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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© Copyright 2017 Paul B. Sturtevant, All rights Reserved. Written For: The Public Medievalist
Paul B. Sturtevant

The author Paul B. Sturtevant

Paul B. Sturtevant is Editor-in-Chief of The Public Medievalist. He is a researcher and historian for the Smithsonian Institution, where he helps the institution better understand its visitors and itself. He is an author, a medievalist, and a consultant, and has completed research projects as diverse as exploring the Caliphates of Muslim Spain, the history of American health care reform, and the peculiarities of American-style barbecue. He is unabashedly passionate about the place history has in current conversations.

  • James Scaminaci III, PhD

    I’ve been learning from the series and sharing on Facebook and Twitter. But, your book costs $104. How popular will that make your book? That is steep.

    • Thanks for learning and sharing. I understand and agree– completely. I didn’t choose the MSRP, that was entirely up to the publisher. I’m told that it will be released as a less-expensive e-book around the time of publication, and that if the hardback sells well enough that it should be out in paperback before too long. All that being said, I’m looking forward to publishing more books with trade publishers who might be able to price them a bit more inexpensively.

  • Pingback: A Desperate Last-Ditch Mission to Close All My Tabs | Gerry Canavan()

  • GearoidDubh

    This is a topic I think about quite a bit. I’m no writer, yet, but I think confronting it head on in the worldbuilding phase really is the best way to combat it. At that phase you can run what you’re creating against a checklist of racist tropes and fix any problems that arise.

    Then again, my experience probably isn’t typical given the average level of historical education and familiarity with the broader world, particularly for Americans. It seems like our atrocious teaching of history particularly in public schools likely plays a role in all of this. If all you know about say, the Sassanids, is that they fought the Romans and then collapsed with the spread of Islam then it’ll be hard to draw on them in writing fiction.

  • EAG 113H

    Do you mind if I push back a little bit against this? I hope that this post doesn’t come across as malicious trolling; I really do offer it in a respectful spirit of free debate. It’s just that I strenuously disagree with certain aspects of this essay.

    Let me start with a positive response. I think that you are certainly correct about the racial dimensions of the Drow, and although some artists were sensitive to that aspect of them, many were not. And more generally, I admire the spirit and intentions behind this essay (and indeed this whole series.) But to me what makes this essay problematic are the readings of the texts themselves, and–how shall I put it?–the larger strategy that this essay and others adopt.

    The readings first. I’ll start with the analogies you use to describe the presence of racist ideas in the texts: in LoTR, they are “bred into the core” of the novel, while in D&D “the racist connection between “race” and ability…is baked into the game’s core.” My quibble is not with the core analogy per se, but with what it implies: that these texts are static, geometric solids with centers that are “baked” by an author and then presented to us. Texts are not cakes. They are dynamic narratives in which things happen and characters act. This concept of action is particularly important for talking about racism, because racism isn’t some inert miasmic substance; rather, it is a set of actions, taken consciously or unconsciously, that negatively affect people. And considering such actions is essential in describing the racial politics of a novel. If I write a fantasy text about a planet two different races, the Flopins and the Blotars, it matters very much whether they are at war with each other or at peace or in an uneasy tension, and how those conflicts are intensified or resolved, and what the narrator’s implied attitude is towards this sequence of events. In fact, those dynamics are everything; you can’t judge the racial politics of the text without them.

    So what are those dynamics in LoTR? I would say unequivocally that they present something very different than the impression conveyed in the essay, or indeed in the cited Helen Young interview. One of the recurring messages of LotR is that we must overcome racial animus. This is not an undertone in the text; it’s absolutely in the foreground. One of the primary narrative elements in the trilogy is that a fellowship of different races must come together. It’s presented as an existential threat: if we don’t gather as a racially diverse group of cooperators, we will die. Indeed, it’s so important that the first novel is named after it. The member of the Fellowship most resistant to the diversification imperative, Boromir, is the one who is ultimately corrupted.

