Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Elves versus Dwarves - Oh the Cliché

One of the most common tropes I seem to keep finding in fantasy novels is the oft-times hostile relationship between elves and dwarves.  This something I’ve always found intriguing and wondered where the genesis of this feud began.  At first blush, it appears that the tall, slender woodland race versus the short, squat mountain dwellers would be natural choices for enmity, right?  I keep coming back to the question of why?  The only genesis I can think of Tolkein and the Lord of the Rings.  This of course was likely drawn from various sources and combined into his epic vision.  The only other source I can think of is the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons, which largely codified this racial feud.  For better or for worse, there are a great number of current tropes and influences to epic fantasy that are drawn from the classic role-playing game.  They even have their own TV Trope reference (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ElvesVersusDwarves)

The Ochra series certainly has some of the classic elements – elves, dwarves, dragons, orcs, mages and clerics, the gamut of what you would expect to find.  I also have a map, which reinforces another trope, whereby the writer feels compelled to visit each location illustrated.  In any case, one of the most natural inclinations I’ve noticed in fantasy (particularly epic fantasy) is to have the elves and dwarves at odds, if not out rightly at war with each other.  The problem I keep seeing glossed over is the reasoning for this enmity – you just start off with the two hating each other.  When I started plotting out the Ochra Cycle, this issue came up fairly early on.  I just couldn’t find a justifiable reason for a feud, certainly not for a war. 

What I did find was a reason for some form of annoyance. 

Elf picture by Yuka Han

 The Elves (note capitalization) of Ihr’Vessen are the super-power of the realms.  They have the standing military that could take on any of the races; they have the super-mages that have refined their craft over millennia; they have the strategic acumen developed from countless conflicts.  This links back to their role within the creation myth of the Pantheonic Tragedy several thousand years passed.  Leaders of the Feye supporting the eventual winning side, they are actually cousins to all the magical creatures, such as Dryads and Treants.  The Elves formed the backbone of these forces, which included dwarves among others.  Exceptionally long-lived, powerful and magically inclined, they are the current caretakers of Ihr, nature and the cycle of life and death.  As a race they have several standing tasks the go all the way back to the Tragedy; there are even a number of Elves still alive from that era.  The Druid Council is the managing force for this responsibility, Druids the leading agents of this oversight.  This of course led to the Elves developing a sense of superiority; compared to the majority of non-Feye races, they actually have a valid point.  This superiority complex derives from most of the Elves witnessing the other ‘lesser races’ develop from scavenging clans of hunter gatherers to what they currently are.  In most respects they are very, very far behind what the Elves can accomplish.  Art and culture, advantage Elves.  Individual skill in battle, advantage Elves.  Magical abilities, advantage Elves.
Dwarf by Kim Dong Hyuk 

In the case of the dwarves, there is little contact with the Elves anymore, despite their ancient alliance.  The dwarves think the Elves haughty and condescending.  The Elves consider the dwarves as a ‘lesser race,’ yet to define themselves.  The dwarven people (none of this clan or thane business, thank you very much) withdrew up into the highlands and mountain ranges of Naro.  They maintain large settlements above ground, but are increasingly delving into the depths of Naro for resources, though not for the stereotypical reasons normally associated.

The Elves have been given a task – watch over Ihr.  Several prophecies indicate the Elves will hand over this mantle of responsibility, to a race that has advanced itself culturally and militarily to the point where they can maintain vigilance in a manner the Elves have done.  Which race and when is unclear.  For many years, the dwarves were the likeliest candidates, until they immigrated to the Naro region.  The Elves consider the dwarves too self-centered and unwilling to commit to the welfare of the other races.  So the Elves wait, looking elsewhere.

In a round-about way I’ve justified why there would be a lack of civility between the two, the annoyances that I mentioned earlier.  From the Elven perspective, it comes down to disappointment and a perceived failed opportunity, whereas the dwarves feel they are always (pardon the pun) being looked down upon by the Elves.  Is it enough?  That remains to be seen; I’ve yet to reach the part of the story in Book 2 that brings up the detailed history Elves and dwarves share.  Is it more than what I’ve seen or read in certain books?  Absolutely.

1 comment:

  1. I have the opposite perspective from you in that for me what needs explanation is why any group that differs so significantly would get along. It is the natural order of things for differing groups to not get along very well. Our own history just among humans shows how we take advantage of any difference, no matter how minor, to be at each others' throats, so it only magnifies itself when races are different. So, I don't see it as a trope (nor do I think tropes are at all bad--show me a fantasy or sci-fi without any tropes and I'll show you an unreadable story) but just a normal part of life. Now, using tropes in a bad way...that is tiresome!