Is there a future for the classic Fantasy Races?

 

When I first fell in love with fantasy, the classic fantasy races – elves, dwarves, orcs, etc – were an essential part of it, inseparable from the concept of fantasy. Tolkien had them, Lewis had them, Lloyd Alexander had them, D&D and video games had them. Anything that didn’t have them was just not doing it right, to be honest. I mean, what is fantasy without elves, orcs and (especially) dwarves?

See, I was never that into wizards and overt magic, and I never liked thieves and assassins. I liked heroic warriors: honourable knights, lone samurai, grizzled rangers at a push, but best of all, dwarves. I have read many bad books just for the promise of dwarves, and it is a testament to the strength of the Elder Scrolls games that I have spend so many hours on them despite the lack of (playable) dwarves. What can I say, short, grumpy and beardy does it for me…

However, these days, these classic fantasy creatures are out of favour, fast disappearing from the pages of published fantasy, and the aspiring fantasy author is often advised to stay clear. Though I can understand why, I think it’s a shame to banish such faithful and fundamental elements of fantasy literature, and I thought I’d explore how this has happened and what, if anything, can be done about it.

How did it all start?

Most people trace the iconic status of elves, dwarves and orcs (henceforth EDO) to J R R Tolkien, and, largely, that’s fair enough. The massive popularity of Lord of the Rings introduced fantasy to the mainstream, and continues to do so. He introduced the terminology, including the “v” in “dwarves”, turning goblins into “orcs” (his own word), and giving us the template for elves everywhere (even though Legolas is quite a-typical among Tolkien’s elves).

He also gave us Hobbits, who survive elsewhere as “halflings”, but haven’t been reproduced quite as often as the others. Perhaps that’s because, unlike EDOs, they were an original creation – though not without some precedent, they certainly weren’t based on the same sort of historical tradition as the others.

One of the reasons that these races seem so integral to fantasy is, no doubt, because they have been part of it for much longer than Tolkien. In the 19th century, Lord Dunsany’s King of Elfland’s Daughter, George MacDonald’s Princess and the Goblin, and of course, Grimms’ “Snow White (and the Seven Dwarfs)“, show the popular conceptions when Tolkien was growing up.

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Goblins…or dwarfs?

Of course, EDOs go back much, much farther than that in human storytelling. In the Norse and Germanic traditions (which Tolkien, of course, drew directly upon), elves are the beautiful and dangerous álfar, and dwarves seem to be their earthier cousins (the original “dark elves”). A lot of their typical fantasy characteristics are there, but they are far more supernatural, and not as fully realised or explained as Tolkien made them. (Though Tolkien’s elves and dwarves, to be honest, are not that different to his humans in terms of behaviour or society.)

The reason, I suppose, that Tolkien is so pivotal in defining EDOs for fantasy literature, is that the prevailing conception of them was very different, stemming from the European “fairy tale” tradition. Fairies have origins in, among other things, Celtic mythology, and have been confused with elves since (apparently) Elizabethan times. The diminutive elves and goblins of children’s stories still persist today, of course, much to the chagrin of fantasy fans using the same words for something much less childish (depending who you ask).

The well-read fantasy fan will have seen alternate interpretations of fantastic creatures before Tolkien and since. Lewis’s Narnia has dwarfs, along with lots of other fairy tale creatures, but notably no elves or goblins. Poul Anderson’s Broken Sword summons Norse myth to give us very dark elves indeed. Many books, from Alexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain” to Jack Vance’s Lyonesse engage with the “fair folk” of more Celtic tradition. More recently, we’ve had Katherine Addison’s Goblin Emperor and a radical-but-still-recognisable interpretations in Richard K Morgan’s “Land Fit for Heroes” trilogy.the_goblin_emperor_cover

So yes, fantasy EDOs owe a lot to Tolkien, but I’d argue they are more fundamental to fantasy than he can take credit for. They are magical creatures, after all, and magic is a fundamental element of fantasy. However, like a lot of overt magic in general, EDOs are now seen as a tired trope on their way out. On the other hand, wizards, dragons, gods, the undead and other traditional fantasy elements seem to be going as strong as ever. What did EDOs do wrong?

