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Elves and Elfy Things

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Kjbartolotta

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I'm writing a story with elves* in it, and I realize I haven't thought about them in a long time. High elves, sorta like Tolkien's Quendi and all their variant offshoots, but I realize I'm having a hard time capturing exactly that essence of elfiness. I know, I know, their are plenty of depictions in fiction to go off of and it comes down to what you want to do with it, but I'd be curious the community's thoughts on what makes an elf an elf. If you've written elves in your fiction, how to you depict them? What makes them different from humans? How do you think their society is ordered and what are the hallmarks of their outlook? Or just, what do you think about elves?

For me, the I associate with elves are:
-Pointy ears
-Immortality
-Connection with the natural/spiritual/magical world that makes them, if not superior, then at least more evolved in some manner than humans.

But then, there's a lot of variety beyond that. When I try to come up with my own depictions, I feel the issue they come as a typical medieval society but 'everything's better and more beautiful'. I've always liked the 'Sidhe' variants on elves, one of my favorite books when I was younger was Greg Bear's 'Songs of Earth and Power', which depicted their alien coldness beautifully. I've also enjoyed depictions of elves in urban fantasy, though oftentimes I'll see version that start to blur on the edges into faeries (I'm never quite sure where the line is).


*Actually modified human who created an elven retrohabitat.
 

lilyWhite

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Along with what you've mentioned, elves typically seem to have higher Agility and magical stats, but less Strength and Vitality than the average human.

[/RPG glasses]

Where it seems you're stuck is with their culture. They typically are associated with nature, so if you're going to go with the classic elf tropes, build on that. How do they view nature itself, humankind's effect on nature? How do they interact with nature, versus the unnatural? Do they reject advancements, such as technology or medicine, and suffer as a result for it? (Come to think of it, it'd be an interesting take on elves if, due to their natural ways of living, they thoroughly reject magic as an "unnatural" manipulation of the natural world.)

It's also worth thinking about how their long lives would affect their outlook. Does it cause them grief and sorrow to outlive those around them, or do they teach to cherish what you have in the moment?
 

Ari Meermans

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Well, the first thing you have to know is the primary difference between elves and fairies—fairies are mythical.

Elves would have been happy to remain hidden among us and their world hidden from us but some dingbat who couldn't keep his mouth shut persuaded an equally not-too-bright elfin friend to grant Tolkien an interview. The malarky that followed is history. One of the few things Tolkien got right is that elves are not diminutive little creatures. Their society is similar to but more complex than Tolkien portrayed. Family history prevents me from saying too much more.
 

Brightdreamer

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It depends on how faerie you want to make your elves, really.

Are they inhuman in the sense of, say, a Neanderthal, related and of the same world but somewhat other?

Are they inhuman in the sense of the faerie, in that they're almost extradimensional and are about as different from us as we are from insects?

If they truly are hardier and essentially immortal, would their society evolve just like humans? Would they need farmers and herders and bakers and such if they hardly ever need to eat, or would food production become an art form, as much about the experience and aesthetic as consumption? Would they need roofs on their houses if they're mostly immune to weather and exposure? Would they need writing, if they have highly evolved intellects and possible telepathy - could their books be written on ethereal essence, perhaps stored in living minds dedicated to meditation and recitation? Would religion be a thing, or would elves be expected to learn spiritual tenets as a basic subject like arithmetic... or would they even have spiritual beliefs? How about healers, save maybe in extreme cases - would the workings of their own physical body be something they're expected to understand and correct themselves? Fae and elves often have purple/orange morality, somewhat to the side of what humans consider right and wrong, which is a source of many of the problems between the species; as a writer, you'll want a framework for what they consider acceptable or taboo. What can their magic do or not do, and how does this alter their society? (If magic takes care of waste, then sewage won't be an issue, for instance.)
 

Introversion

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What defines an elf, at least the kind I've read?

* whiteness (have never read an elf of color depicted, alas)
* aloofness (inward-looking culture)
* longevity (if not actual immortality)
* primarily cerebral (possibly because most of them are so old, have seen it all, etc?)

Hmm. It's unsurprising that some refer to Vulcans as "space elves". :tongue

But seriously, I wonder what extreme longevity would do to a species?

What they have a very extended period of adolescence? Would elves be surly teenagers for centuries?

Would they only rarely have children? That seems logical, because in nature short-lived species tend to have the most offspring. But elves can presumably choose whether to breed or not. Does that imply that elves just don't like sex very much? Or that they're just careful and selective about when they choose to have children?

