We are very happy to have Pati Nagle, author of The Betrayal, here with us today. She has written a fascinating look into how she created the world of the aelven. She is also offering a giveaway of two books set in the aelven world, The Betrayal and Many Paths, so be sure to read to the end of the post for the details!
Creating the Ælven World
I fell in love with Tolkein’s elves in Lord of the Rings, which I first read before my teens. Like many readers, I snapped up other fantasy novels after I was out of Tolkein, but usually the heros were humans. Elves, if they appeared at all, were relegated to supporting roles. Eventually I got tired of seeing elves always in the background, and along with the spark of a short story I wrote called “Kind Hunter” (which you can read for free at bookviewcafe.com), this led me to create the ælven and their world.
When I set out to write about my version of elves, I wanted them to be center stage. The ælven dominate their world, and there is only one other sentient species in it—the kobalen, who are far less sophisticated.
Why “ælven” and not “elves?” A couple of reasons. I wanted to differentiate between “cute” elves (such as Santa’s elves) and my elves, which are more like Tolkein’s, tall, graceful, rather mystical immortals. Yet I also wanted to differentiate between my folk and Tolkein’s elves. Hence I chose a variation: ælven.
By the way: it was Tolkein who created the word “elves” and made it the default name for his immortals. When LotR was first being readied for publication, a copy editor tried to change all his references to “elves” into “elfs.” He changed them back.
So, with the ælven as my heroes, I decided to explore the problems of an immortal race. Some of them are the same problems we humans have: romances gone bad, misunderstandings, attacks by wild beasts (which is more or less how the ælven view the kobalen). OK, we don’t have to deal with that last one much anymore, but still. We used to.
Other problems are unique to the ælven. One is that they very rarely have children. This gives them a family structure quite different than ours. Humans have lots of siblings, so our family trees look like just that—a tree with the most foliage at the bottom. An ælven family tree is very slender by comparison, but also much taller. Since they’re immortal, an ælven might be acquainted with her grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents, but might not have any siblings, uncles, or aunts.
Here’s an example: in The Betrayal Eliani takes pine-nut cakes to Lady Heléri, whom she calls “Eldermother.” In fact, Heléri is her great-grandmother. The ælven just use “eldermother” or “elderfather” for any generation before their immediate parents. Similarly, they use “cousin” for any relative other than parents, siblings, or elderparents. Eliani’s cousin Luruthin is actually her second cousin once removed (a great grandchild of Heléri through another line—Heléri is highly unusual in that she not only had a child, but had more than one).
So, well, that can get confusing. I hope I haven’t put you to sleep. This is the sort of thing writers have to think about when they’re creating a world, so that it will seem rich and full to the reader. Readers don’t have to know all this detail, but it needs to be in place to make the world feel real.
Then there’s the physical world: a writer has to give thought to the place where her characters live. Tolkein created Middle Earth, which is imaginary but feels quite real, and is often considered a variation on Europe. I created an imaginary continent for my ælven—I haven’t given it a name—maybe that will come to me, but for now I think of it as the ælven realms and the western wastes, divided by a chain of mountains. I based the geology on my home state and especially my home town, which is up in the mountains on the side of a dormant volcano, partly because I’m familiar with that type of landscape and so I feel comfortable writing about it, and also because I love some of its features like evergreen forests and hot springs. And hey, volcanos can be fun!
I also decided there are no canines on this continent. No dogs, no wolves. This may have been a poor choice given the popularity of wolves in current fantasy fiction, but, oh well. I do have cats!
The ælven are fond of stability. I figure if you live a long, long time, you get tired of things changing all the time and cherish the things that stay the same. For this reason the ælven tend to be insular, and this has resulted in less genetic diversity than would be ideal for their race to thrive. (And if you said that to an ælven, they would look at you cross-eyed. They have enough knowledge of genetics—which is a modern concept and one they wouldn’t know—for basic agriculture and animal husbandry, and that’s about it.) So among the ruling clans of the four major ælven realms, each has a unique appearance. There are some variations, but for the most part you can guess someone’s clan by the color of their hair and eyes.
The ælven have a much lighter form of government than most human societies. They live by a rather strict creed which requires them to be honest and serve others, harming none. Those who violate the Ælven Creed must atone for their transgressions. An ælven who fails to atone to the satisfaction of their community is summarily cast out.
All of this is background to the story, of course. The Betrayal is about how two young ælven are caught up in an ancient conflict that is re-erupting, threatening the peace of the ælven realms. Turisan and Eliani are strangers, but because they share the rare gift of mindspeech they are thrown together as the ælven try to cope with the return of their enemies, the alben, who were once an ælven clan but who were long ago driven out of ælven realms for violating the Creed.
I’ve left the most important part of the world for last, you see. The characters are what bring the world and the story to life. Seeing the carefully constructed world through their eyes, the reader feels a part of it (I hope).
I’ve had readers tell me they were afraid that because my characters are elves, they would be “too perfect.” Well, they’re anything but perfect. They try to be the best they can be, but they make mistakes and have doubts just like you and me. Eliani, especially, makes a lot of mistakes, partly because she’s young—only fifty, just entering adulthood. She’s an ælven, immortal and magical, but she can’t sing and she’s happier in the saddle than at a formal dinner. Turisan, on the other hand, was raised in one of the finest palaces in the ælven realms: Hallowhall in Glenhallow. He is much more poised than Eliani, but shares her love of the wild woods.
These two must learn how to work together, though Eliani (because she fears repeating past mistakes) would rather keep Turisan at a distance. The challenges they face may be different from human problems, but in the end they are people just trying to do the best they can with what they’ve got.
Pati Nagle’s stories have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,Cricket, and several anthologies. She was a finalist for Writers of the Future and the Theodore Sturgeon Award. She has also written historical novels as P.G. Nagle. Her fantasy novel The Betrayal appeared in 2009.