So I’ve been playing a bit of Blood Bowl lately. For those of us who aren’t quite nerd enough to be familiar with Warhammer in its myriad forms (for shame!), the run-down: Warhammer is a dark fantasy world with xenophobic elves, drunken dwarves, teeming orcs, and a world-spanning threat from mutated cultists trying to destroy the world on behalf of their dark gods.
Only sometimes, they play football.
I can’t. I just can’t. There’s simply no part of me that doesn’t light up with giggly joy at the thought of a big, green orc in a football uniform getting laid out by a dwarf with a mohawk. We’re done, folks. We’re closing up. The Dark Lords and inscrutable elves and Ye Olde Bennetone adventuring groups had it right all along.
We’ve spent a fair bit of time discussing common fantasy tropes and how to break them down, subvert them, even avoid them. We haven’t spent a whole lot of time on embracing them.
Sure, we may run on a no-elf platform, and we might bandy about words like ‘derivative’ and ‘simplistic’ and ‘Jesus, not another Dark Lord’. But at the end of the day, there are times when the lizard brain can’t help but light up. Don’t believe me? Look back up at the Blood Bowl screenshot. How awesome is it?
Games Workshop, makers of the various Warhammer games (one’s in space!), have made an excellent career of not taking their dwarf-and-elf model terribly seriously. Warhammer’s popularity comes about in part because, for all the doom-and-gloom, it isn’t actually terribly po-faced. It offers exactly the most generic possible interpretation of high fantasy, exaggerated to the point where it’s impossible to take seriously.
But it also passes the Shaun of the Dead test, and comes across like the best sort of parody. Yes, Warhammer pokes fun at high fantasy. It also happens to be a well-crafted high fantasy. The threat facing the world is strangely compelling as far as these things go, the various nations react to it in culturally appropriate ways, and the setting is perfectly usable for small-scale stories about personal or local corruption, and large-scale stories about full-on cultist invasions. (Indeed, for those of us who have leveled up in Nerd, the Enemy Within campaign from the Warhammer RPG progresses through pretty much that).
Now, some of us won’t be quite at the point of dressing our orcs up in football pads. One might argue that Warhammer can get away with a lot because it’s first and foremost a setting driven not by a need for coherence or literary merit, but to serve as a backdrop for games. And indeed, the most elves-and-dwarvesy fantasy available these days comes from two sources: 1) Dungeons & Dragons tie-in novels, themselves based on tabletop role-playing games; 2) fantasy video games like World of Warcraft. The broader fantasy writing world has grown bored of these tropes, and has been inching back to the weirder, more individualistic form of the old pulps.
But we can still name-check the old standards, and make them work for us.
In the same way that sci-fi is actually about the present and not the future, fantasy races – and, more broadly, non-human races in speculative fiction in general – are about humanity. At their simplest, our Fantasyland neighbours are monocultures emphasizing different themes and philosophies that teach us something about the human condition. With swords and fireballs.
Elves, then, come in two major flavours, or a swirly cone of both. The free-range elf is the supernaturally woodsy protector of an environment under threat of pillage and deforestation. The sighing elf is the impossibly ancient guardian of mountains of knowledge, doomed to fade from the world and take it all with him.
The first, obviously, speaks to our environmental fears and a generalized dissatisfaction with the march of urbanization. It’s tempting to figure that this must be a Tolkienism given his harrumphing about the industrialization of the English countryside, but his elves were more in the latter camp: mystic world-guardians preparing to make way for a dumber, cruder sort of custodian (hint: it’s totally us!).
If our free-range elf is a noble not-so-savage, the sighing elf is Rome or any other great historic civilization consigned to dust or Silvio Berlusconi. It’s Ozymandias writ large – the immortality (or just long lifespan) traditional to elves is equal parts dramatic irony and overcompensation. They live long enough to learn more than we can ever know, but because we’re enemies or because we’ll misuse their secrets, or because we don’t know how to ask nicely, all that knowledge their long lives have allowed them to gather will disappear.
The free-range elf is more common not just because environmentalism is a more visceral issue than backing up your computer, but because dwarves also have a lock on doomed civilization. In Norse myth, where dwarf and elf were synonymous (and whence most of this stuff comes in the first place), dwarves were portrayed first and foremost as crafters and tricksters. The first has endured, but Tolkien – hey, you again! – also injected them with a bit of dwindling civilization chic, because that was just a thing he did. Dwarves are few, and their dwarfholds have invariably been taken over by orcs. If sighing elves represent the loss of knowledge and beauty in the abstract, dwarves represent it in a simpler way – they don’t make ’em like they used to.
