Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

December 4, 2018

Game of Thrones, a journey of three peoples

Filed under: Cultural Anthropology,Fantasy,Game of Thrones — Razib Khan @ 12:00 pm
Westeros and western Essos

The HBO television series, Games of Thrones, has captured the imagination of modern American culture. It has been used as a metaphor and example for many things, from national politics to international relations, and of course a reimagining of the medieval period in a grittier and more realistic fashion.

Characters from Game of Thrones have even inspired baby-names!

The television series is rich, complex, and multifaceted, but it draws from the novels of George R. R. Martin, a cycle which is called A Song of Ice and Fire. These works are much more deeply textured in their lore and backstory. Martin’s world-building has taken on a life of his own, with several books published related to the geographies, peoples, and histories, which serve as the backdrop for the plot and character.

One of the peculiar aspects of what we know about the historical background of the world that Martin has imagined, with its continents of Westeros, Essos, and Sothoryos, is at once very precise, and somewhat inaccurate. In the novels and accompanying books which elaborate on the ‘world-building’, the voice of the explanatory narrators are the ‘maesters’, a scholarly priesthood in Westeros.

Maesters give the reader a sense of what informed people in Westeros believe to have been their past, or the nature of distant lands, but they do not speak in an omniscient voice. That is, they may, in fact, be inaccurate their beliefs, though it seems likely that their interpretations usually contain a grain of truth. Martin has explicitly stated that one should not take assertions that the something happened “10,000 years ago” literally. Rather, if you are told that something happened 10,000 years ago, perhaps it is best to just understand it happened long, long, ago.

The history of Westeros in terms of its demographic past seems straightforward. The first humans who crossed over from the eastern continent, Essos, were the First Men. They rode on horses and used bronze weapons. House Royce of the Vale of Arryn have a family heirloom of bronze armor, that reputedly dates to this period.

When the First Men arrived in Westeros, the lands were empty of humans, but there were various other peoples, such as the diminutive Children of the Forest, who seem to have been hunter-gatherers. The conflict between the First Men and the Children of the Forest ended in a stalemate and a truce. The First Men brought their own gods, some of which may persist in the Iron Islands, but eventually, they adopted the religion of the Children of the Forest, which focused on nameless gods whose powers were located within groves with forbidding trees, the weirdwoods.

To a great extent, many of the things we know about the First Men are legends and folk memories. Though the First Men utilized simple runic scripts, the art of copious writing and recording was to come later, with the second great migration to Westeros, that the of the Andals

Where the First Men arrived in the mists of prehistory, the Andals came to prominence on the edge of the imaginary history of A Song of Ice and Fire. The Andal migration seems to have been triggered by the rise of the Vaylrian Freehold, whose emergence resulted in the crushing of the ancient empires to the east, west, and north. In the hinterlands of northwest Essos, around the “Hills of Andalos”, the Andal tribes came together. United by a belief in a monistic pantheon of gods, the Faith of the Seven. Each of the gods of the Andals was actually a manifestation of an underlying divinity.

The Andals escaped the expanding reach of the Valyrian Freehold by migrating west, across the Narrow Sea.

While the First Men are reputed to have crossed a land bridge that connected Dorne, the southeastern realm of Westeros, to Essos, the Andals landed in the Kingdom of Mountain and Vale. They brought their language, the ancestor of modern Westerosi, their religion, which became dominant in the far more populous southern half of the continent, as well as institutions such as knighthood.

The dominance of Andal culture is such that when people from Westeros travel to Essos they are often termed “Andals,” even if they are from the North, and so First Men in identity. And yet the Andals did not replace the lineages of the First Men. This is easiest to see for the elite houses.

In the North, the First Men remained preeminent. A region geographically protected from Andal invasions, the First Men in this vast lightly populated domain did not fuse with the Andals, for they turned them back. While the North eventually adopted the language of the Andals, they retained their own indigenous religion, the “old gods,” in contrast to the “new gods” of the Andals, the Faith of the Seven.

But in the South, a new aristocracy arose, Andal in religion and language, but often First Men in lineage. Some powerful families in the South, such as the Blackwoods and Royce claim First Men heritage. But, more importantly, when Aegon I Targaryen began to conquer Westeros 300 years before the events in Game of Thrones, only one of the Seven Kingdoms was ruled by an exclusively Andal ruling dynasty, the Kings of Mountain and Vale. The Storm Kings, the Gardener Kings of the Reach, the Lannisters of the Kingdom of the Rock, the Starks of the North, and the ruler of the Riverlands and Iron Islands, could all trace their ancestry to the First Men (though the Lannisters only through the maternal line).

If such prominent families were of at least partial First Men stock, it is reasonable that the Andal impact was significant culturally, but most of the common population retains ancestry from the original Bronze Age migration. Though there are subtle distinctive physical characteristics of Houses such as the Starks, it does not seem that there is anything particular to Andals or First Men by the time that Game of Thrones is occurring.

The final kingdom that is not listed above is the Principality of Dorne. And this hot southern domain is home to the last major group to arrive in Westeros: the Rhoynar. The full title of the individual who sits on the Iron Throne is the King or Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men.

Long after the Andals arrived and settled in Westeros, the Rhoynar too fled the expanding might of the Valyrian Freehold. A vast armada led by their princess, Nymeria, sailed westward until they reached the shores of Dorne. There the Rhoyne mixed with the local Andal and First Men populations and produced a fused culture with its own distinctive elements. While the Andals and First Men are fair-skinned people, the Rhoyne, who migrated out of the warm lands of southwest Essos, are darker in complexion. But the Dornish exhibit a range, from sandy and salty Dornish people who live in the deserts and coasts, who have more Rhoynish blood and culture, to the stony Dornish of the mountains, who are more akin to the Andals and First Men.

