Hello, internet!

I’ve been thinking a lot about violence recently.

Freddy Kreuger

I promise that it’s not as creepy as it sounds.

I’m endeavoring to write a book series that features – among other things – a goodly amount of shooting, stabbing, explosions, death, and organised warfare. Characters engage in battle, participate in acts of bloody violence, and deprive each other quite liberally of life and limb. I am trying to write about war at its ugliest, but I am trying to depict it thoughtfully, and in a way that doesn’t disguise my opinion that there’s no such thing as a good or necessary war.

Some of you might be thinking “great, pass the popcorn.” But if you’re anything like me, and you have a propensity for overthinking things, you might be wondering why I’d choose to write about something so violent in the first place – especially if I don’t believe in the idea of a necessary war. I’ve been wondering the same thing.

Fantasy, of course, has its origins in violence. The earliest fantastic stories are of the warrior fighting the beast: Beowulf and Grendel, St. George and the dragon, or Rostam and the White Demon. Here we have three examples of human heroes who embody all of the heroic masculine virtues of the cultures who created them, pitted against supernatural creatures of unknown origin which are depicted as vile, murderous and often entirely unsympathetic. We do not, generally, want the monsters to win…although we might briefly come around to the monster’s side in the moments where classical heroes throw tantrums about treasure or honour or shouting their name at cyclopeses that they’ve recently blinded. Despite their occasional idiocy, we still support the hero, and we still cheer when the monster is brought to ruin.

Dragon Slayed

This has its problems, as I’ll discuss below. Stories of organised warfare have also featured in folklore and fantasy since the earliest oral storytellers, the earliest example I can think of being Homer’s Illiad. The Illiad actually does a decent job of depicting neither side in the Trojan War as being ultimately evil, which is more than can be said for a lot of fantasy that has been written in the centuries since. I’m going to start this series on violence and warfare by taking a few shots at a relatively easy, low-hanging target: the Tolkien legendarium.

Tolkien offers us a fairly clear-cut, simplistic idea of good and evil. When Tolkien’s audience is presented with a choice between the desperate armies of men and the dark hordes of Mordor, few of us would suggest that the Fellowship of the Ring were unjustified in lopping off all of those greasy orc limbs or blithely counting off their kills atop the walls of Helm’s Deep. Anyone who’s seen the movies will remember Frodo’s vision of what the future would look like under the reign of Sauron: the Shire despoiled and the Hobbits impressed into slavery.

Visit New Zealand!
Visit New Zealand!

Faced with such a foe, the fellowship never seem to doubt the morality of their crusade against the orcs, and neither do we as the audience.

And therein lies the problem.

Warfare in the real world is never as clear-cut as it is in the War of the Ring, and I think fantasy authors are under a very important moral obligation to avoid depicting violence or warfare in ways that simplify war into a battle between good and evil. I’d hope that this is obvious to many writers, and it is true that very few contemporary fantasy authors are guilty of writing about war in these terms. Even if they did, publishers would be unlikely to take them on, and politically engaged modern readers would probably be very critical of their books. But it can happen, and it’s worth remaining vigilant against it and analysing why it’s a bad thing when it does happen.

The problem with creating a race like the orcs – or a villain like Sauron – is that it encourages attitudes deep in the western cultural subconscious that are leftover from the time of colonialism, or from earlier medieval attitudes towards the Islamic world, which probably have their basis in the rivalry between prehistoric tribes. The attitude of ‘otherness,’ which morphed into Orientalism during the 18th and 19th centuries, has been written about at length by cultural historians like Edward Said. It is essentially a racist attitude which allows negative characteristics to be ascribed to groups who aren’t “us,” vindicating ourselves in the process and making us feel as though “we” are somehow morally superior, and ultimately strengthening the divide between “us” and “them,” whoever us and them happen to be. Encouraging the idea of the racial “other” as different, physically repulsive, and morally inferior is a strategy that has been used for centuries to make westerners feel morally justified in engaging in various kinds of colonial exploitation and domestic warfare.

Destroy this mad brute
An example of “otherness” mobilised to encourage British men to enlist as soldiers during the First World War

We can see ghosts of this divisive kind of “otherness” when we see the way that the orcs are depicted in the Lord of the Rings film adaptations – they are physically repulsive, greasy and black-skinned, and they seem to be universally morally bankrupt, delighting in violence, theft, cannibalism, and tormenting their captives. They are literally birthed from holes in the ground, which is a stereotype that used to be applied to people of Asian ethnicity during the European middle ages. We don’t see any sympathetic orc characters throughout the entire trilogy, and so, at the end of The Return of the King, we cheer when we see the surviving orcs being swallowed up by the ground outside the gates of Mordor. In short, the idea of a genocide against orcs seems entirely justified.

