Fantasy Has Always Been About Race

·7 min read
Photo credit: Gari Garaialde - Getty Images
Photo credit: Gari Garaialde - Getty Images

Fantasy fans have an embarrassment of riches. Two beloved franchises, Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings, have opened the fall television season with new offerings: HBO’s House of the Dragon and Amazon’s The Rings of Power, respectively. But upon their announcement, reactionary criticisms hailed from familiar corners of the Internet. Heated discussions of the shows’ casting flooded Reddit and YouTube fandoms, followed up with reviews with titles like “George RR Martin Admits The TRUTH - House Of The Dragon BACKLASH” and “CRINGE LOTR: Rings of Power DESTROYED.” After the premiere of The Rings of Power, Amazon had to put a three-day pause on user reviews due to fans “review bombing,” or flooding the site with complaints about “woke-ification” at the sight of Black actors in canonically white worlds. The harassment got so bad, original Lord of the Rings film hobbits Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, and Dominic Monaghan banded together to create a You Are All Welcome Here campaign, wearing T-shirts with a graphic written in Elvish script depicting pointed ears in all skin colors.

Fantasy, some fans argue, is set in the mythical whiteness of medieval Europe, and adaptations should remain faithful to the source material and cast white actors, not retcon a diverse cast to suit the current political climate. This, however, is an ahistorical assertion—over and over, studies have produced strong evidence that Europe has never been homogeneously white, but instead one of the most racially diverse continents in antiquity. House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power are just the latest of many shows targeted by online fandoms demanding the removal of Black people from their vision of the European world. Fantasy has become the site of a much deeper stronghold of white supremacy: our collective racial and historical imaginaries.

But fantasy has always been about race. And medieval fantasy is not history, but a reproduction of history and its metaphors. The West cannot tell itself about itself without the inclusion of race. As a European invention emerging from colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, race is the story of Europe’s encounter with difference, and the West’s primary way of organizing the world. The racial hierarchies of our world get translated into fantasy races that reflect the measure of one’s humanity. Race is the dominant social system in The Lord of the Rings’ Middle-earth, and as the blueprint for “high fantasy” literature, its racial allegories are reproduced across the genre: In fantasy book series, role-playing games, and films written in its tradition, race is the social hierarchy and source of conflict; in Game of Thrones’ Westeros, race is more of a political geography. It’s even the first decision (race, gender, class) a player must make in creating a character for any campaign in the iconic Dungeons & Dragons role-playing games. In fantasy, race is not just part of world building. It is the world.

The prologue to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring entitled “Concerning Hobbits” is a primer written to introduce the world of Middle-earth through a very particular lens—its races. We’re all familiar with the categories by now: Elves are fair and intuitive, Dwarves are ruddy and proud, Hobbits are earthy farming folk, and Orcs—black-skinned, socially dead, corrupted—are an unpaid labor force for a great evil threatening the land.

Although it was written between 1937 and 1949 during World War II, The Lord of the Rings was intended only as a mythic retelling of Anglo-Saxon history. The trilogy remains the literary standard for all medieval high fantasy written in its tradition, but is also a clear allegory for the rise of industrialization, fascism, and empire in the Western postcolonial world. Tolkien vehemently denied writing The Lord of the Rings as an allegory, but it is impossible to deny that Middle-earth is an imagined reproduction of Europe—from its moral geographies (West good, East evil) to the invention of the races and their metaphors, LOTR is the story of white men reclaiming their world and ascending its social and racial hierarchy. Race—Elf, Dwarf, Man, Hobbit, Orc—becomes the integral structure to demonstrate the supremacy of men. Men and Elves were written as the evolutionary pinnacle above all other races of Middle-earth, embodied in mythic whiteness, while any deviation was depicted as less than human, if not monstrous. This is why the choice to cast Black actors across the races in The Rings of Power corrects the disturbing, perhaps unintentional assertion of the original—the exclusion of Black, Indigenous, and people of color from Middle-earth reflects the omission of races once considered subhuman from Western racial imaginaries. And that omission has had huge implications on what we are able to imagine today.

In Game of Thrones, race is more of an ethnic political geography: The continent of Westeros is populated by tall and fair Andals, Essos by the Rhoynar, Valyria by Valyrians, the North by the First Men, and so on. Game of Thrones’ continents and their races reflect our own racial geographies, with whiteness and nobility in Westeros, an orientalist vision of the East in Essos, and Blackness and indigeneity confined to the peripheral territories of the world’s global South. In a franchise where Black actors only ever appeared in foreign lands as slaves, conscripted soldiers, and sex workers, the shift to casting Black actors as nobility is a much-needed corrective approach.

Corlys Velaryon, played by the immensely talented Black actor Steve Toussaint in House of the Dragon, is a Valyrian noble with the signature white hair of their race. Fans’ problem with this is that Valyrians, the powerful, legendary race of dragon riders and conquerors, have never been described as Black in the source material. Despite George R.R. Martin’s executive producer credit on the show, fans cite his book Fire & Blood as canon, arguing that the character of Corlys Velaryon is white even though his skin color is never explicitly described.

But there is no reason Valyrians cannot be Black. The Valyrian race’s white-haired, violet-eyed coloring is due to the recessive genes common to Old Valyria, not phenotype. (Many historical Targaryens, including (spoiler) Jon Snow, have dark Dornish features in the books.) Canonically, Valyrian skin is described as varying from “white” to “copper,” not bound to whiteness. Corlys Velaryon and his children, although appearing mixed to us, are described as having “pure Valyrian blood,” making Blackness canonical.

Which is why the third episode of House of the Dragon, “Second of His Name,” is so moving: Laenor Velaryon, Corlys’s son, clad in silver armor and white locs, rides his dragon, Seasmoke, into battle, commanding “Dracarys!” as a horn of fire streams from the beast’s throat. As a half-Targaryen, Laenor is perhaps the first Black dragon rider on the show—a thrilling, joyous sight.

As a product of the postcolonial imagination, writing Blackness into fantasy signals a radical expansion pointed more toward the horizon of justice. As the visual culture of fantasy evolves, Game of Thrones and The Rings of Power are reproductions of our present world as much as they are of our past. What makes these shows different is how their allegories allow Western history to be radically re-conceived in the discursive and imaginative spaces of the fantastic. Imaginaries are powerful, primal repositories of collective feeling—imagining Elves and Hobbits and dragon riders and royalty as Black and Indigenous does much more than “diversify” television or demonstrate “woke politics.” Fantasy operates in the space of the imaginary, and unlike any other genre, it draws from history in order to reimagine a collective past—one that transcends our existing histories in order to make a more just world possible.

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