Accepted standards among races in fantasy novels

I’ve read fantasy novels by several authors, and there seems to be an accepted standard across the races, from elves to humans to orcs and dwarves.

Elves, by and large, in all the books, are nature loving, long-lived if not immortal creatures. You will never find an ugly elf. They are adept with bows, feel superior to other races, and either abhor magic or embrace only the “good” magic. Elves who practice evil or black magic are known as drow or dark elves and are expelled from elven society.

Humans…well, we’re considered hot-headed, lively, and dangerous.

Dwarfs live in or around mountains. They love gems and precious metals. The only difference I’ve come across is in one series, dwarves love to stay close to home, and in another, they love to wander. Both male and female dwarves have beards. The axe seems to be their weapon of choice.

Orcs…came from elves, or in one series, sea-faring creatures who will stick with a bargain only as long as it suits them. They can be evil creatures.

Gnomes…I’ve only stumbled across references to them in a couple of books. In one, they love to invent but hardly ever invent anything worthwhile. They are the Rube Goldbergs of the fantasy universe. Another book was rather cute, made out to be a study of gnomes. I forget the name of it.

Does anyone know how various authors across time came to agree on the standards for the races? We’re talking about imaginary creatures here, so I suppose someone could write a book about crabbed, tiny elves and stunning dwarves who are adept with bows. I’m just curious to know how such an agreement developed. Can we thank D&D for setting the standards, or Tolkein?

I think D&D mostly cribbed from Tolkein.

In fantasy literature, Dwarves are all pretty standardized, but there’s no rule that says females must have facial hair. (Tolkein implies so, but does not say so definitively.) Elves are all over the map; some (like Santa’s elves) are almost identical to dwarves, while others are basically just fairies. Usually, they’re very small compaired to humans; Tolkein is unusual in that his elves are man-sized.

Clearly, I must expand my reading. In addition to some Tolkein, I’ve read Weis/Hickman and Goodkind. What books have you read where elves are more fairy-like creatures?

Perhaps it was Gnomes , a favorite of mine as a kid.

Much of it is drawing from a common pool of fairy tales, especially German, Celtic and English. These became popular starting in the late 18th century and were well nigh universal in western Europe mythical heritage by Victorian times.

Also, once these stereotypes become common in the reader’s minds it it that much more difficult for any future writer to differ from them. Writers have to explain and excuse any deviations from the reader’s expectations. That takes up valuable time and space in the book and pisses many readers off. It’s a vicious cycle.

Humans are also interesting because they seem to have the same characteristics in fantasy and science fiction. Always somehow considerably more limited than most other races (elves have faster reflexes, longer lives, more “wisdom,” dwarves are stronger, better miners, engineers, klingons are stronger, fiercer, have better general constitution, on and on and on). Yet humans always have the “pluck” and fortitude to somehow get it done.

I mean, this is for pretty obvious reasons, but it is still interesting. The humans are always outmatched, but somehow manage to pull it off. Everyone loves an underdog I guess.

Depends on what you mean by “fairy-like.” Faeries, in the original folklore, had precious little in common with Tinkerbell, and more in common with something out of a slasher movie. By far the most “fairy-like” elves I’ve ever read about are Terry Pratchett’s elves, who are malevolent, manipulative sociopaths who get a kick out of tormenting humans endlessly before finally killing them.

A lot like cats, really.

Anyway, any book you read that has Dungeons & Dragons on the cover is going to have cribbed liberally from Tolkien. When D&D first got started, they got slapped down with some hefty lawsuits from the Tolkien estate, forcing them to change a lot of thier terms. (Ents became Treants, Balrogs became Pit Fiends, Hobbits became Halflings, etc.) On top of that, a fair chunk of later-day fantasy is clearly inspired by D&D, further entrenching the stereotypes.

For my money, the best depiction of elves in a standard High Fantasy setting (outside of Tolkien, of course) is probably Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy. It’s still very Tolkienesque, but the “elves” are much more ethereal and clearly inhuman. Williams goes so far as to call them, not elves, but “Sithi,” which is pretty clearly derived from the Gaellic word “sidhe” (pronounced “see-lie”) which means, generally speaking, “faerie.” (“Sidhe” is also the root word for “banshee,” or “bad fairy.”)

Anyway, if you’re interested, here’re some recommendations for good books about the “little people,” all of which have some sort of elven-analogue in them somewhere, although you may have to look hard for it.

