If you know me at all, you’ve probably been on the receiving end of rants regarding today’s utter monotony, particularly in a racial sense, of the fantasy genre. And if you don’t know me, you’re about to experience the customary spiel. However, as much as I can go on and on critiquing the state of the fantasy genre today and its continuous lack of normalized diversity, I’d like to dig a little deeper and explore why exactly the lack of diversity is so much more evident and so much harder to climb out of when it comes to fantasy in the present day. I believe that if we can pinpoint the underlying roots of the issue, it will become easier to question and subvert a lot of the elements of fantasy we have simply accepted as truth.
Almost every element of contemporary fantasy can be traced back to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (and associated novels in the same universe). In fact, it’s very difficult to name a prominent work of fantasy from before Tolkien without going all the way back to traditional fairy tales. Of course, there is The Chronicles of Narnia, which was written around the same time as The Lord of the Rings, but it didn’t have the same effect on the fantasy genre as Tolkien’s works did, namely in the worldbuilding aspect. Tolkien put a revolutionary amount of depth and detail into his works, such that his Middle Earth, whether we realize it or not, has become the source of truth for all things popular fantasy.
Tolkien created the modern elf. Our version of elves–elegant, wise, fair, unearthly beautiful, immortal, with lightly pointed ears, and just short of perfect–did not exist before Tolkien. He wrote extensively on race dynamics and politics (men vs. elves vs. dwarves, etc.), popularized the feudal European aesthetic, and gave us epic quests to defeat evil once and for all.
And because we’re a Western-centric society that also wanted to move past the ye-olde pre-Christian days, we took what he gave us and ran with it. Continue to run with it.
Tolkien introduced us to his Middle Earth in 1937 with The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings was first published in 1954–both of these released at a time when European imperialism was declining but very much still the norm. I don’t really know if Tolkien truly intended for everyone in his Middle Earth to be white, but given the nature and lasting effects of the era’s Euro-centrism combined with resulting global norm of white supremacy, it makes sense that any popular interpretations of an Englishman’s work would be through a white and Western lens.
So while Tolkien’s worldbuilding permeates modern fantasy, so do the various white interpretations of the elements he put forth. For example, let’s go back to elves for a second. Have you ever seen the popular Tolkien-esque elf portrayed as anything other than white? Even if elves are derived from creatures from old European tales, how is it that elves of color are almost nonexistent? Because European colonialism spurred an age in which only white Euro-centric history mattered and brands like Fair and Lovely could thrive. So when presented with a race of beings that are wise, knowledgeable, elegant, etc. it’s really easy to package that into “of course they’re white.” When presented with medieval European-inspired kingdoms, it’s easy to sell us “of course they’re white.”
(Unless the characters are bad guys, in which case it’s completely acceptable for POC to exist. Dark elves are often an allegory for POC. The Chronicles of Narnia, well known as a white-Christian tale, demonizes the Telmarines, who are considered by some to be representative of Muslims. The film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings suddenly introduce brown people into Middle Earth as barbaric warriors of Sauron.)
And so contemporary fantasy became synonymous with white European culture.
I’ve been talking about high fantasy up until now, but the same forces that drive some of the racist nature of high fantasy translate into other areas. Let’s take a look at paranormal fantasy. The first thing that comes to mind is Twilight. Stephanie Meyer definitely started a literary trend wherein main characters were suddenly falling in love left and right with all sorts of fantasy creatures. She gave to us vampires that were unearthly beautiful with pale skin that glittered in the sun.
Before I go further, let’s talk about the original vampire: Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. Count Dracula was written as a horrific monster of a villain who resembled every stereotype of Eastern European Jewish people–further emphasized by the extremely Catholic nature of the crusade Van Helsing and the other hunters lead against him. That kind of vampire doesn’t really sell as a love interest unfortunately.
So how do you convince the public of the desirability of vampires? You make them more human and beautiful, aka white. To be fair to Meyer, she isn’t revolutionary in this area. The film Dracula (1992) has Dracula come to England to seduce Mina Harker. He’s a forbidden kind of enticing now instead of a religious abhorrence, so they had to get a decent looking white dude to play him (Gary Oldman.)
But Shri! The werewolves in Twilight were Native American! Yeah, her only POC walked around as animals half the time. And every subsequent book that rode the paranormal fantasy wave gave us white, ethereal paranormal love interests.
All of this got me thinking: well, what about works like Harry Potter? Yes, Tolkien revolutionized high fantasy, but works like Harry Potter made the magical more accessible to us by popularizing fantasy within our world rather than creating a whole alternative one. We talk extensively about the diversity problem in Harry Potter, but this discussion parallels inclusivity in literature as a whole and doesn’t really sit within the same racist worldbuilding context as it does with high fantasy. But because Harry Potter has also made a huge mark on today’s fantasy landscape, I wanted to ponder the question: does Harry Potter also serve to reinforce the same white Euro-centrism as high fantasy does?
