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More Than Pointy Ears

I’ve been playing and reading a lot of Dungeons and Dragons related stuff recently. It’s been years since I swore off D&D (the mid 90s, I believe) and I am becoming reacquainted with the things I like and the things I do not like. This post is about one of the things that I don’t like: D&D Elves.

I always had a problem with Elves back in the old days. I remember thinking they were seriously lame and that geeks’ obsessions with them were weird and annoying. As the years passed, this feeling dimmed, and I became a fan of elves as I encountered them in the Warhammer universe, in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, and other places as well. I eventually came to think that my dislike of elves was simply adolescent rebellion (of a strange sort) against what was “cool” (and yes, I’m painfully aware how ridiculous it is to discuss that which is “cool” or “not cool” in D&D).

Now that I’m back in the D&D world, I can confidently tell you that grown-up me was wrong and adolescent me was right: D&D Elves do, in fact, suck. What I was wrong about, however, were the reasons why this is.

Just Another Pointy-Eared Dude

Yo, bra, after we slay the what-not, wanna kick back and drink a few brews?

Yo, bra, after we slay the what-not, wanna kick back and drink a few brews?

The problem with D&D Elves is that, for all the window-dressing of a long-lived, wise race living aloof in their silver palaces or mystical forests, in practice they are nothing like that. Elves are just humans with better hair. They are, for lack of a better term, “cool humans.” People who play elves tend to do so just for their abilities; it is really rare that I have seen anybody bothering playing an elf like an elf. Dwarves, Halflings, Gnomes, Half-orcs, and so on all have distinct and interesting role-playing elements that most people use to make their characters interesting. Elves? Nope. An elf talks like a human, acts like a human, has human feelings, and is essentially identical to humans except according to the rules, wherein they get a couple special buffs that humans don’t.

Part of this is the fault of the game itself. D&D is so very obsessed with game-balance, that they try to keep everything even-steven between the playable races and, furthermore, they promote a world wherein elves and dwarves and gnomes and such live side-by-side in general harmony and equality, all of which essentially homogenizes the races into different flavors of human being. Really, all an elf is is a set of different characteristics for the purpose of gameplay. Any role-playing aspect of elves is often too abstract or too serious to be actively interesting to your average Mountain Dew-chugging basement dweller. You don’t play an elf to be an arrogant prick, you play an elf because you want skills like Legolas but also want to be about the same size as a regular person so that the majority of enchanted chain mail shirts you find will fit.

The Children of Silver Starlight

More like *this* than just some guy with a bow and pointy ears.

More like *this* than just some guy with a bow and pointy ears.

That, however, is not how I see elves at all. I see elves as among the most alien of the demihuman races, not the least. These are beings who do not know sickness, old age, or fatigue and who live for centuries on the edge of our reality. Their every movement is graceful, their voices are pure , and their arts are ancient and beautiful. They are a species who once ruled the world in justice and peace until they, through their arrogance, failed and suffered. That suffering is still new to them, though it be ancient history to humanity. Elves are supposed to represent the best of everything, but tempered with arrogance and grief that no human can understand. They are not like us.

This, of course, is the root of the problem. It’s hard to put yourself in Elrond’s pointy shoes. How do you act? What kind of things do you say? Now, we of this enlightened age have access to a wide variety of examples of this; the actors and actresses who have played the elves in the Lord of the Rings films are great inspiration. More generally, though, I try to think of this: how would you feel if the weight of the world were on your shoulders? How would you feel if you knew you (and your people) had dropped that weight, dooming mortal beings to suffer and languish in barbarism? That’s how elves feel. All the time. Humans have the privilege of short lives and shorter memories – they can throw off their grief and their failures, dust themselves off, and try again. Elves lack this resilience. They are strong – far stronger than humans – but the breadth of history is just a moment for them, and their grief is never washed away. For them, time does not heal all wounds. They get to see their failures magnify through the ages of history. Elrond has been beating himself up for centuries over not killing Isildur on the slopes of Mount Doom and tossing the ring in the lava. Now, he sees a new generation faced with that ancient evil that he could have stopped, but didn’t. If you want to know why he’s serious and grim, that’s why.

This is tall order for your average D&D game, granted. Not everybody wants to be the serious guy, nor do they always want to play alongside him while you are making your fart jokes with your dwarf pals. That, though, is what elves are about – the long view, the weight of the past, and the hope for the future. They can be happy, too, but probably about things that others think are strange. They are not looking for quick fixes, they are not looking to forget their problems, and they are not looking for ephemeral pleasures. They are seeking to right wrongs, to save the good, and to fight against a world that seems forever sliding into the Shadow. I am currently playing with a guy who, I feel, is trying to do this on some level, but he is unsure how to proceed, since what an elf asks of you is to rise above the typical petty concerns of a D&D party. Still, he consistently refuses gold and treasure (because it has no worth to him) and, instead, thinks in the long term. It’s fun to watch, but I can tell it takes him a bit out of joint sometimes.

Still, it’s a lot better than another dual-scimitar wielding drow elf, right?

Humans’ Special Power

Seriously, wouldn’t all you people rather be elves?

