A Note about Fantasy “Races”

TL;DR: When differentiating between humans, elves, dwarves, etc., “kind” is preferable to “race.”

In much fantasy literature, we hear of various “races,” meaning elves, dwarves, orcs, and so forth.  The more I think about that terminology, the less I like it. A while back I looked at some of the fanciful humans or near-humans one encounters in the ancient and medieval geographies, populations traditionally called “monstrous races.” At that time, I took exception to that term because of the potentially hurtful connotations of both “monstrous” and “race.” In my introductory post, I wrote:

That can also be an awfully loaded term with a dubious past in pseudo-scientific pronouncements that attempted to justify the oppression and enslavement of some groups of human beings by other groups of human beings on the theory that some groups of human beings are naturally superior to others. Originally, a “race” (Latin gens, Greek ethnos) was simply a definable people-group: a tribe or culture, whether sparse or numerous, whether familiar or foreign. Even so, when talking about human beings—or supposed human beings—whose customs are disquieting or who possess animalistic traits, the word “race” can lead us down some paths we might not want to tread.

At that time, I wasn’t concerned with dwarves and the rest but only with cynocephali, monopods, and the like. But as I think of it, my concern with the word “race” still pertains and is perhaps even more pronounced when we use it to describe what makes Legolas different from Gimli.

It seems to me that “species” is an apter description of what these fantasy populations really are. There are clear genetic differences between elves, orcs, trolls, etc. Hybrid or mixed-lineage characters notwithstanding, the ability of at least some of these groups to interbreed seems at least problematic. That means we’re probably in the realm of using the term “race” to speak of what modern science would call a “species.” Dwarves are different from elves at a deep level that goes far beyond physical phenotype or genetic minutiae (e.g., blood types, lactose tolerance or intolerance, susceptibility to certain diseases, etc.). And explicitly, the term “race” is used to set certain groups apart from the “human race.” Once again, that doesn’t sit well with me.

Of course, “species”—a word used in English with a more or less precise scientific definition—doesn’t quite seem at home in a fantasy setting. Fortunately, there is a good English term from the pre-industrial era that can carry the same weight. That word is “kind.” In the King James Version of the Bible (1611), we read,

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:24-25, emphasis added)

“Kind” is thus, roughly speaking, an early English equivalent to what we usually understood by “species” today. I know I’ve read fantasy stories that speak of “Elfkind” or “Dwarfkind.” Perhaps it’s time to retire the idea of “race” as it is used in the genre and speak of “fantasy kinds” (or “fantasy kindreds”) instead.

What do you think?

Iroquois Supernatural: Culture, Commodity, Sacred, and Spooky

I have great friends. One of them recently found a copy of Iroquois Supernatural: Talking Animals and Medicine People by Michael Bastine and Mason Winfield at a yard sale and was kind enough to pick it up for me as a gift. Bastine is an Algonquin healer and elder. Winfield is a European American who describes himself as a “supernatural historian.”

This is a really neat, informative book. It is chock-full of fascinating tales, keen historical and cultural insights, and a pervasive sense of respect for the Iroquois culture(s) as a whole. I’m mentioning it not to provide a thorough review. My review can be summed up thusly: If you’re the sort of person who is interested in Native American cultures and particularly Native American mythology and folklore, get this book!

I’m bringing this book up, rather, for the guidance it may provide for writers wanting to handle mythological material from outside their culture with reverence and sensitivity. This is a topic that has recently come up in an article at Fantasy Faction by Brian O’Sullivan with respect to Celtic, and particularly Irish cultural artifacts. (You can also read my observations.)

As when I wrote about the uproar over J. K. Rowling’s handling of Native American mythology, I still believe that there are situations where leaving elements of Native American or African mythology out of a story can be more colonialistic than including them. I’m thinking particularly of stories in the contemporary fantasy genre that are set in North America—which happens to be what I write. Populating North America with unicorns and griffins rather than naked bears and great horned serpents strikes me as a lazy and Euro-centric way to tell a story.

Still, the challenge remains to handle these cultural artifacts with care and not treat them as mere commodities. Here is where Bastine and Winfield’s concerns in writing Iroquois Supernatural intersect with my own admittedly different concerns. First and most basically, writers who want to include these kinds of cultural artifacts need to read lots of books like this one, written from a clearly sympathetic viewpoint.

