Leaf & Thorn: The Secret Life of Elves
by Robin B. Laws (Dragon #279)
When will I feel it, mother?
When will I feel Corellan's touch?
Will it be in the warmth of the sun?
Or in deep blue starlight?
Will it come when the air is still?
Or when gales blow petals through the glade?
All of those times and none, my child;
When he awakens you, you will know.
- traditional elven nursery song, as translated from Elven
At first, it does not even look like a settlement. The visitor sees only a tranquil forest dale, coursed by a meandering stream. He hears the rustle of willow branches caressed by a gentle wind and the piping of songbirds. Then his eye catches movement. He sees a tall figure, slim as the birch trunks she walks among, slip from the woods and down to the stream, carrying a wicker basket heaped with garments of gossamer and moonsilk. The visitor hails her, for he is known here as a friend and can count on a welcome. She turns and waves, and suddenly the place bursts with life, as the visitor's friends emerge from their well-camouflaged huts to greet him. Laughing elven children bound towards him, and soon he is surrounded by elves both young and old. He feels bathed in their acceptance and love. Yet he keeps a portion of his heart hard to them, understanding all too well that these beautiful creatures could carelessly steal his affections and abandon him on a moment's whim.
He knows more of elves than most, and by resisting the webs of love they so unthinkingly weave around him, he reminds himself of their curious ways. Their every moment, from joyous birth to melancholy decline, marks them as a people apart.
The You and the We
Elves revel in a dual nature. Their love of paradox makes them seem mysterious to other races, but elves do not see themselves as mysterious or exotic; it is the world of people who want things to be one way or another that puzzles them.
The main paradox elves embrace is an idea they call "The You and the We." Outsiders must understand it before they can truly know the elven mind. Young elves learn it in the cradle. It tells them that they must balance their duties to themselves with their obligations to the community. An elf's duty to herself is to always strive to explore her own identity, to pursue experience, and to delve into the depths of her own soul. His obligation to the community is to live in partnership with others and to support their quests for inner knowledge. These two things are not contradictory. Without a community to clothe, feed, and comfort her, an elf can't enjoy the physical security she needs to pursue her inner quest.
Without knowledge of her own spirit, the elf has nothing of true value to contribute to her community. To master the principle of "The You and the We," an elf must make herself truly individualistic, but without a trace of selfishness.
The twin principles of individuality and unselfishness ring through every significant event in an elf's life, starting with his birth. Elves, who strive always for harmony with nature's pattern, celebrate birth as the beginning of a new cycle of life. No event is holier than the birth of a child. Elven mothers do everything they can to deliver their babies in the community where they themselves were born. This custom of returning breathes new life into an elven settlement, reconnecting it to the forces of renewal that keep the world turning. A mother who was herself born away from an elven community will return, if at all possible, to the village where she was raised, or failing that, to the birthplace of one of her parents. In emergencies, any elven community will do. Where none is available, birth in the wilderness is preferable to one among other races.
Elven women remain fertile from around the time of their coming of age (see below) to approximately their 550th birthday.
The elven fetus gestates for approximately twelve lunar cycles. During pregnancy, the mother develops a bond with the developing child. As is well known, elves do not sleep, but slip into trances that renew their souls and bodies. At some time between the sixth and seventh cycles, the child's budding consciousness reveals itself to the mother. Over the coming cycles, she gradually begins to sense what kind of person her child will become. She selects a name for the growing baby, which it recognizes and accepts. The name is kept secret until the moment of birth.
The birth experience serves as the climax of a great communal celebration. Every member of the community encircles the mother-to-be, joyously singing the ancient chants handed down to them by the birthing goddesses. Both women and men, young and old, attend the ceremony and witness the miracle of being. They behold it with neither shame nor revulsion. Elves recoil at the suggestion that births are somehow unclean, or that they should be kept hidden from the world. Elven births are easier on their mothers than those of other races; they suffer little pain. (This is not true when the baby is only half-elven; these births can be agonizing and dangerous.)
Elves almost always retain vivid memories of the moment just after they emerge into the world, when they are held up for the community to see. They remember the special song their new neighbors sing to them. When the time comes for an elf to attend her first birthing, she finds she knows the song without having been taught it.
