The epic high fantasy genre has not historically been a sterling example of inclusiveness. The touchstone of the genre—the Lord of the Rings—has a gender ratio of 1 female character to every 4 male characters, with no mention at all of persons of other genders or sexualities. High fantasy staples such as Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, and Terry Goodkind’s The Sword of Truth series overwhelmingly feature straight male main characters and virtually none feature explicitly LGBTQ+ characters, even in minor roles. In the case of Lord of the Rings specifically, the social climate in which the books were written can be partly blamed for this: the series was written in the 1940’s and 50’s by a devoutly Christian English man. However, even in an era where more appropriate inclusiveness in fiction is becoming the norm, high fantasy is trailing behind.
As I have mentioned before, I am a longtime fan and close follower of R.A. Salvatore’s twenty-six-part ongoing fantasy epic The Legend of Drizzt, part of the well-known Forgotten Realms franchise. Like many of its high fantasy brethren, The Legend of Drizzt is hardly a good example of inclusiveness in media. The main character and most of his supporting cast are male, the main character marries the only female character on the team, and the only matriarchal society is entirely, heinously evil. Though the first book of the series was published in 1988, the first explicitly homosexual character did not appear until the book Charon’s Claw, published in 2012. Even in that instance, the character’s previous lover was dead, mentioned rather briefly, and never actually appeared in the series. The only homosexual activity mentioned in any part of the series was some steamy girl-on-girl making out as part of a ritual for Lolth, an evil spider deity. Neither of those characters played a role in the series outside of this scene.
Warning for quoted slurs after the jump.
During a recent AMA on Reddit, R.A. Salvatore was confronted by a fan about the shortage of LGBTQ+ characters in the series. The first part of his response was pleasantly and refreshingly thoughtful, conceding the point that he has been negatively biased by his upbringing and has been too complicit in the “teenage-boy mindset” that, in his opinion, dominates the genre. At the end of his response, however, he made a statement concerning Jarlaxle, a long-running, important, and well-loved character who has widely been interpreted (in both positive and negative light) as being bi/pansexual. Rather than admitting outright that fan speculations were correct, he simply and noncommittally stated, “Also, Jarlaxle breaks all the boundaries, I’m sure” with an implied “wink wink, nudge nudge.”
Fans have latched on to the watery hint with fervor, again with both negative and positive responses. Some now insist that Jarlaxle is “canonically” not straight, while others have received the “news” less kindly, with choice statements such as “Don’t you dare to call this classy guy a fag.” Both flavors of response, in my opinion, illustrate how important real and unambiguous representation is and why Salvatore’s half-assed allusion to Jarlaxle’s sexuality represents a degree of cowardice on his part. He has claimed—in the face of criticism—that he believes diversity is important, but by referencing his character’s sexuality so vaguely, he has tactfully given himself an escape hatch for any backlash from homophobic fans.
Fans desperate for Jarlaxle to be not straight have defended Salvatore’s vagueness by claiming that his publisher, Wizards of the Coast, likely prohibited him from making statements about Jarlaxle being bi/pan. These defenses, however, are not supported by any actual concrete evidence. Wizards of the Coast does not have a blanket company policy against mentions of homosexuality. Homosexual characters have appeared in Wizards of the Coast series before, albeit briefly, and by all indications Salvatore has primary intellectual property rights to the Legend of Drizzt series, which should allow him to make such decisions without approval from his publisher.
The fact is that high fantasy remains a boys’ club, and Salvatore remains fearful of angering what he perceives as his primary fan base by telling them that their favorite character has been sleeping with dudes the whole time. Inherent in this fear is the assumption that some portion of the high fantasy readership is, in fact, homophobic. While this is undoubtedly true to some extent, it seems unlikely that very many people would be genuinely shocked if Jarlaxle were written as canonically bi/pansexual. In spite of his almost-comedic womanizing, he has always been written with traits stereotypically associated with being gay: wearing flamboyant, skin-bearing clothing, being overly concerned with his grooming and appearance, and even making fairly sexual comments to and about men. Combined with the fact that he leads an all-male group of mercenaries, even people ideologically opposed to Jarlaxle sleeping with men have likely considered it a possibility. Yet in spite of making these characterization choices for the last fifteen years or so, and in spite of his insistence that diversity is important, Salvatore prefers to keep his representation in the wink and/or nudge category.