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

By Mark Wegierski
web posted June 27, 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.

Shadowrun: Where Man Meets Magic and Machine, is a role-playing game (originally launched in 1989), that combines fantasy races and other magical beings such as dragons, with a cyberpunk world. Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction portraying a "noir" world that is simultaneously very gritty and high-tech, often with a focus on an articulated cyberspace as a zone into which hackers project their electroneurological consciousness, in order to steal important data. Shadowrun has been described as an attempt to combine the writings of Tolkien and William Gibson (the author of the seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, first published in the year 1984).  It should be noted that Gibson has said he was especially annoyed at the introduction of Elves into a cyberpunk world!

The initial premise of Shadowrun is a massive upsurge of magical and occult energies in the year 2011 (conceptually explained as a manifestation of the mysterious long cycles of the Mayan calendar). In Shadowrun, the Elves have attributes of physical beauty and skill with magic, but also a nasty streak, and, at the extreme, are plotting genocide. Here, the notion of Elves is enmeshed with that of the traditional British aristocracy -- especially as it has been perceived by left-wing critics. Also, Ireland (called "Tir Na Nog") has been almost entirely taken over by the Elves. The notion of Elves' contempt for other races (including humans), hearkens back to notions in the original Celtic mythology of Elves (or "fae") sometimes hunting humans for sport. One of the somewhat unusual aspects of Shadowrun is that some of the Elves and other fantastical races are actually former humans who have been transformed as a result of these occult energies. They also arise out of being born as children of human parents, during a period of a concentrated surge of these occult energies. Interestingly enough, it is suggested that the British aristocracy and upper classes actually killed or gave away most of their fantastical offspring who were not Elves, keeping only the Elvish babies. Thus the British aristocracy has become heavily Elven. As part of the "revisionism" of the setting, the Orcs (the word is usually spelled "Orks" in Shadowrun) and Trolls, while physically very strong, and appearing monstrous, are in fact not especially vicious in character, though being somewhat more prone to emotions. They thus almost inevitably become something like an "oppressed proletariat".

This vision of the roles of Elves, as well as of Orcs (i.e., Goblins) and Trolls, is markedly different from both the cultural and traditional portrayals, and the Tolkien model. Indeed it could be called postmodern.

In Castle Falkenstein (original version launched, 1994; Steve Jackson Games GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing System) version, 2000) Elves are introduced into a so-called "steampunk", alternative-history, quasi-Victorian world. Steampunk is usually a subgenre that explores an alternative, nineteenth century, world. It posits that certain technologies (sometimes also including some forms of "real magic") that were only hypothetical in our own world became available in the Victorian era. (The creation of the Frankenstein monster in fiction is one such example.) In Castle Falkenstein, the whole alternative-history Earth, is said to be the creation of Auberon, who is the King of Faerie. (The name is obviously derived from medieval and Shakespearean literature.) Interestingly enough, Auberon forbids the arbitrary killing of non-Elves by Elves, but does give latitude for what are called "Wild Hunts" to take place, usually when an Elf is seriously offended. This is clearly an attempt to blend Tolkienian notions and the original Celtic mythology. In Castle Falkenstein, the whole spectrum of so-called faerie folk derived from Celtic legend appears, such as brownies, pixies, and so forth.

In conclusion, one should note the contrast between Tolkien's on the whole highly-ethical Elves, and the somewhat to distinctly amoral Elves of Discworld, Warhammer Fantasy, Shadowrun, and Castle Falkenstein. The distinction is clear, for, in Discworld, the Elves could in fact be seen as creatures of evil, and the Elves of Warhammer Fantasy include the distinctly nefarious Dark Elves.

It would be fair to suggest that it was an obvious Christian influence that led to Tolkien's portrayal of the Elves as usually highly ethical. Tolkien's Elves are clearly moral actors, in that they make choices with consideration to the moral impact of those choices. They are certainly not the mischievous, capricious fairy folk. It could be suggested that Tolkien's portrayal of the Elves expressed his desire for a world ultimately based on a deeper reason and order, one where meaningful ethical choices could be made. Interestingly enough, Tolkien's exercise of the imagination was very careful and disciplined. Antithetical to Tolkien's imaginative vision is portraying Elves as mischievous, capricious fairy folk, who are amoral "trickster" figures, and who implicitly stand outside a divinely ordained moral order. In this sense, it is beyond question that Tolkien has indeed achieved a major transformation in how we think about and appreciate the lore of Elves. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.




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