Racism in writing fantasy: Does it exist?

As most other Tolkien-loving Dopers know, JRRT based his portrayal of the Khazad (Dwarves) of Arda partly on anti-Semitic stereotypes, Old Norse folklore and mythology and history/stories found in the Old Testament.

In my fantasy novel which is set in a medieval world with aspects of the Victorian era, in a country called Isaholmi (“Ice-Island”) modelled on Iceland and Norway in the 1300s, the Dwarves are based on Tolkien’s dwarves as well as being a bit more Norse (magical powers, although the “Jewish sorcerer” was also a medieval thing). They mostly live in ghettoes and quite a few work in jobs involving gold and precious (usury, pawnbroking, banking, all kinds of metalwork) due to certain job restrictions imposed on them by local human and other rulers. Dwarven ghettoes are restricted and the common view among standard humans is that Dwarves are untrustworthy, greedy, will cheat you and will potentially kidnap your children (and use their blood for their strange Dwarven religious purposes) sarcasm.

BTW the protagonist is a young Black boy named Bjarki who also plays into medieval Scandinavian images of the “blamann”; the usual Black character in the sagas is a villain, mostly with supernatural powers (“blue skin” is often associated with the supernatural in sagas) Due to this he’s called a troll-- a common Norse insult for someone who was seen as evil or wild or otherwise not human.

Bjarki eventually discovers that he’s an artificial human and that the berserker he was modelled on, who is also Black, has a dishonourable reputation

One of the premises of this story is writing a novel based on the kind of world depicted in medieval literature, which was highly racist in a very different way to the scientific racism of the 19th century.

Now the way I’ve been tackling this is to research medieval and 19th century racism as well as people’s opinions on racism in fantasy. The usual idea is that depicting non-human races with cultures inspired by human ones is a minefield. Some other people deny that fantasy racism exists.

So what do other Dopers who read and/or write fantasy think? Is it necessarily racist to depict Black berserkers or Dwarves who most non-Dwarves think of as Shylocks? Or Indian or Chinese kings in the way some legendary sagas depict Asian peoples? (although I don’t know of any sagas that take place in China, I’d like an excuse to write characters of my own ethnicity). Do you believe that fantasy can be subtly and unintentionally racist against real-world ethnic groups?

Apologies for the long post. Hope everything is clear.

Edit to OP (including spoiler):


He’s horrified.

Bjarki is about as different from the “blamenn” of the sagas as it’s possible to be (the only things that might be unfortunate are his bearlike strength and thievery-- theft was highly disapproved of in medieval Scandinavia).

It sounds like you’re trying to avoid racism. Now, just having skin color be an issue at all is going to cause some people to get fussy. So…brace yourself.

It sounds as if the “black” skin color isn’t African/Indian but something entirely different, like Drow elves in D&D. You’d think that would insulate you from criticism. For most of us, yeah, it does. But, again, there will be some who don’t get it, and will gripe at you.

So long as you do your best to avoid obvious stereotypes, and as long as you do honorably by your characters, you should be okay with most readers.

(I once wrote a story about cats and dogs. A reader told me that my story was obviously a metaphor for U.S. blacks and whites. The really eerie part is that he wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t in any way what I intended, but it is a valid way to interpret the story. The reader always projects a portion of himself into and onto whatever it is you have written.)

There is a difference between depicting a culture or character who is racist, and being racist in writing about groups. An individual character might harbor prejudice in regard to Dwarves, but that may well be distinct from how you, the author/narrator, depict Dwarves.

Of course, this distinction is lost on some people.

He did?

Yes. Well, that’s one interpretation of the comment he made in a 1964 interview with Dennis Guerolt that ''The Dwarves are obviously-- wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic… a love of the artefact… the tremendous " And in a letter he once wrote he said that “I do think of the “Dwarves” like Jews; at once alien and native in their habitations, speaking the language of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue.”

That last one may be more in line with Romani people though. I read something somewhere that at one time Romani people would have a local name in the language of whatever country they lived in and another private name in Romani which they would never reveal to outsiders. Since in Arda the Khazad don’t even inscribe their real names on their tombstones, that might’ve been where Tolkien got his inspiration for that part of his Dwarven culture.

None of that is Antisemitic. A little stereotype-y, but not anti-Semitic in the slightest. Now, if he’d said he got their greed for gold from Jews, that’d be anti-Semitic. But he didn’t - he got it from the traditional Norse dwarfs (e.g. Nibelungen, Andvari.)

This’ll probably change things a bit, but actually the word “blamenn” (“blue men”) was the medieval Scandinavian term for “the darkest-skinned” Black Africans. When “blamenn” are mentioned in the sagas it’s often in the context of evil supernatural creatures-- it was apparently quite common in the
medieval Norse worldview to describe certain non-Norse, non-Celtic ethnic groups in supernatural terms. “Blamenn ok berserkir” (Black men and berserkers) is a common description of the hero’s enemies in sagas. I’m also trying to do something different so why not make the hero Black and the son of a berserker?