Though there are other peoples who have inflected the cultural landscape of Westeros, the First Men, Andals, and the Rhoynar, together contribute to the vast majority of threads that create the tapestry of Westeros. The First Men cleared the ancient forest and brought settled life to the land. Most of the ancestors of the people of Westeros were these Bronze Age tribes. Their adopted religion persists in the North, and in parts of the South, but the language that they spoke has mostly disappeared, only found north of the Wall, and perhaps among the barbarian tribes of the Mountains of the Moon.

History and iron came to Westeros with the Andals, warlike followers of a new religion who were fleeing an ancient enemy. Andal warlords fused with the ruling class of the First Men, and brought their institutions and language, and made them dominant across the land. Though only a minority of the ancestry of the people of Westeros derives from the Hills of Andalos, in the main the language they speak and the gods they worship are those of the Andals.

Finally, there are the Rhoynar. Unlike the First Men and the Andals, their influence is not suffused through Westeros but preoccupies a particular corner. They stand as a contrast and rebuke to the cold and harsh First Men of the North and the stuffy Andals of the South. Dorne is a hybrid land of its own, exotic and yet of Westeros. The Dornish bring together the three distinct human strands of Westeros into one, and out of it comes a rich and unique melange which adds a spice to A Song of Ice and Fire.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!

Game of Thrones, a journey of three peoples was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

October 9, 2018

Reflections on the biology of Homo calaquendi

Filed under: Elves,Fantasy,Tolkien — Razib Khan @ 7:37 pm

For a while now I’ve been really haunted by a question about the verisimilitude of J. R. R. Tolkien’s world-building: what are the long-term social and biological consequences of the fact that the Eldar, the elves, are immortal?

Consider the fact that the elves are long-lived, and not particularly fecund. Even when they are, inter-general patterns are spotty. Fëanor had seven sons, but only one grandson! Today we have “helicopter parents”, always worried about the safety of their offspring. How would an elvish society ever flourish if parents are terrified about the risk of their few offspring dying prematurely?

The fact that elves even go to war is indicative of a very strange and alien psychology. If you had the opportunity for everlasting life, would you risk it in battle? Are elves courageous? Or do they just have high time-preference?

But for me, the bigger question is the psychology of Galadriel. At 7,000 years old she is one of the oldest creatures in Middle Earth, along with Gandalf, Sauron, Cirdan, and Glorfindel. Assuming 100 years that’s 70 human lifetimes. J. R. R. Tolkien is quite clear about her physical appearance. She is quite tall, with silver-gold hair. But her head is not particularly large. So the question presents itself: how does her long-term memory allocation work? We know she has a human cranial capacity.

If salient and emotionally resonant memories connected to excitement in the hippocampus are the ones banked, does that mean that Galadriel’s mind is brimming with incredibly vivid recollections? Shouldn’t she be depressed in the present, because the present is going to be so dull compared to her glittering memories of Aman, and the beauty and elegance of the First Age civilization of the Eldar?

Additionally, it seems clear that the Eldar don’t suffer from cognitive decline in the same way as humans. Does that mean perhaps that Galadriel’s intuitive abilities would be suprahuman? Both humans and elves are children of Eru Ilúvatar. There is no evidence from the legendarium that elves are orders of magnitude more gifted than humans in “system 2” thinking, that is, rational reflection. But in their grace and acuity in matters of perception are curious. Could be it be a function of acquired “system 1” faculties, as opposed to what they were born with?

Perhaps the fey grace of the Eldar is not a matter of their natural abilities, but a function of developmental psychology? If the 10,000-hour rule is a thing, how about the 100-generation rule?

Finally, the elvish recourse to writing strikes me as peculiar in light of their immortality. They seem to be primary producers and foragers who don’t engage in much trade, so accounting is not highly valued in all likelihood. And writing does not confer the gains of the advantage of immortality to an already immortal species.

Note: For those readers who suggest that this post may mean that I never have sex, I already have three children. That’s more than most elves!

September 13, 2018

Gods and wizards in fantasy

Filed under: Fantasy — Razib Khan @ 7:22 pm

A reader in the comments pointed me to Vice and Fire (though I’d already seen it on Twitter), a rumination on 20th century and 21st century fantasy literature by Peter Hitchens in First Things. Hitchens is the religious and politically conservative brother of the late Christopher Hitchens.

The piece is curious because it reflects more about Hitchens than the material which he is describing. First, he begins with perplexity that J. R. R. Tolkien’s secondary world seems to lack a moralistic high religion, as we’d understand it. To Hitchens this is confusing in light of the fact that Tolkien was a very religious Roman Catholic in his own life. But it isn’t as if Tolkien scholars haven’t noticed this juxtaposition, or the contrast with C. S. Lewis’s style, who was extremely heavy on Christian allegory.

I think the most plausible explanation is that Tolkien had something of the same issue as L. Sprague de Camp. An aeronautical engineer by training, Isaac Asimov in his autobiography In Memory Yet Green recounts that de Camp made the shift to explicit fantasy away from hard science fiction because his professional background made it difficult for him to engage in the suspension of disbelief necessary to write plausibly about faster-than-light travel and other such things. In fantasy his own background did not get in the way of his creativity.