Would they be capitalists or communists? No, seriously, I'm curious. Do elves have to buy houses, or does the community come together and build houses for each other? If the former, if elves can live for thousands of years, do elvish banks make 1000-year mortgages?

Would they tend as a society towards eschewing all short-term gains that they know will cause long-term harm? Would they suffer an elf Zuckerberg in their midst?

Would they be very risk avoidant, because who wants to do stupid stuff and die versus living for thousands of years? (Niven's classic SF species the Puppeteers took long-term risk avoidance to its logical absurd extremes.) Maybe they breed like rabbits, but most young elves kill themselves off doing stupid stuff?

Would they be generous with their knowledge, sharing it with ephemeral species like humans? Or would they horde it jealously like dragons, because what's the upside to teaching others (especially rapidly breeding species like humans) anything that could potentially someday pose a risk to them?
 
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dickson

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Well, the first thing you have to know is the primary difference between elves and fairies—fairies are mythical.

Elves would have been happy to remain hidden among us and their world hidden from us but some dingbat who couldn't keep his mouth shut persuaded an equally not-too-bright elfin friend to grant Tolkien an interview. The malarky that followed is history. One of the few things Tolkien got right is that elves are not diminutive little creatures. Their society is similar to but more complex than Tolkien portrayed. Family history prevents me from saying too much more.

Umm. If I were you, I'd have written "the good folk" instead of "fairies" to be on the safe side. I wouldn't want the Queen of Air and Darkness to take offense!
 

Ari Meermans

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Well, the first thing you have to know is the primary difference between elves and fairies—fairies are mythical.

Elves would have been happy to remain hidden among us and their world hidden from us but some dingbat who couldn't keep his mouth shut persuaded an equally not-too-bright elfin friend to grant Tolkien an interview. The malarky that followed is history. One of the few things Tolkien got right is that elves are not diminutive little creatures. Their society is similar to but more complex than Tolkien portrayed. Family history prevents me from saying too much more.
Umm. If I were you, I'd have written "the good folk" instead of "fairies" to be on the safe side. I wouldn't want the Queen of Air and Darkness to take offense!

<G> There ya go. The point of my little exercise was simply this: How real do you want your otherworldly characters—elves, fairies, Mr. Spock—to be to your readers?

Do you want to rely on cliches and that which has been done? Tolkien reimagined elves with complete histories, their cares and strifes, a spiritual realm (Valinor or "The Undying Lands"), and with all that he made them seem real. You can do that, too. Even if you don't want to build a world with such rich detail, you can still reimagine your elves. There's never anything to hinder us other than our own imaginations.
 

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Tolkien's elves were inspired in great part by Middle English fairies, rather than the elves of Scandinavian medieval literature, though they were also an influence.

The pointed ears are a derivative of Victorian fantasy elements (and Christmas cards); Tolkien in a letter to his publisher states that Hobbits have very slightly pointed ears, but that elves' are more pointed.

The text that profoundly influenced Tolkien in his elves is the Middle English romance/lay of Sir Orfeo; a text Tolkien edited.

In Middle English the words elf and fairy are frequently treated as synonyms; this is partly because of the dual heritage of English as Germanic (elf) and French (fairy); both elves and fairies are otherworld beings, and were very early on conflated as English borrowed from its dual heritage.

The root of the word fairy/faery/fay/fey/faege ultimately goes back to two deeply rooted concepts mythologically and etymologically; the idea of fate, as in knowing one's fate or having a fate (fate, fata, etc. are cogates) and, farther back, the idea of speech and prophecy.

A lot of modern fantasy (to me, that's anything after c. 1485) in English borrows heavily from early Irish and Welsh medieval literature, and uses sources that are Victorian in nature, and thus not really accurate.

The Irish Tuatha de Danan and the Sidhe, for instance, while used all the time in modern fantasy, are mostly not really faithful to earlier texts; there's a lot of badly done cultural appropriation.
 
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Ari Meermans

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Yep, and there's nothing to say we can't borrow. I pretty much think we have to, to some extent. But we don't have to stick to that which is commonplace or overly familiar—let it be a jumping-off place but only that.
 

ironmikezero

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CONFIDENTIAL ALERT - ALL AGENCIES - ACTION IMMEDIATE

Recent discoveries within the Human Genome Project, heretofore classified TOP SECRET/NTK/EYES ONLY, were mistakenly declassified (currently attributed to a software glitch--however, human intervention is strongly suspected). Certain compromised data and conclusive executive summaries were subsequently accessed by unknown persons. The error was discovered within hours; the material information secured from further public access.

