Hot on the heels of my last article on white authors, the entertainment industry has dished up another controversy among white fandom, this time in the fantasy genre. Between the appearance of non-white elves and hobbits within The Rings of Power to a black Velaryon sitting on the council of King’s Landing in The House of the Dragon, and now the promise of a black Ariel in the latest adaptation of The Little Mermaid, white fandom has come out in droves in a social backlash to all three adaptations. This article will look at the origins of the fantasy genre during the Romantic Era, its expansion and initial standardization during the early 1900s, and the growing and changing audience for the genre as a whole in our modern day.
A Word on This Series
As we come to terms with the white backlash to efforts at including people of color and other underrepresented population within popular franchises, it becomes more imperative than ever that white people learn to break white solidarity. White solidarity is defined by Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, as “the tacit agreement that we [white people] will protect white privilege and not hold each other accountable for our racism.” (Beacon Press, 125) It can be as simple as letting racist jokes slide and as extreme as calling the police when feeling threatened by a non-white person. In the case of the reaction to people of color in fantasy franchises, it is an avoidance of the racist elements with fantasy as written and standardized by white authors. Every time a white person fails to call out privileged or racist behavior, it reinforces white solidarity on some level.
It is imperative that white people confront white supremacism in their lives at all levels. This article is the sixth in a series about breaking white solidarity. It is intended for white audiences, to investigate the ways in which we tolerate individual and systemic racism in our lives, and to investigate methods by which we can work effectively to remove individual and systemic racism to the best of our ability. Hopefully, there will also be an adjacent non-white audience here as well, seeing white people trying to engage in hard discussions with other white people about the racists and supremacists among us.
Romanticizing the Past (Late 1700s to Late 1800s)
Our modern notions of the fantasy genre find their origins primarily during the European Romantic era, which begins in the late 1700s and continued through the late 1800s. During this time, upper- and middle-class Europeans were rediscovering their past in their growing private libraries, filled with Greek and Roman classics along with newly published works collecting European myths, legends, and histories, with an emphasis on medieval times, particularly stories of noble kings, chivalric knights, and fair (skinned) princesses. Stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Three Musketeers would take their cues from earlier works like The Canterbury Tales and Don Quixote to tell new versions of those same myths, legends, and histories. Tales which include Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen, the latter of which was the basis for Disney’s Frozen.
All these works were also directed as a very specific audience: white, upper- and middle-class readers, who expected tales that would reflect their experience. It is no wonder that with few exceptions, every protagonist and most characters within these stories were what we would consider white today. Beyond the audience and monochromatic characters, stories during the Romantic Era were also heavily edited to be acceptable for upper-class sensibilities and sanitized to present the past as more idyllic than it ever truly was. And if this were the extent of the construction of these fairy tales and fantasy stories, one would wonder why there would be any fuss at all about changing the skin color for characters within the stories, such as the inclusion of non-white characters in Disney’s Frozen 2.
But there’s a more nefarious side to the Romantic period related directly to its ties with colonization, particularly with self-ascribed “explorers” like Sir Richard Francis Burton. Burton was famously known for his travels during the Romantic Era, particularly his over forty published books describing his adventures abroad. Burton and others would return from abroad with lurid tales of other, non-white cultures which would set the tone for many antagonists during the Romantic Era. Just as the Ancient Greeks were naturally dismissive of “barbarians” from Asia and Africa, so too did many antagonists and enemies in Romantic Era literature take on the features of these cultures as perceived by white, male colonizers.
This creates many problematic frameworks for Romantic Era literature, particularly within the fantasy genre, where we have white heroes and non-white villains, and often non-white characters placed into demeaning or servile roles. White heroes which embody all the great, noble, chivalrous aspects of European civilization; non-white villains which embody all the horrible, savage, animalistic aspects of non-European civilization. And these frameworks are used in complete rejection of the barbarity of European colonization abroad, powered by the slave trade, and the rise of the Industrial Revolution throughout Europe, which was systematically oppressing the working class under harsher and harsher working conditions for less and less pay, and questioning the existence of monarchies specifically and hierarchies generally.
