This podcast goes great with breakfast, or even second breakfast, because we’re talking about fantasy races. We cover everything from Tolkien to more Tolkien to even a few things that aren’t Tolkien. But first, why are they called “races” and not “species”? Second, how do you even define a species anyway?
Generously transcribed by Perspiring Writer. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: This episode is brought to you by our patron, Kathy Ferguson, professor of Political Theory in Star Trek.
Wes: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host Wes, and with me is…
Wes: So today, we’re talking about the races found in fantasy stories, roleplaying games, books, what have you. I was thinking about this, listening to that wonderful podcast you guys did on classes. And so, I started off thinking of them as roleplaying game kits and all kinds of things, and then I spiraled out of control and made you all talk about this with me, so, here we are. [Wes and Chris laugh]
Oren: But what about second breakfast?
Wes: But what about it? I want to start off first with just, the word choice here. So, they call it a fantasy race, and then we have like- a canon of items that includes humans, dwarves, elves, orcs, gnomes, halflings, for a rough starting point.
Oren: That’s most of them.
Wes: And so- I guess it’s just, maybe something like species would have made more sense to me. I know that there are examples of like, half-orc or half-elf, which suggest that they’re the same race, and not a separate species, but then they also have variations within them that would make more sense as like- I don’t know. I’m stumbling on this.
Oren: So, the secret to species is that the distinction of what is and is not the same species is super arbitrary. Cause we used to think that it was all ironclad, and it was like, species were things that could breed, and that was a species.
But then we found out that there are all these things that we thought were different species, cause they look super different, that can totally breed. And it’s like, ‘okay. That’s weird.’ And so, now we have this really- kind of ad-hoc system, where it’s like, ‘a species is something that looks like a species,’ is essentially the definition.
Chris: Yeah, and I think there are also weird situations where species B can breed with species A and species C, but species A and C can’t breed with each other.
Oren: Right, that’s part of why it’s so hard to define species.
Chris: And we’re like, ‘these two might be able to breed, but they live in different locations, and they never will. Still, the word races does suggest something; that they were almost replacements for people.
Oren: I definitely feel like if elves were real, they would be considered a separate species. Because not only do they look different, but they have very different traits that humans don’t have. Namely, they live a super long time, and very often, they have night vision, and things that go beyond basic phenotypes.
Like, human beings, even though we have a lot of diversity in the way we look, for like 99.99 percent of the time, we’re about the same when it comes to our actual physical traits. There are some really weird edge cases, but for the most part, we’re all the same. Whereas the difference between a human and an elf is pretty startling, in terms of what an elf is capable of and what a human is capable of.
Chris: Right. But my question about the word race is, what are these different things that are actually species represent to us, that we are calling them races? Like, generally, if they get too far from humanlike, we start calling them fantasy creatures, right? And there’s something that suggests that, even though they’re clearly more like different species than us, they’re almost representing different types of humans.
Wes: And maybe that’s because they show up, usually as choices for player characters.
Oren: Of course, like, in your standard high fantasy setting, it’s still an extremely heavy default to white people. So, it’s like, that’s sort of your default race, as it were, and it gets kind of gross after that.
Chris: Yeah, and I think- it’s impossible, of course, to ignore that almost all of the fantasy races we think of, by default, are Tolkien specified. We have a huge Tolkien legacy. But I think it’s kind of blurry where we stop calling them races and start calling them creatures. Certainly, fantasy races are supposed to talk, and be intelligent, right?
Oren: Like, is an ogre a race or a creature?
Chris: I would- that’s a good question. I would say if it runs on all fours, we would probably stop calling it a race. But yeah. And I was thinking about it, and I was trying to think of like- there’s not that many fantasy races that are memorable, that come from books that do not come from Tolkien, that I could think of when I tried.
So, like, what’s a cool fantasy race that I’ve seen recently that is like humans, but actually original?
Wes: All of Tolkien’s stuff, he just basically took from Germanic and Norse mythology, and maybe like a hint of Celtic stuff here. I mean, there’s like a ton of other things that come from mythology. Look at Greek mythology; we get the Minotaur, and centaurs, and Pegasi, and dragons, and all kinds of cool stuff.
Maybe that’s a nod to Greek mythology, that D&D includes Dragonborn as a race? I don’t- yeah. [Chris laughs]
Oren: I mean, the Dragonborn are definitely one of the big shakeups to the standard RPG race thing. Dragonborn are now a thing, and it’s like, ‘what if you wanted to play a dragon? Now you can.’ [Wes and Chris laugh] Does- if I were to think of a couple common fantasy races that aren’t super prevalent in Lord of the Rings- are there merpeople in Lord of the Rings?
