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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Humans: The Original Fantasy Race

Harry Dresden

Paul Blackthorne as Harry Dresden, a human wizard from Jim Butcher’s “The Dresden Files”

Okay, you’re probably thinking, “Wait, what? Humans aren’t a fantasy race! That’s, like, elves, and dwarves, and dragons, and stuff.”

Yes, but, if you think about it, humans really are a fantasy race. After all, how many fantasy novels have you read that haven’t had humans? Okay, that’s not really the best answer, but seriously, the humans in fantasy stories are often fairly unlike the humans in the real world, and if you consider the genre of science fiction, it’s sometimes even more apparent. Take the world of Harry Potter, for example. You essentially have two races, or rather, two sub-races. You have wizards and witches, who are born with the ability to work magic, so much so that they need to learn how to control it or else be a danger, and you have Muggles, who have so little magical ability that they may as well not even try.

As far as Harry Potter witchcraft goes, we’re all Muggles. We can’t wave wands and say words that send another person flying through the air, or turn teacups into toads. The wizards of the world J.K. Rowling created are a different breed of human, with a genetic difference that makes them…something else.

In Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth, it’s even more apparent. The Numenoreans are considered one of the races of Man, that is, humans, but they live more than two centuries on average. Really, they’re descended from both elves and humans, and so they’re a sort of half-elf with a human heritage. The point is that they’re considered to be human, and yet they’re different from humans.

Here’s an example from science fiction. On Doctor Who, the characters often go into the future, so far into the future that humans aren’t really humans anymore. They evolve, change, and become something else. Likewise, on Enterprise, the prequel series to the Star Trek franchise, the character of Daniels is asked, “Are you human?” His response? “More or less.”

Yes, even Voldemort is human. No, really!

Yes, even Voldemort is human. No, really!

Why do we even use humans in these stories? For science fiction and contemporary fiction, it makes sense, because we’re writing about our world, this world, where we already know humans to exist. When we write about other planets, or other universes, why would there be humans? I think it’s because we need someone to relate to. That’s why portal fiction, which involves a character from our world entering another world, exists. The other world may not have humans, but the human character is someone we can understand.

If you’re not writing portal fiction, though, but writing about a world separate and apart, why use humans? Like I said, someone we can understand. We know human psychology, more or less, and we know human physiology. We have a basis to work from in describing and comprehending the world of the story.

That said, I still hold that humans can be considered a fantasy race. In a fantasy story, we can make them whatever we want, change the entire species according to our whims like some cold, capricious god of literary madness. If you change them too much, of course, then they won’t be humans anymore, but suppose you want to give everyone some kind of magical ability. It shouldn’t be too hard to justify it.

It can also be tied in with the creation myth. In my world of the Three Realms, humans are descended from the Ancient Race, an original race of people created by Ilahar for the middle realm of Yma. When the lesser gods rebelled, they took many of the Ancients and corrupted them, turning them into other races, including elves and orcs. Some of the Ancients fled, however, and went deep underground, eventually being changed by proximity to arcane forces deep within the planet. They shrank in size, lost almost all magical ability, and became so short-lived that they could barely even reach a century. In short, they became humans.

That’s just one example that you could use. Perhaps you have a plant-god who grew the world out of the primordial soil, and humans were the sprouts that grew from it, giving them a deep connection to the ground. Perhaps you have a pair of warring gods who slew each other, and humans rose from the blood that spilled onto the ground, and so you have a warlike world where the natural inclination of humanity is to kill and destroy. (Shocking, right?)

World myths are full of the creation of Man, and each one shows how they view humanity and the world around them. What are your humans like, and where do they come from?

Smiths and Short People: The Origin of Dwarves

So, I talked about elves a few weeks back. What about dwarves? Come on now, do you really think I would forget our short, beer-guzzling, bearded, Germano-Scottish (seriously, why do they always sound Scottish?) metal smiths friends? They’re as much a staple of modern fantasy literature as elves, and with good reason, too, because they played as large a part in Tolkien’s mythos as the elves did. The rivalry, even animosity, between dwarves and elves is epic in Middle Earth, and has moved into other works more recently, although it sometimes is little more than simple mockery while drinking. Why is it like that, and where did they come from?