Like de Camp, Tolkien was gifted with knowing too much. This was a man whose legendarium was an attempt to create for the English people a mythology similar to what the Scandinavians and Irish took for granted. A philologist who was a scholar of Beowulf, Tolkien knew the whole cultural corpus of the ancient pagan Germanic people well. He mined their mythos in constructing the world in which he set his fiction. As such, he was aware of the violent brutality which characterized pre-Christian, and frankly pre-civilized, Northern Europe, and how its folkways were at variance with Christian morality. If Tolkien applied his scholarly skills to creating religions for the Men of the West, it seems unlikely that he would have been comfortable sanitizing what he knew their practices would be. On the other hand, as an invented secondary world of the imagination, it was not plausible that they would be Christian, and in any case, Tolkien was a sincere and devout believer in the Christian religion and may have been uncomfortable mixing his imaginative fictional world with the metaphysical truths he held sacred.

And yet this does not mean that the ethical monotheism which J. R. R. Tolkien personally adhered to did not bleed into his work. In Return of the King, there is a well-noted reference to “heathen kings” and their practice of burning the dead. The Men of the West may not be Christians, but nor were they pagans.

Which brings me to Hitchen’s diatribe against George R. R. Martin’s attitude toward religion. Unlike Tolkien, Martin seems irreligious. Some fantasists, such a Anne McCAffrey and Ursula K. Le Guin, have created worlds where theism is understated or nonexistent (the Kargads in Earthsea do have something that we’d recognize as a religion grounded in gods…but they are the “bad guys”). Not so with Martin. His world exhibits a great deal of religious complexity and verisimilitude.

Perhaps too much verisimilitude for Peter Hitchen’s taste. Let me quote at length a description of the religions as from the piece above:

Some readers of Martin’s stories see a kind of Christianity in the worship of “the Seven.” This is the most official of several religions in ­Westeros, described in this way: “Worship was a septon [priest] with a censer, the smell of incense, a seven-sided crystal alive with light, voices raised in song.” There are a Father, a Mother, and a Smith. Then there are the Crone, the Maiden, the ­Warrior, and finally the Stranger, who ­represents death. Although the Seven faintly echo the Trinity, there seems to be no equivalent of Christ or the Holy Ghost among them, let alone of the One God. This is not Seven in One and One in Seven but Seven in Seven. I would say that the Seven are much more like classical or Nordic pantheons than like the Trinity…The worship of the Seven is exactly what atheists think Christianity is: an outward vesture.

A rival older faith, officially tolerated, survives in silent groves of ancient trees. There is also a rather nasty Drowned God, who seems to encourage piracy among seafarers (which suits them very well), and a highly intolerant Red God with a touch of the Cathars, but which (unlike the others) manifests itself in acts of violent wizardry and second sight. This is the deity that flourishes in the sweltering, cruel east, and no wonder. So we have on the one hand a vague expression of civic virtue, empty of real force and truth, and on the other a manifestation of supernatural might, quite unconnected with goodness and very ready to ally itself with earthly power if it suits them both. This recalls the way in which, in our time, science and power walk hand in hand, often destructively and dangerously.

This is where it strikes me that the author had a hammer, and everything was a nail. There’s some truth to what he’s saying. The religion of The Seven is never outlined in great detail in comparison to other quasi-medieval aspects of Martin’s world. But there is a backstory to this: apparently the religious institutions were subordinated and suppressed to some extent by the previous Targaryen dynasty (who were clearly only nominal converts in any case). The fact is that the Faith of the Seven is monotheistic, where each god is a manifestation of the single ultimate God. And, it is a religion derived ultimately from revelation to the Andals in Essos. This is not a naive and organic tribal paganism.

As for the religion of the Red God, Martin has admitted that its spread to Westeros is modeled explicitly on the spread of Christianity. It is intolerant, but so was the spread of the religion which Peter Hitchens is a personal devotee of. On the Isle of Wight the last pagans were mostly killed by invading Christians due to their reluctance to adopt the new religion. He claims to have read the books, but he gives no indication that the Red God is a favorite of the Brotherhood Without Banners, who fight to defend the common people against the depredations of warring lords. Though the Red Priest Melisandre commits evil, like those Protestants who burned witches in Northern Europe, she believes that any suffering is ultimately to further the good. The brutality of the followers of the Red God is the other face of the fact that they are zealous and on fire for their faith, and believers who have faith that they walk in the path of virtue. The Cathars who Hitchens allude to were persecuted and then slaughtered by the orthodox Christians.

What explains Hitchen’s bile then? I am being pedantic on the points he makes about Tolkien and Martin in part because not all readers of the above essay will have read the source material, and will take his misrepresentation at face value. But it is true George R. R. Martin’s worlds exhibit a high level of brutality and perversion. When I first read Martin’s work I just finished Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, which is a retelling of the Arthurian legend fixedly in post-Roman Dark Age Britain. I decided to email Martin to ask him if he was perhaps influenced by this work, and he did admit that he was a great admirer of the Warlord Chronicles. Martin has said repeatedly that his work attempts to show that just because someone takes a vow of knighthood does not necessarily entail that they are virtuous. As a point of fact many knights in the European Middle Ages were little better than mercenaries and brigands. Codes of conduct and broad ethical frameworks exist in part to tame, constraint, and smooth out the rough edges of military elites who rule by force of arms.

Additionally, like fantasist Robin Hobbs, Martin does not engage in plotting where your precious ones will always come out unscathed. This is a painful feature, not a bug. The idea is to humanize the protagonist, sometimes uncomfortably verging on creating anti-heroes, and to contrast the highs of the payoff with some major lows. The way Martin does this bothers many people, and I think it’s within their rights to be bothered. But for those of us who have read more anodyne and more juvenile fantasy works, encountering Martin’s work was a bracing shock and made us want more precisely because of the rougher texture and sharper edges.

