Human Lives Matter: Racial Politics in Fantasy

(Disclaimer: I am not an anthropologist, or a social scientist.)

Black Lives Matter, the most recent crystallization of racial politics in our nation, has prompted me, among other things, to pause and question the use of race in fantasy and science-fiction, to include re-evaluating how I approach fantasy races in my Ahmbren Chronicles books. If I think about the most influential models in fantasy and science fiction which divide characters into races in such a way where racial differences and inherent natures are highlighted, I would look at Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Roddenberry’s Star Trek.

In the real world, civilization has moved through periods of time where it was (wrongfully) asserted that races had different characteristics. In the literature of our past, people of the “negroid race” were called savage. Inferior. Of animal passion.

Biologically, it’s been proven that “race” isn’t actually a thing. There is no such thing as race on a genetic level. The color of our skin is no more an indication of aptitude, character, or morality than the color of our hair or eyes. I share with the author of the linked article that I also didn’t learn that race isn’t “real” in the biological sense until I was in college.

Race is a thing, I would propose, in the social sense. A combination of ethnicity, physical characteristics, and a line of ancestors extending back through particular cultures to particular geographic regions. There is a racial effect, an experience, we all have, and each of our racial experiences are different from the other races. To be Caucasian in the world (anywhere in the world) means we will have a different cause-effect response from the cultural system than if we are Black, or Asian, or Semitic. The level of difference, and whether our race gives us advantage or disadvantage depends on the area of the world. In most instances, being white in Europe or North American presents a certain set of advantages. Being Caucasian in Asia, the Middle-East, or Africa provides an opportunity to be the outsider, with what that might mean across a wide spectrum of experience. To be non-Caucasian in Europe or North America also leads to a different paradigm than if one were Caucasian. So, even though race isn’t real from a biological perspective, it would be false to say it’s not real from an experiential and cultural perspective.

So what does this have to do with fantasy fiction?

First, let’s look at Tolkien and Roddenberry. Two writers who created concepts of race to help define their characters, and two writers who approached it from completely opposite perspectives.

Tolkien took concepts from British and European folklore and solidified them into the foundational tropes of modern fantasy: elves, dwarves, humans, orcs, and halflings. Dungeons and Dragons built on this, and a great many fantasy books, my own included, inherit from this legacy. In Tolkien, race matters. I mean, it matter a lot. The elves truly are better and superior than the other races, simply by virtue of being elves. Dwarves are more susceptible to greed because they are dwarvish (there’s even a view that Tolkien’s anti-semitism manifested in his design of the dwarves, where he stated that they were based off of [his stereotypes about] the Jewish people). Humans are easily corrupted because they are human (which is fine if you think of the problems of mortalkind and the temptations of power, but Tolkien makes this a racial thing… and I’m not even going to get into the fact that Tolkien’s black humans all throw in with Sauron). And Frodo is able to resist the ring’s power long enough to complete the mission because it is a characteristic of hobbits. In summary, though Tolkien did have variance in his characters due to their morale center (e.g., Boromir and Faramir made different choices when it came to the Ring), his characters were defined first and foremost by their race.

Roddenberry took the opposite approach. First, although Star Trek correctly Humans, Klingons, and Vulcans as different species, they are, in my opinion, analogous to races for all practical purposes. Because Star Trek has always been socially aware. Roddenberry deliberately wanted to show the commonality in his races, that no matter how alien they were, they still had faces and eyes that express human emotion. Kirk tells Spock at some point, “We’re all human, Spock.” Roddenberry believed in the shared experience of the soul (my words/interpretation) and the common bond of human experience. In Star Trek, races are much more treated as different cultures (assigned to different physical costuming), but the heroes are heroes because of shared moral values based on a universal philosophy (the needs of the many) rather than by virtue of their race; the villains are villainous because of evil values based on a universal philosophy (disregard for suffering in exchange for personal or political gain) that transcends racial and cultural boundaries. In other words, the characters shape who they are based on choices rather than being defined by their race.

