This article is by Christian Madera.
Early Fantasy literature, with its black-and-white morality, was very comfortable making statements about ethics. I’m using ‘ethics’ in a broad sense here: I don’t just mean questions about what a person should do in a difficult situation (though such questions are definitely a mainstay of Fantasy literature and merit discussion), but rather broader questions about how a person should be and how the world should be.
Recently, we’ve seen a backlash against black-and-white morality and a move towards so-called “grey” Fantasy. While I think it is very important to be cognizant of and think critically about the potential pitfalls of black-and-white Fantasy, I would argue that grey Fantasy is not without pitfalls of its own. Moreover, the ability to make statements about ethics is, I think, one of the great strengths of Fantasy literature, and as authors and lovers of the genre, we should embrace it.
Tolkien and the Heroic Myth Tradition
We can argue until the Elves sail back from Valinor about whether J.R.R. Tolkien “invented” the Fantasy genre. But the extent of his influence on later authors cannot be understated. Whether they emulate, criticize, re-interpret, or react to him, nearly every Fantasy author since Tolkien has been informed by his work in some way.
And Tolkien was in turn influenced by the stories of Beowulf, Arthur, and other Norse sagas, as many commentators have noted. These stories were part of a very old storytelling tradition that we can call the heroic myth. In the heroic myth, we get an idealized hero. This person is not meant to be understood as a relatable human being, but rather an example of someone being the best that a person can be at some thing. The story structure is usually like this: There’s a problem. Hero is really good at [thing] and thereby solves the problem. So (this part can be implicit or explicit based on authorial discretion), when you’re faced with a similar problem you should emulate the hero.
I think we can only understand Aragorn in Lord of The Rings as being an intentional invocation of this tradition by Tolkien. Our first clue should be that Tolkien specifically refers to him this way in the text. He is the heir to Isildur, a son of Númenor. This is a “race” of heroic men from an earlier age, already long gone when we enter Middle-Earth as readers. (We’ll talk more about race in LoTR in a bit.) This fact makes Aragorn revered among men by the end of the Third Age, in the same way that they would have revered a great hero of old.
Or, more precisely, that fact, coupled with Aragorn’s deeds during the events of LoTR, makes him revered. And, in fact, these deeds are another clue that we should understand Aragorn as a mythic hero. Aragorn seems to succeed spectacularly at just about everything that is required of him. He is an improbably (sometimes impossibly) good warrior and leader: he holds off the nearly indefatigable Ringwraiths long enough for a wounded Frodo to escape to safety. He turns the tide on the fields of Pelennor by convincing the ghosts of the Oathbreakers to fight for him. At the end of the Third Age, we are told in passing that he “ruled wisely for three hundred years.” Got that? He’s so good at ruling that his three hundred year reign was uneventful enough to be elided over. Also, he lived for several hundreds of years, which you may notice is not something men typically do.
Tolkien was writing in the 20th century, when psychological motivation and relatability had already come to be considered important in literature. And I don’t think it will be controversial to claim that flaws make a character relatable. Aristotle said as much 2300 years ago in his theorizing on what makes a good tragedy. Tolkien was not unaware of this convention, nor did he simply choose to ignore it. In fact, many critics believe that at least some of Tolkien’s motivation for making Aragorn nearly flawless was to force his readers to identify with the non-human but flawed and relatable hobbits. But that Tolkien understood the importance of flaws and relatable protagonists, and still made Aragorn this way, just lends more credence to the belief that he intended to elevate him to the level of myth. That there are flawed heroes in LoTR doesn’t change the fact that one of the main drivers of the plot, with whom we as readers spend much time, is basically a superhuman who harkens back to the mythic heroes of old.
Dangers of the Hero Myth
The upshot of having a mythic hero, though, is an implied endorsement of that character’s beliefs and behaviors. We can call this the Associative Property of Mythic Heroes: Once an author establishes a character as a mythic hero – that is to say, an ethically excellent exemplar – we must assume the author endorses all of that character’s subsequent actions and stated beliefs, unless we are given strong evidence otherwise. (Some possible examples of “strong evidence otherwise” might include action that a hero undertakes but expresses doubt about, or actions that a hero undertakes which has obviously bad results.)
