Race in fantasy is often a very different thing to race in the real world, and yet it is often–even usually–expected of the reader that he/she will make certain connections to the real world. In the real world, racial tensions are a fact of everyday life, and have been for thousands of years. The ways people define race have changed over time, but the uses to which racial divisions are put remain roughly the same. Race is the most convenient way of differentiating “us” from “them.” Race also ties to such thematic concerns as pride and compromise, but also works for characterization and atmosphere–all various facets of motif.
Let us begin with understanding the use of the term “race” historically before we get into the motif as it relates to the fantasy genre. Historically, race was a question of ethnicity or nationality. Our broad definitions of Caucasian or African or Mongoloid races (among others) are ridiculously unwieldy and large. It makes it seem that the French are like the English, the Chinese like the Japanese, the Bantu like the Khoisan. The reality is that there are differences, always on a cultural level, but often in great physiological ways too. The term as it had been used for many, many years before about the 17th century was to denote, as I’ve said, ethnicity or nationality. The old writers speak of “the English race” as something completely different from “the French race” or “the German race.”
The contemporary usage of race as defining broad associations of people groups is a product of European colonization, when the Europeans viewed themselves as a super-entity and those living in Africa and China and the Americas as other, as something different. The old concept of race as “nationality” swiftly disappeared as the concept of a “nation” was itself born in the 17th and 18th centuries.
What we end up seeing in the fantasy genre is the concept of race being used far more in the contemporary understanding than in the historical understanding. We create such mythical races as Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, Trolls, Goblins, Orcs, and a host of others drawn from classical and medieval mythology. Some writers invent entirely new races, such as Hobbits, and these are often not so very different from the standard fantasy races in large.
Let us take, once again, the example of The Lord of the Rings. The Elves are the most developed of Tolkien’s other races, and there we have Grey Elves and High Elves and Wood Elves and others–all with their own Elven names and languages–and these internal divisions are not referred to as race. But the distinction between Elf and Man is labeled as race, even though, technically, that distinction is closer to something like species.
But it is the use to which Tolkien puts those racial divisions that are important. We understand, as I have said, that there is a symbolism behind the mythical races of fantasy. We cannot say that the Men are Caucasian and the Orcs African, as so many have claimed. Rather, the races tend to show us something of our human nature, boiled down almost into allegorical fashion. The Men are us at or most rounded. The Elves are everything noble; the Orcs everything evil; the Dwarves everything greedy; the Hobbits everything quaint about modern humans.
Yet even this is painting with a broad brush, as there are Elves in Middle-earth who are swayed to evil (though I cannot recall a single Orc swayed to do good). But then the focus of Tolkien’s narrative is not on the Orcs, but on the Elves and the Men and the Hobbits. In a series like Stan Nicholl’s Orcs books, we find Orcs who are more rounded than Tolkien’s. They are brutal and bestial and wicked and cruel, yes, but they also understand loyalty and doubt and fear for themselves and for others.
It is by seeing ourselves in something alien that we see ourselves in a new light. Something that fantasy brings to human study that almost no other genre can bring is this capacity for projecting facets of our nature onto something clearly not human in order to gauge its usefulness or destructiveness. And in this sense, the motif of race can become an aid to very powerful themes dealing with what it means to be human by looking at ourselves through inhuman glasses.
Race in fantasy, though, also often provides us with characterization, and here is where we begin to stray into territory that we are generally uncomfortable with when found in the real world: i.e. stereotyping. All Dwarves hate Elves and all Elves hate Dwarves; Orcs are wicked; Men are weak; Elves are noble; Hobbits don’t like adventure. The thing is that a poor writer will play to these stereotypes, and it is in those instances that stereotypes become a negative thing.
But let’s face it, we humans love categorizing everything. We paint with broad brushes because it makes it easier for us to wrap our minds around complex issues. Painting racial divisions in broad stereotypical patterns is convenient, but it does become detrimental if we allow those stereotypes to control our thoughts. Tolkien never does this, despite what his critics say–save in the instance of the Orcs, as I’ve mentioned.
Tolkien pushes beyond these stereotypes. All Elves hate Dwarves, and vice versa, but Legolas and Gimli form an unbreakable bond when they begin to set their differences aside. All Men are weak–but only when operating for themselves (Boromir)–but transcend when fighting on behalf of others (Boromir again, Aragorn, Faramir). Hobbits don’t like adventure, but each of the four hobbits becomes a hero and a doer by the story’s end, willing to act rather than accept that things will always be as they have always been.
These character progressions that break the moulds of racial stereotypes are indicative of how effective race can be as a motif in fantasy, for they show us in no uncertain terms that we can transcend the very issues plaguing us in the real world. And it is in seeing our own weaknesses overcome by alien cultures that we begin to see hope for ourselves as humans as well.