Finally, there is one aspect where George R. R. Martin explicitly attempts to mimic J. R. R. Tolkien, and this is in creating a “low magic” world. More honestly, Martin’s magic is actually magic, rather than a different form of science and engineering. When Martin’s series began to gain prominence, fantasy had fallen into a period where formulaic magical elements resembling Dungeons and Dragons had saturated the genre, to the point where lazier authors often made recourse to magical deus ex machina. If you remember back to Tolkien you observe that there really wasn’t that much magic, and you never saw Gandalf cast spells like a carnival act.

Ultimately George R. R. Martin is attempting to pull off several things at once, and obviously he isn’t always doing it well, nor does he fulfill all the expectations of his readers. The broader framework of the world he is creating does exist in a sort of good vs. evil paradigm with dark magical forces. But Martin enjoys shades of gray, and coming from a background as a Hollywood screenwriter, he worked hard, perhaps too hard, to give his characters moral complexity. They are often both saints and sinners. Finally, though A Song of Ice and Fire is epic high fantasy, he has injected into its veins an element of dark historical fantasy. This does not not always work, and I suspect readers keying in on the high fantasy elements are easily repulsed by the frank brutality and amorality of the historical fantasy. To make an analogy, the flavors clash. Your mileage may vary on whether this is good or bad.

August 26, 2018

The Fall of Gondolin and the transformation of Tolkien’s world

Filed under: Fantasy — Razib Khan @ 9:03 pm

In a little over a week, The Fall of Gondolin will be released. This is on the heels of the publication of Beren and Lúthien last year, and The Children of Húrin in 2007. I notice that both of these two books are “Kindle Deals” right now, so they are probably anticipating that getting more people to buy these two books will gin up demand for The Fall of Gondolin.

If you’ve read The Silmarillion these novels are not going to be original. Rather, they’re for the Tolkien completists. But though Tolkien was a traditional conservative who did not look kindly upon the forces of the free market, I think the fact that Amazon is going to use his work, his world, as source material means that old stories are going to be recycled. Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who at over 90 years of age is nearing the end of his time guarding his father’s legacy. I wonder if these last novels are parting salvos by him before he loses total control.

I was not too interested in Beren and Lúthien and The Children of Húrin. But The Fall of Gondolin is a genuinely more epic tale.

The films in the 2000s were pretty good in my opinion, but what Amazon will do is probably going to totally reimagine how Tolkien’s vision is perceived by a new generation. Reading these novels might be a way to reacquaint oneself one last time with what these works of fantasy meant to people and were meant to be.

July 4, 2018

Rule #34 for Elves

Filed under: Fantasy — Razib Khan @ 11:17 pm
Arwen Evenstar by Anna Kulisz

George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was striking in the mid-1990s when the first book debuted because it combined the epic aspect which suffused J. R. R. Tolkien’s work with a gritty realism in regards to sex and violence more appropriate for HBO. So it was entirely unsurprising that Martin’s vision has translated reasonably well to HBO.

Now that Amazon has confirmed that the new Tolkien series is going to be based around the early life of Aragorn, some are highlighting what they see as a likely problem with the new series:

While Game of Thrones is often held up as grittier and more cynical than Lord of the Rings – often by people who see the latter as a simplistic, morally two-tone tale of good vs. evil – the biggest difference, when it comes down to it, is the titties (and the characters’ filthy fucking mouths). Lord of the Rings is darker than it’s often given credit for.

There is something about the mood and ambiance of Tolkien’s work which Peter Jackson captured in his first three films. This, despite the fact that the exterior scenes in lush and green New Zealand did not properly reflect the ancient decay of the landscape of the fallen civilization to which Aragorn and his companions were the heirs to.

George R. R. Martin begins A Game of Thrones in a brutal manner. Additionally, the perverted sex is frontloaded. HBO really didn’t have to do much to sensationalize the material that Martin gave them. In fact, I’ve stated many times that some characters, such as Ramsay Bolton, were cleaned up quite a bit for the small screen. Not only is the actor who plays Bolton more handsome than the character described in the book, but he’s less depraved and cruel in comparison to the one Martin sketches out.

But as highlighted in the write-up above, and suggested in my title, I think an epic television show based on the world of Tolkien will stumble in how to depict sex and romantic feelings. A scene where Arwen Evenstar is getting railed by Aragorn from behind would seem a bit out of character. And, the way Tolkien writes about them, I’m pretty sure that his elves did not have anuses, so the real kinky stuff is off the table. But if the show neglects sex altogether, I suspect many adult watchers will perceive it as a juvenile. In three films it was reasonable that due to time constraints the characters were depicted in a relatively chaste manner. But over five episodic seasons?

February 16, 2018

Winds of Winter not likely in 2018

Filed under: Fantasy — Razib Khan @ 9:25 pm

George R.R. Martin Throws Even More Cold Water on Winds of Winter Dreams.

Basically, it looks like he will come out with a different book first. It’s hard to imagine him squeezing out the next book in A Song of Ice and Fire before that in 2018.

There were two years between A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings. Two years between A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords. Five years between A Storm of Swords and A Feast For Crows. Finally, six years between A Feast For Crows and A Dance of Dragons.

If the next book was released now, it would be more than six years. It looks like we’ll go beyond seven years.

The trend is not promising. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who is, was (?), a big fan of the series go through the five stages of grief. It is what it is.

November 13, 2017

The world of Tolkien coming to the smallscreen

Filed under: Fantasy,The Lord of the Rings — Razib Khan @ 9:36 pm

Unless you are hiding under a rock right now you may have heard that Amazon seems to have purchased the rights for the world of The Lord of the Rings. My understanding is that this deal does not cover The Silmarillion (unfortunate, but perhaps for the best as I’m not sure I’d want to see a dramatization of The Children of Hurin). So perhaps one can imagine a series about Aragorn’s earlier adventures in Gondor? If I had my pick though I’d set something during the time of Gil-galad. The Second Age hasn’t be explored in narrative, so it’s a relatively blank canvas, and like The Lord of the Rings it ends in an existential climax.