Tolkien never really considered the elves to be traditional elves, and really, they weren’t. They were a race that he created and named “elves.” In a letter to Milton Waldman (which can be found in the front of some editions of The Silmarillion, he even says that he calls them elves “misleadingly.” The concept of Tolkien’s dwarves as, well, dwarves, is similar. Yes, they’re dwarves because they’re short, but where do they come from? No, I don’t mean where underground, or are they made of rock, or are there female dwarves, but where in our psyche do they originate?

Svartalfar and dokkalfar

Originally, there was nothing in the description of what we know as dwarves being short. In fact, they weren’t even called dwarves. They were either dark elves or black elves. The term dókkalfar, meaning “black elves” is the rarer of the two, and indicates that they were associated with the night, darkness, and dangerous intent. It doesn’t indicate whether it was their skin that was black, or their hair, but they were definitely the more dangerous of the two kinds of elves, the other being the lósalfar, or “light elves.”

The second term, svartalfar, means “dark elves.” Like dókkalfar, they stand in contrast with the light elves, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are evil. It was the dark elves who forged Thor’s hammer Mjölnir and Freyr’s magic ship that could carry all the gods yet be folded into a pocket. They were masters of smithing, and yet they were also dangerous in that you didn’t want to cross them or try to cheat them.

Two dwarves from a 19th century edition of the Poetic Edda. (courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Two dwarves from a 19th century edition of the Poetic Edda. (courtesy of Wikipedia.)

It was also a pair of dark elves who found a cursed treasure and turned against each other. One of the brothers, Fafnir, turned himself into a dragon, and his brother Regin got Sigúrd to try to kill the dragon and steal the gold. Once Fafnir was dead, Sigúrd learned that Regin was planning to betray him and killed him first. Yes, the famous Fafnir the dragon, partial inspiration for Tolkien’s Smaug, was actually a dwarf.

The Shrinking of the Dwerrow

Another term that has been used for dwarves, and in fact the term that eventually became the word dwarf, dvergar. Also seen as “dwarrow” or “dwarrow”, it doesn’t so much indicate their height, but rather that they live underground. Where Man is the race that lives above the surface of the earth, the Dvergar live below it, and so are the masters of the earth. It makes sense then, that they would be seen as master smiths and craftsmen, so where did the idea that they were short come from? It’s possible that it’s a result of artists portraying them in humorous ways, like how garden gnomes look like fat little Santas with pointy hats, and shortness was seen as a distinct mark of something to be mocked. Tyrion Lannister would certainly understand that sentiment.

That said, the dvergar aren’t human, and they never were. Human dwarves are people with congenital issues that make then naturally shorter. Fantasy dwarves, the svartalfar and dvergar, are races separate from humans, and whether they were originally seen as shorter, taller, or the same height as us is really dependent on how we view the masters of the earth below our feet.

The Children of Aüle

John Rhys Davies as Gimli, son of Gloin, from Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings."

John Rhys Davies as Gimli, son of Gloin, from Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.”

When Tolkien first created his elves and dwarves, the dwarves were distinctly evil enemies, even going so far as to hire orcish mercenaries against the elves. This can be found in the earliest stories recorded in The Book of Lost Tales, and it should be noted that, even if it is considered part of the canon, these are stories told from the perspective of the elves. That said, it’s a good example of the way that perception of the dwarves has changed. Even Tolkien changed his own perception of them as he wrote.

In the final version that we have in The Silmarillion, compiled by his son and editing partner Christopher Tolkien, the dwarves were created by Aüle, the Valar (a kind of god subordinate to the creator, Ilúvatar). Aüle had become impatient for the birth of the Children of Ilúvatar (elves and humans), and so he crafted seven figures of his own race. Ilúvatar called him out on it, and when Aüle moved to destroy his creation, the dwarves shrank from him, indicating that they were truly alive. In response, Ilúvatar allowed the dwarves to live, so long as they were put to sleep until the elves and humans came to being. As a result, they ended up a sort of adopted race among the Children of Ilúvatar.

