Elfsense and Elf psychology

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This article is expanded from my original posting to the Glorantha Digest volume 3 number 146. It contains revisions prompted by feedback from that posting.

Elves are an enigmatic species in Glorantha. They are often met in legends and games, but we know little about their motivations and thoughts. We know that they live in forests, worship Grower, and often behave in an incomprehensible manner (as far as humans are concerned). I think that these facts are all tied together, and to understand how elves think and act, we need to understand how they perceive the world.

But before we get to that, let's back up a bit. The major deity in elves' lives is Aldrya, the Goddess of Forests. That's important. She isn't the Goddess of Trees; She isn't even the Goddess of 'Lots of Trees Growing Near Each Other'. She is the Goddess of Forests, the mother of the whole eco-system that is the Forest. Every tree, every bush, every earthworm, every dung beetle, every woodpecker, everything that goes towards keeping the Forest a vibrant, living organism, comes under her purview. And elves are Her way of reacting quickly to the needs of the Forest.

Which brings us to elves and Elfsense. In Elder Secrets, Elfsense is described as allowing the elf to discern what is wrong with a plant they touch. That sounds rather lame to me. I think that description reflects what Gloranthan humans understand about Elfsense, rather that what it really is. I think that Elfsense is the elves' primary sense, the way they gain most of their information about the world. Humans have vision, trolls have hearing, dwarves have touch, and in an identical way, elves have empathy. We know that in the real world, plants communicate with each other; that if one tree is attacked by pests, its neighbours take pre-emptive steps to protect themselves. That is what Elfsense is: the elves' perception of the constant communication between plants as they experience and react to the world around them.

This means that Elfsense has two 'modes', in the same way that human vision has two 'modes'. Normally, as elves go about their everyday business, they perceive the background 'hum' of the Forest living, as plants grow, feed, die, rot. This "Song of the Forest" is constantly 'heard' by everything in the Forest. As the situation in the Forest changes, plants tell each other about it, and the Song changes. Messages about small things only go small distances, but if something big happens, the whole Forest will know. Elves will pick up the changes in the Song quicker than most other plants and they will react to it, taking what actions are necessary for the well-being of the Forest. The other 'mode' of Elfsense is the specific examination of the Song of one plant in an attempt to learn why it sings in such a way. It's like a human looking carefully at a specific thing, and is the use of Elfsense described in Elder Secrets.

So what does this tell us about elven psychology? Two things, mainly. The first stems from the fact that elves perceive the world primarily through their Elfsense. If they go somewhere with less plant life, the Song will be attenuated and the elf will become deprived of sensory input. The equivalent for a human would be a deadening of all sense of their own body. No sense of touch, heat, cold, hunger, balance. No elf in their right mind voluntarily leaves the Forest. Which means that most of the elves seen outside their Forests are not in their right minds. They are either monomaniacal fanatics, prepared to suffer terrible privations for the good of the Forest (similar the Krjalki elves of Hellwood, embracing Chaos in order to fight it), or they are actually quite mad. Sometimes, right-thinking elves do leave the Forest on the business of the Forest, but this only happens in extremis, and it is very unpleasant for the elves. This stress on the elf can often be enough to temporarily unbalance the individual, mainly because it sees itself as an individual, often for the first time.

The second result of Elfsense is that elves cannot really give reasons for their actions. If a human is thirsty, they will reach out for a glass of water and drink it. An elf would understand this as a metaphor for their actions, but instead of seeing themselves in the place of the human, they see themselves as the hand, and the Forest as the organism that is thirsty. An elf can no more explain its actions than a person's hand can explain why it grasps the glass. If the Forest has a need which can only be satisfied by sending its elves outside itself, the elves will go, but they won't know why. All the elves hear is the Song of the Forest expressing a need to fetch that glass of water. If the elf is asked why it needs the glass of water it can't answer. And as humans only ever see the elves, it is little wonder that elves have acquired a reputation for being callous, arbitrary, and unfriendly. Of course, the elf can use all their gargantuan intellect to find the best way to fetch that glass of water, and this plan may be convoluted indeed, but they can't explain they must fetch something that is of no direct use to themselves.

Finally, the role of Elfsense explains the existence of Rootless and Renegade elves. Just as some humans are blind, some elves cannot perceive the Song of the Forest. This disability means that the afflicted elves cannot really operate in mainstream Aldryami society as Aldrya, the Forest, does not have the same immediate presence in their lives. In most cases, the Forest will nurture the unsensing elf and encourage them the take the fullest part they can in the Forest. This often takes the form of worshipping other gods, acting as messengers to other places and races, and sometimes diplomats. These are needed roles and the elves that fill them are both pitied and praised. Occasionally, the isolation the Rootless elf feels becomes too much and they become Renegade, turning their back on the Forest completely, and sating their own base desires. These are twisted individuals indeed.