When the Elves are Gone
Part One of Three
By: Melissa Ridley Elmes
The reality is that the world will go on.
No one wants to think about it that way. Such stark terms. So black-and-white, cut-and-dry. But it's true. A world without elves is still a world. In some ways, things will change for the better. In some ways, things will change for the worse. This is true of any extinction event in a global ecosystem; the ripples of disappeared flora and fauna make themselves felt for a while, then they smooth, absorbed into the new reality. The lost species are mourned by those who care specifically for this- or that-plant or creature-type, but ultimately they fade into the history of the world, become distant memories of another time, subjects recorded and studied in books.
But not the elves! You will cry out when you read this.
And so, what about the elves? What if they are gone forever? Why should they matter more than any other living species? Why is their loss more terrible, more deserving of attention?
Ah, this is all hypothetical, you will note, feeling smug you've caught me out, deciding I'm merely playing devil's advocate, posing philosophical questions to be answered like parlor games: what about . . . what if . . .
And yet, the elves are disappearing, regardless of what you think or how you feel about it. They are caught in the death-throes of a vanishing race. They are fighting their last war, and they are losing. The world does not care. Once the immediate political, social, economic, and geographic effects are navigated, their loss matters to no one but themselves. And perhaps, to some of you.
In the end, we elves have no one to blame but ourselves. We let this happen, one misguided and elitist decision at a time. This fate was in the making from the first words uttered at the first council concerning Elvish matters. We will do what we think best, our ancestors said proudly. We will do what we believe to be right. We will heed our own counsel above that of any other race. We will live in our own way, with no outside interference.
In more recent years, this attitude seems reasonable, even rational. After all, the elves are among the oldest races in the world, and surely the kind of collective wisdom that comes with millennia of lived and recorded experience deserves respect born of such successful survival. But recall that this attitude was not developed over time but held from the earliest days. The gods made the elves, and the elves took on their creators' hubris. This was not inevitable. Other humanoid races--dwarves, gnomes, orcs, dragonborn, even--are in no danger of dying out. Humans are certainly in no danger of dying out. But elves, like their already-extinct long-lived cousins the dragons (from whose fate important lessons could have been learned but weren't) have always held themselves apart from the rest. It is more than mere race-pride or a desire not to interbreed or water down their traditions and customs through cultural interaction. It is inherent arrogance. Because no one challenged them in any clear way, because they believed themselves to be, then believed they had proved themselves to be, superior beings intellectually, physically, and emotionally, the elves lived for millennia secure in their power and removed from the affairs of those they deemed the lesser races.
But the world changed and in their pride they never bothered to notice. The forms of intelligence and seeming physical and emotional superiority that our ancestors enjoyed five thousand years ago, one thousand years ago, five hundred years ago, even one hundred years ago, are no longer sufficient to safeguard us against the rising tides of discontent and hostility felt at our indifference, and certainly have no power against the physical changes of our world. We have too long kept to ourselves, letting everyone else sort things out as they will, believing their issues to have nothing to do with us. What fools we have been. How utterly short-sighted we were to imagine our continued presence did not require our active participation, to assume there would always be a place in the world for us because we had created a space removed from all others, to ignore what those others were doing in the world all that time.
You still believe I am speaking in hypotheticals. You are thinking to yourself as I speak: You are just doomsaying. The elves have always been here. They will always be here. You are certain. You know because it is known. I ask you: Who knows this? Why is it known?
When did you last see an elf?
Allow me to answer that question for you: You have never seen an elf before now; or if you have, it was so long ago you cannot be certain it's a memory and not a dream.
This is not because all elves have removed themselves from the world. From earliest times, there have been those among us who disagreed with the prevailing wisdom of those in power, who sought to forge and sustain bonds with other peoples and to learn what could be learned in such encounters about the world and our place within it. Outcast at worst, disregarded and mocked at best, among their own people; yet those elves have always been the wisest among us. In fact, it is almost entirely due to their efforts that elves have existed as long as we have; returning to our communities whenever utterly necessary with news of dire peril and demanding we do our part to avert it. In any case in which the elves have made the choice to intervene in events involving other races, these brave exiles have been at the heart of that decision, doing their part to rescue us from ourselves. And yet even they could not ultimately persuade us to reverse our course of self-nihilation. Collectively, we would truly rather be dead than admit fault or acknowledge that we are unable to exist alone and apart from all other races.
You do not believe me. You cling to your storybook ideas of elves, your belief that we are the positive force in this world, that we are smarter than everyone else, that we are the only ones who can save the world. We've done a good job, haven't we, of convincing you of our utter goodness and wisdom? We will be preserved in the history books as a race so advanced the world did not deserve us. This will be one of the greatest lies told in books. We have never created anything that could save the world; only things that could preserve our idea of what it is and who we are within it.
