May 24, 2017, 04:35:35 PM

Author Topic: Elves and humans  (Read 231 times)

Offline Eli_Freysson

Elves and humans
« on: May 20, 2017, 02:00:19 PM »
For years I strongly believed that I would never write anything that included "classic" fantasy races, ie the Tolkien/D&D lineup. Indeed, I have yet to write anything with non-human sentient races. But if my branching out into space opera has taught me anything, it's never say never, and elves have sort of been on my mind lately.

Now, in myth elves are somewhere between nature spirits and boogeymen, and that was how I planned to use them in my iron-age barbarian setting. But with that project on hold, I have started to wonder how one could include relatively civilised elves in a setting... without making them into perfect Mary Sues: Beautiful, ancient, wise, magical, nature-loving and smug. On the other end of things, making them just humans with pointy ears and longer lifespans kind of defeats the point of having a non-human race in the first place. In my opinion, at least.

So, how does one make elves "special" or at least different in an impressive way, while also giving them weaknesses that prevent them from being just flat-out superior to humans? I have this tiny seedling of an idea, where humans and elves are both best off when and where they form cooperative communities, and compliment each other.

One old idea of mine is that "magic" manifests entirely differently to each intelligent species, and that while elves have a connection with nature spirits and such, aggressive, destructive magic is a human thing. Another is that elves are bound to the natural cycle, and so their power grows or fades depending on the season. Yet another idea of mine is that elves are nature spirits themselves who may manifest as trees or animals, and can only take on humanoid appearance and thought processes by living close to humans and modelling themselves after them.

I'm curious about people's thoughts on this. Have you designed your own elves for a setting, or seen an interesting take on this in a novel?
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Offline S. K. InkSlinger

Re: Elves and humans
« Reply #1 on: May 20, 2017, 03:07:12 PM »
Well, one thing that came to my mind was the status of elves and dwarves in Andrej Sapkowski's the witcher novels. They are oppressed and despised by the human community, discriminated against and treated extremely poorly by humans. While there is another types of elves entirely on another world, The Wild Hunt, who invade the human world with their powerful teleporting magic. Now that's quite an interesting take on elves, I think.  :) 

Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Elves and humans
« Reply #2 on: May 20, 2017, 05:26:42 PM »
Whether you overtly call them elves, or have analogous peoples called something else but possessing the expected traits, or create an entirely new race, I think the to-do list remains ultimately the same: to highlight what makes them different from us and others in their world, while also touching on what makes them the same from time to time.

Don't underestimate the power of creating a 'new race' by retooling and renaming well-known ones, which is surprisingly easy to do. Take elves, get rid of the pointed ears, keep immortality, add fused teeth and insanity induced by their immortality, and you have Bakker's Non-Men, a fallen race of immortals with a distinctive and often chilling impact. Take elves, get rid of the pointy ears, water down immortality to very long lives, remove the ability to read or discern 2d images, and give flawless recall, and you have my Dvellions.
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Offline Jmack

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Re: Elves and humans
« Reply #3 on: May 21, 2017, 12:11:36 PM »
I love the idea that their power varies with natural cycles. This can work on a small level (day-night), the seasons, and even on long scales (ice age, anyone?). You could use the trope about some cosmic event or cycle coming one every X thousand years and have the elves particularly strong, weak, or horny due to this natural cycle.  ;D
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Offline Eli_Freysson

Re: Elves and humans
« Reply #4 on: May 21, 2017, 10:07:29 PM »
I love the idea that their power varies with natural cycles. This can work on a small level (day-night), the seasons, and even on long scales (ice age, anyone?). You could use the trope about some cosmic event or cycle coming one every X thousand years and have the elves particularly strong, weak, or horny due to this natural cycle.  ;D

Not to sound egotistical, but I quite like it myself.

I thought about making midnight the high point, as then they are kind of mysterious creatures of the night, and associated with moonlight/starlight. But on the other hand it makes high noon a pretty minor handicap. "We can't kick ass just yet. Just wait a few hours."

The two solstices might also work as separate high points, especially since myth typically marks them as times of supernatural activity.

