From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Guest Column: Saaaay… Why AREN’T there brown elves?

A few weeks ago during Fantasy’s Blog For A Beer on racism in the genre, we talked about using fantastic or SFnal elements as allegories to explore prejudice and -isms. My initial reaction to this is noted in the thread–mainly that I don’t think allegory is sufficient for exploring these issues anymore. But my secondary reaction is kind of tangential: why are we using elves as an allegory for skin color issues? Why the heck don’t elves have varied colors themselves?

Let’s think about this from a worldbuilding standpoint. Every story I’ve seen which featured elves has made them either a magically-created species (e.g., Tolkien) or a naturally-evolving one (e.g., Moorcock’s elfy Melniboneans). The MC elves usually seem to predate humans, but haven’t changed much in all that time. Generally NE elves are assumed to have developed in parallel with humans, which I imagine would affect their evolution since they’d probably compete within the same niche. But let’s forego that complication because that could land us with skin-camouflaging herbivore elves or something. Let’s also forego the hybrid MC/NEs — magically-created elves that then progress along natural lines, or vice versa. Wendy Pini’s Elfquest elves are a great example of this (and one of the rare cases of brown elves — some of them settled in a desert or on plains, and developed darker skin), but they’d throw a monkey wrench into the whole thing since some of them turned into magic eugenicists.

Anyway, let’s just say we’re dealing with a separate species which evolved on an Earthlike world independently of/isolated from humankind. There’s no logical reason why such elves should come solely in the colors we see in 99% of fantasy, which are either really pale white or really dark black (e.g., the drow/trow). Neither extreme makes sense, except in a fairly small environmental niche — and the niches used often are nonsensical too, like Forgotten Realms’ take on the drow; they’re an underground species. Nearly every underground species on our planet lacks melanin because there’s no need for UV protection; so why are these drow black?

Elves are usually written as intelligent, adaptable beings. There’s no reason for them to be confined to a single geographic location once they develop seafaring skills or whatever. So theoretically they could spread as far and wide as humans have, and theoretically they’d have to cope with the same environmental changes. They wouldn’t necessarily cope in the same way (e.g., humans develop deeper chests at higher altitudes; maybe high-altitude elves would develop “air-enriching” magic) but I would expect to see some regional variation among them, unless they had magical teleportation devices and could bop around the globe to keep the gene pool uniform.

It doesn’t even make sense from a mythological/literary standpoint. European myth is full of variation in its elflike creatures: brownies (who may not be brown, but that’s how I’ve always seen them in my head), wood-elves or dryads (which I’ve heard described as green or bark-colored), nymphs (usually blue or transparent), whatever. Yet from D&D to Laurell K. Hamilton, we mostly get tall, skinny, straight-haired, pointy-eared pale people. Scratch that — Hamilton’s got one black elf and a couple of vaguely brown ones. And a green guy. But much is made of the fact that these aren’t fully elves; they’re hybrids of elves and entirely different species, including animals, some of which can only interbreed through magical bestiality. I’m not sure if these “dehumanized” (de-elvenized?) examples should count.

This applies to any fantasy species, IMO. Unless they’re magical, I would expect to see a wide range of variation in the appearance, language, and customs of dragons, unicorns, mermaids, whatever. This may be one reason why I so love Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series — she doesn’t do one-note dragons. It may also be a reason to like a more recent novel: Marie Brennan’s so-far-excellent Midnight Never Come. I haven’t finished it yet, but it sounds like every human nation (and some non-human locales, like the ocean) in her world has its own population of elves, with its own distinct culture. This would bode well for elven diversity.

We need more fantasy like this, I’m thinking. Fantasy worlds should be complex — as complex as our own. Complexity does not mean strictly racial complexity, though that’s part of it. Complexity does not need to mean incomprehensibility, either, which it won’t be if it adheres to certain rules of logic. Frankly, I believe fantasy writers should be just as bound by logic as science fiction writers. Yeah, I know we’re talking about magic here. But magic reads better when it functions logically; any good writer understands this. It’s no fun to see omnipotent godlike people zipping around willy-nilly and smiting away at each other without cause-and-effect chains that we can intuitively follow. That gets boring, unless there are rules. And what better rules are there to follow than those of nature?

So consider this a plea for logical, complex fantasy worldbuilding. Not sure what to call such fantasy; I’ve heard the term “hard fantasy” bandied about lately, and maybe that applies. But in my opinion, this is just how all fantasy should be. (Dare I call it… mundane fantasy? Ew, please, no.)

N. K. Jemisin recently defected from the cold gulags of Bostonistan to the gold-lined streets of New Yorkia. She likes travel, cooking, cats, blogging against racism and sexism, designing new worlds, and long walks through city parks. She dislikes genetically modified food, except in horror stories where the food eats people. Then it’s OK.

This post originally appeared on her blog.

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