A few weeks ago I wrote about elves in some detail, but this week’s Monday Masterclass is an overview of all non-human races in fantasy fiction (and when I say ‘all’, I mean the ones I can think of an find reference to on the internet).
The term ‘non-human race’ should be pretty clear, but let me make it explicit. What I’m talking about here are creatures that resemble humans in form and intelligence, but are not human. Science fiction and fantasy are full of such humanoids. In sf, these beings’ existence s explained by their having evolved on their own home planets in parallel to humans on Earth (although they may be genetically related by their respective planets having been ‘seeded’ by genetic material aeons ago.
In fantasy, human-like species are generally created – either by gods or by other races.
However, sf and fantasy races are often portrayed in similar ways. Non-human races often have a particular characteristic that defines their whole race – they may be war-like or rustic or wise. Where most people would appreciate humans as a race of great diversity containing many contradictory traits, fantasy races are often personifications of a single characteristic.
Another commonality is that, while any given story may have non-human races in – maybe a great variety of such races and with a great number of non-human individuals – fantasy (and science fiction) stories rarely focus on such races or individuals; generally, it is always humans, humanity and human concerns that form the heart of genre fiction. This is probably due to the fact that readers and viewers can more readily empathise with humans than with other races.
All right – this Masterclass is entitled ‘Non-human Races in Fantasy’, but we can better appreciate such species if we understand humans’ place in fantasy literature. Humans, as I’ve said, are usually the protagonists. They are also generally the most widespread, populous and successful race. I suggested that this may simply be due to humans making better characters for your average reader, but you can’t ignore the possibility that its simple anthropocentrism – even racism. Related to this latter point is the fact that much fantasy is set in a quasi-European environment with Caucasian heroes.
In the Tolkien tradition (which derives from the Norse tradition), elves are wise, beautiful, rather standoffish beings who are in tune with nature and magic. They often represent the very best qualities that people might aspire to: beauty, skill, wisdom, long life/immortality. In Victorian tradition, they are seen more as diminutive trouble-makers. Terry Pratchett made them distinctly malign predators in his Discworld story Lords and Ladies. J K Rowling had rather pathetic, servile elves in her Harry Potter books.
Dwarves, in Norse mythology, may have originally been a variety of elves (svart alfar or black elves) who lived underground and were skilled makers of things – weapons and other artefacts. In most fantasy fiction, dwarves are thick-set, but short – of a height between humans and halflings. They are skilled miners, stone-workers and smiths. They are famous for wearing beards – even the women, according to Tolkien. They are also fierce warriors.
Hobbits are a race of short people that appear in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. They are, on average, only three and a half feet tall, live in a rural idyll and very much enjoy home comforts such as good food. They are a silmple, conservative folk, but ultimately (as evidence by Bilbo, Frodo and the rest) extremely resilient. They are technically humans, being a distant, diminutive branch of that race. While, in terms of literature, they may be exclusive to Middle Earth, they are common in gaming, where they are known (for legal reasons) as halflings.
Orcs are a race of ugly, green- or black-skinned humanoids that are generally about the size of a human, although very muscular. They are violent and unsophisticated and generally evil. In Tolkien, they were created by Morgoth (possibly from captured elves) to be evil foot-soldiers. Later depictions of orcs retain their barbaric qualities, but make them less intrinsically malign.
Goblins are a diminutive and ugly humanoid race similar to early modern and Victorian depictions of elves (and numerous other fey creatures). They appear in folk tales of many traditions and may have their origins in Hindu literature. Traditionally, they had some magical abilities. In Tolkien, ‘goblin’ is a synonym for ‘orc’. In gaming, goblins are evil creatures bearing a similar relationship to orcs as halflings do to humans.
Giants are humanoids of great size and strength and have featured in myths and folk tales from many cultures. Mythical giants are often one of the earliest sentient species to have arisen and, as such, have wisdom, but are also antagonistic towards the gods. Fairy tale giants – as in Jack and the Beanstalk – are rather stupid, selfish creatures. The giants of of Stephen R Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are friendly, valiant and wise. In gaming, giants are usually presented only as monsters.
Trolls are large, ugly creatures from Norse mythology. They are generally unpleasant and stupid and have featured in many fairy tales, in The Hobbit and in roleplaying games.
Dragons were the subject of my very first Monday Masterclass. They – and similar creatures – have been around in mythology and folklore for a long time; Western dragons are usually monsters, while Eastern dragons are usually wise benefactors of mankind. In fantasy, they are a commonly occurring species – although often they lack sentience, and are therefore outside the scope of this article. The dragons of Middle Earth are intelligent servants of evil; other writers have much more sympathetic dragons. Dragons are perhaps the only widely represented non-humanoid sentient race.
Works with Non-human Races
The Wheel of Time
Robert Jordan’s epic series contains a few non-human races, but they are either evil, rare or inhabitants of other dimensions. The evil ones include the Trollocs (which appears to be a portmanteau of troll and orc); these are the orc-equivalents of the world known as Randland and were made from crossbreeding humans and animals. They are taller than humans and have various bestial qualities such as boar heads, hawk heads, goat legs and so on. They are organised in a number of clans.
