Sometimes an idea or concept gets played with so much in fantasy and science fiction that it seems impossible to try to reclaim it from the trope pile. What to do? If you’re J.L. Worrad, you try to breathe new life into it anyway… and in doing so discover something essential about it, as he does for his novel Pennyblade.
‘Oh no, not another fucking elf’, Hugo Dyson once proclaimed as Tolkien read an early draft of The Lord Of The Rings. Legend has it the curmudgeonly Oxford don had already drifted off to sleep on his couch a number of times before this final outburst.
Dyson was a prophet of sorts, a Cassandra in tweed, for nowadays his is a sentiment as likely to come from the mouths of fantasy readers as anyone else, aware as they are of all the decades of fiction Tolkien inspired. Elves are a staple of the genre, as endemic to fantasy as, say, dragons but these days, unlike dragons, they can feel stale and hackneyed.
Indeed, Will Elves Ever Be Cool again? was the title of a panel at a science fiction convention I attended a few years back. I don’t know if the panellists found an answer to that one because I went to see a different panel, but something about the title’s question got stuck in my teeth. My mental teeth.
I decided I’d wade into this hoary trope for my next novel. No one ever called me cool anyway, so I’d little to lose. The trick was, of course, to take a fresh approach, keeping the essence of elves whilst being unafraid to muck around with the details. The ears were non-negotiable.
Novelty lay in the contradictions. See, there are folklore elves and then there are Tolkien elves (let’s put the Christmas variety to one side) and, despite Tolkien being an unrivalled expert on myth, his elves aren’t as faithful to the blueprint as all that. Tolkien popularised elves. He also sanitised them.
The elves of folklore, particularly English folklore, are amoral, mendacious and care little for the sanctity of human life. They glamour people, enchant them, steal them away. Often deeply sexual creatures, Elves may be ethereal in aspect but their urges can be all too earthy. Tolkien’s elves on the other hand… well, here’s Wikipedia:
In The History Of Middle Earth Tolkien elaborates on elvish sexuality. The Eldar view the sexual act as extremely special and intimate, for it leads to the conception and birth of children. Extramarital and premarital sex would be considered contradictions in terms, and fidelity between spouses is absolute.
One senses Rivendell doesn’t have many Barry White albums lying about.
I decided my ‘elves’, the commrach, would contrast Tolkien’s sanitised Apollonian elves with the earthy, hedonistic elves of folklore by containing elements of both. Like most things, this concept hinged on sex.
The commrach have a collective breeding season lasting one month every year. You can imagine this has enormous effects upon the character of a civilisation. For most of the year the commrach isle is a very sexually liberal place, particularly for the ruling classes, but come April the culture turns deeply conservative and authoritarian with the weight of millennia old laws. Free love is controlled and co-opted. The gender spectrum is suppressed. Procreation toward the ‘perfection’ of bloodlines is the goal.
Which brings me to the general creepiness of Tolkien’s elves and the elves of popular culture he inspired. Creepy, because they’re perfect. Their beauty is mesmerising and they are young forever. They look like us but are better, wiser versions of us. There’s an element of the uncanny valley here and, I’d argue, something even more sinister.
It’s become internet famous that Tolkien gave an admirably caustic response to a Berlin publishing house’s enquiry into his ethnic background. He was far from a fascist and I would never claim otherwise, but there’s something about those fair and noble elf folk that’s disquieting in an early 20th century kind of way. I mean, if you asked a fascist, back then, to paint a picture of their idealised future centuries after their ‘struggle’ was long done with, it would be something like Rivendell: a happy folk at one with nature, each one a flawless craftsman, clean limbed and free of infirmity, more beautiful than the day and the night. Pure fantasy, in other words, and one quite loathsome if you peer beneath the shimmering surface.
The commrach, as a culture, have swallowed that lie, or something very much like it. For millennia their natural philosophers, the Explainers, have overseen their ‘perfection of the Blood’, breeding the upper classes toward some impossible ideal. The Explainers have even predicted the perfect face, ‘the final countenance’. Its presence runs right through commrach society, in their sculpture and their festivals, where masks of the final countenance are handed out to wear. The final countenance is not the face of Galadriel or Elrond, but it may as well be. The commrach are elves trying to live up to impossible standards of elvishness.
In all likelihood Hugo Dyson would have found the commrach just another bunch of fucking elves and I guess he would be right. But I like to think I’ve explored a dystopian strand implicit to the elven trope and maybe that, at least, he might have grudgingly approved of.
Of course, a dystopia needs a protagonist to rebel against it. I’d already an inkling as to their nature. The reason I didn’t go to the Will Elves Ever Be Cool again? panel was because I went to another panel about the rogue archetype in fantasy and science fiction. The panellists noted the scarcity of female rogues in the genre and that statement got stuck in my teeth. My mental teeth. But that, dear readers, would be another Big Idea.