What went wrong

Yes, a lot of the antipathy towards EDOs stems from their association with Tolkien and the Tolkien-clones of the 70s, 80s and 90s. This was truly the era when EDOs (occasionally thinly disguised) were essential part of any fantasy story, but in a sort of replicative fading, these copies-of-a-copy(-of a copy) were rarely as rich and nuanced as Tolkien’s (or Anderson’s). The worst culprit here, however, is (in my opinion) Dungeons & Dragons.

D&D ruined quite a lot of fantasy, if I’m honest. Now, I do enjoy playing D&D (mostly via the PC, as I have no friends), but what makes a great game doesn’t, for me, make great fiction. Detailed mechanics, specialist classes, spell ladders and skill trees, and “racial bonuses” are fine when you’re playing a game, but I don’t want to read about them. However, the influence of D&D (and similar game franchises, like Warhammer and Warcraft) in bringing these fantasy creatures (borrowing from every possible source and redefining quite a few things along the way) to a huge audience – one that was not necessarily versed in fantasy beforehand – gave games control of the discourse regarding what was fantasy.

Almost everything is now seen through the lens of these games, the tie-in fiction and they spawned. Take the case of dwarves: readers of the Hobbit will struggle to see the stereotypical dwarf in Bilbo’s companions – yes, they live underground, love gold and have prominent beards. However, their rest of their identity – steadfast axe-wielding warriors – relies as much on one character, Gimli, as most modern elves do on Legolas. To this,
various sources have added such accepted traits as clans, engineering expertise, beer-drinking, and Scottish accents – to the point where it fed back into the filming of the original Tolkien tales!drizzt2

Now, I enjoy role-playing a beer-swilling, axe-mad, kilt-wearing engineer who calls everyone “laddie” as much as the next fantasy fan, but I do resent that such a long-standing fantasy character has been lumbered with all this baggage, becoming a cartoonish caricature Tolkien would barely recognise, let alone the vikings. (Ironically, Poul Anderson may recognise them better, as I forgot that the Scottish accent is his fault, in the pre-LotR Three Hearts and Three Lions – though Warcraft has a lot to answer for.)

Elves are almost as abused, with the Tolkien trait of height and strength usually ignored (probably due to fairy influence – and the gaming need for some handicap), their immortality mostly exchanged for long life, so that they are neither true Tolkien-derivatives nor the menacing outsiders of Norse or Celtic tradition (with a few exceptions).

Orcs probably suffer the least alteration, apart from their green colouration (Warhammer, apparently). Somewhat ironically, however, “goblins” have returned as a distinct (though related) race. Again, this is both a hangover from the fairy-tale goblins (the reason Tolkien chose to re-name them in the first place!), and a result of games needing more types of monster.

So, now that Warcraft (via D&D and Games Workshop) is the overwhelming arbiter of what it means to be an EDO, it’s hard for “serious” fantasy writers to use them, even if referencing the original traditions. Changing the names buys you some traction, but I personally dislike “EDOs-by-any-other-names” (e.g. trollocs) just for the sake of it. But that’s not the only issue…

The other problems with “races”.

One of the main criticisms of these fantasy “races” (though they are more clearly distinct species), is that they are inherently – almost by definition – racist. Without even getting into theories about Tolkien’s “Jewish” dwarves or “slant-eyed” orcs, we can see that having entire species that conform to a few simple stereotypes is problematic (same goes for Klingons et al.). We wouldn’t get away with tarring a whole race of humans with the same brush, why is acceptable when applied to a non-human but clearly sentient creature?

shaman_orc_by_augustok-d4wv5lzThe other problem with EDOs is that when they stand in for other human cultures (Scotland, for example, or Warcraft’s Native American Taurens and Oriental Pandaren), they almost always supplant those people from appearing in the fantasy world. I don’t know how it feels to be turned into an animal because as a white British guy, my culture is usually front and centre – and human. I guess it’s better than nothing? Or maybe not…

The other major criticism I’ll bring up, is, basically, “what is the point” of the generic EDO in a fantasy setting? I know elves are cool, dwarves are fun, and orcs are monsters for everyone to slay without feeling bad (yeah, slightly problematic) – but what do they teach us? I would argue that the point of speculative fiction is to explore aspects of our humanity, and the problem with EDOs is not that they don’t allow us to do that, it’s that they do it in quite a clumsy, blunt way.

