In Fiction as in History


A few days ago, I read an article by the Guardian explaining how Game of Thrones was racist, which I shared and had an old work friend respond with some points to back the article. While I agreed with some of the points made (not all of them), there was one that interested me because it related to something I’ve written before about written history – context.

One of the greatest lessons I learned from E. H. Carr’s book What Is History? was that to understand history as it is told by people is to understand the time it was written and who the writer was. My own examples at the time were of a white missionary and an Arab nationalist in the mid 1900’s – both would be drawing from the same historical facts, but their perspectives are shaped by their societies. The missionary would see a decline in the influences of the West and of Christianity, while the Arab would most likely view it as a time of renewal for the Middle Eastern peoples.

In much the same way, works of fiction must be viewed through such a lens. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) and Lewis (the Narnia Chronicles) were called out in the Guardian article as being incredibly white. Not sure what the author of that piece expected, considering both of those were written by white men in the UK in the 1940’s and 50’s. Similarly, Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire) can be included here, although his books were much later.

The context here is simple: all of the above authors, along with many other fantasy authors in the West, grew up learning about Western history and Western mythologies. As a result, it is likely that most authors would write about what they know. With the exception of rare pieces that are explicitly racist, having a fantasy story set in a predominantly white setting is not wrong – it was simply the norm.

Since that time period, society has – for the better – progressed and become more diverse. People have access to information about numerous cultures and peoples in an increasingly connected world. As time goes on, and as people begin to reach out for more diverse stories (something I wholeheartedly support and encourage people to promote), a genre that has mostly been full of white males will slowly shift to reflect that.

I feel that criticising the works of people like Tolkien and Lewis is not a useful exercise, and indeed seems to cast aside the fact they were ground-breaking works of fiction. Instead, we need to acknowledge, as with historians, writers of fiction are merely products of their societies. We can enjoy the work while also understanding how and why they were influenced a certain way. Even today, if someone grew up learning about Western mythos, to write stories around that would not be wrong – just as writing a work of fiction based entirely on, say, Japanese history and mythos would not wrong if that is what the writer knows. It is all about context in this regard.

A more worthwhile criticism is of the society itself. There is still much work to be done to make the world a freer and more just place, but any and all progress towards that goal is to be celebrated. We can see that, since the 1950’s, general opinions and attitudes have changed. Authors still write what they know, but any handling of other cultures is much more informed and detailed, and authors of colour are beginning to enter the market.

It is a slow shift, as with all things sadly, but it is shifting. But we can all play our part in pushing for and promoting it, one word at a time.


Liked this? Read the What Is History? Reflection series HERE

Previous piece: The US Definition of Peace in the Middle East

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