Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Fantasy and Racism

...or, "How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Goblin".

This is something that's been rattling around in my tiny li'l brain for a while now.

You know what bothers me about a lot of fantasy fiction? The way "goodness" or "badness" is often conflated with how something looks. If something is "beautiful", it must be good; if it's "ugly", it must be bad.

This goes back all the way to mythology, of course, but in modern fiction I think The Lord of the Rings is the ur-example. The elves are beautiful by the author's standards, with lily-white skin and shining eyes; of course, they are the good guys. Conversely, the orcs and trolls are vile monsters, and their evil manifests outwardly with lumpy countenances and coarse, dark skin. You can see the undertones of racism there. Tolkien was a good writer, though, and he managed to subvert this idea within his own mythos. In his backstory, some of the elves were murderous kin-slayers. The heroic Aragorn was scruffy and looked "foul" to the hobbits, while the Dark Lord Sauron was described as achingly beautiful before he was reduced to a disembodied spirit who only appeared as a red eye in people's minds. No luck for the orcs, though: they remain downright demonic, every one.

Tolkien was a good writer, but flawed. Needless to say, most of his successors have possessed his flaws but not his talents. Dungeons & Dragons is a perfect example: elves and dwarves are inherently "good" and even nameless non-player characters are valued (i.e., mourned for roleplay XP), while goblins and orcs are inherently "evil" and just there to kill for XP unless the DM goes out of his/her way to give a goblin NPC a personality. This extends even to their game stats: elves, dwarves, gnomes, and halflings all have abilities that can be used both in combat or in roleplay; while goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, ogres, and other "savage" humanoids have stats that are purely combat-oriented. (The exception is kobolds, who have a bonus on mining and trapmaking; perhaps for this reason, D&D went out of its way to push kobolds as a viable player race toward the end of 3rd Edition's lifespan.)

The thing that prompted me to write this post is this page on the subject of goblins in D&D, written half tongue-in-cheek from the position of a goblin advocacy group. In the 3rd Edition Monster Manual, the combat tactics of goblins is described thusly:

“The concept of a fair fight is meaningless in their society. They favor ambushes, overwhelming odds, dirty tricks, and any other edge they can devise . . . goblins have a poor grasp of strategy and are cowardly by nature, tending to flee the field if a battle turns against them.”

Meanwhile, in the same book, we have the elves' strategy:

“Elves are cautious warriors . . . maximizing their advantage by using ambushes, snipers, and camouflage. They prefer to fire from cover and retreat before they are found, repeating this maneuver until all of their enemies are dead.”

Exactly the same thing as the goblins, but described in more glowing terms while the goblins are portrayed as cowardly and craven. It's a total double standard. This dichotomy reminds me of two news articles I saw side by side in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, with one showing a black "looter" and the other a white guy who "found some supplies". I'm not comparing goblins to black people, nor do I think that D&D is worthy of the same kind of outrage as the news articles. I just think that both are symptomatic, to very different degrees, of the institutionalized prejudice in our culture.

Perhaps because they're the designated antagonists in most fantasy, I find goblins and orcs much more interesting than elves and dwarves. Surely there's more to them than mindless violence. What if they have some moral justification for their aggressions against humans and elves besides just being inherently evil? Or, heck, what if they're not all that violent at all and their reputation is just propaganda from books written by humans? (Yes, I have been reading Goblins: Life Through Their Eyes, why do you ask?)

In the D&D campaign I'm very sporadically working on, I try to go out of my way to give goblins and hobgoblins and ogres actual cultures and a place in the setting that goes beyond violence. There are still evil goblins, but they have reasons for their actions. There are also quite a few good goblins, and evil dwarves, and so on. Basically, no race is tied to one moral alignment. They're people, not monsters.

So, yeah. This post turned out a bit longer than I intended, but it feels good getting my thoughts out of my head and onto the (web)page.


DJ Black Adam said...

This is a very good article, can I reproduce this and link it on my blog?

Will Staples said...

Sure, go right ahead!