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.

The Withy King

In this “deep cut” from my WIP novel, The Winter Warrior, a small group of fugitives is hunted through a wintry wasteland, where cold and hunger aren’t the worst enemies…

lion image: Denis Marsili

They made camp that night in a dense thicket of broad-leafed bushes, clustered within a ring of giant silverbarks. Djoran studied the formation of the grove with some interest; Iain, like the rest, cared only for its remarkable security. However, as Britha gives, she takes away: a branch had snagged Iain’s precious pouch of meal, and all but a few grains had spilled out somewhere along their trail.

When Djoran left to forage for more food, no-one so much as offered to help. They looked too numb to have been any help anyway, and Iain saw the need to do something to lift their spirits—his own as much as anyone’s. Considering how well hidden they were by the bushes, he allowed Skulë to light a small fire. It gave out just enough heat to thaw their drawn, weary faces, and had begun to warm through to Iain’s heart as well, when a deep voice boomed out.

“How dare you bring fire into my sacred grove?”

The outburst—the loudest sound they had heard in days—seemed directly behind him. Iain sprawled forward, tangling with his companions. Before anyone managed to fumble out of their cloaks to stand or draw a sword, something had stepped into the middle of their circle, right on top of their fire.

Staring down at them was perhaps the strangest of all the creatures they had yet encountered. The first thing Iain noticed was its massive head, like a lichen-covered stone—egg-shaped, bearded with moss, and crowned with creeper-like hair which seemed to be in bloom. As the figure was no taller than Skulë, its head accounted for a third of its height, nestled between hunched shoulders. A tunic of leaves, like densely woven ivy, clothed the round body, while grey skin like gnarled bark showed below. Arms like the trunks of young silverbarks ended in hands that were its most human feature. Supporting the whole were two stumpy legs—thick as a man’s torso—that seemed to have taken root in the soil.

“Now, begone,” it said, “and plague me not with your sorrows. I have already spared your lives out of pity, for it is unseasonably cold.”

Only, Iain realised, it was not. Despite the loss of their fire, the air seemed warm and fresh. Light, not from any visible source, filled the space about the green figure. The snow around its rooted feet had given way to grass, which grew even as he watched.

“If you cannot move, I shall have to move you!” the thing said, but his audience were so stunned that none of them had moved more than their eyes.

With great effort, Iain found words and stammered out a reply, wishing for once that the know-it-all harper was with them. “Please, lord, we do not seek shelter from the cold alone, but there are fell creatures hunting us.”

“This is none of my concern, and I grow impatient.”

“But we carry news that must get through,” Arethain said. “The fate of the world may depend on it.”

The creature’s laugh was like the crackle of leaves underfoot, though its blank expression did not change. “What care I for the world of men, who use my trees for burning and building?”

“It is not only the world of men,” said Brienna. “The very sun has left the sky. How can your trees grow without the sun?”

Her sharp thinking gave the creature pause. “What makes you think you can save the world?”

“We seek to find and destroy the evil that blights the land,” replied Arethain.

“Pah! That alone will not stop the King of Night.”

“But it will help, surely,” Arethain said. “We are of the same side in this.”

“I do not take sides, child. I walk my own way. Always have.”

“And if that means you will walk forever in darkness?” Brienna asked.

“The gods would not allow it.”

Iain thought he heard tones of uncertainty. He also noticed it spoke of gods as if it were not one; after meeting Baegeri, he had assumed it was. Recalling what Djoran had once said to him, he replied: “The gods help those who help themselves. If we do not get through, there may be no hope for the gods here in the east.”

Again the creature paused to consider, its stony face impassive, its bottomless eyes staring into the distance. Iain wished he knew what it was, but felt it rude to ask.

“Perhaps what you say is true,” it said at last. “You may stay here this night, as long as there are no fires.” The green figure turned away, to the sound of ripping roots.

“Wait!” Iain called. “We need not stay here if you can show us a secret way through the hills, a path where no-one goes.”

“And a bridge,” added Skulë, his voice smaller than Iain had ever heard.

“You dare ask more of the Withy King, when I have been most generous!”

The name meant nothing to Iain, but he used it. “Yes, O Withy King, because our need is so dire.”

