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Friday, August 5, 2011

Creature Feature Friday: Elves

My lovely critique partner Suzanne Johnson, who blogs at Preternatura and whose debut novel Royal Street is coming out in April, is here today to share her insights on the unpredictable creatures we call elves...

What is an elf?
An elf is a short, drawfish species that work as cheerful indentured servants for Santa Claus.

No, wait. An elf is a tall, ethereal being with pointed ears, who excels at bowmanship, has some psychic abilities, and is quite arrogant.

No, wait, an elf is sneaky and alien and neither good nor bad, because to be good or bad would be to imply human traits elves do not possess.

Kreature from Harry Potter
No, wait. Elves are tiny misshapen creatures who wear dishtowels and do menial housework for wizards.

No, wait, there are light elves (good) and dark elves (evil), and iron elves and wood elves and Keebler elves and...

In other words, there is no firmly established mythos to which elves must adhere, which is what I love about elves.

What do you love about elves?
Their sheer unpredictability.

Think about it. When you read a vampire book, unless they’re sparkling in the sun and sucking on deer marrow, you pretty much know up to a point what you’re dealing with. A vampire usually is going to drink blood. A vampire usually won’t be able to walk in sunlight. A vampire is sexy and alluring, which helps him attract his prey. Vampires have fangs.

Shapeshifters and lycanthropes. Again, there is a mythos. They shift into animal form. They might need a full moon. They might be more apt to shift when emotionally upset or unstable. They usually have fur or feathers.

The fae are susceptible to cold iron. They are playfully deceptive. They have queens and courts.

But an elf? An elf can be anything the writer wants him to be.

Sure, there are some who argue that the elves of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy set the bar for all elves that came afterward, and that is true for much classic and epic fantasy. But even before Peter Jackson made Orlando Bloom don a blond wig and wear tights and pointy ears, elves were part of folklore—and they were nothing like what Tolkien envisioned.

In the past two decades, a variety of elven mythos have developed in popular RPGs and computer games, from D&D to Warhammer to Runescape.

Now, finally, elves are making their way into contemporary fantasy, and the door is wide open for interpretation.

When I run across an elf in a book, I do not know what kind of creature I’ll be dealing with. The elf might be good or bad, evil or saint. He might be short, or tall, or handsome, or homely. He might have pointed ears, or not. He might have green skin, or look human. He might make toys, or bake Keebler cookies, or ride atop an elephantine creature through the forest with his bow drawn. He might love humans, or be disdainful of them. He might come from Norse mythology; he might be American. He might be a creature of Faerie; he might be another species altogether.

Favorite elf in fiction:
**SPOILER ALERT** Trent Kalamack, from the Hollows series by Kim Harrison. Nine books into the series, I still can’t decide if I love him or love to hate him. But he has never, ever bored me.

Favorite elf in pop-culture:
So genre fiction doesn’t count as pop culture? Okay then. I’ll say Orlando Bloom’s portrayal of Legolas in the LOTR film trilogy. Yum.

If you like elves then you should read…
In contemporary fantasy, read Kim Harrison’s Hollows series, beginning with Dead Witch Walking. In classic fantasy, read JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. For a sort of contemporary classic fantasy, read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, particularly Lords and Ladies and The Wee Free Men.

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