Fantasy games and literature: The woke crusade against the genre continues

A recent article in Harper’s Bazaar concludes that fantasy has become a “stronghold for white supremacy,” starting with the work of J.R.R Tolkien, which can be reduced to “the story of white men reclaiming their world.”  This is a radical retelling of an incredibly complex genre, requiring the erasure of seminal fantasy authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, all a part of what is already one of the most diverse literary legacies on the planet.

Last year, I opined that the attacks on the popular fantasy roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons were just the beginning of a broader assault on the fantasy genre in general.  As I put it, “They’re coming for Dungeons & Dragons now and the entire fantasy genre next.”  My concern centered around a new phrase used by critics of the game, “race essentialism,” which refers to players being able to choose from different species – human, elf, dwarf, halfling, and others – each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses.  These races are as essential to the genre as aliens are to science fiction. By attacking the idea that races have unique traits, you are targeting the foundation of fantasy itself.  Sadly, the intervening 19 months has proven me all too correct.  The 2021 Tolkien Society Conference went full woke, featuring papers on “transgender realities” in the Lord of the Rings, “applying stress and ecological frameworks to narratives of displacement and resettlement across cultures in Tolkien’s middle earth,” “feminine-lack,” and “Indigeneity, Identity, and Antiracism.”  Earlier this year, fantasy “purists” like myself were relentlessly attacked for questioning why Amazon Studios chose to upend J.R.R. Tolkien’s carefully constructed mythology and history in favor of what they perceived as woke casting choices and diversity for diversity’s sake.  Rather than debate the choices made by the creators of the Rings of Power and whether they served to build upon Tolkien’s legendary works, we were told that the creator of the fantasy genre himself simply wasn’t accessible enough for modern audiences and therefore his work needed significant updating, to “broaden the notion of who shares the world of Middle-earth” as Variety put it.  “It felt only natural to us that an adaptation of Tolkien’s work would reflect what the world actually looks like,” explained Lindsey Weber, an executive producer of the series. “Tolkien is for everyone. His stories are about his fictional races doing their best work when they leave the isolation of their own cultures and come together.”  If there was any doubt those who disagreed would be smeared as racists, Tolkien scholar Marian Rios Maldonado laid it to rest by asking, “Obviously there was going to be push and backlash, but the question is from whom? Who are these people that feel so threatened or disgusted by the idea that an elf is Black or Latino or Asian?”

Last week, Vanessa Angelica Villarreal, writing for Harper’s Bazaar, came out and said what has been lurking the background of all these controversies:  “Fantasy Has Always Been About Race.”  She began by noting that “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.”  Therefore, fans “demanding the removal of Black people from their vision of the European world,” are causing fantasy to “ become the site of a much deeper stronghold of white supremacy.”  In her view, “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.”  She goes on to conclude that race is the dominant factor in every fantasy since Lord of the Rings.  It is the “social hierarchy and source of conflict.”  It is not just “part of world building.  It is the world.”  Ms. Villareal uses this lens to analyze Lord of the Rings itself, concluding that it’s merely the “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.”

Rarely has an incredibly rich and complex work, beloved by millions for generations and rated the best book of the 20th century, been so radically reduced for political ends.  It is true that different races have long been essential to fantasy literature, but to claim that the purpose of the inherent diversity of fantasy worlds is to promote whiteness couldn’t be more wrong.  First, there is no major fantasy saga from Tolkien onward where one race was depicted as the superior of all others, granted the right to dominate everyone else as we are constantly told “whiteness” is intended to do.  The best fantasy worlds, including the master, Tolkien himself, feature a carefully constructed balance of power between the different races, one where every race has both strengths and weaknesses, and no race is free from sin or cruelty.  Tolkien’s elves are not perfect Aryan angels, representing Hitler’s vision of the ideal race, far from it.  In Tolkien’s telling, the elves repeatedly denied the will of the gods (Valar), suffering for their decision for thousands of years.  Their defiance began as soon as they were birthed, when a segment refused to travel to the Undying Lands.  It continued in those Undying Lands, essentially a vision of heaven, when they allowed themselves to be seduced by the first Dark Lord, Morgoth, believing they could learn his arts without suffering the consequences.  They broke again with the Valar after Morgoth stole precious artifacts known as Silmarils, and the elves swore to recover them at any cost.  The first blood was spilled, and a war that lasted hundreds of years was unleashed as the elves abandoned the Undying Lands.  The elves at the time of the Lord of the Rings are a diminished, nearly broken race, clinging to a world that is no longer their own.  This doesn’t mean they are without power or influence.  They remain immortal and wield magics humans can scarcely understand, but – if Tolkien should be interpreted allegorically, “an imagined reproduction of Europe” as Ms. Villareal describes it – they are a poor avatar for perfect whiteness.  If anything, they represent loss, sadness, and regret that can never be repented.  They are not something humans of any ethnicity are supposed to aspire to.  They instead serve as more of a cautionary tale of how innate greatness can falter and fail if not tempered with mercy, sound judgment, and morality.