Leaves rustled over the stony bulk. For a moment Iain thought he had gone too far, but the moment passed and the Withy King grew still again. Iain now saw how the yellow flowers ringing its vine-covered head made a sort of crown, but what it was king of, he had no idea. Perhaps it was these woods; perhaps it was all forest everywhere, or all trees. It was obviously no king of men.

“There is such a path I could show you, that will be safe from all hunters. Know it is not my path, but the run of Lady Gwil, and if she likes you not then so be it. This path will lead you to a ford of boulders that you can cross.”

“That fits our need perfectly, O gracious king!” said Arethain. “How can we thank you?”

“You shall know my price in time,” the king said, turning away and walking from the glade with deceptive speed. They had to gather their possessions quickly, but at least its shroud of light made it easy to track through the pitch black forest. It lead them up the hill and into thick evergreens, a path seeming to open before it and close afterwards. Iain worried that Djoran might not be able to track them, but the Withy King moved so swiftly that there was nothing he could do. He thanked Gryf the march did not last long.

“Here is the path; follow it and none shall track you.”

Stretching before them was a narrow deer-run, straight and clear, between thick walls of leaf and branch. It looked common enough, but they would never have found the entrance if not for their guide.

They turned back to thank the Withy King again, but it was gone.

Reunion

In this scene from my forthcoming fantasy novel, The Winter Warrior, exiled Iain of Cryteth visits his mother at the convent where he has found out she is staying.

“Hello Mother.”

For a moment, the Lady Ivraine stood as a statue. Then, quietly, she said, “Son, have you no thought for your mother with such surprises? Barely a word in eight years, and now you stand before me without any warning. I have half a mind to exchange you for this nice youth…”

The torrent of words turned to tears, and he closed her in his arms. Silence reigned for a while as they stood in the light of the window.

“Mother I am sorry, but I could not send word ahead. I only learned you were here two days hence.”

“Well,” she said, drying her eyes with an imperious dab of her handkerchief, “I don’t suppose I should expect my son to keep track of me. If I but knew where you were I would have gladly informed you on whose hospitality I was currently relying.”

“Mother…”

“No, let’s not speak of it. I am sure you have some very pretty excuses—you always did. Tell me why you are here, and why you are hiding under that ridiculous cloak. Are you servant to this young man now? If you expect me to buy your freedom…”

“Come now, mother, be gentle; my squire is unused to your humour.” Indeed, Borathain stood by the door, studying the embroidery of the nearest tapestry.

“Ah, he is your squire, then,” Ivraine said. “But does he have a name?”

“He is Borathain, son of Borwain of Tothill, and he has been with the company these past few years.”

“Well then, you must leave him with me some day so I can hear all about what you have been doing. Yul knows I shall not get such information from you!”

“I have been doing little of interest, mother, beyond waiting to return home. And having no sense of how my return would be received, I felt it prudent to hide my presence.” He could not bear to admit the true tale.

“You weren’t always such a careful lad—there may be hope for you yet. Still, I would have liked to see how Prince Arethain greeted the heir to his usurped castle.”

For the first time, true bitterness crept into her voice—and sadness, too. Iain reached out again to clasp her arms. “And how are the healers treating you?”

“Oh, well enough,” she said. “Ria has always been a gracious host whenever I visit.”

“Then you have not taken the vows?”

“Of course not! My wardens want me where I can be watched, and this is as comfortable a prison as any I could have. I prefer the quiet here. These hills hold fond memories.”

Lady Ivraine paused, staring out the window at the grey skies and grey hills. Iain studied her familiar face. Time may have added lines around her eyes and wisps of white to her bound hair, but it could not soften the set of her jaw nor quench the fire in her eyes.

“Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier just to retreat to Ria’s bosom, or take Britha’s veil…but no, I will be the thorn in their sides as long as I still breathe.”

“But what of your dowry lands?”

“The Queen has made me her ward, confiscated me like your father’s chattels.”

“How can they do this?”

“It is the new law brought by the new faith. Their god would not have women inherit, nor hold her own lands—not that it stops the Queen! Neither will they allow me to re-marry.” She gave a sharp laugh. “Certes, who would even have me?”

