Last month I went and saw Thor: The Dark World, the latest in the Hollywood onslaught of Marvel films that have graced the screen since their re-boot with the X-Men franchise way back in 2000.
It was a decent film, one that delved further into the conflict between Thor and his brother, but also brought in other elements of the fictional Thorian universe, notably the appearance of Malekith the Accursed and his race of Dark Elves as villains. As a Dungeons & Dragons Gamer, the appearance of these ‘dark elves’ immediately brought to mind their role-playing equivalents: the Drow.
When it comes to specific villain’s and monsters that litter the Dungeons & Dragon’s canon, I have always had a particular fondness for the race of evil, magic-using, dark-skinned subterranean elves that inhabit many of the worlds that make up the fantasy realms of my games. My own weekly D&D campaign is in the midst of an ‘Underdark’ arch that features several of these beings- though their purpose in the plot is far more dubious than their traditional bent at best.
One of the traits of these Drow, or dark elves, which has always intrigued and in all honesty upset me, is the singular fact that these evil elves are gifted with dark skin.
As a monster race, the Drow were created by one of the originators to the D&D world, the one and only Gary Gygax, who is said to have crafted both the name and existence of these alternative elves from a blend of Norse mythology and his own imagination. The word “drow” is an alternative of the word “trow”, or its cognate “troll” and comes from the Gaelic dialect of the Scots. The actual appearance in myth that the drow are based on are their Norse equivalents, the Dökkálfar, or ‘dark elves’ who live underground and are described in the Prose Edda, a compilation of Norse myth penned in the 13th century, as ‘blacker than pitch’. They are the counter parts to the Light elves, who were said to be fairer than the sun to look at.
Based on this description, Gygax went on to create one of the most iconic and ubiquitous villain’s of the fantasy genre. Unfortunately one of the lasting hallmarks and most indelible fact about the drow was and is their dark skin.
This trait has been brought up over the years around various tables as somewhat perplexing. The fact that the drow are subsurface dwellers should mean that rather than having dark-skin, they should be completely pale; the absence of sun light should make them look something more like albinos (similar to the cave-dwelling cannibals in Lion Gates 2005 Descent), where there is no longer a need to have protection from harmful ultra violet radiation, which is the main benefit of tonal differences in melanin, or skin pigmentation. At the birth of their inclusion into the world of D&D, I’m willing to believe that the science behind subterranean life and the effects of sun deprivation were at best a murky topic, and fantasy references served as the basis for the fleshing out of their general appearance.
This observation may at first seem overly critical of made-up villains in a fantasy world, but it is a topic that has evidently been raised elsewhere, time and again. And as a Gamer, who also just so happens to be a Gamer of Color, I am indisputably afflicted by a gene that causes me to explore things that interest and confound my understanding of the various systems that surround me.
One of the main problems with their skin tone is the historical rationales that sometimes accompany its presence in the fantasy settings; that it is part of a curse they received for being ‘evil’ and coincides with their subsequent expulsion into the underground. This mythology has an all too familiar and chilling parallel in the real world.
The Mark of Cain, a Christian concept as to the branding curse of the fabled first murderer in human history has at times over the centuries and very believably been attributed to dark skin. It was a defining rationale behind slavery and segregation in the United States from a religious standpoint, and was wholly integrated into the Mormon faith, something that the Church only divorced itself from in the later-half of the 1970’s. The idea of cursing an individual, or even a group of individuals with any easily identifying mark, such as a Scarlet Letter, is a concept old an ingrained into the human psyche, the dangers though of such a racial deliminator are easy to see.
These dangers are addressed in a scene from another Hollywood film– in the 1992 movie, Malcolm X, Denzel Washington who plays the civil rights leader speaks to the power of language and the importance of choosing ones words for the implications and imagery that it can not only conjure, but perpetuate out into the world beyond the self. The tropes of dark skin seem as rooted in our subconscious and across cultures as the ideas surrounding darkness itself seem to be: evil, ugliness, danger, shadows, monsters and above all, the unknown. By associating these terms and ideas with physical manifestations of our fellow human beings, people effectively charge interactions with these individuals with notions of perceived specificity: hence we get the stereotype. Which is why the idea of drow, or dark elves, being evil, malicious, dangerous and predatory have been a point of issue for some of us in the Gaming world. Add to this the expanded universe where the drow through editions of D&D canon have been expanded upon with facts that include how their society is matriarchal (a subtle implication about the dangers of female empowerment and agency) and ironically, big traffickers of slaves (quite the inversion).
All of this was bouncing around in the recesses of my head as I watched Thor: The Dark World. It wasn’t until I was thinking back about the film though that I could appreciate the comportment of its evil characters. The ‘dark elves’ in the world of Thor, based on their Marvel comic book origins (who have a mix of purplish-white skin) were in fact pale skinned individuals. At long last it seemed, the ‘dark’ sunless and nihilist evil elves of the universe held a glimmer of a more plausible appearance. I also reflected on the controversy over Idris Elba’s donning of the mask of Heimdall in the original and in the sequel to Thor and wondered if the film-makers wanted to treat the subject with a more encompassing brush-stroke concerning their Dark Elves.
All the elements of fantasy speak to a reflection in our broader understandings of the world and how we perceive the elements that move about us, even and especially in Hollywood blockbusters. By infusing these worlds we create with preordained concepts, we are not really leaving behind or escaping anything that persists in the world, and even more, we are limiting our ability at creating truly divergent universes that might imagine a more fantastic world than our own. Of course, Games are as much about perpetuating our myths and symbols as they are about creation and interaction. Still, by challenging the ‘rules’ of what has come before, Gamers themselves are typically graced with a mindset towards breaking these very truths, and what better rules to break, than some of the most ingrained and harmful ones around. So when you get a chance, why not challenge some rules you see concerning language and descriptive iconography, and above all,
- Most of the historical details in this article were culled from Wikipedia.