But I guess the best way to get the effect I'm kind of looking for here is to give humans some quality/qualities that elves would find enviable. And just handwaving something about "the human spirit" feels lazy to me. Surely every sentient being has creativity, drive and curiosity. It wouldn't be sentient otherwise.
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Offline Saraband

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Re: Elves and humans
« Reply #5 on: May 22, 2017, 10:18:36 AM »
I think you might be interested in reading about the Wood Elves in the Warhammer fantasy universe. I only know this from the Total War computer game, but they have a sort of mythical hero that reincarnates every year (Orion), and the Elves' power wanes and waxes accordingly throughout the seasons, reaching its apex at the time that Orion incarnates and walks the earth for a limited time. It's very linked with the Green Man mythos found in certain Celtic / German traditions, and with the solstices.

This is just so you know what's out there, and that you can approach it from a different angle of your own ;) Since Elves in Fantasy often are draw a lot of elements from the same mythical traditions, you could always look into unexpected places for inspiration - like East Asian or African cultures.
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Elves and humans
« Reply #6 on: May 23, 2017, 12:02:45 AM »
For my part, while I enjoy the differences that are perhaps physiological (immortality, clairvoyance, etc.), I also really enjoy cultural differences. Star Trek's Vulcans are very interesting with their disdain, even embarrassment, around expressions of emotion. It would be interesting to see people whose values and approaches differ greatly, even alarmingly from our own. The Kergan (sp?) from the original Highlander movie had an interesting (albeit brief) backstory, coming from a people who make children fight for scraps with dogs. Imagine the coldness of such a people - and the savagery such an upbringing would impart.

I met a West African once who was in the U.S. Army - absolutely fit and disciplined. I asked him where he got his thick accent and he told me. I laughed and said that he must find the army really easy. He looked left and right, to be sure no one would overhear, and he nodded. "This is not a hard life for me."
« Last Edit: May 23, 2017, 12:05:02 AM by The Gem Cutter »
The Gem Cutter
"Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There's always the possibility of a fiasco. But there's also the possibility of bliss." - Joseph Campbell

Offline Ray McCarthy

Re: Elves and humans
« Reply #7 on: May 23, 2017, 05:32:42 PM »
Now, in myth elves are somewhere between nature spirits and boogeymen, and that was how I planned to use them in my iron-age barbarian setting. But with that project on hold, I have started to wonder how one could include relatively civilised elves in a setting...
Read Thomas the Rhymer.

It depends WHICH myths you draw on! Scandinavian Elves are just a sort of above ground Dwarf. There may be several kinds.

Scottish Border / North of England Elves are indistinguishable from the Sith / Sióg / Sidhe / Fair Folk / Lords & Ladies / The Good Neighbours.
They are not immortal as they can be killed, but otherwise never get much older than "mature". They are stunningly beautiful, but it may be Glamour. They are not human, but magical creatures. Older Irish legend conflates Tuath De, later called Dedannans and Tuatha De Dannan (but Danu was mainland European Celtic River Goddess of the Danube).
By the 17th C the French Fairy Tale collectors had "elves" as  small woodland dwelling creatures, from Germanic and Central European sources.
The Celtic Fay (older Fae singular of Faerie) are Sióg or Sidhe or Sí (Shee) in Irish. Welsh has many names for them. The oldest stories have Avalon as Ynes Avellach, Inis Abhalan = An otherworld Isle of Apples (literal translation), that had some involvement with Manannán, and possibly seven Fay / Elf / Sióg / Sidhe princesses as the healer (c.f. Idun and apples in Norse myth or Isle of Hesperdies in Greek). One healer was Morgan Le Fay (clue in name). Only in later French tales is she a schemer and then quite late a relative of Arthur.

Tolkien only "invented" the Hobbit species and the stories. His Elves are unmistakably the oldest sorts of description of Fairy Folk (Lords & Ladies, People of the Woods, The Fairy Host, The Good Neighbours, the Sióg, the Sidhe) of earliest Celtic  literature. The Numenoreans are Atlantean. The Dwarves are very Scandinavian, read Norse legends how most of the treasures in Asgard were made.

The Irish Leprechaun is a 16th or 17th C. corruption of "Lugh of the Long Arm", a half breed (part Fomorian* and Tuath De) and a Master of All trades, especially leather working in the Welsh versions. The  aspect is the imported "elf" of 16th or 17th mainland European folktales and not Irish at all.

