Prejudice in Fantasy

Let me say a few quick things before we dive in. This article is not intended to be your last stop on this topic, but your first. This topic is worth researching as it reflects a shift away from Tolkien’s more simplistic fantasy archetype, as well as an important examination into issues that we as a society still struggle discussing. I’m also (with a couple exceptions) going to focus on prejudice portrayed in writing – not in the author. All righty, here we go.

Racism, prejudice, bigotry – whatever you wish to call it – has been reflected in the fantasy fiction genre for many years. Part of this comes from the simplistic nature established by the Tolkien archetype. Orcs are evil because… well, they just are. Their whole race was made from black magic with ill intent. You can read every extensive page of Tolkien lore and never find a good orc, Tolkien never envisioned one.

Tolkien orc prejudice Warcraft
When Blizzard first created Warcraft, its orcs were also stereotypically evil. As the series evolved, this shifted to favor actual characterization and a break from the Tolkien model.

And that’s fine. Middle Earth is not ever intended to be a one-to-one comparison with our actual Earth. Its larger-than-life heroes without flaw are proof of that. The Lord of the Rings has much more in common with Greek mythology than modern day fantasy. After Tolkien, however, the problems really started. Writers, influenced by the grand epic nature of Tolkien’s world, sought to flesh out and humanize their characters… while still maintaining Tolkien’s simplistic world view.

The Unknown Prejudice of Brian Jacques

I grew up reading Brian Jacques‘ Redwall series. Books like Mossflower, Mattimeo, Mariel of Redwall – I loved them all. I was a big fan of mixing epic fantasy with local woodland creatures, somehow it helped make it more believable for me (I say this as someone raised surrounded by woods). As I grew older and the series continued, however, I began to notice things.

Marlfox was the novel where I first really noticed it. It seemed like certain races – rats, foxes, cats – were just destined to be evil. Wickedness appeared hardwired into their lineage. Born a fox – well too bad, you’re a monster! Every good character in Brian Jacques’ Redwall series was relatable. The mythological, Arthurian nature that was present in Lord of the Rings was nowhere here.

The problem manifested again and again with every new book – and perhaps this was the root of it. Jacques likely had never envisioned Redwall as a long-running series (22 main books when all was said and done). It is fine to have a group of murderous rats once or a thieving fox once – but as these character recur endlessly without contradiction, then an ugly commentary on racism becomes apparent.

Prejudice in Redwall
One bad rat is not a problem. A race of bad rats without a single good rat is.

I will not assume motive but the taint on the series is sadly undeniable. Whether intentional or not, Jacques has damaged the enduring charm of Redwall with, at best lazy and at worst racist, villains.

A Better Portrayal of Prejudice

There are many Brian Jacques (and unfortunately some H.P. Lovecrafts) in the fantasy genre. The inherent problem stems from a domination of white voices at the expense of minority ones. This is an issue that troubles multiple genres. A recent (2015) study found that less than 2% of science fiction stories published that year were by black authors. The odds of that happening by chance are practically non-existent.

We need to do better. If literature is as mind-opening as we claim than we have to make sure it is a medium owned by everyone. I say we because last year I attended a writers of color event and discovered – with incredible dismay – that I really had never read books that weren’t from a white author.

While there is nothing wrong with reading white authors, it is innately limiting. That meant that there was a whole perspective, whole dimensions of understanding that I was missing. It was unacceptable to me so I resolved to change it.

The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin is a marked improvement in the examination of prejudice in fantasy literature. Jemisin presents a world where those gifted with earth-related magic (here called orogeny) are treated with distrust, abuse, and torment. Stripped of their humanity, they are seen as less than people and too dangerous/stupid to be left on their own. They must be shackled for the good of all humanity.

Of course, The Broken Earth is told from the perspective of one of these “less-than-human creatures” and the reader can learn firsthand how nightmarish the whole system is. The lazy black-and-white nature that writers like Jacques relied on is gone. The Broken Earth Trilogy sparks thought without hitting very real issues expressly on the nose.

Dragon Age Mage Prejudice
Dragon Age was a fantasy video game series with writing that was initially similar to N.K. Jemisin’s work. Its portrayal of prejudice against mages was thought-provoking and compelling… until it was dropped for the most boring black-and-white conflict that Bioware could imagine.

