Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Race: the Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre

Art for Unearthed Arcana, a blog section of the D&D website.

Part XXXVI in our ongoing series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages, by Paul B. Sturtevant. You can find the rest of the special series here

Paul’s upcoming book, The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination: Memory, Film, and Medievalismis available for preorder now.

But Hobbits have never, in fact, studied magic of any kind, and their elusiveness is due solely to a professional skill that heredity and practice, and a close friendship with the earth, have rendered inimitable by bigger and clumsier races.

-Prologue, The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

This is from the first page of Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. It is the first time he uses the word “race” in the book (though he did use it in The Hobbit as well). Considering Tolkien’s place as the godfather of the fantasy genre, it’s unsurprising that his conception of the “races” of Middle Earth have become more-or-less standard across the fantasy genre.

But Tolkien’s conception of “race” is a huge problem. His ideas have been bred into the core of the fantasy genre—not just literature, but films and games too. Contemporary authors  have had to work hard to free the genre from this original sin.

The core of the problem is that Tolkien conflates race, culture, and ability. Hobbits, he says, are a race, and based upon a combination their hereditary traits and cultural practices, are better at being stealthy than other races.

Tolkien does this throughout his novels, outlining the “racial” characteristics of men, of dwarves, of elves, of orcs, and those few of mixed ancestry (like Aragorn or the Uruk-Hai). As Helen Young, author of Race and Popular Fantasy Literature put it in a recent interview with the Pacific Standard:

In Middle Earth, unlike reality, race is objectively real rather than socially constructed.

If we are to look at Tolkien’s work with a modern scientific eye, we can try to come to some conclusions about what he may have meant. Elves, dwarves, men, hobbits, and orcs are all either different species of homo, or different subspecies of homo sapiens—likely the latter since, at least between elves and men (and orcs and men), they can have fertile children.

But Tolkien wasn’t writing through this sort of scientific lens. His world has a mythological sensibility drawn, in large part, from the Germanic tradition where dwarves and elves interact with the gods (though are never referred to as “races”). His world is a fantasy: it does not play by the same rules as our own (equally on matters of dragons or genetics). But in Middle Earth, both dragons and the pseudoscience behind race are treated as real.

Tolkien crafted his fantasy world intricately. He, for example, took great pains to calculate distances and accommodate for the speed of horse travel in order for his plot to work. I have to hope that, had he better understood what race is and what it isn’t, he would have been more careful in his descriptions of its peoples. But the fact remains that he created the blueprint for the troubling relationship between race and fantasy that would govern twentieth century fantasies.

Race(s) and Dungeons and Dragons

From the D&D website. Source: http://dnd.wizards.com/dungeons-and-dragons/what-is-dd/races

Perhaps we can excuse the scientific racism in Middle-Earth as being a product of its time. But if we do, it gets harder and harder to extend the same to the multitudes of Tolkien derivatives in the fantasy genre. And it is safe to say that there has been no more-influential Tolkien derivative than Dungeons and Dragons.

For those (likely few) of you who’ve never played D&D, it is a roleplaying game in which players take on the role of a character roughly derived from Tolkien’s work. Together with other players, you and your fellow players improvise an adventure. You are aided in this by a “dungeon master” who develops the world, runs the campaign, plays all the other characters in the story, and ensures everyone is playing by the rules.

To call it massively popular is a bit of an understatement.

And baked into the roots of D&D is the same scientific racism that you see in The Lord of the Rings. Take this telling quote from the preface of the first edition of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook:

Races are given advantages or limits mainly because the whole character of the game would be drastically altered if it were otherwise.

Compounding the problems of Tolkien’s scientific racism, in Dungeons and Dragons, the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various “races” are given numerical values.

Any given character’s abilities are divided into six scores: Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. Leaving aside how reductive that is, each character’s ability score is then adjusted based upon their race. Dwarves are tough but gruff. So, they get +1 to Constitution and -1 to Charisma (in 1st Edition AD&D—the rules have changed over the years). Elves are dexterous but delicate. Halflings (roughly, Hobbits) are weak but dexterous. And so on. This gives the scientific racism of Tolkien’s world a veneer of mathematical, statistical verifiability.

And moreover, these inherent differences influence players’ decisions; a player is far more likely to play a tough dwarven fighter (due to the bonus to constitution) than a lesser-than-average dwarven bard. Thus, inherent “racial” characteristics give rise to cultural phenomena.

The game is currently 43 years old and in its 5th edition. It has been played by millions of people of all ages worldwide. Even so, Wizards of the Coast (the company that now owns and produces D&D), seems unwilling to decouple the racist connection between “race” and ability that is baked into the game’s core. As their current webpage on character races expounds:

Your choice of character race provides you with a basic set of advantages and special abilities. If you’re a fighter, are you a stubborn dwarf monster-slayer, a graceful elf blademaster, or a fierce dragonborn gladiator? If you’re a wizard, are you a brave human spell-for-hire or a devious tiefling conjurer? Your character race not only affects your ability scores and powers but also provides the first cues for building your character’s story.

