TT: Elegant and Ultra Cool

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.

Young Wood Elves (by Jane)

Young Wood Elves (by Jane)

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?

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10 Responses to “TT: Elegant and Ultra Cool”

  1. Jay M. Says:

    One more note about elves:
    In the books, when an elf dies, they eventually incarnate in Valinor (in bodies identical to the ones that died) to be with all the elves who made the journey from the Grey Havens, for the rest of their immortal lives. Which sounds really cool, and seems like a great deal when Bilbo and Frodo join them, right? Until you remember what The Gift of Man really is. In exchange for the short lifespan in Middle-Earth and NOT going to Valinor, the souls of Men get something the elves do not. When THIS universe ends, the souls of Men get to move on to the next universe while the souls of the Elves in Valinor fade into oblivion with this universe. Given that, would you really want to be an Elf, in spite of all their supposed advantages? I wonder if Bilbo and Frodo and Gimli (he went too, if I remember the appendices correctly) knew what going to Valinor meant.
    (Religious Studies major – I pay attention to these things.)

    • Jay M. Says:

      Slight correction: delete “universe” insert “this world”

    • Louis Robinson Says:

      There’s a letter from Tolkien that’s quoted in one of the Wikipedia articles, to the effect that for mortals the journey to Valinor doesn’t confer the immortality within the world of the Eldar. So the ringbearers did [or will] die, but not before they are healed of all the spiritual damage they took in the struggle against Sauron.

      Also, it was my understanding that the souls of men left this world at death; they don’t have to wait for its end. What happens to dwarves or ents isn’t at all clear [AFAIK], but it appears that they share the fates neither of elves nor of men.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Ah yes, angels, elves, and vulcans. And Elfquest. They do all meld together, don’t they? Did Tolkien even give his elves pointy ears? But they did have more impact than the hobbits.

    As for the drow, mythologically and etymologically they’re related to trolls, and both from the Norse. The AD&D Drow sprang from the febrile imagination of Gary Gygax. They were originally meant to be evil anti-elves, dark where elves were light, subterranean where the elves were terrestrial, matriarchal where the elves were patriarchal, slaving where the elves were somehow simultaneously freedom and aristocracy loving…If it weren’t for the popularity of a certain drow who fled the fold, because he was (gasp) secretly good, and became the brooding emo hero of a long line of D&D spinoff novels (sort of the anti-Elric, I guess), I suspect AD&D would be getting a lot more hate mail for how the drow play into negative stereotypes about race and sex, especially in the US. I know as a kid that I never thought twice about why the drow were evil, but now that I’m getting more sensitive about prejudices against women and dark-skinned people, the AD&D drow and truly really annoy me.

    Actually, thinking about it, that’s the thing about elves, isn’t it? They’re the epitome of cool, eco-friendly, slender, powerful, and glamorous white-ness, aren’t they? Someone could have a lot of fun with these stereotypes if they wanted. Guess I need to go reread Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies

    • Peter Says:

      I’m fairly certain that at least part of the inspiration for the D&D drow came from C.J. Cherryh’s Ealdwood novels (The Dreamstone and The Tree of Swords and Jewels) – at least the subterranean anti-elves part (in the novels closer to the traditional Seelie/Unseelie split).

      While the situation has reversed today, the roots of a lot of early RPG works lie in “what was the designer/DM reading last week?” Paladins? Gygax had just read Three Hearts and Three Lions. (My favourite example of this is TSR’s trademarking a species invented by George R.R. Martin. Because of Charles Stross.)

      • Heteromeles Says:

        I’d forgotten about Ealdwood, but you’re right. There are those blasted monks, too. Given what I’ve been reading about real Taoist and Buddhist monks and hermits, were I creating that character class now, I’d totally rewrite them into something a lot weirder, although that might make them impossible to play, but fun to contemplate.*

        *Sort of a cross between an anti-ranger and a thief, in that they have great concealment, sneaking, and survival skills, but get experience points for doing without treasure and settling conflicts without causing damage. Hard to be such a monk on the average dungeon crawl, but think of the XP they’d get by sneaking past the dragon without taking so much as a copper…

  3. Jay M. Says:

    Just remembered something someone said at a science fiction convention, some years back. It might have been Jane Yolen but it might have been someone else. It had to do with how elves/Faerie were viewed in reality vs. fiction. Faerie is always described as a land of perpetual summer, beautiful and enchanting. Many of the lords of Faerie were the same: beautiful and proud and forever young. And almost always, it is added that Faerie and its denizens are nothing but illusion, that they were cast out of Heaven, that their gold is just dirt and leaves. What that author said was:
    “We HAVE to say it’s worthless, or else we’d hopelessly desire it forever.”
    I wonder if that’s why Tolkien created that difference in the souls of Elves and Men.

  4. Paul Dellinger Says:

    Take a gander at what has happened with vampires; they have morphed into whatever kind of being suits the particular story. That might also be happening with elves, dwarves, etc.What worked for Tolkien might be reinterpreted by other writers.

  5. Louis Robinson Says:

    Thranduil and Legolas aren’t actually Wood Elves, although most of their people, like those of Lorien, are. They are Sindar, Grey Elves, of the people of Thingol Greycloak, King of Doriath in Beleriand, and thus much closer kin to the High Elves. This, BTW, is the source of Thranduil’s hostility to the Dwarves, although it’s never clearly explained anywhere in The Hobbit, book or movie: Thingol was murdered by dwarves, leading to the destruction of Doriath and the final defeat of the Elves of Beleriand by Morgoth in the War of the Great Jewels. Although Durin’s Folk had nothing to do with it, Thranduil was a survivor of the fall of Doriath, and not inclined to cut any dwarf much slack.

    We see very few High Elves. Only 3 are introduced by name before the end of LOTR – Gildor, Glorfindel and Galadriel, who are very high indeed and not at all representative of the race.

  6. Jane Lindskold Says:

    May I say I am INCREDIBLY impressed by your (collective) erudition regarding elves, Tolkienesque and otherwise…

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