- J. R. R. Tolkien, "On Fairy-Stories"
"Standard fantasy setting": Has there ever been a sadder oxymoron? Has there ever been a better demonstration of the myopic nature of unbridled commercialism than the contradiction between the bureaucratic-sounding term "standard" and the ancient word "fantasy," with its connotations of imagination and vision? Can it truly be that we have allowed our wildest and most unique gift - the gift of poetry (in its original sense), of making - to become controlled, and dedicated to the industrial-style production of routine, of unimaginative repetition?
Consider the elves, the saddest example of them all. They are present everywhere in our digital worlds, and it is hard to argue they are ever different from each other. Anyone who has travelled through such a world, whether it was called Erathia, Denerim, or Faerûn, has encountered them and can enumerate their typical traits. Their ears are pointed, their bodies slender; they are talented with the bow, and know more of the secrets of the world (whether they are secrets of magic or of history) than any other people. They are wise and powerful, and closer to the divine than humans, yet despite their inherent greatness, there is a darkness and a sorrow in their past, a great fall often only vaguely alluded to, and the distinct possibility of their fading from history as it progresses. They are a sad people.
They have every reason to be sad; they are a long way from home. Handed down from writer to writer, from designer to designer, they are the victims of a long and terrible process, a forced march through the literary lands between Middle-earth and the Forgotten Realms. Driven away from their homeland and its sharp, bittersweet beauty by the forces of plagiarism and imitation, they have become shadows of their former selves. They have forgotten Cuiviénen, where they awoke long before the Darkening of Valinor, and Gondolin, and Doriath, and the many places of their history. Little do they remember bright and terrible Fëanor, or Eärendil the Mariner, or Elu Thingol. Even of Nirnaeth Arnoediad, the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, and of the wars against Melkor, only vague echoes remain.
Stripped of their history and heritage, the Elves have become flattened out, recognizable only from certain angles. Their names are now used for branding purposes. Would you like a Wood Elf or a High Elf, a Dark Elf or a Light Elf? We've got some excellent Blood Elves over here, and a new shipment of myElves and iElves has just arrived. Or if that's too expensive, I've got a second-hand Noldor looking for a new home. Sometimes he starts ranting about the Silmarils, but you just need to press this button and he stops. Everything else works fine, and the price is fantastic.