Wes: That’s a good question…
Chris: Not that I know of.
Wes: I don’t think so.
Oren: Cause I think merpeople, and like, the various subgroups- sometimes sirens are a playable race, as it were.
Wes: That’s Greek origins, right? Homer?
Oren: Yeah. That’s fairly common, the idea of some kind of aquatic human-thing is pretty common in fantasy, and it’s not Tolkien, at least as far as I know. But I actually think the biggest change in the general understanding of fantasy races hasn’t really come from injecting new ones into the mix; it’s mostly come from the idea of rehabilitating races that have been generally to be the evil races.
The idea of goblins and kobolds and like, Lizardfolk as people with motivations and a civilization and such. That is, I think, what’s really changing up the fantasy race meta. Those things were already in there, although I don’t think lizard people were Tolkien- whatever. They already were there, but until now, they were cannon fodder. They were like, a thing you killed for experience points and some copper pieces.
But now the idea of like, ‘well, maybe they are also people,’ is the big change that we’re seeing. That’s definitely the state of where fantasy is now. If you’re going to be using fantasy races at all, a lot of high fantasy doesn’t even do that anymore. Like Martin- you know, Game of Thrones doesn’t have any fantasy races-
Chris: Um, yes he does. The- what are they called? Childlike…
Oren: The Children of the Forest. I was going to say, with the exception of the Children of the Forest, who are like, barely present in the story, and when they do show up, are supposed to be weird and different, and are sort of a sign of the old times, when magic was around and was scary.
Wes: I guess the giants too, then. Perform a similar role.
Chris: So, yeah. There’s a couple fantasy races in Game of Thrones, but clearly, it’s meant to feel like magic was lost and is slowly coming back, and so it really focuses on humans a lot.
Wes: Oren, that talk about- the transition to like, show that a community of goblins has diversity in it. I’m curious with you guys thinking- like, why we’re- I’m glad that the perception has shifted there, but it makes me wonder if the concept of having like, defined, established fantasy races is a little racist.
Because it’s basically creating an idealized standard of a specific group of people. Like, ‘all dwarves are good at stonework.’ And this mostly shows up in roleplaying games. I just wonder, if enough people got frustrated at that- or if enough people wanted to try to break the mold that they started including these types of things, or realized that no, it’s not a healthy presentation to say that all orcs are just barbarous murderers.
Oren: I mean, the general state of fantasy right now is like, most fantasy authors, and I think most readers, have gotten to the point where we understand that applying one trait to an entire group, be that a fantasy race or a group of humans, is not correct. And so, right now, part- subverting the classic fantasy races is a real hot thing right now.
It probably will be for quite some time. Discworld got a lot of mileage out of that. And I think part of the reason why we aren’t seeing very many classic fantasy stories with the classic fantasy races nowadays is that people are realizing that if you take out the whole- the evil races, like the evil orcs and goblins and what have you, you’re left without a really strong reason to include all these fantasy races at all.
Like, what is their purpose, if not to demonstrate that there are these monstrous civilizations that we must oppose? What role do they serve, outside of that? And so, then, your options are like, ‘well, I could subvert them,’ and you can still do that, but after a while that will get old.
And I think that’s part of the reason why those fantasy races are kind of falling by the wayside, for the most part, is that, as people are moving away from the really problematic monolithic evil portrayals of them, it’s like, what reason remains to include them in your story? What else do they give?
Chris: I would agree, in most cases you need to subvert them. But I think the subversion doesn’t have to be quite as overt as Terry Pratchett. I know there was- is it called ‘The Goblin Emperor’? Where, just the act of having a main character who is a goblin, or part goblin, putting him in the center of elves is at some level subversive.
Basically, if you’re going to use races- at least Tolkien races, or races that people are that familiar with at this point, it’s because you want those cultural associations that you have with them, and you’re responding to them in some way.
Besides responding to it; also, if your story is just really short, you don’t have time to explain a lot of worldbuilding new races, and so, using races that people are already familiar with just allows you to unburden your story a little bit and save time. But for the most part, working with them means that you want that cultural association, and it’s okay that it’s tired and getting a little old.
