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Images of elves – examining the extent of the Tolkienian transformation, and subsequent 'postmodern' visions (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted June 6, 2016

This essay is based on a draft of a presentation co-written with Wojciech Szymanski, M.A., read at the 2014 Fantastic Literature Conference (Supernatural Creatures: from Elf-Shot to Shrek) (Lodz, Poland: University of Lodz), September 22-24, 2014.

There have been numerous images of Elves throughout human history. Elves appear in both Norse and Celtic mythology. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, there is a reference to the prayer of priests driving out the fairies from their glades.  Fairies of various sorts memorably appeared in Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream. Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, a complex allegorical epic poem, did not have a great influence on the popular image of Elves. By the nineteenth century – especially among the Victorians -- the prevalent view of Elves was probably as diminutive, mischievous creatures, most often called fairies. Additionally, one can find in some dictionaries, that goblin is a synonym for elf.

The arrival of Tolkien's "sub-creation" is often considered to have considerably altered the traditional image of Elves in the popular imagination. Indeed, he showed them at approximately human size and appearance (except for their pointy ears), a race of noble beings of very high accomplishment and incredible physical beauty, attuned to nature, and generally adept at usually benevolent forms of magic, aging very slowly over thousands of years. They were also skilled at war, especially in archery, and often wielded magical swords. He also typically showed them as highly ethical, in contrast to the usually amoral, capricious portrayal of them in earlier lore.

There were two main types of Elves in Tolkien's writing, each with a language of their own – High Elves speaking Quenya, and Woodland Elves speaking Sindarin. Quenya and Sindarin are the most extensive of Tolkien's various invented languages. The relation of the ancient Elven languages to the societies of Middle-Earth at the time of the War of the Ring can be viewed as parallel to that of ancient Greek and Latin to modern European societies – arcane languages known by only a handful of highly erudite persons. Indeed, Tolkien's Elvish has sometimes been jestingly referred to as "Elvo-Latin".  Interestingly enough, Tolkien tells us that his term for Elves -- Quendi – means "Speakers". (This mirrors the real world linguistic etymology of the term for Slavic peoples in their native languages – in Polish: Slowianie.)

Tolkien's so-called legendarium, which is also sometimes called the Arda mythos (after the name used for Earth in the writings), is ostensibly set in the remote past of our own planet Earth. Tolkien adopted the literary convention of claiming that his work was based on various old manuscripts that he had come across, dating back to the earlier periods of Earth's history. He also jocularly expressed the notion that he would have preferred to have his books published in Elvish!

Elves had certainly impressed themselves on the imagination of Tolkien, being a major preoccupation in his writings. Indeed, much of the "back story" of the Arda mythos, is concerned almost entirely with the Elves, and their long, drawn-out struggle with Morgoth (a Satan-like figure, as well as the original "Dark Lord" – a precursor to Sauron). Indeed, C.S. Lewis is alleged to have said, when Tolkien was presenting his creative endeavours to the Inklings group of friends of Oxford University – "Oh no, not another effing elf." The Inklings were an important literary friendship society, whose most illustrious members were C.S. Lewis, not only a leading Christian writer, but also the author of the very popular children's fantasy, The Narnia Chronicles -- and Tolkien himself.

The Tolkien stories of the Elves, however, are not too happy ones. They chronicle a long, slow decline. Their long struggle against Morgoth is heroic, but doomed. Most of the Elves desire at some point to "pass to the West" – the blessed lands where they will live forever in the presence of the deities of the Arda mythos – the Valar. By the time of the War of the Ring, comparatively few Elves have remained in Middle-Earth itself. Also, the destruction of the One Ring actually undermines the protective powers of the three Elven rings – meaning that those of the Elves who remain will soon be fading and diminishing. Indeed, the conclusion of the War of the Ring is the beginning of the "Age of Men". Thus, the portrayal of the diminishing of the Elves is a classic example of what has been called "thinning" in fantastic literature. Despite the triumph over Sauron, the feel of the conclusion of the War of the Ring, remains somewhat "autumnal".

It could be argued that in regard to the portrayal of Elves in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Silmarillion – the latter which provides the back story to the former works – Tolkien was exercising a form of a "back projection". He was showing the Elves in the remote past of Earth – presumably before they had mostly declined into the diminutive, mischievous, and capricious "fairy folk" because of the ebbing of magic. So Tolkien's vision of the Elves may not have been as radical a departure, as it might first appear.

This portrayal of Elves "in their prime" has entered much of contemporary fantasy literature. Tolkien is often considered to have both opened up and closed the genre of high-fantasy – because anything that followed his trilogy would tend to be seen as derivative. Indeed,
many works, of what is somewhat snidely called "fat fantasy"  – referring to the multi-volume series of books – often have the presence of Elves highly similar to those of Tolkien.

This notion of Elves was also significantly transposed into popular culture through the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game (launched in 1974), where Elves are one of the standard player-races, and are very heavily based on Tolkienian notions. Indeed, the exceedingly physically attractive graphic portrayals of various elf-maidens and female elf-mages, were perceived as a major focus for the so-called geeks drawn into role-playing games – such female elves, in fact, becoming a cliché of the subgenre.

The Tolkienian notion of Elves could be seen to have triumphed. There were some innovations, in that the writing was frequently "sexed up ", and the major subgroup of "Dark Elves" was introduced – usually called "drow" in Dungeons and Dragons settings.  In his Arda mythos, Tolkien had made some mention of Dark Elves, as part of the so-called Sundering of the Elves whom he had chronicled, but he never wrote about them very much.

Also, one irony of the Arda mythos is that the monstrous-looking, nasty, short-lived Orcs, are actually said to have originated from Elves who were transformed through torture and being subject to evil sorceries by Morgoth or Sauron. It has been suggested that Tolkien's ultimate point may be that it is up to us as human beings, to morally choose between being more like the angelic Elves, or the demonic Orcs.

Another important aspect in Tolkien's writing was that Elves and Humans could interbreed, producing half-elven, half-human offspring. These figures of mixed parentage are often interesting both to writers and to readers. In The Lord of the Rings, Arwen has to choose between remaining an Elf (and immortal), or marrying Aragorn, and becoming a mortal woman. The story that Tolkien claimed was one of the most central in his writings, was that of the human hero Beren, and the elf-maiden Luthien, set in the era of The Silmarillion. Indeed, the name Beren appears on the gravestone of Tolkien, while the name of Luthien appears on the gravestone of his wife.

As Tolkien portrayed matters, the relations between Elves, Humans, and other races such as Dwarves, were often not easy. This provides the basis for wide-ranging dramatic tensions and conflicting expectations between the various races appearing in works of fantastical literature.

In Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara – a work which could be seen as very heavily derivative of Tolkien -- the fact that the main protagonist is half-Elven, is absolutely critical to the story development. Unlike Tolkien's Arda mythos, the Shannara series is ostensibly set centuries or millennia after a highly devastating nuclear war on Earth.

After Tolkienian notions had triumphed, it seemed inevitable there would come a "reaction" or perhaps, rather, a "revolution", and new creative productions would try to play off of these now-ingrained tropes. It could be argued that there has emerged a variety of "postmodern" takes on Elves. By postmodern here, the author means something ironic or somewhat antinomian, fully or partially subversive of the earlier-established grand narrative.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

 

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