In defence of elves … the stereotype (or not)

Are elves really past it? Are they just stereotypes now? Cardboard cut-outs with no personality that no-one bothers to make human any more? (If I can call elves human, that is.)

Sherwood Smith, over at Oached Pish, posted an article on the Glamor of Elves.

Tolkien’s Elves were fairly benign, but the elves in many of the derivative fantasies that followed on don’t look all that different from what we could imagine finding in a world a thousand years after a Nazi victory: the horrors at the start are long forgotten, but now there is a master race. Unfair?

Unfair . . . or kinda boring? Does anyone else feel their heart sinking when Elves show up in a story? Especially elves with glowing eyes? Or is the current crop of urban fantasy with the super-pretty, utterly amoral elves still got appeal outside of YA?

Bittercon: The Glamor of Elves, Sherwood Smith (sartorias), 16 February 2008.

A lot of us still like elves, and I’m one of them, although we all agree that there are a lot of stereotypes. One of the posted replies (by Anna Wing) stated:

… Tolkien’s Eldar are fascinating because they allow all sorts of interesting cod-anthropological speculation about what a society of indefinitely longaeval people would actually be like. Bearing in mind that Tolkien himself said that his elves were the artistic and scientific aspects of human beings taken a bit further…

She got me thinking about elves in the context of my own aging. I am what they politely call ‘middle-aged’ now, and the upper limit of middle age seems to be increasing roughly in line with my own age. I know I have changed since my youth, and I don’t want to go back there, even though it had lots of advantages. So if we take how I have changed over time and extrapolate it further, might that be a valid basis for an elf?

So how have I changed?

I don’t do things on impulse any more

In my early twenties, and even into my thirties I would pack up and go without a moment’s thought. Think about taking off for the weekend, no sooner thought than done. I changed jobs and homes on whim. And as for holidays, nothing was ever planned. We got got in the car and drove.

I don’t do that any more. Everything is considered before I do it.

What does this mean for the elves? They’ll take ages to decide to do something.

I am more financially secure

I still have a mortgage but as the years go by the debt burden becomes less and less. I look forward to the day when I will be debt-free. I am also making money from investments. Eventually I expect that I won’t have to work to pay the bills at all, and if I don’t want to work I won’t have to, but I can if I want some companionship, or to stretch my mind.

For the elves: They won’t have any debts. They will have an assured income. They will have shelter, presumably a home of some sort.

I’m not climbing the corporate ladder and I don’t live for work

I choose work now that interests me, not on how it will improve my chances of promotion. If I don’t like it, I look for another job.

Work is only part of my life, and not the most important. I have family, I have my writing, I have other things to do. Sure, I work hard while I’m at work, but it’s not my whole life any more. I’m through with these places that ask you to work until midnight every night and all weekend.

For the elves: They will only choose work they enjoy, and a lot of that will be creative or stretch the mind.

I am way, way less ‘self’ conscious

When I was a child life revolved around me. Looking back I am surprised I even recognised that other people existed (and my less tolerant self now doesn’t always have time for people who are so self absorbed).

Even into my twenties and thirties life still revolved around me, although I like to think I had improved. It made life so much harder that it needed to be. I was always conscious of how I came across to other people. It made me shy and awkward. I often tried to be what I thought other people wanted me to be. Nowadays I don’t care how other people think about me. I just am. It’s a different type of awareness. I am me, and other people take me as I am.

For the elves: They won’t care what other people think about them. They’ll just be themselves.

I haven’t got the patience I used to have

Sad to say, I’m not as tolerant as I used to be. If I get bad service in a store, I eventually walk out. I tell my friends to get over it or get used to things they don’t like.

For the elves: They won’t put up with nonsense.

I don’t travel light any more

In my early days I traveled light. If I went away for the weekend I’d dump a change of clothes in a bag and go. Nowadays, it’s at least two changes of clothes (or more if I think I’ll be going out at night), not to mention shoes for walking, shoes to slip on while traveling, shoes for night, plus a jacket for if it gets cold, bathers (and a towel) in case I want to swim. The list goes on.

My mother is worse still. She packs an enormous suitcase.

Not only that, there’s the laptop, the mobile phone, various chargers for all the electronic equipment, plus a notebook and some pens in case I can’t use any of the electricals.

For the elves: If they travel any distance, they’re going to need a packhorse or porter to carry all their luggage.

I linger over dinner (and I drink more)

My days of nightclubs and parties are long gone. I don’t like crowds any more, and I don’t like noisy places. Some of my favourite times are a small group of us sitting around a table eating dinner one of us has cooked, drinking wine, talking companionably.

For the elves: They will avoid crowds and noise. They will prefer smaller groups to large groups.

I collect things

It’s not that I am collecting more junk —in fact I am collecting less. It’s just that over the years all those things I have accumulated —china, clothes, furniture —start to add up. I have nowhere to put them all. It’s so bad that I come across beautiful things I haven’t used for years, just because I packed them away.

If this is what it’s like in just under half a century, imagine how much worse it would be for an elf who has hundreds, thousands of years of accumulated possessions.

For the elves: They’re going to need big houses. And even so, those houses probably have a lot of clutter, some of which they may not have looked at for hundreds of years.

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These are some of the changes that are happening to me. But think about it more.

An elf is going to be very conscious of his/her environment. They will be around long enough to see how they impact it. Furthermore, they will have time to fix problems, and to pass on knowledge that we shorter-lived humans lose.

Not only that, if the race is so long-lived they are unlikely to have many children. Otherwise the world would be overrun with elves and we would end up with a population crash. (At least, I suppose, it would only happen once, because they would be around to ensure it didn’t happen again.)

With few children around, an elf child is likely to have a solitary childhood. His (or her) elders would not have a lot of patience with the follies of youth. He’s likely to grow up lonely and repressed.

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So where does that leave us?

Our elf is likely to be comfortable financially, happier in a small group than a large one. He won’t like noise or crowds, and won’t have patience for lesser mortals. He will follow creative or scientific pursuits and will care for his environment. His house will be full of clutter. It will take a long time to decide to make a journey and when he does, he won’t travel light.

You know, I think Tolkien had it worked out pretty well.

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