I believe it is incredibly important to discuss issues like racism and slavery outside of the real world. Trapping them in history confines the reality of what happened and is still happening in the world. While books like Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing may be fantastic – and it is fantastic – they can be too easily ignored. Sometimes the best way to talk to people on tough subjects is to do so indirectly. It, at the very least, is likely to expand the audience.

I am optimistic that more new voices will enter the literary space and that genres like fantasy will deepen and improve. The presence of writers of color can only strengthen us. They will bring to light issues and ideas that we may have not thought of before and we will strengthen each other by having, for the first time, truly open exchange. Prejudice is a literary topic begging for new and better voices that offer real examination and do not simply attempt to emulate what has come before.

Hobbit Changes Part One: In Defense of Tauriel

Well, it is done. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies are out. Love them or hate them: the journey is over. Now comes the time for internet reflection. As with any hyped production, there were a lot of gut reactions to The Hobbit. One casting decision in particular appeared to irk some fans. In 2011, Evangeline Lilly was announced as Tauriel, a wood elf of Mirkwood. To say that the majority of people reacted with a “hmmm, that’s interesting, let’s wait and see” attitude would be a bit of an overstatement. The immediate reaction came more in the form of comments like these. There was even a wonderful little song put together, have a look:

Fun fact: that video was published on December 15th of 2013, just two days after The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug was released. Either these artists were very moved to write, shoot, edit, and release a song in two days or… it was made before any of them had even seen the film. For the record, there is nothing innately wrong with this. People are allowed to have opinions and reactions of any kind to fictional characters – there are bigger problems in the world to deal with.

One of the many more important problems gripping our world.
One of the many more important problems gripping our world.

But that said, there is also an innate problem of jumping to conclusions and facing new material with a closed mind. Also I titled this blog post with “in Defense of Tauriel” so I am going to defend her inclusion in this Hobbit trilogy. While Tauriel “may not be in the book,” she brings many improvements to the story of The Hobbit. First and most obvious is the addition of a woman in a world where vaginas are more mythical than dragons.

Eowyn is great but it is nice to see that there was more than one active woman in Middle Earth.
Eowyn is great but it is nice to see that there was more than one active woman in Middle Earth.

Now that I got my cleverness out-of-the-way, let’s dive into the more substantial contributions. When Tolkien wrote the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings did not exist. In short: the Hobbit was written in a vacuum that has not existed since (and never will again). As with any simple story that was later expanded into a full universe, there are inconsistencies. For starters, let’s talk about those wood elves: what a bunch of dicks.

Seriously, how are these people good guys? When reading the Hobbit, the wood elves are terrible. The are greedy, selfish, and imprison the dwarves for basically no reason (starving dwarves stole food, can you believe their nerve?). Sure they don’t want to directly kill them like the goblins do, but is rotting in a cell really that much of an upgrade over a quick death? And once the dragon is dead and the dwarves and men are having a stupid (but kinda legitimate) battle over the treasure, the elves show up and pretty much declare it is theirs because….

They’re assholes.

"I'm sorry, I can't hear you over how pretty I am."
“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over how pretty I am.”

As much as some people like to claim that the Hobbit is a perfect book and that all problems came from Satan (Peter Jackson), the reality is that this was one of the biggest problems in the story. If we are to believe that the elves are good guys (and Lord of the Rings seems to say so) then they cannot be so easily compared to the bad guys.

A good way to do this while staying true to the book is to keep Thranduil a jerk while adding two elf protagonists who are a bit more relatable. Enter Legolas and Tauriel:

People can make jokes but this is the scene of the movie that argues that the elves should actually you know, do something positive.
People can make jokes but this is the scene of the movie that argues that the elves should actually you know, do something positive.

Sure, neither one is in the book but where else (as prince of the Mirkwood elves) would Legolas be and again, it is nice to have a character calling the elves out on their hypocrisy.

The other great contribution that Tauriel makes is Kíli . Now, I say this as a huge Tolkien fan and as someone who loved the book: I never gave a sh*t when Fíli and Kíli died. I know I know, burn me at the stake. The Hobbit was a book about Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, and twelve other dwarves with different names who were all basically also Thorin. There was no real difference between them. Yes, some were fatter and some were taller and some were older but really: who cared. It is a mark of poor storytelling to have so many named characters with so little character between them. Yes, I just criticized Tolkien: deal with it.

Even with three movies, can you name all the dwarves?
Even with three movies, can you name all the dwarves?

