One of the most important functions of fiction is that it can be used to provide greater insight on reality. By reframing a real social problem in an entirely new and unfamiliar context, that problem can be portrayed more objectively, divorced from the society that may normalize or excuse prejudices or social division. As writers have addressed before, allegory is a very common and a very positive element of fantasy, but even the noblest and most direct of allegories are not the same as visible and relatable minority representation in fantasy. Social research indicates that for minority groups, visibility in media is critical in creating a sense of importance and self-worth, something that metaphorical representation, however well-constructed, does not provide. Fortunately, there is no reason that a story cannot contain both an extended social metaphor and some trans wizards or dark-skinned fauns.
A recent study found that reading Harry Potter books leads people to be less prejudiced against stigmatized groups; the ones specified in the study were “immigrants, homosexuals, [and] refugees.” This is inarguably spectacular, and it’s clear that the way J.K. Rowling handled discrimination against fictional groups such as muggleborns, werewolves, and Squibs in her magical universe is meant to foster this kind of acceptance for marginalized groups in the real world. Notably, however, no actual LGBTQ+ characters were ever clearly mentioned in the books. It is clear that they exist in this fictional universe, because Rowling has said that she intended Dumbledore to be gay, but rather than including that aspect of his character in the narrative, she chose to make her minorities purely fictional. Likewise, even though Squibs (non-magical people born to magical parents) are clearly meant to represent people with disabilities, there were very few people with real-world disabilities present in the books, even though disabilities clearly exist within the universe. Mad-Eye Moody is missing both an eye and a leg, and Neville Longbottom’s parents suffered severe psychological trauma. These ailments are not curable by magical means, yet how the wizarding world does or does not accommodate people with real-life disabilities is not clearly addressed.
The limits of allegory are clear in other fantasy worlds as well. After all, interracial prejudice amongst fantasy races is a very common theme, so where are all the brown elves? Elves are one of the most common humanoid fantasy races, and in most lore, from Tolkien to D&D, elves are overwhelmingly pale-skinned. Drow/trow or dark elves are the primary exception, being literally black or purplish, but these elves are not analogous to any real-life race in the way that “white” elves are clearly analogous to white people. Moreover, any “prejudice” against drow exists because drow are virtually always evil, which if anything reinforces the deeply harmful notion that light = good and dark = bad. Racial prejudice metaphors that rely on fantasy races stray from the reality of racism by effectively making members of all the sympathetic fantasy races different iterations of white people.
Allegory, in a way, relies on tricking people into seeing a situation from a different perspective. In that sense, there is a fear that obvious representation will not allow people freedom to step outside of their preconceived notions long enough to sympathize with a character they would otherwise scorn. I believe, however, that a relatively small portion of people are so intensely prejudiced that they would irrevocably hate a character as soon as they read the word “brown” or “short” or “gay.” People in that category of extreme prejudice do exist, but it is unlikely that anyone so fully absorbed by such prejudice would understand the metaphor in the story anyway. After all, in the Hunger Games series, the character Rue was clearly described as being Black, yet when the film came out, some people who had read the book were outraged that the actress playing her was Black. Somehow they had selectively ignored the character’s skin tone, even though it was clearly stated. Meanwhile, there are large groups of people: people with disabilities, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, religious minorities, and other members of marginalized groups, who must go through life seeing themselves poorly represented or drastically underrepresented in media, presumably for the sake of a few jerks whose worlds might be toppled by a sympathetically portrayed little Black girl.
One of the best examples of effective representation in fantasy that does not rely on allegory is Tyrion Lannister of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Tyrion has a form of dwarfism and heterochromia, caused by a pigmentation defect or perhaps even chimerism. In addition to suffering certain physical side effects of dwarfism, such as difficulty climbing stairs and riding horses, Tyrion is subject to brutal in-universe scorn because of his atypical appearance. There is no ambiguity or doubt about the fact that Tyrion is of atypical height and body type; it is something that shapes how he must live his life and how others treat him. Yet in spite of the fact that people with dwarfism exist and are also subject to prejudice in real life, the insight into Tyrion’s complex and sympathetic character provided by the narrative has made him a fan favorite. Peter Dinklage, who plays Tyrion in the series’ television adaptation has spoken very highly of the way Tyrion is written, and made it clear in interviews that as someone with dwarfism, Dinklage finds depicting fantasy races somewhat undignified.
Allegory in fantasy is an effective tool and certainly should not be done away with. It gives the fantasy genre a unique way to be subversive and to provide a social commentary that few other genres can incorporate, but it also provides a drastically under-utilized opportunity to re-contextualize real-life minorities. How would dark-skinned elves be treated in a fantasy world where the subjugation of dark-skinned peoples never existed? If magic can change someone’s physical form with ease, would wizards get hung up on the concept of gender identity? These are fascinating ideas that the subtleties of metaphor would handle poorly, and without the advantage of giving real-life minorities a place in fantasy worlds. Inclusion is more than a mark of good worldbuilding; it makes fiction richer, more interesting, and more accessible, and if that comes with the side effect of enraging a few bigots, that’s really not such a tragedy.