Why is this happening? Read the story I linked to above. But clearly it’s because of Game of Thrones. As some of you might know George R. R. Martin attempted to develop his works for film in the wake of Peter Jackson’s success. But A Song of Ice and Fire was too sprawling, or more concretely it’s budget would have been outlandish if one wanted to depict it accurately.

In one volume the three book in The Lord of the Rings comes in at a little over 1,000 pages. In contrast the completed books of A Song of Ice and Fire are already more than 4,000 pages.

But this is in some ways the weakness of an attempt to turn The Lord of the Rings into something equivalent to Game of Thrones: the characters are not nearly as well fleshed out in their humanity as those of A Song of Ice and Fire. Tolkien and Martin share similarities in world-building, with a punctilious attention to detail, and a deemphasis on magic as a deus ex machina.

But when it comes to good and evil Martin’s distribution is more uniform while Tolkien’s is bimodal. The shades of grey found in A Song of Ice and Fire are great raw material for character arcs in episodic television which sprawls over a decade. In contrast, The Lord of the Rings was compressed into three films, so the relatively simple and stark characterizations were good fits in the context of the world-building and plot. I don’t envy the actor who has to play Viggo Mortensen’s role, nor do I want to imagine the abuse writers or show-runners who want to add moral complexity and ambiguity to Aragorn’s character are going to experience from the hardcore fans.

In other news, you can now get a copy of Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer. One of the greatest fantasists of our time, albeit he produces works which are Heavenly Father approved! (I don’t state this as a criticism, it’s just that the God of Sanderson’s universe couldn’t even conceive of a creature like Cersei Lannister, let alone create her)

October 11, 2017

Can we make Tolkien “woke”?

Filed under: Fantasy,Tolkien — Razib Khan @ 3:48 am

The Pacific Standard has a piece, How can we untangle white supremacy from medieval studies, which is an equal part nuggets of fact and equal part tripe.

Setting aside much which I found disagreeable in the piece, I was intrigued by the references to J. R. R. Tolkien’s work and their relationship to the race-theories prevalent at the time he was constructing his cosmos. It always struck me as rather obvious that Tolkien was a man of his time, and as a conservative British Roman Catholic, he would bring some fashionable Occidental sensibility to his world-building. Tolkien’s life spanned the late period of the British Empire, and his passion and legacy were to create a mythology for the English peoples. It would be reasonable his views on race, ethnicity, and religion would be in keeping within the mainstream for the first half of the 20th century.

If you read The Silmarillion it’s clear that the cosmogony of Middle Earth, Arda more broadly, was monotheistic. Though Tolkien asserted at some point that his work was fundamentally Catholic, that seems too specific (though Eru Ilúvatar does seem particularly Christian as opposed to more generally monotheistic).

It is notable that paganism is not explored in detail in the works, though there are allusions to pagan practice and beliefs. In Fellowship of the Ring Denethor, the crazed Steward of Gondor, declares “No long, slow sleep of death embalmed. We shall burn like the heathen kings of old!” Though Tolkien’s work is not explicitly as allegorical of Christianity as C. S. Lewis’, there was still a Christian sensibility about his universe and the outlooks of his protagonists. The Hobbits were modeled on English gentry and carried themselves with the propriety one expected of doughty burghers.

The pagan beliefs of men not exposed to the civilizing influences of the elves were attributable to worshipping the demonic powers of the dark lord Morgoth and his servant Sauron. This reflects the views of pre-modern Christians, where pagans did not worship fictions, but real demons who presented themselves as false gods.

The racial aspect is more what raises the hackles of the commentator in the piece above, and seems out of place today. Though I was never offended personally, it is impossible to not notice it if you dive deep into Tolkien’s legendarium. The three tribes of the Edain, “elf friends” of the First Age, seem to be modeled on Northern Europeans. The only exception may be the House of Haleth, though I suspect here as he was British Tolkien drew upon the folklore of the dark Welsh. These three Edain peoples were loyal to the elves and turned away from Morgoth and his servant Sauron. In contrast, the hearts of men who were not Edain were weak and susceptible to the allure of the dark lord and his minion.

Two broad classes of these people, the Easterlings, and the men of Harad, seem to represent all of the peoples of Asia, the Near East, and Africa. Described in turns as sallow, swarthy, brown and black, their racial identity is clear. It is not white. It also seems Tolkien’s British background comes to the fore again insofar as from what I can tell the only nation outside of the circle of the West in Middle Earth with an attention to linguistic detail, Khand, seems to be modeled on Northern India.* India, after all, would loom large in the imagination of British people of that period, in myth if not reality.

To term J. R. R. Tolkien a “white supremacist” or promoting an ideology of that sort seems to me in the class of true, but trivial. Almost everyone during the period that Tolkien was a mature man was a white supremacist as we’d understand it (including American presidents such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt). More interesting to me is the idea that Tolkien has cast an aura over high fantasy literature, and straight-jacked it into a Northern framework, which is implicitly or explicitly white supremacist.

It is hard to deny the influence in the general sense. The authors Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss have both talked about the distorting influence of Tolkien and his legendarium on the fantasy genre. The “Tolkien copy-cat” phenomenon to some extent defines high fantasy, or at least it did until the past decade or so when many authors have tried to imitate George R. R. Martin’s style (Terry Brooks’ success was in large part due to his conscious imitation and remixing of Tolkien).

