Have you ever had a conversation with someone about the four elements? You know the ones I mean. Fire, Earth, Air, Water – they’re not the scientific elements we base our knowledge on today, but they are the classical ones that we base our fiction on. So much of our fiction, in fact, that the whole concept of the four elements can seem a little overused. Now for some reason I rather like the trope, so I don’t get particularly bothered when the elements crop up again and again in television, film, and books. Most of the time, anyway. The one time I do get a little frustrated with the four elements is when they break one rule. This rule is more or less of my own creation and I have yet to meet anyone who is as bothered by this as I am, but my rule is this: plants should not be part of the Earth element.
Back to my first sentence: have you ever spoken to someone about the four elements? I have, because I weirdly like talking about things like this, and I find such a conversation normally takes the form of something along the lines of “If you could control an element, which would you pick?”. This question normally comes up after watching something like Avatar: The Last Airbender or finding out what elemental category your star sign fits in. It is, in principle, a fairly innocent question. In the conversation I have, it can often lead to an argument. Why? Because there is no definitive definition for Earth.
Air, Fire, and Water are rather simple. Air (or Wind, as it is sometimes known) is probably the easiest; it basically refers to being able to control wind. After all, is there much else you could do with Air? Fire is a bit harder, given that some people think you shouldn’t be able to just heat things, but in the end comes down to setting things on and controlling fire. Water, again, can cause a little disagreement in the area of whether you could control ice with that power, but yet again can be easily glossed over. Earth is a different story, mostly because fiction usually sets the control of Earth in one of three categories: control of actual earth (as in soil and dirt, plus sometimes stones and sand); control of plants; or control of both.
My point of view is that the Earth elements should sit firmly in the first category, sans plants. That is my rule. Plenty of people I’ve spoken to disagree with me on this, but bear with me here. My single biggest argument against the inclusion of plants in Earth is that plants are living things – the other elements are not. Whilst other elements are inherently non-living, plants are living organisms. They grow on their own, require sustenance in the form of other elements, and can die. As a result, adding control of plants to Earth’s powers sets the element apart from the others in a very clear way.
On top of that, the definition of earth generally means either the planet on which we live or the friable part of land (in other words, substances such as soil, rock, clay, and so on). Plants are not included in there. Adding them in seems to be turning Earth into a term that encompasses all of nature, and the problem with that is that nature requires some form of all the elements in order to exist. So trying to make Earth into the most nature-oriented element is like trying to make novels represent all of writing. Not only is it slightly deceptive, it is also unfair to the other elements.
Speaking of that unfairness matter, I think the reason some people favour the plant-full rather than plant-less version of Earth is because it gives the element more power, something many think it lacks. How many people do you know that would choose Earth as their element of choice? I haven’t met many. In general, Earth is a fairly under-appreciated element, and for not very good reason. Water and Fire are flashy and well-known, whilst some people are drawn to Air if it comes with connotations of flying. But Earth? Unless it comes with plant powers, no-one really wants it. Of course, Earth is really a very cool power. Think of all the things you could do with Earth manipulation, assuming it includes control of friable parts of land, even without plants:
- Throw stones at people. Pick pebbles and you have little bullets. Get bigger and you have weapons ranging from cannonballs to full-on boulders. With that, you could probably do more damage to buildings and other structures than any of the other elements could.
- Open up holes in the ground – and close them. You could seal things underground, divert floods or lava down fissures, or even prevent planes (or dragons) from landing.
- Change the very surface you or anyone else stands on. Providing you’re on earth and not, say, ice or a cloud, you have a pretty clear advantage in being able to edit the terrain to your advantage.
- Ground-based immunity. It would be truly impossible for you to die of falling off a cliff, being crushed in a landslide, or getting trapped in a hole in the ground. In short, you would probably be the last surviving cast member of a TV drama.
- In your element, all the time. Very rarely are battles fought underwater or in the air. All other times, you’d be pretty much surrounded by materials you have control over. Now tell me, which elemental power would be most likely to win a battle in the middle of a desert?
And those are just a few I came up with. As you can see, Earth power has some pretty cool perks of its own. So, going back to the main issue, is there that much need for it to have control of plants as well? No matter how pointless this argument might be in real life, I still say that Earth should be a plantless element.
What do you think? Should “Earth” refer to just earth, or should it include plants? Do you have a favourite element, and if so then which? My favourite is actually Water, believe it or not. I just feel Earth needs a bit more defending.