Thursday, May 15, 2008

Night Elf culture: just tree hugging hippies?

I happen to work with a couple of avid role players of the old school table top variety. One of them also plays a lot of Warcraft and the other has dabbled in WoW but is mainly a Neverwinter Nights player. Unsuprisingly a lot of our non work related conversations revolve around roleplaying and Warcraft. It's not unusual for our other workmates to come across us in the kitchen deep in a conversation laced with acronyms and terms which they find completely unintelligible.

I've been using these two guys as an excellent sounding board for some of my ideas about Jez's character description and back story and recently we got into a discussion about how Night Elf culture is presented in Warcraft and the presentation of elves generally in fantasy fiction.

I consider myself pretty widely read in the fantasy fiction arena - it is, and has been, my genre of choice for many many years now (how unsuprising that I should play a game like Warcraft). However I'm not very widely read as regards the lore of Warcraft itself. Most of what I know has been gleaned from the quest dialogue in game. Yes that's right I am one of the people who reads all of the quest text. Of course! It's one of the aspects of the game that I find very appealing.

**a little intermission music**

I started writing this post before work this morning and found some time today to do a little research and also continue the discussion, this time specifically about night elves.

The opinion presented by my esteemed work colleagues is that elves generally in fantasy fiction are presented as namby pamby tree hugging hippies. I bristled immediately as I admit that, yes, I am a fan of the elven races. You can keep your short smelly dwarves thank you very much. In the interests of disclosure I should mention that of my two friends, one plays a warlock and the other favours rogues. Yup. We can probably dismiss their argument right now *grin*.

When I think of elves in the fantasy world a specific representation come to mind: the elves of Tolkien's world. In my opinion (and the opinion of many others) this representation is one of the foundations for elves in modern fantasy fiction.

In Tolkien the elves are not particularly aligned with nature and are certainly not namby pamby. They follow various crafts and their culture includes both warriors and healers. They built great civilisations and while capable of acts of great valor they were by no means perfect.

Enter Warcraft's representation of elves which I would argue draws strongly on Tolkien influences. If we consider the lore of Warcraft itself - the night elves were initially the creators of a powerful civilisation centred around the Well of Eternity. They were powerful magic users and their delving into the mysteries of the Well was what alerted the Burning Legion to its' existence.

As fall out from the arrival of the Burning Legion and the destruction of Archimonde the elves split into three distinct groups with the kaldorei or night elves eschewing arcane magics in favour of more nature based magics. They saw their role as the protection of the land and their people from further corruption by the Burning Legion.

This might perhaps sound like the night elves are namby pamby but let's think about the methods they use. Tyrande actually broke Illidan free from his prison to attain his aid in defeating the legion. The Silverwing Sentinels are in constant skirmish with the Horde over their deforestation. Some Farstriders are known to kill strangers who breach too far into the woods of Ashenvale. Hardly namby pamby.

The quests that you undertake as a night elf character in the game may well at surface level appear to be about 'saving X from the corruption of Y" but looking a little further below the surface reveals a culture that will use just about any means necessary to protect their world.

An exception to the emphasis on Tolkien influence is the role of the druid in night elf culture. My friends see druids particularly as the embodiment of namby pamby tree-hugginess and whilst I have no problems with hugging a treekin any day of the week I do also take umbrage to this opinion.

The night elf druids in Warcraft are, in my opinion (again, I'm just full of opionions) influenced by the druids of Celtic mythology. Following the druidic path is not easy. It requires great mental strength and fortitude. I mean let's face it, nature does not always wear a pleasing aspect. It's not all flowers and bumble-bees. Nature can also be incredibly powerful and destructive - think of the voraciousness of a forest fire or the implacable force of an earthquake. If one is going to train to have power over nature it's going to require a lot of self discipline. An example of this willpower is the agreement of the druids led by Malfurion to spend centuries in hibernation within their barrows as their spirits wandered the Emerald dream.

I rest my case.


Typhoonandrew said...

howdy all,

As one of the duo of "namby pamby" elf haters that Jez has referenced I'd like to comment and clear a few things up.

My position is that the general lore about elves is focused on them being protectors of the forests and general hippie types. Tree-huggers if you like. And certainly soft and ill deserving of what potential the deeper stories could offer.

And this is where Jez's case is a bit of a misnomer; the particular reference to Tolkien and Warcraft is accurate, but does not represent the wider view of "an Elf".

Go ask 5 people:
- where would an elf live
- how do the dress
- what are they like (beautiful or ugly, mean or kind, gentle or harsh, intelligent or dumb)

I agree totally that elves in wow have guts, and in fact I have four elf characters, and two Druids. However the superficial lore, presentation of artwork, and wider media presentation of "Elf" is soft and tree-hugger in nature. Thats because of the direct influence of Tolkien on Elves in WoW is not the common understanding in the wider public. Put those two example (which are close to each other) aside and look at elves in other lore.

- C.S. Lewis = hardly a violent or warlike creature (cup of tea anyone?)
- Harry Potter = servant elves, very faerie like; and this in a world which uses harsh and violent creatures as major story devices.
- Santa = servants and happy little workers. I mean they sing all year round for chirsts sake.
- The encyclopedia by Katherine Mary Briggs = all fey based, and most very "beautiful".
- Celtic / Irish lore = very strange, otherworldly; but certainly forests, rivers, and all things natural.

The discussion is similar to the presentation of Faerie in popular lore in general. Fey equates to butterfly wings, flippant and forgetful, a little childlike, and altogether pretty much nature lovers (go to a bookshop and have a look at the presentation of faeries and elves). In fact I'd go as far to say that most of the general public could not see a major difference between an elf and a faerie.

q) Where does my opinion come from?
a) The interwebs of course - google image search for elf, and have your pansy filter set to lavendar.

The defense rests.

heh and cheers,

Jezrael said...

I can see I'm going to have to write a follow up post! *big grin*

Cynra said...

I'm going to have to obliquely agree with Andrew (heaven forbid!). As an avid roleplayer and one who has a kal'dorei as a main, I loathe the tree-hugging, light-as-thistledown, sweet-and-innocent perception that many people have of the race. World of Warcraft has done a great job in deviating from that stereotype, even though -- as you noted -- it wasn't their idea in the first place. In fact, it goes beyond Tolkein if you do the research as Andrew noted; look back to the aes sídhe of Gaelic folklore, who were often called "The Fair Folk" in order to avoid incurring their wrath. And I bet you can trace those myths even further back!

One thing that I'd like to note is that the Celtic/Gaelic elves weren't necessary related to nature. The leanan sídhe served the role of a muse, but drew on the mental energies of man in exchange for creative spirit -- often resulting in his early demise. The bean sídhe was a creature that foretold death with her wailing.

The confusion of saying that they're all related to nature is probably due to the fact that the phrase aes sídhe means something along the lines of "people of the mounds", which were burial mounds that dotted Ireland. However, not all of the sídhe were nature-related. And while some lived in the Otherworld, some did live in trees or hills.

Overall, however, despite being slightly related to nature the elves of Gaelic and Irish history weren't all sweet and kind and merry. And while most possessed otherworldly beauty, there were more than just a handful of repulsive creatures.

I guess that I tend to create my characters in context of the game. And I purposefully rolled my two kal'dorei to be the antithesis of the commonly portrayed "nelf" -- which is probably how they should be roleplayed!