The Word "Race" in the Fantasy Genre

Race is a social construct, but in fantasy novels it's a meaningful biological category

Many of my students read and write fantasy. There is only thirteen years between me and my typical student, but this is a generational difference. Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings movies came out when I was in college, but they grew up with them as children.


I have read many, many student stories where a young person discovers they have supernatural powers, magical abilities, or is descended from a race of magical beings -- and that last part is where things get dicey because then I need to have a conversation with them about the word "race."


Nobody wants to be called racist -- even racists. Talk to a white supremacist like Jared Taylor and he will deny being a racist and say to you things like "I don't hate anybody" and follow it up with "I'm just proud of my heritage." And that's the kicker. In popular consciousness racism = hate, and nothing else. If you don't hate anyone, you can't be racist, right?


Wrong. Racism is an expansive set of beliefs about biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, culture, history, politics, and more, beginning with the belief that "race" exists at all as a biological reality. It is more than just hate. This is why many fantasy novels are racist -- unwittingly perhaps, but racist all the same. 


Essentialism  and race in fantasy stories

Fantasy novels and movies are resplendent with different "races" and it might be Tolkien's fault. In The Lord of the Rings we have the Valar, Maiar, elves, humans, dwarves, ents, hobbits, orcs, goblins, and trolls, all arranged in a hierarchical Great Chain of Being. Each race is further subdivided into different groups, also arranged in a hierarchy. High elves are above wood elves, who are above the dark elves. Among humans there are Númenorean, who live for hundreds of years and are superior to all other humans.


LOTR presents a world where different groups of people are not just culturally and physically different, but these differences are tied to essential biological qualities passed on along genealogical lines. This essentialism, or assertion that separate populations have "essential natures" due to their biology is a fundamental tenant of racism.


I should pause here and calm fans of LOTR. I am not claiming Tolkien was racist. Others have claimed so in the past, but I think his statements and letters critical of Nazis, as well as the entire premise of his novels--that Hobbits, the least among the races, save the world--belie such claims. However, Tolkien was writing during the interwar period and ideas about the essential nature of different ethno-linguistic groups were in the zeitgeist of the time. He integrated these ideas into his cosmology, perhaps not consciously understanding their full implications.


Lord of the Rings & fascism

Consider this parallel between LOTR and Japanese fascism: A number of gods and angelic beings exist in LOTR, living in the Undying Realm, a physical place located in the extreme west, on the other side of a vast ocean. After the overthrow of Morgoth, the gods wanted to reward those who had helped defeat the Dark Power, and did so by creating the island of Númenor in the western ocean, which became the most westerly of all mortal lands. Elves and men alike moved there, and living in that place, in closer physical proximity to the gods, endowed them with great attributes. Aragorn is a full-blooded Númenorean, and is superior to other men because of it: long-lived, noble, intelligent, et cetera. Humans who lived farther away from the Undying Lands, like in Rohan or Gondor, are not so blessed, and thus do not have as much legitimacy to hold political power.


Before WWII, Japanese fascists believed that gods physically lived on Mt. Fugi, and the geographical proximity of people to these gods endowed them with positive qualities that were passed down biologically to their offspring. Thus, the Japanese were the most noble, wise, physically healthy, and culturally sophisticated people on Earth. People who lived progressively farther and farther away from Japan had fewer and fewer of these positive traits until they were hardly human at all. Thus, it was "natural" for Japan to rule over other nations -- as natural as it is for Aragorn to rule in Gondor.


German fascists had their own version of essentialism: a mystical connection between "blood" and "soil." In other words, they believed that the longer and more intimate your connection with the earth, via farming, camping, hiking, et cetera, the more noble, intelligent, and strong you were -- traits passed down to your children. Jews had not been allowed to legally own farmland in Europe since the fall of Rome, which meant they had lost this mystical connection between their biology and the earth, making them inferior to non-Jewish Germans.


Again, I am not claiming Tolkien was a fascist, but the cosmology behind the racial hierarchies within LOTR is identical to the ideology of European and Japanese fascists. Two of the fundamental, defining characteristics of fascism are beliefs in a non-rational, non-material source of personal and state power, and in biological essentialism.


Question underlying assumptions in the genre

I don't think it is an overreach to say that all fantasy authors, especially high-fantasy writers, are inheritors of a literary legacy founded by JRR Tolkien. His influence cannot be overstated. As a result, author after author has replicated Tolkien's premise of a land populated by different "races," where members of each race exhibit personal qualities that are a result of their essential biological natures. Rather than replicating things unthinkingly, authors need to think critically and question the underlying assumptions of their genre, and the fantasy worlds they are creating.


For non-white Americans, beliefs in biological essentialism can have real, personal consequences. When I was a kid, Anglos young and old told me that I had a "temper," and that I was "hot blooded" because I was Spanish. I internalized this racism and believed it about myself for a long time. I still meet other Latins that say things like this about themselves. When my wife's high school students get in trouble they say things to her like, "I can't help it -- I'm Latin."


I like to imagine a future where no one believes this nonsense, about themselves or others. So let's stop perpetuating these ideas in fiction.

--  12 May 2014