How can parents who’ve named their daughter Wendy ever expect her to be taken seriously?
If you’ve never read any books by Vivian Vande Velde, I highly recommend her (MG? YA? somewhere in between?) novels, particularly if you like humour and fantasy. And even if you don’t like fantasy. (If you don’t like humour, I can’t help you.) One of the reasons I keep rereading her books is that no matter how straight-forward the narrative voice seems, there is a lot more going on beneath the surface than meets the eye. Which is particularly fitting for Now You See It…, which foregrounds (mis)perception, expectations, and presumptions.
Aka a lot of leaping to conclusions on the part of our narrator, fifteen year old Wendy, who is self-absorbed, shallow, and very funny, not that she necessarily means to be. She has also absorbed a lot of emotional pain, what with her father’s abandonment* (he ran off with his secretary five years ago) and her beloved grandmother’s descent into Alzheimer’s, which partially prompted Wendy’s less appealing character traits as something of a defense mechanism. Wendy’s behaviour and attitude are spot-on, from her exasperation with her mother to her detente with Wicked Stepsister Gia to her resistance to her step-father, Bill (whom Wendy refers to as “my mother’s husband”) to her interactions with her best friend and other classmates.
My backpack was on my lap, my glasses on top of my backpack, and I was talking to Shelley, because I didn’t want Parker thinking I was sitting around waiting for him to notice me. Parker didn’t even glance in my direction, which might have meant that he really, truly hadn’t noticed me or it might have meant that he hadn’t noticed me in the same way I hadn’t noticed him. But because I wasn’t noticing him, it was hard to work out. (p. 15)
But! Sticking to the theme of the month (elves!), much as I would like to talk about how this is really a story about family as much as it is about growing up, let’s discuss what VVV does with the elves. Because there are elves, my dears, and dragons and witches who look like hundred-year-old crones when they don’t glamour themselves into sexy elf shepherdesses or popular cheerleader-type classmates.
First off, the narrative upsets the “high elf” trope. You know the one: elf = good. Elf = mysterious. Elf = smokin’ hot. Elf = good with all weapons. Elf = physically unaffected by combat. And elf would never sweat, or behave less than nobly, or sit around moping with self-pity. Elves are always the heroes, always the rescuers, always at, or near, the centre of whatever of significance is going on.
Most of the narrative, in fact, is Wendy (human), Eleni (human), Tiffanie (crone/popular classmate), Brave Heart (recently reformed attack dog and devoted admirer of Tiffanie), and Larry (spreenie)** figuring out how to rescue Julian (elf prince). Elves, who by the way do not live in “Elfland” but in the realm of Kazaran Dahaani, have courts and politics, coups even. And bullies. This from when Julian is kidnapped. One of his kidnappers tackles him to the ground.
While the [elf] who had given the do-not-kill-him order stood aside, all four of the others kicked and pummeled Julian until he stopped struggling. I’d seen guys horsing around before — I’d even seen sports brawls — but this went beyond that into vicious.” (p. 95)
The other elves Wendy meets aren’t particularly noble, either. In fact, they’re decidedly frivolous, weaving flowers into complete strangers’ hair and singing songs on the upper range of the human aural limits. Fortunately, they also have short attention spans, so they don’t interfere — much — with the rescue mission.
Tiffanie is presumably the Queen of Kazaran Dahaani, but she doesn’t seem to be wildly popular among her subjects, either because she isn’t an elf (making the elves racist, since they object to their future king, Julian, being only half-elf) or because she’s less than stunningly beautiful in her natural form (making the elves supremely shallow). Tiffanie is at times grumpy, rude, and snippy, but even Wendy, who dislikes her, can’t help but admit that Tiffanie isn’t mean-spirited and hasn’t actually done anything unkind to her.
