JANE: Well, Alan, we’ve been chatting about the ripple effect of the “Lord of the Rings” novels. We’ve talked about Hobbits and Wizards. Now, how about elves?
ALAN: Indeed – how about elves? Elves are fascinating and very important in the unfolding of the stories.
JANE: These days, I’d say that elves are the most popular of the races of Middle Earth. How were they seen during the Summer of Love and the novels’ first flush of mass popularity?
ALAN: I’m not sure I know how to answer this. I don’t remember any of the races of Middle Earth (other than the hobbits, of course) as being particularly inspirational.
I think the current feelings about elves and dwarves (and even orcs!) derive far more from Peter Jackson’s movies than they do from the books.
JANE: I’d have to disagree with that. Elves have been very popular for a long time. A good example comes from role-playing games and fiction derived from them where they are (based on a very informal survey) among the most popular characters.
Elves are cool, beautiful, and get all the advantages of long lives, but never look old. There are all sorts of “flavors” of elves: high elves (like Galadriel and her kin), wood elves (like the ones Bilbo meets in The Hobbit), and even dark elves.
ALAN: I’m not a role-player, so I’m not familiar with dark elves. What are they?
JANE: I’m not sure where they originated, but I first encountered them via AD&D. Dark elves (also called Drow) have night-black skin, silvery hair, and live underground. They practice dark arts (of course) and are often skilled in stealth and assassination. They were originally introduced as antagonists, but they were too popular to stay that way for long.
I gave up on the AD&D gaming system long ago, so my knowledge is limited. However, if what I keep seeing on book covers is any indication, the Dark Elf is alive and more popular than ever.
ALAN: Ah, I see. That would definitely add an extra dimension to the character of an elf.
Down here in Middle Earth itself, elves really have made an indelible impression. I once had an elf on one of my training courses. In “real life” he was a computer system administrator, but he’d volunteered as an extra and he’d been cast as an elf because, damnit, he was an elf. He was tall and slim and beautiful, he had long straight blond hair and there was an undeniable elegance about his body language. He was utterly thrilled about the whole thing, of course and I’m sure that for him it was a life-changing experience.
JANE: That’s really neat. How did you find out? Did he come in and introduce himself as an elf?
ALAN: No – I always ask the students to introduce themselves to me and to the rest of the class (it helps to break the ice), and when it was his turn, he just told me about his computer background and why he was in the course. Trying to make conversation, I said, “Gosh, you look just like an elf. You really should be in the Lord of the Rings films.” He smiled and told me that actually he was in the movie. He said that if I looked closely and didn’t blink, I’d see him as one of the elf warriors who fought at Helm’s Deep. Everyone in the class was very impressed!
JANE: He must have been very pleased. At Bubonicon one year, we had two cosplayers who were such magnificent elves it was hard to believe they weren’t the real thing. They turned out to be brother and sister – Jacob and Jennifer – from the southern part of New Mexico.
As an aside, Jacob also did a marvelous Jareth from Labyrinth a few years later, and Vash the Stampede (from the anime Trigun, as well). Peter Jackson probably would have cast him in a heartbeat.
ALAN: I’m sure he would! He never misses a good opportunity like that.
JANE: To be honest, though, while I visually liked Peter Jackson’s elves very, very much, I did not care for how they were presented otherwise. Emotionally, they were more Vulcans than elves. I re-read the books after seeing the movies and confirmed that Tolkien’s elves – even the High Elves – were fond of song and dance, of picnics and teasing. The ethereal creatures who floated through the movies demonstrated none of those personality traits.
ALAN: Perhaps Peter Jackson was feeding off popular culture as well as off the books. From what you said before about role-playing games, there’s obviously been a lot of thought put in to the way elves are supposed to look and behave. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that Jackson had tapped into this. He always seems to have his finger firmly on the pulse of the various sub-cultures that we collectively refer to as fandom. And he’s a big fan himself, of course.
JANE: I hadn’t thought of that, but I bet you’re right. I could see fans blending Vulcans and elves without even being conscious of it.
ALAN: In terms of defining the character of the elves in the popular imagination, I think that the archetypal elf is Legolas. And Orlando Bloom, the actor who played him in the movies, gave a definitive performance. When The Return of the King premiered in Wellington, the whole city went mad. There was a huge parade through the city with the cast and crew of the movie having pride of place. Orlando Bloom was particularly prominent, waving enthusiastically to everyone and obviously having the time of his life. A stunningly beautiful elf lady in the crowd was spotted holding up a sign that said “De-Bloom Me Orlando!”
JANE: Oh… That’s made me laugh…
Y’know, it’s funny you’d say that Legolas is the “archetypal” elf. He’s certainly the most prominent elf in the novels – being the only elf in the Fellowship. However, if I’ve got my facts straight, he’s not a High Elf, he’s a Wood Elf, son of the hard-drinking, avidly partying elf king who locks up the Dwarves in The Hobbit. Do I have that right?
ALAN: Yes you do – Thranduil is the ruler of the Wood Elves in Mirkwood and Legolas is his son. Thranduil sent Legolas to represent the Wood Elves at the Council of Elrond as a result of which Legolas found himself a member of the Fellowship that set out to destroy the One Ring.
JANE: If so, the snooty High Elves would be very disturbed that you see Legolas as “archetypal,” since they’d probably see him as a roistering “country cousin,” son of a king or not.
ALAN: You are probably right – but in both the books and the movies we see more of Legolas than we do of any other elf, and it is that prominence that made me think of him as archetypal. There’s something cold and distant about the High Elves. We never really come to know Elrond or Galadriel in the same way that we know Legolas.
JANE: We don’t – either in the books or the movies – although I will restate that they are far less cold and distant in the books. And there must be something good about them, since Bilbo retires among them, and Sam – who is the most sensible character in all the Lord of the Rings – is very taken with them.
We’ve given elves a lot of attention. I can hear someone hammering at the door, demanding his people be given a fair share. So, next time, how about Dwarves?