Race and Races in Fantasy
Since J. R. R. Tolkien, other races have become a staple of the fantasy genre. Tolkien gave us our modern fantasy version of Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, Orcs, Ents, and so on. Tolkien was careful not to make his races too monolithic - there is variation within each race - but certain traits generally remained the same. Elves are depicted as nobler, fairer, and wiser than men, an example that humans and others should aspire to. Dwarves are often seen as short-tempered and quarrelsome, having an uncomfortable tendency toward greed. Hobbits are a bit naive but earnest, down to earth and dependable. And so on.
From a very general view, races can be used to flavor a fantasy world, to show that it’s unlike our world, and to push the boundaries of what can exist there. Many races are adopted from myth and folklore like giants and centaurs, satyrs and trolls. In lazy fantasy, race can be a shorthand for character traits (i. e. all centaurs are highly intelligent and interested in astronomy). In better fantasy, races can be used as metaphors.
Many, for example, have used fantasy races to explore the concept of the “Other.” The xenians of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag books, for example (mentioned here before), are used as representatives of this concept. Human denizens of New Crobuzon often look down on the xenians, and Mieville’s stories depict rampant prejudice. Even when accepted, there is a stigma against human/xenian relationships. To heighten the sense of the “Other,” Mieville’s fantasy races are more monstrous - women with the heads of scarabs, frog-like amphibian Vodyanoi, cactus people. Mieville depicts these races as no different in their general moral capabilities than humans. Xenians, like humans, can be cruel or good or foolish.
It’s not just secondary world fantasies that take this approach, either. In Alaya Dawn Johnson’s urban fantasy books (Moonshine and Wicked City), vampires and other supernatural creatures take on the role of the “Other.” Zephyr Collins, the protagonist of the books, is a vampire suffragette, fighting for the rights of the non-human denizens of New York City, even in a time where other human racial types are not guaranteed equal treatment under the law.
Even Harry Potter gives us an oppressed non-human race in the form of House Elves. Their treatment at the hands of the wizard community, their essential slavery, becomes an ongoing subplot in the books.
In some ways, fantasy can offer an easier entry into the topic of race and class than directly addressing issues that are often charged and personal for people. And, unless fantasy races are meant to depict a specific real world racial group, they can mirror many different races and peoples - immigrants, the colonized, those enslaved or without rights, etc. The aforementioned House Elves could possibly evoke, then, any disenfranchised and subservient race.
Alternately, fantasy races can be used to make the reader sympathize with the discriminated minority. In the Bordertown series, for example, humans live alongside individuals from Faerie, ageless and arrogant elves who look down on the human inhabitants. Similarly, in Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos books, Easterners, what we think of as humans, are a minority to the Elf-like Dragaerans, who consider themselves to be humans and the Easterners to be barbarians. Easterners are treated like second-class citizens in this world, a fact that informs much of the series.
Fantasy races, then, can be used to help shine a light on racial relations. But is there a danger in this? By using a fantasy race to represent the oppressed (or the oppressor), does this simplify things too much?
Aliette de Bodard, a fantasy writer of mixed French and Vietnamese ancestry addresses this issue in a blog post on her site. The whole post is well worth reading, but here’s one of the key points about drawing parallels between “foreigners” and fantasy races:
“This then poses some serious problems, because as a parallel, this suffers from a very deep flaw. Vampires are rightly discriminated against because they feed on blood and kill human people; the fae have wild and dangerous magic and toy with human lives; and aliens really are different species.
Foreigners and immigrants are none of these. They’re human; they have no special magical powers; and above all, they don’t make a habit of hunting down human people or drinking their blood. All of these have been used against POCs/minorities at some point: the different species to justify racial classification; the magical powers in what I call the “mystical East” clichés (but also in tropes like the Magical Negro or The Native American In Tune With Nature); and the drinking of blood in stuff like blood libel.
Making those features literally true for otherworldly creatures, and drawing explicit parallels between treatment of those creatures and the treatment of existing people is hugely problematic. Because the main reason all those treatments are utterly wrong-headed is… they’re not true. Foreigners aren’t magically different species.”
Aliette goes on to talk about how these kinds of books often overlook real world racism (as if it disappears after adding werewolves or mutants), and that it tends to reinforce the idea that White Heteronormative America is superior because everyone (vampires especially) want to join it. Obviously this doesn’t apply to all fantasy novels with non-human races, but it certainly applies to many.
I am hardly an arbiter of how this should be handled or not. I can point to some examples that seem to lack these problems, though - the aforementioned Moonshine and Wicked City, for example, by Alaya Dawn Johnson, don’t omit color-based racism simply because there’s prejudice against vampires. China Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels deal with class and gender and queer issues in addition to dealing with xenian prejudice. But are these still simplified examples? And if so, is that okay?
I put it to you, then, what do you find interesting about using different races in fantasy? What are your favorite examples of when this works and why? What are your favorite races? I’d love to see this turn into a discussion.
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