There was a time when I was really into elves.
That was also a time when I was also really into reading nothing but straight white people who live in Europelandia fantasy, also known as the Land of Banal-Shit-Boring. There is a correlation here. You see, when I sit down and think about it, I hit upon the realization that elves are often emblematic of the worst the genre has to offer. Partly this is because they’re so prevalent; so much of the genre is stuck in a quagmire of mediocre rip-offs where writers copy-paste each other with great zeal and vigor. It’s kind of like a circle-jerk, only what comes out isn’t splooge but pointy-eared white supremacists. The other part is that it’s a wonderful escapist fantasy and people love their escapist fantasy, and this is why we can’t have nice things and why SF/F fans will forever whine that, man, the mainstream, man, they just don’t take us seriously. Man.
Elfdom and the White Body
Eladrin are roughly of human height, standing between 5’5″ and 6’1″ on average, but are lighter, weighing in between 130 to 180 lbs. Even exceptionally strong eladrin look rather slim compared with other races, looking athletic rather than muscular. Most eladrin are fair-skinnedrather than dark, though sun elven skin is a hue darker than that of the star elves or moon elves.
What do we know about elves? They are, generally, portrayed as the ideal: more magical, more beautiful, more in tune with nature. They are older than you but almost immortal. When you were hunting things with pointy rocks they had already built advanced civilizations, sprawling cities full of ivory towers (often literal ivory towers even if, inexplicably, no elephants live anywhere in the region). They are closer to their creator deities than anyone else can ever hope to be; if the same deities also created other species, elves will almost always be the “firstborn” or the “elder race,” the chosen ones. Elves are escapist fantasy—they’re what you wish you could be more like, and you probably wish the world was full of secret glades and cities where elves live in ease and glamor. The adjective “elvish” or “elfin” is always used in a positive manner, denoting either ethereal beauty or a particular kind of cuteness.
Elves are also very, very white.
There are cack-handed, wishy-washy attempts today to give elves a paint job and Laurell K. Hamilton even made them so multi-colored some of them are green, blue, or “obsidian black” (none of which, naturally, fits into the range of human complexions), but let’s not dance around the fact that the predominant image of elves in fantasy derives from the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Ljósálfar, or if you’re being particularly hacky and third-hand, from Tolkien (who, let’s admit it, was a Eurocentric bore with delusions of his own open-mindedness, and in social justice circles today would be considered a raging racist asshole). The white, lithe body of elves is touted as the best that can possibly exist: moreso than simply writing about white heroes defeating the faceless brown hordes from the east, portraying elves as the most desirable and perfect dismisses all other body types and complexions as unworthy, and the only thing that can come close to approaching their beauty is humans (white and thin) who resemble them. The most divergence from this you will see is “wood elves” who have a tan, but you’ll never find many elves with curly “African” hair, or for that matter elves whose facial features are anything but Caucasoid, even if their actual skin color happens to be blue or shocking pink, which incidentally applies in stock sci-fi where some immortal yet inexplicably beautiful by human standards alien species or another shows up to stand in for elves.
Another thing common among elves is that they have a low birthrate, are fiercely jealous of humans for being able to drop litters, and when humans get too numerous they will sail away to the west, weeping tears of severe butthurt all the way in their pearly swan-boats. You ever heard a particular breed of white folks lamenting how awful it is that all the black people and the Chinese and Hispanics are spawning like bunnies, and that white people are increasingly an endangered species? You ever seen a white family get spooked when their neighborhood becomes just a little colorful, so they move to an all-white suburban area where they can continue to send their kids to school full of other middle-class white kids, attend parent meetings where they’ll never ever be threatened by the sight of someone who isn’t the hue of frog bellies?
So, what we have are essentially white supremacists, except in fantasy their racism is directed at white humans and white dwarves, rendering any deconstruction or criticism of elves’ attitude ultimately pointless.
But sometimes the table is turned. Elves are subjected to racism. Which brings us to an altogether different, but no less asinine, kind of fail.
Elves: A Vehicle for Appropriating POC Experiences
Let’s talk about Lynn Flewelling. For context, Alec is an elf and Yhakobin is a Plenimaran.
“Here is a lesson every slave that comes through Riga is given.” Yhakobin pointed to a line of half-naked wretches chained by the neck along a stone wall. Each one had a placard around his or her neck, and most had a bloody, bandaged stump where a hand or foot or arm had been.
“Slaves who run lose a foot.” He nodded at a bone-pale boy with no feet at all. “That one has run twice, as you can see. He’ll be hanged in a few days. Those who steal lose a finger or hand. I’m sure you can guess the rest.”
He had his men lead Alec to a dispirited-looking woman chained near the end. She had all her limbs, but at Yhakobin’s sharp order she opened her mouth wide, showing Alec the blackened wound where her tongue had been cut out.
“That is the penalty for speaking back to your master,” Yhakobin warned. “I do hope you’ll keep that in mind. I have no use for your tongue, and will happily have it out if it offends me again. Do you understand?”
Alec swallowed hard against the fresh bile rising in his throat, then said as humbly as he could manage, “Yes, Ilban, I understand.”
