Looking at fantasy in black and white

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

Fiery dragons, hoarded mountain of gold, wars under the mountain and grandiose names of Thorin Oakenshield in the tales of old. I grew up utterly entranced by fantasy literature and scrambled to get my hands on everything from Rick Riordan to Kathryn Lasky to C.S. Lewis. One of my greatest finds was a complete boxset of “The Chronicles of Narnia” on sale for $4 at my local library, and by age 12 I was fully immersed in Middle Earth. 

But there was always one thing I couldn’t ignore: the way the terms “black” and “white” were dichotomized. We need to be more cautious of how we use these terms as their associations bleed through the pages of Middle Earth to have power in our world just as they do in Mordor.

Fantasy literature frequently centers around good and evil, the former typically being assigned adjectives such as “light, white and whimsical” while the latter is assigned to be “dark, black and wicked.” 

The first and perhaps most famous is the story of “The Ugly Duckling,” which centers entirely around the sheer “ugliness” of the flock’s lone black duckling. He is ostracized by other ducklings alike because of the black color of his feathers. By the end of the story, the duckling matures and is considered to be the most beautiful of them all but only after he sheds his ebony feathers and a new crop of shining white ones come in to take their place.

Continuing this trend, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” mentions in a short poem:

The wind was on the withered heath

but in the forest stirred no leaf: 

there shadows lay by night and day,

and dark things silent crept beneath. 

It passed the lonely Mountain bare

and swept above the dragon’s lair:

there black and dark lay boulders stark 

and flying smoke was in the air. 

Going beyond mere blackness to include darkness, as these terms are often used interchangeably, here, darkness in the form of shadow is used to illustrate shiftiness, mystique and dangerousness — something nameless and most importantly black, waiting outside of eyesight to do unspeakable harm. The second portion after the ellipses references the darkness and blackness of the boulder to highlight and reaffirm the undesirableness of the situation: between the dark boulders and thick black smoke, the story’s adventurers are placed in an impossible position where immanent, unseen danger awaits them.

Conversely, the same book references “four beautiful white ponies… [who] went out again and soon came back carrying torches in their mouths, which they lit at the fire and stuck in low brackets on the pillars of the hall about the central hearth,” immediately contrasting the undesirable and impossible blackness seen in the poem to the beautiful white ponies who save the protagonists by providing fire and thus a way out of their “dark” situation.

There are exceptions, however they still return to this central idea. For example, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” features a witch who is famously white. The Ice Queen, also known as The White Witch, is the book’s main antagonist and while everything about her from her bleached hair laced with jagged shards of ice, to her steely pale complexion, to her snow sprinkled wardrobe is white, this exterior expression is but a reflection of her dark, inner maleficence. 

The source of her magic, as Aslan condemns her for, is black magic after all.

Before you label me as a hippie social justice warrior overanalyzing what should just be “a good read,” note that I am not alone in my commenting on this war between dark and light. In 2014 André 3000 famously wore a boldly lettered jumpsuit to Lollapalooza that read “across cultures, darker people suffer the most.”

And why indeed?  

Undoubtedly, this repeated system of labeling used in both the most famous literature, in the case of “The Hobbit,” “Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and the most fundamental literature, in the case of “The Ugly Duckling,” plays a role. 

Going even further back to the 20th century, Muhammad Ali also questioned a similar binary: things of wonder and innocence like angels and heaven are depicted as being white, even vanilla cake is labeled “angel’s food,” whereas objects of ire like black cats and the ugly duckling are depicted as black; chocolate cake, in apparent foil to vanilla cake, is labeled “devil’s food.”

This impact is felt two-fold by dark skinned people within communities, as André 3000’s message most directly challenged. Colorism or “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color” as defined by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker is inflamed by this sort of language.

What’s more, this comparison and expression of blackness and whiteness may not be as intuitive as we think. When reading Rick Riordan’s “Kane Chronicles,” I was pleasantly surprised to learn that in ancient Egypt, the themes of balance and chaos (analogous to our good and evil) were represented by black and red. Black was considered as favorable because that was the color of rich fertile soil, out of blackness came life and abundance. Conversely, red was viewed with rebuke because nothing grows in red soil — it represented barrenness and famine. 

Understanding that the color palette is only what we limit it to, is critical as we go forward as writers and readers because at the end of the day, the associations we give these colors carry over as we label people as well.

I don’t mean to suggest that Tolkien and Lewis’ works were the birth of this dichotomy or that they should be banned. On the contrary, they are two of my biggest literary heroes. I can’t count how many afternoons I spent burrowed deep in my room obsessing over the “one ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” 

I am merely bringing attention to this disparity so that readers are aware of it, question it and leave it out of our literature as we go on to become literary greats ourselves.