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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.