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Old 12-28-2012, 12:10 PM   #1
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Elves and Dwarves

I was wondering: Just when did elves and dwarves as most think of them today start featuring in fantasy fiction? I know they come from old myths, but did Tolkien introduce the familiar flavor?
You know; beautiful, elegant, artisan, aloof-but-decent nature-loving elves, often fading from ancient glory, and gruff, bearded, greedy, hardy dwarves, often with a dislike of elves.

I'm finding that I react a bit negatively when I come across "typical" elves and dwarves that seem directly inspired by Tolkien or D&D (itself inspired by Tolkien), and I'm wondering if it's fair of me. Genres do tend to have certain features and those features must start somewhere, and the "basic" elves and dwarves are undeniably fun and interesting characters when done well, but I can't quite shake this feeling. And it certainly makes me reluctant to use those stock races myself.

What do you folks think?
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Old 12-28-2012, 12:30 PM   #2
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They started with Tolkien.

There's not really a fair or unfair opinion here. You like what you like and you dislike what you dislike.

To be fair to those authors, once the concept is introduced, it's pretty hard to change it. What other sources of mythology would fantasy writers be familiar with? Snow White had some dwarves. There are stories of elves an fairies in England and some other European countries. But American writers, for example, would not have the cultural background to create their own elves, having only been familiar with Tolkien's. So in that sense you can't really blame them.

Those stock races are absolutely a convention of the genre, and it's hard to change such strong conventions.


I personally am unlikely to use conventional elves and dwarves in my stories. I've absolutely used similar non-human races, but I've never gone with straight-up elves or dwarves.
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Old 12-28-2012, 04:12 PM   #3
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I'd say Tolkien as well. He certainly took them from other sources. But he popularized them in modern literature.
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Old 12-28-2012, 05:56 PM   #4
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My feeling is that this issue divides fantasy readers quite strongly. A large group of them don't want to see anything more with such elves and dwarves, but another large group of us love these races just they way they are portrayed by Tolkien and D&D and would like to see more such stories, if only they would be done well. That's the kicker. Not so many do them well. I am using them in my story, since I'm one of those who would like more such stories, but it's impossible to judge my own writing, so I may only be imagining that I am doing them well.

I do get a little tired of those who never want to see such stories always ranting about them. I understand that they want to see only fresh takes on things, so why can't they understand that there is a legitimate taste for the old tropes as well? They don't have to buy such books themselves; they can just read the blurbs and skip them when they see them.
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Old 12-28-2012, 06:06 PM   #5
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I love the use of elves and dwarves, but I also like fantasy stories with out them. Personally, I am in planning phase of my epic fantasy and I intend to use both. But they will look a bit different, act in alternative ways, and have new titles.
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Old 12-28-2012, 06:41 PM   #6
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Elves and Dwarves have been around for thousands of years. Tolkein borrowed from myths and fairy tales, but he didn't add anything to those types. Considering how common succh small people in myths from around the world, they may be left overs from fragments of memory of a race of humans that died out tens of thousands of years ago.
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Old 12-28-2012, 06:47 PM   #7
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I can take elves and dwarves or leave them in stories I read. The only thing as a writer that I know is that one of the reasons my first novel was rejected personally by Jim Baen was because I had traditional elves in it. (There were dwarves, but they weren't Tolkien-traditional.) There were other, more structural, reasons, but that element was also stated in the list.

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Old 12-28-2012, 06:54 PM   #8
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The only way to get non-Tolkien-traditional elves is to do your research and go to the sources Tolkien used. Or at least the older myths and have fun with them the way Tolkien did.
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Old 12-28-2012, 06:58 PM   #9
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Originally Posted by efreysson View Post
I was wondering: Just when did elves and dwarves as most think of them today start featuring in fantasy fiction? I know they come from old myths, but did Tolkien introduce the familiar flavor?
You know; beautiful, elegant, artisan, aloof-but-decent nature-loving elves, often fading from ancient glory, and gruff, bearded, greedy, hardy dwarves, often with a dislike of elves.

I'm finding that I react a bit negatively when I come across "typical" elves and dwarves that seem directly inspired by Tolkien or D&D (itself inspired by Tolkien), and I'm wondering if it's fair of me. Genres do tend to have certain features and those features must start somewhere, and the "basic" elves and dwarves are undeniably fun and interesting characters when done well, but I can't quite shake this feeling. And it certainly makes me reluctant to use those stock races myself.