    This pattern is frequently replicated on an individual level throughout the text. One of the main subplots is the unlikely friendship of Legolas and Gimli, who start by showing real racial hostility to one another, but who gradually become warm friends, a friendship that ultimately, it is implied, leads to increased friendliness between their peoples. Tolkien devotes a lot of time to this subplot, and it is one of the most touching elements of the trilogy. But it’s not an isolated episode. Hobbits must
    cooperate with men, despite their distrust of them. The Ents must be persuaded to warmer relations with the Rohirrim. The men of Rohan and Gondor must learn to trust the aboriginal Woses, a trust that leads to their political independence. Etc., etc. Time and time again, characters come together _despite_ the hard wired racial differences that you discuss, and the text praises their efforts to do so.

    Now, you might mention the racial dimension of the enemy, particularly the dark-skinned Easterlings, and it’s true that they are a problematic ‘other’ in the text. Unlike the other races, we never get any shared scenes between them and the novels’ protagonists. However, the scene in which we come closest to it–the battle between Faramir and the Easterling batallion–still possesses the anti-racial impulse, articulated by Sam, who, when he sees the body of a dead Easterling, wonders if he was really a bad person and whether he was coerced into war. It’s literally the first thing he thinks of! Again, fellowship, understanding… these are the primary impulses of the novel.

    D&D is harder to evaluate since there is no “authorial” narrative of course. Indeed the possibility of choosing absolute evil is always there for the PCs. But I would say this: in spite of the hard wired racial dimension you identfy, players always come together as a _party_. Once again, the Fellowship model, and one in which a diverse set of races is not just possible, but desireable. Choosing from a set of different, but carefully equalized races, players join a party in which each contributes their skills for a common good. This doesn’t seem like a racial dystopia to me; rather, it seems like a model for the kind of communities we are looking for, in which different backgrounds are acknowledged but celebrated. (Except perhaps that our communities don’t then go off to fight owlbears.)

    There’s more I could say about D&D, but this is already growing too long, so let me get to my second objection, which is more amorphous and has to do with how we answer racists who try to claim these texts for their own. Basically, I think it’s a grave mistake to implicitly validate their claims by ceding the ground to them on their own terms. I think that the Young interview does this especially badly. The logic of the interview basically goes like this: “‘Racist morons have been celebrating LotR. How do you feel about that?’ ‘Well, the racist morons have a point.'” No! They do not have a point! They’re racist morons! The essay by Professor Kaufman on this site about the KKK is far better; she argues that these racist morons are being moronic in their use of the medieval. That’s exactly what we should be saying to them! Don’t just hand them LotR and D&D, which are probably two of the biggest gateways into medieval studies. How many readers’ paths to medievalism went through LotR and D&D? Do we want to lose that? I think that we shoot ourselves in the foot when we don’t defend these texts adequately. And as I hope I conveyed above, bringing out the pro-diversity elements of these texts doesn’t require any pomo Derridian deconstructive trickiness. They are right there before us.

    Okay, this comment probably sounds like a grumpy rant by someone whose too enamored with the texts of his childhood to see the negative elements. And you’re not entirely wrong in thinking that. But since I mention it, maybe I should finish my case with the personal dimension. I never read fiction at all as a child. Then, when I was 9, I started playing D&D, and that led to Tolkien, which led to fantasy, then to sci-fi, then to lit in general. Now I am a professional teacher of literature. But it’s not just that these texts led me to my career. They also led me to becoming a better human being, one who (although he has a lot to learn) has a fuller apprehension of the racial and gender disparities that plague our society than he had before. I didn’t have to move in that direction. I was a clever child in conservative environments, and could have been more egoistic, more dismissive of others, more racist. But D&D and LotR set me on a path to be another, better, person, a journey that is by no means complete.

