Classic Review: The Dark Elf Trilogy
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The Dark Elf Trilogy by R. A. Salvatore are not actually the first books written featuring the character of Drizzt Do’Urden. The chronologically later Icewind Dale series featured the elf as a secondary character until he gradually attracted more and more of the spotlight and eventually elbowed all of his fellow cast members into the grave. Admittedly a character who naturally lives several centuries longer than any of the species he hangs out with is always going to end up lonely and the career of adventuring has a fairly high body count. Even so you always got the impression that Drizzt survived all of the dangerous situations that he was pushed into less because of his skill with the blade and more because the publisher refused to let their biggest cash cow die. Salvatore at one point attempted to end the series, only for his publisher to threaten to bring in a new writer to pick up where he left off. A constant danger when writing licensed books.
The Dark Elf Trilogy is set in the world of the game Dungeons and Dragons, more specifically within the world known as the Forgotten Realms and while it draws on all of that rich tradition and the rules laid out there it also furnishes that world with layers of detail and description that bring it to life. The trilogy follows our young hero Drizzt from the moment of his birth to the first few years that he is travelling on the surface of the world. The Dark Elves, or Drow, of the setting are a purely subterranean species that dwell in a colossal cave system that stretches across the breadth of continents. They survive in that inhospitable dungeon through several means. Their close relationship to the demonic and chaotic goddess who helped to create their matriarchal society and recoloured the Drow from the pasty white of their surface dwelling cousins to a more suitable camouflage for lives in complete darkness. The ridiculous powers of their wizards who conjure up all of the food, fresh water and heat that cave dwellers might require. Last but not least, the Drow survive and thrive by being the most evil and vicious creatures to exist.
There are some unfortunate implications to the Drow’s colouration. The changing of their skin tone by a demon spider goddess very closely resembles some of the vile racist rhetoric that fundamentalist Christians used to bandy about when they spoke of skin being stained with sin. Worse yet, Salvatore attempts to use this dark skin as an opportunity to engage in a conversation about racism that falls more than a little flat. Yes, it is clearly wrong that Drizzt is discriminated against on the surface world for the colour of his skin but only because he is “one of the good ones.” The fact that the author made an attempt at addressing the inherent racism tied up in so many fantasy worlds is marvellous, but having a black race devoted to pure evil was perhaps a slight fumble in the discourse and it was one that was clearly unavoidable in a world where there are nine possible moralities and most species are assigned one at birth.
Into this society of absolute xenophobia, joyful hatred and sadistic torment comes little baby Drizzt, a child who is fundamentally good despite being raised by a people who are fundamentally evil. It is through his eyes that we explore the complexities of the Drow culture and later the cultures of those other races who dwelt in the underworld along with all of the alien fauna and flora that thrive there. Almost as fascinating is Drizzt’s internal journey, going from a moral rebel to adopting a policy of survival at all costs and then finally merging the two into a single personality. There is a depth to the writing of these stories that belays any comparison to similar material. Drizzt, for all that he has been often copied in other fantasy and science fiction, remains a unique and fascinating character, even reading these books literally decades from the first time I picked them up.
Even if you know nothing about Dungeons or the Dragons that they may or may not contain, this trilogy of books is well worth a read. I am not going to pretend that it is flawless or literary, but not every book has to be a work of elegance. Sometimes you just want to sit and read a good story and these books are nothing if not that.