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Half the trouble with elves

Discussion in 'World Building' started by skip.knox, Aug 20, 2021.

  1. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    My grandmother was Italian, my grandfather was Dutch. That's on the maternal side; not sure on the paternal but it doesn't matter.

    So my mom was half-Italian, half-Dutch (there are many flavors of both Italian and Dutch, but that doesn't matter either). My dad was some mix of Scottish and other stuff.

    That's just three generations and here I am a typical American soup of backgrounds. What's all this have to do with elves, I don't hear you ask?

    I'm fine with elves. And humans and dwarves and the rest. Where I stumble is worlds in which there are elves, humans, and *only* half-elves. Half elven doesn't make any sense unless one can directly document each parent was pure elf, pure human.

    And that's just elves. Half-orcs are common in fantasy. Half-dwarves not so much, and almost never do you read about someone being part dwarf and part elf, or part elf and part troll. Or whatever.

    You see the problem. In any sort of even vaguely realistic set of societies, as long as interbreeding is possible, there's going to be at least as much of a mix as I am (yes, I am mixed up, but not on this topic).

    I'm not at all sure what to do with this. I've already drawn some lines between the nations. Elves have one sort of magical ability while dwarves have another. So if they can mix, that makes a shambles of the magic systems. And shambles of having the various major nations (human, dwarf, elf, orc, and troll) each have distinct social and political traditions, and so on. Within a few centuries, it would get all muddled, at least along the borders.

    I don't know of any fantasy stories that address this. They just have halvesies and no one stresses over it.

    The obvious fix is to have no interbreeding. I'm leaning that way myself, though it means having to retcon one of my stories. A possible half measure (hah!) would be to have interbreeding physically possible but have it be a serious taboo. That way, half elves might exist, but they would be ostracized and less likely to perpetuate.

    I'm not really looking for a solution here. I'm letting the issue simmer, as I don't need to address it in the WIP. But I'm curious to hear what thoughts others might have.
     
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  2. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Sage

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    I think a lot of this is down to some very slavish copying of Tolkien's ideas and concepts. In his setting, the dwarves are created quite separately and quite differently from the elves and the humans, and implicit in this is that they don't interbreed with elves or humans. Orcs are said to be corrupted elves, and so can interbreed with humans and presumably elves (though the latter isn't said to happen). And, famously, elves and humans can and do interbreed. Hobbits seem to be quite separate, for reasons which aren't clear.

    But as you say, that doesn't mean other authors can't explore other combinations, like half human half dwarf.
     
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  3. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

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    I, personally, am not a huge fan of species that are "a human, but x," so there's only 2 in my main work (one being a genetic off-shoot of humans, so...). But there are other species that can take on a human form using magic, so there is interbreeding there. So there are half-dragons, but there's also dragonsbloods, which would mean <50% dragon, the other 50%+ being whatever else. There's varying amounts of dragon-ness, some really look it, some not at all, some have magic, some do not, but hybrids are pretty common. It's also common to be a hybrid and not even know it because the % is so low or doesn't show up. There's an entire noble house that's based around keeping a certain minimum % in everyone, so a fair number of marriages are arranged based on that, but they're throughout the human kingdoms and serve as the primary source of magic products/services, which is how they got all that money.

    If, for whatever reason, you want to have half elves but not having things halve with other species, you can make something about human DNA being especially malleable and allow interbreeding with other genuses. And if you don't want things like quarter elves, you can make the (half) hybrids sterile, like how many hybrids are in reality. Both of those are interesting concepts and would have some big implications in your setting...things to consider....
     
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  4. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    I think half-elf is just a term to mean anything with enough elf qualities that its not entirely human from a human perspective. So this term would cover 1/8th elves, or 1/16th elves and so on until know one would know to suspect. From an elvish point of view one would be half human, right? I think the main. Reason this is not addressed and elves are not typically shown as mating a lot wi to humans and so it is such a rare thing the average human does not encounter them. In a world of your making you can certainly make it common enough that it would be something that was more thoroughly addressed.
     
  5. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    Could also be half elves cant breed. In a way similar to mules not being able to breed, so it never really becomes more than half.
     
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  6. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    Elder Scrolls has it so that people take the race of their mothers but with some trace of their father. For example, the Grey Prince in Oblivion has an orc mother but his skin is oddly grey from his human father. If he had a kid with a high elf, his child would be a high elf but maybe with an underbite and swarthy skin or something.
    If you go into the lore, there are characters stated to be like 1/2 elf, 1/4 orc and 1/4 human and stuff like that. You even get odder combination like the second Cyrodilic emperor being 1/2 human, 1/4 alien cow and 1/4 god-and/or-planet.

    But anyways, I think that’s a simple and logical way to do it.
     
