I’ve made reference to the “dwarf-elf-orc cliche” in a couple previous posts, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain what I mean. There’s two parts to this concept. The first deals with the interpretation of these fantasy races. The second encompasses the the fantasy trope of good and evil races.
Going back to their roots
Modern fantasy, from roleplaying games to video games to literature to movies, has adopted almost wholesale a singular treatment for dwarves, elves and orcs. A dwarf is a short, squat humanoid with excess facial hair and a dour outlook. They prefer to live underground where they mine, smith and hoard metals. Elves are magical humanoids who live in harmony with nature. They prefer to dwell in forests, often times amongst the treetops. Their features are fair and angular. Orcs are monstrous humanoids with porcine features. They are savage and evil, the fodder of some tyrant’s army.
These portrayals were popularized by Tolkien in his writings on Middle Earth, but he borrowed heavily from Norse mythology, at least in the case of dwarves and elves. The orc developed from the concept of giants (“ogres”) and demons, etymologically speaking. Tolkien used it interchangeably with “goblin” to describe the same type of creature.
Dwarves, elves and goblins all enjoy prominence in a wide range of folklore that diverge from the modern versions. Fantasy fiction writers who stick to the Tolkien interpretations are doing themselves a disservice. Unique cultures are an integral part of what makes your work stand out from anyone else’s.
That doesn’t mean you have to change everything, though. Keep your dwarves under the mountain, but reaffirm their associations with death as in Norse mythology: pale skin, dark hair, ancestor worship. Maybe your dwarves are the same height as humans, and your elves are the tiny, winged nature spirits of Scandinavian folklore. Or perhaps they are the supernatural, fey cousins of demons, as depicted in Old English poems. Goblins have always been mischievous, but they tend to range in size and have temperaments that vary from annoying to deadly.
Why do I always have to be the Indian?
For those of us that played Cowboys & Indians as kids, you’ll remember that dread in your stomach that came with the thought of having to be the Indian. No one wanted to be the bad guy, the side guaranteed to lose.
The fantasy genre has firmly entrenched the orc as the bad guy race, with few exceptions. I’d go even further to say that one of the defining traits of fantasy fiction is a clear demarcation between good and evil. I question whether it always has to be orcs. Why can’t one of the other races take their turn, especially considering their roots in folklore?