Why Tolkien Fantasy needs no Elves nor Magic

by Jeff

For my personal project of writing a fantasy novel, I’ve decided to emulate my ultimate model, J. R. R. Tolkien. In this age of commercial fantasy and recognizable brands, thanks in large part to gaming, this automatically involves, in the eyes of many, a slew of predictable features. For example, Elves and magic. Case in point: in this interview of actress/writer/fantasy fan/geek Felicia Day, who authored the upcoming web series Dragon Age: Redemption set in the imaginary world of Bioware‘s Dragon Age series of videogames, she is asked the following question:

What is it about the Dragon Age world that makes you a fan? Was it the Tolkien-esque fantasy elements?

I’m well acquainted with the Dragon Age universe, as I profoundly enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins and now I regularly run sessions of Green Ronin‘s tabletop role-playing game set in the same world. Without going immediately into the specifics of its many twists and variations of a familiar theme, let’s consider what exactly makes this world Tolkien-esque according to the interviewer (and also many other people — indeed, Felicia Day herself did not object to this characterization).

There are Elves and Dwarves, besides Humans. Also Dragons and Trolls. Some equivalent of Orcs, called instead Darkspawn, although they come in many more variations. Dragon Age Trolls are in fact powerful Darkspawn.

To be honest, I can’t think of anything else. There is so much more from Dragon Age that is in fact missing in Tolkien’s world. There’s the domain of spirits and demons, and the Grey Warden’s griffins. Magic is prominent, structured and detailed. Knights and castles are certainly not staples of Middle Earth, which is not especially medieval, all things considered. Many religions are quite formal and organized, some are polytheistic. There are no halflings, although one will find them in many other variations of this type of setting; but in Dragon Age you have neither them nor some narrative equivalent (i.e., a hobbit/halfling by another name). Add to that the core spirit of this world: moral ambiguity, constant betrayal and lust. We are light-years away from Tolkiendom.

When you think about it, this awfully looks like a superficial comparison of vocabulary and nothing else. You know, as in:

Yeah, Writer X writes Fantasy because there’s Elves and Dragons and magic and all that stuff.

I’m paraphrasing, but no one should deny this argument is possible, if not frequent. Yet here is why it falls so short.

Take the Elves — Tolkien regretted calling them as such in English. His Letters are crystal clear on this. He was quite bothered by the folkish overtones of the word ‘elf’ applied to his imaginary people, who were an example of his vision of the Unfallen Man (although they themselves ‘fell’, or at least the Noldor did). When you consider that they were in fact called Gnomes in his earliest writings, you do get the sense that they have something different. Of course, the philological play of calling them Gnomes, after the Greek root for wisdom and knowledge, is even worse to the layman than his usage of Elf, that he believed historically accurate (before it was culturally corrupted later by English folklore). His depiction of the Elves in The Hobbit, who weren’t supposed to be part of his legendarium in the first place, makes his case even worse.

There are of course many types of Fantasy without Elves, though they certainly retain magic in some form, as with sword & sorcery. And it may be that magic is more important than Elves to the High Fantasy genre. In any case, Tolkien also regretted his careless treatment of magic, which certainly wasn’t of the Harry Potter sort. A good example is Samwise’s reaction to Galadriel’s Mirror. To him, this was ‘elf-magic’, yet she did not really know what he meant by that. Of course, as an Elf she has creative and artistic abilities far beyond the capability of Mortals who do not share her intrinsic talent. This reveals how magia, as Tolkien referred to it in his Letters, can be pretty much a relative concept. In fact, if you search for magic in a digital edition of The Lord of the Rings, the only occurrences you shall find (they are relatively few) are from the point of the view of the Hobbits. As to what Tolkien called goetia, i.e. magic as power, this is where he considered himself careless. It’s well known, for instance, from his Letters and also the second part of Appendix F in The Lord of the Rings, that the Five Wizards are neither magicians nor sorcerers. But you’d be hard-pressed to find many people who do not believe the opposite.

Consider also the Dragons themselves. They may be the mythological creatures that remained the most faithful to their original in Tolkien’s work, and rightly so. However, they are mostly creatures of the past. Smaug is a notable exception because The Hobbit was not intended to be part of his world. The following must be emphasized a hundred times: there are no dragons in The Lord of the Rings, and the knowledge of past dragons do not make this book any better. They are, in effect, of secondary importance. In The Silmarillion, dragons like Glaurung are astoundingly evil and treacherous characters. Them having wings or not is not even relevant.

Now, how on Earth is this like Dragon Age, and other generic fantasy setting for that matter?

The point is this. For the most part, all that vocabulary was used by Tolkien as English translations of realities native to his own imaginative universe. Their suggestive power, as elements of known myths that people could relate to, is the true rationale behind their use and much of this can be read about in Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-Stories. Tolkien was extremely sensitive to this, fearing people would be bored with or feel disconnected from his Elvish inventions. He thus went as far as using the latin letter C instead of K (against Christopher’s advice, if my memory serves me right) to ‘englishify’ names as much as possible. Cirith Ungol certainly does not look and feel the same as Kirith Ungol, although they are pronounced the same.

Rewriting Tolkien’s work exclusively with Elvish and other native names would be a fantastic exercise: everything would still pretty much make sense and follow the author’s intention to the letter. It’s quite different with today’s Fantasy following this canon. Elves, Trolls, Dwarves, Dragons et al. and are purposefully added for what they are (or how we represent them to be). If Elves in Dragon Age did not have pointy ears, would we call them Elves? I truly don’t think so.

That’s why I bolded that part above. To me, Tolkien’s work is not good because there are Elves, Dragons, magic ‘and all that stuff’ (although one may be inclined to read it for that particular reason, as I did when I was a teenager). They in fact form a superficial layer on top of the original act of sub-creation and the subsequent exercise of actually writing the stories. They didn’t come first and they are not in the least crucial to the narrative.

Yet, it seems it is that part of the whole thing that people mostly remember or are attracted to. I don’t (anymore). Tolkien is a master teller of an original, coherent and developed imaginary ancient world whose stories bring about powerful emotions to the reader. It’s what it is all about. To emulate Tolkien, the writer must see himself as an historian, think as a translator and be willing to open his heart to all. When successful, this results in (healthy) escapism, in childlike wonderment and a deeply desirable story, a key component of a fairy-tale for Tolkien.

Pass or fail, that’s where I’m headed.