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Before Jon Stewart took on antisemitic goblins, critics called out J.R.R. Tolkien’s orcs and dwarves for racial stereotypes

It’s been more than 20 years since the world fell under “Harry Potter’s” spell — but hindsight is also 20/20. And some fans of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, including Jon Stewart, have been spotting problematic stereotypes that they either missed or dismissed the first time they read the books or watched the movies. 

Alas, this isn’t a problem exclusive to “Harry Potter.” The fantasy genre has long had an issue with racism and representation. 

But this week, a December 2021 clip from Stewart’s Apple TV+
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podcast went viral. It featured the former “Daily Show” host pointing out how the goblins shown working in Gringotts Bank in the first “Harry Potter” film resemble antisemitic caricatures of Jewish people.

“It was one of those things where I saw it on the screen and I was expecting the crowd to be like, ‘Holy s—. She did not … in a wizarding world, just throw Jews in there to run the f— underground bank,’” he said. “It’s a wizarding world where … we can ride dragons, and you’ve got a pet owl … and who should run the bank? Jews.” 

This, and the recent “Harry Potter” reunion special streaming on HBO
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spurred some readers to highlight other issues with the “Harry Potter” franchise — such as the names of non-white characters like Cho Chang, who is Asian, and Kingsley Shacklebolt, who is Black. 

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Many Rowling fans came to her defense over Stewart’s recent remarks about the goblins, however, with some — including the British charity Campaign Against Antisemitism — noting that Rowling has repeatedly spoken in support of the Jewish community. And Stewart later walked back his remarks by tweeting out a video where he clarified that he was flagging racial tropes “so embedded in society that they’re basically invisible,” and not calling Rowling herself antisemitic. 

Racial tropes have popped up in popular fantasy since the beginning

Rowling is certainly not the first fantasy writer to be scrutinized over stereotypes spotted in her worldbuilding. Beloved “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien, considered the father of modern fantasy, has been called out for his descriptions of imaginary races like orcs and dwarves. Orcs are inherently evil, twisted versions of men and elves; Tolkien described them as ‘Mongol-types’ having slanted eyes and sallow or swarthy complexions. Meanwhile, the dwarf kings described in “The Hobbit” were obsessed with gold and treasure, easily corrupted through their greed. And Tolkien said in a 1964 BBC radio interview that the different races in his works are drawn from humanity — with his dwarves being “obviously” reminiscent of Jewish people. 

“The dwarves of course quite obviously — wouldn’t you say in many ways they remind you of the Jews?” he said. “This is a tremendous love of the artifact, and of course the immense warlike capacity of the Jews, to which we tend to forget nowadays.” He begins discussing the dwarves at the 10:35 mark in the video below. 

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Then again, a popular anecdote notes that when a Berlin publisher asked Tolkien for proof of his “Aryan descent” in 1938, the author responded in an open letter: “If I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.” Tolkien also called the Nazi race doctrine “wholly pernicious and unscientific.” Yet problematic issues — such as some races being “worse” or more inclined toward evil than others — still slipped into his Middle Earth.

“In theory, anything is possible in fantasy. But in practice, it reflects the real world in very significant ways. Sometimes that’s a conscious choice of the creator, and sometimes it’s them unconsciously transporting social and cultural norms into an imagined world,” Helen Young, author of “Race and Popular Fantasy Literature,” told MarketWatch. “So, since there is still racism, homophobia, sexism and so on in reality, it would really be more surprising if those things were not present in fantasy as well.” 

“In theory, anything is possible in fantasy. But in practice, it reflects the real world.”  

Antero Garcia, an associate professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, has been studying how gaming can shape learning, such as using the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons as a portal for storytelling and literacy. Garcia played D&D himself as a kid. But D&D relies on genetic determinism, which is crunched into ability points and skill sets. All dwarves are strong, so they get bonus points in strength. All elves are graceful, so they get extra points in dexterity. And half-orcs and dark elves (aka drows), described as dark-skinned or black, skew evil. 

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“It’s not just that some tropes are racist or sexist. Dark elves are evil. It’s baked in the [D&D] system itself,” Garcia told MarketWatch. “Or look at any kind of fantasy, like ‘Game of Thrones,’ and the ways that people with darker skin and more melanin are portrayed, and the idea of a ‘noble savage’ regularly rears its head across different kinds of stories.”

“The idea of the ‘white savior’ also shows up continually, from ‘Avatar’ to ‘The Matrix,’” Garcia continued. “It’s clear the foundations of D&D have the same kind of fraught relations with race, gender, class and sexuality, which is something of a landmine for how people interact in that space.” 

Keanu Reeves in a scene from “The Matrix Resurrections.”


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It’s a landmine, all right. Raising red flags on these beloved properties is almost guaranteed to spark a heated debate. “Jon Stewart,” “J.K. Rowling” and “goblins” were trending on Twitter
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and Google
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for most of the day on Wednesday as “Harry Potter” fans sided with Stewart or Rowling. Many of Rowling’s supporters on Twitter also accused Stewart of projecting his own prejudices on the Potterverse.

