Over at Salon, fantasy writer Saladin Ahmed has a terrific essay about race in fantasy epics, focusing especially on Game of Thrones and its relationship to JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings cycle. His main question is really whether George RR Martin's contemporary tale is any better than Tolkein's tale at dealing with — for lack of a better term — the Jar Jar Effect, where species or peoples in fantasy stories resemble racist stereotypes.
[JRR Tolkien's] half-sublimated wranglings with race are more complex and fraught than either his shrillest detractors or his most fawning defenders would have us believe. But there is some irreducible ugliness in his masterpiece that really can't be convincingly redeemed. The men of the global East and global South ("black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues") are monstrous and evil, naturally and culturally inclined to bow to Sauron, and to make war on the good men of the North and West. The bestial visages of orcs bear a striking resemblance to racist caricatures of African and Asian facial features. Above all, to be dark-skinned in Middle Earth is to be part of a savage horde – whether orcish or human – rather than to be a true individual.
The savage hordes described by Tolkien have been imported by his dozens of imitators over the years, becoming a mainstay of fantasy in books, movies and video games. It's a convention that Martin both takes up and departs from in depicting the Mongol-inspired Dothraki. As a people en masse, the Dothraki value only their horses, treating life cheaply, and reveling in violence:
Across the road, a girl no older than Dany was sobbing in a high thin voice as a rider shoved her over a pile of corpses, facedown, and thrust himself inside her. Other riders dismounted to take their turns. That was the sort of deliverance the Dothraki brought the Lamb Men.
The HBO production – which has been so remarkable on so many fronts - has exacerbated this hard-R-rated cartoonishness, bringing out some of the novel's more unfortunate tendencies. The show's depiction of the Dothraki has been positively cringe-inducing. In the novels, Martin's quasi-Mongol warrior culture is depicted in a problematically essentialist, but still complex fashion. But HBO has nudged Martin's creation fully into racial caricature by casting a seemingly random variety of colored people, and apparently raiding productions of both "Hair" and "Braveheart" to clothe them.
Even so, by skillfully replicating the juxtapositions posed by Martin's back-and-forth POV, the show has managed also to replicate his ultimate, rather un-Tolkienish subtext: There is nothing unique about the savage horde's savagery. If Dothraki society is depicted as violently perverse, so is Westerosi (i.e., quasi-European) society, which bows to the whims of the Aryan-featured boy-monster King Joffrey, and which has knighted mass murderers and rapists like Ser Gregor Clegane, one of the most horrifying minor characters in all of fantasy. Every culture is savage in "Game of Thrones," and that's a very different view of the world than what Tolkien gave us.
Read the rest of the essay on Salon.