An elf's memories of childhood (the next fifty or so years) are rarely so clear. Childhood is a time of play and exploration, all carried out under the watchful eyes of the community's adults, who are keenly aware of the hazards lurking in even the most tranquil natural setting. Although elves value direct experience over second-hand learning, there are certain things that can only be taught. Children learn to look for danger before exploring, to recite the names of the thousand elven gods and spirits, and to imitate their elders in the making of crafts, clothing, and hunting implements. Although the child learns to recognize and accompany his mother and father, other family distinctions are unimportant.
Children, already in pursuit of their individuality, are allowed to form bonds to the adults to whom they feel most attuned. Every member of a community swears, during the birthing ceremony, to lend the best of his or her knowledge and spirit to the new child. If a child grows up to be selfish, dulled to beauty, or unamusing, the entire community has failed. If a child succumbs to the forest's dangers, all share the tragedy of a life taken before its time.
Although there are some slight differences in outlook between elven men and women (see below), these are tendencies, not enforced rules to which children are expected to adhere. A child is neither pressed into learning a family trade or adopting its artistic traditions. In elven culture, lines are meant to be blurred, and distinctions are but a thing of temporary convenience.
As much as elves delight in testing boundaries and confounding definitions, even they must admit that some generalizations can be made about the roles of men and women in their society.
Both men and women frequently take up the professions of hunters and warriors. However, some male elves are seized by wanderlust and seek their true selves by exploring the adventures and dangers of the wider world. Female elven fighters, on the other hand, sometimes feel a need to stay closer to home to guard the ones they love. As a result, they often become the foresters, guards, or militia of their communities. The need to seek an epiphany (see below) overrules all else, though, and no elf hesitates to pursue any course her heart tells her to follow.
Both men and women are equally as likely to play a musical instrument in elven society. However, men tend to prefer the vocal arts and wind instruments, and women have a slight tendency to pick up percussion or stringed instruments. A mixed quartet of elven bards is said to be capable of bringing a god to tears.
Both genders are equally represented among the priesthood and the ranks of arcane spellcasters. All elves love magic and feel it in their bones like perhaps no other race.
In terms of the less violent crafts, many elven men enjoy woodcarving, pottery, and crafts that require shaping material with their bare hands. Elven women, on the other hand, lean toward crafts such as painting, weaving, and other crafts that require an active imagination and a gentle, creative touch. In general, though, elves love the feeling of bringing a new shape to something that nature has created. They find great joy in turning the mundane into the magical and the normal into the brilliant, and any effort to work in harmony with nature is a noble one.
It bears repeating, though, that elves are much less likely to follow the unwritten rules of their societies than are the members of any other race. Every community boasts its share of wolfish, wandering female hunters and homebound, peaceable male weavers.
The fifty-year span between childhood and full adulthood is the most important in shaping an elf's character and determining his spiritual path. Elves call this the beryn fin, or "time of discovery." Beryn fin, the onset of puberty, with its wrenching emotions and romantic urges, is twinned with an even more powerful mystical awakening.
Other races generally consider the sexual freedom of elves shocking, fickle, and endlessly fascinating. The folk tales and rumors they repeat are much more scandalous and colorful than what really goes on. To an elf, sexual expression is just one item on a long list of experiences anyone should explore in the course of forging an identity. Experimentation with a range of partners is no more or less odd than tasting the juice of a dozen berries, following the path of plume-seeds as winds carry them through the woods, or learning the secret names of the forest's animals. Still, a young elf's exploration of love and lust should be as complete as any other quest he or she embarks upon.
Elves hold no double standards in their games of coupling and uncoupling. Males and females are both encouraged to fully express their physical yearnings. Young females can blithely pursue their infatuations because the low fertility rate of their long-lived species makes pregnancy unlikely. Children born out of wedlock, though rare, face no special prejudice in an elven community.
Young elves seem fickle to other races because they are able to move from one partner to the next without suffering the pangs of separation or unrequited love. Casual liaisons are a common and accepted part of social interaction. An elf might have partnered in the past with a large number of contemporaries in his or her community and feels no lingering feelings of shame or awkwardness in their presence. They might fondly recall the joys of an old rendezvous, but give it no more weight than they would the recollections of a delightful shared meal or a satisfying day of rock climbing.
Alongside their pursuit of pleasure, adolescent elves are expected to slowly take on the duties of mutual support and protection that keep a community together. Males and females alike must master the basics of combat, especially with the bow. They must learn to keep themselves at constant attention during a long watch - not an easy task for an easily-distracted, questing young mind. Adolescents take part in the community's foraging, farming, and hunting activities. During this time, they must also learn to make useful and beautiful things.
