Dragons: From Primordial Chaos to Fantasy Cliché

Okay, before you rage quit or try to punch me through the internet, I’m not saying that dragons are cliché. I’m saying that they can be cliché. After all, anything can be cliché if it’s done improperly. The thing about dragons is that there are so many different ways to include them in a story, a game, or a fictional science manual. Yes, I said a fictional science manual; I’ll get to that later.

The characters Bowen and Draco from the 1996 film "Dragonheart"

The characters Bowen and Draco from the 1996 film “Dragonheart”

Let’s start at the very beginning. It’s a very good place to…never mind. The beginning, as in Creation. In the creation story of the Babylonians, the primordial dragon Tiamat represents the salt water, while her husband Apsu represents the fresh water. When Apsu is killed by the gods, who are led by Marduk, Tiamat is understandably ticked off. She responds, of course, by trying to kill the gods, and therefore everything in the universe that is not her. You see, as the salt water, thereby being the ocean, Tiamat represents chaos incarnate. When Marduk kills her, he forms the world out of her corpse (a fairly common trope in creation myths). Meanwhile, all the demons, evil spirits, and monsters are born out of her. So, by that, Tiamat is chaos, the formation of the earth, but the mother of all dragons. Daenerys Targaryen, eat your heart out.

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Orcs: The Irredeemable Race?

Most of the magical races found in fantasy literature have been around in some form or another for thousands of years. Both elves and dwarves stretch back to pre-Christian Northern Europe, found in the lósalfar and svartalfar of the Nordic mythos. There is another race, however, that has become as much as staple of fantasy literature as elves and dwarves: orcs.

Although the term “orc” was first applied to the evil, corrupted race invented by J.R.R. Tolkien, they were based on goblins, which date back almost as far as the svartalfar that would eventually morph into dwarves. A medieval concept, the word “goblin” means “demon.” It shares an etymology with a similar being known as a kobold and with the metal cobalt. Cobalt was known as a demon metal because alchemists thought it was useless. As a corrupted, evil race, however, goblins and orcs became what they are today primarily thanks to Tolkien’s stories.

Now, I have to admit something; the idea of an entire fully evil race make me uncomfortable. It’s how many governments portray their very human enemies to make it okay to kill them. I realize that orcs aren’t human, but even if they are entirely evil, it’s kind of lazy writing to leave it at that. Why are they all evil? Why are there no redeeming features? What are they anyway? Is there even any individuality? Here are the ways that different authors and companies, starting with J.R.R. Tolkien, have treated the subject:

An orc from the film version of "Lord of the Rings"

An orc from the film version of “Lord of the Rings”

Tolkien

When Tolkien wrote his stories about Middle Earth and the earlier age in Beleriand, he wrote the orcs, not as a redeemable, noble barbarian race, but as demons. The very name orc means “demon.” Tolkien’s orcs were originally elves who had been captured, tortured, and corrupted by the power of Morgoth, the Satan figure of the world. That said, they were entirely evil, broken, bestial, and monstrous. They had cities, as evident in the Goblintown of The Hobbit. (Tolkien’s goblins were really just smaller orcs.) If you’re going to be including a race of purely evil, irredeemable monsters, then giving them corrupted, almost demonic souls would seem the way to go. Just know that Tolkien did it first. (That’s not saying much, since he did most things in modern fantasy first.)

A half-orc barbarian from Dungeons and Dragons

A half-orc barbarian from Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons has never been known for deep philosophy, but they have been known for repeating things from legend, myth, and…well, Tolkien in ways that brought fantasy to the late-Twentieth Century mind. In D&D, the evil nature of orcs, or much else for that matter, isn’t explained beyond worshipping evil gods, but that’s understandable. The point really is to just kill them and loot their still-warm corpses. My point is that D&D, and other roleplaying games, for that matter, doesn’t need to explain why they’re evil. It’s basically pulp adventure.

That said, they do have half-orcs, brutal characters best suited to being barbarians that can, at least, be redeemed through being player characters, or PCs.

An orc from Blizzard's "World of Warcraft"

An orc from Blizzard’s “World of Warcraft”

Blizzard

With D&D’s inclusion of a semi-redeemable orcish, or half-orcish, character type, Blizzard went a step further. In their Warcraft series, players can take on the role of the orcs. While they are, indeed, the enemies of humans, this means that orcs are seen in a more sympathetic light. They’re still brutal, harsh, and often barbaric, but they resemble more the humanized half-orc of Dungeons and Dragons than the demonic, corrupted orcs of Tolkien.