To bring this back to fantasy and my treatment of race in Ahmbren, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with my approach to race. Now that I think about it, I was influenced by Tolkien’s approach. I did not pattern my races on real-world stereotypes, and I believe Ahmbren is more nuanced and socially aware than Middle Earth (I also studied, metaphorically, at the feet of Roddenbery, and wanted to make my elves and orcs more “human” than Tolkien did). But there is still a fundamental racial influence on my characters. When I started building my world, I decided to make each race’s character focused around a question they held to be their ultimate philosophical question. They were as follows:

  • Sidhe (elf): What is beauty? What is perfection?
  • Human: What is useful? What is practical?
  • Ratling: What is profitable? What is negotiable?
  • Gnome: What is possible?
  • Orc: What is heroic?
  • Dwarf: What is valuable? What can I make of value?
  • Troll: What is correct?
  • Seelie (elf): What is natural? What is true?
  • Troglodyte: What can I endure? What can I survive?

This was great from a story-building perspective, because it gave me a guide post on how those races’ cultures interacted, and what inherently motivated the personalities of the characters.

And yet, I’m now bothered by this, at how fundamentally a kind of racism is built into my world. Even if it is with fictional races. Based on the world I’ve built, I can’t just wipe it away and say all those races are the same, because in this world, race has biological reality. Trolls and ratlings are physically different from elves and humans. Sidhe elves cannot cross-breed with humans (biologically incompatible), and this doesn’t even account for the wolven (werewolves) and vampires, which also have racial characteristics that fundamentally shape their character and personality. (If sunlight kills you and you must drink human blood to survive, it will have a definite impact on your personality and character).

At this point, those biological differences are baked into the world design. I could write this off as fiat accompli at this point. Except that in the story, it also presents itself as cultural differences. Which means the reader is going to unconsciously experience the racial differences much the same way we perceive racial differences in the real world: along the lines of culture and ethnicity… because I’ve explicitly made all the races human-like (a la Roddenberry), but perhaps mismatched upon a Tolkienesque structure.

I doing so, I feel I’m doing a disservice to the reader. Why? Why do I think this is dangerous? Because I’m encouraging a mode of thinking, of mental experience, in the reader that reinforces the idea of race (as distinct from culture) as having a defining effect on the moral character, preferences, and aptitude of a person.

And I don’t like that one bit.

How to address this? By having my characters start to challenge this notion. I wrote a scene today where I call out the fundamental racial “Prime Questions”. I attribute that to an in-world philospher, and I allow the character to challenge that. In essence, I took a choice made in world-building, projected that choice into the world as an “understanding” within the world, and in doing so, I can start to change the world from within. (Is there some hidden wisdom in here?)

In this scene, when Tomly states the evidence “is in all our cultures”, I’m deliberately alluding to the logic of Mein Kampf, to state that to judge a person’s inherent worth (genetic or biological) based on any particular culture leads to the ultimate in evil and suffering (i.e., the concentration camps). Although this story doesn’t deal with concentration camps, this “Nazi light” that I’m shining on Tomly is the first indication in the book to Joy that something is fundamentally wrong with him. And although Joy (Meara) doesn’t know of Hitler, or Mein Kampf, the reader may pick up on this. And Joy can recognize the rationale is fundamentally flawed and deceptive. And as her mother, Aradma, said at the end of When Dragons Die: Evil is that which conceals the fundamental truth of the universe. Therefore, this is her first real clue that Tomly is evil (the reader already knows this from the prologue).

Here’s the scene (unedited draft):

“Do you think each race is bound to such a philosophy?” Joy asked. “Those questions were written by a historian. He didn’t include all races, and in the end they are one person’s opinion.” Darklings and wolven were offshoot races of humans, and assigned the same question. Gorgons weren’t known about at the time, and vampires didn’t exist yet. “It’s not as if such ‘Prime Questions’ were prescribed by the gods.” She tucked her hair back behind her ears as if it were distracting her from her work, purposefully revealing her dead eye in the process.

He paused. He frowned. “Yes,” he finally admitted. “I do. I think the evidence is in all our cultures. The kind of civilization we produce flows from our nature.”

She gripped her paintbrush. She wanted to stab him with the pointy end. “Couldn’t our cultures have simply been the natural unfolding of history?” She asked. “The accident of our birth? The circumstances of our peoples? I don’t think those questions are universally binding.”

“You mean we have no inherent nature?”

She took a deep breath. Maybe she could change his mind.

