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The Many Nations of Elves

Blue leaf elf by meddersFor many of us the words elf and fantasy are as intertwined in our minds as peanut butter and jelly. What self-respecting lover of fantasy among us has not spent major time exploring the many nations of elves out there? You could easily argue that one of the most enjoyable parts of sinking your teeth into a new fantasy world is exploring the new races and cultures the author has dreamed up. Perhaps the most predominant of all these denizens is the elf, sitting right up there with dwarves and dragons. Our pointy eared friends have come in so many different varieties over the years that it bears a stroll through some of the more memorable.

If you’ve never read of Middle Earth then you’re very late to the party. But that’s okay; we’ll let you stay for a while, because we dig your style. Like The Beatles for rock ‘n roll, Tolkien is to the fantasy genre. The saga of elves on Middle Earth is as deep and interesting as you’re likely to find. To truly understand it you’ll need to wade through The Silmarillion, but just reading the Lord of the Rings alone is sure to fill you with a fascination for these beings.

Arwen by Magali VilleneuveTolkien’s elves are light of foot and extremely agile. Legolas can walk on snow without sinking into it for crying out loud. Taller than a man they have slightly pointed ears, fair features, and seem to glow at times. These noble and powerful beings are immortal (without all the blood drinking or phylacteries); though after thousands of years their being does seem to diminish. As a child these were the first stories my father read to me, before I even began school, and it always struck me as profoundly sad when the elves of Middle Earth leave the Grey Havens to sail for Valinor, ushering in the Age of Men. It wasn’t that I thought man didn’t deserve a go at it, though they’d most likely mess up the whole affair being human and all. It was just that I wanted more.

In 1978, Elfquest was created by Wendy and Richard Pini, introducing us to the epic of Cutter and the Wolfriders. The world of Two Moons is a special place, giving us one of our first departures from the Tolkiensque style of elven lore. Almost in sharp contrast to Middle Earth, the Pini’s present Cutter and the Wolfriders, descendants of the High One Timmain who shape changed into a wolf upon arriving in her new world. Mating with another wolf, she gives birth to the original half-elf, half-wolf child who would eventually become the first chieftain of the Wolfriders. Cutter’s tribe of forest dwelling elves is doing whatever they can to survive in a harsh world of primitive men. They are diminutive in size compared to Middle Earth elves, but brutal when they need to be, and that is often. They ride on wolves, communicate telepathically, and journey on a quest to unite all the lost descendants of the High Ones. The deeper you delve into Elfquest the more interesting it becomes, as new races are discovered and secrets revealed.

Grave Expectations by BromIn the world of Athas (the setting for TSR’s Dark Sun campaign) we encountered elves of a grittier nature than we were used to. Similar to Elfquest these elves are tribal in nature, but the comparisons end there. Unlike other incarnations, the Elves of Athas are tribal to a fault. These slender and lean built elves consider everyone who is not a member of their tribe an enemy. Even other elves. For them the act of riding on an animal would be considered horribly dishonorable, which fits in nicely with their ability to run extremely long distances. Images of these elves have been forever seared into our mind through the masterful artwork of Gerald Brom.

R.A. Salvatore has delivered to us some of the finest elven lore in fantasy. In Corona (not the one with the lime) he introduces us to Andur’Blough Inninness, also known as the Valley of Mists, hidden home of the Touel’alfar. These winged elves are small in size and possess skin tough as bark. They remain hidden from the world of man, and are believed to be the stuff of myth, except that they raise and train the few human rangers of the world. Salvatore creates a compelling new take on the elven sub-culture in the Demon Wars Saga that is worthy of note.

However, it his work on the Underdark city-state of Menzoberranzan that is his crowning contribution to the lore of elves. In the City of Spiders we meet the drow, a matriarchal society of dark skinned elves made up of Houses. The drow are locked in an eternal power struggle, and the weaker Houses become fodder, destroyed so that new Houses may rise. They are a despicable race of evil elves that worship the Goddess Lloth, Weaver of Chaos, and they are greatly feared on the surface. Salvatore takes us on an intimate tour of their society, snake whips, globes of darkness, ruling Matrons, and all, through Drizzt Do’Urden, a drow who refuses to believe in Lloth’s path. The drow are nothing if not fascinating. Oh, and don’t forget about the Driders, the drow with the lower body of a spider.