    Now sure, that’s just an anecdote. But the question of how we make better people is at the heart of this issue. Which is more likely, that LotR and D&D will lead someone to become a white supremacist, or a more sensitive, thoughtful individual? All we can do is guess at the answer to the question. But I strongly believe that there is a far greater probability of the latter than the former, and if I’m right, then we should be defending these texts with all the eloquence that’s at our disposal, because if we don’t, we risk inadvertently abetting the very forces we attempt to fight.

  • I wholeheartedly welcome criticism of my favourite game. I am particularly interested in arguments against the race essentialism of Salvatore’s take on the Drow, which I find distasteful.

    I feel as though a few points warrant more nuance, however.

    For instance: something ought to be made out of the fact that race invariably constitutes an advantage for the player as far as ability scores are concerned. Except in a few exceedingly rare cases, the player’s race is never represented as a negative modifier to an ability score.

    It should also be noted how these advantages are usually very slight. For instance: the view that Elves are necessarily more agile than Dwarves is rapidly contradicted by simple mathematics. An Elf’s Dexterity modifier (+2) accounts for only 10% of their maximum possible starting score (20); the rest of the score is contributed by other factors (usually: a roll of the dice). In this way, the mechanics of “Dungeons and Dragons” emphatically affirm that chance and upbringing are more significant determiners of ability than race.

    Putting aside the issue of race for a moment, I feel compelled to note that neither the “Player’s Handbook” nor the “Dungeon Master’s Guide” imply that a personality can be summarized by the six ability scores, nor even by the combination of all 30 other datapoints of the character sheet (armor class, initiative, skills proficiency, etc). These statistics are neither more nor less reductive than many measures commonly used by psychometricians; indeed, I should feel grateful for a psychological evaluation as detailed as my own character sheet.

    “Unearthed Arcana,” moreover, has not recently been a book; it is rather a digital showcase of materials released periodically for playtesting. Its title is a reference to a long out-of-print supplement (and physical book) in a much earlier edition of the game. The perfunctory treatment given to such details cause me to wonder whether the materials were examined only after certain conclusions had been formulated based on accepted notions of the genre.

    Certainly, the use of the term “race” in fantasy is unfortunate, and the genre would benefit from switching to “species.” This would not resolve all problems, but it would indubitably enable a more articulate discussion, especially in diverse settings such as “The Forgotten Realms,” wherein different ethnicities of Human, Elf, and Dwarf cohabit.

  • Fantasy is terrible — my area being Mongols, I am persuaded that steppe peoples are among the most abused in fantasy.
    Tolkien: I understood these as species. Whether species are better I don’t try to say, but I placed them with extinct species in my head, as a young reader.
    I am concerned by the Turkic-sounding names of Orcs. Orc words are most uncomfortable. Turks and Mongols take a battering in fantasy, and to me, he has clearly drawn upon them for Orc names.

  • Bob Clark

    I’m one of those guilty of treating race ( in fantasy and sci fi ) as synonymous with species. Despite the ability to interbreed. I had considered Elves, Humans, and Orcs to be seperate biological creatures. Much in the same way Vulcans, Humans, and Klingons are. And yes, I know the parallels are there to fantasy as well. A Fantasy RPG PC game, Arcanum, stated that in their world that Humans, Elves, and Orcs shared a common ancestor. An interesting idea, especially as the game was set in sort of a Victorian/Industrial Revolution in a fantasy setting. I think the big problem is monotyping entire species based off of one cultural aspect. Or taking a part of a real world culture and making a whole species off of it, without context or consideration. Going back to race, if I could, I’d say that your default elves and the drow are the same species, but just a different phenotype. I’ve probably done a poor job expressing my opinion, but as a gamer, I want my hobby to be more open, fair, and just. I support critical views on it, and acknowledging a troubled past.