Romantic Era literature, particularly the fantasy genre, became a way that European authors could quite literally romanticize the past, thus the name for the period, to cover up the barbarity of the past during the medieval period, and by extension, the barbarity of the present during the colonial era. And so, the result is that packaged within these Romantic Era works based on myths, legends, and history are these racist and classist frameworks that existed among those same middle- and upper-class Europeans at the time, rising from a combination of audience expectation, a perceived historical accuracy, colonial privilege, and a desire to sanitize or justify European actions, historically and contemporaneously.
Strange New Worlds (1920s to 1960s)
The Romantic Era would give way to Realism, along with a host of other literary movements, but the works of the Romantic Era would carry forward into the future, eventually populating the public libraries growing along with the expanded literacy brought by public education. Once the literate population reached critical mass, there was an explosion of demand for literature of all sorts in the early 1900s, leading to an explosion in genre fiction, including detective stories, science fiction, horror, erotica, romance, and yes, fantasy. Many authors would become famous during this time, but three would provide the basis for what would be considered the modern fantasy genre: Lord Dunsany, Robert E. Howard, and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Lord Dunsany (aka Edward Plunkett) was an Anglo-Irish writer who spent a great deal of time inventing new fantasy worlds based upon British, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish legends. His best-known book is The King of Elfland’s Daughter, which was massively influential for his contemporary, H.P. Lovecraft, and for future fantasy authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, who penned a famous essay entitled “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” considering what makes the fantasy genre what it is. Lord Dunsany’s fantasy tales are told within a world called Pegāna, populated by a pantheon of gods and an assembly of fairy-tale creatures and humanoids, accessed often through dreaming and other mystical means of travel, told in an almost overwhelming sequence of observations and events. While other authors were attempting to tell historically accurate stories, Lord Dunsany was bravely exploring entirely new realms, marking the beginning of a new era of fantasy storytelling, and raising the expectations of fantasy as a genre. Lord Dunsany wrote for a European audience but found a moderate following within America as well.
Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard was an American writer and creator of the sword and sorcery fantasy sub-genre, best known for Conan the Barbarian. Whereas Lord Dunsany expanded fantasy into entirely new worlds and realms, Howard set his stories primarily in the distant past of mankind, before the rise of the Egyptian/Sumerian civilizations, drawing on the names of cultures and gods found in Greek, Roman, and Jewish antiquities. Howard’s adventure stories resemble those same antiquities, each story set against a backdrop of intense political and social intrigue, which was detailed within a work entitled The Hyborian Age which listed all the cultures and their histories. Unfortunately, this same work exposes Howard for his adherence to ideas like eugenics and other forms of scientific racism, describing in almost frightening detail how each “race” of people in his Hyborian Age had descended through specific forms of racial breeding and/or inbreeding. Which is why Conan, his most famous character, is a white skinned, black-haired, muscular noble savage, and virtually everyone he faces, thanks to the stereotypes imported by Burton and others during colonization, which would manifest in gruesome ways within scientific racism, is a barbaric person of color or an “effeminate” white man. Howard wrote for the American pulps and pulp press, mostly for an audience that was vastly young, white, and male.
J.R.R. Tolkien was an English writer and universally considered the founder of modern epic fantasy, specifically for creating Middle Earth, his self-contained literary universe. Middle Earth provides the backdrop for his most famous works published during his lifetime: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as the posthumously published collections and reference works which form the basis for The Rings of Power adaptation. Tolkien’s world is incredibly detailed, with its own maps and languages and legends and myths, raising the bar even higher than Howard in terms of developing a history for his stories, drawing upon many of the works from the Romantic Era, which in turn bring forward those same racist and classist frameworks.
Tolkien also creates new frameworks within Middle Earth, specifically the development of different humanoid races, such as dwarves, orcs, halflings/hobbits, elves, and my personal favorite, the walking trees known as ents. Each of these humanoid races become the archetypes and templates for epic fantasy as a whole, and has been the basis for the development of new humanoid races in the various epic fantasy worlds that would follow. In doing so, Tolkien literally and literarily injects racism into the fantasy genre. This is a good thing insofar that it can become a metaphor for discussing racism within the narrative, which Tolkien did often as someone vocally against racism, but it also exposes the racist and classist frameworks throughout the fantasy genre. Middle Earth becomes a huge metaphor for a great deal of the chaos happening in Europe after World War I (The Hobbit) and World War II (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), but also reflect the underlying constructs of European fantasy stories, namely the few, proud, white, western heroes, against the hordes and hordes of uncouth, non-white, eastern villains. Tolkien, to his credit, does include individuals who are “browner of skin”, but in private letters sometimes exposes the cultural or casual racism of his class and period, particularly with some choice words on the origins of the orcs as having “Mongol-type features”, trying to in some ways write for his primarily white audience.