Rather than being one monotype in terms of physical traits, Julian’s treacherous cousin is markedly different in looks and temperament. Julian himself is far more *ahem, human is CLEARLY the wrong word here* normal (?) than you might expect. When Wendy sees the elf prince imprisoned, he is
leaning against the back set of bars, looking desolate, looking — if truth be told — a bit sorry for himself. (p. 237)
Julian’s arm is slashed badly in a knife fight against his cousin, and he emerges from that fight sweating as well as bleeding. Elf princes — fine, half-elf princes — apparently can feel self-pity as well as pain; elf-princeship evidently does not make one supremely competent at self-defence; rather, Julian is more prepared for a public career as a ruler and states-elf than for physical combat. Julian does, however have a fancy self name. Julian is what he goes by in the human world; his name actually is Julwin Y’orick. Which sounds all fancy and properly elfish, and just the sort of name for a faerie.
… Except right after Wendy hears Julian’s name, she begins her acquaintanceship with the spreenie named Larry. Not exactly a mystical name. And Tiffanie is apparently Tiffanie for real. Or else she doesn’t choose to admit to another name, which is completely possible. After all, she does spend years at a time going through high school for the fun of
looking being young and popular.
In the human world, Tiffanie looks like a perfect cheerleader. Julian, as an elf, can’t cast spells. The glamour Tiffanie casts on him disguises more than his pointy ears. In the human world, Julian looks like a nerd. He’s nice enough, but far from outgoing:
Julian was new this year, and I’d never really talked to him beyond “Hi” and “Mind if I move this chair to that table?” and “What page did Mrs. McDermott say to turn to?” He’d struck me, back in September, as too tall and too skinny. (p. 21-22)
He was too thin and his hair was thin, too, and a bit scraggly; its lightish brownish blondish color could best be described as faded. And his cheekbones were too prominent and his nose skinny and long. (p. 51)
The glamour doesn’t transform Julian into another being entirely; while passing as human, he appears more or less as himself, only watered-down and washed out. Elves, as Wendy observes, are
tall, slender, and pointy-eared… But there the similarity end[s]. (p. 94-95)
Oh, and if you were expecting everything to turn out perfectly, high fantasy style, think again. Wendy goes on a quest with people she doesn’t necessarily like, and she still doesn’t like all of them by the journey’s end. (Although she does grow up a lot, and *crosses fingers* will be something more approximating friends with a certain witch at school.) She learns something about being a Chosen One (mainly that she isn’t). Vivian Vande Velde keeps to the very best traditions of fantasy by speaking truth, even or especially sad truth — magic is not a cure-all.
“Sometimes bravery and strength and goodness just aren’t enough.” (p. 270)
“Some things are too lost for even magic to bring back.” (p. 271)
The elves, in short, are believable. Likewise the human, witch, spreenie, and canine characters. Likewise the heart behind and within the story.
There was so much to say, and I couldn’t think how to say any of it. I blurted out, “You were so brave.” Because that, of all qualities, is the hardest to fake.
She gave a dismissive snort. “You, too.”
“No.” I shook my head for emphasis. Me? Maybe to someone outside I might have looked like I did one or two gutsy things, but it wasn’t because I was brave, it was because I was backed into a situation and wasn’t smart enough to think of anything that could be done differently.
Eleni took hold of my chin and she forced me to look directly into her eyes, though I was trying to avoid this, because my eyes were suddenly wet. She said, “You fight the things you can fight. The rest you have to let go. That’s all anyone can do.” (p. 267)
*VVV nails, in my opinion, that baffling complex childhood loyalty to the parent who abandons, and the simultaneous dependence on and resistance to the parent who stayed, and the love for and suppressed (and overt) anger expressed by the abandoned child to any and all parents and parental figures.
**Spreenies are, to quote Wendy, flying “little… blue… whatevers” (p. 105) about the size of chipmunks. Think of the Nac Mac Feegles of Discworld, only with more petty, pointless mischief and less organization and actual culture.