Second, the authors draw a distinction between what they classify as “the sacred” and “the spooky.” This is a distinction that especially writers from outside a given culture need to keep in mind. In the introduction, they write:

Figuring out what to include in this book has been tricky. Where do you draw the line between miracle and magic? Between religion and spirituality? Between the sacred and the merely spooky? This book doesn’t try to choose. How could anyone? (p. 2)

But then they proceed to explain their preference for the spooky over the sacred:

All religions are at heart supernatural. Throughout history most societies have had both a mainstream supernaturalism and others that are looked upon with more suspicion. The “out” supernaturalism is often that of a less advantaged group within the major society. What the mainstream calls “sacred” is its supernaturalism; terms like “witchcraft” are applied to the others. Someone’s ceiling is another’s floor, and one culture’s God is another’s Devil. To someone from Mars, what could be the objective difference? (p. 2)

This comment reminds me of the privileged place Judeo-Christian supernaturalism has in my own culture. Perhaps it will remind you of something else in your own frame of reference. But the writers go on to admit that within Iroquois society itself there are distinctions between the sacred and the spooky. They conclude,

This book is not about the sacred traditions of the Iroquois. It is a profile of the supernaturalism external to the religious material recognized as truly sacred. This is a book largely about the “out” stuff: witches, curses, supernatural beings, powerful places, and ghosts. (p. 3)

Even so, the authors admit that it isn’t always easy to draw firm lines between sacred and spooky. The fact that one of the authors is a practicing traditional healer within a neighboring Native American community is bound to help in this regard! Later on, we hear Winfield explaining further about their approach to this cultural material:

This is not a book about Iroquois religion or anything else we knew was sacred enough to be sensitive. Not only is that not our purpose, but, as a Mohawk friend said recently to me, “If it’s sacred, you don’t know it.” And coauthor Michael Bastine would not reveal it. (p. 22)

So perhaps we can isolate the following touchstones as the beginning of an approach to including cultural material from marginalized or minority groups within our society:

  • Aim for the spooky, not the sacred. Frankly, I’m not interested in writing philosophical or theological treatises on the spirituality of marginalized peoples. (I will admit to a certain interest in reading such studies.) But I love stories about ghosts, monsters, trickster figures, or what have you. As Bastine and Winfield themselves note numerous times, these sorts of things are common to every culture. That suggests to me that, with suitable awareness, writers can fruitfully explore them. If something gets too close to the lived faith commitments of others, however, I tend to want to shy away from it in terms of worldbuilding and storytelling,
  • If it is sacred enough to be sensitive, leave it out. I’m well aware that one reaches a point of sensitivity sooner in some cultures than others, and with different topics in some cultures than in others. Still, is there a better place to start?
  • Strive to understand as much about the culture as a whole as possible. I don’t want to add a cultural element to a story without a firm grasp of how that element relates to others in its “native” environment. Understanding the ins and outs of a culture and its history is a great inoculation against a grab-bag approach.

Do you think it’s possible for writers to handle other world cultures with sensitivity? When have you seen a writer handle well the artifacts of a culture to which he or she was an outsider?

Review of Wonder Woman (No Spoilers!)

On the way to the cinema yesterday, my daughter and I were talking about male and female role models in film. I told her about a YouTube video I had recently found that described Newt Scamander (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) as a refreshingly different model for what a male hero is supposed to be like. We both agreed that, though we enjoyed stories featuring the more “traditional” male heroic archetype (Harry Potter, Iron Man, etc.), it was important to remember that there are other ways of being “a man.”

We looked forward to seeing this newest interpretation of Wonder Woman, a character who, from her inception in the 1940s, offered a rather complex role model for women and girls. She is a woman who is at the same time beautiful, kind, intelligent, and willing and more than able to kick butt and take names when the situation calls for it.

Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins and portrayed expertly by Gal Gadot, measures up and then some! Other reviewers have commented that Wonder Woman doesn’t necessarily feel like a superhero movie. Yes, there are super-powered characters in outlandish costumes, but Jenkins grounds these characters so thoroughly in the real world that I found it quite easy to suspend disbelief and imagine that it would be reasonable for Diana and the rest to exist in my world.

