Fantastic Species: Elves

When it comes to fantasy creatures, elves and dwarves are pretty much the go-to nonhuman species for populating a world. (Aside from all the cattle-munching dragons, that is.) And as per the Tolkien world that shadows everything we do in the genre, elves are graceful and wise and as old as time, usually archers and amazing dancers; and dwarves are basically humans but with a rustic Viking aesthetic and a penchant for anvils. Elves can never be wrong, but dwarves are usually about as wrong or right as the rest of us plebes.

Which is interesting, because in the original Lord of the Rings books, Gimli the dwarf is a smooth-talking, graceful diplomat; and Legolas the elf is a big cheerful lug with a bow. And in The Silmarillion, the slim volume that’s packed with more murder and mayhem than A Song of Ice and Fire (if less graphically put), elves are just as likely to mess up catastrophically as humans are.

This begs the question: where did that stereotype of Ancient Wise Elves and Surly Dwarves come from? And the answer is: Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. Cate Blanchett is amazing, but when you know that Galadriel took part in the slaughter at Alqualondë, it’s a little harder to see the Queen of Lothlorien as always right about everything.

(Caveat: I have never played a single Bioware Dragon Age game, so I can’t speak for the elves in those stories. If elves are treated differently there, I’d love to discuss the difference!)

So once we know that the Ancient Wise Elf is a stereotype, what is the literary utility of a character like that? Someone who has lived through every age, who scorns mortals for their brief lives, who is never wrong about anything — what function does a character like that have in a story? If you need an elder to impart advice to your young hero, sure, that makes sense. But it makes even more sense for your elder to be wrong about something. (Cf. Dumbledore and Old Ben Kenobi.) And it might just be me, but if some fantastically beautiful person told me my life was as brief as an insect and they knew the answer to all of my problems … well, that sounds awfully condescending, doesn’t it?

When it comes to know-it-all characters, for me the satisfaction mostly comes in showing that character that they actually don’t know everything. And when it comes to immortal characters, there’s even more satisfaction in showing that they can be surprised by something. So that’s it, really: the role of the stereotype, at least in my view, is to break it.