REVIEW: Feast of the Elfs by John C. Wright

Monday , 21, November 2016 3 Comments

When I surveyed the inspirations for the original tabletop role-playing game, I was repeatedly astonished by the extent to which elves had been dumbed down, diluted, and de-awesomed over the past few decades. With each volume I covered, I took extensive notes on just precisely what it was that made old school elves so different from contemporary depictions of them. With Feast of the Elfs we don’t just get one or two of the things I identified as having been lost over the years. We get a look at what a novel would be like if it put them all together at once!

Just like Three Heasts and Three Lions, it has elfs having a physical reaction to the name of Christ:

“I cannot foretell the comings and goings of the Lords of the Night World. But I know this: he will be present at the great feast of the fairy kings, when he and Alberec meet in solemn court and celebrate the nativity of Him we do not name and squires are knighted, lands and honors granted, and challenges given and taken at that time. And the elf maindens dance, which is a rare wonder.”
Gil squinted. “If you are not Christians, why do you celebrate Christmas? It is the birth of Christ.”
Thornstab rolled on the floor, emitting a high-pitched keening comical yet horrible to hear, clutching his ears and banging his head against the concrete. Gil stared in disgust and astonishment.

It incorporates Christian lore in the explanation of their nature and origins:

“Where do the elfs come from?”
He heard another chuckle. “Where do the stars come from?”
Gil tried to remember what he had half-heard in science class. “They were condensed out of a primordial gas cloud by gravity.”
“If you say so. Well, for our purposes, the elfs were condensed out of a primordial gas cloud by the Fall of Man.”

Beyond synthesizing elements of a great many myths and tales, it also incorporates a direct connection to history, geographym and reality:

“Show your badge to the desk sergeant at the police station in any nation where the writ of Arthurian Law rns, and if the healing hands cannot be found in that hour, you will be cast into sleep until they can be.:
“The writ of Arthurian Law? What is that?”
“You recall he once conquered Rome and assumed the purple as Imperator. Hence the House of Pendragon has lawful claim over all the lands once or ever ruled by the Roman Empire, therefore, also, the Bynzantine Empire, the Carolingian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish Empire, the British Empire, and the Austrian Empire. Basically, anything once ruled by Caesar, Kaiser, Czar, or Christian King, from Singapore to Calcutta to Patagonia, from Bosporus to Australia, from South Africa to Northern Alaska, from Tripoli to Troynovant, still owes allegiance to Arthur.”

Just like Margaret St. Clair’s The Shadow People, it shows what happens to people that eat the food of the elves:

“Well…” Ruff whined. He looked as pathetic as only a guilty dog can look. “It was cold! I was hungry! So I at the elf food. She gave it to me. Free of charge, she said. The first bite is always free, she said.”
“And then?”
“Then my taste buds were ruined! Normal, healthy, nutritious food like dead rodents and garbage lying in the gutter began to taste terrible! And, and, then I was trapped! I couldn’t force myself to eat normal food. I had to keep going back to her!”

Just like Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, it deals with elfs kidnapping children and replacing them with changelings:

“Titania would interfere with Alberec– but he was called Oberon then, back when he was Emperor– when he would steal children. Titania would give the children back to their parents, often with gifts and blessings. There was this one Indian lad they still talk about. His mother was a votary and friend of Titania who died in childbirth, and so Titania took the boy for a season, and raised him, but instead of the normal fate of changelings, she granted him the power to conquer many lands, and the name Alamgir. Titania sent visions to the widower to build the Taj Mahal in his dead wife’s honor, to allow some of the beauty of elfland to touch the human world.”

Just as in The Lord of the Rings, elfs and elf-like beings do not die of old age:

Not all his knights are elfs, are they?”
“Not so loud! But those there seated below the salt were once of the twilight world, or the sunlit world, and have joined their fate to ours and shed their bad habit of growing old.”