This story shows how in depth Tolkien went to make the race something new that had not been seen before. This is not the svartalfar of Germano-Nordic myth. Tolkienian dwarves are…well, just that. Tolkienian. They’re a modern fantasy race that has become something everyone knows and identifies as being a part of traditional fantasy, and they’re not even a hundred years old.

To Gygax and Beyond

A dwarf from Dungeons and Dragons 3.5

A dwarf from Dungeons and Dragons 3.5

Although the modern fantasy dwarves were first conceived in the trenches of WWI, they are still the descendents of the earlier mythic races of svartalves, dvergar, and other underground inhabitants. Even so, there are other fantasy races that are descendents of them. When Gary Gigax created Dungeons and Dragons, he took Tolkien’s races and gave a new spin to them. Dwarves became an almost generic beered-up, bearded up, angry-short-man with an axe, and yet, it gave room for other writers to work.

Blizzard, in their Warcraft series and online game World of Warcraft, have created as extensive a history for their dwarves as Tolkien did, having them be created by the Titans, who made a proto-race known as Troggs, whom players have to fight in the early levels of the MMO. Not only that, but there are even larger, stronger, and almost titanic proto-dwarves who live in the center of the earth.

Games Workshop’s battle game series Warhammer, particularly the science fiction game Warhammer 40K has what I think is a really interesting take on dwarves. Space dwarves. Yes, dwarves in space. They’ve taken fantasy races, including elves, the undead, orcs, and dwarves, and sent them off into space, 40,000 years into the future.

It leaves me to wonder how another writer might take the dwarven trope and turn it into their own work. It could be something new that hasn’t been seen, or an examination of what is already there. Either way, the stories that can be told are yours. Dwarves are no longer relegated to being a people in diaspora, as Tolkien wrote them; they have entered the modern mythology that encompasses all that is fantasy, and even science fiction.

Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”: Part 2

J.R.R. Tolkien, 1916

J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916, when he first created Middle Earth in the trenches of WWI.

In my last post, I discussed the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”, which was written to C.S. Lewis when he had been dismissive of myth and escapist fantasy as “wish-fulfillment.” In the poem, named after a term Tolkien coined with uses the Greek roots “mythos” and “poeia” to mean “myth-making”, Tolkien not only defends, but celebrates the concept of myth as something real, alive, and vital to human existence. In the section I’m going to discuss here, Tolkien defends it as our divine right.

“Yet trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen
and never were so named, till those had been
who speech’s involuted breath unfurled,
faint echo and dim picture of the world,
but neither record nor a photograph,
being divination, judgement, and a laugh
response of those that felt astir within
by deep monition movements that were kin
to life and death of trees, of beasts, of stars:
free captives undermining shadowy bars,
digging the foreknown from experience
and panning the vein of spirit out of sense.”

“Yes trees are not ‘trees’, until so named and seen…” This phrase fairly well sums up the layers of meaning that I discussed in my previous entry in this series. Trees exist without us, and without the mythic layers we add in our understanding, but all that we know about them and all that we feel about them requires us to name them. Naming is a decidedly mythic thing to do, and is a part of many myths and religions as a thing that is given to gods and heroes.

“Great powers they slowly brought out of themselves
and looking backward they beheld the elves
that wrought on cunning forges in the mind,
and light and dark on secret looms entwined.”

And of course, because it’s Tolkien, there are going to be elves. Elves are the archetype of a mythic race for many, masters of poetry and the forging of great things. Even as we now consider dwarves to be master craftsmen today, that honor was once given to elves. In fact, what we know of as fantasy dwarves, with thanks due to Tolkien, evolved out of the svartalfr of Nordic lore, a name that means “dark elf.”

As for the rest of this portion, Tolkien is saying that mythmakers created their myths out of looking backward in time and culture. An ancient time, now lost to empirical understanding, is a place of legend, emotion, and myth. There may be some imagination built in, but imagination has its place, and when it’s honest, it makes the story more real, thus making it mythic.

“He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-pattemed; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.”