Come. I'll take you on a tour. The last tour of the last elven city in the world in its last hour. The elves will not mind. They are for the most part no longer here. Those who were in positions of authority fled long before now, nominally seeking solutions they knew in their hearts did not exist, but in actuality hiding from their shame and hoping to die elsewhere in obscurity rather than here ignobly, with the accusing eyes of everyone they have failed upon them. Those who remain are busy trying to survive in the face of impossible odds. There is no one left to care that you enter into this city, no one left to disapprove of my bringing outsiders into this space. We are past all of that now, albeit too late for it to make a difference to us. Perhaps you can learn something from our mistakes.
The gateway to the city is open and unguarded for the first time in its history, and as you walk through the towering doors notice the impeccable workmanship, the wood carved with such precision and polished to a perfect luster. The scenes carved into the doors tell a story of the origins of the humanoid races. They suggest those races were in accord and strove together to build a society. This is propaganda. It is a tale the elves tell themselves—that we tried to create harmony among the races, ultimately failing because the others were not reasonable, were not up to the tasks of diplomacy and shared governance and peaceful coexistence in society. Yet it was the unreasonable humans who felled and prepared the wood of the trees that gave us these doors, and the unreasonable dwarves who carved them so beautifully, and the unreasonable gnomes who ingeniously devised the means by which they were fitted into their position with no sign as to how they remain standing, no evidence of the jointures and hinges by which they operate, so they seem to float in place. This is true as well of many of the buildings in this city. I do not say that we elves are not capable of building and making things, certainly as much of this city was made by elven hands as by others. But the monuments and buildings this city is most famed for are not elven except in their design. They exist because of the expertise of others. We conveniently ignore this truth, proud of our city's fabled beauty and claiming it as our birthright rather than the work of others on our behalf.
The street just beyond the gate is well-paved and you may be excused for not recognizing the materials with which it was wrought; this was the brainchild of gnomes countless generations ago, who somehow managed to combine the durability of marble with the beautiful dark glassiness of obsidian, so that upon first glance these streets look like the concrete with which humans pave their roads, but so silky-smooth and icelike in appearance that you would think them impossible to walk or drive upon without slipping treacherously. When you step upon it, however, you find your footing as solid as on any road or sidewalk ever made. When you look down, you can see yourself reflected in it like a mirror. You notice that the sky is reflected in it as well, so that the streets seem endlessly deep, connecting earth and sky. These streets are so well-made that since their initial installment they have never required repair. The city is justly famous for these streets. No elf has ever made anything like them, and no elf knows the means by which the gnomes achieved this feat of engineering. There is no record of the streets' construction beyond the date of their beginning and completion in any book written in Elvish. If the names of the gnomes responsible for them are recorded anywhere, it is in books in their libraries, not ours. As far as the elves are concerned these streets, like the city they wind through, are simply here, have always been here, effortless, and elven in nature, but not in craft.
There is no one but us on this street today. Once it was busy, filled with tradesmen, merchants, shoppers, buyers, families on their way to and from one another's homes, politicians walking to and from meetings, musicians busking, the teeming population of a thriving city. It has been a while since the streets filled, since the city contained the population it was built for. You are surprised. It doesn't look deserted, you're thinking. Every building is still in good condition, there are no windows broken or missing, nothing seems out of place. But what you are seeing is not the continual attention of the city's inhabitants to their environs, but the quality with which these buildings were constructed. Many of them have stood empty, no living being crossing their threshold, for a generation or more.
You don't believe me. Come, we'll walk closer to one of these buildings. This is one of the shops, a little high-end boutique that sold jewelry and accessories. See the windows up close, unbroken yet grimy from the layers of dirt that have accumulated upon them. Look, there on the front stoop, at the layer of dust. No foot has stepped there since the shop keep closed and locked the door behind him. That was a decade ago.
What happened to the shop keep? I'll get to that presently. First, look around, look closely up and down this street, the most beautiful street in the most beautiful city, the storied and fabled elven urban design. Yes, I see your admiring gaze, and of course it is justified, and yet how shortsighted you are. There is great beauty here, but that is all you see. There is no life here. There is nothing alive on this street but you and me. Not an animal, not a bird, not an insect, not a plant. Why are you more worried about the shop keep who closed his doors a decade ago than about the dearth of life here today? Why do you not wonder at the great silence surrounding you as much as at the wonderful condition of these long-abandoned buildings? These elves left their shops behind and never came back. Do you not wonder why others have not taken their place? Is it not strange to you that this city lies waiting and unoccupied? What do these streets and buildings mean, with no one here to use and enjoy them?
Walk with me. We are just beginning our tour. There is still much for you to see.
