Elves, so they say, are unfashionable. So, apparently, are dwarves, orcs and any other non-human sentient species associated with traditional fantasy.
Who are ‘they’, the amorphous mass with the power to declare entire areas of a genre off limits? I think they must be the agents, editors and publishers. Possibly also a few reviewers who need an opinion piece in which they get to look down on everyone who isn’t interested in the Next Big Thing. After all, journalists tell us, it doesn’t matter if what you write is true, it only matters that someone reads it. The decades long success of series such as Dragonlance is irrelevant to the argument.
So, if we can’t have elves, what do we get instead? Well, we get inventions that are just as recognisable, predictable and recurrent as elves ever were.
These are usually a cross between Navaho indians and Mongol tribesment. They ride horses, live in tents and generally have a patriarchal structure that may occasionally nod towards matriarchy, but inevitably has to fall back on the mounted male horse-warrior cliche. Women novelists may include the odd female horse-warrior, but she is inevitably the exception. Appearance-wise, they braid their hair, perhaps using beads and/or feathers, and wear leather trousers and jackets for riding. Mare’s milk also often features, fed to newborn babies or fermented and drunk by the men so that the writer can throw in a few beer-related jokes. They are fearsome in battle, and are often used as barbarian hordes, terrorising farming villages and attacking small towns. However many die in war, there are always tens of thousands more just over the horivon, ready to cascade down with bloodthirsty screams on the undefended villagers. Any resemblance to orcs is entirely coincidental.
Tree dwellers/forest dwellers
These are the hippies of the fantasy universe. Living in close harmony with nature, they are generally somewhat fey. The women are all tall, slender and beautiful, given to appearing in floaty silk or velvet numbers (little thought is ever given to where this fabric might have come from). The men are also tall and usually of heroic aspect. The bow is their preferred weapon; orphan daughter heroines may also employ the slingshot. Should they need to use swords, they abruptly have all the skills of master-fencers. They build their homes either around or in the branches of trees. They have usually, at some unspecified point in the past, interbred with some sort of nature spirit, thus giving them an automatic and close understanding of the land. Essentially, they are just elves.
After the first two you should be able to write this one yourselves. Cave dwelling, poor eyesight in daylight. Usually small and stocky, and inevitably male. Sometimes they can actually walk through rock, but more often they are simply skilled miners/metalworkers (anyone ever wondered about how difficult it might be to dig a mine in a mountainous area, and why, IRL, most mines are dug in flat land?). Incredible endurance, and tolerance for beer.
There are several more, but these are the most obvious, the moments where I sigh and notch up another writer beaten down by the ‘rules’ of the genre.
But does it matter? After all, can’t we have elves and tree dwellers, dwarves and mountain men?
Well, clearly not in book form, at least, if publishers are getting cold feet at the mere hint of a pointed ear. So writers aiming for the traditional book market, who want to write traditional fantasy, are faced with a find/replace issue. The manuscript changes little, the story even less, but they aren’t elves, and everyone is happy.
But if they’re not elves, then no matter how elflike these characters are, the writer has to start at the beginning and establish every aspect of this new, invented society. There’s no shorthand. Time that could be spent moving the plot along is instead spent on the endless minutiae of the not-quite-elves. Personally, I’d rather just have the elf. Pointy ears, tall, bow on back, long-lived or immortal etc etc. Then I can get on with finding out what makes this particular elf special. After all, good fantasy is primarily character driven. In fact, other than in very rare cases, fantasy is character. Most readers turn to it because they know there will be a war between light and dark, some serious battles, death, comradeship, love and usually beer jokes. What gives it its variety is who these people are. Not who as in their ethnic group, but who as in their individual thoughts and hopes, their character flaws, the mistakes they make and the disasters they survive-or not.
Maybe I’m biased because the fantasy I write is deeply character driven. I particularly notice this with my beta readers; they get so involved with the characters that they are frequently asking me to abandon the plot completely in order to flesh out the character’s irrelevant and unrelated side trips. But when I look back over the books I’ve read, it is the characters that stand out – Salamander, Paragon, Paksenarrion, Rhodar…my protagonist, Caedun, grew out of frustration with Melanie Rawn’s unfinished Mageborn series. Collan the bard was such an incredible invention that I still feel furiously cheated over a decade later.
So, having never listened to style leaders anyway, I have written a story that contains elves. The shorthand is there, we all know what sort of race I’m talking about. It allows me to build themes, such as a war of genocide, because the differences are already understood. It allows cultural misunderstandings, because same-sex relationships among elves are probably not that surprising. It also allows me to create characters that, at heart, have the same needs as the humans they interact with.
But mostly, it allows me to simply get on with the story.