With the buzz last month that the late Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is moving forward at Sony Pictures, could we be looking at the most diverse fantasy story (so far) to make its way into popular media?
Maybe. Or maybe not.
As the dice tumble and wheel turns, let’s discuss right quick.
In April, it was announced that the much rumored The Wheel of Time (WoT) television series was definitively in the works–with the project moving forward at Sony Pictures with Rafe Judkins at the helm. For fans of WoT, this was serious business–as serious as a circle of deliberating Myrddraal.
Sure, in the back of our minds, we’re thinking–how in the ever-loving Light is THAT going to work? Robert Jordan’s WoT puts the tome in fantasy tome. The stopper in doorstopper books. We’re talking a 12 volume fantasy series, with each book running between 600 to 900 pages for a sum total of 4.4 million words! WoT is so long it outlasted its creator, who published the first book in 1990, but died in 2007. It had to be picked up by another author who didn’t finish the series until 2013. Translating George RR Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire into HBO’s Game of Thrones is one thing (so far, it has a meager 1.7 million words in comparison. psshaw. slacker). But WoT is just on a whole notha level.
Yet, because we’re fans, we are like–BRING IT. Even with our trepidations, concerns, and nail-biting fears, we want to see just how visual media will tackle this massive endeavor. What gets changed? Who ends up on the editing room floor? Just how much detail will be paid to Aes Sedai wardrobes? QTNA! All, I gotta say is, if Sony cuts out important stuff like the Aelfinn and Eelfinn to make the series adaptable to TV, there. will. be. riots.
You been warned Judkins.
Anyway, enough of that. What I want to talk about briefly is the issue of diversity. We know that in our contemporary age of SFF, the old “all-white-everything” settings won’t do any longer. The audience is too diverse and too knowledgeable to accept it. As we’ve seen recently, SFF projects that choose to engage in whitewashing or ignore diversity have been going down in box office flames. Go ask Ghost in the Shell, talk to Matt Damon about The Great Wall or try to remember how fast Gods of Egypt was gotten the f*ck up outta here. True enough, some of these whitewashed failures are just poorly written hot-messes. But, seems like there’s also a correlation of late between audiences passing on a storyline and an “all-white-everything” cast.
Epic fantasy has been able to get away with this trend a bit more. Certainly, a nearly all-white cast didn’t hurt the Lord of the Rings 2001 film adaptation–partly due to an already built-in fan base. Plus, it came out before tools like social media empowered fans (primarily PoC) to push issues of whitewashing or the lack of diversity into the mainstream and forced studios to deal with it. Hence, The Hobbit series (2012-2014) weakly threw in a few PoC here and there (though with no speaking roles) if only to keep the peace. Didn’t save the movies from being completely lackluster, but says something about how fans have forced even small concessions.
HBO’s Game of Thrones was also hit with criticism regarding diversity–both where it existed (with charges of exoticism) and where it didn’t (nearly all-white Westeros). The creators seem to have decided that the way to solve this is to give smaller roles to PoC here and there, usually by making over once-white characters from the book. However, most of these roles have gone to fairly marginalized characters who are usually disempowered or serve to prop up the main white characters.
WoT is about to be thrust into this contested landscape. And by the time it’s done, audiences will have become even more diverse, more global, and less accepting of stories set in a medieval European-derived landscape that looks whiter than Montana. As the adage goes: if you can imagine and accept talking dragons (or in this case, Ogier and Trollocs) you can imagine and accept PoC in your fantasy realms. Besides, as wonderful resources like MedievalPoc have repeatedly illustrated–your “all-white-everything” fantasy realms aren’t based on history either. So save the tired geek-bro “well actually’s” Chad. We know too much.
Can WoT rise to the challenge? Perhaps. And it’s creator has already laid a foundation.
Turns out, author Robert Jordan was thinking about diversity when he started writing WoT in 1984 to a degree that most other white fantasy writers were not. In creating what has been called the great American fantasy epic, Jordan stated that he felt the right to mine from all the various cultures or religions that can be found in the United States’ “melting pot.” Yeah, I know. An antiquated term at best. But stay with me.
So while many American writers of fantasy of the period were imagining all-white worlds based on what they *thought* medieval England looked like, Jordan was looking out upon America’s diverse landscape for inspiration. What we get from this is a “blending” of Judeo-Christian themes alongside Taoist and Hindu philosophies running throughout the expansive story. The people and customs in his expansive series are just as diverse.
A lot of what is called the Westlands in the WoT at first glance appears built on the tried and true fantasy Eurocentric models, and the main characters reflect the usual normalcy of whiteness. The center of the Westlands is both geographically, and figuratively, the kingdom of Andor—whose Englishness is as Occidental as its Lion crest. But Jordan complicates matters, with cultures and people in the West who are harder to pin down—part of his “melting pot” ethos. So, in the Westlands there are also people like the nations of Shienar and Saldaea who display a blend of non-European cultural and physical traits amongst others we usually associate with “whiteness.” It makes for an interesting mix that defies easy racial translations, where blue-eyed “westerners” adorn their foreheads with the Bindi. And it’s left main characters like Al’Lan Mandragoran wide open for interpretation–blue eyes or no. The same can be said for the Saldean Zarine ni Bashere (Faile), whose bold nose and so-called “tilted eyes” are repeatedly mentioned. Fan art dealing with these characters regularly display the ambiguous nature of Jordan’s use of identity.
