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 are 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. (Though I suppose Elves and Dwarves would say that humans are short-sighted with poor historical memory who as a race do not put enough stock in loyalty and peace, but are overall a likeable and reliable people with much potential, as capable of swift action and wise decisions as the opposite, all of which is natural when considering that fact that the average human age is less than one-hundred. It is always fun finding books where non-human characters express their outsiders perspective of humanity.)

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. For example, I did not know that The Sacred Hunt Duology was written by an Asian American woman (Michelle Sagara, though she wrote it under the name Michelle West) until I was halfway through it, and then I forgot the fact until writing this page. 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 bookshelves 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. In the Avatar Universe each nation has its own natural element on which it bases its society, and within each nation exist people known as "benders" who have the innate power/ability to control and manipulate the eponymous element of their nation. The show's creators assigned each bending art its own style of martial arts, causing it to inherit the advantages and weaknesses of the martial arts it was assigned. Bryan Konietzko, the co-creator and executive producer of the show, said that he and his counterpart "were really interested in other epic Legends & Lore properties, like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, but we knew that we wanted to take a different approach to that type of genre. Our love for Japanese Anime, Hong Kong action & Kung Fu cinema, yoga, and Eastern philosophies led us to the initial inspiration for Avatar."


Staying the East, let us move beyond even anime. While I am hardly an avid Legend of Zelda player, I am a deep fan of the lore and the truly awe-inspiring quality of the latest Breath of the Wild game deserves special recognition. Why? Because it draws much inspiration from the little known Jōmon period – from Japanese prehistory – in regards to the power of the Shiekah clan. The creators of the game explain such in the video clip below.

   
Yes, I am well aware that the Zelda games are hardly an example of racial diversity and that Hylian culture is typically quite European-based. However, not only is Breath of the Wild a notable exception to the cultural element, it is also arguably the crown jewel of the franchise. Why do I include it given the general lack of human characters of color? Because cultural diversity, giving proper homage to non-European cultures, is no less important in that it sparks interest in those cultures; an interest which may combat racism both conscious and subconscious.

Which brings me back to Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, any reader of which is familiar with the game stones. Popular in most all Westland cultures as well as overseas in Seanchan, stones is valued by generals, rulers, and civilians, for it was said that all of the intrigues and all of life's pleasures could be found within this game. Skilled players of stones are known possess skill at both the Game of Houses and/or battlefield tactics, and vice versa. Thom is exemplary at Daes Dae'mar yet is hardly a military commander, while good ol' Mat is the opposite. Sounds like a fun game, right? I agree utterly, yet sadly Jordan never specified the any save the most basic of the basic rules, those being that each player is assigned one of two colors of army, each player alternating placing a stone on the board with the overall intention being to capture the stones of the opponent's army. 
 
A Go board
Interesting, but hardly detailed. I did some digging, however, and learned that stones has a real-world counterpart: Go. An abstract strategy board game hailing from ancient China – indeed, is believed to be the oldest board game continuously played to the present day it is a two player game in which the aim is to surround more territory than the opponent; and the playing pieces are called stones. Now I can you saying, "sure, but what is wrong with chess? Why bother learning Go given chess' global reputation for as the quintessential strategy board game?" Curiosity and variety to start, but half-jokes aside, it is because the depths and breadth of Go's strategy makes chess look a sparrow before a griffin. A bold claim? Not at all and despite the fact that, compared to chess, the rules of Go are relatively simple. So where is the breadth and depth? A Go board is both a larger than a chess board with both more scope for play (on average there are many more alternatives to consider per move) and longer games. How much more scope? Enough that, unlike chess, a computer cannot automatically defeat a human. Indeed, the number of legal board positions in Go has been calculated to be vastly greater than the number of atoms in the known, observable universe.
 
So, for those who want to try their hands a game from another culture and/or finds chess tactics rather limited, here is the game for you. See this link for the rules and trust me when I say it is incredibly fun to play; during the COVID-19 Pandemic I availed myself of the forced free time by teaching myself and my parents how to play. The Wheel of Time fans who want to try their hands at stones should also give it a go. (Why do I find chess limited? I am accustomed to playing Fire Emblem and other turn-based strategy games which, as a general rule, I find far more challenging and emotionally engaging. I am no chess master, far from it by any and all definitions, but the impersonal and unchanging nature of chess makes it feel quite limited compared to Fire Emblem. Let's face it, one never begins a chess match outnumbered and on uncertain terrain that favors the enemy more than yourself with the possibility of enemy reinforcements looming in the background, much less wondering how a simple pawn could realistically defeat a mounted knight even if it was in the position to make an attempt, or taking the wounds sustained by your loyal troops into consideration. Fire Emblem, however, does all this and more as a matter of course and, in addition, has a basic troop component every medieval-style army worth the name had yet which chess lacks an equivalent of: archers.)

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