Is fantasy just for white men? Between recurring patterns and lack of diversity on screen, the genre is at a turning point.
Treason and “wokism”. In the name of preserving fantasy classics, many viewers are calling for a boycott of the series House of the Dragon and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. The two productions, among the most anticipated for this start of the 2022 school year, are castigated for their casting choices, in particular concerning the presence of racialized actors at the heart of their universe of medieval inspirations. Should fantasy reinvent itself on screen and on paper?
Stereotypes die hard
In 1954, JRR Tolkien shaped a genre that would later become one of the most popular in contemporary literature. The one who is considered the founding father of modern fantasy – even if we find the first writings of the genre in the 19th century – paved the way for many writers who were inspired by his works to explore new intrigues and epic quests. .
Since then, recurring patterns have imposed themselves in the imagination of these authors, archetypes that we find almost continuously. This is particularly the case with the protagonists who populate these magical epics. A sort of reinterpretation of Arthurian myths and legends, the hero in its strictest sense finds himself confronted with an arduous task which will set all his convictions in motion and for which he will risk his life.
Cloaks, swords, the imprint of medieval Europe is evident. We thus tend to often think of fantasy under this prism, a revisited Middle Ages where dragons and age-old magicians come to save the world from a little magic trick.
Physically, at least in the adaptations that we have been given to see in the cinema, this hero often takes on the appearance of a white man in the prime of life. Frodo at Peter Jackson or Harry Potter at Chris Columbus, if the differences are numerous we find a pattern that repeats itself.
In fact, on the big screen, it is almost impossible to talk about a fantasy story having a non-Caucasian hero or heroine as the main character. However, the fantasy on paper is not limited to the borders of the old continent, the inspirations are diverse.
A mosaic of inspirations
Whether in Tolkien, CS Lewis or George RR Martin, the Middle Ages are a backdrop for many fantasy stories. Most of the time, it is Europe that is privileged, no doubt because most authors have evolved on the old continent.
Tolkien does not hide it, he was an author very rooted in a territory according to Vincent Ferré, Professor of Literature at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University and translator. “He was very aware of his geographical roots, he felt English and was fascinated by the medieval language of the region where he had lived as a child; he was attentive to the link between language, place, culture. Middle-earth is our Europe in an imaginary context, the one that would have existed thousands of years ago. Nevertheless, there are hints of other places in the world like Valinor and Numenor. Middle-earth is just one of the settings of the saga”
According to Justine Breton, lecturer in French literature at the University of Reims, fantasy is also and above all based on the idea of a fantasized medieval Europe.
“It’s a very widespread image unfortunately, we sometimes have the idea that the Middle Ages is a period limited to Western Europe, which is not the case. It is already reducing a period of a thousand years to a single conception, moreover if we consider the differences between what is today the north of England, the south of France or the south of Italy we have vastly different customs and practices. There were also a lot of migrations, it mixes a lot of cultures so it’s not surprising in the Middle Ages and whatever the period, to see non-white people in the streets, we have traders and people who go s rise in society and have important functions.”
The actor Steve Toussaint had also strongly responded to the criticisms addressed to the series and to his character Lord Velaryon. While spectators criticized the choice of a black actor to play a nobleman, he had entrusted to the Guardian :
“When I was announced as Corlys Velaryon, one of the first things I saw was my picture next to the pictured character. I was like, ‘Oh I get it. When we were criminals, pirates or slaves in the other shows you were ok with that but when this guy is one of the richest and a noble, now you have a problem.”
He adds in another interview: “They are happy to see a flying dragon. They are happy to see white hair and purple eyes. But a rich black? It is beyond what they can accept.”
Same story for the series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, where Ismael Cruz Cordova had to deal with a wave of racist comments and messages. To stem the phenomenon, Prime Video had also adopted a particular strategy when the series was released. The platform had applied a filter to the ratings and reviews left in its interface, leaving itself 72 hours to check each of them and thus delete those that contained hateful remarks.
For Justine Breton, little importance was given to these questions of skin color in the Middle Ages, the cursor being rather placed on the side of religion. The presence of characters from diversity in series of the genre is therefore not surprising. This is all the more true when one knows the real objective of the writers and screenwriters of works of the genre.
Telling our contemporary world
Despite its inspirations clearly coming from another time, Fantasy is also and above all used to tell our contemporary world. Tolkien did, in fact, by addressing his traumas of the post-war period and the industrial revolution. His story has been described several times as an allegory of the Second World War and the atomic bomb, wrongly according to Vincent Ferré.