Regrettably, certain information was deemed irretrievable. Consequently, involved agencies are instructed to immediately commence disinformation campaigns to minimize any impact related to the compromised data. Topics to be covered will include the following:

There is no such thing as an elfin gene--especially within the human genome.

Elves are not an offshoot of the human genetic tree.

Elves do not live among us, and have not done so, hiding in plain sight.

Elfin folklore is not to be believed.

Personnel who question this directive are to be reported forthwith to the Ministry of Internal Security - Compliance and Correction Branch.



('Sorry, Ari . . . your cover may be blown . . .)
 

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While the Norns in Tad Williams' Osten Ard are pale, the Sithi are described as "golden skinned." In my head, they are closer to black than white.

Elves usually strike me as pretentious. Even short lived ones like Terry Brooks writes.
 

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While the Norns in Tad Williams' Osten Ard are pale, the Sithi are described as "golden skinned." In my head, they are closer to black than white.

Elves usually strike me as pretentious. Even short lived ones like Terry Brooks writes.

In the original Germanic myth, there were black elves; they are described as being so black that they are darker than night.

The Norns are lifted from Old Norse myths; they are roughly equivalent to the Fates, there.

The Sithi are derived from the Sidhe of Irish, as are the Sith of Star Wars.
 

MonsterTamer

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Oh! I forgot about Drizzt. He's black skinned.

I only got through two of those books and had to stop.
 

Pterofan

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If you don't mind switching mediums, the Elfquest graphic novels by Wendy and Richard Pini have a society of brown-skinned elves who seem to be based on southwestern Native Americans. The cast has a decidedly American (as opposed to European) feel to it.
 

Kjbartolotta

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Along with what you've mentioned, elves typically seem to have higher Agility and magical stats, but less Strength and Vitality than the average human.

Almost makes you wonder if anyone's ever tried to create stronger elves *coughquinaricough*.

Well, the first thing you have to know is the primary difference between elves and fairies—fairies are mythical.

You hold your tongue.

The text that profoundly influenced Tolkien in his elves is the Middle English romance/lay of Sir Orfeo; a text Tolkien edited.

I did not expect to spend the afternoon reading Sir Orfeo, but there are worse surprises in life. Thank you. :)

It depends on how faerie you want to make your elves, really.

I'm making things hard on myself because they're Sci-fi elves and any magical quality about them is tied to technology. It's unfortunate, because now I want to do something with standard fantasy elves as well, but know I will never get it it.

What defines an elf, at least the kind I've read?

* whiteness (have never read an elf of color depicted, alas)

I swear I've seen depictions that avoid this, but can't think of any offhand. I dunno, I want to do something depicting 'typical high fantasy elves', but want to it feeling purely European in influence.
Would they be capitalists or communists? No, seriously, I'm curious.

Autarky, with command economic and rudimentary markets at the village and tribal levels.
While the Norns in Tad Williams' Osten Ard are pale, the Sithi are described as "golden skinned." In my head, they are closer to black than white.

Man I loved that series as a kid. I remember his Sithi being vaguely Japanese in character without it ever feeling too obvious or inorganic.
 
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Stytch

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I'm quite fond (as a writer) of Terry Pratchett's elves, who are cruel and right bastards. And yes, I realize he didn't come up with that concept, but he did a brilliant job of overlapping the two types of elves/fairies (as in, what we romantically think they are and what they "really" are) and I just love them. And Granny. All elves should have a Granny-shaped foil to their existence, I think.
 

frimble3

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I started a story with an elf once, she was part of my dwarf stories (pure head game, nothing actually written).
She was tall and slim and fair-haired - think TV Daenarys from GoT. But, when the dwarves find her, she's huddled against a building, offering to do anything for a penny. Having obtained that penny, she will immediately spend it on something bright, shiny and manufactured. One dwarf becomes besotted with her, and they endeavour to take her back to her people and her place. My dwarves do not like elves, their lives are too dissimilar, but she's in a pitiful state, and they are appalled, comparing her to the ones they have known (and fought.)