Homeland by Todd Lockwood

Perhaps one of the most interesting entries into the annals of elfdom comes from Shadowrun, a near future world where cybernetics meet fantasy. As the Sixth World is ushered in, magic is reawakened and long forgotten beings of mythic proportions appear once more on Earth (can you say Dragons?). A phenomenon called the UGE, or Unexplained Genetic Expression, takes place, and many humans change into or give birth to elves and dwarves. Pushing out a dwarf can’t easy.

Weapons Specialist by Michael KomarckShadowrun’s elves are slightly taller and slimmer than humans, but just as strong. They do not grow hair anywhere on their bodies except for their heads, and go on to found their own countries Tir Tairngire, Pomorya, and Tir na nOg. Another compelling concept is a disease that elves have a biological predisposition to catching, called the HMVV. It comes in three strains, all of which are nastier than your everyday swine flu. HMVV-1 turns elves into Banshees (think vampires who feed off your fears), HMVV-2 turns elves into Harvesters (a carnivorous predator that is basically an animal), and HMVV-3 turns them into ghouls. Elves turned into ghouls have to eat around one percent of their body weight in raw flesh each week, have a mild allergy to the sun, and become physically blind, though they become endowed with a heightened sense of smell and hearing (Daredevil eat your heart out). Call an elf in Shadowrun a Keeb and you’re likely to get your teeth knocked out.

So what do you think? Out of all the echelons of fantasy out there which elven mythos is your favorite? The reader will notice that nowhere in my catchy title did I say the complete and utter list to end all lists of elven societies and lore, did I? Heck no, because I could spend an entire year waxing poetic about my love for elves and still never come close to hitting everyone’s favorites (or maybe I could…I am pretty sharp after all). So share your thoughts. Is your favorite on this list? What did you love about them? Who did we miss and why should they be included?

Title image by medders.

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16 Comments

  1. The elves of Shadowrun sound so amazing. I hadn’t heard of them before. And no, I don’t imagine giving birth to a dwarf would be easy at all hahaha.

  2. All elves interest me, which is partly why I love fantasy based RPGs and MMORPGs. The Quel’dorei & Sin’dorei of Azeroth bring to “life” the struggle between light & darkness, and the three similar but yet very different races of elves of Tamriel lore give us a wide range of attitudes and backstories to choose from. Great article!

  3. Michael Grounds says:

    Definitely a great article. I’ve always had a love for fantasy, and of all the creatures throughout all of the fantasy realms, elves have always been my favorite. So this article definitely hit home for me. Especially since one of my favorites was mentioned. However we can’t forget to give props to the hardest working elves of all. With no child labor laws or dental benefits the elves of the north pole still continue to make toys day in and day out. Got to hand them some credit in the dove world.

  4. Pete says:

    Love all the Drizzt Do’Urden novels by RA SALVATORE , grew up on all that lovely fantasy

  5. Matteo Bortolotti says:

    Actually, I’m not a great fan of elves, I found them too superb and sefl-righteous, kind of a Mary-Sue race, I love humans a lot more (and orcs, altought they are too often treated as just mindless and violent brutes), but I like the two variation we have in Eberron (the necromancers and the blood knights), they are pleasant variations.

  6. The Dark One says:

    Good read.

  7. Amy says:

    Thank you so much for mentioning Elf Quest!! It’s so often overlooked. I became a fan at age 15 and not only read them all, but would read my children the Bedtime Stories! Of course, I was raised on the Tolkein world as well as my dad would read them to me when I was little. For me, another favorite became the eleven inhabitants and politics of Dragon Lance. Thank you for sharing your love and insight

  8. Ann says:

    I also grew up with the elves of dragonlance. Whenever I read/watch fantasy with another kind of elves, they somehow seem wrong to me. An exception to this is ElfQuest (they are totally different beings and so well characterized, that they do not conflict with the other elves). But when I am RPGing I often based my elves on the Dragonlance-Elves even though, they are thought to be different in the particular RPG world.

  9. Tristram Draper says:

    Once again EarthDawn gets screwed =( The Blood Elves in EarthDawn were fascinating.

  10. Corvus says:

    I admit to being one of those who dislikes elves. Hates may be a more apt term.

    Its odd considering that The SIlmarillion is my favourite book, but Tolkien’s elves had major flaws, a fact that most of the Tolkien style elf knock-offs seem to miss. Those else seem to be the holier-than-thou, firstborn superior-at-everything-to-everyone mary sues. They sort of turned me off elves, ecept for a few, such as Pratchett’s elves and Dark Sun elves.

  11. Casey says:

    What about the elves of Raymond E. Feist’s Midkemia setting? They should not be left out of this discussion.

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