Friday, August 8, 2014

Black Dragon of England, Red Dragon of Scandinavia

I've seen posts arguing that because Westeros isn't real, there's no need for it to conform to historical arrangements of race (or gender, sex, etc.), that because it's a fantasy there's no reason it couldn't have "Women and PoC equal to white men and stuff?" But here's the thing.  Many of these articles ignore the fact that we already have a universe where a Medieval European Inspired Epic can have racial diversity: Our own.

For whatever reason1 we like to envision Medieval Europe as an entirely White-Skinned Continent.  Our virtual pastCloud Atlas Quote portrays the whiteness of Europe, despite actual past being somewhat more complicated.  What I'm presenting here are a few reasons why it really is perfectly okay to have people of color in your Medieval Fantasy Epic.

1. Romans
Did you know the columns weren't white either?
At its height the Roman Empire covered over a million miles of conquered territory, many of whom would join2 the Roman Army in order to become proper roman citizens for all of the benefits that entailed.3  However, rebellions happen, and the last thing an Empire wants is to train soldiers only for them to rebel.  The solution?  Train soldiers and ship them off to the other end of the world.  A Romanized Citizen from Memphis might be tempted to fight for their people, but would be less excited about joining the rebels in Londinium.4

This means you're going to have people from Cypress shuttled up to southern Brittany and people from Assyria moved to the German lowlands.  Assuming my Londinium example, odds are Africans ad Middle Easterns were setting down roots in England before the Anglo-Saxons did.

There wouldn't necessarily be more than a couple dozen or a perhaps a hundred5 Romans of Color in the British Isles who would be phased out over the generations, but your big historical romance about the Celtic Woman and her Roman Lover torn apart by the war has no reason it couldn't be about a black couple.

2. Arabs
In all fairness, the Arabic world were pretty racist to Europe.
Another part of the "History no one talks about" is that while Europe turned into Chicago, the Middle-East and Asia carried on just fine without us, making great strides in culture, mathematics and technology, and anthropology too.  A number of accounts we have of Europe include Muslims travelling north to meet the Barbarians.  Ahmad ibn Fadlan6 and Ahmad ibn Rustah have told us just as much about the Vikings as the Vikings themselves did7.

While there weren't an excess of Arabs settling in what was basically a sprawling, continent-sized version of Detroit, it isn't at all strange to see an Arabic man wandering around with some Celts, especially in the 10th century when Europe was the place to be.  Of course, the Crusades also led to racial diversity, but people keep telling stories about the Crusades making crusaders into good people and it'd be great to scrap that genre altogether.

3. The Vikings
This is where it gets a little ridiculous.  We love the idea of the Big Blond Northman.  Sexy fair skinned people are a prominent Swedish Export.8 But it needn't be so.  There was a big stink when Heimdall was played by black actor Idris Elba, because as we know the Norse Gods can't be people of color, the Vikings hadn't heard of black people!  But the idea of a multi-racial Asgard isn't really that ridiculous.

"The Vikings were equal-opportunity invaders! We oppressed everyone!"
The Nordic Cosmology details a merger between two tribes, the Aesir and the Vanir.  Some historians have speculated a cultural merging between native Scandinavians and an Eastern Indo-European Pantheon, a racial diversity forgotten by gene pool but preserved in lore.

But you're not here for mythology, you're here for the raiders.  Vikings raiders saw the Capsian Sea, the Byzantine Empire and Newfoundland in their search for cattle, jewelry, gold, slaves, and women.  In the 9th to 11th century they established presence in four continents.  The reason Scandinavians are so attractive9 is because the most beautiful and strong people were the ones taken as slaves or concubines.  This means mongols, africans and arabs were all up for grabs, exoticism in a slave being an easy way to identify them as "The Other."  However, as slaves in Scandinavia could earn, buy, or be given their freedom over time or generations, you would likely see a number of free people of color tending farms or minding cattle on the slopes of the fjords.  So when you're getting around to adapting Hrólfs saga Gautrekssonar, would it really be so bad if Þornbjörg were played by Zoe Saldana?

I know it turned into #AbuserDynamics
by the later seasons, but Merlin was at
least pretty colorblind in its casting.
There are other examples of a racial diverse Medieval Europe, including a black woman buried with honors in Rome, an African Slave who became a Russian General, a Tunisian man buried in a 13th century priory, and this fascinating DNA study showing Indigenous American ancestry within viking populations.  And these are only the ones we know about.  While non-white folks may have faced some scrutiny for being outlanders10 and difficulty due to often starting at the bottom of the social ladder as slaves, racism wasn't as deeply ingrained as we like to imagine and a person could still be seen as an equal.

Am I saying you have to include people of color in your Historical Romance/Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Dystopia? Not necessarily.  There are times and places of racial homogeneity, and there were probably few places after the fall of Rome that were likely to have no more than a few token people of color.  A realistic Medieval Europe would probably not look like a 90's kid's show.  But the idea that you must not include people of color in your European Fantasy Epic is ludicrous, and romanticizes a period of history as a Whites Only zone, and allows us to perpetuate that never-extant norm into other fictions as well.  When we Europeans stop telling our own story as one devoid of racial diversity, maybe we'll stop thinking its acceptable to tell other stories in the same way.

Pictured: Not actually a thing.

Like, tell me you wouldn't watch "The Magic School Bus Raids Northumbria"

1 comment:

  1. YES!
    I was JUST having this conversation at the dinner table with a family member, out of my mind with frustration because "why should some provincial town in France have people of color in a fairy tale retelling."
    There have ALWAYS been people of color in Europe! We've just done a very exceptionally offensive job of white-washing them out, and it feels to me like that white-Europe narrative is proving itself incredibly harmful, particularly in today's world.

    Thanks for posting this!