Has JRR Tolkien ruined Elves in fantasy?

James Barclay wonders whether Tolkien is responsible for the modern Elf

The cover art of James Barcaly's Elves: Beyond The Mists Of Katura
The cover art of James Barcaly’s Elves: Beyond The Mists Of Katura

We’re all terribly good at recognising staple fantasy races: Dwarves are short, portly, aggressive beardies with a penchant for singing about gold; Dragons are large scaly things that love a bonfire and have a decent intellect; Elves are tall, long-lived, pointy-eared creatures damn good with bows and even better at riding horses.

Yes, yes I know, generalisations – blah blah – but fantasy authors can get stuck with them nonetheless though many of us seek to put our own spin on them while still being able to use the labels.

You might ask ‘Why not just make up your own alternate races?’ It is a good question, but flawed. Because unless you are going to go right off-piste and do insects or something, your humanoid is likely to resemble in part an elf, dwarf, orc, goblin… you name it. That’s just the way it is and you want it to be like that because you need your reader to identify with your races, not be fascinated initially and then bored by their weirdness.

Oh, and the other thing is, if you have ‘invented’ your own race but it’s pretty darn close to an elf, then do the decent thing and call it an elf, will you? You’re not fooling anyone. Spock’s a classic elf by the way (just look at the traits below and you’ll see I speak the truth).

But how much can you add to or remove from your beloved race before it stops being it and becomes something else entirely? I’m going to concentrate on elves because that’s what I’ve been writing about for the last couple of years.

James Barclay 2
James Barclay, author of the Elves trilogy

Right, here’s a bunch of typically Elvish traits I hope we can all agree on: Long-lived; magical; woodland born; pointed ears; tall and willowy; harmonious; aloof; mysterious; good with blade and longbow; haughty; superior; ace horse riders… or, to sum it all up in the words of the great Sir Terry Pratchett in Lords And Ladies; “Everything you can do elves can do better, elves are much better at everything than you.”

Depending on where you set your benchmark, even that list has a big problem; the ears. Nowhere in mythology is it suggested that elves have pointed ears yet it has become completely accepted. Now either an artist wanted to make them a bit more fey or it was down to Tolkien mentioning ‘leaf-shaped ears’ once.

My elves do have pointed ears because I am a child of Tolkien and his artists. But there are lots of things they don’t have on that list and the question is are any of them key pieces of elven DNA, so to speak…what is it that makes an elf an elf?

Anyway, let’s go through the list and see which traits made the Barclay grade and which were discarded in rather a cavalier fashion. Long-lived – check, though some Elven threads live longer than others. Magical – well, some of them become so eventually but that brings on a whole load of religious problems. Woodland born – check, though it’s the rainforest not a medieval English forest. Pointed ears – abso-bleeding-lutely, they’re a key physical determinant and mythology be damned. Tall and willowy – not really, given their environment, and some of the ones that live in cities have grown somewhat portly.

Before I go on with the list, I have included such things as zealously religious; isolationist; an elite warrior caste that makes Legolas look like a cringing couch potato; and an innate understanding of and sympathy with, their environment.

On with the list… Harmonious – hardly, their internecine struggles threaten to destroy them. Aloof – check but in an often very violent fashion. Mysterious – well, only because they won’t talk to you before they slice you open. Good with blade and longbow – yes to the former, no to the latter because in the rainforest, a longbow would be a difficult weapon to use, getting snagged in lianas and so forth. Haughty – some of them demonstrate extreme examples of this behaviour. Superior – check, well they think so anyway, and they’re right. Ace horse riders – nope, the rainforest is not for horses.

So, when you look at it, the only traits I’ve not diluted, developed or deleted completely are their ear shape, the fact they like timber and their annoying haughtiness and superiority complexes.

So I shiver and think, have I just written three books about Elves when they really aren’t? Of course not and that’s the trouble with accepted forms for alternate races. Too often, they are all of one mind, body and skill set, something you’d never get away with if you were writing about, oh, I don’t know, humans.

You’re welcome to disagree with me but I reckon I’ve got my elves just right. And that’s because right down in the core of them… spiritually, psychologically and emotionally, they are elven. They just are. Oh, and because they’ve got pointed ears.

Elves: Beyond The Mists Of Katura is published by Gollancz, available now priced £8.57 from Amazon.co.uk. It is the third in the Elves trilogy also comprising Once Walked with Gods and Rise of the TaiGethen. You can find James on Twitter @barculator and search barculator on Facebook.