So, the other night I was at a party (for the release of Croak by Gina Damico) and I had a conversation with my friend, John Perich and various others about the portrayals of humanity in fantasy and science fiction stories and games. He brought up the whole trend that puts humans in the role of the ‘default’ race and that all other races (be they sci-fi aliens or the cohabitants of a fantasy world) have built-in qualities that define them somehow as ‘other.’ Dwarves are stubborn, Klingons are violent, elves are beautiful and noble, Vulcans are logical, etc, etc. Everybody’s got their schtick–everybody, that is, but humans.

The reason for this, as I pointed out in the aforementioned conversation, is that it is phenomenally difficult to portray alien species as anything other than slightly more specialized versions of human beings. This is because we have no other analog for intelligence or sentient beings and, even worse, have no way to think or conceive of things that are alien to our own way of understanding. Much as we might like to claim to ‘understand’ a dolphin, we do not and cannot. It’s thought process, no matter how advanced, is fundamentally alien to our own. Therefore, in order to get our head wrapped around it, we start with a human intelligence, remove some parts, add some other parts, and we get our dwarf or elf or Ferengi or whatever. Of course, such beings aren’t really alien in the same way that a 2010 Corolla isn’t a wholly alien object to a 2008 Corolla – same basic framework, but with a variety of cosmetic and minor functional differences. Even if we try really hard, the best we wind up with is a comparison between a Corolla and a Ford Mustang. If we really want to talk aliens, we’d need to find a way to compare the Corolla (us) with a blimp (them). Good luck.

Anyway, because humans are the default setting – where we begin, necessarily and ultimately, to paint our picture of alien life – efforts have been made across the specfic genres to give humans something special to make them unique. After all, if there’s nothing special about us, that means we aren’t awesome, and we’re obviously awesome, right? The trouble is, when everybody else is better at certain things than we are (Klingons are better warriors, Vulcans are better thinkers, Betazoids are better diplomants, Ferengi are better buisnessmen…), whatever are we better at than everyone else? Here are some of the more common theories:

The Human Spirit

Yeah, we haven’t got super strength or wings or ageless lifespans, but we’ve got spunk, dammit! Humans never give up. They are adaptable, optimistic, and have that special something that gives them the edge over the competition. They don’t believe in no-win scenarios, man!

In RPGs, this is often represented as some extra skills or a bump in versatility. Sometimes it shows up as a variety of bland special edges that give humans mild statistical advantages over their buddies. In general, this one always bothers me because it’s based off of the principle that humans don’t like to lose and adapt themselves so they don’t. This, however, is fairly common with all successful lifeforms, since you don’t survive in the big, bad world without some ability to Outlast/Outplay/Outwit.

Human Ambition

Humans are always striving for more, see? They, above all things, desire power. Dangle a magic ring under their nose, and they grab it. They expand, like a virus, filling up their environment with all the stuff they accumulate and spread across the cosmos like a plague. They’re never satisfied.

This one isn’t bad, but it rather hamstrings the ability for humans to interact with other aliens, doesn’t it? Like, if none of them are as ambitious as us, then don’t they just kinda get pushed aside? In some settings, they do, actually (in my own setting of Alandar, in fact), but to rob all your aliens of the capacity to be equally ambitious makes it easy to either demonize or glorify humanity in a way that makes things unfair. In Avatar, for example, humanity’s ambition is demonized as destructive and cruel. In Star Trek, it’s glorified as the thing that makes us the leaders of the Federation. In both cases, we are seeing human uniqueness being used as a symbol for what the authors think of human behavior, rather than a realistic portrait of those cultural or physical qualities that make us distinct.

Hardy Vermin

One of the other popular ones is to have humans be pervasive, hardy, and numerous. This is an easy trick – humans happen to be physically hardier than other species, or reproduce faster, or what-have-you. I use a version of this myself in The Rubric of All Things, in which humans are extremely tough and disease resistant (we do take our immune system for granted, don’t we?).

Of the three ideas, I prefer this one myself, since it’s the easiest and most plausible. I don’t think it needs to be pigeonholed into humans being ‘hardier’, per se, but if you are inventing aliens, you can pretty easily make them all so physically different that their uniqueness becomes clear. In order to do this, though, you’re going to have to think harder about how your aliens work. So, like, if humans are the only intelligent bipeds around, what does that mean for how all those aliens construct their buildings and castles and spaceships? Stuff is bound to get weird fast (which is how I like it).

So What if We Aren’t That Special…

Ultimately, however, all aliens are going to be versions of ourselves – distorted reflections, if you will – or otherwise will be the unknowable ‘other’. Middle ground is extremely difficult to establish (though I’m trying, believe me!), and is the subject for some really profound and interesting stories. Still using other species as metaphors for aspects of humanity has a long and colorful history, and I can see no good reason to stop, so long as it’s kept fresh.

Elves Vs Dwarves

 There are rivalries in a lot of things–Sox Vs Yankees, Cats Vs Dogs, Marvel Vs DC, etc.. In any rivalry there are passionate fans of one camp or the other and who spend inordinate amounts of time dismissing or deriding the opposition. In High Fantasy lit, this rivalry is the one between Elves and Dwarves.