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  7. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Inkling

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    Perhaps the races are defined socially rather than genetically. For example, if your mother is an elf, you are an elf, no matter what race your father is. So an elf could be biologically mixed race - one grandfather was a troll, another was a dwarf - and be counted as an elf, but then if the mixed race elf marries a human (who may also be mixed race), they could produce a half elf. That would be the case, especially, if humans use a patrilineal definition of race (you are human if your father is human) while the elves use a matrilineal one, or vice versa. So the child of a human mother and elf father would be in a half and half category, not really either.

    Or perhaps humans define race more strictly, using a "one drop" rule: you are human only if all your known ancestors are human. If you have so much as a great-great grandparent who was not, then you get called half this, quarter that, etcetera. Kind of like the quadroon, octaroon, and mulatto designations Louisiana used to have.
     
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  8. NRuhwald

    NRuhwald Scribe

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    In the world I've created, there's some cultural taboos around interbreeding (though it's all possible), but hybrids are quite common. It's sort of like nationalities, say if you're half human/elf mix and half mer/elf mix you'd be considered a sea elf, assuming elvish characteristics are the most dominant. Although some would be snobby about the human blood and reduced magical ability. Whatever is most dominant is what you are, mostly.
     
  9. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

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    And not just "slavish copying" but misunderstanding as well. There are quite a few people in LotR who are *not* half-half anything... it is just that "half-elves" etc. are most noticeable. But Legolas for example notices that Prince of Dol Amroth "has some elven blood", and so on.
     
  10. Miles Lacey

    Miles Lacey Inkling

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    Being a mixture of European nationalities isn't the same thing as being of mixed race. While here in Aotearoa inter-racial relationships have always been so common that most people couldn't care less about it, except for a few racial purists that exist in all races, inter-racial relationships are still frowned upon or even viewed as taboo in much of the United States. This has reflected itself in American fiction where any form of inter-racial relationship is so rare that fiction that features such relationships often attract a lot of attention, much of it negative.

    I'm part Maori but predominately pakeha (white). By law I'm legally allowed to vote on the Maori electoral roll, benefit from affirmative action programmes reserved for Maori and call myself a Maori. In the eyes of many, but not all, Maori I am a Maori. It doesn't matter that I'm either 1/8th or 1/16th Maori (those who can clarify this are now dead).

    Maori are predominately brown skinned. I am as white as they come when it comes to skin colour so most people treat me as a pakeha (which is a mixed blessing).

    Am I Maori? Am I pakeha? Am I half one or the other? That depends upon who you ask.

    How a person of mixed race is defined isn't just cultural. It's also legal and political. It's often decided arbitrarily by whether or not a person has certain physical characteristics of a race, such as skin colour and their facial features. We may look at a photo of a Nazi measuring the nose of a man to determine if he was Jewish and be disgusted by it yet we routinely make assumptions about what ethnicity a person is by what they look like.

    Now to the question raised by skip.knox. To avoid that whole half elf business the easiest way of defining which race to classify them is by looking at a specific physical characteristic that all elves would have. For example, if all elves have pointy ears then the half elf who is born with pointy ears would be classed as an elf even if all their other physical characteristics are human.
     
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  11. Queshire

    Queshire Auror

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    Is... is this really a problem? 0_o I mean, I'm familar with half-Elves and half-Orcs from D&D, but I can't think of too many examples not connected to it.
     
  12. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    in my world(s), elves were once (physically) humans until meddling by the ancient aliens infused them with alien souls drawn from the depths of the etheric realms. These alien souls inflicted subtle changes on their host bodies over time, making them slightly different than humans - among other things (pointed ears, long lifespan), they have innate psychic ability. Interbreeding is (barely) possible, usually requiring magic at the conception. Because of this rarity, all such offspring and their descendants for an unspecified number of generations are counted as 'half elves.' The first few generations of these mixed races have slight but notable elven traits, slightly pointed ears. long than human lifespan, and a (usually) minor innate psychic talent.

    Likewise, dwarves are also descended from human stock, and in Solaria, at least, are regarded as short, long lived humans. (Another creation of the ancient aliens). Elsewhere, they have societies of their own, but almost never 'mix' in either case.

    Goblins/hobgoblins are aliens with radically different biology's - hatched, not born. Hence, interbreeding with humans doesn't happen.

    Rachasa are another creation of the ancient aliens, predominantly a human/feline mix. Like with elves, rachasa and humans can have offspring (very rarely, with magical assistance). These offspring possess minor arcane talents of their own, most notably the ability to shift between human and rachasa forms, though such transitions are imperfect. Subsequent generations...extremely scarce, essentially hairy humans with unusual facial features.
     
  13. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    Elrond was a half elf.
     
  14. WooHooMan

    WooHooMan Auror

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    And one of Aragorn’s ancestors was Elrond’s brother so he had some elf ancestry. I’m pretty sure he was supposed to be around 80 during Lord of the Rings and I assumed the reason was his extremely deluded elf genes.
     
