Elf Preservation – Part One

Malekith and his dear old mum. Courtesy of Stef Kopinski, for The Sundering omnibus.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, I attended a panel at the SFXWeekender entitled ‘Elf Preservation’. The theme of the panel was whether fantasy needs to include ‘magic and monsters’ to be considered fantasy. To prepare for that panel, I posed a short series of questions to visitors to give me an idea of what sort of reading they have done and what they like to see in their fantasy. In this first tie-in post I am going to publish the results of those polls and just say a little bit about what that might mean. In part two, I will discuss in some more detail a few of the issues raised at the panel.

Caveats: Small sample size, self-selecting participation, etc etc. It’s not proper science, I know.

As we can see, the reading of just over half of respondents sometimes or often does not contain traditional fantasy tropes. Fantasy as a genre has moved away from simply being Tolkien wannabes and stories about wizards and goblins. Lots of people like this ‘new fantasy’, even if 9% of people who took part have only read books containing traditional fantasy staples.

That’s a pretty conclusive three-quarters of readers who took part preferring even their traditional fantasy elements delivered with a new twist. That’s not really surprising, because although everybody likes some familiarity in what they read, fantasy is about exploring new ideas, even if they are simply new versions of old ideas. This certainly came up in the panel, with the consensus being that re-hashing old ideas without putting anything of yourself as an author into the idea or image is counter-productive. Authors, fantasy authors for sure, want to be identified with their ideas, and so we each try to find something unique to bring to our work that sets it apart from the rest, even if we’re trying to tell a classic fantasy tale or use a well-established fantasy image.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that nearly two-thirds of respondents had read books with no human characters in. Of course, I have written The Sundering and Grudgebearer, so I have vested interest in this, but it must be more than just my books that account for this. Something that I wanted to mention on the panel but didn’t get a chance is the growing prevalance of non-human-centric fantasy. Stan Nicholl’s Orcs series springs to mind, as does Dwarves by Markus Heintz – note the Tolkien spelling on the latter, though. As we’ll see later, Elves are always popular, but I can’t think at the moment of a non-Warhammer elf-based book or series along the same lines (a quick online search shows that James Barclay has had a go at claimign this one). Please show up my ignorance in the comments section (Silmarillion?). With a fair number of Warhammer readers taking part, I guess this also shows that although there is an Empire-centric theme to the novels a lot of the time, the exploits of dwarfs, skaven, lizardmen and such have an audience.

You can tell that I had an agenda (agendum?) with this question. This did come up on the panel and I will talk about it a lot more in my next post, but I find it staggering that 60% of respondents thought that some or most of the books they read had non-human characters in them that were not really non-human. I expected this, of course. I also think that while people protest that dwarfs are just short humans, and elves are just humans with pointy ears, (physical characteristics will be covered in my next piece too) it doesn’t seem to stop people reading quite a few books with non-human characters. That suggests to me that there is a part of writing and reading fantasy that does want to see the fantastical – dwarfs and goblins and whatever – for the sake of it, even if those fantastical elements have no bearing on the plot. It’s a matter of setting and the desire for the alternate world-building.

(As an aside, even if a reader might think my characters act just like humans – which they don’t – in the Sundering and Grudgebearer, I will point out that those novels take place over decades, centuries and millennia, so even just in terms of timescale the characters do something that humans could never do – live long enough!)

Elves. Elves. Elves. By a margin. And then (hurrah!) Dwarfs. Are fantasy writers being lazy and hackneyed by returning to these tired old tropes? Or are fantasy writers tapping into something quite fundamental about a lot of fantasy readers – they like elves and dwarfs! Perhaps too many of us were hit on the head by a copy of LOTR as infants, or something, but there is an appeal to even these most tried and tested fantasy staples. Also, I would think that if I had replaced the ‘Undead’ entry with ‘Vampire’, I would have had much the same result. I also suspect that the Nac Mac Feegle probably account for the lion’s share of their vote in that category too.

Nice to see some suggestions for other races too. They were (one vote each): Tyranids (pretty sure they don’t count as fantasy…), Melniboneans, Tinker Gnomes, Halfling/ Hobbit and Seerkind (so we have a Clive Barker fan taking part – was that you McNeill?).

I would be grateful if folks could post in the comments their favourite non-traditional fantasy race (and from which series) and/ or their favourite non-traditional portayal of a traditional fantasy race in the comments. For my money, I really like the Vodyanoi from China Mieville. Part of me wants to say that 40K Eldar are the best non-traditional take on elves, but I don’t want to open that door. Erm, instead I will opt for… Okay, I’m going to say Terry Pratchett’s elves, but really they are not ‘new’ elves, they are very old elves, the kind of elves that were around before Lord Dunsany and Tolkien got their hands on them. Recommendations in the comments please.

Hopefully I’ll have time next week for part two, in which I will talk about points raised during the panel, such as why and why not to include non-human races, whether you can have a conversation with a dragon, and if magic needs to be explained or stay mysterious.