This is a bold claim to make, but I think it’s fairly intuitive once we consider it for a bit. If you’re not quite on board with this idea, think of it this way: The mythic hero’s primary reason for being, as we established earlier, is a to be a vehicle for the author to demonstrate good ethical behavior. If the character ceases to perform this function reliably, then either the character is pointless (or, at least, the author has sacrificed relatability and gained nothing in return), or else we are just dealing with inconsistent characterization. Tolkien is too good a writer, I think, for any serious critic to honestly accuse him of either, so I think we must accept that the Associative Property defined above applies to Aragorn. We should also note that Tolkien probably would have been fine with this. As a devout Catholic, he likely saw little problem with propagating his notion of virtue to his readers through a hero myth.
This was a bold choice by Tolkien, and it has obviously resonated with many readers – myself included. But if we look to Aragorn as a guide to behavior, we’re going to find some gaps in important places. Granted, I think we can all agree that loyalty, bravery, and wisdom are all worth encouraging. But I would argue that, because everything works out so well for Aragorn, his notion of virtue is at best incomplete. It’s well and good (and relatively easy) to have a list of obligations that a good person should have. But what about when your obligations are at odds with each other, as will inevitably happen in the course of a real human life? A complete concept of human goodness must include some way to resolve such conflicts. If Aragorn is good at this, we never get to see him prove it in LoTR. It’s very convenient that Aragorn is both the lawful heir to the throne of Gondor, and obviously the best person to rule. But suppose, for example, that the lawful heir were someone else. Suppose this person were a much worse ruler than Aragorn would have been. Does Aragorn’s obligation to protect the free people of Middle-Earth outweigh his obligation to follow the laws of the realm in that case? Maybe Aragorn would know exactly what to do in such cases, but as we never see it, it creates a significant gap in the ethics of Tolkien’s most important work.
This problem isn’t limited to Aragorn either. The nature of Tolkien’s world (i.e. black-and-white morality) precludes even his flawed characters from exploring these important questions. Good actions produce good results in a fairly straightforward way. Two key examples come to mind. First, take Boromir. He gets greedy and tries to take the Ring for himself (that’s bad). But he comes to his senses in time to protect Frodo from the Uruk-hai (that’s good). He’s slain in the ensuing battle (that’s bad), but Frodo and Sam are able to escape and continue the journey to Mount Doom (that’s good). This case makes the nearly one-to-one correlation between good motivation and good results particularly obvious. But what happens when this isn’t the case? What should we do then? We don’t know in LoTR, because it doesn’t happen.
Later, in arguably the most important moral decision of the story, Frodo shows mercy to Gollum, despite Gollum’s repeated treachery (Remember that mercy is a virtue in Catholicism). This pays off when Frodo finds himself too attached to the Ring to destroy it. Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger with the Ring on it, and in his celebration falls into the fires of Mount Doom, thus destroying the Ring. This is a very clever way for Tolkien to resolve an insurmountable obstacle. But what if Frodo had needed to torture Gollum to get to Mount Doom? What if Gollum had taken good and innocent Sam with him when he fell? Is mercy good because we owe a certain standard of treatment to all sentient beings? Or is it good because “hey, you never know who might accidentally save the world one day”? These are important questions that Tolkien’s most important and influential work is unable, or disinclined, to answer.