For example, you can use these races to explore racism (e.g. Dragon Age), which is laudable and can probably be done well, but risks sacrificing actual human diversity. You could make them as alien as possible (far beyond D&D, and even Tolkien) and use them as a mirror for humanity, like aliens in science fiction, but you’d probably have to ditch a lot of traditions to do so. Or you could use them at arms-length, mysterious and secretive, just to add more fantasy to your fantasy.

All these can work, but they have also all been done by now, which I suppose is the main motivation for modern fantasy writers just to steer clear of the tired tropes for good.

Where does it leave us?

Or, more specifically, me. Because, you see, I’ve always loved the traditions of fantasy, and when I came to write my own, I wanted to include all those things I loved, including elves, dwarves and orcs – without them, it wouldn’t be fantasy, to me. I accept that it’s a challenge to do so in a way that respects the old traditions while remaining relevant, meaningful, and non-derivative. Especially if I remain opposed to the “by-any-other-name” option.

I think there’s a way, however, and I’m still determined to try. I think I have a good enough grasp on the various traditions that have come before, including plenty of non-Tolkien, non-Warcraft inspiration – though the main stumbling block will be weather my readers have, and can see what I’m trying to do.

Here’s hoping.

Tumblr Dreams: Triptych Tuesday

So, I quite like Tumblr, but I’m not sure I’ve really figured it out. I have my own Tumblr, and I enjoy viewing, reading and re-blogging interesting things, but I only follow a few people because I have a hard enough time keeping up as it is, and I have even fewer followers of my own.

One thing that drew me to Tumblr was the potential for picture blogging, and thus I had the idea of sharing some of my favourite cover art, from my own collection. This seemed like a great idea, as I enjoy collecting books with interesting cover art – often solely because of said cover art – and I even had what I thought was a catchy name for my concept: Triptych Tuesday.

Of course, there were a few problems. Aside from the fact that only medieval art nerds will know what a triptych even is, I could at least have made the effort to take prettier pictures. I did want them to be pictures of my actual books, rather than just images off the internet, but the results are hardly spectacular.

The other main problem was, of course, eventually running out of trios of books! As common as trilogies are in fantasy, I have quite a few other formations, from standalones to sextets , so I couldn’t even share all my favourite books, just the ones in sets of three, that I owned, that matched and had interesting enough art…(ok, so I did post the sextet as two triptychs!)

But I did take a few, so I reckon I’ll share a trio of my favourites with you, and you can check out the Tumblr hashtag later.

Eric Van Lustbader’s Sunset Warrior Trilogy

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Perfect example, as this is a series I picked up on the strength of the middle cover, and ended up really enjoying. I also spent years trying to complete the original set, which I finally did popping into a secondhand shop in Lyme Regis. This set is a different edition with the same illustrations (larger and zoomed in) that I found in the meantime. They make a better picture, but the others are cooler because the pictures wrap around.

Mark T Barnes Echoes of Empire Trilogy

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Another lesser-known series that I am so proud to own, largely because I read them all as ebooks and hadn’t ever seen in print. Then the author tweeted a competition, and I actually won (I never win), and it made my day. They now have pride of place on my bookshelf, and you have to admit that cover art deserves to be on a physical book.

E R Eddison Mezentian Trilogy

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I had this trilogy complete for years, but while I’d found an old copy of the middle book, it had not been the same evocative, garish edition (which is why my original Triptych Tuesday post inserted Worm Ouroboros instead). But then, just over a week ago, I found the matching middle book in the Oxfam shop on St Giles (Oxford), and that serendipitous event prompted this whole retrospective.

