I get nervous when I first encounter disability in a narrative. Doubly so in genre narratives. It’s an unfortunate response. I should rejoice—representation matters, and I truly believe that. I co-edited Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction because I believe it. But when I encounter disability in a story, I think: why is the author including disability, and what is its purpose? That seems an ableist thought process, and it is. This is an unfortunate side-effect of having read numerous stories by able-bodied authors where disability is treated as a tool, or a signifier of something within the narrative. Where the disabled body, and so disability itself, is necessarily treated as a place of meaning. It happens for a reason. Disability rarely just is.
As readers, we’re taught to read meaning into art, to intuit metaphor from colours, objects, and especially bodies. Because of this, many writers approach disability in a narrative as a metaphor: a loss of autonomy, a consequence of a character’s hubris, a price they must pay. Think of Odin One-Eye, who pays for knowledge with the loss of his eye. And numerous critics have written about the ways audiences and creators equate physical disability with evil or moral decline.
Disability in fantasy concerns me because it is in a position to literalize the idea of disability, and the disabled body, as an avenue of meaning. All works of art have this potential, but fantasy is unusual due to the way world-building functions in relation to belief and disability.
Take two tropes common in fantasy: the blind seer, and characters (epileptic or otherwise) who experience convulsions and as a result gain access to prophetic visions. Such figures have appeared frequently in narratives dealing with meaning-making: folklore, fairy tale, myth, epic poetry, even religion. These narrative types are the building blocks of fantasy, types of storytelling connected to helping humanity understand the world, to providing creative interpretation of the how and the why of things. At one time these were, and in some cases still are, the dominant framework for interpretation.
For much of human history, disability, bodily difference, and anything relating to mental health was filtered through these avenues of understanding. In many cultures and stories difference was the touch of divinity, the curse of a wrathful god upon a parent or a family, the work of the fae. Historically and in literature, disability is so often represented as a connection to the unseen forces of the world. In effect, the connection to the fantastical made the disabled individual fit into the world: they were visibly different, and that difference needed to be explained. More than this, disability gave them a place and purpose. Their curse or blessing helped all involved, disabled and able-bodied folks alike, order the universe and provide context and meaning to existence.
Of course, nowadays we understand bodies and minds differently. We know blindness, deafness, and conditions of chronic pain can be the result of genetic predisposition, environmental issues, disease, and all manner of other factors. That convulsions can indeed cause the individual to experience visions, that psychosis can lead to unusual insights, to the brain perceiving information differently. And most of us understand deities are not involved in these processes, that fantastical forces are not visiting blessings or curses upon us. That disability is neither gift nor curse, and disabled people are simply that: people.
However, this knowledge rarely translates into disability tropes in fantasy.
In a narrative where the blind seer’s prophecies or someone’s convulsive visions come true, they signify one thing: in this world disability isn’t merely believed to be fantastical in nature, it is fantastical. Disability then becomes a tool for an author to present their magical system as true, which only serves to perpetuate misunderstandings relating to disability. This type of narrative is alive and well in contemporary fantasy.
Consider a popular property like A Song of Ice and Fire and the resultant show, Game of Thrones, and the character of Jojen Reed, introduced in season three.
Jojen is a perfect example of modern fantasy’s continued problematic representation of disability. Through Jojen, we are led to understand just how powerful and dangerous magical abilities can be.
“The visions take their toll,” his sister Meera says in the TV show when Jojen experiences convulsions. Jojen is granted true visions, which we’re privy to, at the expense of his health. As his health deteriorates, the visions become stronger. Once his abilities are no longer necessary to the plot, he is killed. The story relegates him to the role of narrative tool, rather than an actual human being within the tale. Essentially, he exists to be dehumanized, to suffer for a purpose: he is disabled in order to provide exposition, and to showcase the terrible power and cost of magic in this world. He exists to suffer.
Brandon Stark connects to Jojen in complicated ways. On one level, it seems as though Martin and the showrunners want to explore some element of disability solidarity: Jojen is able to understand Brandon in ways others cannot precisely because he too is disabled and magical. Bran’s warging and prophetic abilities emerge as a direct result of his trauma and his disability after he is pushed out of a window and becomes paralyzed from the waist down. In the books Jojen’s connection to magic is rooted in childhood illness, but the showrunners decided to opt for a more visual connection between magic and disability: convulsions, or possibly epilepsy. Having two disabled characters connect over shared experience could be powerful, but unfortunately this is, of course, not the narrative focus. Magic and its cost is what draws them together, not disability.