Tolkien doesn’t just ask the question, “Can we know of something without imagining mythically?” He flat out gives the answer: no, we can’t. To Tolkien, nothing exists and nothing is seen except through the mythic, legendary, and poetic meaning that we give to it. Yes, stars exist, and we can see the burning balls of gas far above us, but without a frame of reference, what is it that we see but specks of light? Myth is the frame of reference by which we see.

“The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

And here Tolkien exhibits three ideals. First, is his Christian worldview, in that he believes that “the only Wise” is a singular, male deity, and that “gods and their houses out of dark and light” are creations of Man. At the same time, he believes that, in the second point I want to mention and unlike many who have spoken and written through the centuries within Christianity, that mankind is “not wholly lost nor wholly changed.” No matter our origin, whether you are a Christian, atheist, or pagan, there is no denying the creative power of humanity, which is the third point I want to bring up here. We have the creative power, and not only that, but it is our right to do so, to create fill “the crannies of the world” with elves, goblins, and other beings, to be like Theseus and Cadmus in sowing the seed of the dragon’s teeth.

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise — for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

As if in answer to a previous accusation by Lewis, Tolkien admits to creating dreams of wish fulfillment and avoid harsh reality. In this stanza, he admits to and celebrates the fact that myth, particularly myth creation, is escapist by nature. In the end, he answers why it must be, because “of Evil this alone is deadly certain: Evil is.”

The very fact that there is such a thing as evil gives us the need to do something about it, and often, we feel powerless in the face of it. Mythopoeia, or the creation of myths, is just that. In our escapism, we can create the ideal, and by creating the ideal heroes, we give them monsters to fight. Our heroes are the ideal, and the monsters we create are the embodiment of evil.

Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”: Part 1

J.R.R. Tolkien

Professor J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Middle Earth

I want to talk about a poem by one of the masters of modern fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien. In fact, Tolkien has been called the Father of Modern Fantasy, as it was his work, especially, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion , that have inspired fantasy writers for the second half of the century, ever since the story of the War of the Ring became popular in the Sixties. In the poem Mythopoeia, Tolkien explains his view of the validity of myth, particularly of the creation of myth, which is what the word “mythopoeia” means. Since it’s so long, I’m going to be breaking this discussion into three parts, with this as the first part.

So, here’s Mythopoeia by Professor J.R.R. Tolkien.

 

“To one [C.S. Lewis] who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.

Philomythus to Misomythus”

First off, we can see from the dedication that the poem was intended for C.S. Lewis, whom Tolkien calls “Misomythus”, or Myth Hater. I’m assuming that this was written before Lewis converted from atheism to Christianity, as he had, before his conversion, been a rationalist, which often denies the validity of myth.

 “You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.”

I love the beginning of this. Myth is much more than just a lie believed by savages. It’s living poetry that keeps us from being trapped in a cold and inane world where all we are is atoms. With myth, whether organic or created, we become alive, more than someone who simply calls “some matter in a ball, compelled to courses mathematical.”

“At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls
from dark beginnings to uncertain goals;
and as on page o’er-written without clue,
with script and limning packed of various hue,
an endless multitude of forms appear,
some grim, some frail, some beautiful, some queer,
each alien, except as kin from one
remote Origo, gnat, man, stone, and sun.”

Time marches on, and what are we in the great scheme of things? As we see the world continue, “from dark beginnings to uncertain goals”, we see “an endless multitude of forms.” These forms are the things by which we make our myth, all originating from the “remote Origo”, a term that means, essentially, the origin of all we’re discussing. In this case, the origo of the world.

 “God made the petreous rocks, the arboreal trees,
tellurian earth, and stellar stars, and these
homuncular men, who walk upon the ground
with nerves that tingle touched by light and sound.
The movements of the sea, the wind in boughs,
green grass, the large slow oddity of cows,
thunder and lightning, birds that wheel and cry,
slime crawling up from mud to live and die,
these each are duly registered and print
the brain’s contortions with a separate dint.”