Oren: Yeah. It is worth noting that, I think, in The Goblin Emperor, the fact that the main character is an elf- or a half goblin/half elf, and the characters around him are all elves is super forgettable. Yes, technically, these are elves, but the only thing about them that makes them different from humans is that their ears swivel to show their emotions.
And that actually isn’t even used that often. It’s kind of a cool thing, and it establishes some novelty in the beginning, but it isn’t actually as important as you would think it might be. And other than the ear thing, you could just say they were humans, and the story would be exactly the same, cause the main character would be half-this-group-of-humans and half-that-group-of-humans.
Chris: I mean, that might be true, but I don’t think that’s an issue with the concept itself; I think that’s just an issue with the implementation. Like, I don’t think that having that setup with the goblins and elves is taking away from the story, so much as it was not actually used to its full potential.
Oren: Well, that does raise a question that I’m not really clear how to address, which is- it really bothers me when I read a story and it’s like, ’yeah, you say that these are elves, but they really seem just like humans.’ But also, if they actually were like, weird and different and not like humans, that might- that would make it harder to get into the story, since that’s the entire- that’s where the story takes place, is among the elves.
And I’m not really sure what the solution to that is. And that’s a problem in sci-fi, too, right? Where it’s like, ‘your aliens are supposed to be different and not human, but oops, you made them different and not human, and now they’re hard to relate to.
Chris: That’s definitely tough. There’s probably some sort of balancing factor there, but it’s hard to say like, ‘is there a nice sweet spot where they totally seem non-human, and at the same time, they’re totally relatable?’ It’s hard to say for sure.
Wes: And it really depends on- especially for a story, whose perspective- your viewpoint character. If you’ve got different fantasy races, what is the viewpoint character’s race, and how do they perceive these other ones? Like, what purpose are they serving? Is your viewpoint character human?
And so, all of these elves are like, hauntingly beautiful and a little inscrutable, but the human feels jealousy about it, and doesn’t really know how to get into their social circles, or- I mean, that’s really derivative, but- there’s got to be, like really good ways to use them. And if you are thinking about that, it should be very deliberate. What will that inclusion accomplish that a bunch of humans won’t?
Chris: Yeah. I would say, in most of those circumstances, when you’re doing- using straight-up elves that are hauntingly beautiful, that fit all of the elf stereotypes, it’s almost more worth it to, instead of using elves, try to create something that is significantly different than elves, that still accomplishes what you want to.
Because it will seem- like, the impact of elves and their beauty and their long life has been lost because we’re too used to it now.
Wes: That’s why- I mean, when you think about subverting, that’s what they did in Dragon Age: Origins- or just that world, right? They made elves somehow basically just humans with pointy ears, and it was like, ‘oh, they have this- they lost their ability to live for hundreds of years, and that’s interesting, I guess.’ It doesn’t matter in the story, but it makes you wonder. [laughs]
Oren: The thing about the elves in Dragon Age was- the subversion there was that the elves were basically an oppressed minority. And like, the concept of them was that they were basically Tolkien elves who got conquered by humans, and so, they’re a whole story of, ‘how the mighty have fallen,’ kind of thing.
Which, it has its own novelty. There’s a little novelty there. I’ll give them that. Otherwise, the fantasy races in Dragon Age are pretty standard.
Chris: But it is- when you’re using a fantasy race, it doesn’t have to be from Tolkien, it doesn’t have to be from folklore of some kind. You can make up your own, and that’s what I was saying, it is actually very hard for me to think of memorable races that writers have just made up.
Oren: I can’t think of any off the top of my head.
Wes: I think that like, writers and storytellers are better served to just do some kind of like, augmented human, or a human variant. Or just have people use magic. [laughs] Like, wizards and witches and warlocks, they’re all more memorable than some of these other made-up races.
Oren: It kind of reminds me of Blue Rose, the RPG setting, where like- okay, so, Blue Rose has what are clearly standard fantasy races that are called different things. And I’m like, ‘okay, sure, whatever, that’s fine. These are clearly orcs. These are clearly elves. These are clearly half-elves, or- dark elves, that’s fine. They’re called something else, whatever.’
But it really got me that, there’s this part in there where they talk about how like, ‘this isn’t your standard fantasy setting of elves and orcs,’ and it’s like, ‘it totally is, Blue Rose.’ [Wes laughs]
Wes: ‘No, but we changed the names!’