Tolkien’s Ethical Missteps – Race
But there are also places where the version of goodness propagated by LoTR isn’t simply missing a section, but flat-out says something wrong, or least objectionable. For instance, the role that race plays in Middle-Earth has been discussed by many critics. Whether anything in Tolkien’s work can be mapped onto racism in our world (‘racism’ specifically meaning systematic subjugation or oppression on the basis of race) is a fair subject for debate, I think. On the one hand, the Elves, who we are told are the fairest and wisest of all beings by virtue of being Elves, are given traits that mark them as White within 20th century conceptions of race (e.g. “fairness,” the Scandinavian roots of their language). On the other, we must not let the interpretations of other artists skew our perception of Tolkien; those responsible for casting Peter Jackson’s now iconic film adaptations of LoTR made the extremely misguided decision to cast European-looking actors in every named role, while using Maori actors for the Orcs. This is despite some textual evidence that Tolkien himself did not picture Middle-Earth with all White good guys.
What is undeniable, though, is the presence of racialism in Tolkien’s work. Racialism is the belief that “races” of humans are essentially different and that race is a reliable predictor of character. It doesn’t take the further noxious step that racism takes in saying that some races are inherently better or worse, but there are still very good reasons to be critical of racialism. Namely, it takes for granted that “race” is a meaningful category of humanity despite there being no biological basis for this belief, reduces certain persons to a small number of strategically selected physical characteristics, and can serve as justification for the violence of overt racism (e.g., If those people are “naturally” prone to criminality, it is justified for the police to treat them more suspiciously). And in Tolkien, race is absolutely a meaningful category; it serves as reliable predictor of behavior and character. Aragorn is revered in part because of his “blood,” and himself does not hesitate to make broad generalizations about Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, the various kingdoms of men, etc. which nearly always prove to be right. Again, by the Associative Property, this can only come off as an authorial endorsement of these ideas.
Tolkien on Class and Gender
We can say something similar about the way Aragorn willfully participates in, and takes control of, a feudal monarchy. This has classist implications: “Feudalism was not kind to the lower classes” is possibly the greatest understatement of the last millenium. To assume that such a system would be benevolent if only a wise enough King took the throne glosses over the tremendous amount of exploitation required to keep such a system in place. And yet we have Aragorn, our mythic hero, our ethical exemplar, not merely passively allowing this system to exist, but actively perpetuating it.
Finally, we should mention the role of gender in LoTR. Aragorn embraces, without question or criticism, a code of chivalry. Chivalry is commonly criticized on the grounds of gender equality because it undermines the agency and personhood of women and makes men expendable. Aragorn does acknowledge the power and agency of Galadriel, but she’s practically a deity and as such doesn’t really count.
And then there’s Éowyn, who nearly breaks my thesis. She desires agency, and specifically a traditionally masculine form of agency – to ride to war with the Riders of Rohan. Aragorn, thinking in terms of chivalry, says her rightful place is caring for her people (care, we should note, is a traditionally feminine role), and that this duty is “no less valiant.” To use the parlance of today, it’s a bit mansplainy. But she laments this “cage” and worries that the opportunity for great deeds (“great deeds” in the context of a pseudo-Germanic warrior culture) will pass her by. Later she defies Aragorn by disguising herself as a man and riding into battle. And good thing she does, because she slays the Witch-King, which is a major turning-point in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.
This marks maybe the only thing Aragorn is wrong about. So, I’m wrong in this case, right? This counts as the kind of “strong evidence otherwise” necessary to break free from the Associative Property of Mythic Heroes? Not quite, unfortunately. While recovering from her injuries after the battle, Éowyn meets and falls in love with Faramir. “Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it…” She vows to be a shield-maiden no longer, but a healer instead (another traditionally feminine role), as though indicating that Aragorn’s advice had indeed seen through to some deep-down truth. We should also note that even when she did want to be a shield-maiden, the point was that she is exceptional; in a battle that everyone seems to know will decide the fate of the entire world, we meet one woman who thinks it may be worth her while to pick up a sword and shield.
