Monday, December 5, 2016

Elves Are Special, Damnit!

"Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains. [...] For though Eru appointed to you to die not in Eä, and no sickness may assail you, yet slain ye may be, and slain ye shall be: by weapon and by torment and by grief [...] And those that endure in Middle-Earth and come not to Mandos shall grow weary of the world as with a great burden, and shall wane, and become as shadows of regret [...]

Then many quailed; but Fëanor hardened his heart and said: 'We have sworn, and not lightly. This oath we will keep. We are threatened with many evils, and treason not the least; but one thing is not said: that we shall suffer from cowardice, from cravens or the fear of cravens. Therefore I say that we will go on, and this doom I add: the deeds that we shall do shall be the matter of song until the last days of Arda.'"

J.R.R. Tolkien - Of the Flight of the Noldor, from The Silmarillon

I'll admit I don't read that much fantasy, being largely a science fiction fan with fantasy scoring a distant second, and as I don't keep up with the flow of popular... anything... I get very little indication of how the old fantasy staples are treated in modern fiction. I'm painfully aware of the denigration of vampires in that imbecilic Twilight scatology. Nobody seems to want to touch Greek myths except to Germanize or Nordicize them. What about elves though?

Much of my exposure to pop culture comes through games. I played Baldur's Gate 2 recently and was delighted at Suldanessellar paying apt homage to Tolkien's Caras Galadhon, an immortal, airy city among gigantic treetops, a great repository of wisdom and artistic beauty, and by elves themselves being rather dignified and well-spoken. As usual with the computerized DnD adaptations, it's hard for me to figure out just how much of the decline in quality reflects computer game developers' disdain for their audience's intellect or DnD's own disdain for its own audience's intellect. The Infinity Engine games were apparently based on second edition DnD. Elves were still rare and their culture still considered superior by default. By the time of third edition and the Neverwinter Nights games (certainly by NWN2) elves were already run-of-the-mill citizens drawling out vernacular. By the time of Dragon Age: Origins, elves were mere gutter trash.

It's not just that direct line of games at fault either. Elves in Pillars of Eternity are incredibly dull and pretty much irrelevant. The Elder Scrolls games since at least Morrowind have always placed elves on an even footing with humans and other beasts, being just one other set of playable races. Some of this is due to the necessary over-riding demand for balance in a game, though DnD's own slow character advancement for more powerful races outlined a valid means of handling this without homogenizing.

Secondly, these once-impressive ideas simply suffer a sort of devaluation as they become familiar. Sensationalism falls victim to very rapid hyperinflation, as the comic Full Frontal Nerdity once noted in relation to DnD. As, in fact, many complained about fourth edition becoming an overblown super-saiyan caricature of itself. This is, however, nothing new, and for decades players played their DnD campaigns enamored of the rags-to-riches trope in a setting which apparently still respected Tolkien's elves by the late '90s. When it gets old you start over with a new campaign; you don't demean the world to suit your self-aggrandizement. I doubt the tendency to lower the status of elves from divinely favored trustees of the world to somewhat hateable snobs to regular joes and then slaves can be chalked up to mere specialness inflation.

There's a vandalism to it. Everyone who writes about elves does so, inescapably, from the starting point of Tolkien. He brought the myth into the modern era. Tolkien's elves had many facets, but whether proud, fearless, clever, wise, graceful, artistic, inquisitive, gracious or whatever, they retained their central superiority. Elves are better than you. Exposed to anything superior, the masses, the animalistic vulgus, knows no reaction but to smear creativity, wisdom and wit, to drag it down into the muck of commonality. It's no accident that this diminishing has played out as the market for fantasy ballooned around the turn of the millennium. The denigration of the fair folk comes of mass-marketing a niche product.

So take it back. I'd never say we should be stuck on Tolkien, but if you're going to write about elves try to remember that elves are by default better than normal human trash. The ending to the Lord of the Rings is one of the saddest I've ever encountered in literature: the loss of magic reducing the world to our disgusting human trash-heap, and it's been all too faithfully been re-enacted by diluting the imaginative ambrosia of fantasy in the reeking muck of mass appeal. Take back the elves. Don't knuckle under to the craven masses who shy away from the concept of superiority. Forestall the doom of Mandos. Remember the craft of Fëanor. Fight for the gems.

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