I think the answer might be yes to an extent.
Fantasy wasn’t created by Europe, as we all know. Cultures around the world have stories steeped in magic and gods and other such things, but a lot of those stories and beliefs were squashed by European colonization. Europeans discouraged and banned practices that were considered too pagan. Even within Europe, pagan, non-Christian practices and histories were looked down upon. Looking back at history, I have to wonder if the kind of magic that Harry Potter popularized–and Harry Potter takes a good amount of inspiration from The Lord of the Rings, mind you–is deemed as acceptable fantasy.
If you think about it, the magic and fantasy of Harry Potter is very European brand. The wands, the robes, the Latin-derived spells, the education system and government–it’s an urban fantasy a post-European colonialism world can accept. It’s “civilized”.
I hadn’t really thought much of this until I remembered how J.K. Rowling portrayed other cultures’ magic systems, primarily by highlighting what was different, exotic, and therefore weird about those systems. Eastern cultures used magic carpets instead of broomsticks, and were only just warming up to accepting the European broomstick (the diffusion of European sports through colonization, anyone?) Her history of magic spreading to the Americas also reeked of colonialism. There is an implication of magic existing among Native Americans, but American magic was established by a white Western European who recruited Native Americans and taught them European magic. (Even the Eastern European methods of magic are looked down upon as seen by the portrayal of Durmstrang, and we know Western Europe’s got a huge problem of xenophobia.)
Maybe it’s not so surprising, then, that we’ve been socialized to accept that there is no room for people of color and their stories in fantasy.
There are obviously many more examples of fantasy out there and I clearly picked a handful to talk about, but these were the stories I grew up with and witnessed as having a huge impact on the fantasy I consumed as well as how I interpreted fantasy. For a really long time, I had been convinced that people of color just had no place in fantasy due to every reason I just mentioned above. It never even occurred to me that people like me could exist in fantasy, and I had accepted that as a reality.
So how do we fix this? We ask “why?” at every turn.
“But Shri, what if I’m white? If I write non-Western inspired fantasies, I’ll get accused of cultural appropriation!” Not really. You’ll only get accused of such if it’s very clear you’re writing an aesthetic you think is cool rather than something you put a lot of research and investment into. Take Kate Elliott for example. She is a white fantasy author who created an entire alternate history of Europe in her Spiritwalker Trilogy, such that Europe becomes a melting pot of African and Middle Eastern cultures, and so most of her characters are people of color. And her research, as opposed to orientalist fascination, becomes immensely clear in her writing. Fear of being called out for cultural appropriation is not a valid excuse to exclude people of color and non-Western cultures in your fantasy world.
“But Shri, I’m an author of color, and I don’t like the idea of creating a fantasy inspired by my culture because I think the push to do so forces us to exotify our cultures for audiences.” Valid point. We know a lot of the fascination with non-Western cultures comes from a place of obsession with the aesthetic of a culture rather than a desire to learn about it. For example, we’ve recently seen quite a few authors of color get called out by white readers for their fantasies “not being Asian enough.” That being said, I think exotification is in the eye of the beholder. I personally don’t agree that you can exotify your own culture (unless you’re writing it specifically for the white, Western gaze). But you’re also not obligated by any means to write fantasy that screams your culture either. You can write what you’re comfortable with, whatever story it is you want to tell. But don’t be afraid to tell your story proudly! The more we allow white, Western fantasies to be the norm, the harder it is inherently to subvert this trend.
So how do we as a generation move forward from this phenomenon that we’ve been socialized under? Question. Everything. Why did I make this character like this? Why did I include this in my worldbuilding? In my head, I pictured it to be like this. Why? What if it were different? We must work to actively subvert everything we’ve come to accept as true about the fantasy genre. After all, in a genre that’s all about bending and breaking rules so dragons can exist, this exercise would technically fall into the spirit of creativity!
Let us people of color have an escape that we can belong to as well.
Book Blogger @ Sun & Chai
Shri is desi, bi, and an unfortunate yuppie in IT making her life a lot more interesting by taking up book blogging. She tends to lean a lot towards Ownvoices books and POC-centric fantasies. In her spare time, she sleeps, plays lots of video games, kickbox, and tries not to indulge in retail therapy.
- 5 POC-centric fantasy novels – Part I.
- The Bastardization of Femininity in YA media.
- Morally Gray Characters? in Books? Groundbreaking.
#DiverseBookBloggersDiscuss is a way to boost diverse bloggers who are brilliant, have a lot to say and deserve to be heard loud and clear. What this is, is basically a guest post feature where every Sunday, one blogger from a minority will discuss things they are passionate about on my blog.