“Everyone has natural tendencies,” she said. “But culture shapes us even more. I think Epiphontiles confused race for culture. Perhaps each person has inclinations and tendencies inherited from their parents.” She pointed to her canvas. “I can paint on white linen or black linen. There’s red linen and blue linen, or any base color I’d like to start with. Perhaps that is race. To a certain extent, the nature of our mortal creature, our bodies, are different. Ratling fur, gorgon eyes, human apishness, troll tusks, elf lifespans… If the color of the linen is my race, the pigments available on my palette is my culture. The brush strokes are my choices. I can be born into other cultures and have a different palette. Queen Seonna’s seelie children have an orcish palette, I would wager. Or I can visit other cultures and add to my palette, like I’m doing now. With enough paint and depending on the choices of my brush strokes, I can paint a dwarven vista on elven linen. Or a human portrait on gnomish linen. So no, I don’t think such questions are racially binding, and in the end I believe we’re all people. The mortal races are all rational with the capacity for choice, and that commonality of spirit runs deeper than the accident of our birth. And at the end of the day, even all the varieties of linen we use starts the same tan color before it’s dyed or bleached to become a canvas.”

So, I hope I’ve planted a seed that allows Ahmbren to grow beyond it’s racially flawed construction. One of the saving graces of Ahmbren is that I’ve set very little in stone about the understanding of the world, and that the understanding reflects the characters’ understanding (of Ahmbren’s history, religion, or metaphysics). Thus as characters grow and change, the understanding and experience of Ahmbren can also change without destroying the integrity of Ahmbren herself.

Ultimately, this is one of the things I enjoy most about fantasy writing and world building. It allows me an avenue to continually grow and examine my own beliefs and views, challenging them from multiple angles.

Until next time!


Smaug the Magnificent Bumbler

Last year I posted an article about dragons in the excitement leading up to the first Hobbit movie, and then a review on the first Hobbit. This week I continue the series. I saw the Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Wow, what a ride! All in all I liked it, but I definitely feel that this is most certainly a Peter Jackson movie and not a Tolkien movie. The book The Hobbit is really more of a loose guideline at this point.

(SPOILERific content below).

That being said, unless your a purist the movie is magnificent. Like all of Jackson’s Tolkien-inspired films the movie felt short to me, even though it was long. Well… almost.

I remember Fellowship of the Ring: the first time I saw it, even at 2 hours I felt I had only been there 20 minutes and the movie was just starting. Time winked by. The Hobbit movies have had a bit more of a meandering feel to them, though still fun.

While watching The Desolation of Smaug, I enjoyed every minute of it. I remember remarking to myself, just before the dragon appeared, that I liked the movie’s experience reminded me of the Fellowship, and that it didn’t feel long or meandering.

But then Smaug happened. In hindsight, the last 30 minutes or so (or was it longer?) of the movie is where I think Peter Jackson started to hurt the story.

First off, Smaug gets a generous amount of screen time, for which I’m very happy. Smaug is magnificent, and almost steals the show from Bilbo.

The first 15-20 minutes or so of Smaug are truly magnificent. This is, hands-down, the best animated portrayal of a dragon in any medium to date. He’s huge. He’s terrifying. His entrance is absolutely grand. Peter Jackson takes cues from modern big monster movies, and we feel like Smaug truly is this big monster, and Bilbo caught in some nightmare.

But then… it falls apart. Peter Jackson’s decisions to deviate from the book haven’t hurt the story too much so far, and in some areas have been an improvement. But once we decide to have the dwarves enter the mountain, and have a long sequence of Smaug chasing dwarves around the inside of the mountain while the dwarves try to figure out a plan to trap him and bring him down. Now the camera pans out to show Smaug on the screen, and we see him not from the perspective of the hobbit, but from the perspective of the audience. He becomes small in our vision, less mysterious and daunting.

And the worst part is this: after the buildup of how awesomely mighty he is (and he is awesomely mighty), he keeps saying how terrible and awesome he is and how he can’t be killed and is the ruin of kingdoms… yet he can’t kill a single dwarf running around the mountains?  Really?

Now, I know Peter Jackson can’t well start killing off dwarves. But in making that whole sequence, Peter Jackson didn’t preserve Smaug’s power for the audience that he had so magnificently built up in Smaug’s opening scene. After the minutes crept on of Smaug being ineffective, he starts to appear…


However, the look on Smaug’s face when he sees the big gold dwarf statue… priceless. Like a cat seeing a laser dot, thinking “Oooooh. Shiiiny.” Smaug almost becomes cute in that moment.

There are other significant deviations from the book, although I can see the thought process behind them. I’m not talking about Legolas and the ambivalent love interest (does she have feelings for Legolas, or Kili the dwarf? I’m rooting for Kili, but frankly Peter Jackson didn’t develop this enough to make it worth having. I wanted more romance, not a brief nod to romance… or none at all, like the book).