Whenever fiction leads us to believe that a genocide of any race, even a fictional one, seems entirely justified, I think we have to take a step back and ask some serious questions about the fiction we’re reading, or watching on the screen.

The greatest risk is that our attitude towards orcs bleeds over into our attitudes towards other nationalities or ethnic groups in the real world, allowing us to ascribe negative characteristics to them and make sweeping generalisations about them in the same way that we felt comfortable making sweeping generalisations about the orcs. Even on a very small scale, orcs can be used as a way of insulting subcultures that we don’t like. In the UK, I’ve heard fans of Manchester United Football Club refer to fans of Liverpool FC, and people from Liverpool generally, as ‘orcs’. If humans can draw those kinds of comparisons with the supporters of rival football teams, it stands to reason that we can draw similar comparisons with disadvantaged ethnic minorities, or members of other cultures.

Peter Jackon’s casting decisions for the orcs and Uruk-Hai in the Lord of the Rings films stray uncomfortably far into this territory. Amazingly, orcs were the only speaking parts given to actors of colour in the entire trilogy. If you don’t believe me you can watch this fairly depressing video by Dylan Marron on Youtube:

We should be very worried that Peter Jackson didn’t see fit to cast any black actors as hobbits, Rohirrim, or soldiers of Gondor – especially when people of colour were very much present in all of their real-world analogues, such as the Anglo-Saxon and Viking armies of the late first millennium. What was it that subconsciously led to black actors only being cast as orcs? What was it that made Peter Jackson think, “If I need actors to play characters who look disgusting, act immorally, make guttural chanting noises, and terrify my main characters, I should definitely hire some black actors”?

There are also the Haradrim and Easterlings, who are mute throughout the films – but if anything, they represent an even bigger example of divisive orientalism. Within the universe of Middle Earth, we’re forced to wonder why any humans would realistically ally themselves with Sauron, who appears to be a manifestation of pure evil. The disturbing implication is that the men of the east somehow have more in common with the orcs than they do with the men of the west.

I have a lot more to say on the subject, but I doubt that Tobias would thank me for turning this post into a 5,000 word essay. I’ll talk more about this topic in future posts. Until then, think hard about how you’re presenting the bad guys in your own writing. And write well!

14 thoughts on “Writing ethically about warfare and violence in science fiction and fantasy: Part 1

    1. I don’t think it’s as obsolete as you think – as authors, and humans generally, we have to be vigilant about the return of attitudes like this.

  1. If you read real history you will find the Tolkein and his ontemporaries were facing real evil in the behavior of the German army, just as the Germans did in the behavior of the Soviet armies in WWII. Read of the real atrocities that occurred in Belgium, planned and encouraged by the German Army. Yes, the propaganda was extreme, but it was based in reality. Just as we are facing real evil today in ISIS. When you write of evil, do not discount that evil is in the hearts of man. If you think you are above it read Milgrim’s social psychology experiments following WWII trying to understand how ‘normal’ people could participate in Concentration Camps. His research is truly frightening to those who wish to maintain a delusion that man is good.

    1. I don’t think that’s a very helpful attitude to have, and I don’t think that it’s delusional to believe that humans are ultimately good – Tolkein certainly wouldn’t have agreed with that view, because the entire message of the Lord of the Rings (to quote Sam) is that “there’s some good in this world and it’s worth fighting for” . I don’t view ISIS as some kind of manifestation of pure evil, I view it as an organisation that appeals to disenfranchised young Muslims, gives them a sense of validation, and is very good at convincing them to commit acts which are rightly viewed as atrocities by the Western world – but we only view them as atrocities because we’re lucky enough to have open discourse in the West and an educational system that teaches us about morality and religious freedom, rather than just religious fundamentalism. Hating ISIS and viewing its members as monsters certainly won’t make it go away, or solve any of the problems that we have in our relationship with fundamentalist Islam. The same largely goes for the Nazis – Tolkein maintained throughout his life that his work wasn’t supposed to be viewed as an analogy for the Second World War.

      1. I think I have to agree with Wayne that your attitude toward real-world evil is a little blinding. While hating ISIS won’t make them go away, neither will understanding them. The same went for the NAZIs in Germany. And, for that matter, the Germans in WWII weren’t exactly the ‘other’, either. A great many American’s at the time, including US soldiers who went to Germany to fight, were of German descent, had grown up with rich German culture and history, and didn’t see Germans as the ‘other’ at all. Instead, the NAZI Germans were a very real, personal evil. A familiar one.

