It’s fair to say I think about elves more than the average person; that is to say, firstly, that I think of them at all, and secondly, that a sizeable chunk of this time is dedicated to theorising what elves really are. Among other things, this makes me slightly crazy. But I’ve come up with a theory. And now, rejuvinated by the illustrious Harkaway’s recent musings on cryonics, I’m ready to show and tell. Or maybe just tell, in this case. Whatever.
Elves, according to a wide range fantastic and mythological sources, are essentially very pretty people who live damn near forever in beautiful cities considerably superior to those of other races by the grace of their higher intellect, magic, advanced technology or a combination of all three. Outside of cities, they dwell in forests or natural areas, usually in a deeply symbiotic relationship with their surroundings, but in either instance, elven society is usually lauded as being progressive, or at least very successful. They are highly culturally advanced, but despite professing a preference for peace, tend, when roused, to be lethal in war. Outsiders often know little about them, as they prefer not to mingle with humankind, and their settlements are often isolated; typically, they also exhibit a low birth-rate in compensation for their incredible longevity. There is also a strong tendency to infer relationships between elves and dragons, or elves and white horses of superior stamina and intellect, both of which species are, in such instances, rarely if ever found elsewhere, granting their elvish masters the exclusive advantage of swift transport in largely medieval settings. Finally, elves are frequently described as placing a dual emphasis on learning, academic or otherwise, and on leisurely, creative passtimes.
Got all that?
Now, if we take the above hallmarks of elfness, remove the fantasy connotations, and render them as a set of socio-cultural markers, we end up with the following list of real-world characteristics:
1. Longer than average lifespans;
2. Objectively exceptional but culturally normative looks;
3. Technological superiority at an everyday level;
4. An outward preference for pacifism underwritten by extreme martial capabilities;
5. A preference for isolation from less advanced societies;
6. Largely urban lifestyles balanced against deeply held environmental convictions;
7. Access to superior modes of transportation and information relay;
8. A low average birthrate; and
9. A largely functional societal model extolling the virtues of both learning and leisure.
I find it both amusing and ironic that the mythical beings of early European culture are starting to look like the end point of modern Western society. True, we don’t live hundreds of years, but our lifespans are ever-increasing thanks to the ongoing advance of medical science. Give it another couple of decades, and who knows where we’ll be? And true, we’re not universally beautiful, but there is an increasing emphasis on physical perfection and achieving a set body type. With the advent of plastic surgery, many people now choose to alter their own appearance, and consider, too, the unveiling of the first ‘designer baby’ clinic in LA, where the new practice of cosmetic medicine allows parents to select the appearence of their future children.
Technological superiority? While it’s true that most of the world is now online, there’s certainly accuracy to the statement that affluent western, eastern and northern European nations have access to more and better gadgets than their counterparts in Africa, South-East Asia and South America. Similarly, technological prowess confers the advantage of both swift, secret information relay and rapid transportation worldwide. The notion of esposuing pascifism but practicing violence is, traditionally, a hallmark of nations throughout history; nonetheless, it seems particularly apt in a day and age when countries can initiate wars or engage in battles so geographically removed from their own turf that no risk of invasion is run, and where stockpiling WMDs has become routine practice. As for isolation, one need only look at the recent global tightening of immigration laws, particularly in the west: we might praise the notion of living in multicultural societies, but still remain fearfully recalcitrant when it comes to the very process which allows them to take shape.
The recent passion for reducing our carbon footprint while retaining an urban lifestyle is, to me, a particularly elvish dualism, and one which is sweeping most of the developed world. Similarly, while it’s difficult to try and argue for a lowered birthrate on such an enormous and diverse scale (although China’s One Child Policy is an intruiging counter-example), anecdotally, there seems to be a trend of affluent, educated women giving birth later and to fewer children, while our childhoods – or, more particularly, the time we spend at school and under the parental roof - is growing. Our current social model promotes a minimum of thirteen years’ schooling, while more and more people are attending university as a matter of course. At the same time, we deeply value labour-saving devices, the creation of entertainment and the right to leisure time, which is arguably a kind of social symbiosis: we work hard at learning how to do less in one sphere of daily life in order to create more time for learning in another, which in turn leads to more time, and also to the necessity for each generation to learn enough to keep up.
In short, we are growing into elves: not the fey creatures of our early imaginings, but into long-lived, scientific, face-selecting humans of a new technological era. Whether for good or ill, I’m not prepared to judge, but in either case, the comparison seems warranted. Which leaves only the question of magic, that elusive quality so associated with mythological elfhood; and yet even here, we might find a real-world comparison, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.
Because if any one of us went back in time to the genesis of elven myths; if we stood before our ancestors, iPhone-wielding, smooth-skinned, nylon-wearing, bedecked in even the cheapest, meanest jewellery and spoke of our world, what else could they name us - what else could they think us - but elves?