Fantasy, Racism, and Redemption

When I go for a decent walk by myself I tend to come up with a blogpost, so here is today’s ramble following on from today’s ramble.

Something that has troubled me a little (not overly much, but a bit) is the speciesism found in some of my favourite fantasy books. I haven’t read any of these for a few years, but have previously been a big fan of the Redwall series from Brian Jacques, the Welkin Weasels from Garry Kilworth, and the Lord of the Rings and Narnia series from Tolkien and Lewis. In each of these, to varying extents, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are associated with membership of a particular species and/or country of origin.

For example:
Redwall: Good – mice, badgers, hares, otters. Bad – rats, stoats, ferrets.
Welkin: Good – weasels. Bad – stoats. (I can’t remember how sharp this dichotomy is)
Middle Earth: Good – men of Rohan & Gondor, elves, dwarves. Bad – men of the South, orcs, goblins, trolls.
Narnia: Good – unicorns, fauns, centaurs; in general, Narnians. Bad – hags, dragons, wolves, Calormen,

Tolkien and Lewis in particular are more complicated than a simple list allows. Philip Pullman has accused Lewis of racism in his characters, but it isn’t that clear. For instance, the ‘white witch’ strikes me as a rather ‘Aryan’ character, the character  and talking animals of various kinds are able to make their choice for good or evil (for instance in ‘The Last Battle’, the book in the chronicles of Narnia that I’ve read the most times), and the Calormene Emeth ultimately made the choice for good rather than evil.

Whatever the case may be in each of these series, it is easy to develop negative stereotypes of people based on certain characteristics and to reinforce societal perceptions or stereotypes in how we talk about people; discrimination on the basis of race is less socially acceptable than it once was in majority-caucasian countries, but there are plenty of other options available. In my usual circles, I think that intelligence or level of education are often unconsciously considered to be correlated in some way with a person’s worth. Being reasonably well-educated and considered intelligent by some, I don’t ever feel a sting from this criterion of excellence, but its fundamental injustice remains.
I guess what I’m really challenging here (amongst other related things) is the ‘capacities approach’ to valuing human persons. I suspect it is part of the ‘modern consensus’, and it may be included in the book of that title being slowly prepared … In any case in my view this approach is deeply mistaken and dangerous, and dressing it up in terms of societal respectability of whatever form does not decrease the danger that this view poses.

In contrast to the common tendency towards societal exclusion based on characteristics which certain people are born with, the Christian gospel is expressly radically inclusive. People from all nations and languages will be found in heaven worshipping God, on an equal level. In fact, because it is humility and faith rather than social standing or attainment that are the hallmarks of the people God gathers, it is society’s outcasts who will often find themselves honoured, in spite of their ignoble backgrounds, while the rich and ‘successful’ will frequently find themselves humbled.

On a related note, the myth of the “royal lineage” and of people special by inheritance remains appealing today even in egalitarian NZ, but I think the gospel subverts this, while also subverting the alternative ideal of the proud ‘self-made (wo)man’. A close look into Jesus’s human lineage will show it is not spot-free, but it is what God chose to use; and a look at his friends shows that it was neither personal achievement nor inherited prestige that brought them to where they ended up. As someone without a grand heritage to call my own and being unlikely to achieve really significant worldly success, I find all of this interesting and encouraging.


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