Arguably part of the legacy then is the implicit racial order that is outlined in The Lord of the Rings. But let’s be clear here: the audience for fantasy literature in the United States and England is going to be mostly white, and white people seem to identify with other white people in fiction whether literary or visual. I’m not justifying, as a non-white person who has read fiction and watched film and television where the protagonists were mostly white for most of my life, I can tell you it’s not that hard to identify with a character of a different race. After all, everyone is a human.

But sometimes you want something different. A few years ago I read Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. The author is a moderately prominent political commentator on Twitter, and his views are standard postcolonial Leftist from what I can tell. This is a guy who’s against hegemony. So one of my criticisms of Throne of the Crescent Moon is that it substitutes a Eurocentric white hegemony for a Near Eastern quasi-Islamic hegemony. That is, the world of Throne of the Crescent Moon seems highly derivate of the Abbasid Caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, and reflects the cultural self-confidence of the period for Muslims. It’s certainly not one where oppression is in scarcity.

This isn’t necessarily a bug, but Ahmed basically traded swords for scimitars, and deracinated Christianity for quasi-Islam, and called it good. And perhaps it was good. I didn’t have a problem with it fundamentally. And if your problem with “white supremacy” is the “white” part then that is solved. The only issue though is that there was clearly a supremacy left within the story.

There are other ways to go a different direction from Tolkien. Consider Ricardo Pinto’s The Chosen, the first of a series. This is actually a very original piece of work in relation to the world-building, without clear analogs to the universe we live in. For lack of a better descriptor, Pinto has created a world of bronze age brutality. But The Chosen also has a strong romantic element, and it is distinctive in that it culminated in a gay relationship. In interviews, Pinto has been explicit that his vision was to create a fantasy which reflected gay themes, and he certainly achieved that.

But going back to the issue I highlighted above, the world of The Chosen is also explicitly racially hierarchical, with the herrenvolk being tall, lean and very pale skinned, and ruling tyrannically and brutally over the dark races. Additionally, there is also an aspect of “mighty whitey” as the series progresses. I wouldn’t reduce Pinto’s novels to this caricature, but there is certainly something in them that Ernst Rohm would find appealing.

Less famously, but more explicitly, than Ursula K Le Guin in Tombs of Atuan, Judith Tarr engaged in racial inversion (at least from a white perspective) in her series of Avaryan novels. The protagonists were dark of complexion. The lands of the great enemy were inhabited by a paler people, with genuinely white-skinned people being very exotic creatures on the very margins of the known world. In Tarr’s human geography the cold northern areas are occupied by the darkest skinned peoples, while to the south there were nations whose appearance was of a paler brown. This shakes us from comprehending this universe as similar to ours because this goes against what we see in our world. And like Pinto’s work, there is a strong homoerotic element throughout the whole series, and unabashed depictions of homosexual sex (though the characters are not necessarily gay in this case).

And yet in the overall skeins, the same quasi-medieval superstructure still exists as a distinct scaffold. The author scrambles our expectations and rearranges and reorders the normative frameworks in Tolkien’s high fantasy, but the broad themes of self-discovery of the aristocratic young prince whose inheritance awaits, or the conflicts between empires and civilizations ebbing away through a marital alliance, reemerges from the fog of novel landscapes. After all the modification and inversion we find something distinctly feudal that remains before us.

My point is that the regressive and reactionary nature of high fantasy is literally baked into the nature of the genre. Unlike science fiction fantasy does not explore an unlimited space of the possible. The marginally science fictional aspects of R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series are attenuated, and you have to look closely to see them for what they are. If Bakker’s work had been suffused by spaceships then they’d transform into something different fundamentally, and the possibilities would open up. Science fiction plays with physics, biology, chemistry, as well as anthropology, economics, and history. In contrast, high fantasy as we understand it is delimited by a vision of anthropology, history, and linguistics. As such the canvas of the stories is necessarily narrower. High fantasy is by definition a genre which looks before the industrial revolution, and so takes as a starting point the norms and expectations of agrarian societies.

For the vast majority of human history, our existence has been defined by agrarian societies. I say here history, because the vast majority of our species’ existence is nevertheless pre-agrarian. The mythologies of San Bushmen, Mbuti Pygmies, and Australian Aboriginals, are all very different from the polytheisms of antiquity, with their kings in heaven and conquered gods in trapped in Tartessos. Hunter-gatherer society is and was more egalitarian. There were likely no great autocratic lords, even if there were greatest hunters or the eldest and most powerful wise women.

When it comes to agrarian society complex structure, hierarchy, and attention to lineage and a level of inter-group brutality were typical. These are the nostalgic worlds that high fantasy draws inspiration from, and by their nature, they will be difficult to reflect a liberal and egalitarian ethos in an all-pervasive sense. It is not difficult to identify with a protagonist who is decent and who reflects our sensibilities, but often they are swimming against the cultural tide.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I think the idea of a “minimally counter-intuitive narrative” is useful here. Fantasy is “out of this world,” but it also has to exhibit some verisimilitude. Ricardo Pinto’s The Chosen is a bit atypical because it is not heteronormative in its focal protagonists, but many of the other expectations of high fantasy, the barbaric brutality, and injustice, remain in place. Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series depicted an alternative quasi-Christianity where men and women had greater equality, and in the world as a whole, but aside from that and the fact that the Vikings were a separate species and elves’ existed, the whole series drew very heavily on 10th century Europe. One can modify many of the elements of a world and narrative to make it fantastical, but one also needs to not push it too far.

Imagining ourselves as a viewpoint character living in the past of our secondary world can help us to understand what is, and isn’t, plausible. Dragons? Plausible. Our pre-modern viewpoint character doesn’t think that dragons are impossible creatures. Quasi-human creatures? Again, plausible. Remove all inequality and guarantee affluence? In a Malthusian world, this is simply not conceivable. Abundance existed, but only for elites, or in the afterlife. Mitigation and amelioration of injustice and inequality were plausible, and in many religious-ethical systems preferred and meritorious, but there was no expectation or conception that injustice could be totally eliminated. Matthew 26:11.

