Thursday, January 24, 2013

Wood Elves are Closet Cannibals

Oh, the beloved elf.

I must admit that I am very partial to elven races in pretty much any game I play. So it’s only logical that I produce an article about them, right?

Elf characters are definitely not suited for everyone. If you’re looking to hack and slash your way through a game with as much blood and as many execution kills as possible, I would suggest you choose a different race. But you know that already, don’t you?

Let’s talk about the elf race in general for a minute. Now, when I say elf race, I am thinking of wood elves. Dark elves, high elves, moon elves, and the like are another beast entirely. Keeping that in mind, it’s safe to say that no matter what game you’re playing (or what movie/book you are watching/reading), you can expect certain things out of the them. They’re generally described in the same manner across the board: shorter than other races, pointy ears, blonde to copper hair, green/brown/hazel eyes. All that good stuff. They’re people deeply rooted in the land, and they dress and act accordingly. Simple clothes, armor/weapons made from natural material, you get the picture. Because of their land (or tree) dwelling lifestyle and generally smaller stature, they’re very nimble. Elves are known for their agility and stealth skills, making them a good choice for those who prefer a sneak-and-snipe style of gameplay.

Look at those..that dagger. Yeah, the dagger.

What else are the elves known for? That’s right...archery! Almost every elven race you encounter, no matter what the game, is guaranteed to excel in the marksman skill set. And their affinity for bows isn’t arbitrary; it’s a natural choice for their race because of their sneaking ability and their connection to the land. (I imagine it’s a damn hard thing to make a useful sword out of wood or animal bone, but you can make a hell of a bow out of a tree branch or deer rib if you’ve got the skill.) Besides, most elven races rely on wild game as a primary source of food. And unless you’re wuld nah kest-ing your way through a hunting area, you’re not going to bring that elk down with a longsword.

All that said, you can probably guess how skills are broken up with elven races. Dexterity is the big one. I’ve never encountered a wood elf class that doesn’t have some bonus to dexterity/agility. Speed is up there too. Elves are quick little shits, because they have to be to make up for their general lack of strength and endurance somehow.  I’ve seen some games give elven races a boost to intelligence or magic skills. (This is usually truer for dark or high elves than wood elves, but it does happen.) The only purpose I could see for giving a wood elf those perks would be for healing/restoration magic.  (Unless we’re looking at Dragon Age, which I’ll get to.) You’ll also see perks in areas like marksmanship, light armor, alchemy/herbalism, short (or one handed) weapons, sneak, dual-wielding, and the like. Some games (read: TES), include other perks like poison/disease resistance, special abilities with animals, and so on.  Put all that together, and you’ve got a good foundation to build a ranger, rogue, or scout character. But watch out...elves are seriously lacking in terms of strength/endurance/constitution.  If you get unnerved by a low health bar, buck up, become an orc, and wield a warhammer instead.

Unless he shoots that bear square in the mouth, this isn't going to be a pretty fight. 

So there is the wood elf stereotype, if you will. And really, the stereotype doesn’t just apply to their character builds. You can also see it in the lore behind the characters. Games across the board put certain key elements into wood elf lore and culture. First off, they are almost always discriminated against. The Dragon Age series is probably the best example of this. The elves are enslaved or kept in alienages inside the city walls, where they live in poverty. They’re essentially second-class citizens. Same goes for the Elder Scrolls series. Although it’s not as blatantly obvious, elves can run into some serious discrimination in cities. This is particularly true in Skyrim, but one must also consider that the Nords hate just about everyone. Still, there has not yet been an Elder Scrolls game that takes place in the wood elven homeland, so you’re pretty much stuck being a foreigner no matter what. (TES III: Morrowind does take place in the native land of the Dark Elves, but they're not the ones we're concerned with.) Those big pointy ears don’t help you blend in, either.

The Elven Alienage in all its..erm...splendor.

                Wood elves also lend themselves to a pretty rich history if you do some digging. A lot of games (I’m specifically looking at TES and Dragon Age, because they have strong elf lore, but you can find it in other games as well. Forgotten Realms has an interesting and detailed elven history.) Usually, the elven history has a lot to do with the elves being somewhat reclusive, and contact with other races usually doesn’t go well. Take the Dragon Age Dalish, for example. Their tribes have little contact with humans, and what contact does occur usually does not end well. (See: every city elf in Thedas.) In Tamriel, the Valenwood Bosmer get involved in lots of conflicts with many different factions, including armies from Cyrodiil and Elsewyr.

Tribal Dalish. Good stuff. 

 In addition to that, the wood elves are usually pretty spiritual. I’m gonna refer you to Elder Scrolls on this one, because frankly I find it fascinating and I don’t care if it’s a little irrelevant. Most wood elf races have a deep connection to the land and the gods that guard it. If I may refer you to the Green Pact in Elder Scrolls lore…the Bosmer made a pact with the forest god Y’ffre that they would not harm any of the vegetation in their homeland. So they rely on rock and imported timber for building supplies. Weapons and armor are made from animal bone and hide. But that’s not the best part. Because of the pact, the Bosmer are almost strictly carnivorous. But they don’t just eat wild game. They eat the enemies they kill in combat. A Bosmer warrior is expected to eat his fallen enemy within three days. If he so chooses, his family can help. Wood elves = cannibals. Who knew they were so intense?
Valenwood concept art for The Elder Scrolls Online.

But I’m not just here to blabber on about the elves as seen in games. I love the race. I really do. So I wondered where they came from and how they came to be portrayed as they are today.  Elves sprung up in Germanic mythology/folklore. They first popped up in Old English and Old Norse texts, and they’re highly popular in both British and Scandinavian folklore. They were originally fairly ambivalent creatures. They could help or hinder humans with their magical abilities as they so chose. But as time went on, they became more and more sinister.

Old school elves were not very attractive. 

The origin of the word elf is Old English (aelf). It’s believed this comes from an even older word (albiz) that means “white.” Elves appeared in many mythological stories all over Europe and the British Isles. They were generally sneaky and mischievous creatures, although sometimes portrayed in a positive light. Usually, they were kept away from. They went from mythology into fantasy fiction around the 20th century, after the Brothers Grimm and a few others collected folklore/fairytales and retold them to a general audience. The prominence of elves in fantasy fiction was cemented in the early 1900s with the release of two novels: The King of Elfland’s Daughter (Lord Dunsany) and The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien).  That’s right friends, we have Mr. Tolkien to thank for the elves we know and love today. Elves were central to his Middle-Earth mythology (especially in The Silmarillion). Because his books earned such a large fanbase, the elf reemerged into modern popular culture. Elves and elven language began to emerge in all sorts of books, movies, and role playing games.  The Tolkien fantasy elf was particularly popularized by Dungeons & Dragons, in which they were portrayed as being not only more beautiful than mortals, but also wiser, more perceptive, and with sharper senses.  They were said to be skilled archers who were also proficient in magic and loved nature, art, and music. And thus the modern elf was born.

I would punch a baby for that perfect elven skin.

If you’ve never played an elven character before, I highly suggest that you try it at least once. If nothing else, it’s research, right? And besides, who can complain about being short, beautiful, and deadly?
You can't say they're not beautiful. Come on.

Pick your bows up, Bosmers. Mischief awaits.