There have been some improvements to D&D over the years. There have been admirable efforts to include people of color in their products’ artwork. And some of their products occasionally add a parenthetical “(species)” to their chapters on character races. But they have not torn the beating heart of racism from their game. And that is a huge problem, since it tells those children and adults who play it that racial difference equals differences in ability, and even morality. And D&D’s outsized influence has caused this numerical racism to be recapitulated in subsequent games, especially video games like the Dragon Age and The Elder Scrolls series.

The “Select a Race” screen in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

And never is D&D’s influence on the fantasy landscape more problematic than in the embarrassing, controversial case of the dark elves.

Drizzt Do’Urden: You are a Credit to Your Race

As Dungeons and Dragons grew and developed, it built upon the template laid down by Tolkien. One of D&D’s contributions to the canon of the fantasy genre is dark elves, or as they are called in D&D fiction: drow. The basic template—of black, underground elves—was established by a scant mention in the great 13th-century compendium of Norse mythology, the Prose Edda (which calls them svartálfar). But everything beyond this was determined by the creators of D&D.

The dark elves they invented are, in essence, bizarro-world elves. While other elves live in the forests, they live in a blighted world underground. While other elves live according to typical royal structures, dark elves are explicitly matriarchal and have a social structure modelled off of organized crime families. While other elves live in harmony with nature and are inherently good, dark elves are sadistic, worship spiders, and are inherently evil. And while other elves are fair-skinned, dark elves are black.

Tina Turner as Auntie Entity in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

This cover art for one of the first AD&D products to feature the drow, “Queen of the Spiders” (above), seems modeled, as much as anything, from Tina Turner’s character Aunty Entity in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Later illustrators of D&D products, perhaps more aware of the optics, have made them a purple-black or dusky-grey-black. But let’s be real. They have black skin. If you can’t see the problems with this, I can’t help you.

Making “races” like orcs and dark elves inherently evil does two things. First, it presents a world in which good and evil are so simplistic that an entire culture, race, or species can be inherently evil. If someone were to transpose that way of thinking onto cultures or races today, it could lead to the worst sort of prejudice.

Second, this smacks of the worst sort of colonial racisms, which sought to make American Indians, Africans, and other people of color not just seem less human, but inherently immoral. Making “evil races” (like the orcs and uruk-hai, as described in The Lord of the Rings, and dark elves, in D&D) dark-skinned creates fantasy worlds that are structured along racist lines—and mimicking those that plague us in the real world. It would be foolish to explain that away as mere coincidence. Whether the creators did it intentionally or not, their worlds are loaded with the idea at the core of white-supremacy: that having dark skin is bad.

Original cover art, by Larry Elmore, for The Crystal Shard by R. A. Salvatore. Drizzt Do’Urden is in the center.

Complicating this, in 1988 R. A. Salvatore wrote The Crystal Shard, a book set in the D&D “Forgotten Realms” universe. In this book, the author created an iconic fantasy character: Drizzt Do’Urden. Despite beginning as a secondary character, Drizzt became so popular that he has, to date, appeared in thirty more books by Salvatore. All of these books have made the New York Times Best Seller list. I read and re-read quite a few of them growing up.

Drizzt is a dark elf. But, as you may have surmised (since he is the protagonist in these books), he is not your typical dark elf. Unlike other dark elves, he is an unflinchingly good person: he has a conscience and adheres to a strict code of honor. Both of these traits lead him to flee his homeland and live among the people above ground. And as you might expect, some of his most dogged adversaries are the very dark elves that he escaped.

The character is popular for many of the reasons that similar characters are. He is a bit rogueish. He is unlike the rest of his family. He is sensitive, intelligent, and eloquent. He is a misunderstood outsider. But overall, he is a vastly badass and unerringly good hero. His sensitivity is on full display in a passage from Sea of Swords:

We are all dying, every moment that passes of every day. That is the inescapable truth of this existence. It is a truth that can paralyze us with fear, or one that can energize us with impatience, with the desire to explore and experience, with the hope- nay, the iron-will!- to find a memory in every action. To be alive, under sunshine, or starlight, in weather fair or stormy. To dance with every step, be they through gardens of flowers or through deep snows.

Some of Salvatore’s novels attempt to grapple with racism—particularly the racism leveled against Drizzt by other above-ground characters. For example, in one passage from The Crystal Shard one of the protagonists goes on a racist rant when it is proposed that Drizzt take him on as a student:

Wulfgar’s eyes widened in horror and disgust. “A dark elf!” he cried incredulously. “Sorcerous dog!” He turned on Bruenor as though he had been betrayed. “Surely you cannot ask this of me! I have no need nor desire to learn the magical deceits of his decrepit race!”

Eventually Wulfgar overcomes his racism, and comes to be counted among Drizzt’s closest friends. That said, he lives in a world where racism against drow is not really irrational—it is logical, if a bit narrow-minded. In another passage, one character chastises another for his racism against Drizzt:

You chastise him for the crimes of his race, yet have none of you ever considered that Drizzt Do’Urden walks among us because he has rejected the ways of his people?

