The Evil (And the Good) Among Them: Exoticism, The Other, Epic Fantasy, Elves and Orcs
Continuing on my current running theme of examining the tropes of Epic Fantasy, a few weeks ago I happened into a discussion that spanned multiple blogs that caught my interest. And as these things often do, they settled into my mind where they collided with things I was already thinking about.
The topic at hand is apparently perennially challenging to Fantasy writers, especially as our genre grows and matures and opens up to wider audiences. (Let’s hope it’s opening to wider audiences, anyway.) And that subject is the question of “writing the Other”. The “Other” with a Capital-O. I’ve come to understand the word as something of a catch-all phrase for people who are “different”, in the sense that they have a different race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual identity, socio-economic background, age, or whatever. I put “different” in quotes, though, because of course there are all kinds of assumptions implied in the use of the word “different” and “other”: namely, the assumption of a default race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual identity, et cetera. That basic, unquestioned assumption being part of the problem and, in many ways, being anathematic to one of the core principles of Speculation Fiction, that being the exploration of worlds that are, well, different.
Now, I will caveat my further thoughts by pointing out the obvious: I am far from the first to think about these issues, and I will be far from the best. In the great hierarchy of people who know what the crap they’re talking about on this issue, I rank somewhere near the very bottom. At least one author whose thoughts I follow fairly closely, Jim C. Hines points to author Nisi Shawl as a powerful and authoritative voice on the subject. (That link goes to an article Nisi wrote on the specific subject of “Cultural Appropriation”, which is one of many related topics under the general heading of “Writing the Other”. But Nisi Shawl along with author Cynthia Ward co-developed a panel on “Writing the Other” as well as co-authored a companion workbook. I have neither attended the workshop nor purchased their guidebook.) Meanwhile, here’s a recent interesting post on the topic by an author whose background is somewhat more similar to my own (Ken Scholes). And fellow writer-blogger T. S. Bazelli addressed this and related topics here.
So yeah, caveats and all, what got me thinking most recently on this subject was a post on Tiyana Marie White’s blog on “Portraying Cultures & Peoples in Speculative Fiction“. In that post, Tiyana attempts to tackle some questions about writing the “other” that were raised in a post by a Dieselpunk writer named Sophia Martin. In particular, Tiyana addresses the problems of “orientalism” and “exoticism” and the historical tendency to treat non-“Western” cultures (where the term “Western” effectively means “European or of European ancestry”) as inherently villainous or threatening to a presumed white or western protagonist. And there’s also the opposite problem of Orientalism: treating those same cultures as somehow mysterious, mystical, exotic and theoretically superior to the presumed default western culture.
This precipitated a discussion on the problems of Exoticism and Orientalism, and Sophia followed up her original post with an additional clarification of the problem she perceived herself to be facing. All of this was very fascinating stuff, and I tried to contribute to the discussion in some hopefully positive and constructive way. I try to come down on what I think is a middle way: I’m not allergic to the idea of the exotic, but I do think the issue of exploring foreign cultures and peoples needs to be dealt with sensitively and with awareness of both your own biases and shortcomings as well as the rights and feelings of those from whom you’re borrowing. I like to think my approach is influenced by the idea Nisi Shawl discusses in her essay “Appropriate Cultural Appropriation” (which she attributes to Diantha Day Sprouse) of cultural “Invaders”, “Tourists”, and “Guests”: I hope not to be an Invader, and recognize my limited status as a tourist but hope to prove myself as a Guest in time. Which is to say, I’m trying to approach the topic with the aforementioned sensitivity.
It was while discussing these issues on Tiyana’s and Sophia’s blogs that I recalled an essay I had read a couple weeks earlier for the first time called “The Terminal Orc” by writer Tom Simon. In his essay, Tom alludes to Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man – a book which I have not read but which Mr. Simon reports concerns a man whose brain is damaged to a degree that he cannot control his violent impulses: effectively the centers of his brain which modulate those impulses has lost its control. The purpose of Mr. Simon’s essay is something of an apologetic for Tolkien’s work, and concerns an exploration of the problem of evil and how such evil is manifested in the body of the Orc: the villainous and debased brutes who make up the bulk of Sauron’s army. Mr. Simon posits a solution to Tolkien’s own problem of Orcish evil by linking them with Crichton’s Terminal Man: a race of essentially sentient beings who nevertheless have been sufficiently physically damaged that the empathy centers of their brains are non-functioning, with said trait proving hereditary.
As I considered all these thoughts, I was reminded of discussions I had with friends back in the days when the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies came out concerning whether or not Orcs were meant to represent people of African descent, or otherwise of some non-Western or non-European ancestry. And certainly regardless of your view on the Orcs themselves, the Easterlings and Haradrim were depicted generally as darker-skinned and looked generally Middle-Eastern in appearance. And it made me think about Orcs and Goblins and Trollocs and other such “evil” Fantasy races in a more general sense, and how that relates to the problems of Exoticism.
And it came to seem to me that in Epic Fantasy, in particular, this has both become something of a trope and a trap and a pro-active self defense. Historically, in Epic Fantasies, the protagonists are from a virtually mono-cultural world (Pseudo-Medieval Europe in form and flavor). Except, of course, for that other culture: you know the one, the evil one, the one made up of non-human baddies. Evil is often externalized and poured into the empty vessel of this de-humanized Other. And yes, it’s possible to rationalize and deconstruct that trope in the same way that Mr. Simon did in his essay. But it still has troubling aspects of Exoticism to it, in the treating of whatever is not the default culture (and even the default sentient being) as being evil.