Are You Saying They’re Racist?!
For fans of Tolkien and epic fantasy out there, which I count myself among, we should keep in mind that just because we can view Middle Earth through this structurally racist and classist frameworks, it does not necessarily mean that Tolkien or anyone who reads Tolkien or epic fantasy is a racist person. Dunsany and Tolkien were writing for mostly white European audiences, influenced by a lifetime of seeing the world from their individual perspectives, writing what they knew based upon what they had read and had been taught. It should be no surprise that much of the structural and cultural racism of the time found its way into their narratives, Dunsany more so than Tolkien given their status and periods. We should be able to recognize and acknowledge these cultural conditions and frameworks within their proper context without feeling a need to leap to an author’s defense nor to dismiss them as being simply from another time.
Howard is a different case altogether. He was mostly writing for the pulps and the pulp presses, whose audience by the 1930s, during the Great Depression, was demographically racist. Whereas Tolkien arguable wanted to tackle racism allegorically with separate humanoid races, Howard directly injects scientific racism and eugenics into his narratives, using his Hyborian Age to justify the scientific racism seeking to prove that white men were superior to all the other skin colors. Tolkien was vehemently against this kind of thinking, even if those racist and classist frameworks slipped into Middle Earth. But Howard embraced this racism, which makes him a racist, and why I’m generally uncomfortable reading his output while studying his technique.
The Expanding Boundaries of Fantasy (1960s to Present)
Like much of genre fiction, the market exploded in the late 1960s as more readers sought out genre entertainment in multiple media. Readers wanted to explore entirely new worlds, based largely in part on the medieval and epic fantasies which came from the previous two time periods. One can easily see the influence of Dunsany and Tolkien on Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, the influence of Howard on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and those that came afterwards to further create and explore, like Pratchett’s Discworld series, Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise, and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.
The major difference is that the audience has changed dramatically. More women and people of color have started to read fantasy, many influenced by the authors mentioned in this article already, or by adaptations of their work into other media. The expanded audience has also brought expanded expectations, whether that’s for original fantasy content where non-white people aren’t relegated to villains, servants, or victims, or for modernized adaptations that recast white roles with non-white individuals. But while the audience has begun to diversify, the authorship remains largely white and male, continuing to build off the same frameworks, or at least echoes of those frameworks. We’re still treated to stunning worlds like George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, in novels like Fire and Blood which provide the literary basis for The House of the Dragon on HBO. But each new epic fantasy world reinforces the rut that the genre has been stuck in for a while.
Ideally, it would be great to see more original fantasy content which reframes or subverts the existing structural and cultural racist elements within epic fantasy. Many non-white authors, in turn, have sought out their own myths and legends from their personal histories and cultures, which has begun the process to greatly expand the boundaries of what we would call fantasy literature, including Fonda Lee, N.K. Jemisin, and Michelle West. This particular expansion is a wonderful moment for the genre, because it opens up a number of new and authentic possibilities for the genre. But building epic worlds and growing a fan base is often a long, difficult process, as evidenced by Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and very different from Rowling’s explosive success with the Wizarding World franchise, which has its own problematic racist elements. So, while we’re waiting for non-white authors to be given the opportunity to build and share these worlds, and for mainstream producers to adapt their works, we’re stuck with the continuing support for the old boundaries of epic fantasy based in the previous classist and racist frameworks.
The Importance of Adaptation
Modernized adaptations give us a chance to reframe and subvert those frameworks which have made their way into the epic fantasy genre, which is where the current battleground we’re facing today is located over The Rings of Power, The House of the Dragon, and The Little Mermaid. Each adaptation comes from one of these three time periods, has the potential to diversify their characters and casting in appropriate ways that can appeal to wider audiences but has also been the source of white backlash over these efforts to diversify, either out of a sense of cultural ownership or from a more principled stand on authenticity.
