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?

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.