As we all know, Elves are snooty. They’re usually taller than humans, more elegant than humans, and think they’re sooooo great just because they have pointy ears or whatever.
This is complicated by the fact that, if you take a look at most fantasy worlds, they might just have a point. Usually, if something in the world is an “Elvish _____,” it’s shorthand for quality. Elvish sword? Better than a normal sword. Elvish armor? Better than crap, second-rate human armor. That’s because Elves have several human lifespans’ worth of leisure time to lounge around looking pretty and learning how to make armor just right. Humans, who keel over and die at just about the same time an equivalent elf would be starting their junior year in college, don’t have the time to cultivate that level of skill.
This familiar trope holds true in the Witcher universe, with an unexpected twist. I’ll compare Sapkowski’s Elves (or the Aen Seidhe, at least) to Tolkien’s Elves. In The Lord of the Rings, the time of the Elves is coming to an end, so Elrond and company depart peacefully to vaguely-defined lands in “The West,” which is thematically associated with the sunset, to gracefully and prettily disassociate themselves from this fallen world.
The Aen Seidhe of Sapkowski’s books aren’t given any such opportunity. Though they existed in the Witcher universe before humans ever arrived on their shores, they were eventually overwhelmed and submitted, eventually, to either vassalization or a lower-caste existence. A dwarf (in this case) named Yarpen Zigrin describes their fundamental disadvantage in The Blood of Elves:
“Because you multiply like rabbits.” The dwarf ground his teeth. “You’d do nothing but screw day in day out, without discrimination, with just anyone and anywhere. And it’s enough for your women to just sit on a man’s trousers and it makes their bellies swell… Why have you gone so red, crimson as a poppy? You wanted to know, didn’t you? So you’ve got the honest truth and faithful history of a world where he who shatters the skulls of others most efficiently and swells women’s bellies fastest reigns. And it’s just as hard to compete with you people in murdering as it is in screwing – “
Here’s a fantasy universe stripped of comforting abstraction and rendered in the cold, brutal arithmetic of murdering vs. screwing. Humans are at least the equal of Elves in the former, and their superiors in the latter, so humans have become the dominant species on the continent. No peaceful journey to the West for the Aen Seidhe of the Witcher universe. Instead, a humiliating epilogue of slow, inexorable, infuriating decline.
Now, I admit I’m oversimplifying here. The story of Sapkowski’s elves is more complex than just “they couldn’t screw fast enough.” Fortunately, no matter what your fascination, nowadays there’s bound to be a Youtube channel almost custom-made to satisfy it. In this case, the channel is called “Proper Bird,” and the first of her (very good, though not short by any means) series on the Elves of the Witcher universe can be found here.
The whole series is around 61 minutes of lore (no one ever claimed Sapkowski’s lore was simple), so I understand if you’re not rushing to soak up all of it, but you should know that it’s there should you ever feel the urge. (This channel also has detailed descriptions of other aspects of the Witcher universe, which are equally good.)
Now, you may ask, why do I bring all this up? Stay with me for a few more paragraphs. Sapkowski’s Aen Seidhe are the earlier inhabitants of the lands depicted in the Witcher novels (earlier than humans, at least), brought low by an overwhelming opponent, and then given no choice but to live in that opponent’s shadow.
This conflict of humans vs. elves could be described as a sectarian conflict, the likes of which you can find scattered all over human history. Of course, Aen Seidhe vs. humans does not allegorize cleanly onto any real-world conflict in particular, but a hallmark of a good fantasy writer (and I believe that Sapkowski qualifies as such) is the ability to depict these things from a “safe” fictional distance. That is: they can depict the familiar and predictable patterns of human behavior, even in a setting where there are supernatural and fantasy elements, and where the names (and usual ethnic/cultural signifiers) are one or more steps removed from those of the real world.
In this case, the scattered bands of bitter and humiliated “Elder Races,” (meaning Elves, Dwarves, and Gnomes) are cultivated by the southern expansionist (human) power, the Empire of Nilfgaard. If all these names are starting to make your head spin, I’ll sum up: there’s an empire called Nilfgaard to the south, and they’re secretly supporting the Elves and co., to assist with their planned conquest of the north.
These various non-human races unite into so-called “Scoia’tael” (or “squirrel,” in the human vernacular) bands, groups of guerrilla fighters not numbering more than two hundred or so apiece, who mount hit-and-run style attacks on human settlements. Their slogan is “humans to the sea!” This slogan, aptly understood by Yarpen Zigrin (the same dwarf who supplied the quote above) is not meant for the ears of the Scoia’tael, but for those of humans:
“The Squirrels have taken up their weapons and gone into the woods. ‘Humans to the sea,’ they’re shouting, not realizing that their catchy slogan was fed them by Nilfgaardian emissaries. Not understanding that the slogan is not aimed at them but plainly at humans, that it’s meant to ignite human hatred, not fire young elves to battle. I understand – that’s why I consider the Scoia’tael’s actions criminally stupid. What to do? Maybe in a few years’ time I’ll be called a traitor who sold out and they’ll be heroes… Our history, the history of our world, has seen events turn out like that.”
So the squirrels attack humans, who seek retribution among the (peaceful) nonhuman communities, which in turn radicalizes said communities, and makes them more likely to offer aid and assistance to the guerrillas, which in turn fuels more attacks… it’s a feedback loop which has no shortage of real-world analogues. I believe that Sapkowski has demonstrated (and CD Projekt Red has successfully recreated) an abstract, but nonetheless profound, understanding of the mechanisms by which sectarian conflict operates.
In the logic of applicability, dwarves are not dwarves, elves are not elves, gnomes are not gnomes, and the various monsters Geralt contends with are not monsters. They’re all humans, abstracted to some degree or another. This, to me, is what gives fantasy fiction its literary value – the quality by which we can use the conflicts between fictional races as a vehicle to better understand, or at least process, the conflicts of our own world.
You may have noticed by now that I’m mostly just fanboying over a particular section of The Blood of Elves that I like. But I’ll end this entry with a final quote, once more from Yarpen:
“Let them call me a traitor and a coward. Because I, Yarpen Zigrin, coward, traitor, and renegade, state we should not kill each other. I state that we ought to live (. . .) We have to live next to each other,” Yarpen continued. “We and you, humans. Because we simply don’t have any other option. We’ve known this for two hundred years and we’ve been working towards it for over a hundred. You want to know why I entered King Henselt’s service, why I made such a decision? I can’t allow all that work to go to waste (. . .) Damn it all, it took a hundred years but, somehow or other, we managed to live a common life, next to each other, together. We managed to convince humans that we’re not so very different – “
“We’re not different at all, Yarpen.”
The dwarf turned abruptly.
“We’re not different at all,” repeated Ciri. “After all, you think and feel like Geralt. And like… like I do. We eat the same things, from the same pot. You help Triss and so do I. You had a grandmother and I had a grandmother… My grandmother was killed by the Nilfgaardians. In Cintra.”
“And mine by the humans,” the dwarf said with some effort. “In Brugge. During the pogrom.”
At various times during my life, I’ve taken the characters of Science Fiction and Fantasy works as personal inspirations, such as Spock, Yoda, and Picard. Lately, I’ve added Yarpen Zigrin to that (very informal) list, because for all that he struggles to express himself, there’s something underneath it all that I admire.
I took a bit of a detour from the games into the books in this entry, but there’s a bit more to say about the elves in The Witcher 3 that I’ll get to next time. Due to a shift in my work schedule I’ve moved these entries from Wednesday to Friday, so you’ll see them on Fridays from now on. We’ll (finally, I know this has taken a while) get to Avallac’h and the Aen Elle then.
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