Authenticity makes some sense when we’re dealing with actual European myths or legends, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or even Beowulf. There is a certain expectation that these heroes would be white Europeans, and this expectation grows in proportion to the desire of historicity with these tales. Nothing prevents us from having non-white characters involved with these white folktales, but the effect can be jarring and perhaps deserving of ridicule. Many early Hollywood efforts to diversify films stopped at recasting white roles with non-white actors without considering the social and cultural aspects such a change would have on the story. You might be able to get away with that for action movies, but it gets more difficult if you want to cast Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird as anyone but a white man without making substantial changes to the story. All that being said, there’s no real reason that The Little Mermaid could not be told as a black fairy tale, other than some outlandish sense of cultural, or perhaps more accurately, a false sense of racial ownership.
Authenticity loses a lot of its effectiveness as an argument when it comes to entirely different worlds or universes, like Middle Earth (The Rings of Power) or Westeros (The House of the Dragon). If we’re really talking about other worlds or universes, then we can imagine worlds where race relations aren’t built on the past five hundred years of colonization, slavery, genocide, and economic exploitation — unless that’s part of the intended narrative, like The Witcher saga, which is built specifically on humans racially oppressing the other humanoid races as a form of allegorical storytelling. But Westeros and Middle Earth and the tales of Hans Christian Andersen have a lot more wiggle room for interpretation and diversification, with little loss of any real or perceived authenticity. Standing for authenticity becomes a very principled argument, which in the context of white social status, makes it also by definition a very privileged argument.
When it comes to authenticity, the author should probably be the last line of defense. We’ve seen upheavals among other fandoms with regards to their adaptations, and in many cases, the author has approved or even championed casting non-white actors for white characters, as in the casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione for the stage production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which Rowling approved, or in the casting of Idris Elba as Roland in The Dark Tower, which Stephen King approved and championed. I tend to think that white authors almost welcome these efforts at diversification, when appropriate, because they can help correct any latent structural or cultural bias which made its way into the narrative. But both castings also received lesser forms of white backlash from their primarily white fan bases, usually trumpeted the loudest by culture war pundits on right-wing news.
Just as in the television and movie industries, until the diversification of epic fantasy authors produces enough original content for new adaptations, we’ll continue to see adaptations made from existing epic fantasy series stuck to greater or lesser degrees in these same structurally and culturally racist and classist frameworks. Each adaptation will likely attempt to diversify each series to reach a wider audience, especially where skin color need not be an issue, especially for stories like Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
The stories that are developed or adapted will need to be more inclusive as we begin to come out of a world dominated by white European culture. White people will need to get comfortable with not being centered as the hero and getting used to being the villain, as we have actually been during for the last five hundred years, and which we have tried to romanticize away within our literature. Subconsciously, white people will also need to confront the idea that much of our European literature was designed to reinforce our racist and classist theories to justify the horrors we were inflicting on the world under the guise of “spreading civilization”.
The white backlash to the diversification of epic fantasy stories has its roots in the fantasy genre as a whole, formed initially out of European myths, legends, and histories during the Romantic Era, and brought into the mainstream by Lord Dunsany, Robert E. Howard, and J.R.R. Tolkien. While these stories and worlds largely form the basis of modern epic fantasies, they also come pre-packaged with structurally and culturally racist and classist frameworks from their literary eras, which echo into the modern day. As more non-white authors continue to write epic fantasy, pushing the genre past these seemingly built-in frameworks, adaptations of these largely white epic fantasy stories into other media provide an opportunity to correct these frameworks when appropriate.
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen since diversification efforts in media began, there has been a constant white backlash to these efforts, often grounded in principled arguments of authenticity, and often trumpeted by culture warrior pundits on right-wing news. Whether it’s non-white elves and hobbits in The Rings of Power, Steve Toussaint as a Velaryon in The House of the Dragon, or Halle Bailey cast as Ariel in The Little Mermaid, each effort to create more inclusive entertainment will be met with this backlash, subconsciously driven by feelings of lost cultural ownership and of being decentered within our media landscape. We should challenge these arguments wherever we find them, because until we acknowledge these frameworks exist, and understand their purpose in perpetuating colonial and racial violence, we’ll never be able to move past the legacy they continue to leave within fantasy as a genre.