I think a large part of this is that the movie doesn’t flinch from portraying the horrors of World War I. Don’t let anybody fool you into thinking that the “villain” of this movie is Ares, the god of war. The true villain is World War I itself—the senseless destruction, the loss of life, the social dislocation, and especially the loss of hope that this war, perhaps more than any war that came before it, brought. And, as Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor says in a moving piece of dialogue near the end, it was all something we humans did to ourselves.

There is even dialogue that implicates those who would appease the enemy by calling for an armistice are complicit in the tragedy. I don’t know if that is meant to be a cynical note, another gut punch when we the viewers have already been schooled in just how bad war can be. But I couldn’t help hearing that line in the context of Gal Gadot’s former service in the Israeli Defense Force and the many broken cease-fires her country has contended with from enemies all around. Is there a political commentary in there? I don’t know, and at any rate, if it was, it was so exceedingly subtle that it didn’t come across as in any way preachy. (As a side note, this movie could have easily gotten way too dark without the comic relief. It is applied liberally, but never in places that where it detracts from the drama.)

Gadot’s Diana and Pine’s Trevor are both complex and well-acted characters. They are multi-dimensional, and the chemistry between them seemed quite authentic to me. Some of the supporting cast may have come across as more one-dimensional, but their one dimension still added to the overall tone of the movie in important ways.

Are there nits that I could pick? Sure. As visually stunning as the movie is, there are places where Jenkins relied a bit too much on “bullet time.”

Most of my problems (and they are admittedly minor) have to do with the logic of the story world. How can the people of Themiscyra can speak so many modern languages and yet have apparently no knowledge of modern warfare—or indeed the modern world? Who thought flaming arrows were a good idea? How can a proud race of warriors manage not to invent armor for the shoulders or neck? (Yes, that’s directly from the source material, but still…)

Go see Wonder Woman, and take your young teen (or older) children. As I noted above, the scenes of wartime violence and its societal effects are quite intense, probably too intense for younger kids. But beyond that, there is little to offend. There are a few lines of sexual innuendo that will probably go over the heads of most children (and possibly more than a few teenagers!). I don’t recall any questionable language at all, though I may be forgetting something.

In my opinion, Wonder Woman strikes an almost perfect balance of humor, action, and thought-provoking themes. Well worth the price of a ticket.

A Blemmye in Star Wars

Just a quick update on my recent post on Blemmyes. I realized not long ago that there is a Blemmye in Star Wars: Sy Snootles.

For those who aren’t up on all the Star Wars trivia that is never spelled out on the screen, Sy Snootles is the name of the lead singer of the Max Rebo Band, which performs in Jabba the Hutt’s palace in Return of the Jedi.

According to Wookieepedia, Sy Snottles is a member of the Pa’lowick species. Pa’lowicks are “long-limbed reptilian humanoids that had spotted skin, eyes that protruded from the tops of their heads, and trunk-like mouths.” The trunk-like mouth is obviously not part of the standard description of Blemmyes, but it it is certainly the case that Sy Snootles does not possess a head—at least, not one that is easily distinguished from her body. Rather, her eyes and mouth protrude from the top of her thorax.

What Is the Exchange Rate between Cattle and Cocoa Beans?

With Oathbreaker in the capable hands of my beta team, I’ve been doing a bit of worldbuilding for another project that’s kicking around in my head.

Unlike the cashless society of the Wonder, I’ve been pondering a world that uses some sort of commodity currency as a medium of exchange. In the process, I’ve found a few interesting options. Here are some random notes about three of them.

Irish Cattle

The Irish used cattle as a unit of exchange up until the fourteenth century. Specifically, the milk cow was universally recognized measure of worth. There were even ways to achieve fractions of that value without killing the cow. In medieval Ireland,

1 pregnant cow = 2/3 of a milk cow
1 three-year old heifer = 1/2 of a milk cow
1 two-year old heifer = 1/3 of a milk cow
1 one-year old heifer = 1/4 of a milk cow
1 one-year old bullock = 1/8 of a milk cow

Worth in milk cows could also be expressed in terms of other currencies such as “ounces” of some precious metal (usually silver), cumhala or “bondwomen” (i.e., female slaves), or séti or “jewels.” The sét seems to have been an ideal or an abstraction in Irish law, and it is not clear that transactions were ever literally conducted by the transfer of female slaves from one person to another. Still, everyone had a clear idea of what these things were worth and conducted their business accordingly.