That Tolkien comes so close to making an important progressive statement, but then hedges his bet, gives further support to what his biographers tend to believe: he wrote with the best of intentions, but failed to notice some of the mistakes his society made, as does nearly every human. Similarly with race, Tolkien’s personal correspondence revealed nothing but disgust for the racism he perceived in the world around him. But the whole point is that there were many worrisome attitudes about race that he did not consciously perceive, but just absorbed growing up as a member of the dominant class in the British empire during the early 20th century. Views such as these made it into his work, and because he was creating a heroic myth, it’s very hard to separate them from the other ethical content of his work. Again, mythic heroes endorse everything which they participate in and the author does not question. This is the primary risk of black-and-white fantasy: the author’s ethical lapses become the work’s ethical mistakes.
Martin and “Grey” Fantasy
After a boom of popularity among the 1960’s counter-culture, Lord of The Rings became the default template for Fantasy literature from the 1970’s through the early 1990’s. And since so many authors borrowed wholesale from Tolkien without much critical thought, his shortcomings became an entire genre’s shortcomings. In the years since, however, we’ve seen a move away from this style of fantasy and towards what is being called “grey” Fantasy. The author who has achieved the most widespread popularity in this style (and who is thus most likely to influence the next generation of fantasy writers) is George R.R. Martin, with his book series A Song of Ice and Fire and HBO’s accompanying TV adaptation Game of Thrones (named after the first book in the series). I mention the TV show both because of its popularity among people who don’t ordinarily consume Fantasy, and because Martin is an Executive Producer of the show and has written several of the teleplays.
Martin’s style of Fantasy allows him to sidestep some of the unfortunate implications we talked about with Tolkien. Earlier, I argued that a useful concept of goodness must take into account competing obligations which a person may have at any given time, and that Tolkien’s black-and-white morality precluded discussion of this. Martin acknowledges this head on. After being called an oathbreaker for the umpteenth time, Ser Jaime Lannister (reviled for killing the “Mad King” Aerys Targaryen whom he was sworn to protect) replies:
So many vows…they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.
Martin doesn’t just have his characters muse about these questions, however. During the course of the story, characters struggle and arguably fail at making decisions about this sort of thing. (Spoilers for ASoIaF and GoT follow.) The paradigm example is probably Ned Stark. Ned was known as a brave and skillful warrior in his youth, genuinely cares about his family and his subjects, is loyal to his friends, and follows the law unwaveringly. He does this last part with a humble stoicism that is much more sympathetic than the callous manner with which Stannis Baratheon executes the law. All said, he’s the closest thing ASoIaF has to Aragorn (despite his uncanny physical resemblance to Boromir).
While serving as the Hand of King Robert Baratheon, Ned becomes aware that Robert’s heir, Joffrey, is not in fact Robert’s son but rather the child of incest between Queen Cersei Lannister and her brother, the aforementioned Ser Jaime. Ned knows that as soon as he tells Robert, Robert will have Cersei put to death. So he does what he thinks is honorable and tells Cersei what he knows, advising her to flee the capital. Instead of fleeing, she uses the advance notice to outmaneuver Ned. Robert dies from a hunting accident before Ned can tell him about Joffrey, Ned becomes Cersei’s prisoner, and Joffrey has him beheaded. In retaliation, Ned’s family declares war on the Lannisters, and the ensuing conflict ruins the realm, kills most of the Starks, and sends the rest into exile.
In general, mercy is probably a virtue, especially when dealing with children (and women, if you believe in chivalry, as Ned did). But unlike Frodo’s mercy towards Gollum, which was rewarded, Ned’s has terrible results for himself, his family, and the realm. In this case, does Ned’s obligation to protect his family and subjects outweigh his obligation to be merciful? The answer is, at the very least, far from obvious, and it’s a strength of Martin’s writing that he explores questions like this.