(*There are two kinds of Fomorian, the early kind that the Tuath De fought and were their overlords for a time. Then a later kind, the Sea Pirates that harried the Iron Age Celts)
The Book of Invasions is interesting. The waves of invaders and aspects of them roughly correspond to Irish pre-history:
About 3200 BC, unknown Neolithic people build Newgrange and similar. They may have invented the triple spiral.
About 2000 BC  we have the Copper Age and the distinctive court graves (rectangles) built by proto Celt Beaker People. They lasted quite a while on the Continent. Burials suggest that Bronze Age "Atlantic" Celts replaced them by 1800BC.
The Atlantic Celts may have been the source of Tuath De (Tribe or people of God, later renamed Tuatha De Dannan because the monks were translating the Bible to Gaelic and the People of God = Israelites/Hebrews!). The Gaulish Toutatis = God of the Tribe. The un-named god of the Tuath De was only much later made to be Danu, She's not Irish at all! The big river goddesses in Ireland are Sionna (Shannon) and Boinne (SP?)  River Boyne. The other major rivers all had fertility Goddesses. (not Gods as on the Custom's House in Dublin).
The Iron Age Celts (Milesians in the Book of Invasions)  arrived about 550 BC (Archaeology). It's likely there were battles with the Tuath De (as per Book of  Invasions). There seems to be suggestion of Sidhe interference. Certainly Manannán mac Lir (a different Lir from the Children of Lir) seems to have been a Sióg, or a Demi-god. He's supposed to have led most of the Tuath De away via the "Fairy Mounds"** when the Treaty with Milesians broke down. The Milesians had then the valuable Cork copper mines. Combined with Cornish tin to supply much bronze to the Mediterranean.
The Earlier Bronze age Celts (who seem to be the Tuath De) acquired much gold from outside Ireland. You can see some of what they made in museums.

(** The larger mounds  were regarded in legend as portals to Fairy (Sidhe / Elf) Otherworlds, often with time slip issues and food "chains".  See Also Thomas the Rhymer which calls the Fair Folk, Elves. It's doubtful that people really thought that the Fair Folk lived in them, though in one story a king who has his queen stolen digs into one.).

Shape changing seems effortless for the Fay, but Druids and Tuath De seem to need a "Druidical wand". It's not clear if the Púca is an Elf/Fay/Sidhe as a horse or a magical kind of horse.
Sí, Sidhe, Sióg, Púca, Sìth or Síth, Aos Si, Aes Sidhe all translate as Fairy / Elf / Fay. They are not small sprites, but tall, strong, very pale, usually blond to ginger hair (red in Irish) and all have Glamour.  The word Sidhe even means "of the mound" and Aes = Folk.

It's only in the last four hundred years, and mainland Europe that Elves are sprite like creatures!
The oldest actually existing Old Gaelic manuscripts are obviously transcriptions by monks, who seem to have added rather than subtracted. About 1000 years old! So the misnamed "Stone of Destiny" is "reconned" to be also Jacob's pillow.

The "Stone of Destiny" is a fascinating subject. It's not either the pillar in Tara nor the Stone of Scone!
 
 

Offline Ray McCarthy

Re: Elves and humans
« Reply #8 on: May 23, 2017, 05:46:48 PM »
Tolkien wanted to re-create the lost pre-Roman era "British" myth, Beowulf being the closest. Obviously Welsh, Irish and Scandinavian myths would have similar features.
There are certainly parallels between some aspects of Norse and Early Celtic myth.
So he set Hobbit & LOTR in real Europe (he said so Middle Earth = Europe), but very long ago.

I don't have his scholarship, so after nearly 50 years of reading Celtic and Norse Myths and Legends, I decided to set my fantasy in the current day, as if the oldest legends were a garbled* version of the truth, that the Otherworlds and Fay folk (five kinds of Sidhe, the Elves and the Faerie) are all real and have both 21st C tech and all their magic. That the Tuath De really were taken away 2500 years ago to another separate Otherworld.

