Has the Elf King Stolen Our Children?

Instapundit sent me off on an interesting journey through an old-school role-playing gamer's blog via a novelist's.

The blogger at Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog spent a year reading the authors recommended by Gary Gygax, creator of D&D, in Appendix N of one of the rule books, and reports. A few of his more interesting conclusions are:

  • ... Next to the giants of the thirties, just about everything looks tamed and watered down.
  • It used to be normal for science fiction and fantasy fans to read books that were published between 1910 and 1977. There was a sense of canon in the seventies that has since been obliterated.
  • Ideological diversity in science fiction and fantasy was a given in the seventies. We are hopelessly homogenistic in comparison to them.
  • The program of political correctness of the past several decades has made even writers like Ray Bradbury and C. L. Moore all but unreadable to an entire generation. The conditioning is so strong, some people have almost physical reactions to the older stories now.
  • The culture wars of the past forty years have largely consisted [of] an effort to reprogram peoples’ tastes for traditional notions of romance and heroism.

Author John C. Wright, of an older generation, read this and brought up the topic of how elves have changed in the popular mind.

He offers Goethe's poem "Der Erlkönig" (The Elf King) as a point of departure:

Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

"My son, why do you hide your face in fear?"
"Father, do you not see the Elfking?
The Elfking with crown and cape?"
"My son, it's a streak of fog."

"You dear child, come, go with me!
(Very) beautiful games I play with you;
many a colourful flower is on the beach,
My mother has many a golden robe."

"My father, my father, and hearest you not,
What the Elfking quietly promises me?"
"Be calm, stay calm, my child;
Through scrawny leaves the wind is sighing."

"Do you, fine boy, want to go with me?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing to bring you in."

"My father, my father, and don't you see there
The Elfking's daughters in the gloomy place?"
"My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey."

"I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you're not willing, then I will use force."
"My father, my father, he's touching me now!
The Elfking has done me harm!"

It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with great difficulty;
In his arms, the child was dead.

Wright speculates as to why the barrier between the younger reader and older fiction has been built:

The moderns have been taught to hate and loath their own country, their ancestors, their parents, and been told everything written before the current day is racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, transcismophobic, and pure evil. These nutbags think that their own standard bearers of the Progressive movement, the founders of their genre, were not Progressives like themselves.

One need only hear sexual libertarian and radical egalitarian nut Bob Heinlein being excoriated as a member of the misogynist phallocratic patriarchy to realize how far off the edge of the world the lunatics have sailed the ship of fools.

This is not some lunatic fringe belief. It is lunacy, of course, but not fringe. It is mainstream. The core institutions and standard bearers of Science Fiction, the largest publishers, the most prestigious awards, our once-respected guild the SFWA, the oldest and most famous magazine: they all buy into the narrative and all support the narrative with a singleminded fury that is Bolshevik in its vehemence, patience, and pettiness.

And what about the change in elves? I will be cruel and make you click over to Wright's blog if you really want to know. It is a long but worthwhile read that takes us back before Goethe to Chesterton to Tolkien to Gygax to now.

But in it he says, "What Tolkien did not do, for it was not part of his purpose, was show what dangers look like when dangers are beautiful."

I think we know, now, and I think we see their effects in at least Generation X through the millenials, many of whom seem to have sought out the Elf King's daughters.


Grim said...

A minor disagreement: No one was on par with Tolkien in the 1970s and those of us who were in our formative reading years at that time knew it.

It was like the difference between Wagner and the Beatles. ‘Red Nails’ by Robert E. Howard is like a Beatles song that has a good beat and you can dance to it, it is catchy, and likable, even lovable; but Lord of the Rings is like a opera that changes the way opera thereafter are conceived and performed, and even the STAR WARS soundtrack written a century later shows the influence of the master.

That's quite right, all of it. "Red Nails" is one of my favorite Conan stories, but Wright accurately characterizes the difference.

The closest Tolkien gets to Lucifer is Saruman. He is the one who began White, and at last fell so in love with his own glory that he shines with many colors: and thus falls. But the damage Saruman does is mostly to himself, in the end: he falls like no other Maiar, all the way to utter destruction. Perhaps the Balrogs fell that far, I suppose.