When I saw the Battle of the Five Armies in theaters, I heard something I did not expect. Gasping. People gasped when Kíli died. Now, people who read the book would not gasp since they would know it was coming. Generally also, people do not gasp at the deaths of characters they do not care about. What then could be the reason?

Tauriel made people care. The love story made people care. Was it a perfect love story? Not by any stretch, but it was better than Twilight and it worked the way that Jackson had designed it to. By including a new character, he was able to add to the character of the dwarves.

Okay... I will give you that. The dialogue in this scene sounded right out of high school.
Okay… I will give you that. The dialogue in this scene sounded right out of high school.

So while she was a lady, Tauriel was added for more than just her gender difference. She improves upon weak areas of the book and allowed for people who have never read the Hobbit as children to care a little bit more about this Middle Earth journey. Was the addition a successful one? Maybe or maybe not (that’s a matter of opinion), but it was a defensible one.

Part Two here.

There and Back Again: Reviewing The Hobbit (The Battle of the Five Armies)

Yesterday I had a rare and unexpected privilege. I was able to watch all three films of Peter Jackson‘s The Hobbit trilogy, back-to-back-to-back. I say rare because cinemas do not offer this kind of experience nearly enough, and unexpected because: they’re good, really good together. Certain films, even great ones like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, gain very little from the trilogy viewing experience. They were created as separate entities and each tell their own story. In the case of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, however, the experience is much like The Lord of the Rings. All three films feel like they are parts to the same giant epic. The Unexpected Journey introduces audiences back to Middle Earth; The Desolation of Smaug escalates the conflict while building to the climax; and then there is The Battle of the Five Armies – what an ending it is.

In a film that echoes the overall strengths and weaknesses of the trilogy it concludes, The Battle of the Five Armies is over-the-top spectacle fueled by the simple heart of the story it is telling. Those out there who lamented the limited presence of actor Martin Freeman in The Desolation of Smaug can breathe a sigh: he is much more involved in this film. Indeed, it can be argued that the best scenes of the movie come before the blockbuster titular battle sequence.

One of the benefits of three movies allowed Jackson to develop individual personalities and presences for each of the dwarves in the company. This allows for more investment in the battle.
One of the benefits of three movies allowed Jackson to develop individual personalities and presences for each of the dwarves in the company. This allows for more investment in the battle.

By breaking the story into three portions, Peter Jackson is able to give each their own feel. The Battle of the Five Armies plays out like a tragedy, with all sides building to a war that few truly want. Each leader has their own personality but is depicted as small in the events that are rapidly spiraling out of control. Whether it is the gold-driven insanity of Richard Armitage‘s Thorin, the reluctant responsibility of Luke Evans‘ Bard, or the seeming indifference of Lee Pace‘s Thranduil: every leader talks of peace while preparing for war.

Bard and Legolas are two of the more reasonable voices leading to the battle.
Bard and Legolas are two of the more reasonable voices leading to the battle.

Here is where the not-so-subtle moral message of movie is hammered down. Greed is bad. Gold is not worth more than lives and the world would be a better place if more people treated jewels with as little value as hobbits do. With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq still fresh in everyone’s minds, there are definite parallels to be drawn. A war fought solely over money while many innocents are caught and killed in the crossfire: not as fantastical as we’d all like it to be.

Certain cynics have already dismissed Jackson’s newest trilogy as a Lord of the Rings cash-in, but after watching it all play out it is clear that this was not the case. The reality is a situation very similar to 2005’s King Kong. Peter Jackson has the spirit of a child, the love of a fan… and enough money to create Middle Earth in his own image. While The Hobbit trilogy does take its bombastic nature to a fault, there is a purity running underneath it, and a sincerity that is greatly appreciated.

The controversial addition of Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel ultimately adds heart and even more of a sense of loss in The Battle of the Five Armies.
The controversial addition of Evangeline Lilly‘s Tauriel ultimately adds heart and even more of a sense of loss in The Battle of the Five Armies.

Lightning may not have struck twice, but it was close. In the end, The Battle of the Five Armies serves as an immensely fun and satisfying conclusion to a trilogy done well enough to stand on its own. As the ending credits roll, one cannot help but feel a sense of sadness and gratitude at the sheer spectacle that is Peter Jackson and his Middle Earth epics. It is only a shame that the story is now truly done.