The future

Somewhat sadly, I don’t have many trilogies with gaps left, which makes my visits to charity shops just that little bit less exciting. Collecting books isn’t just about books to read – I have more than enough of those, and so, if it were, I’d have no need to even go in. No, it’s also about books as objects – compact, brilliant, musty-smelling, all-round works of art.

I could (and may yet) continue with some of my other, newer trilogies, but new books don’t always have the same allure for me. Sometimes, yes, the cover art can be spectacular, but Triptych Tuesday was also about the thrill of collecting, the sense of achievement at completing a set, that I must share with philatelists, twitchers and other anoraks.

But I know I’m not alone, as a recent post by Marc Aplin (of Fantasy Faction) shows.

Happy hunting!

Writing: The Honest Query Letter

Dear Agent/Publisher,

Attached is the first part of my book, The Winter Warrior, which is 160,000 words of a larger, multi-book narrative that I really want to complete, but won’t be able to unless you say yes, the publisher says yes, and the books sells. No pressure, but you hold all my dreams in your hands. You represent/publish some amazing authors, and get thousands of queries a month, so you’ll be able to see right through it immediately, and I apologise for wasting your time.

As Iain of Cryteth, probably a blatant self-insert, returns to his vaguely-European homeland after years of exile, all he wants is to win back his ancestral home and make his enemies pay for their moustache-twirling treachery. The gods, as usual, have other plans. A corny prophecy, an annoying alliance with an unpopular prince, and over-simplified political maneuvering force him onto a different path. Torn away by narrative contrivance from all that he holds dear, Iain and his few trusted companions (a fellowship, you might say) march into an ominous land, unaware that their actions are part of a bigger plot that I haven’t quite figured out yet.

No doubt there’s a Dark Lord rising somewhere…

It’s a classic fantasy with some modern twists, which just means it has all the old tropes and some of the new ones. Perhaps if I’m lucky it’ll be seen as inverting the inverted rather than just not bothering in the first place. My setting is traditional, my characters are privileged, and the plot is no doubt derivative. I’ve rewritten it so many times I can’t keep track, to be honest.

I’d love to be able to tell you some popular authors, books, series or even genres that this is like in order to convince you it will sell, but I wrote this because nobody – maybe for good reason – seemed to be writing the story I wanted to tell. My favourite authors are long-dead or quite obscure, and there are plenty of better stories than mine out there that are criminally under-appreciated. I’ve got no chance.

As for me, I once self-published a military science fiction book once, and sold a handful of copies. I haven’t taken any writing classes, I don’t have any influential friends, I’m not particularly charismatic, and, as you can see, I’m terrible at self-promotion, too. I’m only doing this because I’ve written three books, I’ve got more to come, and I feel I owe it to them, and the characters in them, to put them out there for somebody, at least, to see.

Thanks for your time,

James

Freebies: Recommendations

I’ve already described how I found each of the books, and my overall conclusions, but I thought I’d highlight a few of the books that stood out. Remember, I was going in with very little expectation about any of these, reading them “cold” like I presume a slush reader might, though they’d all done something to catch my eye and get me to snag them (for free!). None of these are perfect, but they all had something extra that kept me reading – right to the end, in several cases!

Recommended:

Fire & Ice by Patty Jansen is perhaps the most original book I came across, with one of the 25379898strongest “voices” and some interesting characters. Not one for the squeamish, it drew me in and kept me going even though it’s not my preferred setting – though I’m still annoyed by the medieval sword on the cover! It rises to a good climax but ends with a few things up in the air- it is the first in a trilogy, after all.

New World: A Frontier Fantasy Novel by Steven W White was another unique one, being perhaps the only book in the sub-genre of “new world” fantasy that I’ve encountered. I don’t know how it ends yet, but it starts pretty well and I’m looking forward to the rest of it. The author handles the distinctive voice of his frontiersman protagonist exceptionally well, weaving in phrases and sayings that really add colour and don’t sound forced.