The significant deviation involves the One Ring. In the book, the ring acted simply as a ring of invisibility, and Bilbo used it to his advantage. There was no heaviness or sense of foreboding at that time. Peter Jackson decided to make the Hobbit a stronger prequel to the Lord of the Rings, and Bilbo becomes consciously aware that the Ring is evil and shouldn’t be used. He may not understand why, but he vomits from what greed for it makes him do. I actually like how Peter Jackson plays this out, but it sets up the unfortunate Smaug addition. The place where Tolkien’s vision was more genius was how Bilbo taunts Smaug, and it alone backfires to prompt Smaug to go towards Laketown… because he can’t find Bilbo.

In the movie… Bilbo keeps taking off the ring and rarely uses it because it makes him uncomfortable. And Smaug is keenly aware of Sauron’s return to the world (at least how I interpret his hinting at it). Smaug also senses the One Ring on Bilbo.

The nice tie in with Dol Guldur is that the orc armies pouring forth for the Battle of the Five Armies (in the next movie) are coming as a deliberate move on Sauron’s part to take the Lonely Mountain. I don’t believe this was the case in the books (or if it was I missed it). I had thought that the orc army in the books were simply the goblins from the Misty Mountains after the dragon’s gold.

I do like how the bid for the Lonely Mountain and the problem of the dragon is strongly tied into the Lord of the Rings… even highlighting why Gandalf is involved. I like the allusion to the larger strategy played by the world powers.

At one point, Smaug curiously tells Bilbo he should let Thorin have the Arkenstone, because it will drive him mad. I seem to remember the source of the dwarves’ descent into maddening greed was the “Seven Rings for the Dwarf Lords in their Halls of Stone”, and not the Arkenstone per se. (Was the Arkenstone built by a dwarven ring-bearer). Unlike the Three Elven Rings, and like the Nine Rings for Men, the Seven were touched by and forged under the supervision of Sauron. They were evil, but they simply didn’t corrupt the dwarves in the way Sauron had hoped (they were so driven by greed they weren’t useful to him as, say, the ringwraiths were). In any case, I find it curious as to why there’s been no mention of any dwarven rings of power, one of which Thror and Thrain supposedly had. Since Peter Jackson had the whole entering Dol Guldur line, that would have been a nice detail to include (since, if I remember correctly, Gandalf discovered that during his first visit to Dol Guldur, prior to the book).

Other minor comments: I absolutely love the depiction of the elven king Thranduil. I like his conscious awareness of what “we serve the One” means when he interrogates the orc. Legolas, and all the elves, seem more fey and less human than they did in the Lord of the Rings movies. They possess a wild, dangerous feel, without any of the warmth of Galadriel seen in the first Hobbit movie or the nobility of Elrond. They are a fallen elven people, hiding in their kingdom, isolationist and fearful of the influence of the outside world… except the hot elven woman, of course. She’s stereotypically warm and alluring, unlike the rest of her people. Hmm… I wonder if I should be bothered by this.

Legolas seems more manly and less girly than he did in the Lord of the Rings movies. He looks more buff and I think he has a wider face. He must have stopped working out before he met Frodo.

Bilbo.  Bilbo is awesome. This performance, I believe, is the greatest aspect of both Hobbit movies. I find him much more agreeable, relatable, and admirable than Frodo. Not that there was anything wrong with Frodo, but side by side Frodo’s a bit of a whiner.  Bilbo might not be prepared for life on the road, but he buckles down and carries the air of a “stiff upper lip”.

The spiders of Mirkwood: fantastic! I was wondering if he was going to have them talk like they did in the books. I really like how it takes putting on the Ring to hear their speech. Creepy, and another indicator the Ring is Eeeevil.

All in all, my one complaint about Smaug is minor, and the other observations are just that: curiosities. I loved this movie, and when all factors are thrown into the mix, I think the movie rendition is as good as the book (even though some aspects fall short of the book), but should be considered a separate story at this point and not The Hobbit. And… this did not need to be a three-parter. (White orc Azog: still totally unnecessary). This could have been done in one three or four-hour movie. Or two at most. Really interested to see how the third one goes, and I hope it’s not just a two-hour Battle of Five Armies slugfest.

Final personal verdict: 9 out of 10.

Until next week,