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Racism and Sexism in Traditional High Fantasy

This thread is inspired by somebody’s comments over on my comments over on “Tyrants of the Underdark” review.

Specifically, I pointed out that one of the biggest problems I have with lazy high fantasy writing is the kind of “baked in” racism that pervades such works: orcs (or orks) are all evil. Ogres are all brutish. Dwarves are all industrious. Etc… etc…

The response was along the lines of “Well, it makes sense in universe, since the gods that created those races are representations of single facets, and the races are reflections of those simplistic aspects”. Then he/she brought up Tolkien, stating that orcs and goblins were twisted and evil because they were created twisted and evil by whoever-whatever-wherever.

I countered by saying that Tolkien’s work is actually quite racist when viewed through the lens of Eurocentric world building (the heroic white people holding back the dark-skinned monstrosities and barbarians of the East and South), and represented, at the time, contemporary fears of China/Mongolia (hence the “great wall” that surrounds Mordor). And so on.

So my question is this: how do we, as modern readers and consumers of media, view older works (specifically in fantasy and sci-fi) that have unconscious racism and sexism built into their world view? I mean, it’s one thing to say “Conan is sexist” (which it unquestionably is), but a more complicated thing to say whether it’s excusable that it is sexist because, at the time, it wasn’t created to be sexist, it was just the author using the acceptable parlance of the time when crafting his work.

To me, this is more forgivable in standard fiction (taking racism out of any work of Mark Twain is idiotic), but veers dangerously towards unforgivable (or at least enormously unfortunate) when looking at works of fantasy or sci-fi where the author can literally craft any universe they choose and still (often unconsciously, granted) include sexism and racism in those newly crafted worlds… and again it becomes a bit more forgivable when you think that 50 years ago nobody would ever dream of a world where racism and sexism weren’t constants. And while there is racism in Twain’s work, I would hesitate to call Twain racist, whereas I’m less hesitant to slap that label on Tolkien…

I’m rambling at this point. Sorry.

Curious what greater minds than I think about this! Thanks!

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Can’t type a full reply at the moment but it strikes me as highly suspicious when sci-fi and fantasy worlds where anything is possible still basically hew to a “evil races coincidentally have dark skin and the western gender binary is still in place” basic set of rules

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I’ll just add that I’ve been working my way through Lovecraft’s oeuvre, and hoo boy, the fact that the evil cultists are invariably African or Chinese or Caribbean or whatever (or worse-yet, “half-caste”), combined with the ingrained view that all societies exist on a primitive / decadent / advanced continuum (of course all the protagonists/narrators are white and from an advanced/civilized society) is… well, it’s unrelenting and pervasive, is what it is. To say nothing of the fact that women are essentially non-existent (at least as characters with motives and goals of their own). You don’t need to do critical analysis of whether the treatment of Shoggoths in At The Mountains Of Madness is a metaphor that implicitly approves of slavery — the blatant, undisguised racism is enough to jar a modern reader.

And I’m not someone that’s super quick to pick up on that sort of thing. But once you notice it, you keep noticing it.

Which basically leads back to the Conan question: Is it a product of the times? Is it “acceptable” because of that? And how much do you say “Well it’s still good literature, so don’t let any of that bother you”?

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I’ve never before thought of The Lord of the Rings as racist, perhaps because I have so much love for Middle Earth and it’s lore.

You’ve shaken me: partly because while Tolkien was clearly a master of creating histories, languages and cultures, I can’t believe I missed the fact that they were so skewed towards White ones; and partly, as dshpak said:

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I think some it comes from building worlds based on historical analogues, where conflict was typically between people from different cultures, and when societies were more male dominated. Is it fair to say in the modern world we can see both sides of a conflict communicated relatively equally, and the roles of women highlighted better, which might have been lacking before?

One drawback with a lot of older fantasy and sci-fi are with protagonist motivations. People tend to be either good or evil, no shades of grey in-between. So assuming that the heroes will be facing up against cultures or races different from themselves (otherwise, why write a fantasy or sci-fi novel?), they will almost certainly be described as ‘evil’ or ‘wicked’.

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I think you are reading too much about it and looking for problems where non exist.

