I’ve mentioned before that fantasy is an important tool for analyzing and commentating on reality. Many social conventions that exist in reality are reflected in fantasy, with varying degrees of abstraction, and this allows for some pretty accessible metaphors. I have realized recently, however, that there is a significant difference between the place religion occupies in society and the way it is typically represented in fantasy. The most critical thing is that in reality, of course, religion is a matter of faith: the results of prayer or ritual are not measurable and the existence of deities is not provable. In fantasy, on the other hand, it’s quite common for deities to appear unambiguously and for religious rites to produce clear and repeatable results. That’s generally convenient for the characters, but excluding some or all of the “faith” element makes fantasy religion a much less useful metaphor for real religion. When religion is an important element of a fantasy world, therefore, it does serve a purpose, but generally a less direct purpose than representing or commentating on real religion.
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.
Nothing kills a story faster than a flimsy conflict, and in a universe where magic exists, the biggest mistake a writer can fall into is to make magic too easy. It seems paradoxical: after all, the whole point of magic is that it makes the impossible possible, but if magic solves every problem with little or no cost, the story loses its emotional significance. Like all things, magic must have limits, and those limits must be clear and identifiable.
I have become deeply frustrated with a favorite series of mine recently for precisely this reason. R.A. Salvatore’s The Legend of Drizzt is a high fantasy series following in the footsteps of The Lord of the Rings, but incorporating elements of the popular Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game. The first book of the series was originally published in 1988 and the series is ongoing, with more than twenty novels and a dizzying number of spinoffs. The main character, Drizzt, does not use magic all that much, so the very fuzzy and ill-defined limits of magic in this universe started off as a non-issue. Typically, a powerful magical antagonist would appear and Drizzt and his pals would have to defeat the baddie with the power of cleverness and friendship and whatnot. Also, swords.
As the series went on, however, main characters gained magical items, sympathetic magic-users joined the party, and problems started. Continue reading