Both pleasure and responsibility are less important than the young elf's spiritual progress. Elves do not draw a line between the everyday world and the realms of the gods. Although everyone knows that Corellon Larethian and his pantheon dwell in a lush and verdant quadrant of the outer planes, their presence also permeates the Prime Material Plane. The spiritual touch of Corellon Larethian can be found in any place where elves live in harmony with nature. An elf does not simply listen to a priest tell him about his god; he goes into the wilderness to seek his presence, to feel the deity's breath upon his skin, and to hear the words of wisdom he whispers in his worshipers' ears. Young elves are encouraged to spend hours in solitude out in the wild until they encounter Larethian's spirit.
The moment of epiphany, when an elf's inner senses open up and his entire being is flooded with an awareness of the divine, is the pivotal moment in any elf's life. He does not describe it to anyone, even to his closest love or his own children, except in the vaguest terms. It is hard, then, to reliably say much about this instant of supreme mystery. Each elf seems to experience it differently. Despite the imaginings of certain non-elven scholars, who picture the event as a grand vision of a glowing avatar of Corellon Larethian appearing to the quester, the moment is a profoundly subtle. The elf might come to know the god by seeing an especially sublime pattern traced in the veins of a crumbling leaf, or in the knowledge of imminent power found in the disturbed air that precedes a thunderstorm.
An elf spends his years of beryn fin in spiritual preparation for this moment, receiving tantalizing hints and premonitions of its true significance. It usually occurs during the elf's one-hundredth year. Some elves, especially those whose births were accompanied by auspicious signs and portents, might experience it as soon as age seventy-five. These individuals often go on to become great priests or priestesses, or mighty heroes. A few unlucky souls find that epiphany eludes them, usually because they're trying too hard to force the moment to occur. Most, after priestly counseling, experience the awakening no more than a decade or two late. A rare few never taste it. Growing bitter and frustrated with the loving pity they receive from their friends and neighbors, the malawain, or "unawakened," often choose self-exile, leaving the world of elves to settle in foreign cities or wander as rootless adventurers. Malawain rarely admit their status, even to those who couldn't care less about elven spiritual development.
When an elf experiences the Awakening, she is transformed. She declares herself an adult, marking her newfound individuality by selecting a new name for herself. She has become an equal of any adult in the community.
The elf's relatives and neighbors might be slow to adopt the elf's newly-chosen name. Elves, for whom a decade is like the blinking of an eye, take a while to adjust their impressions of others to match new circumstances. Elderly, doting relatives are especially prone to use an elf's child-name as a term of endearment. Some individuals accept this; others bristle.
About one in two hundred elves spends part of her life as a wandering adventurer in search of exotic experience; almost none of them devote more than a century or two to such pursuits. An elf who leaves the company of her fellows to delve through muck-encrusted dungeons with surly dwarves and impetuous humans is, by definition, an eccentric. Fortunately, elves celebrate individuality and treat returned adventurers with excited curiosity, not contempt or fear.
Although a crusty dwarf or impatient human might not notice it, the newly matured elf has undergone a sudden change. She has lost the innocent playfulness of beryn fin. Although she continues to seek out moments of beauty and pleasure, she now does so for a different reason and in an altered spirit. In achieving her moment of oneness with the elven gods, she has also sensed the inescapable, lurking presence of their opposites: the gods of evil and their minions. She understands that her efforts to live lightly on the land and protect the community from enemies are part of a greater struggle to protect existence - especially the natural world - from cruel and powerful entities that constantly scheme to destroy it.
An elf fights evil not only by remaining vigilant against signs of its taint but by embracing the beauty of the world. Now, when she creates a work of art, she is not just making herself and those around her happy. She is erecting a bulwark against hatred and unthinking destruction. She can't allow herself to be consumed by fear or hatred of the enemy, because it is through these corrosive impulses that evil does its work. She must defy evil by bringing joy into the world and by continuing her quest to know her true self.
Though the religion and culture of the elves puts them at odds with the forces of evil, elves are no more immune than other species from its temptations. Demons take special pleasure in leading elves astray, which they do by making mental contact with them as they quest for their epiphanies. Some pose as Corellon Larethian, tricking the gullible. Others offer the wealth and dominance that elven society turns its back on. Self-pitying malawain, convincing themselves that they been cast out by Larethian, are especially prone to their manipulation.