First of all, of course it is Anglo-Saxon centric since he created that world to conduct an experiment on the evolution of language namely, Germanic languages such as English of which he was a professor of in Oxford. Together with a previous tenure teaching Anglo-Saxon and so forth. If you study the evolution of a language, you study the evolution of its people so of course it will be told from an Anglo-Saxon point of view.

There is nothing indicating that Mordor is based on China. First of all there is no wall. There is one gate and the rest is a mountain range. Must be a racist mountain range then…

And if you consider that some of his inspiration comes from his experience in the first world war where he fought, among other places, in the battle of the Somme (Marshes of the dead are basically what he saw on the battlefield after the battle)!! Plus, the man himself said that his books were not politically based on WWI or WWII though he admitted that no could stay indifferent to those events. Which is true.
So, another view you can take is that the orcs and trolls were really, Nazis and Bolcheviks.
One of the theories is that Isengard was Hitler and that the true menace was Mordor which was to represent the USSR or another where its the Italians and the Germans or another one where it just represents the internal struggle of a man or woman through life as they have to battle their inner demons and that the path to righteousness is a tough but rewarding one and temptation is everywhere. You can pick and choose what you want and you choose to see Orcs and Trolls as Chinese or Africans. Now that is racist!

And this leads me to wonder, have you read Tolkien before?
It doesn’t seem like you did.

Btw, Another interpretation is that Sauron built the gate to keep men and the elves out to prevent them from stealing Mordor’s jobs. The Elves are Mexicans and Sauron is Trump. Now that is extremely progressive no?

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All the respect in the world for avoiding the urge toward a knee-jerk defensive, minimising response when something you love is criticised. Man, that’s something I’m guilty of waaaaay too often.

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This topic immediately brings to mind ‘The Last Ringbearer’ which deals with these kind of issues surrounding Tolkien in a really interesting way! Worth a read out of interest if nothing else?!

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I read a lot of older material and I try to take it on its own terms because otherwise I couldn’t enjoy it at all. I’m less concerned with “is this racist”, because it is, and more with “can I nonetheless get some pleasure from it”. Sometimes the racism or (more often that I notice) sexism gets all over the actual plot and gums up the works; other times one can take it as a separate thing and set it aside because the rest of the book is worth having.

Lovecraft was certainly racist by the standards of his era, though not as far from the mainstream as he would be now.

A big flag for racism for me is when the “half-caste” is regarded as somehow worse than the pure-blooded Other. If the Other is inferior to Us, the half-Us half-Other should be less inferior, except that they’re evidence of miscegenation…

Post-Tolkien and even more post-D&D fantasy are big on “evil” races, because that’s a nice simple answer to the question of why you’re barging into someone’s home, killing them, and taking their stuff.

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For those interested in Lovecraft’s weird fiction, but not so enthused by the racism and sexism, might I suggest a pair of books, both released last year?

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle, tackles issues of race and police brutality, using The Horror At Red Hook as a starting point. I read it over an evening last week - it’s a brief but engaging novella - and can recommend without hesitation. Here’s an interview with LaValle on NPR’s Fresh Air last February, if you’re curious.

Also on my new stack* of reading - so I can’t comment directly - is Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. Amal El-Mohtar wrote a nice review, but the idea of revisiting The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath with a modern approach to including, say, female characters. Wild, right? I’m excited to get into it.

*This one was actually a gift to my wife, from my mother. My mother, who’d be appalled at anything Lovecraftian, but noticed that the protagonist is a woman and a mathematics professor, so… bingo. Surprise success! (Last year, she gave my wife a copy of Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers, which has absolutely nothing to do with number theory. Read it anyway. We’re loath to turn down books in this house.)

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I’m just getting stuck into Carter and Lovecraft by Jonathan L Howard. The Lovecraft in the title is a direct descendant of H P L, and is mixed race, and the fact that this would have him turning in his grave is discussed.

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Easy there, sir. Easy. No need to get mean.

I’ve read the LotR over a dozen times end to end. Doesn’t make me an expert: does make me a fan. So, yes, I have read Tolkien before.

