"You gotta make way for the homo superior."
- David Bowie, "Oh! You Pretty Things"
Elves, in just about any D&D-inspired game, are smarter, more graceful, and better looking than--well, everybody. Ever wonder how they got that way?
Western fantasy literature has long contained the thematic element of "the fall"--the idea that beings were once closer to perfection than they are now. Tolkien's work has this element, certainly, but he's not the only one. It no doubt comes from Christianity, but its not an uncommon feature of many religious, mythological, and occult systems.
So in other words, in many fantasy worlds elves were, at one time, even better--because the gods or whoever made them that way.
Science fiction--from the Golden Age through modern trans- and post-humanist works--has presented another, competing idea. Progress. Maybe beings are evolving to a higher state. As the trope goes, future man is better than modern man in a lot of ways. Often, in a lot of the same ways that elves are better than man.
Jürgen Hubert explored this idea in his Pyramid Magazine article "Elves: A Case Study of Transhumanism in Fantasy Worlds." Hubert provides a lot of interesting ideas for a gamemaster wanting to explore this angle.
In the thinking about rethinking the elves for my current campaign, I revisited Hubert's article. I also found inspiration in the human variants in John C. Wright's The Golden Age trilogy, which is far future science fiction, and doesn't have any elves, but it feels like fantasy in places (in a Vancian sort of way). Greg Egan is probably in there somewhere, too.
"They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak," answered Sam slowly. "It don't seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I expected — so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring
On the earth that contains the ruin-haunted continent of Arn, the beings known as elves call themselves aethyr in their own language. Visually, they may be differentiated from humans by their slim builds, pointed ears, and large, slanted eyes with ovoid pupils. Their eyes give an almost feline impression. They tend to have less sexual dimorphism than humans.
The aethyr keep to themselves, living in enclaves distant from human settlements. Little is known about them really, though it would be hard to call such gregarious and social beings as the elves most commonly encountered, secretive. Somehow, they manage to talk a lot while saying very little about themselves. This is even more remarkable, given the centuries that measure their lives.
These elves, the ones most commonly interacted with by humans, are known as the "bright" or "high" aethyr. They pursue pleasure, in whatever idiosyncratic form that might take. Some are artists or aesthetes, some are scholars, some warriors, some mages. They tend to live in small, fluid communities where they may indulge these interests with a minimum of interference. Their advanced magical arts make these lifestyles possible without the toil that is the lot of most intelligent species. They live better than wealthy humans in habitations that may easily be hidden in the wilderness.
As highly individualistic beings, allied to extraplanar chaos, the aethyr shun government and law. Authority may come to rest in certain personages, but only as far as their charisma and persuasive powers take them. Conclaves are called at appointed times which seem random to other species, where any elf can be heard. All decisions made at a conclave are voluntary. Elves who violate their community's sense of propriety are ostracized, nothing more, though vengeance may be taken by individual parties.
There are other elves. We might think of these as tribes, or clades, or even political parties. In a sense, they are all three. There are the wild elves, who seek unity with nature and spend much of their time in animalistic mental states which they know as the red dream. There are the aquatic elves, who breath in water as well as air, and live nomadic lives in the seas. There are the gray, the most aloof of elven races, who live in hidden mountain enclaves. And then, there are the dark ones--ancient enemies of the others--who dedicated their long existences to the ideal of transgression.
Its the gray aethyr, though, that hold the most secrets of the elven past. This group is the least human looking of all the elves. They are tall and thin--almost like beings adapted to lower gravity. They have pale skins and even larger eyes than their brethren.
To humans, the gray seem formal, distracted and melancholy. To bright elves, they're slightly embarrassing relatives. The gray would say they're in mourning, if they ever deigned to explain themselves.
What the gray are mourning remains the secret. They alone remember what the other elves have purposefully forgotten. This was their task, though none of the others can even recall it being given to them. When elves awoke from reverie which had kept them safe and sane through their journey, and emerged from the giant, bronze, rune-inscribed ova that had borne them, they forced themselves to forget what had come before. All but the gray. And so they alone mourn.
Where did the elves come from? The future, perhaps? Maybe they're man's descendants from a distant age? Or maybe they're the creation of an ancient Immortal? Another relic from the age of the God Makers?
No one knows. Maybe not even the elves themselves.