The show’s final season is particularly frustrating in this regard as it has Bran outright state that his trauma and disability don’t matter because they’ve made him who he is. As with the potential for shared experience, this could be construed as the showrunners trying to bring Bran to a place of body acceptance. This entire essay could be spent on the misguided attempts of the showrunners to normalize disability and represent it positively, but that is another topic altogether. It should be sufficient to focus on their choice to elect Bran as king, with the title of “Bran the Broken.” Again, the showrunners attempt to make this a triumphant declaration. Tyrion states that “There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story… and who has a better story than Bran the Broken?” He then goes on to list Bran’s many accomplishments.
Unfortunately, Bran is one of the least developed characters in the later seasons. In fact, he is outright missing from season five because the showrunners felt his development at that point in the narrative wouldn’t make for compelling television, and after that they barely bother to characterize him at all. Like Jojen, he mostly becomes a tool to deliver magical context for the story and the development of other characters. When Bran is declared King, it is because he supposedly has a good story, not because he is well-written, or developed, or compelling as a person. It is because his life has meaning: he suffered for a reason, paid what they consider a terrible cost, and now the combination of his disability and his supernatural ability has given him a place in the world, something for others to draw inspiration from, that will help them make sense of their existence. He is elected king literally because he is a good symbol.
Tyrion’s speech is particularly jarring because it perfectly illustrates the power of stories: it highlights the impact that representation and symbols can have on people and cultures. But the show doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and when most visible representations of disability only reiterate harmful or wildly problematic messages about disability, it has unfortunate, if not dangerous, repercussions for the real world.
The issue isn’t this one instance of A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, but rather the systemic (mis)representation of disability as either punishment, payment, or symbol in fantasy. Submission piles are full of poorly-considered stories where the author’s intent isn’t to develop a disabled character, but rather to utilize a trope in the genre to develop world-building, to use disability as a metaphor, or to make that character a symbol within the world.
Disability in these cases so often serves to highlight the “toll” of the fantastical on the human body, its unnatural nature in this world. Or, disability and trauma allow a character access to the fantastical. Disability is included in the narrative not to exist as a reality of life, but rather as one of the many tools to literalize the fantastic in the story. As a result, the disabled characters themselves become little more than tools. When done especially poorly, as with Bran in the last season, authors can even turn disabled characters into mouthpieces for ableist notions. It makes not only for poor representation, but an actively harmful case of it.
When disabled characters feature in such narratives only in connection to the fantastic, it also reinforces ideas that disabled lives aren’t worth exploring in stories unless they have something else to make them compelling. Unless they are extraordinary in some way. To many abled-bodied folks it is the disabled body’s relation to the fantastic that finally makes it worthy of inclusion or narrative interest. And, as we’ve seen with the exclusion of Bran in season five of Game of Thrones, sometimes even that isn’t enough.
What a large number of such folks also fail to understand is that fantasy narratives aren’t at a safe remove for many disabled people. Their implications are a reality many of us must face in our everyday lives.
Expressions like “that person is touched” relating to mental health connect directly to the old perception of the fae influencing a person’s state of mind. Faith and disability are also often connected in complicated or dangerous ways. Ideas of “fate” and “divine plans”, that disability happens for a purpose, abound. The concept of praying away disability is pervasive. Parents, families, or communities still have children exorcised to purge the demons of mental illness or physical disability. Faith healers prey on families desperate for supernatural intervention. Disabled people’s (mis)treatment becomes a sign of God’s existence, or the power of faith. Some folks will plainly state that a person’s disability must have been earned through a moral or spiritual lack. And the notion of people gaining unique talents or insight that counterbalance disability or the loss of senses is far too common. Disability is still frequently seen as otherworldly, or fantastical by many in society.
But we are not magical beings. Our experiences are not fantastical but chemical, psychological, physical. Any particular insight we may gain comes from lived experience, not a cosmic or supernatural balancing act.
Of course, disabled readers can and often do want to see disabled characters with unique abilities just like abled-bodied folks in fantasy narratives. That isn’t the problem. What we want is to be people, fully-realized characters, not merely symbols, tropes, or physical demonstrations of magic’s power and cost. Such glaring deficiencies in representations are a prime example of why movements like #ownvoices are so necessary.
Our stories are worth telling without making us simply tools or symbols. Our bodies and our lives are more than just metaphors.
What writers often fail and need to realize is that the inability to properly understand and rectify these issues denotes not only a failure of craft, but of humanity.
© 2019 Dominik Parisien