Artwork below of two decidedly different takes on Faile Bashere:
Artwork for the warder Al’Lan Mandragoran:
And they’re not the only ones.
In the Westlands the people of Arad Doman are described as coppery-skinned. There are also, here and there, characters described as brown or dark-skinned who appear to be as Western as the people of Andor. Some are mentioned in passing, so that if you’re not careful you might miss it.
Take for instance Salita Toranes, an Aes Sedai of the Yellow Ajah who in Crossroads of Twilight is described as “dark as charcoal.” Of interest, she’s from a place called Tear–squarely in the Westlands. Taeiriens (as the people of Tear are called) are generally referred to as dark-skinned which could, of course, mean anything. In parts of Europe like France or even Germany, people in certain regions who are clearly European are sometimes referred to as “dark-skinned” as a matter of cultural or local definitions that aren’t necessarily markers of “racial” (in our modern sense of the word) difference. The term “dark as charcoal,” however, is much more definitive. She Black. And Jordan meant her to be Black. Ain’t no two ways about it.
There’s also an eyebrow raising passage somewhere (possibly) in Path or Daggers that Elayne Trakand makes about the description of one of the first Queens of Andor that I can’t quite locate again. 4.4 million words is hard AF to research.
And, of course, we know at least one of the Forsaken is a Black woman: Semirhage, Lady of Pain, described as having a beautiful “charcoal-black face” with large black eyes and full lips.
When we move outside the Westlands, things get even more interesting. First up are the Aiel who live just outside the Westlands and by description appear white: with blonde or red hair and tanned from living in an arid desert called the Waste. But their culture pulls on everything from Native American to Zulu to Bedouin and Berber customs. Of course there are some problematic details. As desert people the Aiel are exotic and nobly savage to a fault, even following codes of honor that bear similarities to the Japanese Samurai.
There is less ambiguity when we leave the Westlands proper. The Atha’an Miere, or Seafolk, who live off a set of island nations are identified most noticeably for their very dark skins, black hair, nose chains and (of course) strange customs. Their work as sea traders is only equaled by the “graceful” nature of their women, their normalized semi-nudity, and the brutality with which they treat subordinates.
But it’s with the Seanchan that we get the most diverse and active players in the series. The Seanchan are a mysterious empire from across the sea. In every description, they are decidedly multiracial in composition–from light to brown to dark-skinned, from straight to curly to tightly coiled hair, with a range of different phenotypes. Their culture bears clear hints of Japanese, Chinese and Ottoman influences. And, wait for it, they are even governed by a BLACK Empress. No lie. No ambiguity.
Of course, again, we encounter some wince-worthy problems. True to their Orientalist nature, the Seanchan are conquerors; have customs even more bizarre than the Seafolk; are controlled by tyrannical rulers; and practice harsh codes of honor and status that overemphasize their exotic “difference.” (Much the same can be said for the briefly mentioned land of Shara to the far South who, like the Seanchans, openly practice chattel slavery). Those are things that are certainly worthy of discussion. As well as questions of appropriation that will undoubtedly arrise. I’ve discussed them often, including in a book published just this past year. So I won’t rehash them here. Hopefully as the show is adapted to television, writers can address and fix some of these problems.
On the issue of diversity, however, for WoT there’s no need to follow the old dictates that require an “all-white-everything” when it comes to casting. Jordan certainly didn’t. He provides numerous PoC with kingdoms and empires and fully fleshed out cultures. Even his West appears to be made up of a vast array of skin-colors and customs that run the gamut.
So, why not take a chance even with the main characters? What if Rand, Matt, Perrin, Nyanaeve and Egwene aren’t just all cast by white actors? I’ll give you all a minute to clutch your pearls and retire to your fainting couches. Better? You need me to fetch a Yellow to administer some healing? Okay, then.
Yes, I know: “delusions of grandeur.” Can already hear the geeksplaining and sputtering: “But they’re all from a small little sheep herding village where everyone’s a cousin!” And my reply is one big Kanye shrug. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ So the @#*% what? There’s a talking green tree-man named Someshta (last of the Nym) who guards the Light of the World. That’s a thing I’m willing to accept. And you’re going to sit here and argue with me about who does and does not belong in the Two Rivers? Seriously? Expect that kind of talk from a Congar or a Coplin.
All’s I’m saying is, when it comes to casting and diversity in WoT think big. Robert Jordan left a foundation to make his work perhaps the most diverse epic fantasy series on television, perhaps even beyond his imagining. That is, if we’re daring enough to do so.