Though I saw it all around
Never thought I could be affected
Thought that we'd be the last to go
It is so strange the way things turn

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Story Bone

Inspired by this essay by Jim Hines.

I did have this eye opening moment sometime last year, not that deeper thought Jim had that showing dwarves in fantasy as the same stock character is highly disrespectful to people who have dwarfism, but that fantasy writers as a group portray dwarves fairly much the same as Tolkein gave them to us. There's no Norse Dwarves (we would call them trolls in our visual and cultural vocabulary), or Germanic Dwarves, or Italian Dwarves or any of the variants from Eastern Europe. Nope, they're all pretty much the ones Tolkein wrote about (actually, the stereotypical ones that we took from Tolkein - hopefully The Hobbit movies will remind us how diverse he really portrayed them).

We've rethought the fey, elves, hell we've even reclaimed giants, but dwarves seem stuck in the "full beard, ax swinging, beer swilling, little Jewish (in the worst stereotype) people."

So here's the bone; who else are a hard working people with ages old culture working with stone and gold, who love the land, are commonly not welcome with other people, and have a reputation for being sodden? I'll think better of you if you also didn't come to conclude, "Why, that's the Irish." Yes, we normally think of other little people when we think of the Irish. But what I want you to think of in your epic fantasy work is that the dwarvin diaspora mirrors that of the Irish to America. They long for home in the same way, they're proud in the same way, hard working and loving of their traditions, and they have to overcome prejudice and the persistent rumors of heavy drinking.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

As a tall person with a family member who has dwarfism, and a former president of our local chapter of Little People of America, I have so many bones to pick with the portrayal of little people in fantasy literature that I could clean the entire skeleton with my sharp comments and general disgust. There is a complete lack of understanding that a person who has dwarfism is a person first, a person like anyone else, with a congenital malformation of the skeleton. Perhaps no other physicial difference has been invested with as much magic, supposition, prejudice, ignorance and nonsense as dwarfism. The one exception (in the opinion of my short relative) is what George R.R. Martin has accomplished. Over and over again while reading him, she's said, "I don't know how he got it so right." But the rest of it? So wrong.

Steve Buchheit said...

Hey Anon, I'm also pretty tall, but don't have anyone with dwarfism in my family, so I'm coming to this kinda late. And I agree that we shouldn't correlate stereotypes to people.

What I think is really necessary is to either drop the "dwarf" concept or the name. Where I think a lot of this issue stems from, as the dwarves in fantasy aren't really humans with dwarfism, but a separate species that are hominid - like hobbits, elves, orcs, ogres, etc ad nauseum. Like how on Star Trek most aliens are like humans with strange eyebrows, ears, cranial features or noses. While it's not an excuse for how people in the real world map the fantasy world into reality, it is our responsibility on how we (as writers) map the real world into our fantasy world.

While it may seem trite, maybe just dropping the word "dwarf" might help. Although that's just whipping the lipstick off the pig of the problem as it were, as most people of a certain age would go, "that's a dwarf." Without dwarves (or a hominid race that fills that niche) many fantasy worlds would collapse in an economic implosion. But there should be (and as writers we should insert) a wider chasm between the fantasy race of dwarves and human dwarfism.

Just a side line, this was also a problem previous to Tolkein with the fictional use of pygmies in much of the African and South Sea fantasies written by Europeans.

Fiction, or story might be a better concept here, helps us understand the world around us (see Joseph Campbell's research for validation - start anywhere). So it's natural, especially since we use the same words, to yank terms and concepts from fiction to apply to things we don't normally encounter. This sometimes works to our favor ("Glug says no touch hot rocks…") but in this case it doesn't (I haven't researched the history of human dwarfs in the larger culture, but if I had to bet money I would say there's a strong correlation with changling stories).

I haven't read the Song of Ice and Fire, yet, but I have the DVDs of the first season of "A Game of Thrones". Tyrion is one of my favorite characters, probably because he's smart, he reads, and he likes the whoring and the drinking and is comparatively more humane about it. However, I see in the TV series a bit of the "magical negro" in his character, which bothers me a little (but I think they've played why he's that way very well - very plausible).

Anonymous said...

I applaud you for even questioning this in the first place and don't want to sound contentious. I also understand that the entire genre is invested heavily with tropes. And the dwarf trope is that these are not humans, they are magical mining moneyhandlers. Not people.

The problem, for me at least, is that people with dwarfism are real. They are having, you know, regular lives. But in fantasy literature they are used like elves and goblins and hobbits, which are not real. So your idea of simply calling these characters something else is a start. J.K. Rowling used goblins, for example. That worked.

To your last point, the Magical Negro exists only to help white people with his benevolent, selfless caring. Tyrion is a selfish whoring plotting man, so I don't really get the comparison. Perhaps you can elaborate?

Steve Buchheit said...

Actually Tyrion affects the selfishness, he's actually quite giving and talented. He plays disciplinarian to Joffrey, a foreshadowing of being The Hand. He helps Jon Snow stop pitying himself and understand that he isn't playing some preset role that he has no control over (also shows him to his face that he isn't the only person living on the edges of their family). He leaves plans for the saddle that helps Bran get around. When he is captured by Catelyn Tully, he could stand by and allow her to be slaughtered when they're ambushed, but he's able to thwart that. Even though he's imprisoned in the Eyrie, he gains the confidence of his jailer (by a bribe admittedly) and his release by gaining a champion (who doesn't fight fair) by using his wits (and her eI'll note he gains his freedom by knowledge invoking an older times customs). He then convinces Shagga to join him instead of kill him. That's kinda a double edge sword as Shagga gains both title and weapons by doing so, but his people are then used as shock troops. So far (in season 1 - I don't have HBO), every life Tyrion touches improves, including the first whore he beds in Winterfell (she heads to the capital where she can make more money) to Shae. Tyrion is the confident, the bearer of old knowledge, the wandering wise man. He gives lives purpose and focus, doles out second chances, and is most often the voice of conscience.

Steve Buchheit said...

That should be "confidant", not "confident". Sorry. My typos are getting the better of me today,