Elves and Imagery

Your high school English classes probably left you somewhat suspicious of all talk of imagery and I don’t blame you. I have memories of having poems and stories dissected in front of my eyes by my own teachers. Often it was like being present at a surgical operation where the patient died on the table while the surgeon pulled out his internal organs and explained their function.

All of which rather misses the point. Imagery is an integral part of story and its purpose is very simple. It reminds readers in a subliminal fashion of the ideas that the writer wants them to be reminded of. It can be used to comment on the narrative, to make a point, and in an odd sort of way to provide a structure.

In the very wonderful Death Is No Obstacle, a series of conversations between Michael Moorcock and Colin Greenland which I recommend you get your hands on any way you can just as long as you don’t try to borrow my copy, Moorcock mentions the fact that he uses imagery to provide coherence to the narrative, a sort of non-linear form of organisation. Basically imagery ties a book together on a subliminal level.

I bring all this up because the Tyrion and Teclis books are absolutely saturated with imagery, a good deal of it not mine. A lot was created by the great Jes Goodwin back in the day. I can still remember sitting in GW’s old Design Studio back in the early 90s and looking at his concept sketchbooks with amazement. There was everything in there— the very first maps of Ulthuan, sketches of costumes and armour and banners and weapons, iconography and images. Jes was meticulous and brilliant and he thought about all this stuff. I remember him talking about Tyrion and Teclis as archetypes rooted in ancient myth. Tyrion is a solar figure, bright, strong, aggressive, powerful, associated with war and kingship. Teclis is a lunar figure, associated with magic and mystery and the night. You can see it on the detail of the original figures: the Moonstaff of Lileath, and Tyrion’s armour.

This sort of thing is an absolute gift to a writer. It provides a different sort of structure to the book from the one that plot provides. I tried to emphasise it where I could in the text. Most of Tyrion’s big scenes take place during the day, most of Teclis’s at night. It’s simple but you can see F Scott Fitzgerald doing the same sort of thing in The Great Gatsby if you look. Wherever I could I tried to work what I could remember of Jes’s ideas into the narrative.

It affected the characters of the protagonists as well. Tyrion is a brilliant, lucid and logical thinker, a strategist who looks at every situation as if it were a game. Teclis, for all that he is the cleverer of the two is more intuitive. The twins are brothers but they are very different as well. In some way they represent the dichotomies of the Elvish character which are central to this trilogy.

These are books about the conflict between the Asur and the Druchii, the High Elves and the Dark Elves. These are two seemingly very different peoples. The High Elves are noble, wise and idealistic. The Dark Elves are savage, decadent and cynical. And yet, these two nations are actually the same people. They are expressions of the two sides of the Elvish character.  All elves are descended from the same folk; their ancestors all came from the same homeland. One nation has evolved in the bright sunny lands of Ulthuan under a sophisticated, pluralist political system. The other emerged in cold, dark Naggaroth under the savage tutelage of Malekith and Morathi.

The High Elves are a semi-democratic state with functioning institutions for electing their leaders. Their military strength rests on the consent of their citizen armies rather like in many of the city-states of the Classical Period. The Dark Elves come from a feudal-totalitarian nation ruled over by two immortal tyrants possessed of virtually unlimited power. It is a conflict that has been there since the time of Aenarion, a manifestation of something central to the Elvish character. They are a people who have the potential to be either Dark Elves or High Elves. Sometimes it comes down to a choice. They recognise this in themselves. Tyrion is aware that within himself there is a psychotic killer. He keeps that under control, most of the time. He is, to use Martin Cruz Smith’s lovely phrase, a beast leashed by his own hand.

I seem to have digressed from my discussion of imagery however. I chose images to reinforce these ideas and placed them through the book where they seemed natural. Where I could I emphasised dualities, dichotomies and mirrored conflicts.

That’s why these books are littered with chess-sets. A chess-set is an image of exactly the sort of conflict that the two Elf nations are engaged in. A chessboard is a mirrored setup where two balanced forces, one light, one dark fight it out. In the book many of the major characters are chess-players, some better than others. The first time we see Tyrion he is playing chess with his father and then Korien Ironglaive. By the time we reach Book Three the ghost of the Archmage Caledor is playing chess with Death in a game on which the fate of the world hangs, as does the fate of the Great War between the High Elves and the Dark Elves.

Then there are mirrors. These appear everywhere in the books as well. They are there for a lot of reasons. The first and most obvious is that Elves are a very vain people, greatly concerned with their own appearance. The second is that magical mirrors are the means by which Malekith communicates with his agents in Ulthuan. When the great spy and assassin Urian looks into a mirror the image he presents to the world, that of a noble High Elf, is transformed, first into a version of himself in his own memory, and then into the image of his master Malekith. It’s a reminder to the reader as well as himself that the Elves are not what they seem.  Characters in these books are often looking at reflections and not seeing quite what they expect.

Characters are paired with each other too. It’s a recurring image suggested initially by the fact that the central characters are twins and repeated to the point where it becomes a motif. Urian is in many ways the anti-Tyrion, his mirror image. He is a Dark Elf transformed by magic who has spent so long in Ulthuan that he understands the High Elves better than they understand themselves. The oddest thing is that he has come to like and respect them even as he kills them. Morathi and the Everqueen are mirror images, one ancient, decadent and wise, the other eternally self-renewing and in some ways innocent. Where Aenarion and by extension the Phoenix Kings are fire, Malekith is ice and is always shown in cold places such as frozen caverns and chilly keeps. And on and on and on!

Anyway, I am in danger of belabouring the point in the way my teachers once did with me so I will shut up now.

4 Replies to “Elves and Imagery”

  1. If one of your aims here is to make readers really, really, really want to read your new book when it comes out… Well, you’re not failing.
    There’s something about a good Elf tale that always gets to me. I’m particularly enjoying your own take on the Elves as exiles in The Serpent Tower. I guess it’s the depth of history you get with immortal protagonists that makes them so fascinating.

    1. Thanks, Michael. The whole immortal (or rather exceptionally long-lived save for accidental death) thing is something I have been pondering since first reading Zelazny god knows how many years ago. I love Tolkien but his Elves are just too, well, blessed. I tend to the Zelazny/Heinlein moral pragmatism line myself.

  2. Great stuff as always. I’ve never been a fan of the High Elves but you’ve convinced me to pick up Blood of Aenarion when it comes out. Do you know if it will be on pre-sale at Games Day? Are you going to be there this year?

    1. Thanks Jonathan. I’ll be at Gameday and there should be copies of Blood of Aenarion as I am going to be going into the NEC on the Saturday to sign them. I am very much looking forward to getting my hands on a copy. I am totally enamoured of the Raymond Swanland cover.

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