Oren: I’m not fooled that this race of green people who were created by the dark lord to be his servants; I know those are orcs, you showed me a picture of them. They are clearly orcs. [laughter] It’s like, you know, call them something else, fine. But it got weird when it was like, ‘we are more cool and edgy because we don’t use those fantasy races,’ and it’s like, ‘yeah, but you did.’
Chris: I mean, I would argue- it’s not fine. If they clearly can be swapped out without people noticing, don’t call them something else. And maybe, in a roleplaying game, it wouldn’t matter as much, but when you’re writing, it certainly adds overhead and burdens you with explanation.
Suddenly, you have to explain what elves are all over again, because you’re calling them by a different name. And when you get done with all that explanation, the only reward that your audience gets is, ‘oh, those are elves.’ [Wes laughs]
Wes: That’s such a letdown. [laughs]
Oren: But- this is different from what you were saying earlier about like, if you have a fantasy race that does the whole, ‘ethereal beauty of the elves,’ thing, call them something- have them be something other than elves.
Chris: I’m just saying that like, it’s better to make something completely original than it is to copy Tolkien races, at this point. But at the same time, if you have something that is close enough to elves- like, it needs to be actually substantially different from elves, or you should call them elves, and just give them a twist. Just putting elves, straight up, as they are in your story is not very satisfying because they’ve lost all novelty.
And you’re right that, in that particular situation, I probably shouldn’t suggest creating a whole ‘nother race, because probably, what would happen is that they would create slightly different elves. And then it’s like, ‘these should just be elves.’
Oren: Well, elves, you can put like, a noun in front of their name, or an adjective, and then you have a different kind of elf. You got wood elves, and your high elves, and your dark elves, and your mist elves.
Wes: Moon elves.
Oren: There’s a lot of different kinds of elves.
Chris: And if it’s unique enough, maybe like, ‘I have mirror elves; they only live on the other side of mirrors-’ [laughter] Maybe that would actually be memorable. But the thing is, that, it’s the substance of the thing, how different they actually are from the thing that matters, not what you call them. And if they’re close enough, then it’s going to be easier to explain if you just start by calling them elves.
And the unique traits that they have will still make a difference, even though you are calling them elves. Whereas you call them something else when you get to the point where they are easier to explain by calling them something else, because if you try to call them elves, everybody’s going to end up confused and misled, because they’re not anything like elves.
Oren: Actually, here’s one. I was thinking, ‘okay, there has to be some fantasy novel that I’ve read that had non-Tolkien fantasy races.’ And the one- I finally thought of one- [Oren and Chris laugh] -and it’s the Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson. Which I didn’t like, for other reasons that were unrelated.
But they have these guys called the Parshendi, who are just kind of neat. I liked them. I thought they were cool. They weren’t so great that they could carry the story on their own, but I enjoyed them. They had a cool description, and they had like, this natural carapace that they grew. I was into that.
And like, they weren’t an obvious stand-in for any existing Tolkien race. The closest they were to anything was orcs, and even then, they don’t have the sort of standard green, tusks, brutish thing of the orcs going on; they were portrayed as very refined. So, there you go. There’s one. I found one, after a lot of thinking.
Chris: Can I just mention a couple of like, funny folklore races that I’ve run into?
Wes: Yeah, please.
Chris: So, one of my favorites- and the only story I’ve actually seen it in, that’s like a modern fantasy story, is actually the show Lost Girl.
Oren: Oh, yeah, Lost Girl.
Chris: There’s a kind of fairy that is like, Irish, called the Dullahan, and it is a headless horseman fairy. [Wes and Oren laugh] That is basically- they’re like headless horsemen; they ride around on a horse, carrying their head, and they have a whip made of like, spine, and then they scare people. But, in Lost Girl- if you’ve never seen Lost Girl, just watch the second episode, it is amazing.
Oren: It’s so funny.
Chris: She’s beset by these assassins who are apparently Dullahan, but they’re described- the way they’re described is that they have- because Lost Girl, it’s all about Fae, but they don’t want to make it magical, for some reason. They want to believe that they’re just like, separate species that have evolved differently.
So, apparently, according to Lost Girl, the Dullahan have evolved the ability to remove their heads. [Oren laughs] And like, you could imagine a headless horseman just riding alongside with a head, and whatever, the head’s right under his arm, he can still see. In Lost Girl, they will do things like take off their head, and then put it somewhere, and then like, go after her without a head.