Published in: on February 17, 2012 at 6:18 pm  Comments (12)  

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  1. U seem dissapointed in the fact that dwarves and elves were the most favourites, I chose dwarves not because of LOTR but my fav warhammer novels gotrek and felix. And was chuffed to bits to see james barclay get a mention as a big fan of his raven series,was the first fantasy book I ever read!!


  2. Silmarillion is more like a chronicle of everything in the history of Middle-Earth. The early, early parts are concerned with the gods, the early to middle parts are concerned primarily with Elves and touch on the Humans as well. The later middle parts and to the ending is Humans and everyone else, especially with the events of the trilogy novels.


  3. Good blog! I do like it when fantasy authors deconstruct the genre (cf Joe Abercrombie). My favourite non-traditional fantasy race has got to be the Sea Serpents from Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders. I know that you might not class them as such (spoiler alerts!) but I think that they were inventive enough to count as a separate race.


  4. By demand:

    Favourite non-traditional fantasy race: Walter Moers’ Wolpertinger (I believe those books aren’t translated). The series would be (loosely) the Captain Bluebear chronicles, though it’s not exactly a series and more novels happening in the same wacky universe. It’S a universe where humans are effectively extinct, by the way. If you like that, try and read them. They’re worth it.

    Favourite new twist on a fantasy standard: Shadowrun/Earthdawn elves (if those count), George RR Martin’S Ice & Fire-cycle’s Children of the Forest (a very new take on elves or dryads) if not.


  5. […] Mechanical Hamster on Elf Preservation – Part One. […]


  6. I’m so delighted you did this.

    Non-traditional race: I like Mark Charan Newton’s Rumel – they’ve been associating with humans long enough to share most of their cultural traits, but there’s still something slightly alien about them…


  7. Interesting post, lots of food for thought. I’ve been spending a lot of time on this very subject (like… years). In my mind, I want to give credit where it’s due; Tolkien introduced many fantasy readers to the fantastic humanoid races, and he did a good job of it. As such, I don’t want to write about Elves and call them Spifflejins or whatever, and pretend to be original.

    Instead, to me, the idea of the fantasy humanoid or race is what they represent. Tolkien’s work has been analyzed to Nth degree, but I think this is where there is room for originality. For instance, Elves if represent longevity, experience – should they always be so pretty and polite? I tend to believe… no. Most of the cynics I know are older than me. If Dwarves represent work ethic – then if people are inherently lazy, Dwarven labor would be a lot more common and accepted.


    I like what Jim Butcher did in his Codex Alera, with the fantasy races there; not just the Canim, but also the Marat and the Vord. And while I haven’t read the stories yet, what I’ve seen suggests that Adrian Tchaikovsky has a very clever and original approach, with his kinden humanoids.


  8. To answer your question I realy do like the warhammer fantasy races, almost all of them, where it comes to traditional fantasy races.

    Obviously the Dark Elves are somewhat different than traditional fantasy(as in tolkien) but almost traditional in their own right.

    Nice incarnations of elves are the Raymond E Feist versions of the elven races: The Eledhel, Glamredhel, Moredhel, Ocedhel, Anoredhel and Taredhel… But it is not nececarrily the raxce itself dat makes them brilliant, it is the story line and characters behind the facade of race.

    Also from Feist and non-traditional are the Valheru and Parthians.
    The first being a race of dragon riders and demi-gods as it were, very awesome. The latter are serpent-people which is also quite interesting.


    • Feist’s variety in the Elven species was quite awesome to read about. One of the best things in his novels. Also, the serpent-folk were Pantathians and the Panath-Tiandns IIRC. Was there a third subset of this race?


  9. While obviously I’m Druchii to the core, I do quite like Elves in other settings. The Elder Scrolls (Skyrim especially) seems to handle them well with the Altmer being your typical poncy stuck up architype, the Dunmer being ostracised and the Bosmer having a cannibalistic pact with the forest. Have to be honest, I don’t read a lot of fantasy that isn’t human-centric these days but for that I blame A Song of Ice and Fire. Love Pratchett’s Elves, especially the idea that they’re not beautiful, it’s just how their glamour works on feeble human minds.


  10. well. about being too human that is what i call “human plus” when a charater who is inhuman. o become more inhuman act just like a human with something extra. human+something. just look the space marine y warhammer and other SM y wharever sci-fci. the first are almost like angels or monsters are most of the SM are just soldier with bigger guns. the same with vampire. some time they are just human but more powerful.

    about elves,orc they are like sometimes requieres. that is why after human,elf,orc and dawrfs the rest become more easy for just becasue there isn`t any standar

    about the eldar. i like then because they are really alien in their ways


  11. […] long time ago (two novels ago, in fact), I conducted a brief survey of Hamsterites’ thoughts on fantasy tropes in preparation for a panel at SFXWeekender3. There were […]


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