“First off, the narrative upsets the “high elf” trope. You know the one: elf = good. Elf = mysterious. Elf = smokin’ hot. Elf = good with all weapons. Elf = physically unaffected by combat. And elf would never sweat, or behave less than nobly, or sit around moping with self-pity. Elves are always the heroes, always the rescuers, always at, or near, the centre of whatever of significance is going on.”
High Elves are pretty awful. Generic fantasy elves have become such a pet peeve of mine that I tend to toss out any manuscript the moment I see the word “elf” if the story is not already completely blowing me away.
I’m not entirely sure where the worst tropes about elves come in from a literary standpoint; they aren’t directly descended from Tolkien’s elves who were, by and large, “true neutral” and somewhat analogous to the Nephilim in Middle Earth’s cosmology*, nor are they descended from the early elves of D&D who were more inspired by Dunsany, Anderson and other early non-Tolkien fantasy writers (they were smaller than humans, quicker but weaker, part of fae and as such had ‘spirits’ but not souls). The popular modern concept of sexy elves and OP heroic elves started emerging in the 80s in the D&D splatbooks and franchise fiction, but I don’t know if those were emergent from play or if another literary stream outside of gaming had any impact or influence on this. Somewhere, though, they just became humans but better and prettier, at which point, why even bother?
Prior to this, the norm was more the weird fae elves who were not big sexy heroes. One amusing bit from an old Poul Anderson story explains why one could not trust elves: as they did not have souls, they could not make Christian oaths upon them and therefore would bear no immortal consequence upon betrayal.
Most of the interesting takes on Elves since “High Elves” became a thing have tended to be in Sci-fi, such as the Minbari from Babylon 5 – there, they even borrowed the ‘becoming human for love’ trope from Tolkien, but I’ll never forget the line Billy Mumy’s character gives when he throws the captain up against the wall: “We may sometimes look like you, but we are not you.”
Good Elves should be both familiar and alien – they should remind us of ourselves but there ought to be differences that makes one feel there’s something wrong or out of place. The handsome boy with gills, webbed feet and no conscious; the beautiful girl with inhuman eyes who seems in another place all at once when she’s with you…
*:There is a chance, however, that the SIlmarillion could have fueled this; while many of the elves were still more ‘keep the walls close and hope the orcs stay out’, as a chronicle of “the First Age”, it did feature many more ‘heroic’ and villainous elves and their martial exploits than the Lord of the Rings.
“Somewhere, though, they just became humans but better and prettier, at which point, why even bother?”
Yes! That’s part of why I like Now You See It… so much – because the elves, overall, seem pretty much human. Except with pointy ears. They’re not like Blade Runner’s Replicants, who truly are humans but better (albeit with an artificially shortened lifespan), these elves are just. like. humans. Except they aren’t human. And they’re always seen through a human lens, so we really have no idea how much we are missing.
I don’t know if I agree that well-written elves should remind us of ourselves but with strange differences. Wouldn’t that tend toward writing that uses elves primarily as the What Ifs… of human history or as stand-ins for particular cultures rather than creating a people who, whether human in appearance or otherwise, are part of a culture and worldview entirely alien?
I think that by emphasizing the alien nature of elves, the uncanny, one actually does better to avoid using them as stand-ins for other human cultures. Thomas Burnett Swann’s stories featuring sprites from antiquity (particularly The Weirwoods and The Gods Abide) do a wonderful job of this.
Consider the tropeshift of greenskins in fantasy of the last couple decades – because goblinoids became divorced from Fae, removing their supernatural element, goblins have been turned into stand-ins for native Americans or Sub-Saharan Africans in many cases; because of this, older works featuring them become seen as problematic retroactively because these newer tropes get imposed upon them even though there they existed in another paradigm.
Also, it’s worth noting that the Replicants were not actually human, but incredibly human-like robots; in the book especially, Decker was rather haunted by the minute but noticeable things about Rachael that showed she was not human.