“He was devastated [par ces rapprochements avec la Seconde Guerre mondiale] because if the work was published in 1954-1955, Tolkien began to work on it as early as 1937, so well before. In reality, the world in which The Lord of the Rings takes place was imagined from 1916, in the first stories of the future Silmarillion” He explains that the work that forms the starting point of the saga, The Book of Lost Tales, has scenes of battle and confrontations that very clearly refer to mechanical warfare as Tolkien knew it.
“He wanted to represent in The Lord of the Rings the horror of war. In Tolkien, it really is total destruction, madness. The story is also born from the memory of the desolation he experienced in the face of industrialization.
An ecological message which is intended to reflect the contemporaneity of its author. Years later, it continues to resonate with viewers and readers. However, to allow the work to evolve, the screenwriters do not hesitate to take liberties to meet the expectations of the twenty-first century.
Remember also that the series, unlike the films of Peter Jackson, is not based directly on the writings of Tolkien. Prime Video has freely adapted certain passages that mention the Second Age. This is therefore more of an invention from Tolkien’s work than a real adaptation.
In this sense, the series decided to transform the character of Galadriel so that she takes part in the action. Same story at House of the Dragon where the focus was on feminism. Team members have also repeatedly asked for the cursor to be placed higher, as with the birth scene in the first episode. The series has also learned from its mistakes behind the scenes, taking care to spare its actresses and limit their nudity.
Intimacy coordinators, directors, House of the Dragon is aware that the series Game Of Thrones has repeatedly posed problems with the treatment of its female characters, and intends to deviate from these patterns. This is especially true in episode 4 of the series, which features Rhaenyra and Daemon in an uncrowded establishment. Later, when the young princess invites Ser Criston Cole to her room, again the actors and the director made it a point of honor to bet on realism. This moment is particularly important in the career of the young woman, deviating from the figure of the ingenue was therefore crucial.
We can also mention The Wheel of Time, which with its eminently feminist subtext, had also chosen diversity for its casting. A way for studios to reach out to as many people as possible. The series had also staged a love story between two female protagonists, which is quite rare in the genre.
A commercial but necessary choice
Including players from diverse backgrounds is indeed a way for SVOD platforms to conquer several markets. While the series are exported internationally, the SVOD giants are designing their productions for large-scale distribution. Having a great diversity of actors thus allows a greater number of people to identify with each other. An approach obviously motivated by the desire to impose itself in all homes.
However, this approach is essential to advance the issue of representation. According to the CSA barometer of the year 2017, 83% of people indexed were “perceived as white”.
In fiction, this representation of visible minorities thus continues to be fairly anecdotal. It is all the more important to offer these minorities important roles in audiovisual narratives, since they are often confined to caricatural roles. For SVOD platforms and studios, recruiting actors from all walks of life is also an opportunity to broaden the fields of fantasy.
Series Shadow and Bone had moreover largely convinced the critics by its singularity. The work written by Leigh Bardugo summons Slavic or Russian imagery, and even draws on Chinese folklore.
On paper, the youth section is particularly prolific. A new generation of authors is emerging and filling the shelves of bookstores with stories nourished by our contemporary world but also by the classics of the genre. This is the case of the Word Smuggler which draws its source from certain films such as those of Guillermo del Toro or Tim Burton. The authors Jennifer and Alric Twice do not hide it, their stories are forged with the works they have come across over the course of their lives. “We have a lot of references! The Disney, the bloody but very aesthetic side of the cinematographic approach to the story with our favorite directors, books like Harry Potter for the values conveyed or the Lord of the Rings for the great initiatory quest.
For them, it is also an opportunity to address a subject that is dear to them, hypersensitivity. “Since it’s a daily experience, we wanted to share our experience through the heroine of our saga. Hypersensitivity is a form of magic and that’s what we wanted to convey.”
Anyway, fantasy still has a lot to offer us on paper and or screens. The genre is far from having said its last word, and it continues to change according to the expectations of spectators and readers. We couldn’t resist the urge to share some literary and cinematographic recommendations with you.
Cinema and series
- The Green Knight on Amazon Prime Video
- Shadow and Bone: The Grisha Saga on Netflix
- The Wheel of Time on Prime Video
- Merlin on Canal+
- His Dark Materials on OCS
- Galavant on VOD
- Willow on Disney+
- The Surveyor of Dreams by Estelle Faye
- The Teller of Words by AJ Twice
- The Mirror Pass by Christelle Dabos
- earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
- The City Without Wind by Eleonore Devillepoix
- Skandar and the Flight of the Unicorn by AF Steadman
Watch The Lord of the Rings on Amazon Prime Video