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

By Mark Wegierski
web posted June 20, 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.

Similarly to Tolkien's realm, the world of Warhammer Fantasy presents more than one type of Elves. Closest to the Tolkienian archetype are the High Elves, or the Asur as they call themselves in Eltharin, their mother tongue. The Asur were one of the first races to arrive and, as the lore suggests they have lived and prospered for thousands of years before even hearing their first stories of human presence. Initially, they were also the only Elven race of that world until the fight for power and the resulting conflict provoked the Sundering, a schism during which some of their more bloodthirsty brethren were driven out of Ulthuan, the island the Asur had inhabited for millennia.

Thus Dark Elves or Druchii were born. Under the leadership of Malekith, the failed usurper, they fled to the dark land of Naggaroth, to plan their future revenge.

The third race of Elves inhabiting the world of Warhammer Fantasy, are the Wood Elves (the Asrai). Those are the descendants of those High Elves who moved to the mainland to inhabit lands later taken by men. The High Elves who decided to stay there during one of the wars with the Druchii when all the other colonists decided to come back to Ulthuan, took the magical Athel Loren forest and from then on grew ever more distant from the remaining two groups.

Although initially one race of tall, fair and slender folk with a lifespan of thousands of years, with the passing of time the three groups began to differentiate.

After the traumatic turmoil of the Sundering, the High Elves changed their outlooks and now seem to praise mainly traits such as purity, nobility, and self-control, which often cause them to be accused of arrogance and aloofness. The High Elves are a class society ruled by the so-called Phoenix King, responsible for military and foreign affairs of Ulthuan, and chosen by the Council of Princes, and the Everqueen who governs the internal matters of the kingdom and is a spiritual leader to all the High Elves. Their marriage symbolizes two sides of the High Elven mind.

The exiled Dark Elves of Warhammer Fantasy, unlike the drows from the Dungeons and Dragons gaming system, are not so different in appearance from their High brethren, the only distinguishing feature being their dark hair and perhaps a shade paler skin. Their culture, however, could not be more dissimilar. Contrary to the Elves of Ulthuan, they inhabit a harsh, cold, and dark land full of pine trees and violence. They are lead by Malekith, who was once a great general and a skilled sorcerer of the High Elves, now driven into madness by his failed attempt to legitimize himself as their king, in the ritual of passing the flames of Asuryan, the High Elves' most important deity.

Now a zealot of the Elven war god Khaine, Malekith and his Dark Elves wreak havoc, burn, pillage, and enslave every living being that is unfortunate enough to cross their path and they do all that with the ultimate goal of reinstating Malekith as the rightful Phoenix King of the Elves. For all intents and purposes, Druchii can be treated as the exact opposite of the High Elves, except for the hierarchical structure of their society.

The last to appear chronologically in the world of Warhammer Fantasy were the Wood Elves of Athel Loren. Initially just a small number of fugitives trying to escape dwarven armies during the War of the Beard (or War of Vengeance as the Elves prefer to name it), they have also grown distant from their High Elven descendants. First of all they have become more chaotic, just like the nature they have been living so close to. The fact that they are ruled by two opposite in nature leaders only strengthens the impression of unpredictability. Both of those elves have been possessed by spirits of antithetical characteristics, with Ariel representing the regenerative, calm and peaceful, and Orion the warring and chaotic side of nature itself.

It is worth noting that in their millennia-long struggle against the forces of Chaos and other races, the High Elves have realized that their numbers are decreasing. There have been many theories to explain the phenomenon with the leading ones blaming their obsessive self-control and unwillingness to mix with other races. No matter what the true reason is, that fact coupled with the knowledge that the population of Wood Elves has never been large and the Dark Elves every now and then get decimated, may lead to the conclusion that, similarly to the Tolkienian Elves, those of Warhammer Fantasy could disappear in the following few thousand years.

The presence of Eldar in the sci-fi Warhammer 40,000 A.D. (or 40K) series might or might not prove that claim wrong.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

 

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