With the passing of Leonard Nimoy yesterday at the age of 82 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), many retrospectives laud the legendary actor’s role as Spock from the Star Trek franchise, a coldly logical Vulcan. What is sometimes forgotten is that Spock was actually a half-Vulcan, and with his pointy ears and mixed heritage he embodied the half-elf archetype in science fiction.
Spock’s half-human, half-Vulcan heritage has echoes throughout fantasy. In early legends, half-elves were merely a mixed species, the inevitable consequences of female fairies seducing human males, as explained in The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games:
The desire for elven women and the implication that a human/elf breeds true inevitably led to half-elves (or peredhil, in Tolkien’s work), who were descended from an elvish line. Notable examples include the Danish princess Skuld of Hrólf Kraki’s saga, the hero Högni of the Thidrekssaga, and the royal line of Alfheim of the Þorsteins saga Víkingssonar.
Unlike the half-elves of legend, Spock chose his Vulcan “side.” This is more in line with the half-elves of Lord of the Rings; those of mixed race must choose to be elven or human. Wikipedia explains:
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional universe of Middle-earth, the Half-elven (Sindarin singular Peredhel, plural Peredhil, Quenya singular Perelda) are the children of the union of Elves and Men. The Half-elven are not a distinct race from Elves and Men, and must ultimately choose to which race they belong. This is significant because although Elves and Men are able to crossmate and produce fertile offspring, their final fates are separate: Elves are immortal (they do not die, or if killed are re-embodied, while Arda endures), whereas Men are mortal (after death their souls depart the world for an unknown place and future).
Tolkien’s elves certainly inspired their inclusion in Dungeons & Dragons, although to what extent is somewhat unclear. Jon Peterson explains in Playing at the World:
For his part, Gygax held that Tolkien wronged the elves. In his article “Fantasy Wargaming and the Influence of J.R.R. Tolkien,” Gygax argues, “Tolkien took a blend of elves and fairies for his elves. In fact, they are almost indistinguishable from humans, save for their beauty and magical powers.” By way of contrast, Gygax points to the portrayal of elves in Three Hearts and Three Lions, where elves cannot abide the touch of iron or steel, and moreover to the trickery of the Faerie lords who attempt to lure Holger Carlson into a temporal trap, as examples of a more compelling vision of elvenkind–but not one that seems to have influenced the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Gygax retreats from any implication that Anderson’s account served as an inspiration for his elves, instead claiming of both accounts of elvenkind that “neither was quite suitable for a fantasy wargame, so an entirely different interpretation was used.”
And that interpretation includes pointy ears, long life spans, with a tendency for the mystical arts. TVTropes expands on the parallels between Vulcans and elves:
Vulcans in Star Trek are also rather elf-y. Pointy ears, long-lived, super strong, spiritual, and mildly telepathic, with names that make liberal use of the Punctuation Shaker. The whole stoic persona is a bit unelfy, but their vegetarianism does make them pretty green. (Or perhaps that’s just the copper-based blood. Which might be symbolic color-wise.)
TVTropes outlines just how much Spock’s half-Vulcan heritage had in common with traditional fantasy half-elves:
Spock also fulfills the “half-human means half-suck” rule. Vulcans are actually far more emotionally volatile than humans, and require their discipline and adherence to logic to control themselves. Logically, a human/Vulcan hybrid would experience emotions more strongly than a pure human, but less than a full Vulcan. So, being raised under Vulcan discipline and adherence to logic, as Spock enthusiastically did (choosing his “elf” side), Spock should have been LESS emotional and more logical and controlled than any pure Vulcan, ever. But no; Elves Are Better.
The fine line between Vulcans and humans was actually discussed in a Supreme Court review of the violence of video games. Justice Sotomayor questioned what an “image of a human being” is defined as. She used the example of a Vulcan being maimed and tortured. Mr. Zackery P. Morazzini, Esquire, Supervising Deputy Attorney General, Sacramento, California, responded that Vulcans wouldn’t be covered because Vulcans aren’t “human beings.” Sotomayor went after Morazzini, explaining that in-game avatars can be tweaked to not look human and easily skirt the law.
In role-playing game parlance, this essentially meant that a game depicting raping a human would be subject to the fine but a game depicting the rape of an elf would not. The California law’s distinction, which Sotomayor correctly pointed out, was apparently the difference in the shape of the victim’s ears.
Spock and Vulcans in general differentiated the elf-trope over time to distinguish them as a race unique to science fiction. But thanks to Nimoy’s iconic role, pointy-eared humanoids have made their way all the way to the Supreme Court.