  • Histproff

    One of the issues you need to address concerning Tolkien is that his races, elves, humans, dwarves, and the like, are products of separate creations. Elves, the first born, were endowed by Iluvatar with special traits (not subject to illness or death, etc). Humans were created separately, much later after elves, and were given their own unique gifts (such as death). Dwarves were not even created by Iluvatar. They were created by Aule the Smith (one of the Valar/powerful spirits of Middle Earth) who loved rock and metal, thus giving them their own unique traits as well. In the case of orcs it has been surmised that they were elves, twisted by the machinations of the extremely powerful Melkor, an evil fallen Valar. We humans have all evolved out of one common origin not unique separate creations. Thus our notion of race is a social construct, whereas Tolkien went to great pains to emphasize dwarves, elves, and humans were each a product of separate individual creations, each “blessed” with particular traits and abilities. In Middle Earth race is tangible, created by the desires of Iluvatar.

    • birdhead

      I think you’re coming at this backwards. Tolkien justifies racial exceptionalism in his work by giving all his races complicated origin stories. But the fact that he made up those stories doesn’t detract from what you actually get in his work (at least the two most famous pieces of it), which is a fantasy world where all the good guys have pale skin and all the bad guys have dark skin. Real-world racism has used all kinds of similar mythmaking to try to justify itself; today there are white supremacists trying to use the presence of Neanderthal DNA in some people to justify the white supremacy. This basically amounts to a pseudoscientific separate origin story for white people, and it both is the product of and produces racism – it doesn’t mean those people aren’t racist.

      • Histproff

        As all modern ethnic groups (except Africans) contain neanderthal DNA , and neanderthal DNA is 99.8% identical to humans is again proves that we all came from a common ancestor. To claim that neanderthal DNA is “some” people (most actually) to justify racial supremacy of whites isn’t even up to the level of pseudoscience as it is ubiquitous among Asians, Europeans, Native Americans, etc. It cannot be used (in any logical or rational sense) as a separate origin story. As far as Tolkien I do not believe I am coming at this backwards. In fact I am looking at the origins and explanations of Tolkien’s races, whereas the article simply looked at them in the “present age of the stories.” I am not discounting that Tolkien had views on the various races that many of his generation shared. I simply wanted the author to not neglect the separate and distinct origins that Tolkien laid out for these races, as opposed to the common origin of humanity. For example, when you are discussing dwarven racial characteristics in D&D and you trace those back to Tolkien, but do not offer his rationale (as explained in their origin story) you leave out an essential element. That is why I recommended addressing those issues.

  • Steve Curtis

    The thing is, there is race in fantasy worlds because it is designed that way. In the real world there is one race, human. I don’t think that playing fantasy rpgs makes one insensitive and racist. And if I remember correctly, D&D moved away from the idea that a race could be inherently evil or good. I think fantasy role playing gives the players a better appreciation and acceptance of differences of character, and role players are LESS likely to engage in real world prejudice.

    • It (gaming) really does put forward the notion that different is neither better nor worse, and that a collection of differing strengths makes for a greater whole. It was one of the facets of gaming I enjoyed most…the notion of widely varying talents coming together to accomplish singular goals. Sadly, a fragment of ‘gamer culture’ is loudly adverse to any intrusion on their once snow white, testosterone drenched fantasism, and they work hard to make the rest of us look bad. I’m with you, though. Most gamers, old and new, were never influenced toward racism by gaming or fiction, and its really more of a quality of the human spirit and mind that exists independent of literature or hobbies. Racists gonna racist, and the rest of us just want no part of it.

  • An interesting overview. Only one small correction on timing. The dark elves, as featured in the 1st edition modules during their original release, were much more fantastically different in appearance from other elves and humans (averaging around 4 1/2 feet in height, white haired, and with skin of an absolute black so distinct as to be visibly different than the presence of melanin.) Also worth noting was their matriarchal society and religion in which men were of secondary importance and of lesser ability, which, being one of the only examples of such in AD&D, was disappointing. I mean, really, the only successful matriarchal culture in game and its unutterably evil? The second release of those modules featured illustrations that more closely resembled the ‘Thunderdome’ look.