As a Christian, it makes sense that Tolkien would proscribe the creation of the world to God, and he imbues in the world a mythic standard. While some of the phrases, like “tellurian earth”, “stellar stars”, and “homuncular men”, are redundant, that may be the point. Myth involves layers upon layers of meaning, and when those layers are redundant, it adds intention, strength, and purpose to them. Of course earth is tellurian, and stars are obviously stellar, but Tolkien’s point is that they are more than just the thing we see. There is a deeper meaning that is not understood through words or science, but through meditation on the nature of what it means to be tellurian, stellar, and homuncular.

As we’ve seen, myth is more than simply stories; it’s the layers of meaning that are hidden beneath the way we view the world. When we create a world of our own, to make it real, we need to do more than simply copy the work of others. Elves, dwarves, and orcs are fine to include. Dragons, chimeras, and gryphons are great. Make them your own. Give them your own meaning, not just something to say, “This isn’t like the rest.” Make it something that is yours, coming from your view of the world, and therefore from your world. Even if you’re not religious, making a living, meaningful fantasy world borders on a religious experience, because it’s drawing from the myth that gives you meaning.

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.

Religion: You can’t avoid it, but you can make it what you want.

Okay, so, last night, I put up a blog about religion. Specifically, about the different ways that deity or deities can be viewed within religion. It was more of an overview than anything, and I’m certain that there’s more to say on the subject. Now I want to go into the why. Why should you bother including religion in your constructed world? You may be an atheist and nonreligious, or even opposed to religion. You may be religious and not want to include anything that doesn’t mirror your own. These are both valid concerns. Really, they’re the same concern .

Why would you include a sociocultural point of reference in your fictional world that disagrees with the real world?

That’s the concern.

If that’s the case, then why are you making a fictional world to begin with? You’re creating a fictional world, but making a world is making everything that would be in a world. Religion is a part of the world as much as settlements and towns, even if it’s organized  irreligion. If you don’t want to make a religion, go the Gene Roddenberry route and make humanity “evolve past religion”, but even in Star Trek, the Prime Directive is treated religiously as the guide to all things good. Breaking the Prime Directive is treated in the same way as blasphemy. If you want to make only your religion, then make it allegory.

My point is that, when you’re making a full-fleshed and believable world, you need to take it seriously and to not take it seriously. It’s not this world, so you shouldn’t be so serious about copying this world. At the same time, if it’s supposed to be two or three hundred years into the future, you should consider using religions that exist, but consider that things will change. I have one religion in a science fiction world I’m developing that doesn’t appear until the early twenty-first century, because do we really believe that no new religions will form?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when creating a religion for a science fiction story:

  1. Is your bias getting in the way? Are you removing religion from your world because you want it removed, or because you sincerely believe that will die out on its own?

    Take Joss Whedon’s Firefly as an example. Whedon isn’t religious, and he certainly isn’t Christian, but he still had the presence of mind to include multiple forms of Christianity five centuries into the future. That’s a case of someone, who may not agree with a religion, understanding that the religion won’t simply go away.

  1. Are there sects or denominations that seem to be merging in their ideas? What new ideas might come out of what’s already here? In what way would a charismatic leadership be able to form a new religion out of what’s here?

    When creating a new world, whether a future world or a fantasy world, it’s a good idea to research the topics you’re using. I don’t mean to become a doctoral student on everything, but to at least have a passing knowledge of religion, society, culture, and the rest of the building blocks of the world. Religion forms through theology as much as it does through the charisma of teachers, and the social surroundings play a major part in it. Look into how other religions and sects formed through history and what was going on around them, what might have led people to that.

  1. Think of what new changes would happen in society that would prompt an entirely new religion? How would the religious react to terraforming planets, mining asteroids, or simply living in space?

    Might there be a religion formed around faster-than-light travel, or perhaps about opposing FTL? Might a religion believe that terraforming, or making an uninhabitable planet inhabitable, is the highest form of worship? Might a religion react to the vastness of space by becoming a cold warrior race that worships the entropic nature of the universe?

When you’re making a religion for fantasy, you might ask yourself these.

  1. Does my bias get in the way?

    It’s a bit more forgivable to allow religious bias in fantasy, since you’re making the world up from scratch and not reinventing the real world. Also, fantasy has been used for religious allegory for centuries. At one point, John Bunyon wrote about giants and monsters in Pilgrim’s Progress, and in the last hundred years, C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman have added to the debate with Lewis’s Christian series The Chronicles of Narnia and Pullman’s atheist series His Dark Materials.

