The New Challenges to Tolkien’s Racialized Universe
By Noah Gordon
Fantasy fiction has often been treated as a type of escapism. In a bare sense, that’s what it is – people read The Lord of the Rings or watch Star Trek to escape the banality of day-to-day life. One must wonder how many teenagers have sifted through their mail and daydreamed about finding a wax-sealed envelope from Hogwarts. Fantasy, along with its close cousin science-fiction, provides a means to imagine living in a world of discovery and possibility, and a world that for one reason or another is preferable to our own.
What today we call “fantasy” was more or less dreamed up entirely by J.R.R. Tolkien over the course of his career, a combination of old English myth, life experience, and pure imagination. His early work The Hobbit laid down a template, and The Lord of the Rings etched it in the bedrock of literary history. From Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth we get our familiar racial templates: the proud and haughty elves, the stubborn but brave dwarves and naturally, the humans – average and without distinct flavor. Each of these “races” has its flaws, but they are all on the side of good in the fight against evil. And of course, we have our evil races: orcs and trolls and goblins, despicable creatures which lack the capacity for independent thought and serve as cannon fodder for their dark masters.
After the massive success of The Lord of the Rings, this became the template for the vast majority of high-fantasy fiction. Tolkien created something of an understanding in the minds of his readers: when you pick up a fantasy tome, expect the humans and elves and dwarves and halflings and hobbits and pixies and fairies and what-have-you to be on the side of good. A goblin who wants to join up with the armies of the light should be viewed with suspicion; an elf who conspires with the forces of darkness has betrayed his brethren and himself.
Taking the Tolkien model further, each race has not only its assigned alignment, but also its assigned attributes. Elves are tall and pretty, with pointed ears and regal features. They are in some fictions immortal, or in others have very long life spans. Dwarves are short and stocky, with big busy or braided beards and a thick Scottish brogue. They are stubborn but friendly and make excellent warriors or craftsmen. Humans, on the other hand, are a sort of tabula rasa – they are the common race, as English is often the “common tongue.” Humans exist to ground fantasy universes and make them relatable, which is why they often serve as the central characters. A reader would far sooner identify with Luke Skywalker than Chewbacca.
Division of the world into races with distinct attributes and alignments permeates the myriad of fantasy fictions, almost to the extent that it’s a necessary ingredient in the mix. Harry Potter didn’t need it, but it’s present in greedy goblins and proud centaurs. Even most sci-fi universes adopt the trope – think the rational Vulcan or the insidious Hutt. Of course, in all cases the human remains the template – the jack-of-all-trades with no one defining characteristic, usually good (the hero is almost always human) but with the capacity for evil or moral grayness.
What about this arrangement is so appealing to we fantasy readers? Well, it’s easy. Easier than the real world, at any rate, where we learn that race is a social construct (it is) and that it’s wrong to make assumptions about any one person based on their appearance (you really shouldn’t). Especially for introverts like myself, everyday life is unbearably unpredictable. Reactions are difficult to anticipate or understand, and we find ourselves scrutinizing every word of a conversation. We overthink it, and as a result, spending too much time with other people exhausts us. It only makes sense that we would want to retreat to and recharge in a world unlike our own, in which everyone is allotted an easily-identifiable category and acts accordingly. The fantasy universe is one which is easy to understand. It is, as Spock would say, quite logical.
But as anyone who’s familiar with Star Trek knows, Spock’s logical approach is usually not the correct one. Real human beings aren’t always logical, and rightly so. The beautiful thing about the human spirit is its ability to defy logic and convention. Our world is wonderfully diverse and difficult to understand. Fantasy simplifies the equation, but perhaps too much. When we escape to Middle Earth we go for a joyride. While there’s joy in escape, we return to a world just as incomprehensible as it was before. It doesn’t teach us anything; it’s easy, but it’s also quite lazy.