And it’s just like, ‘well, what if somebody just grabs your head and just destroys it?’ [Wes and Oren laugh]
Oren: Which is exactly what happens. [laughter]
Chris: And it’s just like, why are they doing this? Why did they evolve this ability? What is it giving them? I don’t even know.
Oren: I mean, like, there’s- the best implication, that they never say or even really indicate, is that it’s like a lich. Where like, they can’t be destroyed unless you find their head. That’s obviously not true, but that’s the best I can come up with.
Chris: Or like, bring the heads them to the fight. And then set them down and walk away. It doesn’t seem…
Oren: And like, a laundry- they put them in a laundry bin. Nobody would think to look there. [laughter]
Chris: Another thing I wanted to mention, which is- I thought this was like, older folklore, but apparently, they’re actually from World War II era, and you can debate whether they’re actually in the races category, but gremlins.
Wes: Yeah. I heard those showed up a little earlier than that, but I love that they came with technology. I think that’s the coolest thing. It’s like, ‘why is that machine not working?’ ‘It’s the gremlins inside of it.’ [Chris laughs]
Oren: ‘It’s the- the what now?’ ‘Have you not heard of gremlins? They’re the hot new fantasy race.’ [laughter]
Chris: But like, I can imagine the idea of World War II airmen, that like, so many things went wrong with their planes, that they would just start making up that it was the gremlins. But if you actually look at gremlins, I feel like they are basically imps, right? And there’s a question of whether or not the name ‘gremlin’ came from some folklore creature.
But I have to say, imps don’t really get enough attention, in my opinion. [Chris and Wes laugh] They are little, they are mischievous, but the best part is, in some of the stories, they are actually like, lonely.
Chris: And they play tricks cause they want human attention. [laughs] Which I think makes them the best. And apparently Rumpelstiltskin is actually supposed to be an imp. Which seems weird, cause I thought he was a dwarf. Cause in Brothers Grimm, the dwarves were like- show up and cast spells and stuff. They feel a lot more like fae, or- other things. But no, apparently he’s an impish creature.
Oren: That’s much more interesting. [laughs]
Wes: Oh, I just thought of- I think, two pretty well-known fantasy races that are not Tolkien, that a lot of people are familiar with, are from Elder Scrolls; Khajiit and Argonians.
Oren: Oh, right.
Wes: Cat people and lizard people- I mean, we talked about lizard folk, I guess. Or how you want to define it. But those ones, as far as the- like, the video games are pretty good, and so they’ve acquired some popularity via memes and other such things.
Oren: Anthropomorphized animals are a fairly common one that’s not Tolkien; but like, you see them in a lot of places. The Khajiit are probably some of the better-known cat people, because they have funny internet memes about how they have wares if you have coin, and such things. They’re pretty common all over the place.
I actually really liked the rat people in Final Fantasy IX, that part of the story was like, really underdeveloped and, I feel like, was cut from the game for time. But rat people were cool. I was into them. I like rat people.
Wes: Plus, the character of Freya in that, she was great. I liked her story.
Oren: Yeah, she had like, a tragic backstory that I never quite figured out what was going on with, but like- [Wes laughs]
Wes: Before we run out of time, here, do either of you, if you’re going to sit down and play a video game or roll a new character, have a preferred non-human fantasy race that you would choose?
Oren: Well, I’m too much of a powergamer to do anything other than like, whatever will make the most sense for the build that I’m doing. [Wes laughs] Although, I did- I almost played an elf in Skyrim, and then I saw what the elves in Skyrim look like, and I was like, ‘ugh. No thanks.’
Chris: I find that I am- I’m fond of gnomes. I mean, I do like how they’re kind of like, mischievous, I do like playing some mischievous characters sometimes. But I also just like the modern-day association with gnomes and the garden, and stuff like that. I think they’re fun and playful. I guess I like little creatures, since I was just talking about imps. Like, little races. What about you guys?
Wes: Well, Chris, I find myself attracted to gnomes and dwarves, as well. I like- I guess I like how both of those races have a strong affinity with the ground? That appeals to me. So do caves. Caves appeal to me, and adventures into the bowels of the earth also interest me. Plus, so does gold and gemstones. So many things.
Oren: Yes, those are very good things. [Wes laughs]
Chris: Somebody needs to play Torchbearer.
Wes: Oh, dear. [laughter]
Oren: Alright, well, with that, I think it is time to draw this episode to a close. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can comment about it on the website at Mythcreants.com. Otherwise, we will talk to you next week. [closing song]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
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