Disclaimer: This is a late response to Bridget Burke’s post in my “Racism in writing fantasy” thread. It’s in no way meant to be an attack on her and Bridget, I apologise in advance if it does come off as if I’m attacking you personally.
Even though arguments are permitted in this subforum, I don’t intend to start one. Also this thread-- --despite being a response to Bridget’s post-- is not about her. Or (mostly) about me. So please don’t jump on me and imply I’m criticising her, attacking her unfairly or making it all about me. I genuinely like Bridget so I don’t mean to come off as though I’m attacking her. I thought over most of it today and decided not to post it here several times before finally deciding to post it here because to be honest, the implications of that post rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn’t ignore them. As I said I don’t want to accidentally start an argument because Internet arguments are draining and (in my experience) tend to make me want to type up page-long rants and break my concentration (I have a short attention span so it’s very easy.) I just want to get something off my chest.
(Apologies for the long post.)
A while ago, after I started the “Racism in writing fantasy” thread, Bridget made a post which basically criticised all northern European medieval fantasy as overused and implied I was writing a Tolkien ripoff as well as (at least to me) not willing to write about non-White characters because I was using a medieval European fantasy. To me it looked as if she was categorising all medieval European fantasies as ripoffs and therefore saying that all writers who write stories making use of Northern European mythologies and folklore are writing ripoffs (and that all writers who like Tolkien slavishly copy the great JRRT because it’s easy.) I’m not quoting the post in order not to give anyone the wrong impression. You can find the post on the first page of the “Racism in fantasy: does it exist?” in the Cafe Society thread.
There’s a possibility that her post was just poorly worded and composed in a hurry because she was about to go somewhere, was tired or had to do something important. But again, this isn’t about her. It’s about assumptions about medieval Northern European fantasy, some of which have a lot of justification behind them and others that are just plain irritating.
The first assumption is the idea that “Northern European fantasy= Tolkien ripoff.”
This idea is actually justified. There are a number of popular Northern European-based fantasy books which follow a broadly similar plot to LOTR with a group of adventurers consisting of representatives of various humanoid fantasy races going on a quest centred on an item key to defeating the Dark Lord. There’s usually also a stock mentor figure with similarities to Gandalf and other conventions such as heroes and heroines becoming king or queen, marrying their love interest, mysterious creatures in long black cloaks and orcs, elves, dwarves and (sometimes) halflings/hobbits.
The most well-known examples of this type of book are The Sword Of Shannara and The Iron Tower (the first book is a very obvious ripoff of LOTR with the Warrows as hobbits by a different name). But not all Northern European fantasy books have a LOTR plot. For example George RR Martin’s A Song OF Ice And Fire series takes its insipration from the Wars of The Roses in order to create a gritty medieval fantasy setting and is also inspired by Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.
This assumption irritates me because it lumps all medieval Northern European fantasies together in one big mass and ignores the fact that fantasies (even Northern European ones, don’t necessarily follow the LOTR model.
As a related tangent, most Tolkien ripoffs are actually more-or-less D&D ripoffs with things like Scottish-accented dwarves, very explicit organised polytheistic religion (Tolkien made a point of saying that after Sauron corrupted Numenor, he encouraged people to build temples to Morgoth and worship him, while temples had never existed before Ar-Pharazon brought Sauron to Numenor. Religion isn’t much of a presence in Arda beyond a few hymns and invocations of Varda/Elbereth.) and very few of Tolkien’s actual themes in LOTR.
The next assumptions are that “Northern European fantasy= all-White cast” and that “Northern European=overused (and therefore you can’t possibly do anything new with it or you’d better not write one).” In fairness I may simply be reading in the part in brackets where it wasn’t intended whenever I come across discussions like this.
Now here’s where this post starts to be at least partly about me and my writing. Bridget isn’t the only person to criticise the cliche of all-White casts in Northern European fantasies.
The author of this page criticises it too and I’ve seen it critiqued on other forums.
This also has some justification in the fact that Northern European-based fantasies tend to have all-White casts (reflecting the bias of Northern European mythology and legend which were written by Whites and feature White heroes). But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Quite a few sagas mention the blamenn or “blue men” : Black Africans who the Norse came into contact with and stole to sell as slaves in Norse settlements in Northern and Western Europe. The sagas describe the blamenn is demonic terms (with no hair or masses of black hair on their heads and sometimes with yellow eyes
Often they are faceless villains for the White hero to fight. I have a huge problem with this and the fact that most Northern European fantasy has all the heroes being White (and other racist saga archetypes) so I decided to play around with those conventions by making the young teenage hero dark-skinned (a 14-year-old Black boy born in a fantasy-Icelandic/Norwegian poorhouse who was raised by a dwarvish Fagin type.)
Part of the aim of this story is to play around with the conventions of both the Icelandic saga (by setting a picaresque novel in a dungeonpunk world modelled on the worldview of medieval Northern Europeans, the conventions of Icelandic sagas and knowledge of several non-European cultures (including my own) in the Middle Ages) and the Northern European fantasy novel (by making the hero a non-White kid in medieval Europe and giving unconventional roles to non-standard-human characters, as well as adding social commentary on the Middle Ages). That said, Northern European (or to be more exact medieval European) is the predominant fantasy setting and folklore from other non-European cultures basides Chinese and Japanese also need to be well-represented in fantasy as well as northern Euopean folklore and mythology thta isn’t Norse and Celtic. (In fact I’ve planned a fantasy novel based on loads of research I did on the Mexica/Aztecs. It’s decidedly oder than this idea.
So that’s why I’m so irritated at the idea that if you are wiriting Northern European fantasy you are automatically not doing anything new. Yes it is overused but that doesn’t mean you are necessarily writing a rip-off or cannot do anything new with it.