Louis L'amour is a good writer of fiction about men. It's a mark of his power that his men differ in accidents but rarely in essence. They are all men who value hard work, learning, excellence of the body and mind. They are all men that other men know to leave alone, except for the bad men who can't help but try to press some advantage. Thus the plots end up being about how they are drawn into conflict in spite of themselves, and wreak havoc on the wicked men who would not leave them alone.

Grim said...

But as for seeking the King of Elfland's Daughter, you should. The author of that book even makes the list: Lord Dunsany. It's an amazing work, lyrical and profound.

Elise said...

Interestingly, my husband was talking recently about a fantasy reading list that makes the same claim about Tolkien, specifically in speaking of Poul Anderson's Broken Sword:

For many, Tolkien's is the greater work, but there are certain fantasy aficionados--like Michael Moorcock--who maintain that Anderson's vision is the more vivid, less condescending, and a more unified exploration of man's fate, and I join him in holding this book in that high respect.

Unfortunately, the style of the author of this list is a bit hard to take but it's an interesting reading list. I have read little of it, although Broken Sword is now on my to-read list. I can say that I highly recommend Mary Stewart's Arthurian saga. The first book is, as seems usual for series, the best with - appropriately - crystalline prose; the fourth book is a tack-on to what was originally a trilogy. Further, I disagree with his liking for LeGuin's Earthsea series. I read this series decades ago and could not tell you one thing about the characters or the plot but it is filed in my mental library under "Creepy, unpleasant, never read again". Although perhaps that is a compliment for some types of fantasy.

Tom said...

Grim, I've added the book to my wishlist. It'll be Christmas before I can read for pleasure, I suppose.

Elise, That's in interesting list. Thanks for posting it. However, I think Wright would say Tolkien was the greater, rather than Anderson:

Tolkein’s ascendancy, to the contrary, was inevitable, because he was drawing from much older and deeper roots than the other fantasy writers of the period.

His was a vision of the world before the Great War, a Catholic vision, and the arid and dry-souled spiritual sickness of the 1950s and 1960s, poisoned by progressivism at home and wars abroad with Nazi Progressives and Soviet Progressives, was a far more startling challenge to the dominant worldview than anything conjured by Poul Anderson or Manly Wade Wellman ...

I think I, too, have to add The Broken Sword to the list, though.

Tom said...

Hey, I also looked up Lord Dunsany's The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories and it's currently free for Kindle.

Tom said...

I think, getting back to the meandering point of my post, that this juxtaposition stands out:

Wright: When you eat elfin food, human food no longer nourishes you ...

Jeffro: The program of political correctness of the past several decades has made even writers like Ray Bradbury and C. L. Moore all but unreadable to an entire generation. The conditioning is so strong, some people have almost physical reactions to the older stories now.

I wonder if it's possible to go back. It probably isn't for many individuals. In a sense, they have been stolen by an Elf King who promises utopia, and now that they have dined at his table, our nourishment only sickens them.

Tom said...

I should have finished Wright's quote: ... when you step into elfin time, human time no longer passes as it should. These are symbols of addiction, of how false pleasures drive out true pleasures, of how wild, perverse or unwholesome love, for all its glamour and allure, ruins the capacity for wholesome love.

Grim said...

It doesn't, though. That is why Christ could tell the adultress to 'go forth, and sin no more.' He wasn't sending her into a lifetime of joyless abstention. He was setting her free to return to health and wholesome love.

That's why Tolkien's work is so radical.

Tom said...

It does for a time, at least. It takes living in human time, on human food, in human company, for the touch of Faerie to fade and appetites to return to their proper workings.

Some never make it, and the mark never entirely fades away, I think. Or, maybe, with enough time. I don't know.

What Jesus offers and Tolkien reminds us of is the promise that we can be healed in eternity, not necessarily in this life.

Ymar Sakar said...

Elf Syndrome

John C Wright's novels were pretty good, like the Golden Age. Quality literature even. Expands the horizons.

Later on, he got off my radar and appeared up next to VoxDay. And now it comes full circle.

Ymar Sakar said...

In a sense, they have been stolen by an Elf King who promises utopia, and now that they have dined at his table, our nourishment only sickens them.

Tom, the touch of the Light will ever burn away the Darkness, surrounding those who have chosen to sell their souls for Evil and material glory.

However, the darkest shadows are made on the brightest day. From one, is birthed the other.


Most powerful pro human horizon piercer from my pov was that author, who died early. Might have become famous had he not.

Tom said...

And free to download. Thanks for the recommendation, Ymar.