Ahhh—you asked about our famous archive, and here it is, that large, square, multi-story marble building just to your left. Within that building is either the original or a copy of everything of note ever written by, about, or for an elf. Over a thousand languages are represented in the texts it contains, among them many no longer spoken. One day, not so long from now as you might imagine, elvish will be one of those dead languages recorded on paper. Don't look so surprised. Who will bother learning the language of the elves when there are no elves left to speak it with? This archive will become a linguistic museum, storing the words of an extinct race. This archive is a monument to obsoletion. It has been so for hundreds of years now, ever since the order was given to close the city permanently to outsiders. No one realized at the time that this would also eventually kill the city and all who live here, when outsiders had learned not to seek out the elves and not enough elves remained to seek out the outsiders; when those elves who did so sought help too late.
You are distressed again. I'm sorry this tour is hard for you. Imagine how much more so it is for me. We walk among the ruins of my civilization. I know it doesn't seem that way to you because nothing looks ruined. But it is true. You must see it is true. The very fact that I have brought you here is your proof, though I can see from your expression you still do not believe me. You require more evidence. Fine--let us get to the heart of the thing.
Permit me to direct your attention to the building just down the way on the right, that large, sprawling building with the beautiful spires and the gleaming bronze roof. That is our Capitol building, the seat of elvish governance. You can see clearly that the gate to that building is as open and unguarded as the gates to the city. This is your opportunity to enter a building that has never seen the tread of a human foot across the doorsill. Shall we?
It's quite safe, I assure you. Even if there were still government officials seeking to conduct business here, they would not bother with you. They would be far too occupied trying to find a way to gracefully exit the city without looking as though they were abandoning it, or trying to shore up their reputation for posterity, or both. No one still here has time for you, except me. I have nothing else to spend my time on.
Let your eyes linger on these mosaics framing the front entryway. They are some of the best work ever put forth by human artisans yet have never been seen by human eyes since they were gifted to the elves upon the completion of this building, over a thousand years ago. Note the story they tell how your people and mine coinhabit this shared world of ours, the humans in their capital city and the elves in ours. See here, how we are shown to be allies against the dragons, our shared foes of yore? This panel's especially fun: it presents the story of the elven highlord who gifted the human king with an elvish sword forged from a dragon's talon as a sign of our mutual affection for one another, thus signaling the imminent end of the Dragon Wars, which were won with our gift of those swords to the humans. Oh, you've heard that story? Yes, I imagine so, it's quite famous. Of course, the story leaves out the fact that no elf ever made a sword worth wielding against a dragon; we commissioned our weapons for that war from the dwarves and, occasionally, from humans. But gifting a human king with a sword made by a dwarven blacksmith doesn't fire the imagination nearly as well as presenting him with something elvish. Note how humans are complicit in the storytelling that has led us to this point where elves can do no wrong in the eyes of humans.
These panels as we walk down the hall toward the anteroom where most of the day-to-day governance is conducted depict the political past of the elves within our own society; you might not know much of this history. Very little of it has been allowed to pass into common knowledge. It has been pressed upon us that most non-elves would simply not understand how elvish governance works. In reality, as you can plainly see from these images even if you cannot read the books that inspired them, our political environment has always relied on an understanding that machinations, guile and duplicity, and creating strong allyships between powerful houses are not only necessary but constitute a higher form of government, one forged in our belief in the absolute rightness of our thinking, in our absolute rationality and understanding of what is right and good. That we do not always, or even usually, agree on what is absolutely right and good has never been allowed to stand in the way of governing by those principles. And so, here we are. A dying race, ruled by a now-absent oligarchy that even in its heyday never made a decision not in its own best interests . . . until it realized, too late, that it had governed itself into oblivion along with everyone else.
And yet, even seeing all of this with your own eyes, you are skeptical. The elven highlords are globally famed for their calm, rational, sane approach to politics. But from whence does that reputation derive? When was the last recorded presence of an elven highlord at a gathering of the world's leaders? Two hundred and ten years ago. You look stunned, but I can see you doing the math in your head, and yes, there it is, the resigned acceptance that I am not lying to you. The last time any political decision was made by an elflord openly before others not of our race was two hundred and ten years ago, at the Council of Nations at which the Union of Nations was ratified. You'll recall, the elves pulled out of the union at the ninth hour, refusing to sign off on the compromises required for all of the races to share governance throughout the world. This was when we decided we would never again stoop to an effort at shared governance, because you troublesome and lesser races would keep arguing amongst yourselves, never reaching a resolution on the matter at hand, all jockeying for position, wasting time and energy when we all knew that in the end, the decision that would be reached would have little to do with the facts and everything to do with who held the most power and sway. If elflords were going to jockey for position in that way, it would not be among you, but among their own elite. To the outside world, this appeared a principled decision born of a refusal to forego our high ideals to compromise what we knew as right and true; naturally, we cultivated that view and allowed it to flourish because it best suited us to be viewed as somehow intrinsically better than everyone else rather than simply less willing to dance the dance of cooperation and positionality required to participate in global governance. And so it has been since that Council two hundred and ten years ago. And in those two hundred and ten years are written our ruin.
Come, I'll show you. Enter with me into this room. The documents are still there.