Martin-style grey Fantasy also sidesteps the Associative Property of Mythic Heroes. There are no mythic heroes in Martin, and he goes out of his way to show us this. By putting us in the heads of many different characters at different times, he shows that his most likable, heroic characters have many moments of weakness and failure, and that his villains have relatable motivations. In reading ASoIaF, one gets the constant sense that every person in the world of the story is a flawed, complicated human being. If you’re like me, and have been trained as a writer to respect characterization above all else, you might be tempted to say that Martin is a better writer than Tolkien. What I’m certainly willing to say is that Martin doesn’t force us to assume he endorses any of his characters more worrisome attitudes. When the the widely-adored Tyrion Lannister gives no thought to how the prostitutes he frequents came to be prostitutes and whether they are in a position to give meaningful sexual consent, we can acknowledge it as another one of his flaws and move on with the story. We know from elsewhere in the text that beloved characters can believe things which the author does not endorse or even flat-out condemns. Grey Fantasy acts as a sort of plausible deniability for the author’s inevitable ethical lapses. Furthermore, it is a plausible deniability which, we have seen, is not possible within a Tolkien-style, black-and-white, heroic myth.
Some Risks of “Grey” Fantasy
Of course, that doesn’t completely inoculate the author against saying things with unfortunate ethical implications. For all the good that comes of highly realistic (rather than mythical) characters whose actions have realistic (rather than fair or just) consequences, I think the upshot is that everything not obviously fantastical can have the illusion of realism. (I owe the basis of this idea to Jason Pargin, a.k.a. David Wong, author of the comedic supernatural horror John Dies at the End. I’ve linked one of his articles in the Recommended Reading section so you can see where he goes with this idea.) Just anecdotally, how often have you heard GoT praised for “showing things the way they were back then,” despite no real person having ever lived in Westeros? When so much fiction in the past has been sugar-coated or watered-down, it becomes easy to equate brutality with realism. So the risk with grey Fantasy is that the author’s historical mistakes or intentional distortions can come across as historical truth.
The historical fact of the matter is that real-life feudal-Europe did not have the lengthy instability and constant violence that we see in Westeros. While there certainly were short bursts of extreme brutality, the kind of prolonged total war we see in GoT was not sustainable in any medieval agrarian society. The reason is simple: The more peasants you kill, the less food there is. As a knight, your single greatest asset on the battlefield needs to eat between 10 and 20 lbs. of hay each day. You cannot afford to kill all the farmers and salt all the fields.
Historical distortions of this kind can have ethical consequences. As the excellent tumblr Medieval POC asserts, the only time in recorded history that we really see this kind of sustained brutality without a complete social collapse is during European colonialism. This was the first time that economy, technology, and culture aligned to make it possible. (Exactly why this was is complicated, but if you want to know more, I’ve included an article in the Recommended Reading section which provides an informative overview.) The ethical danger here is that, by making this type of violence – historically unique to colonialism – seem as though it predated colonialism, we may normalize it. That is to say, we may make it seem like a “natural” consequence of “human nature.” This threatens to shift the blame away from where it belongs – namely the specific cultural assumptions and economic structures which incentivized this brutality – and to blind us to the vestiges of these assumptions/structures which still generate systemic violence today.
A Call to Pens!
Though we should certainly be wary of such historical distortions, for me, that’s not even the most compelling reason to move back towards heroic myth in Fantasy writing. Let me get this out of the way: I love George R. R. Martin. I’ve devoured every book of ASoIaF so far, I’ve watched the HBO show religiously, and I’m salivating over Winds of Winter like the rest of you. I admire his mastery of his craft.
But I don’t turn to Martin for the things I usually turn to Fantasy literature for. I turn to Martin for the incredible depth of his characterization, for his intricately crafted, interwoven plots. I turn to him for the deliciousness of conversations between people who loathe each other but need to appear civil. In short, I love George R. R. Martin for the same reasons that I would love Downton Abbey if it had more stabbings and group sex. And none of this is to say that these things shouldn’t be valued in Fantasy or that Fantasy books aren’t better off for including them. It’s just to say that these are good qualities in any genre; they make for good Fantasy but they aren’t what Fantasy can do better than any other genre.
