Point Ears, Stumpy Legs & Other Fantasy Cliches

Dark ElvesI love and adore Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien has a lot to answer for.

I’m currently writing my own fantasy and like Tolkien, I’m building upon Norse mythology for my story world.  Tolkien pulled heavily from The Poetic Edda  and The Prose Edda, two books written in the thirteenth century by Snorri Sturluson.  That he did is both fortunate and not so good.

The fortunate thing about his choice of inspiration is that Norse mythology is so rich in ideas and concepts.  Every other writer coming along behind Tolkien has more that enough variety so that their stories never have to come close to looking like Middle Earth.

On the downside, Tolkien plucked most of the central themes straight out of the Eddas and into Middle Earth – even the name Middle Earth is an English rendition of “Midgard” – the name given to Earth in the stories.

For example, there are three different types of elves in the Norse worlds.  There is light and dark elves, and something called Black elves…which are also called dwarves.  Sound familiar?  Tolkien had high elves and wood elves, and dwarves, too.  A writer trying not to sound like Tolkien would have to pull from the most obscure variants in the original stories to do so.

It’s not just Tolkien’s use of Norse mythology that makes writing fantasy a challenge.  Consider elves.  Would you think elves are the correct type of elves if they didn’t have pointy ears?  What if dwarves weren’t ax-wielding midgets?

Neither of these “facts” are part of the original Norse stories…but Tolkein included them, and every fantasy author since that has included elves and dwarves has had a hard time not using pointy ears for elves and earth burrowing habits of dwarves.  Why? Because most readers would be disappointed with a story that didn’t feature these classic fantasy cliches.  They’re expected.

But they’re not facts, just like many fantasy cliches are inventions of one fantasy author or another, but they have envolved into tropes that an author ignores at their peril.

It’s making my fantasy romance very …um…interesting to write.  🙂


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