I need to insert a small disclaimer here, because so far I’ve been a bit unfair to our friend John Ronald Reuel. To his credit, Tolkien’s characters were complex and his stories often did look at racial difference in interesting ways. He is the grandfather of the genres that I’ve loved as a child and cherished as a boyish adult. What I contend here is that the model that he’s established – that of the racially-split fantasy universe – can be conducive to simplification and doesn’t necessarily help us learn more about ourselves and the world we live in. Nonetheless a new tendency has emerged in the last decade which uses the majestic foundation Tolkien has built for us and created something altogether more wonderful.
The company Bioware, which once specialized in medieval fantasy role-playing games with interactive storytelling, provides a good example of how the role of race has changed in a short time in the medium of video games. At a glance, their interactive RPGs appear quite suited to the Tolkien mold; you begin by choosing a character and picking for him not only a name, appearance and role, but also a race. Each race, of course, comes with different attributes – humans are jacks-of-all-trades, elves make good rangers, half-orcs are dumb but strong, and so on. Aside from some interesting gameplay innovations, there’s nothing revolutionary here in terms of storytelling.
But recently these games have started putting a twist on the worlds we’re used to. There’s a new trend in fantasy which builds on the race-world tradition of Tolkien but twists it by introducing themes of inequality, oppression and the bridging of differences. Bioware has led the charge. In their 2009 release Dragon Age: Origins, you begin the game by picking not only a race, but also a socioeconomic class for the protagonist whose shoes you’ll inhabit. You can opt to play as a human noble or commoner; a dwarven prince or untouchable; a city-elf or a tribal elf. No longer is the human the necessary template; the player is free to choose whichever character he/she identifies with, and that character’s background will color the world he/she interacts with.
This trend was solidified with the tremendous success of Bioware’s 2007-2012 Mass Effect trilogy. The games take place in the not-so-distant future, when the discovery of alien relics on Mars has propelled mankind centuries into the technological future and put it in contact with a myriad of alien races. Though not Tolkien-esque in the purest sense, it retains that essential fantasy component – the racialization of Others. But in interacting with these Others, the player as the human Commander Shepard must learn how to bridge differences and acknowledge commonalities. Ultimately the choices the player makes with respect to his/her crew members and the racial homeworlds they represent will determine the fate of the galaxy.
Polish developer CD Projekt RED took it one step further with 2009’s The Witcher; rather than adopting Mass Effect’s “big tent” approach, it facilitates thought about racial oppression and bigotry, creating an impressive analogy for the world we live in. In The Witcher’s universe mankind is on the top of the pecking order, with a number of human kings ruling over different parts of the land. The elves and dwarves, who once had impressive empires all their own to call home, have come to be dispersed and for the most part confined to “non-human” ghettos in cities and towns. Those who remain on the outside are hunted down and driven to desperation, and as a result some resort to terrorism as a means of political expression. In playing the game, it’s hard not to draw parallels.
In the game’s finale the player acts as a mediator and eventually must make a choice: side with the human faction, saving the lives of innocent civilians but upholding the status quo; side with the Elven terrorists, advocating for racial justice but at the same time condoning bloodshed; or remain neutral, and let the oppressors and the oppressed tear one another to bits. It’s a difficult choice to make and is certainly a far cry from the often clearly-defined poles of Middle Earth.
Gary Whitta, a video game writer, was recently quoted in an issue of Game Informer magazine: “We are just now at The Jazz Singer in video games. We are starting to figure out that there are things we can do beyond the conventions of cinema and there are ways to tell stories that help the gameplay along and not just ape the experience of film or television.” Player interactivity is key. In a video game like Mass Effect or The Witcher, the gameplay decisions you make have an effect on the story you receive. The sole source of conflict resolution is no longer a bullet or a sword; choices you make in conversation or actions you take can change the outcome of a situation. In this kind of game it no longer makes sense to rely on predictability and familiarity. Part of the fun is in the dramatic tension of not knowing with certainty how your actions will impact the world.
The popularity of interactive fantasy can be summarized in one word: depth. Players are no longer seeking to escape to a world wherein everything is prefigured and tailored to them. The Witcher isn’t simply a blast to play, but it’s also constructive. It mobilizes the imagery we’ve all become so familiar with to help us understand this complicated world we live in and these complex people we live with. It’s a healthy and altogether wonderful trend that, I hope, will only continue to strengthen into the future.