The question of Elves is the same thing viewed from a different lens: Elves are also inscrutably Other, and yet in the Tolkienian mode they are typically portrayed as essentially good and superior to the default Medieval European Human culture. It’s the flipside of Exoticism mentioned above.
The title of my post alludes to this essential problem: this default and uncritical assumption of either universal good or universal evil among some other species of otherwise sentient being in Fantasy. When I was younger, I came down firmly on the side of Orcs as being essentially divorced from the idea of a “minority” racial or cultural representation. But when the only exposure to cultural, racial, or ethnic “others” you give in a work of Epic Fantasy is to an imaginary group of non-human beings who are collectively altogether good or altogether evil, then the effect is the same. Whether intentionally or not, you’ve described those who don’t fit into your default paradigm – whether or not that’s Pseudo-Medieval European – in the same Exoticizing way, and the effect can potentially be one that’s offensive.
This is, for me, an evolution of my position and understanding, and it’s one that I expect to influence my work in the future. I could cite, for example, the last extant version of my novel-I’ve-been-writing-since-forever, Project SOA. The story there began in a typically trope-appropriate Pseudo-Medieval European setting. It was my intention, over time, to introduce other ethnicities and cultures both human and non-human, most of which would have some good and some bad actors. And yes, I had my essentially-good Elves and my universally-evil Goblins and Orcs (though none of the latter would be seen until later). And I had a culture of evil and violent human “barbarians” (whose culture I never described or interfaced in any meaningful way beyond a general assumption of their being vaguely Vandal-like or Visigothic in nature (from a pro-Roman Empire perspective): uncultured, brutish, violent, and cruel. They were, in effect, Human Orcs.
Over the years, though, I’ve come to view this whole milieu as overly simplistic and denigrating. Why would my “barbarians” be so consistently committed to unprovoked violence against my protagonist’s people? How could such as a thing as a congenitally evil race of Goblin or Orcish minions even exist? Why do I assume that Elves are morally superior? I hadn’t happened on these formulations through any critical or intentional approach. I’d borrowed them uncritically from the Tolkienesque tradition and in a post-hoc fashion I’d attempted to construct some rationale. In that, I believe, I largely failed. Granted, this was all written some 6-7 years ago, and you can expect someone to evolve in that time frame. At some point I expect to return to Project SOA, and when I do, I hope to re-examine all of my assumptions and biases and to be substantially more critical and intentional in my approach.
Intentionality is a running theme with these posts in which I discuss the tropes and archetypes of Epic Fantasy, and it runs through this as well. I don’t mean to denounce or dismiss the use of the Evil Orc trope or the Good Elf trope in a categorical sense. But indulging in these tropes without some understanding of what the tropes will say about the world of your Fantasy work is increasingly ineffective. You see fewer and fewer new literary works that employ traditional fantasy races, and I believe this is because of the inherent difficulty of doing this well. Instead, there seem to be three schools of thought about how to approach the problem in Epic Fantasy:
- Humans-Only: this approach dodges the problem by eschewing non-human fantasy beings entirely and focusing wholly on an all-human cast of characters in an all-human world.
- The Other Side: this approach, such as found in Jim Hines’ Goblin Books and the online Goblins webcomic, either lampoons the problem or turns the tables and subverts by telling the tale exclusively or mostly from the perspective of the non-humans. These approaches typically attempt to contextualize the all-good or all-evil non-humans and serve to more fully humanize them. Sometimes, in their turning of the tables, they’ll de-humanize the actual humans.
- The Anything But EDO: this approach tries to avoid the problem not by focusing solely on humans but by avoiding the common archetypal non-human races entirely (the EDO stands for “Elf Dwarf and Orc”). Sometimes this works by turning to some other mythological non-human being (most popularly fairies, who share a not-insignificant overlap with Elves) or by inventing new fantasy races whole-cloth. The former approach can be successful in ways similar to the way Tolkien was originally successful with his Elves and Dwarves and Goblins and Orcs but also may face a similar fate if a particular common non-human mythological sentient being gets over-used. The latter suffers from the weakness that wholly original invented species will lack much of the cultural resonance that more familiar non-humans may possess and, being that they are also proprietary they can’t engage in the larger cultural conversation of Epic Fantasy except in the limited context of their own narrative.
Any of these approaches is legitimate, but so too, I think, is the un-ironic, considerate and intentional use of the typical High Fantasy Elves and Orcs – with the caveat that the use be critically examined and contextually meaningful. This means, I think, questioning your assumptions, as I started to do with my own evil orcs and good elves: Why are they good or evil? What mechanisms reinforce these behaviors and norms? What motivates them to act in certain ways? Can I portray them fairly, from an internal perspective rather than purely from an outsider’s view? What layers and nuance can I find in how I portray them? What’s truly normative for these people and what’s dissident or deviant behavior, and why? Can I show a full range of human emotions, motivations, and experiences for this people.
I think it can be done, and done well, even in this day and age. But you have to be intentional, deliberate, considerate, and empathic.
What do you think? Have you come to hate both Elves and Orcs altogether? Do you write or read only stories with all-human casts? Have you ever wondered why Orcs and Elves are always in conflict with each other? Do you worry about Exoticism in your writing and how have you tried to address it?