        Yes, there is good in everyone, but it’s good corrupted. We are fallen man, once perfect, but no more. There is far more evil in us all today than there is good. When that evil surfaces, we have to fight it. When people surrender themselves to that evil, we often have to fight them. And yes, cultural misunderstandings and arrogance can and have started wars, and have led to a false view of good and evil in them, but just because some of them were false doesn’t mean none were real.

        1. I’m not sure how much this has to do with my post – I haven’t even got into the territory of whether violence and warfare can be justified, which I am planning to write about in a future post. I’m pleased if, as you say, U.S. soldiers were capable of persecuting war against Nazi Germany without demonizing their German counterparts, but that doesn’t seem true if they viewed German soldiers as “a very real evil.”

          I’m aware that many of the contributors to this site are practicing Christians, but I’m an atheist, so I don’t personally subscribe to the narrative that “We are fallen man, once perfect, but no more”. I don’t want to get into a protracted debate about philosophy or the nature of the human condition or our capacity for bettering ourselves, but I don’t think it’s pragmatic to view international politics as a battleground between good and evil, or to view terrorists and soldiers of belligerent nations as people who have ‘surrendered themselves’ to evil.

          These things don’t work on the basis of moral absolutism, they work on the basis of sociological factors and the cultural influences that potential terrorists are exposed to. In the UK, where I live, we used to have a huge problem of young people being radicalized by ultra-nationalist organisations in Northern Ireland and being sent to bomb barracks and public places in the mainland UK – but this was diffused through a variety of peaceful processes when it became clear over the course of several decades that a belligerent response was only making the problem worse. Now, in retrospect, I don’t necessarily think that members of the IRA were evil, even the ones who threw bombs into shopping malls – I think they were just misguided, and on one level I have a lot of sympathy for them.

          ISIS and the Nazis are slightly different cases, because the IRA only had the fairly simple and understandable objective of liberating Northern Ireland, and it would be nearly impossible to conscientiously sit down at the negotiating table with ISIS or Nazi Germany, given their own objectives – but it still doesn’t help to view their supporters as orcs, as if they’ve surrendered their right to be treated compassionately just because they were recruited into organisations that carry out acts of barbarism. Ultimately I can hope that we can find a way to rob ISIS of supporters through peaceful means, in much the same way that modern Irish republican organisations have been rendered impotent by losing their basis of support.

          1. Tom, first of all I want to say that, while I disagree with you to an extent, I’m glad to have this perspective represented on the blog. As I said in a post a couple of weeks back, this blog has grown from being a place for my opinion to be presented to being a place for many substantive and varying opinions to be presented, and I think that you’ve presented this one fairly well.
            I think that it is entirely possible that there was some underlying, perhaps unconscious, racism at work in the way that Tolkien cast his characters and races, though I’m not entirely sure that its fair to blame Peter Jackson for that. In Tolkien the non-European styled races are all very silent and also evil, and one possible reading of his work is Europe against the world, though I honestly don’t think that this was his conscious intention.
            However, I do think that it’s important to realize that Tolkien and C. S. Lewis both were largely shaped by their early experiences as combatants in WWI. Both men actually fought against the Germans, were exposed to the WWI propaganda, and saw the atrocities committed on the field. So, while it is easy today to sit back and say that individual German soldiers weren’t evil, we do need to recognize that a soldier who is confronted with real evil rarely has that option.
            While certainly every individual German soldier who fought in WW1 or WW2 was not the incarnation of evil, Germany as a nation engaged in two aggressive and brutal wars and drove its armies to commit multiple atrocities, and I think that there is a problem if we can look at this as ‘simple cultural diversity.’ The same is true with ISIS, while I agree that every terrorist is not and should not be seen as an incarnation of evil, ISIS as a whole has chosen to pursue inhumane acts that the world should respond to swiftly and decisively.
            Honestly, and correct me if I’m wrong, I think that the point that you’re trying to make is that we can’t simply blame the soldier for the actions of his nation, and I agree with you here. However, we can certainly blame the soldier for his own actions (for instance, the Islamic jihadist who chooses to rape and murder children should be judged differently from the Islamic jihadist who chooses not to rape and murder children). Further, we can blame the nation or organization for their collective actions. While every German soldier who fought in WW2 was not evil, Nazi Germany as a whole was a nation that engaged repeatedly and intentionally in actions that can only be described as evil. Some Nazi soldiers resisted these actions and some supported them, but the nation as a whole does bear a general responsibility for them.
            I agree with you that soldiers should ideally be able to separate the individual soldier from the actions of his nation, but this is rarely possible in a real war, and I think that it is important to represent this distinction. While I’m not really a fan of George R. R. Martin’s series, this is actually something that I think he does well. He shows clearly that the Lannisters tend toward one type of action while the Starks tend toward another. At the same time, not every Lannister is a greedy, manipulative, cold-hearted bastard, and not every Stark is upstanding and honorable. However, while the readers can see this, they can also see that and why it is difficult for the characters themselves to divorce the idea of Cerci Lannister from Tyrion Lannister or the idea of John Stark from Sansa Stark.