    The timing is important to note because the extreme appearance clearly denoted a drastically non human appearance, so recognizably out of character with surface dwelling peoples that the instant recognition the dark elves faced was not mere skin color based racism, but generally terror that they were present at all, chiefly because their appearance meant death or capture for anyone who met them. Salvatore had returned to the original fantastic appearance at the time of his novels, first to last. The cover illustration in later bundled releases like “Queen of the Spiders” does make the dark elves look, simply put, like black women, so we might as well include a fair assessment of sexism as well, since the art was somewhat (typically of the time and genre) exploitative in its portrayal of women too. Although race is a thorny subject, and I remain open to a wide variety of interpretations, it is important to keep the origins and timeline of events accurate, especially since, among die hard nerds (myself included) there is always the risk of a thoughtful article being dismissed entirely over a single error.

    That said, I’m not a great fan of boxing fantasy writing or gaming into neat categories of modern acceptability, mostly because every attempt to do so means peril as we insert our own feelings and opinions into the work of another person and era, often incorrectly, so I stick to measuring literary merit or quality of gameplay and nothing else…but I am a big fan of new inclusiveness and reasonable sensitivity in both gaming and fiction.

    I genuinely like your closing statements in this article, and they sum up much of what I feel about the subject. Our task isn’t to erase the ugly bits of the past. but rather to address them, give them consideration, and be guided to better choices in the present. The current gaming circles I travel in are no longer sterile bastions of heterosexual white maleness, and gaming culture is more vibrant and alive than ever because of this. The love of the fantastic and the historical is spreading farther and wider, and I couldn’t be happier. Paizo’s ‘Pathfinder’, which employs the much of the ruleset from D&Ds 3rd edition, is leading the charge in making new material that gives an active place in popular gaming for people of all backgrounds and orientations, racial, gender, or otherwise, and deserves credit for having a caused a leap forward in delivering the material without the antiquated stereotypes and ‘pigeonholing’ that came with it in days past. Overall. I’d say gaming is heading in a better direction than ever, and that’s cause for good cheer, even while we delve into the past in search of things that offend modern sensibilities.

  • I just recently saw something on FB pertaining to this issue: a “Sage Advice” column from Dragon Magazine no.33 (vol.IV:no.07, January 1980) pertaining to an oddity in AD&D [1st Ed.]:

    [QUESTION: Although the Players Handbook does not include them in the description of the Raise Dead spell, may elves and half-orcs be raised from the dead?
    ANSWER: No, they cannot. They do not have souls, and therefore a wish must be used to bring them back.]

    Which I believe is something influenced by Tolkien’s writings.

  • birdhead

    “What the article fails entirely to grasp is that the races in MIddle Earth, Golarion, The MTG Multiverse, etc aren’t the result of evolution and social construct. They are in most cases the result of direct creation, manipulation, and mutilation of higher powers of good and evil. Orcs aren’t evil in Middle earth just because they’re orcs, they were elves that were twisted and mutilated by Melkor. ”

    No, they were not. They were made up by Tolkien, a white English guy, between the world wars. They are the most social construct-y social construct possible. They were literally constructed by a dude living in a society, with all the prejudices inherent therein.

    The details of races’ origins in fantasy are the in-text justification for producing races or species that look different to PCs and protagonists and are Born Evil. But outside those worlds, in the real world in which we’re operating, the result is just races that are Born Evil – most of whom have skin colour differences from the PCs and protagonists.

  • Druidiclore

    The major issue with your counter argument is that it is circular to the point of being meaningless. You are essentially saying “the author doesn’t get it because the system is the system”, further “the system was created by the fictional history, so the system isn’t racist”.

    The problem is, of course, if the system is a result of the history and the history was based on ideas of inherent distinctions and base “goodness” or “evil” being what we call in sociology “nature” and not “nurture”, then the argument made here (the system is suspect because the notions of the history are suspect) – is absolutely right.

    The article does not “try to sound intellectual” because, frankly, it is, and the author has done his homework (and has CLEARLY played the game and done the requisite background reading for a long, long time), so an attempt to dismiss it by quoting a few remembered lines from The Silmarillion or the Inner Sea Guide doesn’t really get you much in the way of points here.