It all basically starts with Tolkien. He gives us a memorable pair in Lord of the Rings with Legolas, the keen-eyed elf, and Gimli, the stalwart dwarf. They compete constantly, taunt one another, and sing their species’ praises while scoffing at the customs of the other. Since then, elves and dwarves (and their fans) have been at each other’s throats. They all seem to forget that, by the end, Legolas and Gimli become best friends and learn to love and appreciate each other’s talents, customs, and qualities.

When I was a kid, I was always more of a dwarf guy, myself. The elves seemed too arrogant, too fragile, and too pretty for me. Dwarves, however, got the job done. They were pragmatists, not idealists. Their feet were on the ground, while the elves wandered in the clouds.

I’ve thought a fair amount about elves and dwarves since then, and I’ve read about them across at least half dozen different franchises, from Warhammer to Tolkein to Forgotten Realms to Shadowrun. I even took a stab at reinventing them myself (before changing my mind and basically removing most of them from Alandar). In the end, here’s my take on the debate.

The Dwarves

The Trope: Dwarves are short, hairy, strong, and tough. They live in the mountains or under the earth, and love gold, gems, and fine craftsmanship. They drink beer and hard liqour, hate goblins, and hold grudges. They prefer axes and picks to swords, and their weapons are second to none for quality. What they build, they build to last. They have long memories and cherish their ancestors. They are greedy and stubborn. They dislike the water and are poor riders. They are suspicious, but once their trust is earned, there are few truer friends than a dwarf.

Analysis: Dwarves, to my mind, appeal to the blue-collar person in each of us. They value a hard day’s work, a good hearty meal, and a warm fire. They are, quite literally, ‘down to earth.’ Dwarves are craftsmen–they make useful things, but value beauty in what they make. If you’re a person who likes building things and takes pride in quality construction, you probably like the dwarves, too.

There is, however, this stigma they recieve (often from elf-fanatics) of being stupid, short-sighted, smelly, dirty, and ugly. This is unfair–any species that can construct the marvels shown to us in fantasy literature isn’t primitive or stupid. They have their flaws, yes–greed, suspicion, wrath–but these are flaws we all have sometimes.

The Elves

The Trope:  Elves are beautiful, tall, graceful, and quick. They live for long ages and are very wise, but also proud and aloof from mortal concerns. They feel more deeply than mortals, and they are sometimes difficult to fathom. They love the open air and sky, and live in the forests or in lush valleys. They are lovers of music, dance, and art. They drink wine and are in tune with the natural world. Their magic is powerful and their history is long and fraught with sorrows. They prefer bows and swords in battle, and ride majestic steeds too swift for mortal horses to catch. They are among the eldest peoples in the world.

Analysis: Elves appeal to the ideal image we have of humanity. Let’s face it: all fantasy creatures are funhouse mirror reflections of humanity, dwarves included, and elves must be considered in that light. They are everything humanity so often is not–they are healthy, beautiful, graceful, wise, long-lived, talented, intelligent, and the list goes on and on. They’re the original environmentalists, they live forever, they know kung-fu–how could you not want to be one? Unlike dwarves, which are earthy and real, elves are creatures of starlight and dreams. They speak to animals, they ride unicorns, and they are simply the bestest-best at everything.

This is why I originally disliked elves. They were a fantasy to the point where they became harder to identify with. I rankled at their so-called perfection. I joined the other dwarf-lovers who called them weak and fragile sissies. I never joined the fawning masses of elf-fans (believe me, they’re out there, too–it’s kinda weird) that wanted to be them (or date them–weird, right?) so strongly they constructed elaborate costumes and drew involved murals in their school notebooks. Looking back, I can understand the obsession. A lot of these friends and acquaintances of mine were very much not what the elves represented. The idea of ‘elves’ helped them escape, helped them put on the mantle of superiority they secretly wished they had in real life. Dwarf fans were introverts who liked being introverts and ignored the rest of the universe; elf fans were introverts who hated their isolation and wished they could show those jerks just how beautiful they were on the inside.

What I have come to understand and appreciate about elves, however, is above and beyond these adolescent growing pains. In the elves I see tragedy and loss and sadness–they show us how even the well-intentioned and the wise can be brought low by circumstance and yet, in the midst of it all, maintain their dignity. Understand this of Tolkien’s elves: they did not fade and go into the west because they had won. They went because they had failed. The paradise of Middle Earth that once existed before Melkor wrought the silmarils was never to be had again. Just so in the world of Warhammer, where the elves sacrificed everything to save the world from Chaos but, in the end, found their glorious civilization brought low by their own pride. If the elves are mirrors of us, they are mirrors of our higher selves, serving as both inspiration and warning to what we may become.

Conclusion

In the end, there is no winner when it comes to which is better between elves and dwarves. It’s a false dichotomy–they need not be in conflict. They instead represent two parts of ourselves–that which wishes to save the world (elves), and that which wishes to save ourselves (dwarves). You can love both–it’s okay.  We are, all of us, both artists and craftsmen, politicians and engineers, sophisticates and commoners, elves and dwarves.