The Hobbit is finally getting cast and everyone is all abuzz at the thought of more geeky goodness. When I went to a website today, someone commented "Oh yay, more pasty white people," which I had to concede to. People of colour can't seem to catch a break when it comes to fantasy settings, whether it's on screen or in literature. It actually makes me really sad that something that was a big part of my formative years isn't more inclusive. It is a very white, heterosexual, traditionally masculine view of the world that really only began to open it's doors to a feminine view point from the 80's onwards.
The replying comments were ones of "Tolkien's world is based on European mythology. Therefore, only white people." Or, my all time favourite* of, "Then I guess we'll just have to make a fantasy film based on African and Asian mythology for the sake of political correctness."
Oh, hell no.
For the purpose of this post, let's just ignore the tremendous amount of derailing and othering that takes place any time fantasy and an ethnic minority cast are mixed together
. Hell, even sci-fi
. Let's just move onto the perception of minority groups in Iron Age and Medieval Europe. Or "lack" of them.
In reality, minority groups have existed in Europe for a long time that traditionally don't look ethno-centrically European. The biggest one that stands out for me is the Sámi people of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. And the Sámi people are estimated to have inhabited that region for the last 2500 years. That long? You would think there would have been mention of them in Viking rec --oh there is? Fancy that. Their existence is documented since the introduction of runes and is in the 'Account of the Viking Othere.' That's 890 AD, people. That's 890 AD, in the countries where Tolkien took a large chunk of his influence.
Not to mention that during the Iron Age, the tribes living within the British Isles and the Germanic tribes are known to have participated in Mediterranean trading routes. Wine urns (the stuff made with grapes) have been found in burial sites and excavation digs. Precious metals and gem stones not traditionally found in the UK have somehow found themselves elaborately shaped and purposefully buried in the ground. Baltic amber has been discovered.
And if people honestly think that those trading routes weren't used by people from the northern African continent or further afield, then those people are idiots. There are ancient European skeletons that have been found in Qinghai
, for god's sake.
And that's just the Iron Age. Often Medieval settings brought in and inter-mixed with the fantasy genre. Right about the 11th century, the Romani people were thought to have immigrated from the Indian subcontinent. Or let's take a more obvious, well-known group: genetic studies on Jewish people worldwide show that they all bear a common genetic heritage which stems from the Middle East. And Jewish populations have existed in the ancient Hellenic world, in Europe before and after Haskala, in North Africa, India and China.
Then you've got the Ottoman Empire and Islamic Spain and Portugal. And it wasn't all wars with people from the Middle East during the crusades --Jerusalem was taken over by different factions so many times. European armies and European traders spent large portions of their lives in foreign lands. Does anyone honestly think that these men refused to sleep with a woman until they were back on home turf? Does anyone honestly believe that children from those unions didn't have a complicated sense of racial identity at some point in their lives? Does everyone honestly believe that all those fathers completely abandoned their children? Or that those children didn't grow up and join armies or travel themselves?
Europe is not as ethno-centrically white as people want to believe. From the Iron Age to the Middle Ages, white Europeans have inter-mixed with and come across cultures and people who look different facially and who have different colours of skin. It was nothing compared to the globalization of today but it existed
and that's the problem. People want to ignore it.
Put it this way: if a fantasy writer took a large portion of their influence from Iron Age Scandinavia and Scandinavian mythology, would it really have been so difficult to throw in a quick mention of the Sámi or a Sámi-like people in their notes and appendixes? Or, with their knowledge of Europe at that time, have one of their made-up southern countries blend culturally with another that had a different ethnic population? Or mention nomadic populations? Populations that any scholar would have known existed.
The answer is no. There wouldn't be. Fantasy based on European mythology needs to take into consideration the reality of the world that the mythology came from. While it's true Scandinavian, Germanic and ancient British populations would have mostly been white European, it wouldn't be too far-fetched to have included the odd character who came from a different culture or had a different ethnic background. It wouldn't be out of place.
Tolkien has his race problems and, you know, let's just take it into consideration and leave it at that. Let's just save the drama for your Balrog. He grew up in a time where the British Empire was waning but the smug, self-assured superiority of colonial attitudes was still rampant in British society. But what is evident from historical research now
is that his works are open to interpretation when it comes to casting people of colour in movies based on his works.
The problem, then, isn't really about Tolkien. He was a good scholar who researched heavily before creating his world. He made up languages, maps, traditions and then made up even more of those for different species. There are notes on the sexual habits of elves, for goodness sake. That's how dedicated he was. And to be fair, Celtic and Scandinavian studies were only just being established in British universities in his lifetime.
The problem is the barrage of fantasy that has been 'inspired' by him. And what I mean by that is they've included most of the races sans Hobbits.** They're usually quest plots and there's usually a magical artefact involved. The historical research hasn't been updated but the token women have been given bigger assets
, and it's not sword skills that I'm talking about.
So really, it all boils down to the fans. We've got the historical updates and the means to spread it but most of us need to take the pillow from our heads and put a book in it (or even a wiki page if that's too much trouble). It's been the better part of seventy years since the tropes were started. They don't even need to exist. And, as someone pointed out to me, these very same tropes are spreading to other examples of fantasy that don't even have an ancient or Medieval setting. Where oh where can I find a realistic, fully-fleshed POC character in urban fantasy, for their price is far above even the rarest merch?
I don't know about you, but I'm tired of the same clichés and excuses being rehashed.
~*~*~*~* except not really** Including Hobbits would be a little bit too similar. And also because, being tiny and adorable and the happy-go-lucky attitude, they really are the fantasy equivalent of Ewoks. Doesn't look good in comparison to all those burly men and noble elves with their Serious Business. You're lucky if Dwarves even get a mention in most works.