She paused again, fists clenched, and Iain realised how much she suffered. Even with the loss of her husband and confiscation of his estates, Ivraine’s dowry should have been exempt. Iain knew it was his mother’s link to Cryteth, and not their meagre income, that made her too valuable to relinquish. Taking vows to serve a goddess would sever Ivraine from any temporal claims almost as effectively as death, but his mother had never been one to go quietly.

“A man can win a new life with his sword,” she said at last, glancing at the steel hanging by Iain’s side, “or breed new children with some ripe trollop. But all I have is my stubbornness.  And until now I had not even a son to comfort me!”

She added the last with too much pathos, and cracked a sly smile. “Not that you were ever much comfort—why you rode off to battle as soon as you could lift a sword.”

“Father needed me,” Iain said.

“Yes, and I suppose he was proud of you.” The thought brought them both scant consolation.

“What of Percain? He would welcome you, surely.” A stalwart friend of his parents, Warspite had been like an uncle to Iain—though he did not want to think what Gannon’s loss might mean for that friendship.

Ivraine shuddered. “The Rabaz has enough ghosts of its own, and Warspite has enough trouble with the Order.”

Founded by Berengan the Lion, long before Galador itself, the Order was now but a hollow honour for the ruling nobility, or a refuge for those whose future held no promise—like Iain. “What now?”

“The Church has long desired war on the northmen, but Percain made sure the king never sanctioned it. The Queen is far more amenable, and I fear they press her to remove him from the captaincy.” A harsh edge crept into her voice. “You can imagine who would replace him.”

“Never!” Iain shouted, making Borathain jump. Ivraine had meant Moragain, Earl of Ralstock, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom—and the man responsible for their downfall. With his vast lands in the North-east, Moragain had always seen the Order’s southern activities as a waste. Moreover, the fact that the Order venerated Kor, god of honour and battles, only increased the political pressure on its captain. But for it to come to the point where Warspite’s captaincy was actually under threat…

“Has the Church become so powerful? I saw the temple being built in Cryteth.”

“They have powerful allies at court, and they are wealthy. In this time of uncertainty they can prey upon the people’s fears with their grand temples. The Gods that have protected us are now called ‘old’ and ignored.”

“Maybe their time is ending. What good has our faith done our family?”

As soon as he said it, he realised he had gone too far. The silence that followed brought back many memories. His mother’s anger was never fiery nor sudden, and when her words finally fell they struck, as ever, right to his core.

“They brought back my son to me.”

The moment passed with the blinking back of a tear, and Ivraine continued in calmer tones. “Our gods do not fail the faithful, but they do not promise the wonders that the Church of the One does. Your father would have never allowed that abomination to be built in our town, but he did not have time to fight that battle.”

She paused and gave him a long, weary look. “My son, do not spend your life fighting hopeless battles.”

“I do not believe in hopeless battles, mother.”

“Well, that’s good.” She forced a smile, then bade them both sit, turning the conversation to more pleasant subjects. Ivraine questioned Borathain about the Southlands, and told him about his master’s youth in return. Iain became a spectator, only interjecting when modesty demanded, but sitting for an hour with his mother in the afternoon sunlight was as pleasant a time as he had had for eight years.

When the light through the window started to climb the east wall, Ivraine rose and said it was time to prepare for the afternoon prayers. “After that I shall have duties on the wards, and then more prayers. Will you visit me again this evening, my dear?”

“Certainly, mother, but we must leave on the morrow.”

“Where are you going in such a hurry?”

“We must to Coursay. Falke will help me.” His old friend’s duchy also held other, more personal memories for him, as his mother knew too well.

“Do not expect all things to be as they were” she said, frowning. “Falke has burdens of his own, and Rianne is not there. She remains in the household of the County Saral, mourning her late husband and raising her young daughter.”

Iain’s cheeks burned at her unsubtle rebuke. He already felt guilty that her misfortune had stirred latent hopes, and he had enough to worry about as it was. “I take my leave, my lady, until tonight. Let no-one suspect who I am.”

“Farewell then, my son,” she replied, resuming her aloof tone though her eyes glistened. “I shall not even look at you at supper.” With that, she turned and disappeared into her chamber, leaving Iain and the squire alone in the hall.

He would not see her again in this life.