Additionally, not only does one have to be attuned to pre-modern perspectives on verisimilitude, one needs to recall that a messy and imperfect world is actually fertile ground for narrative tension. One of the problems with Star Trek as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry was that in the liberal utopia of the future all the dramatic tension had to come from external sources.

Which gets us back to the original question: did Tolkien’s world-building virtuosity contingently rig the game for white supremacy in modern high fantasy? I don’t think so. High fantasy seems to draw upon pre-modern mythology. That mythology by its nature is from agrarian societies, which precede the modern world. These societies were hierarchical. This hierarchy is quite offensive fundamentally to modern liberal sensibilities, broadly construed.  They are supremacist, albeit along the dimension of class.

In the English speaking world, the audience is mostly white, and the protagonists in fantasy and science fiction also tend to be white. This is not realistic, and it’s not racist per se, but it’s a general trend across our society and not limited to high fantasy (the New York City of Seinfeld and Friends was overwhelmingly white). Combine white protagonists with a hierarchical world…I think it’s hard to avoid being labeled a white supremacist appealing genre in the present year.

The ultimate problem here is that the current postcolonial fixation with white supremacy elides the reality that the problem is not whiteness, but supremacy. The Baltic pagans treated like beasts of burden by their German Christian conquerors were arguably even whiter physiognomically than the German Christians, but they were treated oppressively, to the point of genocide in the case of the Old Prussians.

Let me end by quoting Agent Smith from the Matrix:

“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed that we lacked the programming language to describe your “perfect world”. But I believe that, as a species human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. So the perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.”

* If you don’t believe me take a look at the map of Khand, the names of the cities are a melange of Indian and Iranian influences.


September 20, 2017

A plethora of secondary worlds

Filed under: Fantasy — Razib Khan @ 8:41 pm

A short write-up, Why build new worlds, which surveys the origins and of secondary creations such as Middle Earth.

One aspect of these attempts at world-building is the most detailed ones invariably borrow and reconfigure aspects of our own universe. This is obvious in The Song of Ice and Fire, and explicit in The Lord of the Rings, in which Tolkien was striving to create a mythology for the Anglo-Saxon peoples. Guy Gavriel Kay takes this tendency of drawing from our world to an extreme in works such as Sailing to Sarantium, which has numerous characters who are clearly modeled upon figures from our world’s history. Similarly, Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series is pretty obviously set in 10th century Germany. And she says so in the afterword of the first book if I recall correctly.

But one aspect of this borrowing from our own world is that like Tolkien there is a focus on Northern European source material. Since most of the buying public are probably white for English speaking fantasy that’s a reasonable choice. But sometimes you get an author who mines a whole different part of the world, and the result can be very fascinating. Martha Wells’ Wheels of the Infinite has issues with plotting and character development, but it’s imagining of a fantastical Angkor-like civilization is beautifully rendered.

If there is one area which I thought would be excellent source material for a secondary world, it’s the highlands of Ethiopia. I’d love to read fantasy which draws upon this land’s history, in a part because most people (including me) would not have as clear of a sense of who was based on someone real and the correspondence of events to those in our world’s history.


June 30, 2017

Does Tad Williams still have game?

Filed under: Fantasy,Tad Williams,The Witchwood Crown — Razib Khan @ 12:38 am

Like many people I was quite taken with Tad Williams Memory, Sorry, and Throne, when they came out in the years around 1990. George R. R. Martin has admitted that Williams’ trilogy helped awaken him to the possibilities of the fantasy genre.

I tried to read his Shadowmarch series, but I didn’t find it as original so gave up after one and a half books. So I was excited for Williams to go back to a world where he seemed to shine. The first reviews for The Witchwood Crown make it seem like it’s actually pretty good, and perhaps even might be better then the original series. Not sure frankly I’ll ever get to reading it, but who knows.

Addendum: In the fall Brandon Sanderson is coming out with Oathbringer, and R. Scott Bakker’s Unholy Consult will be out at the end of July. I preordered the latter because I thought Bakker’s second book in the tetralogy was actually better than the first two so I have hopes the fourth will be best of all.

April 3, 2017

The year shall belong to those who finish

Filed under: Books,Fantasy — Razib Khan @ 11:53 pm

Seeing as how I have three children, I don’t think I’m admitting my virginity when I admit that I am mildly excited that Brandon Sanderson’s third volume of his ten volume The Way of Kings, Oathbringer, is coming out in the fall.

Sanderson writes at a fast clip and finishes lots of books. Yes, his prose doesn’t stay with you like that of some other fantasists. But after all the years waiting for the next volume of Song of Ice and Fire, there’s something to be said for actually delivering something to the public.

Not that I myself get through many works of fiction per year anymore. I’ve had The Wise Man’s Fear on my Kindle for seven years now. I keep waiting for the final entry so I can just finish the last two in one sitting. And yes, there’s Seveneves. All in good time….

November 29, 2016

Tad Williams’ Revisits Osten Ard

Filed under: Fantasy,Miscellaneous — Razib Khan @ 11:30 am
Tad Williams has a new book set in Osten Ard, The Heart of What Was Lost. At only 224 pages it seems more like a novella compared to what he produced for his original series. The last of that of that trilogy, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, To Green Angel Tower, weighed in at more than...