  2. Hi Tobias – I can’t seem to reply to your reply so I’ll just write a new comment down here.

    I appreciate your attitude towards having diverse opinions on the blog! Makes me very happy to be one of your writers.

    I’m sure you’d agree that this isn’t the place for a foreign policy debate about how best to effectively combat terrorism, as interesting and insightful as that may be, so let’s not go down that rabbit hole!

    My point is mostly just that we should be very wary of encouraging any kind of attitude that whole cultures can be painted with the same brush. As far as morality and theology goes, I personally believe that it’s unrealistic and dangerous to present orcs as being an entirely evil race, because I believe that everyone in the real world has good in them and everyone is redeemable, and having fictional races like orcs in the cultural consciousness makes it much easier for us to dismiss entire races or nations or organisations or minorities – like I said about petty British football rivalries. If some Manchester United fans can actually say “everyone from Liverpool is scum” and use the image of orcs as a way of reinforcing that belief – about people of the same nationality, class, and ethnicity, from a city adjacent to theirs – then we have to worry that the same can happen on a larger scale. My problem is that it makes it easier for people to hate each other, and there’s already enough of that in the world. I mean, look at ISIS – their hatred of Christians and Westerners is based on stories that they’ve been told about how Christians and Westerners are universally evil. That’s the power of stories.

    It may not have been Tolkein’s conscious intention for his stories to carry some racist undertones, and it’s not that I’m angry with him or that I think he’s a bad storyteller – it’s not even that I wish his books had been different – but unintentionally writing a story with racist undertones has just the same effect as intentionally writing one. Again, that doesn’t mean I dislike Tolkein or blame him for anything, it’s just unfortunate. And it’s why authors have to check ourselves, because even the most progressive and broad-minded authors can sometimes write things that can come off as exclusionary or which make sweeping generalisations about fictional cultures, which have the potential to negatively effect the cultural psyche, even if that wasn’t their intention in the slightest. That’s why I felt that it was a good thing to write this post: just to underline how important it is to remain consciously aware of how we’re portraying different cultures in our writing.

    1. Tom, the comments have some kind of reply limit that I haven’t been able to get rid of, so eventually it just cuts you off. I’m honestly not sure how it works.
      I agree that works representing entirely cultures as simply evil can be dangerous, and honestly I very much agree with you that far too much of fantasy literature has adopted simplistic notions of good and evil that don’t effectively reflect the real world in any meaningful way.
      However, I also think that works that don’t represent evil as a real thing are just as dangerous. While I agree that everyone is potentially redeemable, the simple fact is that in many people that potential will never be realized, and that it will never be realized because of their choices. In literature it is just as easy to present a simplistic ‘evil is in the eye of the beholder’ perspective as it is to present a ‘elves are good/orcs are evil’ perspective, and I think that both are very dangerous. I will argue that it is very important for us as authors to present cultures in a manner that allows readers to understand why they act the way they do without necessarily justifying those actions. And I agree that as authors we need to be careful to provide clear distinctions between ‘culture’ and ‘individual.’ A good example of this is, perhaps, Steven Erikson’s Letherii culture.
      The culture as a whole is presented as very sick. They are an expansionist culture with a debt-based economy that literally cannot sustain itself without regular infusions of new slaves (a part of the reason for its expansionism). However, this does not mean that all Letherii are evil slavers. Certainly some are, but many Letherii are in deep debt and are just trying to survive. Some recognize the flaws in the culture and are actively working to change them. Actually, I think that this is an excellent example of exactly what you’re talking about.
      Erikson’s cultures are deep, complex, and fleshed out. Each culture has a distinct character, and some of those cultural characters are distinctly worse than others (which reflects what we see in the real world). However, no culture is ‘perfect’ or even particularly ‘good’ as a whole and no culture is entirely ‘evil.’ Further, all of Erikson’s cultures have a complex net of characters, some clearly horrible people and some upstanding citizens who are doing their best to change things. Erikson handles the well moral concepts and complex ethics without sacrificing to the alter of relativism. It’s one of the reasons that I like his writing.

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