    (Yeah there are entire communities of PhD-level RPG researchers, and they realize you need to bring a bit more to the table to call something like this “pedantic”)

    Looking academically, the article has some structural issues, to be sure. But I say that looking at the game through a social science lens rather than a historical lens. By my perspective the author may have misread a few things, and he may have a…less than complex…understanding of structural racism, but it doesn’t completely discount his argument.

  • EAG 113H

    (I tried to post this comment a few days ago but it got marked as spam, maybe because it was too long? So I’ll try breaking it up into two posts.)

    Do you mind if I push back a little bit against this? I hope that this post doesn’t come across as malicious trolling; I really do offer it in a respectful spirit of free debate. It’s just that I strenuously
    disagree with certain aspects of this essay.

    Let me start with a positive response. I think that you are certainly correct about the racial dimensions of the Drow, and although some artists were sensitive to that aspect of them, many were not. And more generally, I admire the spirit and intentions behind this essay (and indeed this whole series.) But to me what makes this essay problematic are the readings of the texts themselves, and–how shall I put it?–the larger strategy that this essay and others adopt.

    The readings first. I’ll start with the analogies you use to describe the presence of racist ideas in the
    texts: in LoTR, they are “bred into the core” of the novel, while in D&D “the racist connection between “race” and ability…is baked into the game’s core.” My quibble is not with the core analogy per se, but with what it implies: that these texts are static, geometric solids with centers that are “baked” by an author and then presented to us. Texts are not cakes. They are dynamic narratives in which things happen and characters act. This concept of action is particularly important for talking about racism, because racism isn’t some inert miasmic substance; rather, it is a set of actions, taken consciously or
    unconsciously, that negatively affect people. And considering such actions is essential in describing the racial politics of a novel. If I write a fantasy text about a planet two different races, it matters very much whether they are at war with each other or at peace or in an uneasy tension, and how those conflicts are intensified or resolved, and what the narrator’s implied attitude is towards this sequence of events. In fact, those dynamics are everything; you can’t judge the racial politics of the text without
    them.

    So what are those dynamics in LoTR? I would say unequivocally that they present something very different than the impression conveyed in the essay, or indeed in the cited Helen Young interview. One of the recurring messages of LotR is that we must overcome racial animus. This is not an undertone in the text; it’s absolutely in the foreground. One of the primary narrative elements in the trilogy is that a fellowship of different races must come together. It’s presented as an existential threat: if we don’t gather as a racially diverse group of cooperators, we will die. Indeed, it’s so important that the first novel is named after it. The member of the Fellowship most resistant to the diversification imperative, Boromir, is the one who is ultimately corrupted.

    This pattern is frequently replicated on an individual level throughout the text. One of the main
    subplots is the unlikely friendship of Legolas and Gimli, who start by showing real racial hostility to one another, but who gradually become warm friends, a friendship that ultimately, it is implied, leads to increased friendliness between their peoples. Tolkien devotes a lot of time to this subplot, and it is one of the most touching elements of the trilogy. But it’s not an isolated episode. Hobbits must
    cooperate with men, despite their distrust of them. The Ents must be persuaded to warmer relations with the Rohirrim. The men of Rohan and Gondor must learn to trust the aboriginal Woses, a trust that leads to the latter’s political independence. Etc., etc. Time and time again, characters come together _despite_ the hard wired racial differences that you discuss, and the text praises their efforts to do so.

