I saw The Hobbit DoS yesterday, and I was anticipating the scene which has had racists frothing at the mouth: the appearance of a few people of color in LakeTown. I saw the scene and... I didn't see the big deal. But I felt like it didn't really make up for the portrayal of nonwhite people in LOTR as scowling, mute oliphant riders.
Epic fantasy has a pretty dismal record when it comes to diversity, but part of me wonders what we should expect. The most famous epic fantasy story, LOTR, was inspired by a combination of Scandinavian legend and English medieval romance. The genre's other famous character, Conan, was an idealized version of Celtic heroes. There are more people of color in Conan than in LOTR, but they are always othered.
So why does epic fantasy hold to this trope? Other kinds of fantasy, like modern fantasy, is more diverse; Neil Gaiman frequently uses people of color as characters, and authors like Nalo Hopkinson write from their own background. But in terms of epic or high fantasy it's all red-bearded kings trying to reclaim their right to the throne.
I can think of a few exceptions, like The Last Airbender, but among epic fantasy novelists few go beyond the same medieval tropes. Why can 't there be epic stories based on Darius of Persia, or Shaka Zulu, or the Incas? Hell, why does epic fantasy have to have a monarchy anyway? Why not base an epic fantasy on social anarchism?
Or am I just looking at the wrong books?
ETA: REading the comments on IMDB, the complaints about the Hobbit run into two categories. The first are of the "I'm not racist but..." variety, appealing to "authenticity." In full disclosure, I've argued this before (I still find issue with the "but there are dragons/wizards, etc" argument) on the grounds that fantastic stories work better in "familiar" settings. I see now that this a pretty privileged view. Who am I to say what a "familiar" setting is? As well, as dutchessofnuts points out that arguent's kind of bullshit, because there were people of color in Medieval Europe
But while the "it's not authentic" guys are more ignorant than malicious, there are others who are out and out white supermacists who see Tolkien's world as a exemplary Nordic or Anglo-Saxon fantasy.
This is super disturbing, and that gets me back to my oriringal point: is epic fantasy so tied in with myths of white Anglo-Saxon superiority that we should give it up? I really hope not, but I think the solution is about more than just adding a few people of color in the background scenes.