Monday, October 27, 2014

The Persistence of Miscegenation Anxiety in Neo-Medieval Fantasy

Whether in their depictions of Jews or Saracens, giants or monsters, the storytellers of medieval Christian Europe showed great anxiety over the threat of miscegenation. Neo-medieval fantasy, for all its modernity and other signs of social progress, has not succeeded in dispelling this anxiety.

Take for instance roleplaying games. Racial categories are an important mechanic in these games, as a player's chosen race will invest her character with specific benefits and drawbacks. Although it can be said that D&D's racial system has made substantial improvements since its earliest incarnations (when “Elf,” “Dwarf,” and “Goblin” were classified as character classes), the games still have improvements to make. In both Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, character races are traditionally limited to pure-bred versions of the fantasy classics (human, elf, dwarf, goblin, etc) or to “half” versions of these species. Never mind the fact that this makes creating characters of more complicated racial background discouragingly difficult, but even the half species present a host of problems.
Pathfinder's half-orc and half-elf races, as depicted in official Pathfinder literature. Image courtesy Shianra.

Let's look at Pathfinder's half-orc and half-elf races. Like the half species in D&D (which include half-troll, half-dwarf, and half-drow, among others), all of Pathfinder's sentient beings of mixed race are given names which isolate them from their human lineage. There are no “half-humans” in most RPGs, placing humans in a position of racial prestige that subjects half-human children to a kind of “one-drop” rule of racial belonging. The scenarios of racial mixing in these games are equally problematic, as these unions are implied to be culturally unacceptable, produce children who go on to be outsiders, and are often enacted by force (typically by an “inferior” racial Other). Although game masters and players may always modify the rules of these games, developers have some responsibility to avoid perpetuating medieval social attitudes. Considering the relative ease with which this element could be removed from the game, there is little excuse for its persistence other than gaming tradition.

Not all forms of neo-medieval fantasy have such opportunities to exorcise miscegenation anxiety. Video games (even more so than tabletop RPGs) are locked into a system of rooted racial classes mostly as a result of technological limitation. As a fan of The Elder Scrolls series, I turn to these games in an investigation of racial mixing in fantasy video games.

The series contains ten playable races, and these races in turn are slotted into the categories of “human,” “mer” (or “elf”), and “beast.” To TES's credit, the ten races of Tamriel are depicted as able to breed with one another regardless of category, producing fully functional children who engage actively in society.

From left to right: Bosmer (mer), Redguard (human), Khajiit (beast). Images courtesy Elder Scrolls Online Update

However, not once in the series will the player meet a half-Bosmer, half-Redguard character. Nor will she meet any other character who appears to be the product of racial miscegenation. In the TES universe, children born of interracial unions take on the mother's race exclusively. This reproductive science resembles that in “The Man of Law's Tale” and “The King of Tars,” where white Christian women give birth to white Christian children despite their unions with non-white and/or non-Christian men. In TES as well as in medieval literature, mixed race beings are regarded as genetically impossible. In the case of a video game, this decision likely represents an unwillingness to spend the additional time and money it would take to design infinite unique racial combinations. Yet this explanation is not without its anxieties, as it refuses to acknowledge the multiplicity of backgrounds and experiences made possible and even encouraged by a fantasy setting.

The fantasy world created in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice is not so racially constrained as either roleplaying games or video games. This is due in part to the fact that the author custom-builds his characters, so to speak, and a mixed race character is no more difficult to write than any other character. The characters in Martin's books are also (almost exclusively) human and may thus seem more capable of mixing.
Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo as depicted in HBO's Game of Thrones. Images courtesy Game of Thrones Wiki

Yet there are uneasy moments in Martin's books, and not all of them are moments of graphic violence. The moment that stands out is the stillborn child born to the white, Aryan-styled Daenerys Targaryen and her dark-skinned, pseudo-Mongolian husband Khal Drogo. In bidding for her husband's life, Daenerys unwittingly sacrifices the life of her son, and the creature she births is both monstrous and dead. This child calls to mind the horrors of miscegenation as depicted in “The King of Tars,” when the white Christian princess—having become pregnant by her black Saracen husband—gives birth to a tumorous lump instead of a baby. Though blood magic is implied to have played a role in the deformation of Daenerys' child, the reader cannot know for sure who is to blame, and a kind of disturbing uncertainty remains to fill the void.

Ultimately, the ghost of miscegenation anxiety which remains in the neo-medieval fantasy genre does not linger with intent. However, this does not mean that problematic moments should be ignored, and ignorance is no excuse for offense.


  1. :)

    1. Good job identifying the problem! Now figure out the math for the algorithm to fix said problem, so that gamers can have a 1/16 elf, 2/3 troll, 1/32 human and 3/64 undead (great great grandma was a necro) character, and then the gaming world will pay you big bucks for solving it! Remember, there are NO problems....only Opportunities! :)

  2. "In TES as well as in medieval literature, mixed race beings are regarded as genetically impossible."

    The Bretons of High Rock are an entire race of human-elf hybrids.