Their direct masters are a race called Myrddraal, which are Trolloc offspring who resemble their human ancestors. Myrddraal, or Fades, are pale-skinned, eyeless men in appearance and are excellent swordsmen. There is a kind of psychic bond between Myrddraal and Trollocs, so that if a Fade is killed, the Trollocs bound to it suffer debilitating agony.
Ogier are a tall, long-lived race that could be characterised as a cross between elves and giants, with a few dwarf traits thrown in. They grow to about nine or ten feet tall and a 90-year-old Ogier is considered a youth. They have broad mouths and long tufted ears. They love trees and live in magical, localised forests called Stedding; however, they are also legendarily skilled masons and buildings created by them have organic curves. They are reclusive and peaceful, but in the past were known as fierce warriors.
The Eelfinn and Aelfinn are humanoids that have fox-like and snake-like characteristics respectively. They exist other worlds and can only be reached through using magical items. They are difficult to deal with and understand and make bargains with humans that have unforeseen consequences – much like elves of folklore, from which their names appear to be derived.
The Malazan Book of the Fallen
Steven Erikson’s ten book series (and Ian Cameron Esslemont’s companion books) feature many intelligent, non-human races – which fact illustrates its origin as a roleplaying game setting. They can be divided into various categories.
The invading or foreign races are one that are not native to the world of the Malazan Empire, but originate in the warrens, realms of magic. There are the Tiste Andii, The Tiste Edur and Tiste Liosan – from the realms of Darkness, Shadow and Light respectively. The Tiste races are tall, long-lived and have Asian-like eyes. Their names and origins resemble the original Norse elven races. The fourth foreign race is the Eleint – dragons.
The founding races are native to the world of the Malazan Empire and created civilisation. The Forkrul Assail are an extremely strong, long-lived and quick-healing race that are taller and thinner than humans and have more joints in their bodies. They are famous for adjudicating conflicts by means of killing everyone involved. The Jaghut are another near-immortal race that live in icy environments and are taller and wider than humans and have tusked lower jaws.
The K’Chain Che’Malle are one of the non-humanoid intelligent races in fantasy. They are similar in appearance to bipedal dinosaurs and are divided into two races, long-tails and short-tails – the latter being an engineered race. The K’Chain Che’Malle were the first civilised race in the world. The Imass are a race similar to humans but with golden skin and amber eyes, high cheek bones and heavy brows. They warred with the Jaghut for millennia and eventually made themselves into immortal undead beings in the Ritual of Tellann, becoming the T’lan Imass. The Imass were the ancestors of other races, including the Barghast, Moranth, Trell and humans.
Finally, the Thel Akai were a race of giants that gave rise to the Thelomen Toblakai and other larger than human races.
Many works of fantasy have some sort of race that is equivalent to the Orcs of Middle Earth. The Wheel of Time has Trollocs, R Scott Bakker’s The Second Apocalypse meta-series has sranc – engineered, lithe, bestial humanoids that enjoy killing and even raping the open wounds of their victims. Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series has the Shanka, a brutal, bestial warrior-hunter race. The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay has urgach and svart alfar, which appear to be direct analogues of orcs and goblins from Tolkien (Kay worked with Christopher Tolkien on putting together The Silmarillion, so it’s inevitable he drew some inspiration from the creator of Middle Earth).
Fantasy is the literature of good versus evil; these primeval forces require avatars to carry out their ends. On the side of good, we have humans (we like to think), elves, dwarves and so on. The nature of the conflict may be magical or metaphysical in many respects, but, often, it is purely physical. Warfare on an epic scale between humans or beings that closely resemble them on the one hand, and creatures that are morally and physically twisted approximations of humanity on the other, is a mainstay of fantasy stories.
While the presence of intrinsically evil races is a common trope, it also raises certain questions about racism. In as much as the races mentioned above have some intelligence, is it realistic – dare I say fair? – to depict every single individual as irredeemably evil and thus fit for nothing but being hacked to pieces by a hero? Monolithic characterisations of good versus evil arguably reinforces a tribal, us versus them mentality. Stan Nicholls’s First Blood series is rare exception to the rule and reverses the common image to have a band of orcs fighting against humans to save their civilisation.
When used well, non-human races can give a work of fantasy extra colour and vitality, mystery and authenticity. When used poorly, they can be little more than a rehashing of stereotypes. The best fantasy writers tend to use non-human races sparingly, but when they do, they think carefully about the races’ role and history in the world they’ve created. The best non-human races are those that are distinctive, having an alien quality – maybe a subtle one – that differentiates them from both humans and from other non-humans.
These days, it’s difficult to use any of the standard fantasy races (elf, dwarf, orc, goblin) unless you do something vastly different with them. Standard depictions are mostly the province of roleplaying and computer games. On the other hand, being too original can also be a danger – the races can become alienating if their psychologies are difficult to understand – especially if such creatures are fully fledged characters rather than sword-fodder.
And having a race whose sole duty is to be sword-fodder raises other potential problems – if they are intelligent enough to make and use weapons, why aren’t they intelligent enough to form societies, have diplomatic relations with others, have a moral system? The nature of good and evil is a key element of this, and it requires careful consideration of how good and evil forces interact with the world and with each other.
What important non-human races have I left out? What are your favourites (or even least favourites)? What are your thoughts on the subject of non-human races in fantasy?