The elves are woodland people, hunters and gatherers, with stone-age tools. They are the top predators in the environment, living in harmony with nature. However, when they discover human society, they are entranced by it - so many things, so many ideas! And they go a little crazy. A kind of mania hits them, and their senses and skills seem to dim. They will do anything for the next hit of whatever they want: food, drink, clothes, colour, sound. Especially stuff they don't make themselves - thus the stories about elves and metal - sometimes specifying 'iron' or 'steel', but it's all dangerous to their psyches.
If they can find steady employment, they're okay, but if they don't get lucky, they lie, cheat and steal, as well as prostitute themselves to get access to whatever it is they want.
But, as the dwarves take Penny back to the forests, she 'comes to'. She becomes alert, careful, independent and clever. She knows woodcraft, she watches for dangers, and, in the end, she kills.

For me, elves are more about the headspace than the ears on either side.
 

jjdebenedictis

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I'm quite fond (as a writer) of Terry Pratchett's elves, who are cruel and right bastards. And yes, I realize he didn't come up with that concept, but he did a brilliant job of overlapping the two types of elves/fairies (as in, what we romantically think they are and what they "really" are) and I just love them. And Granny. All elves should have a Granny-shaped foil to their existence, I think.

Yes! This! Pratchett's treatment of elves is the one I'm most fond of. I think he based them on actual British myths, where the "fair folk" are, generally speaking, really bad entities to get on the wrong side of. Or even to get the attention of. He basically wrote them as psychopaths -- they're as entertained by singing as by screaming, and they really don't have a preference as to which it is, so long as they're entertained.

He also delved into elf glamours and their aversion to cold iron, which could go on your list of elfy things.
 

VeryBigBeard

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I missed the boat on this pretty badly but just want to second the rec to read Sir Orfeo. It is so, so much better than Orpheus & Eurydice and it was absolutely a huge, huge influence on Tolkien (and not just for the elves).

Tolkien's essay "On Fantasy" is also a good touch-stone, since he talks a lot about the nature of fantasy and its influences.

There are a lot of different depictions and origins, but the thing that always struck me when I read those texts is how different the "elves" are from the popular/contemporary depiction--in a good way. We've become so used to certain depictions that we think there are fewer depictions than there actually are. I don't mind work that leans on those interpretations, but I love work that goes further.

(This is one of the reasons I have such a bizarre relationship with Dragon Age and a bunch of other RPGs inspired by D&D. They're so... limited in how they use the myths they're referencing.)

AW Admin will obviously be able to speak with far, far more authority about this, but if you're interested in this, definitely dig into the source material because you won't be disappointed. Orfeo and the other romances are such fun reads. Just wildly entertaining.
 

JohnLine

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Elves are at least a little bit androgynous. I've never seen a male elf with a beard or a beer belly(or bald). That and blond, I think 75% of elves are depicted as blond.
 

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You might think about the culture your elves have. What are their beliefs? How do they pass down their stories and values? On the one hand, if they’re centered around nature they might prefer oral traditions or ballads. On the other hand, they might be old enough to have moved onto writing. Doing that might explain their wisdom: they know everything because it’s written rather than remembered.

You might also consider where they live in your world. Is their land hard or easy to reach? Do they have mineral resources, or must they rely on others for metal? What sort of people would that create? Do they live in a land with a great deal of inherent magic? Would that make them a more powerful domain? Or does metal counter magic (as in some fairy myths)?

The way I’ve answered these sorts of questions in my own works has depended on the story I wanted to tell. In one series I put in lots of details. But that was part of the point, seeing as the cultures of the races were important to the plot.

Which is the nice thing about going into details sometimes. You stumble over story ideas you wouldn’t have thought up if you weren’t building up the world.
 

benbenberi

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In considering what elves are like in the common view... has everybody forgotten SANTA'S ELVES? And the KEEBLER ELVES?

:hooray:
 

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If you don't mind switching mediums, the Elfquest graphic novels by Wendy and Richard Pini have a society of brown-skinned elves who seem to be based on southwestern Native Americans. The cast has a decidedly American (as opposed to European) feel to it.

The Pinis' elves have quite the six-pack, too. They are RIPPED.
 

Brightdreamer

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In considering what elves are like in the common view... has everybody forgotten SANTA'S ELVES? And the KEEBLER ELVES?

:hooray:

If nobody has done it yet, someone really needs to write a crossover fic about the Tolkienian elves who first rebelled against their culture to bake whimsical cookies and make toys...
 

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