“If you grew up loving ‘Harry Potter,’ you might have particular feelings tied to someone telling you that the thing you loved is racist or sexist, or if its creator has some hateful thoughts toward different kinds of individuals,” said Garcia. “Backlash comes from different areas, but oftentimes what it is rooted in are these feelings of nostalgia, of not wanting to acknowledge that the thing I love may be a little bit — or not so ‘little’ bit — racist or sexist.” 

“Fans invest emotionally, financially and socially in the works they love, and build communities around them, so [they] can be very defensive when problematic aspects of a work are pointed out.”

And the franchises themselves are walking a line between acknowledging a need to adapt and avoiding alienating their core audiences. The “Harry Potter” franchise has been estimated to be worth more than $25 billion and counting, for example, with the first eight films raking in $7.7 billion across the globe. Dungeons & Dragons has enjoyed a pandemic boom as people sheltering in place began playing the game over Zoom
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or in small groups. Hasbro-owned
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Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast reported that 2020 was D&D’s highest-grossing year on record, with sales up 33% over 2019. And of course, the three “Lord of the Rings” movies from Peter Jackson made just under $3 billion at the global box office. His “Hobbit” prequel trilogy also earned almost $3 billion worldwide, despite being less well-received by critics and fans.

This commercial success can discourage changing the status quo. Besides the fact that cultural industries like Hollywood have been historically run by white men who might not recognize or understand how to address racist conventions and representations, “in an established, successful franchise, there may be a fear that audiences will be alienated or react negatively to changes that they see as ‘political’ or inauthentic to an original work,” said Young.

Read more: ‘Underfunded and undervalued’: Stifling Black talent in Hollywood costs industry $10 billion

“Fans invest emotionally, financially and socially in the works they love, and build communities around them, so [they] can be very defensive when problematic aspects of a work are pointed out,” she added. “One thing to keep in mind is that people who have talked or written about the problems with a particular work are not trying to ruin the whole thing or take it away from you. They are critiquing it in the hope that recognizing problems will help change a work (future episodes, adaptations, etc.) and/or the community built around it to be more open, welcoming and inclusive.” 

And there’s plenty of financial incentive for publishers, game developers, filmmakers and TV producers to diversify. For instance, Disney
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and Marvel’s “Black Panther,” the first mainstream superhero movie fronted by an almost entirely Black cast, broke box-office records in 2018, and became a cultural phenomenon. And 2021’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” — another Disney/Marvel movie, this one celebrated for its Asian representation — smashed Labor Day box-office records.

“Improving representation opens up spaces for more people to love a work, franchise or genre … and research has repeatedly shown that having a cast that reflects the real diversity of the audience is strongly linked to commercial success,” Young said. 

Seeds of change 

There have been some attempts to address these issues. Garcia noted that Wizards of the Coast has taken a step back to think through ways that race is represented in its core D&D rulebooks. It shared a blog post in the summer of 2020, as Black Lives Matter demonstrations were sweeping the world, to acknowledge that “some of the peoples in the game — orcs and drow being two of the prime examples — have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated. That’s just not right.” 

Moving forward, Wizards of the Coast plans to hire “new, diverse talent” who reflect the diversity of the D&D community. It also recently released an updated rulebook that makes orcs and dark elves “just as morally and culturally complex as other peoples,” as well as adjusting character customization — although some players, including POCGamer writer Graeme Barber, argue that tweaking optional rulesets doesn’t address the decades-old issues woven into the very fabric of the game itself. 

“It’s a very basic, uncreative, and status quo supporting rough guide to homebrewing your player race a little bit. The ‘stereotypes’ [the new guide] chose to address were the simple physical ones, like ‘not all dwarves are tough,’” he wrote. “There was literally nothing in it addressing anything close to what had been hinted at or what marginalized people had been pointing out.” 

Young, meanwhile, also cited Amazon
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casting actors of color in its upcoming “Lord of the Rings” series, and increasing the prominence of female characters in its “Wheel of Time” adaptation, as two more signs of fantasy franchises embracing more representation. 

The “Wheel of Time” adaptation on Amazon features a diverse cast, and the female characters play prominent roles in the action.


Amazon/Courtesy Everett Collection

Cultural critics say that what’s important is to keep having thoughtful, nuanced discussions about these stories and games. And it’s on each fan of a particular franchise to choose whether to stick with a series they love, warts and all, or decide it’s time to move on.  

“Once you can understand what is problematic, you are in a much better place to decide if there are still parts of the work you can enjoy, or whether the knowledge changes your whole feeling about something,” said Young. “So, for example, you can recognize and reject the antisemitic goblins in ‘Harry Potter’ while still valuing its stories about friendship and standing up for what you believe in — or realize that for you, the racism really undercuts those messages and ruins the pleasure of the stories.”

Either way, she added, “you might think about whether you still want to spend money supporting that creator, or take the opportunity to open up your horizons and find other works to enjoy.” 


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