  15. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Lots of good comments here. I like the dodge of having offspring be sterile. That not only keeps definitions more defined (definitely!), it also introduces some interesting social ramifications. Would an individual truly want to marry knowing their children would all be sterile?

    Speaking of social, introducing social constraints is surely important. Dwarves in Altearth, for example, generally live in dwarf communities. Even those who go out in the world tend to think in terms of clan and canton first, over identifying with whatever town or duchy in which they happen to live. So there could be a fairly clear dividing line: if you live in the dwarf community, you're a dwarf, regardless of parentage. If you live your life elsewhere, you're not a dwarf, again regardless of parentage. Clan and canton first. It could work, though there's enough room for exceptions to find a way into a story somewhere.

    And that's really my benchmark. If the concept is story-worthy, or at least in strong support of a story, then it gets to be in Altearth. If all it has going for it is mere logic, then it's not really interesting to me.

    Ramifications for magic are myriad. That stew needs to cook a bit more.
     
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  16. Aldarion

    Aldarion Inkling

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    Elrond, yes. But Elrond himself has two sons, who are likely 3/4 Elvish (I doubt Elrond married a human). Elrond's brother Elros was also half-elf, but chose human fate, and so all Kings of Numenor have reduced amounts of Elven blood (Vardamir is 1/4 Elvish, Tar-Amandil 1/8, and so on). Princes of Dol Amroth, as I noted, also have some Elven ancestry.
     
  17. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    He married an elf, yes? Which would make Arwen what, 3/4 elf? She only gets a summer home in the Western Isles? <g>

    I did know that Aragorn had elf blood. Did he have elf magic? Arwen did, so 75% I guess is a passing grade. But Aragorn's magic was healing with kingsfoil (oddly reminiscent of the king's touch, about which Tolkien surely knew). And a sort of horse whisperer power. And that whole business with the dead, but that seemed again more tied to kingship than to any inherent magical powers. So the dividing line must lie somewhere between Arwen's 75% and Aragorn's 5% or so.

    This stuff gets silly fast when one tries for precision.
     
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  18. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    I don’t do half-elves, per se. But this changes as time passes, when one “breed” of woodkin (elf for sake of argument) is banished from the Mother Wood. At this point, they do begin interbreeding, mainly because the birth cycle for humans is so much faster, and this elven breed sees the advantage of more children, so it becomes a fad… until the ruling elite breed of elves exert the will of the Mother Wood to stop this abomination… and they seek to destroy the half-breeds to one degree or another. In the long run, the half-breeds merge into the human population, creating a blended human-elf people, for lack of a better term.

    Outside of this, there aren’t “dwarves”, the mountain dwellling folk are just humans, and the other races are more exotic, no crossbreeding without god-like intervention.
     
  19. Rosemary Tea

    Rosemary Tea Inkling

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    Maybe there could be a different benefit to being half elf (or half dwarf or what have you). If halflings (as I've chosen to call them for the purpose of this post) are sterile, then there won't be descendants, which would be a disincentive to marry across racial lines, but what if there's something desirable about them that makes up for their lack of children? Perhaps there are special talents that only a halfling can have. Perhaps there's a prestigious role in society that only a halfling can fill, and the family of the halfling in that role receives great honors.

    And how do they reckon clan membership? Do children belong to their mother's clan? Their father's? Is it reckoned in some other, more complex way?

    If it's simply a question of matrilineal (or patrilineal) descent, then wouldn't that also confer dwarf identity? For example, the clans are matrilineal. A child is born to a woman of the Butterfly Clan (no idea if you have a clan by that name, just using it as an example). The father is not only not a member of the Butterfly Clan, he isn't even a dwarf. But because the child is born to a woman of the Butterfly Clan, the child belongs to that clan and is counted as a dwarf. But might be counted differently in the father's culture, depending on how they reckon race and kinship.
     
  20. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    >Perhaps there are special talents that only a halfling can have.
    Nice. Doesn't work well for my Altearth, because of how I have constructed the magic system, but I do like the notion. Might be able to shoehorn something in somewhere.

    As for clan membership, I haven't colored in that background yet. I have a tendency not to explain anything that hasn't actually come up in a story. Saves on retcon time. <g>

    Canton is as important as clan. Maybe that's more geographical. And membership is by residence and being accepted by the local community. I could perhaps do clan by agreement. Ancestors are important in dwarf society. So maybe coming to an agreement about clan membership is part of the marriage negotiations. Some agreements would yield to the more powerful or prestigious clan. Sometimes, though, you'd have parity. Maybe each parent would retain their own membership, resulting in some kind of hyphenated arrangement that would pass to descendants. Dunno. Needs to cook more.

    I need to think also about elves (very loose social organization and virtually no political), orcs, trolls, and gnomes.
     
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