Writing Fantasy Races
by: Andrew P. Miller and Daniel Clark
Any attempt to survey the multitude of races that exist in legend and imaginative literature is open to criticism of being incomplete in some areas and too inclusive in others. The obvious dilemma is the question of how one defines a “race” in fantastic literature and legend. In reference to humans, the term race is fraught with political and cultural implications; in general, it refers to similarities and differences in certain physical characteristics like skin color, facial form, or eye shape. Political and cultural affinity factor into the debate as well and are sometimes more important than an individual’s particular genetic heritage. But humans as a group are far more similar in appearance than the groups that populate the landscape of the imagination. Bushmen and Celts are virtually indistinguishable in comparison to the differences between merfolk and trolls. But just as with defining human races, there are considerations beyond the physical that enter into the issue. It’s not just a question of which arbitrary physical features to consider since the differences in these imaginative beings are long established; it’s really a question of what distinguishes a fantastic race from a fantastic creature.
The terms race and creature suggest differences, and one difference is in total population in a group. It’s easy to see that a unique being like the Hawaiian shark man is a creature and not a race. Or that rare beings like the rocs are creatures and do not constitute a race. But there is a qualitative difference between the way groups of beings, like elves and giant squids, are portrayed in fantastic stories that has to do with a metaphysical hierarchy. It’s not merely a question of humanoid shape; elves are obviously patterned on humans—often they are more diminutive and more beautiful than the average human—and giant squids are patterned on their smaller counterparts in the real animal kingdom, but what about the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels? The Houyhnhnms, outwardly equine in shape, have a complex society and appreciate art and intellectual pursuits, whereas the Yahoos, outwardly human in shape, have no language and live in packs in the forest like wild dogs. Obviously, similarity to human shape is not the most important factor in determining the difference in race and creature.
As Gulliver’s Travels points out, we must not be too anthropomorphically bigoted when we determine where various groups rank on the Great Chain of Being in fantastic stories. Instead, we tend to be prejudiced by the nonphysical attributes and values of humans. For our purposes in this chapter—and this seems to hold generally true for the body of fantastic literature and legend—we define race using the following criteria:
- Physical Similarity: This one is pretty obvious. Elves look like elves, dwarves like dwarves.
- Population: It can’t be a unique being and still be called a member of a race. Now there can be exceptions to this; Tolkien, at the end of The Trilogy of the Ring, suggests that the fantastic races are slowly dying out and humans replacing them. A writer could create a scenario in which a being is the last of her kind, but the implication is that there once were many more.