Mordor is described as surrounded by the “wall formed by the mountains, with the Black Gate the most direct way of entering.” The allies of Mordor are the “Southron”, and were described as “Near Harad were brown-skinned, with black hair and dark eyes, whereas the people of Far Harad had black skin.” The lands of Mordor are far to the East, and the lands of Valinor (and the Undying Lands) are “over the seas to the West”.

Is it a 1 to 1 comparison? No, of course not. But he was crafting a world, and he chose to craft a world that mirrored the racist undertones (and overtones) of his times.

Gondor? White skin. Rohan? White skin. Hobbits? White skin. Etc… etc… etc…

Now, again, that doesn’t make the work a “racist” work (unlike, say, “Mein Kempf”). It doesn’t magically disappear the racism that’s baked into it, though. Nor Tolkien’s weird fascination with racial purity (as mentioned above… the blood of Gondor, the ageless and timeless nature of Aragorn due to his being “of pure blood”, etc… etc…).

Being critical of the media you love is important. I’m not saying people shouldn’t enjoy Tolkien (obviously!), but I am saying we should be able to discuss the facets of his work that are a result of the time he was writing in.

Several people have commented on H.P. Lovecraft in this thread: would you equally argue that he’s not racist because compared to some people of his time, he’s actually pretty even handed?

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http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Racism

In short, this is a topic that should be treated with some sensitivity.
I’d also like to add that there is a difference between racist or racialist elements in work of fiction and being racist.

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Saruman? The Whitest of all! :wink:

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I was curious so I did a quick google about which human races were good and evil in Lord of the Rings. I’m not really into Tolkein lore, so I’m willing to accept that my ten whole minutes of study might be incorrect, but…

The Free Peoples seemed to be Gondor, Rohan, Lake Town and Wild-men. They all seem pretty white.

The Evil Peoples (I couldn’t find a collective name for these, but they fought with Sauron’s army) seemed to be Haradrim (dark skin, hailing from hot desert and lush forests), Easterlings (dark hair, yellow skin), Variags (no description, but people seem to think they were likely similar to varangians, or vikings) and Corsairs of Umbar (I can’t find a racial description, but they mixed with the Haradrim and diluted their Numenorian blood, so not white basically). So other than the viking people who aren’t actually described anyway, that’s a whole lot of not-white.

Sooo… yeah :confused:

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… and becomes “Of many colours” when he becomes evil (and is replaced by Gandalf The White, who is better and more powerful than Gandalf the Grey).

But you’re right. This isn’t a simple case, and I completely agree about your designation (that racist or racist elements vs works being racist).

I don’t think LotR is racist. Truly, I don’t. There are, sadly, racist elements in it, and I suspect that viewed through the 60+ year lens we have now they seem much worse than they were intended. I suspect my own works (if I am ever lucky enough to look back on them 60+ years from now!) will hold up no better, and likely much worse.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider, analyze, or discuss, right? Right.

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I agree, speaking about the issue also in older works of fiction keeps our awareness up for current things happening. I don’t want to stir this pot too much, but there are some tendencies in AsoIaF aswell… ducks and runs fo safety

yells from a safe distance
and Astrid Lindgreen

“My papa is a cannibal king; it certainly isn’t every child who has such a stylish papa,”

in Germany that was translated to “Negerkönig” i guess I don’t have to translate that.

ducks behind his cover

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I was hoping you wouldn’t realize that. :wink:

Absolutely!

I just hope that noone comes away from discussions like this with the (sole) impression that writer x was racist. In the case of Tolkien, it would great injustice to a man that despised the Nazis and seems to have been a very decent human overall.

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What really irritated me about the issue was the number of (older) people that couldn’t seem to stand that “their” childhood heroine was going to be modified and insisted on the Negerkönig. Even Denis Scheck whom I greatly respect.

But I’m afraid we’re digressing again… :wink:

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Also the wild hillfolk, the Dunderlings, who fought with Saruman against Rohan, are considered evil men. They are white, and have a historic grievance as the horse lords stole their land back in the time of Eorl the Younger. They still lose out in the War of the Ring. Arguably the Ring Wraiths were probably white men too back when they were just kings of men before they fell to the shadow. Doesn’t balance the sheet much, but maybe shows it’s more to do with bloodline of the men from West.

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