Cover art, by Todd Lockwood, for The Orc King by R.A. Salvatore. Note how Drizzt’s skin hue has shifted slightly.

The fabric of the world is the problem. That even the egalitarian characters use language like “crimes of his race” shows the racism built into the fabric of this world.

As the passages above illustrate, this places Drizzt squarely into the racist popular-culture trope “You are a credit to your race” where people are seen to supersede the inherent flaws of their race.

All that having been said, R.A. Salvatore deserves credit for, over the course of his career, improving his ideas about race. He has come to recognize the racism built into the fantasy genre, and many of his more-recent books complicate the depictions of race in his world. In a 2014 interview, Salvatore discusses his struggles in grappling with the racism at the core of Tolkien/D&D-based fantasy when writing one of his short stories:

One of the things that intrigues me about fantasy is that it is racist […] You’re not talking about humans, so I guess you can get away with it. Orcs are supposed to be the embodiment of evil in fantasy. It started many years ago when I wrote the short story “Dark Mirror,” where Drizzt runs into a goblin. He finds out the goblin is an escaped slave. The goblin seems like a great guy, and Drizzt wants to believe that, because he isn’t what people expect from a dark elf.

And in another, he discusses how racism in fantasy mirrors the dehumanization of war:

in fantasy, you embody evil in a race, and then you disembody it with your sword, and that’s also what mankind has done through the centuries, right? By dehumanizing the enemy so you don’t feel bad about killing them. But that’s just blatantly immoral when you get right down to it, and yet I love fantasy. So that’s the paradox I had to deal with.

Some fantasy fans who are people of color have, understandably, bristled at the dark elves—and especially at cosplayers dressing in blackface, as aptly skewered on Community when Senor Chang cosplays as a drow:

A thoughtful 2014 blog post by the “Black Role-Players Organization” further explains the racial problematics with the drow specifically:

what you guys see is cool is constantly being portrayed with in the setting as an evil and despicable race. The Drow (no matter the setting) are prejudged to be evil due to the color of their skin. Even Drizzt has to deal with people distrusting him because of the actions of his people. But what you guys see as cool, we interpret as something that plays to close to what we as people of color have to live through.

On the other hand, Drizzt has been embraced by some people of color, who saw him as a rare example of a heroic person of color in fantasy literature. As Salvatore noted:

I’ve received many letters from people on this issue over the decades. Many from people of color or other minorities, and they’ve always said the same thing: “Thank you.”

As one Canadian fan of Drizzt noted in an online forum:

Those books were a way for me to cope with racism. I picked up the Icewind Dale trilogy when I was 11 or 12. I had just moved from the North West Territories to a place in Southern Ontario. I had to deal with a lot of bigotry up north and I had to deal with some more where I moved. This became even worse after 9/11. Funny enough, Drizzt helped me not hate myself for my skin colour.

Perhaps it is too simple to think of Salvatore’s novels as simply good or bad. One could see why some people of color would find the dark elves he wrote offensive. At the same time, others find strength in the story of an unflappable hero of color. It seems at the very least that Salvatore can be credited with inheriting a fundamentally flawed fantasy world and leaving it a more complex and less-racist place than he found it.

New Fantasies, New Worlds

Cover art for Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.

Ultimately no one owns the fantasy genre. Not J.R.R. Tolkien, not Gary Gygax, not Wizards of the Coast, not R.A. Salvatore. And wonderfully, contemporary fantasy authors have worked to undo the racist structures built into the foundations of the genre, not by changing them from within (as Salvatore has attempted), but by simply creating new fantasy worlds without the racist baggage of the past. The genre is changing, and for the better. HBO recently optioned an adaptation of Nnedi Okorafor’s excellent book Who Fears Death. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season is being turned into a TV series at TNT.

So if you create fantasy worlds, join in! Insist that people of color and non-European cultures are a vibrant and equal part of your invented world. If you want to keep the elf-dwarf-human-hobbit-orc lineup that Tolkien established, understand what it means to do so. Perhaps you could even use the paradigm to critique or deconstruct the racist structures of previous fantasy works. Whatever you do, you can work to subvert and dismantle the racist structures that are a deep part of the genre.

If you are a consumer, if you read fantasy literature or watch fantasy films and TV shows, choose worlds that are not built on the racist foundations of the past. Or if you do want to read them, at least do so with eyes open, understanding the problems inherent in the genre. Thankfully, there are more and more forward-looking fantasies to choose from every year that don’t play into the usual racist tropes. You can find some roundups of them here, here, and here—and please recommend your favorites in the comments section below!

As Drizzt Do’Urden would tell you: we are more than our origins. Just because this genre that we love has roots in racist thought does not mean that we are not allowed to enjoy it. But when we do, we should acknowledge its problems and work to fix them. We must ensure that the fantasies of the present and the future reflect our values, share our understanding of the world, and break truly new ground.

Correction: This article first indicated that Unearthed Arcana is a book in fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons. While it was a book for first and third-edition Dungeons and Dragons, that name is currently used for a blog section of the Dungeons and Dragons website. 

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