Thursday, March 19, 2020

Weird Revisted: Savage Swords of Middle Earth, Part 2

The original version of this post appeared in 2016...

Continuing an attempt to pulpify Tolkien's legendarium, let's take a look at the races other than Men.

Elves in Tolkien are superior to men in just about every way. Pulp fantasy has that sort of thing, too. Check out this quote regarding an ancient race from "Queen of the Black Coast":
“Cast in the mold of humanity, they were distinctly not men. . .in physical appearance they resembled man only as man in his highest form resembles the great apes. In spiritual, esthetic and intellectual development they were superior to man as man is superior to the gorilla.“
Howard makes mention of  evolution in several places. Sword & sorcery pulp worlds tend toward (pseudo-)science, as they partake of the genre-blending weird fiction tradition, whereas Tolkien's is mostly a mythic world. For the complete pulp feel, The Silmarillion would be merely myth and the true origins of most Middle-earth creatures would be scientific/materialistic--or perhaps some Theosophy-inspired mix of science and mysticism. No need to make a decision one way or another, though, for day to day adventuring.
"Do you not see now that your coming to us is as the footstep of Doom? For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlórien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and be forgotten." 
- Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring
Decline of advanced races/cultures is a trope common to Tolkien and Howard, so good to go. The decline to "rustic folk of dell and cave" even kind of resembles the decline of the Picts as presented in Howard's "The Lost Race." Lord of the Rings is full of a lot of elvish badassery (the movies moreso) but the more that is downplayed and their waning and decline is played up, the more pulp fantasy it will be. Elves can still be a potent force, but they should mostly stay in their dwindling enclaves.

"I saw plainly the stunted bodies, the gnarled limbs, the snake-like, beady eyes that stared unwinkingly, the grotesque, square faces with their unhuman features..." 
- "The Little People"
Other Howard stories present the Picts or (a pre-Pict aboriginal race) as not just declining but degenerating. The same thing happens to the Winged Folk in "Queen of the Black Coasts" who become winged ape men by the time Conan meets them. One of several origins Tolkien considers for Orcs is that they are elves distorted and corrupted by Melkor. Perhaps the corrupted part is the main thing, then they sort of degenerate on their own?

In fact, there should be more evil, degenerate elves in general; the equivalent of the Black Numenoreans. I don't want to say, "drow," but Gary's description of Erelhei-Cinlu in Vault of the Drow is pretty pulpy.


Anne said...

The idea of elves as "humans but better" is interesting to me, because to make them that way, you inevitably have to take some stance on what the best parts of humanity are.

Sure, they can be stronger, faster, smarter, longer lived with fewer diseases, those are basically gimmes, but at some point, you have to advance an opinion about what "better" means that not everyone will agree with - and that's when things get fascinating.

Two other trends are maybe relevant here. In early pulp scifi, there seemed to be a widespread belief that the (fictional) evolutionary future of humanity was to have giant heads, diminished bodies, and hella psychic powers. I think some authors thought this was a good thing, some saw this and turned scampering for a return to the stone age, but if a character got hit with some kind of "evolution speed up" ray, that was going to be their fate.

The other trend, which you can see in both The Matrix and Dr Strange, is the idea that the highest calling a person can have is to be a hermit on a mountain and think deep thoughts, where their degree of enlightenment will directly translate into exactly how much ass they can kick. This trope surely originally arose from some kind of misunderstanding of Shao-lin, but we still have this idea that the best and purest thing a person can do is to go be a mountain hermit while turning into a killing machine.

So Babylon 5 has the Mimbari as the elfin, "human but better" species, and their three castes are the warriors, the religious, and the Hufflepuffs (sorry, the builders), and this third group we never see.

The Vulcans on Star Trek seem to start out as "human but better" and even look like elves, but there's some golden age scifi ambivalence about them too. Yes, they have psychic powers, but the show seems to take a strong stand that their decision to focus on logic and cut themselves off from their emotions is ultimately to their own detriment.

Pon farr feels like it fits in with this critique, Vulcans have evolved past animal-like desire for sex, but they still need to reproduce, and this gives rise to being overcome by madness and participating in dangerous and violent rituals once every seven years, which are arguably coded as much more "barbaric" or "animalistic" than Kirk's free-love view of sexuality. The whole pon farr spectacle is definitely the most decadent element of Vulcan culture.

Trey said...

Good points. In Tolkien (and I am no Tolkien scholar), I think elves are in many ways just "grander" than humans rather than better. The distinction being that humans in general would think elves better. They are better looking, smarter, more artistic, better spoken. Their souls may have no more value (in fact, human souls are special in a way Elven souls aren't in Tolkien), but elves one up us in most things.

MisterPike said...

I think Tolkien's Elves are interesting when compared to other "Higher" beings in other stories, like your Vulcans and Minbari.
For starters, much of the wisdom and lofty bearing that the most respected Elves have can be attributed to their immortality. The Elves we meet have all had centuries of experience to develop their minds and collected wisdom, especially those that once lived with the god-like Valar.
But especially unlike the Vulcans, for example, is that Tolkien's Elves do not suppress emotion, but have more-so a childlike innocence about them. They are quicker to laugh and make jokes than the movies suggest, and have an intense passion for everything they do. This doesn't prevent them from being violent or malicious, far from it, but they seemed to lack any sense of cynicism or pettiness that plagues the "Fallen Man" in Tolkien's conception.

MisterPike said...

But about the point on the mythic world. I think you could certainly retain the mythic nature of Middle-earth (as opposed to the psuedo-science) without sacrificing much of the pulp feel. It would be interesting to see Tolkien's Valar with a more Howardian bend. Just make Ymir a fallen Maiar, and Frost Giant's Daughter fits right in.

I could easily see a rewrite of Phoenix on the Sword set in Middle-earth, with Manwë and Sauron substituting Mitra and Set.

Trey said...

Possibly. That's just not Howard's path. Even when he gives us a thoroughly supernatural Odin, it's kind of horror-tinged, almost Lovecraftian.