– Shadows Return, Lynn Flewelling
What are Plenimarans? They’re like this: dark-skinned, scimitar-wielding, woman-oppressing. Plenimaran women are veiled, require chaperons when going out, and are expected to commit suicide to preserve their husbands’ honor. Throughout Flewelling’s books Plenimarans and Zengati (also brown-skinned) are every single one of them evil: they deal in necromancy, slavery, and most of all they deal in enslaving elves. Alec, during his experience in a Plenimaran household, is subjected to beatings, being kept in chains, threatened with gelding, used as a breeding apparatus; he witnesses other elves being castrated, worked to death, raped, and brutally flogged. Elves are shipped en masse, in chains, cramped into small cabins across the sea to be sold to Plenimarans.
Sounds familiar? I’m sure you will be shocked, just shocked, to learn that Flewelling’s elves are white too! Look at those disgusting brown people trampling on the lily-white fee-fees of pointy-eared Caucasians. Whereas Bioware’s take on elves-as-oppressed-minority erases all color in a giddy rush of appropriation, Flewelling’s goes one step further and flips the complexions. It’s an all-new, special level of offensive that compounds the dreadful appropriation of black history/experiences with out-and-out racism toward the author’s caricature of Middle Easterners.
You’ve got wood elves? They’re magical Native Americans! City elves? Magical Jews forced to live in ghettos! Dark-skinned elves…? Genetically, categorically evil, often with tendencies toward incest and sexual sadism; unsurprisingly they look much less human than any other variant. I think there’re some elven variants that are analogous to Mystical Exotic Asians too, and generally elven eyes are often described as “almond-shaped” for some mysterious reason (even though their features are otherwise firmly Caucasoid, their skin distinctly of the fish-belly hue). Basically, if a POC experience exists—Aborigine, Native American, colonized Asians—a white author will appropriate it for their elves (or mutants, or mages, but we’re talking elves), who are also white.
Elves: Classist Luddites
This is a Tolkien thing. Unfortunately, like metric tonnes of other Tolkien things, this is problematic and endlessly copied by writers who don’t think very much.
Tolkien, to spare you from reading the twelve hundred essays that turn up when you google “tolkien luddite,” didn’t like the Industrial Revolution. Now, it wasn’t all sunshine and puppies; certainly said revolution did its share of fucking people (and societies) up. But it did something special too. It took power away from aristocracy and landed gentry; it made possible the rise of the middle class, created the working class, and brought about a drastic change in politics and economy.
Give you two guesses what every single notable character and historical figure in Middle-earth is, barring Samwise Gamgee.
So, fast forward to today. Elves are at one with nature. Despite supposedly being the elder race, they are forever frozen at a technology level that can be charitably described as “primitive” because they all rely on magic or something. What do elves who have limited access to magic do? Eat that bubonic plague and like it, I suppose. What do impoverished elves do? Oh right, elves only get poor and hard-up when they’re enslaved/oppressed by humans; in their natural habitat none of them ever goes hungry or knows poverty because Mother Nature provides. Generally they want nothing to do with human inventions like, I don’t know, electricity or steam power or computers (they rarely progress to the point where they invent these themselves: the same goes for printing press and, for that matter,paper). Tech gives them rashes and makes them whine about the destruction of nature andbork bork bork bork.
Elves, then, don’t much entertain the idea of seismic shifts in class values and structures, since after all they are all mysteriously aristocrats (agriculture, masonry, and so on happen by magic) and eternally privileged. Okay, write that and deconstruct it to challenge privilege, whatever. But wait, what’s this? In the average fantasy story, the nice humans agree with elves. The bad ones, like, want to build machines and factories and shit ala Saruman. Because god forbid aristocrats and monarchies are toppled. Be born into the right family and you will live in comfort and make history:1 be born into the wrong one–among peasants, say–and you’re doomed to be nobodies forever.
: Even if you are dislodged from your cushy station in life, you will still end up a major part of Middle-earth’s history, see Aragorn “MY KINGDOM, MIIINE” or Turin “oops I made my sister preggo” Turambar. Again: notice how every individual with a significant role in Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit or The Silmarillion is at least landed gentry. The lone exception is, as aforementioned, Sam. You know. One character out of a cast of thousands spanning centuries of fictional history. He inherits Frodo’s stuff and becomes landed gentry, by the way.
Writers who unthinkingly copy-paste Tolkien’s adoration for all things noble and royal, then, perpetuates the idea that your bloodline ordains your destiny: there’s a reason so many farmboy heroes find out they are really princes or really descended from elves–as Alec, from Flewelling’s novels, discovers–or why the Queen of All Elves in Forgotten Realms rules by divine right (literally she is a Chosen of the elven pantheon) and anyone who challenges her is by default a villain. It feeds right into the upholding of privilege, and specifically privileges which grant you nice things and preferential treatment not because you earned them but because you were born a certain way, like male, straight, and white. While I’m not going to necessarily stretch the link between fantasy writers’ bloodline fetish and sexism or homophobia, there’s a certain commonality of attitude.
Are elves, by themselves, problematic? No. Most of these tropes are perpetuated in other ways, through humans and other fantasy races, and conflicts between Caucasoid heroes and assorted Evil Empires populated by brown peoples. But there’s no other fantasy staple that neatly packs all the most flagrant fantasy tropes into such a perfectly repulsive little parcel. And elves, after all, are fucking everywhere.
The only good elf is a dead elf.