Thursday, March 31, 2011

On Half Elves, Narrative, and Cultures

I was reading "Second-Hand Elf" over at the Escapist Mag, and realized there is a bunch of stuff about elves we usually don't see in fantasy games. So, it is time for a cultural studies/critical theory approach to elves. Non-exhaustive, of course. But, we typically have "half elves" and "dark elves" (Drow from D&D).

Merrill, from DAII (She's an Elf)

I am very sure many people have pointed out how "dark elves" being the evil other is totally absurd. OMG dark people! Scary! I don't actually know what to say about this, it's been done over and over, sadly because it keeps coming up. Actually, in The Elder Scrolls series I don't recall if they're evil or just elves--ah, just elves of a particular sort. (TES has several kinds of elves.) The dark elves, called Dunmer in that series, can be anywhere from bluish to greyish to pale white, given the characterization capabilities in the game (see the Google image search page).

In D&D, well at least the first version, Drow were from deep underground. Usually things that live underground lose their pigmentation, and their eyesight, so they are kinda creepy and pale. Not so the Drow.

We could discuss how different species (elves, dwarves, humans) are called "races", which is totally wrong but typically done across game spaces. Dwarves and humans are not the same race in the same way as all humans are members of "the human race," or "race/ethnicity" on the census or a survey of some sort. That has been commented on before as well. (There's material in both a Google Scholar search and a regular Google search. Who knew there was a journal of Tolkien Studies?)

But the whole "half elf" thing is fascinating. Why? Because it doesn't end there. It can parallel with the history of whites and blacks (or, "whites" and "blacks", really) in the US (or elsewhere, but I know the US material best, although I'm not an expert or published on it). Since it's fictional, it can't totally parallel the real-world situations, but the real-world can act as a guide.

Why is it half-elf? Why not half-human? (D&D also had half-orcs, since humans and orcs could also have children, but elves and orcs could not. Don't ask me about the genetics, this is fiction, there are no real genes here.) Ok yes, it's human-centrism. Humans write the fictions, the games, humans are the players. But if it is real in the fiction, it's not that simple.

What about the quarter-elves, and three-quarter-elves? (Note we're sticking with the human-centric nomenclature there. Quarter-human, anyone? Sounds like a science-fiction film.)

I think I have to drop the hyphens.

What of half elves where one parent is "pure" human and one "pure" elf, and then half elves where both parents are half elf? Genetically (there are no real genes here) they would... I think... be the same, but culturally they might be very different, or be framed differently by different cultures. Half elves could be a sustainable culture, genetically speaking (since if all you have is half elves, all you get are half elves). What about half elves with one parent 1/4 and the other 3/4? Yay, math.

There has been some good academic work done on "passing," where mixed-race people try to pass as a "pure" member of one of their parental/ancestral races. Maybe a 1/4 elf would try to pass as a human (there's a plotline there for a game).

Some half elves would be born of love, others.... not. Sadly. Vengeance-seeking children, anyone? (Ok that's a too-typical plotline, but, this is fiction we're talking about, even though I am paralleling it on reality.)

A wealthy human noble could proclaim his hatred of elves within racist human groups (I mean, speciesist), while secretly paying off his half elf daughter to keep her quiet, years after impregnating her then-16 year old elf mother who was a maid in his family's manor. Oh wait that already happened in real life.

There might be cultures that accept half elves, and ones that don't, or that lump them in with whichever species (elf/human) is less-accepted. There could be pure-blood societies on both sides, perhaps some would be racist, but maybe there would be pure-blood societies within the fictional elf and human societies who focus on pureness of bloodline, thinking that all bloodlines should be pure, yet they bare no hatreds based on species. That might be a stretch, but we're talking about fictional worlds here, imagination is key. (It could be like, they appreciate both horses and donkeys, and don't disrespect mules [which are the offspring of a horse and a donkey], but they prefer horses and donkeys stick with their own kind when it comes to creating offspring.)

Mules may not be a particularly satisfying end to this post in terms of narrative, but, if there is a fictional world where humans and elves can have children together, I think most fictional worlds fall short on developing the cultures (for better and for worse) around that issue. Why is this worth mentioning? Because game designers are getting much, much better at plotlines, in-game cultures, and back stories, and are aware of the importance of such things, that's why. It's time to take another step forward, and this is a place where such a step could be taken.

We could discuss skin color of humans in game worlds, and how in the real world there is a genetic and geographical history to it, yet there have always been people on the borders of those worlds, the borders themselves are not robust, and how there is actually a huge variation in how people look (and it's not just skin color). Oh and how game worlds don't always include the geo-genetics of human appearance. It's a good step forward for game designers to allow different human and main character (the player's character) appearances in games, but there are still steps forward that we can take, in terms of visual complexity, backstories, inclusiveness, and in-game cultures.

Bethesda's Dumner Artwork
The Elder Scrolls series does this a bit, with different types of elves and humans that you can play and then modify how they look, and you can even play lizard-humanoids (Argonians), cat-humanoids (Khajiit), and orcs, and all the "races" have their different backstories, although the Redguard as "black people" seems a bit forced (in addition to the "dark elves"). There are no half elves in the Elder Scrolls (well not III and IV), but you can modify the appearance of you character heavily, and you can change many specific facial features (and skin tone) a great deal. I don't know if you can create every "race/ethnicity" of human beings, but it gives players wide latitude. I feel I should mention there are also "Bretons" and "Nords", which are based to some extent on French cultural elements and Nordic cultural elements, but I haven't studied how closely these are to reality -- it's fiction, of course, they don't have to be.

Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II also portray elves as an underclass, and Dragon Age II has a half elf (named Feynriel) that you need to help find a home as a quest, since he may not be accepted in either society (IIRC he can pass as human, though). I think the writers did a pretty good job with it, although it's just a start (and it isn't part of the main storyline, so it isn't as developed as other parts of the game's stories). There's a bit about elf parallels to real-world cultures in the DA wiki (which could of course change at any moment, and it isn't particularly sourced but it's there for now). 

It's nice to have some backstory, but race and cultural differences in the real world can be fraught with difficulty for cultural outsiders (and in fictional worlds, where are the lines between "based on" and "this is made up"), although learning about other cultures and meeting people from other cultures is an awesome and important thing to do. It's also how we get half elves.

Edit: I also realized that half elves, when they come from a setting with a variety of exclusive elves such as high elves, dark elves, and wood elves, are usually half human and half generic elf, even though there is no generic elf in their setting. And why not all sorts of mixed-elf elves?

Edit: Oh look at that, Bretons in TES are half-elves, sort of. They're human, but they're part elf. Or were. Or are a sustaining half-elf community and genetic group who are considered human.