I’ve heard complaints here and there about the overuse of elves in fantasy, and how they are drawn as superior to humans with irritating regularity. So some readers avoid stories with elves in them.
But what about a story that has elves — but they’re a bunch of losers?
Seriously, a long time ago I decided I needed a constant minor threat to the setting of the “Talan Revolt” series (Foverre) — out of the wilderness on its western border. The wilderness happens to be heavily forested, so I put elves there.
They’re a minor threat because they’re just not that effective. Over the last several generations they’ve steadily lost ground to the humans.
It’s not because they’re a dying race, or the tragic remnant of a glorious bygone age — they outnumber the humans significantly.
The elves try to use the terrain to their advantage, but there’s cat-people living the same forests, who eagerly cooperate with the elves’ enemies — because the elves are racists and treat them badly. (That’s right, these elves aren’t particularly enlightened.) And when it comes to stalking and sneaking around in the woods, well, the cat-people just eat the elves for breakfast. Literally. Come to think of it, the elves in my world aren’t really much better than the humans at all that woodsy stuff. These elves aren’t exactly “in touch with the land”.
The elves use magic, sure, and occasionally have a good trick up their sleeve that’ll win them a battle here or thre. But on the whole they’re no better at magic than the humans.
The elves are slighter of build, though, so the humans tear them up in close combat (especially since humans are better at most forms of crafting and manufacturing).
The elves don’t really have the moral high ground, either. Sure, the humans have a tyrannical society that’s getting worse, but the elves are way ahead of them. They have long traditions of racial and religious intolerance that motivated them to invade the humans (whose homeland was across the ocean from where Foverre is now).
Not only did the elves fail horribly in their invasion attempt, they also allowed their maps and navigation charts to fall into human hands. So the humans soon found, invaded, conquered and colonized the elven homeland. It’s kind of like if the conquistadors’ conquest of the Aztecs was sparked by a failed Aztec amphibious invasion of Spain. Except that the Aztecs were pretty impressive in a lot of ways…
The elves and humans each take slaves from time to time, but elves are enslaved less often since they’re not strong enough to be much good at manual labor. Um, yeah I know what you’re thinking next, but they’re not used as pleasure slaves much either because most humans find elves kind of unattractive. These elves have black eyes with no visible pupils; and while it’s inevitable that a few humans will find that appealing (in an “exotic” kind of way), the majority find it creepy.
Occasionally, elven military commanders rack up a few victories over humans and eventually achieve reputations as strong tacticians; but this is rare since the elves’ overall physical frailty causes them to die of wounds more easily than humans. Their weak health also tends to give them a shorter lifespan.
I doubt I could call this an “elf story”, since none of the major characters are elves. The threat posed by elves is (all things considered) nowhere near the hero’s top priorities, which include confronting the growing injustice of his own society, and two evil cults that seem to have it in for him. All in all, the elves aren’t on the hero’s radar screen very often because compared to his other enemies, they’re just not that dangerous.
Just a bump in the road.