Originally an agrarian race from another dimension, orcs were enslaved and corrupted by demons and really did become what Tolkien envisioned. However, by the time that World of Warcraft takes place, they’ve been freed and are now little more than a race of proud, sometimes noble barbarians with a dark and violent past. In other words, just another world culture.

Paolini

Then there’s another way of going about writing your orcs, goblins, or other villain race. I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s essentially making them an irredeemable evil, but not trying to explain why. At least in Dungeons and Dragons, they were tribal groups that worshiped evil, violent gods. In Eragon, Christopher Paolini included the Urgals. Yes, he’s totally not ripping of Tolkien, because they’re not orcs; they’re Urgals. Right, whatever. They’re a race of baby-skewering (no, really) evil people whose existence is never really explained. Never explained, that’s my point. They’re just there to be hated, feared, and killed, kind of like the barbarian hordes of racially insensitive movies from the 1940s and 1950s.

Okay, you know what? I realize that I’ll be seen as being silly. They’re not human, so make them whatever you want. Just do it right. If you just say, “They’re evil,” and actually tell us why, that’s fine, great. But if you don’t give an explanation, it’s just lazy. When you make a world, especially when there are racial issues (even non-human racial issues) at play, then you need to be able to explain everything that you decide on.

Know your world, and know why it is the way it is, especially why your enemy races are the way they are. No one likes a flat character, and the culture is a character in itself.

 

On a related side note: I’ll be starting a series of blog posts about the steps to take in creating a race and culture of your own, and, for a bit of variety, since most seem to focus on human cultures, I’ll be dealing with an orcish nation from my world, perhaps, even throw in some short stories about them.

Elves: Cliche or Classic?

Okay, so I want to talk about elves. Yes, that old favorite. Elves. Pointy-eared, forest-dwelling, tree-hugging, immortal or near-immortal übermensch with so much magic they have to hide it places that aren’t polite to mention. Some of us love them and can’t get enough of them, and some of us hate them and wish they would go away. They’re clichéd and classic at the same time, and there isn’t even a consensus on that they are. You have Santa’s elves, short, gnomish little things that sound like they breathe helium instead of air and then you have the tall, willowy sylvan figures that, let’s admit it, are ripped off from Tolkien’s elves. I mean, come on, there are even space elves.

You see, elves have gotten to be a little cliché, and even a little troubling, if you really think about it. In many stories, they’re portrayed as being nearly perfect, certainly more perfect a race than humans. They’re stronger, smarter, more magically adept, and often even more moral, depending on how the writer chooses to portray them . Oh, and they’re also European. Granted, that’s because the very concept of elves is originally from northern Europe, but to portray a decidedly European race as being the more perfect race, as we see in Eragon, is a little worrying. I’m not saying that it’s even a conscious choice, not always at least. It’s just something that happens. We want to see a perfect ideal, and that gets shown in a people group, a utopian nation. The problem is that, when that group is based on a specific cultural idea, then you have some serious issues.

At best, using elves can be rather worn out, a tired trope that either need invigorating or retirement. At worst, using them can be downright racist, but that would only really happen if you make your cultures one-dimensional. If you’ve been following along so far, you should already know not to do that. Personally, I love to use elves, but only because I like the idea of a dryadic/sylvan/naturist race with ties to elemental magic, and really, what’s a better name for them than elves? I’m not going to say that my elves are the newest, greatest thing, but I have tried to have a new spin on them in my work in progress, tentatively called Wrath of the Fallen.

Part of that spin is that there isn’t a single monolithic elven culture. Yes, they are immortal, and yes, they do have the common trait of being bonded to the land, but what does that mean, really? If the land is poisoned, do the elves get sick and die, or do they become poisoned, twisted, and psychotic? Why would they all agree on what gods to follow? Are there elves who follow a single moon goddess, or perhaps a craftsman god? Are there elves who follow some sort of nontheistic religion? The religion you give a culture tells a lot about the people in it, and nonhuman races are no different.

