When it comes to inherited conventions regarding race in epic fantasy, “Game of Thrones” is, in a sense, standing on the shoulders of dwarfs. The Lord of the Rings is the most obvious predecessor to Martin’s work, and it’s not hard to find subtle rhetorical responses to Tolkien in his books. When Time magazine dubbed Martin “the American Tolkien,” it highlighted not only Martin’s rather astonishing genius in world-building and narrative scope, but also the ideological baggage that all of us writing in the genre have inherited from our shared progenitor.
And it’s heavy baggage indeed, however much we love Tolkien’s creation. His half-sublimated wranglings with race are more complex and fraught than either his shrillest detractors or his most fawning defenders would have us believe. But there is some irreducible ugliness in his masterpiece that really can’t be convincingly redeemed. The men of the global East and global South (“black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues”) are monstrous and evil, naturally and culturally inclined to bow to Sauron, and to make war on the good men of the North and West. The bestial visages of orcs bear a striking resemblance to racist caricatures of African and Asian facial features. Above all, to be dark-skinned in Middle Earth is to be part of a savage horde – whether orcish or human – rather than to be a true individual.