    I’ll just say this. If you have religious bias in writing your fantasy, make sure that it’s intentional. There’s little that’s worse than an unintentional bias.

  1. What is the actual cosmology of the world and how would people react to that?

    The nature of religion is still important, but knowing if there really are gods and goddesses, angels and demons, or other spirits out there, would really help to know how religion would be affected. Do the deities take part in the world? Do they physically order the world and form the religion? People can get it wrong, easily. A fantasy world doesn’t require the presence of deity, simply the presence of magic.

  1. Are there any more questions I need to ask?

    Okay, I realize that this one is a copout. I didn’t have a third question for the fantasy section, so I just added this one. Still, it’s important to never stop asking questions. Was there something I missed? Was there something I could have done better? If you have a story set down already that delineates your world, then it’s canonized. But even then, it’s not that you don’t have to change it; it’s that you can’t. I’m not saying never write your story out, but never stop trying to figure out if there’s more you can do, maybe in later stories in that world.

Genres in World Building

Genres of World Building

Fantasy, Science Fiction, and More

Fantasy

Epic Fantasy

When you’re writing epic or high fantasy, it’s good to remember the conventions that are out there, and then smash them to bits. Elves, dwarves, and orcs are great, but you don’t want to just retread Tolkien’s world, or even reboot Gary Gigax’s worlds. (For the uninitiated, Gigax created Dungeons and Dragons.) There are different views on the use of races people already know. Some people hate them, and won’t read a story if it has any version of elves. Others think they’re great, and actually prefer when a writer uses the traditional take on them. Still others think that it’s okay to use the traditional fantasy races, so long as you use your own take on them.

Personally, I’m in the third camp. Yes, I do have the traditional races, but I try to have a different origin and culture for them. After all, I’m using humans, so why not elves and dwarves? Okay, yes, humans are real, but this is a story about a non-Earth world, so why would there even be humans? My point is that, whatever world you create, make it your own.

The key to epic fantasy is that it’s not just a different world, but that the story has the character of high adventure, so creating a world for that genre is really just creating a rich, in-depth world. It’s all up to you what you make. Want elves in your world? Make them, but make them your own. Don’t just base them off of Tolkien, or D&D, or World of Warcraft. (Especially not WoW. I can’t stand Night Elves.) Make them yours. Want dwarves, or orcs? It goes for the same with them. Dragons? Go for it.

The real key to making epic fantasy is that it’s a vast world with a rich, maybe noble/maybe ignoble culture.

Dark Fantasy

My advice for making epic fantasy stands for dark fantasy. Typically filled with vampires, werewolves, the undead, and dangerous magic, dark fantasy has expectations to it as well, mostly in the mood you set. One thing you need to be aware of is that it’s easy to make try to make something dark and scary, but end up just going for the same old thing. Yes, vampires vs. werewolves is cool, but don’t try to remake Underworld. Also, if you do have an idea that’s neither vampires, werewolves, or even the undead, then absolutely go for it. The key is that it’s yours.

  1. Are there vampires? If so, what are they like?
  2. Are there werewolves or shape shifters? What kinds?
  3. Is there magic or witchcraft? What kind and is it evil or benign?
  4. What kinds of demons, ghosts, or incorporeal beings are there?
  5. Is it Earth, an alternate Earth, or a non-Earth?

Another thing is that dark fantasy is more about the tone. It can be an alternate world, making it on the lines of epic or high fantasy, but it can also be in the modern world, making it contemporary. Genre can be a bit wobbly.

Contemporary Fantasy

Okay, contemporary fantasy, or urban fantasy. It’s separate from epic fantasy in that it takes place in today’s world, as opposed to an alternate world, and from dark fantasy in that the mood isn’t necessarily horror-based. The definitions can get pretty fuzzy, particularly when dealing with the vampires and demons of The Dresden Files. The real difference between contemporary fantasy and others is the need to incorporate the real world into the fantasy. If the story is supposed to take place on the real Earth, just with magic, you need to understand the real location that you’re using. Otherwise, you might as well just make up your own, alternate world. Of course, there is a place for that.

