfect elves are no more fun than ineffective ones.
It’s amazing how few people try to take elves back to the original legends, or come up with their own twists, or just do anything other than imitate.