May 24, 2012

An Orientalist fantasy

Filed under: Culture,Fantasy — Razib Khan @ 11:31 pm

A few months ago I had a post up about Game of Thrones, where I argued that to a great extent the book and the world that George R. R. Martin created was racist because that’s true to how pre-modern worlds generally are constructed structurally. When fantasists create a ‘secondary world’ they are almost always using our own universe as a prototype, often shading or refashioning some aspect here and there to taste. A true fantasy which is totally counter-intuitive and lacks familiar coherency is without any anchor for a reader, and so lacks narrative power. Fantasy stripped away of injustice or oppression would be without dramatic tension. Utopia does not sell. Additionally, the speculative element in this literature is sharply bounded by precedent. Modern fantasy in its origins is simply an elaboration of the epic literature which is often at the root of contemporary civilizations. J. R. R. Tolkien attempted to create in his own works a simulacrum of a rich epic folk past for the Anglo-Saxon peoples analogous to what the Scandinavians had thanks to Snorri Sturluson’s efforts.

My post on Martin’s work was prompted by the ...

August 1, 2011

A Dance with Dragons, hopefully the nadir

Filed under: A Dance with Dragons,Fantasy,George R. R. Martin — Razib Khan @ 1:06 am

A few weeks ago I said that I would post an update on how A Dance with Dragons was doing on Amazon. Here it is:

A 5 star rating is good. The sample size is not too large in relation to previous books, but I think we can conclude that this is more in keeping with the perception of relative mediocrity of book 4, than the epic virtuosity of the first three in the series. I have also now read A Dance with Dragons, and here are my impressions (no specific spoilers, though I’m going to talk about the general tenor)….

I think the low score for A Dance with Dragons even compared to A Feast for Crows has less to do with the content and style of the book in relation to its predecessor than the reality that the readers of this series are even more hungry for some movement of the plot arcs. This makes sense. Many of the people who started with A Game of Thrones as virgins now have families! These are people with less time, and they want some bang for ...

July 12, 2011

A Dance with Dragons, day 1

Filed under: A Dance with Dragons,Fantasy,George R. R. Martin — Razib Khan @ 11:16 pm

George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons has been out one day. There are now ~20 reviews (as of this writing) on the Amazon website. So we have some information in in terms of reader reaction. The sample size is small, so I don’t have a high confidence, but it does look like that Martin has outdone A Feast for Crows. It had been the nadir of this overall series, A Song of Ice and Fire, though some of this might be contrast effect. Book 3, A Storm of Swords seems to have been the fan favorite.

In any case, I’ll be posting an update in the future when the number of reviews goes north of 100, but here are some charts comparing the five books in the series. The first shows the absolute number of ratings. Since A Dance with Dragons has been out for only a day, the second one shows the proportions.

June 7, 2011

Dances with Dragons, t-minus ~ 1 month

So A Dance with Dragons, A Song of Ice and Fire #5, is coming out in about a month. Honestly I’ve been wondering if it really would drop (at ~1000 pages, it’s literally going to be a heavy drop). Seems as if it’s for real, Publisher’s Weekly has a short review up (and Lev Grossman will be penning a positive review in Time soon). Overall from what I can glean it looks as if  A Dance with Dragons will receive a straight-B grade. My own current plan is it to wait for the first assessments to come in on Amazon, and get the Kindle version if the star ratings remain above A Feast for Crows. It is strongly hinted in the Publisher’s Weekly review that this is basically another “bridge” book, suggesting that George R. R. Martin still hasn’t gotten the story under control yet. Nevertheless, it may be that we finally reach the threshold of the portion of Martin’s epic which shifts from Dark Age historical thriller to magical high fantasy, a transition the author has promised, and which helped me convince Alan Jacobs ...

April 21, 2011

Is “Game of Thrones” racist? Not even wrong….

Filed under: Culture,Fantasy,Fiction,Racism — Razib Khan @ 12:53 pm

One of the aspects of fiction is that it serves as a Rorschach test. Over at Slate Nina Shen Rastogi has a post up, Is “Game of Thrones” Racist?:

The Dothraki are dark, with long hair they wear in dreadlocks or in matted braids. They sport very little clothing, bedeck themselves in blue paint, and, as depicted in the premiere episode, their weddings are riotous affairs full of thumping drums, ululations, orgiastic public sex, passionate throat-slitting, and fly-ridden baskets full of delicious, bloody animal hearts. A man in a turban presents the new khaleesi with an inlaid box full of hissing snakes. After their nuptials, the immense Khal Drogo takes Daenerys to a seaside cliff at twilight and then, against her muted pleas, takes her doggie-style.

They are, in short, barbarians of the most stereotypical, un-PC sort. As I watched, I kept thinking, “Are they still allowed to do that?”

I wasn’t the only viewer who found the depiction of the Dothraki uncomfortable, to say the least. Time’s TV critic James Poniewozik, noting that the Dothraki seem to be made up of a “grabbag of exotic/dark/savage signifiers,” wondered if it was “possible to be racist toward a race that does not ...

March 3, 2011

Nerd alert!

Filed under: Culture,Fantasy — Razib Khan @ 1:14 pm

Apparently July 12th, 2011, is now a hard date for the publication of George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons, the 5th book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Martin has confirmed the date on his website: “Barring tsunamis, general strikes, world wars, or asteroid strikes, you will have the novel in your hands on July 12. I hope you like it.” He even has a late-1990s style countdown going. For what it’s worth, the first book, A Game of Thrones, came out in the summer of 1996. That means that a 10 year old starting the series in 1996 would be 25 now. In all probability this is going to be ~10 books, so who knows how old that 10 year will be when it’s all done.

Personally, I found that the last book was kind of a let down. Amazon reviewers seem to agree, as books 1-3 got 4.5 stars, but book 4 only 3. If Martin can’t bounce back, I assume that this series going to go the way of The Wheel of Time (before it was resurrected ...

Powered by WordPress