Game of Thrones, Fantasy and Allegorical Racism

It’s a fact of science fiction and fantasy that probably gets taken for granted more often than it should: the arc of most series cannot survive without races acting stereotypically.

If you haven’t been watching Game of Thrones, I have to say, I’m surprised by good it has been. HBO has turned its unique brand of moral relativism, sliding loyalties and gritty realism to the world of fantasy and given the old Dungeons and Dragons set something real to think about:

HBO: Game of Thrones: Homepage.

But as I watched last night, it finally struck me that fantasy writing is inherently racist. You would never expect Tolkien’s dwarves to ride horses, nor his elves to dig tunnels through the earth. Such things are simply not done by those races. They stay within their very narrow scope of definition.

The races in Game of Thrones are at least as unidimensional as anything you’re likely to see in other fantasy novels. What makes the whole thing stand out is that, in an attempt to make that world more real and less about dragons and fairies, the show drops all pretense of genuine genetic difference and merely makes each race a slightly modified version of some half-identifiable human nationality.

You could have at least understood that Ents would not have cross-bred with Elves. Nor Hobbits with Dwarves for that matter, despite the presumably much more compatible genital-to-toes scale. No, they’re just very different creatures and there’s no reason to suspect they would intermingle.

In Game of Thrones, races are even less distinct than the nasal-modified races of modern Star Trek series – and not from other planets, either. There’s every reason to believe that they could and should intermarry. But with rare exceptions, they do not. Everything stays within an orderly set of stereotypes which are not stereotypes: of course, these are not races of Earth, but a completely different thing!

And I call this type of racism “allegorical” because it is not generally thought of as racism, but rather a vector by which more profound truths are to be revealed. There’s no malice, just storytelling. By reducing each race to even less of a caricature than the worst Earthly stereotypes, the author provides a parable about human life. Tolkien’s dwarves are hard-working but riddled by avarice; his elves wise to the point of folly; humans are filled with limitless courage and not much else. Each tells the story of both the good and the bad of what are generally considered positive attributes. And in general, I feel like my early years are the better for having read Tolkien and Tad Williams and all the rest.

But I wonder if anyone else gets the same uneasy feeling watching Game of Thrones that I do?

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.

2 replies on “Game of Thrones, Fantasy and Allegorical Racism”

are you familiar with india? the whole “nobody marries outside their class”?
our real world is more racist than your fantasy.

at least in fantasy, you generally have geographic separation — which has managed to create a large amount of genetic diversity in Africa unto this day.

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