It does not take long for the typical elven community to notice the odd behavior of an obviously cruel or insane servant of evil. But more clever types might thrive for decades, if not centuries, subtly taking advantage of a community's trust to thwart their protective efforts and allow corruption to gain a foothold around their lands. Although elven tolerance is vast, a community member who reveals his evil faces execution unless he escapes.
Courtship and Marriage
Upon reaching adulthood, elves continue their sexual explorations. Eventually, though, each discovers that his heart has developed a capacity for lasting and exclusive love. Like most other important things in their lives, elves describe this in mystical terms. They believe that a person's spiritual progress is unknowingly intertwined with that of another. This soulmate is called a thiramin. Upon meeting his thiramin, an elf's heart fills with passion and certainty. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the other party is felled by the same feeling of immediate and eternal devotion. (Though rare, an unrequited feeling of thiramin is always disastrous, bringing centuries of wrenching heartbreak. Sufferers often commit suicide or succumb to the temptations of evil.) Elves almost always feel thiramin for people they meet for the first time: In other words, visitors from other communities. Intermarriage between communities strengthens the bonds of communication between settlements, allowing them to quickly band together against the armies of evil that march across the land.
Perhaps five couples out of a hundred form when elves who have known each other since childhood suddenly look upon one another and fall into a state of thiramin. When this happens, it is almost always the case that the two elves have previously treated each other as bitter rivals.
The certainty of thiramin is never allowed to interfere with the experience of a long and protracted courtship. Where adolescents will hop into the hay with one another on the slightest provocation, a couple swayed by thiramin might heighten their moment of ecstasy by delaying it for decades or even centuries.
Elven marriage ceremonies are stately and beautiful, often lasting for weeks. Poetry recitations, musical performances, and theatrical events all retell the great love stories of elven lore. Non-elves often find the protracted dignity of these occasions unbearable. The wild debauchery that begins after the husband and wife have retired to the nuptial bed might surprise them.
Though they prefer to stay close together, married couples are capable of spending long periods of time apart. The feeling of connection they have for one another makes a missing partner feel close at hand, even when she is far away.
The condition of thiramin (soul binding) can sometimes vanish as quickly as it came, Again, the feeling of sudden disconnection is almost always mutual. The end of thiramin can almost never be traced to a specific cause, like a fight or an incident of infidelity. Instead, It is seen as an indication that the partners' spiritual paths have diverged, and that Corellon Larethian's divine plans for them call for their parting. The evaporation of love is accepted with mournful resignation. The couple quietly breaks up their household, relying on community leaders to spread the sad news, One partner usually leaves the community in search of his or her new destiny. An elf doesn't usually feel hate or bitterness towards an ex-partner, but still suffers a sense of loss and pain while in his or her presence.
Thiramin can sometimes be broken by outside forces. A ritual known to certain covens of evil clerics can sever the bond between husband and wife. It requires the capture of a personal item co-owned by the targets. Adventurous friends of the sundered couple can break the spell, and reknit the bonds of marriage, by recovering the item and destroying the priest's ritual implements. The unhappy mates normally don't assist in this, as they lose all desire to reform the relationship.
Living Off the Land
Elven communities support themselves with the bounty of nature. Regarding themselves as just another part of the natural world, they hunt, forage, and farm in ways that maintain its cycles of renewal. Aided by magic, they're able to produce food and shelter for themselves while leaving the area around them in its original state. They keep their communities small and spread out so as not to overtax the land. Their low birth rate helps them accomplish this. The goal of an elven community is subsistence, not wealth or profit. As is the case in any community that aims only to sustain itself, specialized labor is uncommon. People divide their time according to what they do best, but every capable individual does at least a little farming, foraging, hunting, and crafting.
Rituals of the Land
The chief elven deity, Corellon Larethian, grants the following divine spells to community priests and priestesses. By convention, priests cast the forager's blessing spell, while priestesses conduct the womb of the earth ritual. However, clerics of either sex can perform either spell.