Terry Pratchett: Lords and Ladies, Wee Free Men.*
Raymond Feist: Faerie Tale
Tad Williams: The Dragonbone Chair, The Stone of Farewell, To Green Angel Tower (The last book was published as two seperate paperback books, but was a single volume in the hardcover. Taken together, these three books comprise the trilogy I mentioned earlier.)
Gael Baudino: Gossamer Axe
Neil Gaiman: The Sandman (a comic book, not a novel, but still excellent.)
Steven Brust: The Gypsy
John Crowley: Little, Big
Brian Froud: Not a novelist, but a fantastic (in both senses of the word) illustrator who does a lot of faeries: both the kind with butterfly wings and the kind who grind men’s bones to make their meal.

Fair warning: if you read enough of the author’s I’ve mentioned here, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to go back to Hickman/Weiss or <shudder> Goodkind again.

*L&L is a sequel of sorts: although the plot is mostly self-contained, there are two previous books about the same characters, and a good dozen or so other books in the same setting (the Discworld) but with wholly different characters. All of 'em are good reads, but it’s not important, IMO, that they be read in any particular order. L&L is the first one where elves make an appearance, although they’re hinted at in earlier novels. WFM technically a children’s book, which means that it’s darker and scarier than most of Pratchett’s adult books. It’s set in the Discworld again, but requires even less familiarity with the backstory than the other novel. I don’t think it even mentions the word “Discworld” at any point in the narrative.

There are elves in Christopher Stasheff’s writing. They’re little critters who look like really small humans and have a variety of magical powers.

I have read the first two books of a romance/fantasy series with elves in it. They are described as human enough in looks, except all beautiful (natch), with magical and fighting powers that humans don’t have. There are six tribes of them, and one tribe, which has a Welsh name that I don’t remember how to spell, are the least humanlike. They’re the only ones with pointy ears; the rest have humanlike ears.

No dwarves or orcs in either universe, though the latter series has skraelings, which are magically altered beast-like humans.

“Fairy woman” actually.

Yeah, it comes from bean sídhe, “woman of the fairies”. Seelie as an adjective means “blessed” roughly and refers to the Faery Court, as opposed to Unseelie or wicked faeries.

I stand corrected.

Unless I’m much sadly mistaken ‘sidhe’ is pronounced ‘shee’ not ‘seelie’ which refers to which ‘court’ they belong to (seelie being the light court and unseelie being the dark Not necessarily good and evil, just light and dark.)

All right! All right! So I’m not a linguist!

Those’re still some damned good books I recommended.

lol… I’ll check them out. Thanks for adding to my list of books to read!

I think that if I wanted to write a fantasy novel with creatures that weren’t like any of the “traditional” descriptions of elves, or dwarves, or orcs, I wouldn’t name them elves or dwarves or orcs because of the trouble that would cause me.

I’d say that Vulcans are derived from elves as well, to add to the list.

Quite likely, in which case, Romulans would be Orcs (or Douwd, to use AD&D terminology). Tellarites, with their porcine features and short tempers, were probably influenced byt dwarves as well.

I’ve no idea how Klingons or Andorians would fit into the picture, if at all.

I’m trying to do just that, and it’s a bit aggravating. I’m one step away from trashing my whole naming scheme and trying something different.

I think Klingons are like Norsemen, so even though that’s not a fantasy race, there is often a culture much like them included in a Fantasy novel.

It’s my understanding that Tolkein coined the term “orc” and invented the race the term describes, so anyone writing about orcs is borrowing from him.

I’ve seen Tolkein credited with inventing the modern fantasy conception of elves, although I don’t see any significant difference between Tolkein’s elves and those in Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter. My knowledge of Tolkein is limited so he may have added more than I realize, but Dunsany’s elves are beautiful, nature-loving, long-lived/immortal, magical, noble, and although they generally set themselves above humans they are capable of falling in love with them.

Miller has already beaten me to Terry Pratchett’s take on elves, which is refreshingly different and closer to the old folktales. They’re still beautiful and magical, but they’re also completely lacking in empathy, morality, or decency. Pratchett takes this farther than most by making his elves openly bloodthirsty. Other modern writers have portrayed elves as amoral and potentially dangerous but not necessarily murderous. See Sherri Tepper’s Beauty, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin (a re-telling of an old folk ballad), and Gael Baudino’s Gossamer Axe. I didn’t really like Tam Lin that much, but I think Dean did a good job of making it clear that the elves/faeries are not human but a completely different species with alien ideas and motives.

Indeed, and it would be great to hear Terry Pratchett’s standard SF convention speech on The Consensual Fantasy Universe again (“First you must have some sort of Dark Lord …”), he was hilarious. A quick Google didn’t find it though.