    Now, you might mention the racial dimension of the enemy, particularly the dark-skinned Easterlings, and it’s true that they are a problematic ‘other’ in the text. Unlike the other races, we never get any shared scenes between them and the novels’ protagonists. However, the scene in which we come closest to it–the battle between Faramir and the Easterling batallion–still possesses the anti-racial impulse, articulated by Sam, who, when he sees the body of a dead Easterling, wonders if he was really a bad person and whether he was coerced into war. It’s literally the first thing he thinks of! Again, fellowship, understanding… these are the primary impulses of the novel. (continued…)

    • N.E.S. Merrill

      Thank you, this is a very nice analysis and I appreciate it.
      My opinion is; this is a problem of language. Race is pretty meaningless, humans are one ‘race’ but also multiple ‘races’ some how.
      Tolkien used the words that were common at the time, but he should have used species for the most apart. Even with the interbreeding, it’s obvious they are not all human; the elves arrive millions of years before humans, and the humans come from a completely different creation.
      Tolkien I feel did this on purpose. Where as humans are all one species, divided, he purposely separated these peoples into alien existences form one another, some exceedingly hard to breach. An elf who lives for thousands of years, each passing like a drop of water—compared to a human who is little more than a mayfly… These “Races” to come together, takes an astonishing feat.

      It is this extreme separation that I think he strove for, to say “if these, alien to one another as they are, can come together; so can humans.”

  • EAG 113H

    (part 2)

    D&D is harder to evaluate since there is no “authorial” narrative of course. Indeed the possibility of choosing absolute evil is always there for the PCs. But I would say this: in spite of the hard wired
    racial dimension you identfy, players always come together as a _party_. Once again, the Fellowship model, and one in which a diverse set of races is not just possible, but desirable. Choosing from a set of different, but carefully equalized races, players join a party in which each contributes their skills for a common good. This doesn’t seem like a racial dystopia to me; rather, it seems like a model for the kind of communities we are looking for, in which differences in backgrounds are acknowledged but celebrated. (Except perhaps that our communities don’t then go off to fight owlbears.)

    There’s more I could say about D&D, but this is already growing too long, so let me get to my second objection, which is more amorphous and has to do with how we answer racists who try to claim these texts for their own. Basically, I think it’s a grave mistake to implicitly validate their claims by ceding the ground to them on their own terms. I think that the Young interview does this especially badly. The logic of the interview basically goes like this: “‘Racist morons have been celebrating LotR. How do you feel about that?’ ‘Well, the racist morons have a point.'” No! They do not have a point! They’re racist morons! The essay by Professor Kaufman on this site about the KKK is far better; she argues that these racist morons are being moronic in their use of the medieval. That’s exactly what we should be saying to them! Don’t just hand them LotR and D&D, which are probably two of the biggest gateways into medieval studies. How many readers’ paths to medievalism went through LotR and D&D? Do we want to lose that? I think that we shoot ourselves in the foot when we don’t defend these texts adequately. And as I hope I conveyed above, bringing out the pro-diversity elements of these texts doesn’t require any pomo Derridian deconstructive trickiness. They are right there before us.

    Okay, this comment probably sounds like a grumpy rant by someone whose too enamored with the texts of his childhood to see the negative elements. And you’re not entirely wrong in thinking that. But since I mention it, maybe I should finish my case with the personal dimension. I never read fiction
    at all as a child. Then, when I was 9, I started playing D&D, and that led to Tolkien, which led to fantasy, then to sci-fi, then to lit in general. Now I am a professional teacher of literature. But it’s
    not just that these texts led me to my career. They also led me to becoming a better human being, one who (although he has a lot to learn) has a fuller apprehension of the racial and gender disparities that plague our society than he had before. I didn’t have to move in that direction. I was a clever child in conservative environments, and could have been more egoistic, more dismissive of others, more racist. But D&D and LotR set me on a path to be another, better, person, a journey that is by no means complete.

    Now sure, that’s just an anecdote. But the question of how we make better people is at the heart of this issue. Which is more likely, that LotR and D&D will lead someone to become a white supremacist, or a more sensitive, thoughtful individual? All we can do is guess at the answer to the question. But I
    strongly believe that there is a far greater probability of the latter than of the former, and if I’m right, then we should be defending these texts with all the eloquence that’s at our disposal, because if we
    don’t, we risk inadvertently abetting the very forces we attempt to fight.

  • Cristian Papi

    What if D&D manuals used the word “Type” instead of “Race”? Were you upset in the same way?