Monsters, nursery bogies, and nightmare villains. We all know them. Man eaters, ogres, and trolls. I’ve already talked about orcs as a race before, but I think this is a bit different. When you really get down to it, the monsters that plague fairy tale heroes are pretty basic. They’re so basic, in fact, that you can do just about whatever you want with them. Great, huh? Continue reading
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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:
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
I’m a few days later than I had intended, but I’m finishing up my series on “Mythopoeia”, the poem that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to convince C.S. Lewis (who was an atheist at the time) of the validity, even necessity of the creation of modern myth, as Tolkien is so famous for doing with Middle Earth.
“Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.”
In repeating “blessed are…” three times, Tolkien mimics the Beatitudes, where Jesus uses the same phrase a number of times in his Sermon on the Mount. Myth-makers are not simply fantasists, but heroes, however timid they may be in life, who are opposing evil by the very act of mythopoeia.
“Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.”
Again, Tolkien includes his Christian background by comparing the myth-makers to Noah, who built his ark to save humanity from the flood that destroyed the world. In this, myth-making is more than escapism from the world, but escapism to save the world.
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.
Here Tolkien expressed his general disdain for modern life, calling the modern focus on “economic bliss” a drug, comparing it both to the lotus eaters and the memory erasing Circe, both found in The Odyssey. Myth is not something that we find in history, but something deeper and wider than what has actually been or what is physically real. It is deep and real, and the fact that it is not “organized delight” makes it a personal thing for the “legend-makers with their rhyme” who are then able to come more closer to however they understand the Divine Truth.
I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.
Tolkien is declaring, not just his desire to read myth, but to make it. The minstrels who sing the songs that stir our emotions and the mariners who bring back stories of a distant world, of sirens and harpies, Cyclopes and dog-head men: these are what inspires him. We who are called fools for caring so much about an unseen world, hiding away our hearts from the cold, regimented world; we are the myth-makers.
I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.
This is one of my favorite passages of all time. “I will not walk with your progressive ape, erect and sapient. Before them gapes the dark abyss to which their progress tends…” Tolkien is going all out in blasting the progressive ideals that leave myth behind. Where are we going, and why should blind progression be automatically better? If the names we give things are the only way we know them, where is the meaning to our live? Why should a crow be only a crow, and not be Huginn and Muninn? Why should a mushroom be only a mushroom, and not a spot where the Fair Folk dance? When will we realize that the removal of Myth from our lives yields us to the Iron Crown, which Tolkien ascribed to Morgoth, the original Dark Lord?
In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True.
Then looking on the Blessed Land ’twill see
that all is as it is, and yet made free:
Salvation changes not, nor yet destroys,
garden nor gardener, children nor their toys.
Evil it will not see, for evil lies
not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,
not in the source but in malicious choice,
and not in sound but in the tuneless voice.
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.
And now we come to the ultimate purpose of Myth. Paradise, the ultimate Divine Truth. There are monsters and evil things in myth, yes, but they only show us what is in this world, the monsters that we must confront, the villains that we must defeat. Perseus slew Medusa and turned her on the king who set him up for death. Theseus slew the Minotaur with the help so needed to him. Odysseus opposed a god and lived to retake his home. Cú Chulainn stood against his foes to be remembered as a mighty hero.
When all is said and done, Myth inspires us to reach beyond what we are. It’s more than just a man’s story, as women in myth are also strong, crafty, and as brave as the men they face. Deirdre, Rhiannon, and Arianrhod had troubles, but they still continued. Myth allows us to see beyond this world, beyond the cold rocks and hard bark of the trees to see the gnomes and dryads that dwell within our hearts. Through those, we can come closer to the Paradise that we seek. Tolkien was a Christian, and so his Divine Truth was the Judeo-Christian Paradise. Whether you seek Elysium, Valhalla, or Tir Na Nog, myth is the path your soul takes you to the Transcendent Divine.
If you seek none of those, but rather seek to better understand yourself, myth-making is the perfect way to that. Truth is more than what we are told; it is what is. By myth-making, we become the bards, the poets, the minstrels, and the mariners. We become Taliesin, Merlin, and Tiresias. World creation can be so much more than creating a setting for a game or a story; it can be the creation of a myth, a living, breathing world.
Star Trek, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings all resonate with people so strongly that the people who love them are more than fans, but almost religious devotees. It’s because they did more than just create a world. They created a myth.
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.
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.
I haven’t been writing much on world building lately, and I think I know why. You see, sometimes, meaning most times, I tend to forget that it’s not just about making a fantasy world for a story that I’m writing. It’s not just a game. Tolkien used the word “subcreation” to describe it. In his essay “On Fairy Stories”, which was originally a speech, he talked about the nature of fantasy and the creation of fictional realms as a religious experience. As a Catholic, he believed that the world was created by a divine spark, namely, the Judeo-Christian God of the Old and New Testaments. The greater Creation was the work of God, and creation was part of the very nature of God. That said, because, as the Bible claims, man is made in the image of God, Man (I’m using it as a gender neutral term meaning “humanity”) is a natural creator.
Some would say that it just means that we create life by having children, but Tolkien believed, and I agree, that it means that we create. Not just life, but art, dreams, fantasies, and even entire worlds. Subcreation is a way of expressing the world in a new way, showing it through the lens perspective of Man’s image. If Man is made in God’s image, then elves, dwarves, and…yes, even orcs…are made in Man’s image. It’s not enough for us to simply create a fantasy world and leave it alone as if it has no meaning. It has loads of meaning.
Tolkien’s work has been loved by both Christians and Pagans alike. It has the Messianic overtones in Lord of the Rings that resonate with Christians, but also shows the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell as being in many world religions. Tolkien’s deep love of the past and the balance of nature is very Druidic in nature. I’ve even heard of people who take the Valar (as seen in The Silmarillion) for their personal gods. It may not be how he intended it, but remember that this is a man who, by his own admission, hated all forms of allegory. It wasn’t his purpose to make Middle Earth his allegorical manifesto, but to create a mythology for England, and mythology has the natural tendency to resonate differently with different people.
I suppose that’s why I started with the topic of religion when I started up the blog. You see, I don’t really want to turn this into a philosophizing collection of religiosity, but world building really is a religious experience for me. I’m not going to get into what that religion is, because, for one, it’s not really what this is about. This is about your creation of your mythology. World building, when done effectively, is more than just writing for entertainment; it’s the mythological expression of the soul of the world builder. The second reason I’m not going to say my religion is because, by seeing my soul through my world, you’ll probably be able to figure out what it is I believe and what I used to believe eventually, if you care enough to look, that is.
For me, at least, world building is so much more than just creating a story. It’s creating a mythology, forging a Subcreation as a work of art and, even if you don’t believe in a supernatural deity, an act of worship. Whether you worship the Christian Trinity, the Wiccan Horned God and Triple Goddess, or the rational influences of empirical sciences, creating a world of your own is a great way to not just reveal, but experience what is truly important to you.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.