When I turn to Fantasy for the sake of Fantasy, it’s because I want to be shown something wondrous. It’s because there will always be a part of me that is twelve years old and thinks “man, it would be sweet if real life looked like the cover of a The Sword album.” But mostly, it’s because I agree with Tolkien that we still need myths. We still need heroes who are better than we could ever be, to provide us with an emotional roadmap through our muddy and complicated ethical intuitions. These types of stories have appeared cross-culturally since literally before we were able to write them down. I think that’s a pretty good sign that they touch on something important in the human psyche. All of this is why I advocate embracing the hero myth tradition, while staying aware of its pitfalls. The current backlash we are seeing against black-and-white morality in fantasy literature is not without justification. But I fear we’re losing one of the best things about Fantasy in the process.
If you feel, like I do, that a simplified ethics precludes you from examining some things you want to examine, then by all means bring in some of that complexity and nuance that makes Martin so great. All I’m saying is that it’s okay for you to write heroes, for those heroes to thrive in the end, and for your audience to know that they’re meant to be heroes. I’m not exactly sure what this type of Fantasy would look like that has both mythic heroes and ethical nuance. (Maybe the mythic hero has to sort through very murky decisions but is clever enough to see through to the important details, and is rewarded for that?) But it’s worth attempting, and I hope you’ll join me in my attempts.
If you’re about to point out that I just spent a few thousand words listing all the dangers with that style of writing, you’re right. But these two thoughts can be reconciled. This type of writing, if done successfully, gives the author a pretty significant amount of power to influence the beliefs of her readers. And you know the Spider-Man quote. Our responsibility, if you choose to join me in this proposed attempt at myth creation, is to think critically about what we say. We must think critically about what our heroes and the structures of our worlds say about ethics. We must think critically about what we explicitly and implicitly endorse.
You will get things wrong. Sam Harris is fond of saying “We will embarrass our descendants, just as our ancestors embarrass us. This is moral progress.” This is why we must keep our genre open to dialogue. We must be willing to listen, really listen, to criticism of both ourselves and our heroes. If you find yourself feeling extremely angry at such criticism, stop and self-examine a bit to see why that might be. See what cultural assumptions you’ve never before questioned might be holding you back. If you think the criticisms of Tolkien I’ve listed are off-base, and you’ve got evidence to back it up, call me to task. Highlight the times when Tolkien says something helpful about race or gender or class. What you must not say, in light of such criticisms is “you’re overthinking it. It’s just fantasy.” Or worse, “I’m not going to change my book because it hurts someone’s feelings.” If you think all this is about is hurt feelings, I think you’re selling our beloved genre very short.
So please, go out and write some mythology. Write some mythology that thinks hard about the vulnerable and marginalized, instead of fetishizing the power structures that marginalized them in the first place. You have freaking dragons at your disposal. Go make the world better with them.
Here are some articles which contributed significantly to my thoughts above:
- This article, by the author of Dresden Codak, about Aragorn’s “race.” I don’t think this author takes the racial implications of Tolkien’s work quite seriously enough, but the discussion of textual evidence is intelligent and important.
- “5 Ways You Don’t Realize Movies Are Controlling Your Brain” by Jason Pargin (writing as David Wong) on Cracked.com
- “Things Were Just Like That Back Then” from the social justice-minded art history blog Medieval POC
For Further Thought
Do you think what I’ve called the “Associative Property of Mythic Heroes” is true? Can you imagine, or think of any examples of, a heroic myth which doesn’t implicitly endorse the actions and beliefs of the hero?
Do you think the criticisms of Tolkien that I’ve mentioned are fair? Can you give any good counter-examples?
Will you join me in the quest to create revised heroic myths? What are some ethical questions you’d like to see the new generation of fantasy authors discuss?
About the Author:
Christian Madera is a full-time film and visual effects editor and part-time Fantasy writer. If you’d like to observe his attempts at doing all the stuff he just suggested and perhaps mock him when he fails, you can check out his Fantasy-Comedy audio series The Once and Future Nerd. If you’d like to help him in his efforts, you can consider supporting his show on Patreon. Christian wishes to thank Andrew Arnold, Zach Glass, Jess Kelley, and Alec Story for their invaluable feedback on this article.