The Other Elves…

Lord of the Rings, was perhaps the greatest mythological whitewashing job ever undertaken. The works of Old Grandpapa Tolkien drew heavily on Nordic, Germanic and to a lesser extent Celtic mythology, though it changed a great deal in doing so. What he changed most however was undoubtedly Elves… Tolkien’s elves maybe aloof, they may consider themselves not entirely of the world, indeed, intent on leaving it, but they were undoubtedly one of the forces of good, despite a degree of apathy towards the rest of the world.

Post Tolkien, this view of elves has become prevalent in western culture. Aloof, noble born, distant, but by nature a force for good. An unsurprising turn of events, given Tolkien’s influence on the now several generations of fantasy writers that followed him, and the genre in general in all its forms from books to films and roleplaying games. The zeitgeist firmly places elves among the most noble and good…

Pre Tolkien, however, it was a different story. In the mythologies of north-western Europe ‘elves’ were not the kind of people you wanted to invite round for tea and cake. They were the reason people nailed iron horse shoes over doorways. Elves were not an aloof force of good, but malevolent creatures from another realm, who stole babies, led men astray in the woods, took prisoners, and care nothing for ‘lesser races’. Elves were nasty, malicious, creatures, enwrapped with glamour’s and magic’s to trap the unwary. They were beautiful, alien creatures, noble and immortal, to whom humanity were merely playthings for their vanity.

In short, elves were right bastards… Akin to giants, sea monsters, goblins, and if you were lucky they may only have killed you…

There has been some regress over the years, not all portrayals of elves in fantasy have leaned heavily into Tolkien, but his quasi-medieval quasi-dark-age fantasy so often reflected in RPG culture remains the most prevalent version of elves we find in fiction, as well as settings. Which is ironic when you consider so much of Tolkien’s Middle-earth is based on Nordic, Germanic and Celtic mythology. It is one of the reasons I have found myself reading less fantasy over the years, despite being part of the original DnD generation and reading so much of it in my teenage years. Indeed when I first started writing, many many years before I finally wrote a novel, my earliest attempts were all in the fantasy genre, though I never wrote elves, I just didn’t trust them… The stories I wrote of Kasslan, Jesslar d’Ora, Hardoc de’Brinyak, (all old DnD characters of mine) leaned more in to David Gemmell’s style of heroic fantasy than Papa Tolkien’s.

Luckily for the world, those early attempts at being a novelist are lost in the darkest recesses of a file box somewhere… I have though occasionally delved into the dark and considered trying to write a dark age fantasy, seeped deeply in the blood of those original sources, the mythologies of northern Europe, and dark age cultures. It’s a rich dark bloody vain, that has seldom been truly tapped. Bernard Cornwall has written of early iron age Britain and captured some of that dark essence, as have others, but seldom, if ever, do writers dig down deep into the myths and started a fresh. However, there is one problem with trying to write a true dark-age mythological fantasy, in order to really do that, and wade deep into the dark waters of those myths, you need to have studied them to the kind of depth and understanding that Tolkien had, before he went off and changed things… And frankly that kind of depth of knowledge does not come easily, and seldom alongside the talent needed to write fiction. I may arguably have the latter of those attributes, I know I don’t have the former…

No what it would take is someone who is not only a supremely talent writer, but who has spent a fair proportion of there professional life immersed in the dark ages and it’s mythologies. Someone who has lectured on the subject and knows it to the kind of level Tolkien did…

Which brings me rather neatly, in my meandering way, to Mat McCall, the same Mat McCall who’s excellent Martian steampunk novels I reviewed earlier this year. Aside his love of a cog-wheeled top hat, Mat’s other great love (aside Nicky) is dark age mythology. So some time before he wrote his Martian odyssey, he started writing dark age fantasy. A dark age fantasy that has finally come into the light, in the form of Annis: The Goddess of Sorrows.

The world of Annis is brutal, dark and rich. The title character is a witch, feared and despised for her half blood nature. Rightly feared in many ways. Mysterious and unearthly she is also a tragic figure, a product of her parentage. As well as the only real hope for a remote ancient fortress, about to be besieged by dark forces, only half remembered by the human tribes who hold it.

That may sound a fairly run of the mill set up for a fantasy novel. This however is not run of the mill fantasy. It is dark and rich in Celtic, Germanic and Nordic mythology brought to life. The story weaves between characters on all sides. And on all sides there are villains and heroes, who are often one and the same. There are touches of Rome here as well with Corvus, once a general who defeated the Alban’s and other tribes, who has returned some years after his victories, for reasons even he can not understand. There’s giants and werewolf warriors, Fomoire (which are celtic sea deamons lead by their monstrous god king Balor) and elves, but not the elves of Tolkien, these are Sidhe Fea, Daoine… A dark race who hold humanity in contempt.

McCall manages to draw you in as a reader to all his characters, be they human or otherwise. there is no black and white here, but shades of grey. The Humans are no more saintly than the elves. For example on ancient seer of one of the tribes carries a ritual drum about with him, the skin of which was flayed from the back of a druid and still bares the druids tattoo’s… The ‘evil’ alliance between the Fomoire and the Sidhe when you read parts of this novel form their perspective is no more ‘evil’ than the human side. These once were their lands, taken from them, which they seek to reclaim… Both sides kill and slaughter with equal abandon. While the internal politics on both sides is dark and deadly.

It is perhaps this darkness, and what could have been a bleak novel in the hands of another writer, that so highlights the bright moments within the novel. The shifting perspectives are clever in that both sides may be brutal at times, but there is love and compassion there too. As I read I found myself shifting perspectives as well. The hero’s and villains are one and the same. You find yourself caring for each of them, no matter who or what they are, which is testament to the quality and strength of the writing. Gemmell at his best could do that, Abercrombie too, but most writers don’t quite pull that off, McCall does.

The exception, that perhaps proves the rule, is Annis herself, from and of whom we only get the strangely off putting view point of her thoughts. Off putting in a good way. She seems to glide through the novel, never speaking, never interacting directly in the narrative. her thoughts strange, alien, and complex. A wonderful counterpoint to the dark, grim brutality around her. She seems not quite of the world, which is exactly how she should feel.

This whole novel is beautifully written, hard to put down, and as dark and brutal as the age it is set in… This is the kind of fantasy we need more of, luckily for us, there is more to come from Annis’s world.

Also, the elves, are not the elves of Tolkien, they are those other elves… The ones we knew to fear. Now where can I find a horse shoe…

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4 Responses to The Other Elves…

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