21852250The Last Priestess by  Elizabeth Baxter was a good ex
ample of how to handle some familiar settings and tropes well – though it grew more complex the farther in you went (almost too complex, in places, for the foundation laid). Again, being the first in a two-part series, it ends at a suitable climax with a lot still to be resolved, but I’ll definitely put the second book on my list. A lot darker and grittier than I expected, it packs a lot of plot into a relatively small package, and I like that!

 

Honourable mention:

Enchantment’s Reach by Martin Ash is one that took my particular 17695514fancy, despite breaking a lot of the rules that other books tripped up on. The author manages to pull off the old-fashioned style of narration (which isn’t going to work for everyone) quite well, and forms quite a compelling story around a compelling heroine. There are flaws, a few odd moments, and an abrupt ending, but it was the first one I finished and I enjoyed it.

Sorcerer’s Code by  Christopher Kellen was a nice little surprise – a short novella with a noir-ish mystery, carried along by the narration. Plenty of minor flaws if I’m being picky, and very generic, but a fast, fun ride nonetheless.16282824

Magic of Thieves by C Greenwood had a lot going for it, not least a good pace and readability, and a compelling story. I took issue with the protagonist’s “plot armour” but what fantasy protagonist doesn’t have a set? I haven’t finished this yet, but it’s one I’ll probably revisit now I’ve got others out of the way.

Stormsinger by Stephanie A Cain was another short one, but had the most diversity (there wasn’t a lot, overall, which was disappointing), and set the scene for what could be some interesting longer adventures involving the intriguing cast. The writing could use a bit more polish in places, but overall it’s a good (short) introduction to an intriguing new voice.

These were my highlights, but there were plenty of other books well worthy of a read – some were well-written but just not to my taste, some were intriguing but too flawed, and all of them are worth a punt if they take your fancy (especially the ones that are still free). I’ve left out the “big names” mostly in Update 5, because I think they can speak for themselves at this point, and you probably won’t go wrong picking them up, either.

If you don’t like the sound of these, have a look at the other updates (1, 2, 4, 5) and see if anything else strikes your fancy. The great thing about indie publishing is that there’s probably a book out there for every reader, and a reader or two for every book – hopefully I’ve been a little help in bringing them together.

If anyone else has read any of these, or has some good indie recommendations, I’d love to hear about it!

Beowulf, or this is why we can’t have nice things

So, along with what is apparently very few other people, I’ve been watching Beowulf. Now, this is quite remarkable for me, because I don’t watch TV series very often, especially not ones my wife doesn’t partake in. I’ve always preferred things I can dip in and out of, and the last time I signed on for a continuing story was BBC’s spy story “The Game”, which was only 6 episodes – but I’ve been making time for Beowulf, and enjoying it quite a bit.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that it had been cancelled after one series, to be fair, but I am still surprised it has created so very little buzz in the on-line fantasy community, especially considering how much I hear about other TV shows I don’t (often can’t) watch.

  Now, the show is far from perfect – it’s not as polished as some of the bigger-budget (American) shows, it’s not got any notable star-power (though TV shows often don’t), and it’s a mostly-original story loosely inspired by a thousand-year-old legend, rather than a book series with an established fan-base. For all that, however, I think it’s done some interesting things…but (as usual) apparently I’m the only one.

It’s not Game of Thrones

If you watch the credits, it’s clear they’re trying to remind you of Game of Thrones – and why wouldn’t they? That series has been a cultural phenomenon, and helped spawn a whole new wave of fantasy (and sci-fi) shows, so you can’t blame ITV and/or the production company for pitching it that way.

However, the show really isn’t Game of Thrones. It’s nowhere near as Epic, set in a much smaller, less-populated land, with some hints of the original Anglo-Saxon origins but a lot more original fantasy elements. There’s not as much sex, not as much violence, and certainly no sign of the mortal peril that threatens GoT major characters.