What do you folks think?
Poul Anderson's THE BROKEN SWORD, published the same year as LOTR has elfs (not elves) as beautiful, elegant, artisan, aloof, and real bastards, and dwarfs (not dwarves) as hard working craftsmen. :-)
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Old 12-28-2012, 11:06 PM   #10
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I don't mind dwarves and elves (within reason). And I don't think Tolkien turned these mythological creatures into staple/convention fodder for fantasy. I think D&D had a bigger role in that. I guess for me, I'd rather read dwarves in a D&D type novel. High fantasy. Lots of magic. Adventure feel.

I don't write dwarves or elves because I feel like D&D mined that so much with their RPGs and their novels that I'm not certain I could bring anything to the table that hasn't already been done. (My own lack of self-confidence there, not anyone else's.)

I like Tolkien's elves and some D&D type elves, but am absolutely disgusted by Elfquest and the huge-eared elves of WoW and such. I look at that and shake my head and wonder WTF these people were thinking when they created these races.
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Old 12-29-2012, 04:07 AM   #11
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Elves and Dwarves have been around for thousands of years. Tolkein borrowed from myths and fairy tales, but he didn't add anything to those types.
I have to disagree with that last line, at least regarding elves.

Tolkien's elves are Mary Sues. They're perfect in every way imaginable. And that's a new idea, because the elves of myth were freakin' dangerous, capricious creatures.

The thing I love best about Terry Pratchett's Lords and Ladies novel is that he introduces elves that seem like Tolkien elves, but who act like mythological elves, i.e. they're blithering psychopaths. Then Mr. Pratchett uses the tension between what glamour-affected people expect of elves and what the wise old witches know to be true of elves to drive the story forward.
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Old 12-29-2012, 05:43 AM   #12
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Elves and Dwarves have been around for thousands of years. Tolkein borrowed from myths and fairy tales, but he didn't add anything to those types. Considering how common succh small people in myths from around the world, they may be left overs from fragments of memory of a race of humans that died out tens of thousands of years ago.
Elves and dwarves have not been around for thousands of years, and Tolkien most certainly added a great deal to the concept in his own LOTR elves.


The Broken Sword elfs are based on more traditional English folklore fairies/elfs. That style of elf has been more popular recently, but it still vastly out-numbered by Tolkien/DnD elves.
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Old 12-29-2012, 06:11 AM   #13
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Bear in mind that many books of myth which have elves (the Icelandic and Gaelic collections especially) are derived from the Fae and Huldufˇlk, which... aren't really the same thing at all. Translators have used shorthand in many of the collected tales as a way to skip the thorny issue of what the spirit folk are, making the tales accessible to a wider audience, and a degree of caution when using names and naming conventions can make a good story great - it is better to build on oral tradition than anything modern. YMMV on the quality of some of the translations, but they represent a great foundation. Also, look to Lord Dunsany - I'm gonna keep pimping his work until everyone is familiar with him.
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Old 12-29-2012, 06:54 AM   #14
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Elves and Dwarves have been around for thousands of years. Tolkein borrowed from myths and fairy tales, but he didn't add anything to those types.
Yes, he did. Specifically, hobbits. I could go on, but I'd hate to bore y'all.
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Old 12-29-2012, 07:06 AM   #15
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Yes, he did. Specifically, hobbits. I could go on, but I'd hate to bore y'all.


Not bored at all with background on this. The little "Collected Tales" paperbacks only go so far, and my lame attempts at deciphering anything outside of English (and a fair few things in English as well, come to think of it) gives me a distinct frustration.
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Old 12-29-2012, 08:24 AM   #16
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Elves and dwarves have not been around for thousands of years, and Tolkien most certainly added a great deal to the concept in his own LOTR elves.


The Broken Sword elfs are based on more traditional English folklore fairies/elfs. That style of elf has been more popular recently, but it still vastly out-numbered by Tolkien/DnD elves.
Yeah, can't say that I'm a fan of the fairy-like elves who are super playful and play pranks and stuff. They just seem like fairies or sprites to me. Very uninteresting and a bit annoying.

