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Heroic Fantasy and Ethnic Identity

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

Conan by Frank Frazetta

Conan by Frank Frazetta

Conan, Elric, Drizzt, Geralt and Social Prejudice

The pinnacle protagonists of heroic fantasy share troubled ethnic backgrounds that develop the characters’ personalities and influence their actions within the stories.

The Cimmerian

In Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, the protagonist is often referred to by his ethnic background—Cimmerian. No matter the vice or virtue of his deeds Conan carries the negative connotations of his people. Brute savagery is all that is expected of him, and one cannot deny Conan often behaves in an uncouth manner given his excessive lusts for wine and loose women that lead to his frequently impoverished state. It is Howard’s genius as an author that turns these prejudicial tables. Conan’s blunt speech and the immediate physicality of his actions are a refreshing counterpoint set against the decadence and deceit of the many civilized characters. Howard convinces the reader to accept and even cheer for this rough-neck barbarian.

Elric of Melnibone by Rukkits on DeviantArt.

Elric of Melnibone by Rukkits on DeviantArt.

The Eternal Champion

Elric, Michael Moorcock’s famous character, is in many ways the anti-Conan. A frail albino interested in magic and inheritor to the ancient civilization of Melnibone, Elric also has sophisticated tastes and a sensitive conscience. After the treachery of his cousin, Yyrkoon, Elric is forced into a life of wandering adventure and becomes bound to the sentient, murderous sword, Stormbringer. Elric never escapes his people’s reputation for cruelty, decadence, and sorcery despite his will to be otherwise. His attempts to do good deeds are also undermined by Stormbringer’s bloodlust. As such, Elric rarely finds acceptance and shares with Conan this role of the outcast hero who, because of his ethnic lineage, can never really enter into the societies he defends from chaos.

Drizzt the dark elf of R. A. Salvatore's stories

Drizzt the dark elf of R. A. Salvatore's stories

The Dark Elf

R. A. Salvatore’s famous drow elf, Drizzt, finds himself in the same position. A gifted warrior who rejects his historically evil people, Drizzt cannot overcome the enormous social pressure to live among surface-dwellers. Because of his physical appearance he must live on the fringes of civilization or use magic to disguise himself to be safe from the people he helps. This tragedy is heightened because even more so than Conan or Elric, Drizzt is a deeply moral and compassionate individual who must suffer reactionary prejudice from the very people who cannot survive without his martial prowess keeping them safe.

Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher from Sapkowski's novels and short stories.

Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher from Sapkowski's novels and short stories.

The Witcher

In the Sapkowski's Witcher series, Geralt of Rivia exists in much the same sort of circumstances as the other heroic fantasy heroes. By training and genetic manipulation, he's a protagonist destined to protect people from the dangers represented by the monsters that also exist in the setting. Even as he does his best to save people who lack the skills to fight monsters, the people he defends often treat him badly, shun him, and try to cheat him. All the same, he constantly endeavors to keep both people and sentient monsters from coming into violent confrontations with each other. Part of the tragedy of the setting of the Witcher is that humans continue to expand and push civilization into the wilderness where the monsters live. This expansion means that Geralt's services are necessary, but that there is no place for him among "normal" human civilization nor among the monsters. All the same, Geralt stands out as a character with a strong moral compass even as he deals with vicious monsters prejudices and venal humans.

True Heroism

In successful heroic fantasy the protagonist must come from an ethnic or social group that suffers under extreme prejudice. This situation presents an obstacle to the character that he or she cannot solve with his or her superior physical skills. This barrier represents a threat greater than one any arch villain can muster. It also provides the best opportunity to develop and humanize the character as he or she face the ignorance and prejudice of others while attempting to remain heroic.

© 2009 Seth Tomko

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Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on July 14, 2018:

You compare interesting sword and sorcery characters. I'd like to read about these characters sometime. I'm acquainted with Conan the Barbarian. I read a few novels of him from Howard. I also loved the Marvel Comic's version of Conan. He came out in regular color inked comics and large black and white editions.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on July 16, 2010:

Thank you for reading and posting your comments, poetvix.

poetvix from Gone from Texas but still in the south. Surrounded by God's country. on July 16, 2010:

Thank you for this hub. Love the links! Always on the lookout for a good fantasy read. Further, I found your summations to be very accurate. Happy Hubbing!

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on September 02, 2009:

Thank you. I've often felt that just because something is labeled as "pulp" or "genre work" that doesn't mean it is unworthy of a level of critical attention.

Stevennix2001 on September 01, 2009:

wow, well put sir. well put.

Seth Tomko (author) from Macon, GA on August 17, 2009:

You're right. The movies don't put much emphasis on his ethnic background, but they also deviate from the stories. Not all the Conan stories are of equal depth, but "Rogues in the House," "City of Skulls," and "Queen of the Black Coast" are all excellent stories by Robert E. Howard about the wandering Cimmerian.

MistHaven on August 17, 2009:

I've never had the chance to read any of the Conan stories, but from your review they seem very deep. Its funny that Conan's ethnicity is never really mentioned in either of the films about him.

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