Unfortunately, this system persisted for so long that the law codes prescribed different rates of exchange in different eras and in different regions of Ireland. A cumhal might be the same value as a milk cow or it might be two or three times as much. One source gives the value of a cumhal as two séti, another says six to seven, and yet another says up to forty.

Since 240 English pence were struck from a pound of silver, we can assume that an ounce of silver would be worth about 15 pence. At a rate of 1 milk cow = 9 ounces of silver, the price of a milk cow in silver would be about 135 pence, which is in line with some of the early medieval prices I’ve been able to find online—and, incidentally, very close to the price of 131.5 pence given for a female slave in this era.

Mexican Cocoa Beans

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they found a society in which cocoa beans were an accepted medium of exchange. Some of the customary prices I’ve found are:

a large tomato for 1 cocoa bean
a small rabbit for 30 cocoa beans
a female turkey for 100 cocoa beans
a male turkey for 300 cocoa beans
a copper hatchet for 8,000 cocoa beans

The Spanish adapted this system in dealing with the Aztecs. In fact, cultivation of cocoa beans was restricted in the 1700s in order to maintain their value as money.

By a royal decree of 1555, the value of one cocoa bean was set at 1/140 of a Spanish real. In 1587, this was dropped to 1/150 of a real. Since a peso or “piece of eight” was worth eight reales, we could also say that 1,200 cocoa beans = 1 peso. In the mid-sixteenth century, pesos traded in England at about 54 pence. Once again, that makes the commodity prices reasonable when compared to equivalent items in the same time frame.

Canadian Beaver Pelts

The Hudson Bay Company in Canada was a key player in the North American fur trade. Not only did their stores buy furs brought in by traders, they accepted furs as currency. The above linked article even provides a price list for the York factory in units of “made beaver” (i.e., a prime beaver pelt). Here is a selection of prices:

a hatchet for 1 beaver pelt
a pound of tobacco for 2 beaver pelts
a pair of shoes for 3 beaver pelts
a hat for 4 beaver pelts
a pistol for 7 beaver pelts
a long gun for 14 beaver pelts

In 1740, the Hudson Bay Company bought beaver pelts for about 7.88 shillings apiece (about 94.5 pence). But assessing the exchange rate isn’t that simple. In fact, the Company store customarily marked up their prices by about 50%. That means your 94.5 pence worth of beaver pelt would only buy you goods that cost 63 pence in silver at a different establishment.

And no, I have no intentions of writing a protagonist who works as a bank teller or a merchant at a company store! But I find that little touches like these add a depth of detail that can really make a setting seem real.

Plus, I’ve learned a few things along the way, and no new knowledge is ever a waste of time.


Creeping Back into the Blogosphere

2017 has gotten off to a very rough start. It’s not all bad, but it started very badly with the death of my mother after an illness that had her hospitalized since just after New Year’s day. Around that time, the house we’d been trying to get out of so we could move in with my parents and take better care of them finally sold after about five years on the market. Timing, right? We finally closed last week, and still have loads and loads of boxes to unpack.

Along the way, I actually managed to finish the first draft of Oathbreaker, the fifth and final installment of Into the Wonder. We’ll finally see what Taylor has to do to satisfy her debt of honor to Mara Hellebore. (Hint: It won’t be anything Taylor would have chosen for herself!) And, with any luck, everybody—well, most everybody—will get their happy ending. Oathbreaker is now in the able hands of Team Beta, and I look forward to getting some good constructive feedback from them throughout the spring and early summer.

All this to say, I’ll soon be taking the blog off autopilot and putting up some new content. Look for an upcoming series on the “monstrous races” discussed in Pliny’s Natural History, with particular emphasis on how early explorers placed many of these bizarre not-quite-humans in the Americas.

So, thanks for your patience and for the “likes” on my Sunday Inspiration posts. More folkloric goodness will soon be on its way!