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.
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.
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!
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?
The 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.