Actually…1300s? I meant 1200s.

There was plenty of fantasy in the 1920s-1940s pulp magazines, and writers are a product of their times. An awful lot of them feature “yellow peril” orientals trying to wipe out white civilization and the like. There were entire magazines devoted to “oriental” fiction. Attitudes towards blacks were less than enlightened – but this was an era in which even big-name Hollywood stars appeared in minstrel shows onscreen.

All of this is pretty obvious in the fiction – it’s not as if they’re hiding their racism in depictions of evil space aliens with racial or cultural stereotypes. That said, even the treatment in the pulps of blacks, Jews, and other groups isn’t uniformly stereotypical or pejorative. I can show you lots of counterexamples.

No more racist that J. Michael Straczynki’s comment that the Narn were based upon Israelis.

From the OP, I don’t see what you describe as being a problem.

I’ve never read Sapper’s work but I’ve heard they’re an example of this. It’s supposedly hard for modern readers to get through the old Bulldog Drummond stories because of the casual racism in them. (I’ll also add that “Sapper” was a pen name for two writers, H.C. McNeile, who created the character, and his friend Gerard Fairlie, who took over the series when McNeile died, and I don’t know if the racism charge is valid against both of them.)

How about more fantasies built on old tales from areas other than Northern Europe? Tolkien had made a lifelong study of those languages–can’t somebody pick another area & do the homework? Of course, somebody using a fake-Celtic name probably won’t.

J Gregory Keyes wrote two books in his “Chosen of the Changeling” series. In the continent of the fantasy world we visited, there was a great Egyptian/Mesopotamian civilization & a sophisticated Mongol/Comanche nomadic culture. The male protagonist was the only “white guy”–member of a humble farming people who lived far to the North; the female was a civilized (dark skinned) princess. Pretty good–but didn’t become a hit. Tolkien ripoffs are easier to write–and to read.

By the way, Tolkien’s dwarves weren’t villains…and Tolkien gave a rude answer to Nazi enquiries about his own racial “purity.”

Yes, and Tolkien is a great example.

Now, Tolkien was NOT consciously racist, and in fact I would call him mostly anti-racist – he went out of his way to show a Eastern/Southerner man as not evil, but just a poor sap suckered into fighting on the wrong side; even his Orcs have feelings and personalities.

But, nearly always, the good guys are fair and light-skinned, while the bad guys are swarthy or sallow-skinned and slanty-eyed.

I don’t think it was conscious, and my guess (I’m no Tolkien scholar) is that, had someone pointed this out to him, he might have gone back and revised some things to get rid of that unconcious racism, but he didn’t, and it’s still there.

So it’s a lesson that racism can be unconscious, and that having someone else read your work while you’re still working on it is always a good idea.

Can’t get much further away from northern Europe than Star Wars, which caught a metric buttload of criticism about racist stereotypes.

I’m of the same mind as many others here. Fantasy races can be racist stand-ins for real-world groups and so there’s as much potential for racism in fantasy as anywhere else. Of course, you can use fantasy races without being racist too, but there’s always going to be someone who sees something in a racist light. I was once accused of writing a racist sci-fi story because none of the characters were from identifiable minorities. So silly me, thinking that the omission of race (in humans not from Earth!) would prevent the story from being seen as racist.

It might be a little bit of a tangent, but one thing that really annoys me is when every race in a story is a “human but” race. Star Trek in particular: Vulcans are human but logical, Klingons are human but violent, Ferengi are human but greedy. The whole idea that you can take a race/species and boil them down in such a simplistic fashion is the very root of racism. Furthermore, writers very rarely do anything interesting with it - they just glue on a weird forehead and run with the stereotype.

Most fantasy tends to parallel a specific region’s mythology. Medieval Europe is most common, of course, but there is also fantasy that parallels East Asian mythology, Middle-Eastern mythology, and others. Some fantasy has no parallel to any particular real-world mythology.

And in paralleling a region’s mythology and culture, writers often (intentionally or not) mirror that region/culture’s biases and bigotries as well.

Taking all this into account, I recently wrote a fantasy novel (set on an original non-Earth world) that parallels the mythology and culture of the American and Caribbean colonies around the 18th century, largely because I felt that characters that many Americans of color could identify with were lacking in fantasy. I wanted to create a fantasy world and a fantasy story in which not only were most of the characters non-white, they were non-white in a way that would feel authentic and real to Americans (and hopefully others) of color.

Not Star Wars, Phantom Menance! The original triolgy featured diverse aliens and societies with no hint of any relation to real world groups. What ethnic group are Jawas based on?

Then the prequels come out and…holy crap it is almost embarrassing.

The Conan stories feature small character originating racism, which I assumed was just that.

Then in one story Conan himself our narrator launches into a didactic lesson on the savagery of black people, in an almost 4th wall breaking manner, that was strange.

Conan stories are pretty fun, except that the racism is pretty unbearable. He goes back and forth between black men and gorillas, or half-gorilla half-black-men. Burroughs had issues.