I, for one, am glad it’s not GoT for the simple reason that it isn’t populated by assholes and back-stabbers. Sure, there’s some political scheming, but for the most part, they abide by decisions, give people fair hearings, and act for the good of their people. There was no villain to hate – and maybe that’s a problem – and I was really starting to care about all the different characters.

It’s not Beowulf

I love me some Beowulf, let me tell you. I think I’ve seen everything but the Christopher Lambert one, and I enjoyed them all. It’s a great story of the legendary badass returning to a corrupt kingdom to sort out a problem that it has, usually, brought upon itself. I love the ridiculous 13th Warrior (and the book, Eaters of the Dead), I enjoyed the earnest and haunting Beowulf  & Grendel, and the CGI Beowulf was glorious fun, too. So, yes, the title piqued my curiosity here.

There are hints of the Beowulf story here, including the man-vs-nature theme, but it’s far removed from the classic tale. Beowulf himself is less legendary badass than somewhat gormless drifter, and possibly the least interesting character. Grendel, or what I took to be Grendel, is rarely seen, and is not the central antagonist. Heorot, while imposing, is a centre of industrial and economic might. Horthgar is dead and it’s his widow who is really central to the whole thing – her ambition, her determination, her strength and her intelligence.

  Rheda’s early victory – when she was set up in opposition to Beowulf to start with – was the first sign that something different, and more interesting, was going on here, and when I began to get hooked. The fact that her pouty, bratty son (Eragon!) soon grows a couple extra dimensions as well, and I started to question everything I had assumed. Maybe it’s because I don’t watch this stuff much, but the surprises kept coming – mostly pleasant.

If not, what is it?

I think part of the show’s problem was this identity crisis, though – if not GoT, but also not an off-the-shelf Beowulf retelling, what is it? I don’t know, and I don’t think it knew either. The whole series has been a jumbled gathering of threats to the “shieldlands”, which we don’t know anything about to start with, but seem to be a whole bunch of tribes in loose alliance, living at odds with native “mudborn” including trolls, skin-shifters and what are basically orcs.

Most of the conflict is between the various human factions, as Rheda, Hrothgar’s widow, engages in political manoeuvring to succeed him as Jarl. A whole slew of characters get arcs within or across episodes, and this diffuse focus does dilutes the thrust of the show, yet this is just the sort of depth we like to see. The mudborn threat is rising all the time, but the show goes down too many side-streets along the way.

  Beowulf should be the bridge between the two, but while he’s certainly thick enough to lay a roadway down upon, he’s not the hero we need to hold this together. He causes almost as much trouble as he solves, and – while nobody likes a too-perfect hero – he’s a little too fallible at times to make me believe he’s this great warrior. He’s got his moments, and he’s got room to grow (alas, no more time), but there’s an element of charisma missing – which may have a bit to do with the actor, I’m afraid.

It’s an ensemble piece

So, if this isn’t the story of our great hero, why did I get such a kick out of watching? In short, because of the rest of the characters – a diverse group, each with their story to follow. I’ve already mentioned Reda, played by the awesome Joanne Whalley, a strong woman bringing a man’s world into a more modern age, and her son, the bypassed prince who stops short of throwing his toys out of the pram and finds the strength to follow his own path – but they are hardly alone.

There’s the compassionate, principled healer who has some dark secrets; the apprentice blacksmith who wants to be a warrior; the blacksmith raising a child alone and standing up for workers’ rights; the assassin turned patriot out of love. These are all women, by the way – as is the intriguingly devious and unscrupulous princess who should have appeared much sooner.

  And that’s one of the things that struck me, right from the first pictures and posters: unlike most fantasy media out there, this is not white-washed, but coloured-in. The producers have not used the pseudo-Scandanavian, pseudo-historical setting to exclude actors of colour, or limit the role of women. I think that’s great. It creates a much more interesting, compelling world representative of the country it’s made in.

With all the (rightful) complaining about the shows and movies that fail to get this right, I think it’s a shame this one looks like it will sink quietly under the waves. Sure, it’s not perfect, it’s never going to be a phenomenon, but it was more than it seemed, and I would have been very interested to keep watching to see where it went.