When I think of elves in mythology, I think of norse elves which seemed to be portrayed as more human-like (and capable of mating with humans to create super beautiful babies). They were once, I believe, considered spirits of the dead. Been a while since I broke out my Norse mythology.
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Old 12-29-2012, 08:44 AM   #17
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I think races like elves and dwarves can provide a certain comfort zone for some fantasy readers. If you stick to Tolkien elves, you don't have to spend as much time defining your races. And others have been successful borrowing Tolkien's races. Just look at all the books Terry Brooks has sold, though he does introduce a few of his own races, especially in his later works. Similarly, look at how many Dragonlance books there have been.

However, because of these few authors that write with these stock races, it can be difficult for other writers to break in.
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Old 12-29-2012, 09:28 AM   #18
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I would have to say Tolkien. Tolkien's elves are my favourite race in the fantasy genre. From Fingolfin to Legolas. They have a rather sad history, some of which is their own doing but they are a rather heroic bunch.

I could never use traditional Tolkien style elves in my writing, just wouldn't feel right. I've used dwarves once.
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Old 12-29-2012, 11:27 AM   #19
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Yeah, can't say that I'm a fan of the fairy-like elves who are super playful and play pranks and stuff. They just seem like fairies or sprites to me. Very uninteresting and a bit annoying.

When I think of elves in mythology, I think of norse elves which seemed to be portrayed as more human-like (and capable of mating with humans to create super beautiful babies). They were once, I believe, considered spirits of the dead. Been a while since I broke out my Norse mythology.
I'm actually thinking of the darker side of Fair Folk mythology. Less pranks and more kidnappings, mayhem, and manipulation. In fact, many interpretations of these elves involve beautiful human-like creatures.
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Old 12-29-2012, 07:09 PM   #20
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I have to disagree with that last line, at least regarding elves.

Tolkien's elves are Mary Sues. They're perfect in every way imaginable. And that's a new idea, because the elves of myth were freakin' dangerous, capricious creatures.

The thing I love best about Terry Pratchett's Lords and Ladies novel is that he introduces elves that seem like Tolkien elves, but who act like mythological elves, i.e. they're blithering psychopaths. Then Mr. Pratchett uses the tension between what glamour-affected people expect of elves and what the wise old witches know to be true of elves to drive the story forward.
You may regard Tolkein's elves as "perfect in every way," but I regard them as the creatures that Tolkein wanted for the story tat he was writing.
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Old 12-29-2012, 07:11 PM   #21
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Elves and dwarves have not been around for thousands of years, and Tolkien most certainly added a great deal to the concept in his own LOTR elves.

.
If you are right about elves not having been around for thousands of years, then I must have been transported here from a different world, because where I am from they were around for thousands of years.

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Old 12-29-2012, 08:41 PM   #22
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Tolkien's influence and popularity on staple fantasy races has been both positive and negative. I'm a huge fan of the mythology of Middle-earth and of course Tolkien has had a significant influence on my writing (as well as many, many others). But I too shudder a bit when reading a fantasy novel where Elves and Dwarves are clones of those found in The Lord of the Rings.

The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany, predates Tolkien's publications and paints a darker picture of Elves and the land in which they dwell. C.S. Lewis provides some wonderful information in The Discarded Image, where he discusses the Longaevi (long-givers).

I do think that they can be used, but I'd like see the standard cliches dispelled or twisted in some way.
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Old 12-30-2012, 12:55 AM   #23
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You may regard Tolkein's elves as "perfect in every way," but I regard them as the creatures that Tolkein wanted for the story tat he was writing.
They look gorgeous, they sing perfectly, they are good and kind and generous and poised, their feet don't sink in the snow, their travel foods are better than NASA's, etc., etc.

Basically, their shit don't stink. They're Mary Sues.

But you're right that they are exactly what Tolkien wanted them to be--all-purpose plot-greasers and Hobbit-problem erasers. His elves did everything he needed them to and furthermore became a trope that still resonates powerfully with a lot of readers. I can't fault the guy for that, even if I wish Arwen had, y'know, been allowed to speak.
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Old 12-30-2012, 02:09 AM   #24
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They look gorgeous, they sing perfectly, they are good and kind and generous and poised, their feet don't sink in the snow, their travel foods are better than NASA's, etc., etc.

Basically, their shit don't stink. They're Mary Sues.
Not so much in The Hobbit. The Wood Elves don't seem benevolent in the least.
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Old 12-30-2012, 03:12 AM   #25
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They look gorgeous, they sing perfectly, they are good and kind and generous and poised, their feet don't sink in the snow, their travel foods are better than NASA's, etc., etc.
They're also arrogant and apathetic as fuck and won't help you more often than not.
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