(* Certainly they have some small amount of actual garbled history)

Offline Peat

Re: Elves and humans
« Reply #9 on: May 23, 2017, 07:41:30 PM »
Disclaimer - I have seen a lot of elves that are flawed, or looked down upon, or "different but the same", and if I'm honest I'm a lot more tired of them and likely to swerve them than Tolkienesque elves. I think there's a lot of room for an exploration of what being an elf like that would actually be like.

This said

Yet another idea of mine is that elves are nature spirits themselves who may manifest as trees or animals, and can only take on humanoid appearance and thought processes by living close to humans and modelling themselves after them.

I think that's a baller idea. Really cool.
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Offline Ray McCarthy

Re: Elves and humans
« Reply #10 on: May 23, 2017, 07:56:10 PM »
A good resource with ENTIRE texts on 16th C. and earlier Elves and Fairy, that Shakespeare may have been familiar with is "The Sources and Analogues of 'A Midsummer-night's Dream' by Frank Sidgwick" Available free (out of copyright) on Gutenberg. It has a very old version of Thomas the Rhymer*, many stories about the Puck (a title, name is Robin or Robert Goodfellow). Shakespeare renamed Mab to Titania.
"Puck" might be from the Irish Púc or Púca, a kind of Fairy creature** often depicted as a horse. The English Robin Goodfellow does indeed Shape-change to a horse.

(* A much older story than its apparent setting and identification with a real Thomas who was a bard, all versions call the Fay Folk, ELVES. I have also read the modern version, with much extra "invented" story. Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, I enjoyed it. The original tale is The romance and prophecies of Thomas of Erceldoune, it's actually two parts, the story = romance of Thomas's visit to Elfland being the "important" bit.)
(** As best as I can tell, not a Sidhe)
As an aside in old writing (inc King James Bible) Languages=Tongues. So not surprising as Irish for tongue is tenga and for  fairy or Fay in general is Sióg (root = youth of the mound!), so Irish for Fairy or Fay or Elf Language for at least a thousand years is Tenga Sióg, literally Fairy Tongue.

Also we know that some Celtic oaths are VERY old:
Alexander III of Macedon (20/21 July 356 BC – 10/11 June 323 BC. He signed a treaty (a copy exists) with Anatolian Celtic Mercenaries (a different tribe to any Celts in Ireland) that they would guard Macedonia when he (Alexander the Great) went of conquering.
"The national oath by which the Celts bound themselves to the observance of their covenant with Alexander is remarkable. If we observe not this engagement," they said, "may the sky fall on us and crush us, may the earth gape and swallow us up, may the sea burst out and overwhelm us." See Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race by T. W. Rolleston (Gutenberg).
Often written today as  "May the land open to swallow me, the sea rise to drown me, and the sky fall upon me."
Is this the source in Asterisk the Gaul of the only thing they were afraid of was the sky falling?

Anyway the only Elves that are convincing to me are like the Celtic Sidhe, which are very like what Tolkien wrote a thousand years later, there are no "Tolkien's Elves" :D
 
« Last Edit: May 23, 2017, 08:05:25 PM by Ray McCarthy »

Offline Ray McCarthy

Re: Elves and humans
« Reply #11 on: May 23, 2017, 08:23:24 PM »
Yet another idea of mine is that elves are nature spirits themselves who may manifest as trees or animals, and can only take on humanoid appearance and thought processes by living close to humans and modelling themselves after them.
You describe Dryads! (Tree Spirits) and maybe the Púca.
Other Nymphs
There were also Naiads (Water), Maenads (Wine/grain), Nereids (sea, one was Poseidon's queen).
E. Nesbit invents the Sand nymph or fairy, the Psammaed (from Greek for sand).
The nymphs are all female. So the Greeks invented the Satyroi (Satyrs). A Faun is a Roman one?
They don't seem to age or breed.
Nixies etc seem to be the later Germanic idea of the same thing, a bit like Naiads.
A Selkie is a merman or mermaid type of Northern Celtic idea, more commonly called maighdean mhara (=sea-maidens). The Scottish Kelpie is more like the Greek idea of water nymph (Dryad).

Never mind being original, it's the story, plot, characters that count. The Preacher said "There is nothing new under the sun"!



 

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