I want to talk about the different kinds of elves that we’ve seen so far:

Tolkien’s elves

Nearly a hundred years since they were first created in the trenches of WWI the Noldor were originally called Gnomes by Tolkien, who decided that calling them elves would be better. Really, the Noldor were one of three races of the elves in the fictional history of Middle Earth, but they were the most important because they were the race that returned from the Undying Lands to Beleriand and eventually returned from the Grey Havens. Inspiring a century of fantasy novelists, including myself, the sylvan race of elves that were created by Tolkien were more high fae than what had previously been considered an elf. Tall, immortal, and magical, they were one of the two races known as the Children of Iluvatar, with Man being the younger race. They were richly done, and if you read The Silmarillion, you can tell that there is no way that they are a more perfect race than humans. They may be stronger, and they may be ageless, but when you take the story of Feanor and his sons, at the very least, you can see that Tolkien, while seeing the elves as something apart from mankind, still imbued them with a kind of imperfect humanity.

Gigax’s elves

When Gary Gigax created Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970s, he took what had become stock fantasy races and made them his own. At first, it was just basic descriptions of the races, which were blatant and shameless rip-offs of Tolkien’s races. The elves were tall, willowy, not as immortal but still long-lived, and more magical than humans. He even included hobbits, although copyright laws made him call them halflings. That said, the past forty years has made them grow, change, and evolve over the course of multiple game editions, novels, and campaign settings, so that, while still obviously based on Tolkienesque elves, they are their own race. In a way, D&D elves have become the standard.

Lósalfar

Short, nimble, loyal craftsmen, Santa’s elves are a direct descendent of the elves of folklore, including the brownies from Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Shoemaker and the Elves.” Elves in the most traditional sense, they maintain the appearance and character the race had when they were still being called lósalfar by the Scandinavians, a name that means “light elf.” Thanks to Tolkien’s influence, we don’t see much of them in fantasy stories, except where the writer is basing it more closely off of traditional folklore. One writer who keeps to this more traditional view is Jim Butcher, who mentions them from time to time in The Dresden Files. An urban fantasy series, The Dresden Files is about a wizard/private investigator who has to deal with the fae, who range from tall and dangerous high fae, to small and dangerous (if wildly ADHD) Little Folk. While the elves aren’t often seen, I’m fairly certain it’s the traditional view of elves that he’s intending.

Dark elves

While D&D has a race called the Drow, who are essentially the dark elves of the game, the original term meant something else. “Dokkalfar” means “dark elf”, while “svartalfar” means “black elf.” Now, there’s some debate, but they could be interchangeable, but what we can be certain of is that they don’t mean tall, black-skinned, white-haired evil elves. They were actually closer to what we would consider fantasy dwarves. Tolkien used the term in his writing for a particular individual, intending to convey the sense of danger, and even of evil, when describing a misanthropic recluse who ends up causing more harm than good. Basically, if you’re going to use a kind of dark elf, just remember that the drow were created specifically for Dungeons and Dragons, and so they’re not entirely free-range like most legendary races. At the same time, dark elves are still up for grabs, you just have to do your own thing with them.

Paolini’s elves

Now, I’ll admit that I haven’t read the entire Inheritance series, but I have read Eragon, and the distinct impression I got was that the elves were seen as being superior, physically, mentally, magically, and morally, to humans. They were the übermensch of Paolini’s world. At the same time, they were really a watering down of Tolkien’s elves. There wasn’t anything new about them, and they lost a lot in the translation from Middle Earth to the world Paolini constructed. Really, they’re a good example of why people tend not to like elves; they’re a bit overdone.

World of Warcraft elves

Now here’s where things get interesting. There are two races in Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. (Well, three if you count the high elves, but I’ll get to them.) First, there are the Night Elves, super tall with blue and purple skin, they worship a moon goddess and are part of the Alliance, which includes humans, dwarves, and gnomes, among others. Ostensibly the good guys (if you don’t play Horde), they’re completely different from other depictions of elves. On the enemy Horde side, you have Blood Elves, who are descended from the more ancient high elves. They look more like your traditional Tolkienian elves, except that they all have glowing green eyes and an addiction to pure magic. I could do an entire post about these guys. There is such a rich history to the elves that Blizzard made, even including issues such as racial segregation, genocide, and intentionally spread plagues that they’re really a race apart from anything else I’ve ever seen.

 

Okay, so these were just a few of the possibilities that are out there. The real key when using elves is to figure out how best to use them. Remember, the world you’re creating is your own, and you’re not like others, so why should your work be like the work of others? The real meat of the elves is that they’re tied to nature in some fashion, whether spiritually, magically, or physically…oh, and that they’re humanoid. Other than that, it’s your world, and they’re your elves, now go play god.