Elves, dwarves, fairies, ogres, goblins, trolls, giants, vampires, werewolves, what would fantasy fiction be without the likes of these? All of them talk, all are intelligent (more or less), all share some basic defining attributes with humanity, but none of them are quite human.
Fantasy deals with human beings, as do all genres of fiction because in the end we always tell stories about ourselves. But fantasy deals not only with humanity as it is, but with the archetype of humanity as well, and deviations from that archetype. Quasi-human species in fantasy represent humanity as we might have been if things had turned out a little different.
Of course, the names above cover a fairly wide range of territory. Since Tolkien redefined the idea of elves in his stories, they have come to be something more than human – immortal, inhumanly wise, filled with magic, and morally better than we are although not necessarily perfect. Because of this, if one wishes to depict quasi-humans who are significantly different from this image one cannot call them elves, although prior to Tolkien the word might have encompassed such a race. One may call them fairies, or with less confusion the faerie-folk, or one may invent a new name altogether.
But the quasi-human races in fantasy, whatever their names, always deviate from the human norm in some consistent way. Dwarves are always short and usually underground dwellers and especially skilled craftsmen; they are made by taking one defining aspect of humanity – tool-making – and emphasizing it beyond the human norm. One may take this as a general rule for the creation of a quasi-human race: take some aspect of our species, enhance it beyond what is normal for us, perhaps reduce other abilities to compensate, and there you have it. Give it a name, invent some characters from the race’s ranks by fleshing out characteristics in the usual way, and the race has been brought to life.
If the characteristic is a less than desirable one, such as cruelty and wickedness, or brutishness and savagery, the same process applies.
Regardless of its nature, a quasi-human race can have various origins. Perhaps it is a separate creation of the gods along with men and women. Perhaps it is something that men and women have turned into either individually through a process of personal change (e.g. werewolves or vampires), or collectively through a process of evolution. (There is nothing wrong with mixing science into fantasy as part of the myth-making mélange.) Perhaps a quasi-human race emerged from interbreeding of the gods with men, as is the case of my own faerie-folk from The Green Stone Tower. Perhaps it was isolation and inbreeding after an apocalypse, as occurred with the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Perhaps it was a kind of degeneration from the effect of poisoned food, or the fruit of moral decay, with the body following in the footsteps of the soul.
What is the mythic meaning of quasi-human races? It has one, or actually more than one.
First, quasi-humanity suggests that we could be very different from what we are. As with other worlds, quasi-humans suggest that the limitations we place on possibility are to some degree arbitrarily imposed. We could be better than we are. We could also be worse.
Secondly, quasi-humanity, especially when it emerges from human stock, gives us a metaphor for the changes to human nature imposed by our own moral choices. The evolution or devolution of a quasi-human race from its human origins suggests that we may be changed beyond reversal by the effects of what we choose to do at a crossroads – for better or for worse.
Finally, quasi-humans can serve some of the same mythic functions as gods, devils, and super-beings, although they are not normally as overwhelmingly powerful or intelligent. They may be mentors of humanity, guiding us as Tolkien’s Elves guided the savage, primitive Edain when they first wandered into Beleriand, or as other ancient and wise races have guided humans in other stories. Here we have the archetype of the spiritual guide, the being further along the path than ourselves, from whom we may learn if we are sufficiently humble. On the other hand, malevolent quasi-humans seek the destruction of humanity or its enslavement, and in myth serve to caution us against evil behavior, despair, or focus on self-destructive motives.
Depending on the specific nature of the quasi-humans, it’s also possible for this element of fantasy to tie into an animistic awareness of the consciousness of nature, in which the quasi-humans are a concretization of that consciousness which emerges in myth as dryads, naiads, and other spirits of the wild, just as fantasy gods are a concretization of the myths of deities. Not all versions of quasi-human intelligence is a good tie-in for this, however, so that isn’t a universal.
In the context of storytelling, what quasi-human races do is to broaden the canvas of character available to the writer. If one may choose one’s characters from a wide range of quasi-human races as well as humanity proper, one may develop characters with a wider spread of qualities than those available in non-fantasy fiction.
Or is that true?
In the end, one of the most important mythic lessons provided by the image of quasi-human races is that “human nature” is not as narrow a concept as some would have us believe. “You can’t change human nature” is often presented as a claim that some part of our behavior or our society, some flaw in our being, can never be repaired. This has been asserted in its time about a great many different things in human society that have in fact since disappeared, from the divine right of kings and nobles to slavery to the subordination of women. There may well be a core “human nature” that cannot be changed, but it is a lot more flexible in the details of its manifestation than has sometimes been suggested, and a great many facets of collective behavior that have been called at one time or another a part of unchangeable “human nature” have turned out to be nothing of the sort.
The reader or writer of fantasy is in a position to understand this instinctively, if we take the right lessons from the myth of quasi-human races, interpreting the metaphor as it should be understood.