Which is boring.
I suspect this is the reason why dwarves got a post-Tolkien proletariat injection (available at your nearest liquor store). Somewhere along the way – and hell, maybe this has to do with them being linked with the mead-swilling Norse myths – they became a work-obsessed, hard-drinking, hard-goblin-punting race of prickly, ornery bastards. And suddenly, people loved them again. See, dwarves are approachable. They won’t ignore you, and they won’t dance around you with big words. They’ll headbutt you, pick you up off the taproom floor, and feed you beer until you’re all better. And then, it’s back to the forge.
Interestingly, if one is inclined to go full-Marxist on this sort of thing, this mix of earthiness and pending doom brings to mind the death of the blue-collar, and the death of good ol’ work ethic. No wonder dwarves guard their blueprints so dearly: they’re worried about being off-shored.
Orcs, though. Orcs are good and simple. In the early days of fantasy, orcs were just bred for evil. They’re a faceless, nameless horde, sweeping out from Mordor to torch your beloved villages and kill or enslave your buddies. They destroy because that’s what they do. They’re bred for it, and they enjoy it. In one sense, these orcs are Vandals as seen from the walls of Rome. We don’t care what their motivations are, because they’re capital-E Evil, because they’re here to mess up our shit. Which works out, because they really didn’t have motivations per se, other than the philosophical certainty that humans look better with axes embedded in them. Tolkienish orcs weren’t really a culture so much as a pack of demons: unthinking, uncaring brutality and destruction. They’re just the hammer in capital-E Evil’s toolbox.
That portrayal was bound to fade away, because – let’s be honest here – it really isn’t very interesting. So, over time, orcs became an actual race. They remained antagonists, but they picked up a bit of character along the way – of a sort, anyway. The orc remains a savage, but he’s no longer mindless. He fights not because he’s bred to do it, but because might makes right. At times, he’s full-on loincloth savage who takes things because he wants them and is too stupid or lazy to make them, and at times he’s a noble savage with shamanistic traditions and a code of honour that determines what’s hittable. And, if you’re Warhammer-inclined, he’s an eight-foot-tall ape-shaped cockney mushroom who fights because he really likes fighting, and any other concerns are secondary (I’ll leave you to guess which is my favourite depiction). Noble savage or football hooligan, the orc fights. He’s humanity’s id: the fear of what we’d be if we didn’t have laws and tradition to guide us.
Humans are the only race in Fantasyland that isn’t a monoculture, and sometimes this is spelled out in no uncertain terms: in fantasy games, for instance, humans are inevitably the jacks-of-all-trades whose adaptability allows them an advantage over the specialization of the other races. They’re the Green Bay Packers to the dwarves’ Baltimore Ravens: sure, they don’t defend as well, and they certainly don’t hit as hard, but they’re at least pretty good at everything.
This is what makes humans a handy self-insertion. We recognize that our fantasy humans have elements of every culture with which they share borders, which – given the other races are essentially a commentary on humanity – brings the whole thing around full-circle. Human protagonists are easy to identify with, and no matter the characterization, one can’t get them ‘wrong’, because they’re just people, and it’s just medieval Europe, and we know all about that shit. No hard work needs to be done to flesh out alien thought patterns, and when inevitably our human protagonist gets tied up in the affairs of other races, he’s as much a neophyte as we, the readers are – through his similarity to us, we explore the culture he’s rubbing up against.
‘Generic’ is an ugly word, and one that sort of misses the point. People have been complaining, for as long as there have been people, that every story has been told. In a way, that’s true – the trappings change, but the core doesn’t. It’s how we use the trappings, and how we attack the core, that makes for a good read. Ideas are nothing compared to implementation.
Genre is, as we’ve discussed before, a short-hand. One glimpse of a tumbleweed tells us that we’re in a place where laws are enforced by speed of gun, where it’s probably best to sit tight because bandits are lying in wait for every stagecoach. In the same way, fantasy races are a sort of framing device. We know, immediately, what they’re here for, and we can file the basics away – consciously or unconsciously – while we concentrate on why and how they’re being used.
So don’t fear elves. It’s ok. You can use them. We’ll understand. If you simply must make an end-run around stigma, go ahead and turn them blue, give them a stupid apostrophe-name, and shunt them into space. It’s cool. We still know what you’re talking about.