Some communities completely discourage trade with other races, or even with neighboring elves. Several common elven folktales tell of the first elves to discover trade; they invariably bring near ruination upon all of elvenkind. Other groups are more permissive of trade, so long as it doesn't drive them to deplete local resources. Even they refuse to trade for those things they can make or gather themselves; to do so would be not only to admit failure but also to accept dependence on unreliable outsiders. Elves, who love the beautiful and exotic, are much more likely to trade for luxury items. They like pretty stones, decorative jewelry, wondrous magic items, and unfamiliar musical instruments. Their sense of value is very different from a human's or dwarf's: They might offer a fist-sized nugget of gold in exchange for the performance of a song, or a jar of fireflies for an emerald-encrusted scepter.
Elves who live in human settlements come to accept the necessity of trade and the standard values of items in order to survive among them. Elven adventurers quickly learn the importance of purchased gear; when they retire to their communities, they might act as intermediaries between their kin and puzzled peddlers.
Leadership and Authority
As lovers of freedom, elves recoil from authority wielded for its own sake. Yet they recognize that in times of crisis, it is sometimes necessary to follow the directions of a wise leader. Within communities, leadership stays informal. Community leaders can't force people to do anything; they rely on their reputations and the merit of their words to gain cooperation. Everyone knows everyone else, and know people who to ask for advice when they need it. They seek the counsel of a small handful of revered elders, each of whom claims centuries of experience and achievement in a particular area. One elder, probably a priest or priestess, might understand more about cultivation than anyone else. Another knows the local forests inside out and can best supervise community defense. A third might claim the greatest expertise in foreign warfare; she takes charge of the village's warriors when they go forth to fight evil. A visitor who asks the name of a village's leader might get five or six different answers, depending on the nature of her business.
Each community recognizes a king or queen who maintains authority over dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of small communities. Their positions are hereditary; each traces descent from elven heroes of the ancient past, and through them, to Corellon Larethian himself. Monarchs must live up to their hallowed pedigrees by making good decisions and winning battles against evil. If they lose the respect of a community, it might enact a ceremony of severance to transfer its allegiance to a ruler of another lineage. Luckily, monarchs take their duties seriously, and this rarely happens. The charisma of elven royalty is stunning; even non-elves who spend time with such rulers find themselves wanting to serve.
In peacetime, a monarch's main duties are ceremonial. She spends two-thirds of a year traveling from one community to another, where she presides over rituals, judges competitions, enjoys performances, accepts endless poetic tributes, and blesses the crops.
Monarchs don't tax their subjects, but are typically burdened with hundreds of luxurious gifts at the end of each royal visit. They carry these home to their courts, where they are put on display. In times of dire emergency, they might be traded, mostly in human cities, for armaments.
When not touring, kings and queens hold court in fabulous surroundings. Some elven palaces are ancient structures of gleaming marble; others are made of magically-intertwined, living trees. Their locations are kept secret; otherwise, they'd be too tempting a target for raiders.
While at court, elven rulers throw lavish feasts. They sponsor festivals and tournaments to build fraternal feelings between communities. The monarchs, or their senior courtiers, mediate disputes between elves from different settlements. Human observers often remark on the absence of flattery in elven court life. Although an elven queen enjoys compliments as much as any elf (which is to say, quite a lot), she sees them as her due. It does not occur to her to reward those who give them with gold or treasure.
Journey Into Twilight
Beginning around an elf's six hundredth year, her blood begins to slow, her thoughts start to cloud, and her bones grow tired. Elves train themselves all their lives to accept death as an integral part of nature's cycle. Even so, they usually find it hard to adjust to the dimming of their senses, which makes it harder for them to experience pleasure. An elf's declining years are often melancholy ones. She might spend them composing her memoirs in epic verse, hoping that her descendants will memorize and repeat them for generations to come. She might retreat to a hermitage or isolated cave to contemplate the nature of existence. A very few misguided souls turn to blackest sorcery to extend their lives, becoming liches. But most surround themselves with their fellow villagers, trying to impart the wisdom they've gained and take heart in the laughter of children.
Burial customs vary. Where the soil is lush, bodies are buried to nourish the land, repaying it for a life-time's bounty. Where the ground is hard, they are cremated, and their ashes sent on the winds for one final, unpredictable journey.
Some elves hold that after death, their spirits go to dwell in a verdant paradise with the kin of Corellon Larethian. Others believe in an eternal cycle of reincarnation, in which their spirits return to earth just as an evaporated puddle eventually falls as rain. The true answer remains for each seeker to find herself.