Rather than being Spock-like Mary Sue style superbeings, the elfs here can actually learn a thing or two from mortals:

It is said that, in before times, in Corbenec they remembered the practices of the pagan Romans, and ordered slaves to fight to the death for their sport; but Ygraine by her counsel changed the heart of her lord Count Alain, and convinced him to hold tourneys and jousts. Instead of the great watching the humble fight and grow proud of their might, the great would fight and the  humble would be proud of their lords.
“And she said the humans had such a custom in Christian lands, and it ill beseemed the lordly elfs should be less honorable and brave than mere mortals.”

They still can’t touch iron, though:

Next to Gil, the Glashan muttered very softly, “Whatever being that is, he cannot be an elf or eft.”
Gil whispered, “Why not?”
“Cold-forged iron elfs will never touch. It is the metal given to Tubal-cain alone, the son of Cain. It is Man’s metal.”

We get a look at old school witches and the kind of dealings they have with the Elfish world:

“She’s sweet on you!”
“Can’t be. For one thing, she is thirteen. Or twelve.”
“She is older than that. The witch feeds her a drug to keep her from growing up. To keep her too young to breed.”
“That’s gross.”
“Everything witches do is gross.”
“Not in the movies. In movies, the witches are always young and cute– they’re always good witches.”
“Hollywood is run by elfs,” grunted the dog….
“What’s going to happen to her?”
“The elfs were thinking of giving the witch away at the tithe because the dark powers prefer to take a human in the place of an elf. But the witch will give them her prentice in her place, and they’ll agree, because the powers prefer a virgin in the place of a crone.

All of this myth and history and lore sits side by side with a bit of H. P. Lovecraft:

“What do you want, Son of Adam? My kind has nothing to do with yours! My kind is as old as the terrible lizards who once ruled all the world in aeons long past, when all the world was swamp and no flower had ever opened its face. We were here before you, and we will be here when you are gone and the world is ruled by a coleopterous race of great-skulled beetle monsters, with eyes like lamps, cold and cruel with insect wisdom.”

And just like Lord Dunsany, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Poul Anderson’s works, interactions with Elfland are liable to get non-Euclidian:

“The distance between the Night World and the Day World changes when the mists get thick or thin. When you first came here, Uffern House was near Xochimilco, but with shifts in the mist, now it is in Terrebonne Parish, Lousiana.”
“How can it move?”
The bird shrugged. “Time and distance are more like suggestions than really strict rules for elfs. Their geometry is different.”

How can all this hold together?

Well, it shouldn’t. This violates every principle of world building that the vast majority has taken for granted since the eighties. There is no elaborate map of a fantasy world on the inside front cover. There is no “superficial mumbo jumbo in place of religion” with paladins serving “the Temple of Gooble the Mostly Omnipotent” like what Steve Jackson complained about in the first edition of GURPS Fantasy. There is no repudiation of traditional views of right and wrong.

In addition to real Christianity, real demons, and real devils– not to mention talking animals and fantastic beings from a dozen distinct mythologies– this book takes the Athurian legends and combines them with not only countless depictions of elfs from literature but a great many pulp stories besides. This is a book where every awesome and inspiring thing you’ve ever imagined is true at once.

It’s mind blowing.

It shouldn’t work. It can’t work. But it does! Combine this with unvarnished heroism and undiluted romance and you get something you’re not going to get anywhere else. Honestly, this sort of thing shouldn’t even exist. But if you’ve ever wondered what would happen if an author wrote as if nothing that happened in fantasy publishing after 1980 mattered, this is it.

3 Comments
  • T. Everett says:

    “This is a book where every awesome and inspiring thing you’ve ever imagined is true at once.

    It’s mind blowing.

    It shouldn’t work. It can’t work. But it does!”

    I have found this to be generally true of just about everything that comes from his pen. His wife’s too, come to think of it.

  • Nike says:

    Any word on when these might be printed as hardcover or paperbacks?

    Believe it or not, but more people are dumping their e-books to go back to print. It’s called the “Lindy Effect.” Anyway, would love to see Wright’s books actually get published on dead trees!

  • Paul D. Walker says:

    your review nails it. it has all of my child fantasy stories, legends, and tales all wrapped up in a nice little bow.

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