  1. Does the public know that magic exists? If not, why? If so, how does it affect them?
  2. What magical races are there? Is it just one culture’s magic, or all of them?
  3. How is witchcraft and magic handled? Are witches evil, benign, or neutral?

Science Fiction

Space Travel

When you’re making a world for science fiction, consider that you need to avoid making it a rip off from Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, and pretty much everything else out there. As always, make it your own. Even so, a few questions need to be answered:

  1. Are there aliens/nonhumans? If so, why didn’t humanity know about them sooner?
  2. How does FTL (faster-than-light) work. You don’t need to get into all the scientific theories, and there are some, like Battlestar Galactica that actually avoid getting into that, so they don’t muddle things with technobabble. Is it hyperspace, warp drive, space jumps, or something else entirely? At least make it clear what they’re doing.
  3. How far out from the Earth is it? Confined to the Solar System? The Galaxy? Or is it even a different galaxy?
  4. How far into the future is it? This would decidedly affect the technology level, which really seems to be growing at an exponential rate. Look into futurist predictions to figure out what would work best. Granted, they’re just predictions, but you want it to at least be plausible.
  5. What happened to the Earth? Some writers make it an uninhabitable Garbage World, others destroy it, and still others (like Star Trek) make it a paradise.
  6. Is it the future, or the past? Star Wars is the most notable example of making it deep into the past. You don’t have to avoid that just because George Lucas did it. Just use an interesting take on it.

Contemporary Science Fiction

When most people think of science fiction, they think of space stories. At the same time, you have X-Files­, ­Men in Black, and other science fiction stories that take place on Earth. Many are in a subset I call “conspiracy science fiction” because the only way that aliens and other hi-tech stuff are hidden from view is by a government conspiracy, sometimes malevolent, as in X-Files, and sometimes (mostly) benign, as in Men in Black and the (non-alien) series Eureka.

  1. Are there aliens? If so, how does the public not know about them?
  2. Does the public know about the hi-tech stuff? If not, why?
  3. Is there a government conspiracy? Are they evil, neutral, or benign?

Alternate History

This is a fun one. Harry Turtledove has made a living at alternate history, and Eric Flint has the Ring of Fire series that started with 1632, a novel about a West Virginia mining town being sent back to Thuringia (in Germany) during 1632 C.E. (the middle of the Thirty Years War).

Alternate history often involves time travel to explain why the timeline is different from what really happened, but not always, as in the case of Fatherland, a story of what if the Nazis won WWII. It’s an interesting way to create a world based on our world if things had been different.

Time Travel Fiction

Like alternate history, time travel involves imagining things as they might have been, and often overlaps. However, I’m including it in a genre of its own, because I want to talk about worlds that involves multiple timelines and multiple ways the world plays out. This is based very much on the characters and all the possible interactions they might have. In Back to the Future, Marty sees different possible futures and presents that are caused by his meddling with time. When creating a world where time travel is real, it’s not so important how it happens, but how it affects things. Look into the different paradoxes and see which ones you want to include and how to explain away the others.

Realistic World Building

When writing fiction that’s neither fantasy nor science fiction, you’re essentially taking the world and saying, “This is how it is.” At the same time, there is a certain amount of world building that goes into the story. You have to decide which portions of the world you want to show, and in what way you want to show it. Not only that, but it’s different for historical and contemporary fiction.

Just a quick note. When world building for historical or contemporary non-speculative fiction, you need to do research. Research before you write. Otherwise, you run the very large risk of insulting people. Poor research in historical and contemporary fiction is a large factor in racist depictions of people groups, and in simplistic renderings of ideas and ideals. If you’re writing about this world, don’t try to make it up. Figure out what happened or what happens, how things are done, and treat the subjects with respect.

Making things up for fantasy and science fiction world building is great, but not something you want to do for realistic fiction. That’s the whole point of realistic fiction, that it’s not just made up. Make up the characters, the places even. Fictional towns and cities are great, because you don’t have to be bothered by geography or specific history, but don’t make up the culture or the dialect. Make your research your world building.