Race in Fantasy

There is no getting around the fact, so I will not mince words: characters in Fantasy literature tend to be White (Caucasian) while the worlds they inhabit are at least partially rooted in European culture. Ursula K. Le Guin herself has criticized what she describes as the general assumption in Fantasy that characters should be White and that the society should resemble the Middle Ages. Of course, the Fantastic has expanded quite a bit since she uttered those words, with cultures and settings that are far from always clearly Medieval, and yet the Whiteness of characters and a general European cultural flavor remains. Why is this so? Honestly, I am unsure. Maybe it is habit, maybe it is that White authors feel unqualified to base their created cultures off those not their own or fear being accused of cultural appropriation; maybe Black authors feel non-European based cultures would be of lesser interest to readers. I cannot say. I do, however, think it is a problem that the Fantasy genre must needs overcome. Knights and castles are nice, but they get old after a while; which is why I seek unique Fantasy these days.

Yet I can say that of one seeks quality Fantasy with non-White characters then I highly recommend The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin; and I say non-White instead of Black because the skin color of the characters is primarily described as red-brown. Better yet, the only White people in the Earthsea universe are from the Kargad Lands and are they are described (and typically act) as savages. Earthsea is also special due to the fact that, while its storyline is quite unique, it features wizards and Dragons in a manner which anyone only vaguely familiar with the Fantasy literature would recognize. As I have said elsewhere, while the rest of my generation went to Hogwarts with Harry, I (after falling in love with Tolkien's Middle-earth) traveled by ship to the School of Roke with Ged. We all know the stereotypical wizard wears flowing robes and wields a staff, and Earthsea keeps to this, but likewise the famous great wizards of the genre – Gandalf, Dumbledore, ect. – are old White men (yes, I know Gandalf is an immortal spirit simply garbed in the body of an elderly human, but that is beside the point). Which means readers of Earthsea get to enjoy the same class of wise and powerful wizards, but dark-skinned.

One also might be interested in the Vows and Honor Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey. While most of the characters are White, one of the series' two main protagonists is Tarma shena Tale'sedrin who is a black-golden skinned woman from the southern Dhorisha Plains. Not ideal, perhaps, but Tarma is one of my favorite characters in Fantasy literature period and, furthermore, Mercedes Lackey absolutely skewers sexism in the series. Now Vows and Honor is just one of Lackey's many Valdemar books, all of which are excellent, but if one reads through them one will swiftly reach The Mage Winds Trilogy. A noteworthy series in that the setting shifts southwards (Valdemar is a far northern country) back towards the Dhorisha Plains and brings with it a cast of characters of color, such as Darkwind k'Sheyna. I believe the sequel-series to Mage Winds have dark-skinned key protagonists as well but, since I have yet to read these books, I cannot say.

 

There is in addition Moon-Flash and its sequel The Moon and the Face by Patricia A. McKillip. An anthropological Fantasy book for lack of a better term, though it is marked as sci-fi, McKillip is incapable of writing anything other than a lyrical masterpiece in which the words flow like a river off the page, though your soul, and back again. Which is not unlike the story as, for Kyreol and Terje, the strange becomes the familiar and the familiar strange as two separate worlds come together through dreams that stretch across the cosmos, the innate power of the Riverworld, and love. I know this sounds utterly vague compared to my above descriptions, but regrettably it is the best I can do without revealing key spoilers. Suffice to say that it is a journey story in far, far more than the conventional sense.


 

 

These are the three that stick out in my mind insofar as having Colored main protagonists go. Doubtless I am forgetting others from my own bookshelf, but I seldom notice skin-color in Fantasy literature unless it carries a racial bearing that impacts the plotline of the book in question. For while it is true that Fantasy tends towards White main characters, those protagonists are never racist towards secondary characters where skin-color is concerned; thus any concern regarding race is always based on a purely cultural standpoint. The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan is a perfect example of this for, while cultural prejudices exist aplenty (though rarely from the five core characters), skin-color is a non-issue. Interestingly, in this respect Fantasy literature has in some respects transcended racism as most if not all humans recognize other humans as being part of one race, the human race, with, again, such
prejudices as exist based upon culture. 

Why? Because what does skin color matter when literal other races such as Elves, Dwarves, Goblins, Trolls, Gnomes, Merfolk, Werewolves, Dragons, Demons, Elementals, and plenty else exist? In short, Fantasy recognizes that a human's skin color is the result of geography a white-skinned person is typically from northern climates and a dark-skinned one southern as opposed to actual racial difference, and that skin color has no bearings on the merits of a person. Hence in Fantasy racial ill-will is between two actual differing races, such as the famous distrust/dislike between Elves and Dwarves that Legolas and Gimli so wonderfully overcame (and even then the tension between Elves and Dwarves lies rooted in the fact that their cultures are very different. A difference Legolas and Gimli acknowledged and accepted in each other, resulting several touching and funny scenes).

Look up "races" in an old Dungeons & Dragons handbook and you get this instead of humans with differing skin tones.
I say old because the newer ones likely have even more races.

Which means that in Fantasy an interracial marriage is not between a humans of differing skin colors, but rather between a human and and, say, an Elf. Tolkien's Elrond Half-elven, for example, is called such because he has human blood (both is grandfathers, as well as his maternal great-grandfather, were human). However, if you want to see a Fantasy that really deals with racial prejudice and interracial marriage then I would highly recommend The Seraphina series by Rachel Hartman. Also, real-world racial stereotypes do not exist in Fantasy literature. Let that sink in a moment. Now I am not saying that racial stereotypes are utterly nonexistent, as the stereotypical Elf is a lithe, sure-footed and swift immortal forest-dweller with pointed ears who is skilled with magic and bow and has a somewhat aloof attitude where other races concerned yet is beyond question a good person. Where the stereotypical Dwarf is short and gruffly kind mountain-carver who is a bit grumpy on occasion, yet is steadfastly loyal to kith and kin alike, a master with the battleaxe and loves gold to the point of being greedy for it. The irony is that there is no stereotype for the human race in Fantasy. Ironic given real-world issues regarding racial profiling, yet ultimately I think that this lack of a human stereotype seen in Fantasy is what the goal is in the real-world: seeing no race but the human race, a species so flexible as to defy stereotypes.

Now I can hear you saying, "but what about Fantasy authors of Color? The three series' mentioned above were written by White women." Frankly put, I never pay attention to the author's race or gender when searching for or reading Fantasy. It simply does not enter into my calculations. As said Anne McCaffrey, "A good story is a good story no matter who wrote it," meaning, in this context, that when I am in a bookstore searching for new Fantasies I just pull out whatever looks interesting, read the back and/or inside cover, and if it passes muster I give it a try. As I have said in the past, to me the Art is far more important than the Artist. Not that there is anything wrong with searching for and filling your bookshelf with works written by authors of Color, but it is not my style because, like with this blog, Fantasy is where I go to escape all real-world matters.

"I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter." – J.R.R. Tolkien

“Stories of the sort I am describing…they cool us…hence the uneasiness which they arouse in those who, for whatever reason, wish to keep us wholly imprisoned in the immediate conflict. That perhaps is why people are so ready with the charge of 'escape'. I never wholly understood it until my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, "What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and hostile to, the idea of escape?" and gave the obvious answer: jailers.” – C.S. Lewis

And if you want to move beyond literature? Well, I am no expert, but Avatar: The Last Airbender (and its sequel The Legend of Korra) is a flawless example of an exemplary Fantasy where none of the cultures are European-based and several protagonists are dark-skinned.

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