The humans themselves who inherit the world at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy are equally flawed.  Aragorn, the ultimate ruler of Middle-earth, is descended from yet another people who defied the gods, a victim of their own pride.  After Morgoth was finally defeated, the humans who fought alongside the elves were gifted a magnificent island kingdom, Numenor, unrivaled in splendor and grandeur by any mortal settlement before or since.   Over the centuries, however, the Numenoreans grew too insular and prideful.  They shunned the elves who once were friends, and soon the gods.  The Valar punished them by wiping the entire island away in a massive tidal wave, a story inspired by the lost city of Atlantis.  Nor was that the end of their suffering.  Prior to the devastation, a group of Numenoreans returned to Middle-earth and began building a new empire, but once again they allowed themselves to be seduced by evil.  The next Dark Lord, Sauron, counseled them under the name Annatar, Lord of Gifts, convincing them to make the legendary rings from the title of the saga.  The world was engulfed in another massive war as a result, and even in Sauron’s defeat, the human noble Isildur committed a terrible sin:  He cut the One Ring to Rule Them All from Sauron’s hand, but his pride convinced him he could control it for himself rather than destroy it.  This decision ultimately sets in motion the events described in Lord of the Rings, and, as with the elves thousands of years earlier, mankind suffered for generations as a result.  If these people are truly intended to represent whiteness, whiteness is a prideful, vain, and ignorant thing as Tolkien depicts it.  There is nobility there, yes, and the capacity for greatness, but it’s indelibly stained by far darker traits, which should not be surprising coming from a writer who was an expert in Christian morality, and wove complex ethical dilemmas throughout his work.  Nowhere does Tolkien’s ethics bring him to assert the superiority of anyone over anything.  It’s actually the opposite.  The heroes of Lord of the Rings are the underestimated hobbits, simple, life-loving people with little interest in power or great works, and a lot in food, comfort, and basic pleasures.  It is they, despite their diminutive size and lack of obvious strength, that ultimately save the world for “whiteness,” which would be a rather odd way to demonstrate the superiority of presumably Caucasian humans.

The second of Ms. Villareal’s erasures from the history of fantasy literature might be even more disturbing.  Anyone can misinterpret a single work and impart intention that doesn’t really exist, but Ms. Villareal denies the entire existence of one of fantasy’s most celebrated authors behind J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin.  Along with Michael Moorcock, Ms. Le Guin is the third pillar of modern fantasy, the originator of near as many tropes and ideas as Tolkien himself.  She began writing in 1959, ultimately producing 20 novels and hundreds of short stories, winning a whopping eight Hugo Awards (the highest honor in the fantasy and science fiction genre), six Nebula Awards, and countless other accolades.  She was honored as a Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.  Ms. Le Guin is known as a major influence on writers as diverse as Salman Rushdie and Neil Gaiman.  When she passed away in 2018, the critic John Clute noted that she “presided over American science fiction for almost half a century” and the author Michael Chabon referred to her as “the greatest American writer of her generation.”  Her first major contribution to fantasy literature, The Wizard of Earthsea, which featured dark-skinned protagonists, was published in 1968 to instant critical and popular acclaim, not exactly indicative of a genre who’s purported purpose is promoting whiteness.  Ms. Le Guin included much of what we might broadly call progressive in her works, anchored in an Eastern philosophy influenced by Taoism.  She was a vocal feminist who deplored colonialism, even explored the reality of different genders in the Left Hand of Darkness long before transgender activism existed in its modern form.  She was, in short, about as far from serving “whiteness” as one can get and she was almost universally celebrated for it.  Ms. Le Guin was also brilliant and astute, summing up the true purpose of fantasy and use of different races in a single, insightful statement in 2014.  “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries – the realists of a larger reality.”

Different races are a critical part of this exploration.  By positing the existence of worlds populated by sentient species other than our own, we are more easily able to observe the unique aspects of humanity, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Generally speaking, fantasy races represent different incarnations of ourselves:  The elves are noble, but haughty, long lived, but disinterested.  Dwarves are hardy and master craftsmen, but insular, greedy at times, and quick to hold a grudge.  The hobbits are our better selves, after consumerism and avarice is stripped away.  The various relations between these races are equally important and illustrative.  No race is perfect, every race has some valid claim on their part of the world and a reason to distrust the others, but ultimately they need to set aside their differences and cooperate to defeat evil and save the world itself.  Moreover, in the great, great majority of fantasy sagas, none of what you might call the “good” races rule over any other.  They each have their own leadership and cultures, politics and ways of managing their communities.  It is only the evil races that seek to oppress and enslave.  The result is one of the most vibrant, and diverse genres in the world, one with a stunning variety of voices exploring an incredibly wide range of themes.  The heirs to Tolkien, Le Guin, and Moorcock are not champions of whiteness.  The modern fantasy renaissance began with the publication of Tad William’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn in 1998, which led directly to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, and all of the writers since have generally been well ahead of the cultural curve.  Robert Jordan was crafting bad-ass women characters long before Rings of Power decided to reduce Galadriel to a warrior-elf, creating a world where only women can wield magic after men’s heedless arrogance tainted the source of their spellcasting ability.  Robin Hobb, one of my personal favorites, is another excellent example.  Variously, she has tackled topics as diverse as living with deformity, conforming to gender and sexual roles in a traditional society, obesity, the plight of indigenous people, the impact of colonialism on the environment, and the horrors of a caste-system in a stratified world.

These are not the heirs to a tradition of whiteness.  They are heirs to a far richer, and more diverse tradition dating back to the founding of the genre itself.    Lectures from Ms. Villareal about how “writing Blackness into fantasy signals a radical expansion pointed more toward the horizon of justice” and “Western history to be radically re-conceived in the discursive and imaginative spaces of the fantastic” serve only a political purpose.  The problem is not with the genre and never has been.  The problem is with the detractors.

PS For the latest on the controversies surrounding Dungeons & Dragons, check out this excellent piece from Ed Power in the Independent, complete with quotes from your humble author.

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