Books, Venue

The racist history of monsters in fantasy novels

Earlier this year Wizards of the Coast Publishing, the company in control of Dungeons and Dragons media, announced the plans to begin editing character races in their Player’s Handbook and adventure novels.

Game design aside, from a literary aspect the company addressed long-held racial insensitivities in the lore and backgrounds of races such as Orcs and Drow, and have promised an attempt to resolve this by widening their histories and traditions in the fantasy world. Yes, even the Forgotten Realms is re-examining its prejudices.

Where did this begin? 45 years ago, Gary Gygax, writer and designer of the original handbook, steals these ideas from three series of high fiction: The Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian and the Cthulhu Mythos. This leads to a series of attempted lawsuits by the estates of each author but also opens the eyes to the problem European High Fantasy has subjected itself to. What began as an experiment on folkloric techniques to write amazing settings and new characters, attached a racial ideology to many of its founding texts.

Orcs in the Tolkien universe of Lord of the Rings are wholly evil, driven by darkness, naturally born to serve malign powers. They are described with references to East Asian and African characteristics (though the author always considered them ‘coincidences’) that many aspirers read, formed and copied into their own works. A worse example would be HP Lovecraft’s Old Ones, monstrous Gods prayed to only by the insane and ‘impure’ multicultural cultists who reject the God of Christianity.

That is not to say all of the fantasy from these authors leans into damaging racial stereotypes; in fact it’s the reason these books have made a dangerous presence as influences. The ideology takes a background to the bigger stories of the fantasy worlds; it is an afterthought for most readers not willing to devote time into understanding why the bad guys are bad.

It seems to be too much for fantasy writers to turn on their idols; George RR Martin for instance was blindly willing to praise HP Lovecraft and John Campbell, two men aligned openly to pro-segregation stances in their stories, for a Hugo Retro-award.

When you look outside of the strict High Fantasy style, there are many progressive pieces. Evan Winter, Marlon James and Toni Adeyemi are all authors who have written on the inspiration of African folklore and heritage to build a fantasy universe, and Ursula Le Guin became famous as a white American author in the 1960’s who wrote her Earthsea novels with a non-white hero.

But still it seems impossible for the racial inequalities of the European fantasy design to be removed. Talking to a friend about the research of this piece, I got the perfect answer: “Orcs are softies; playful, funny, shy, would-be accountants. But no one sees that but Orcs. If you’re not the Orc you can’t understand.”

This shouldn’t be interpreted as a message to remove all things evil from fantasy – we want a story of good and evil to rivet us with knights and wizards and a necromancer who can only speak in riddles. But why must race devise the good-evil divide? 

I would like to see a new interpretation of the Orc or the Goblin or the Drow put in a weird mystical adventure where they defy their past characteristics. I would love a world of Minotaur cartographers discovering a continent or a Wraith who opens a flying library. What keeps my hope is that fantasy is a genre with no limits, and that the racial biases are a set construct prepared to be broken.


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Fin Little

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January 2022
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