Race in the Wide Worlds of Fire Emblem

-Notice: This article contains unmarked spoilers for Fire Emblem on the Game Boy Advance and Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance for the Nintendo GameCube.-

“Sub-human? Ha! What arrogance it takes to coin such a name! You think yourselves the only ones worthy of the name ‘human,’ and so we laguz must be beneath you? And thus you call us ‘sub-human.’ We are less than human to you, is that it?”

“I’m sorry…I don’t know any other name for you. If I have offended you, I apologize. What should I call you? Laguz? Would that be more appropriate?”

“Huh? You show manners? How odd. I like that. Now, you are…Who, exactly?”

“My name is Ike. Ike of the Greil Mercenaries.”

I recently finished a playthrough of Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, my first time going through it in at least seven years. Though I knew it was a game that wasn’t afraid of tackling delicate issues, they hit a lot harder when I was old enough to really realize what they were talking about. Fire Emblem games have a reputation for depicting how fucked up royal families are—in one, a prince clandestinely murders his father so that he can become king and in another a king arranges to have his prepubescent son assassinated.

But that’s all par for the course and royal family fuckups aren’t necessarily things we deal with on a daily basis. What about race, though?

Interestingly, the first Fire Emblem to be released in the United States was the first one to really mention race at all. 1)That game was localized as just Fire Emblem. It is the seventh FE game overall. The first protagonist you encounter out of three is a young woman named Lyndis, the sole survivor of her nomadic tribe, the Lorca. 2)The region she is from, Sacae, is home to many nomadic tribes with different names and customs. Unbeknownst to her, she holds royal blood; her mother is the daughter of the current Marquess of Caelin. Long story short, she must travel to save his life as he is being secretly poisoned by his brother, who would be next in line for succession should he die. 3)See! Royal families, right?

Along the way she is promised aid by the Marquess of Araphen. However, upon meeting her, he has a sudden and sinister change of heart: “This girl does resemble Lady Madelyn, but… I didn’t expect to see her so tainted with the blood of Sacae. Don’t you feel the Marquess of Caelin would be troubled to meet   this… nomadic mongrel?” Lyn’s response: “I am proud of the Sacae blood that runs through my veins. I will NOT accept aid from one who disparages my heritage.” Go Lyn!

Here we see Lyn and Rath in glorious low-res GBA glory.
Here we see Lyn and Rath in glorious low-res GBA glory.

After she leaves, he admits that he would have offered her aid had she not been so prideful. Rath, another Sacaen nomad and a mercenary under Araphen’s hire overhears this and quits: “As long as we bend our knee to you, you care not where we’re from. But when an equal comes from my lands? What conceit.” His response is eerily familiar: “Rath! How can you speak to me like that? I have treated you well, have I not? I have paid you well. I have treated you better than your kind deserves.”4)The emphasis here is my own.

Lyn’s heritage is brought up again should she challenge Lundgren, her great uncle and the man poisoning her grandfather. In Fire Emblem, bosses will sometimes have unique dialogue if challenged by certain characters. If Lyn fights Lundgren, they will have a short conversation where he says, “The royal house of Caelin has no need of a Sacaen mongrel! I’ll put an end to this foolishness here and now!” 5)Lundgren had also spread the rumor that Lyn had an illegitimate claim to the throne.

From then on out, Lyn’s heritage takes a backseat as the focus of the story shifts to either Eliwood or Hector, the two other protagonists. She remains prideful in her heritage and in the ostensibly canon ending, she renounces her claim to Caelin and returns to the plains, which explains her absence in the previous Fire Emblem game, which was released only in Japan and which FE7 is a prequel to.

In Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones, the plot is mostly more royal family shenanigans, except also there are zombies and eldritch-type monsters this time around. Also, there is a Demon King. It’s been a long time since I’ve played it (I do plan to revisit it soon), but it’s a pretty all right game!

Anyway, back to Path of Radiance. Race is without a doubt one of the most important elements in the entire plot. Background: the humans of the continent Tellius are referred to as beorc while people who have animal-like traits and are able to fully transform into animals for a short time are referred to as laguz. There are a ton of different types of laguz: the main tribes are beast, bird, and dragon. Smaller subsets include cat, tiger, lion, hawk, raven, heron, and white and red dragons.

The official art for Lethe, a cat laguz, depicts both her humanoid and beast form.
The official art for Lethe, a cat laguz, depicts both her humanoid and beast form.

The beorc and laguz are separated geographically. The countries of Crimea, Daein, and Begnion are historically beorc, while the countries of Gallia (beast) and Goldoa (dragon) as well as the island nations of Kilvas and Phoenicis (bird) are historically laguz. 6)Serenes Forest is an area in Begnion that the heron tribe are native to. We’ll touch more on that in a bit. I can feel your eyes glazing over. Bear with me, the hard part’s over.

The long and short of it is that there is straight-up racism in Tellius. Hell, there is fucking slavery. At one point in the game, Reyson (a heron) is sold by Naesala (a raven) to Oliver, a duke in Begnion. This is particularly significant because Reyson was thought to be the last of his kind, as twenty years prior to the events of PoR the Serenes Forest was burnt to the ground by angry Begnion citizens seeking retribution for the assassination of their apostle—as it turns out, their furor was misguided and the near-extinction of the heron clan was simply a mistake. 7)There’s actually Plot Stuff behind this, but I won’t bore you any more with Plot Stuff.

To hear Duke Oliver talk about Reyson is downright disgusting, actually! “There can be no doubt–I gaze upon the last living wonder of the Serenes royalty. Those golden locks! Witness how they gather in the morning sun and multiply its brilliance. The gentle lustre of those argent wings! Manifest proof of royalty, as sure as I am alive. Magnificent… Absolutely magnificent. A true work of art wrought in flesh and feather. All this beauty… Mine… The fortune I paid the raven king seems like a pittance compared to this treasure!”

*Sideshow Bob shudder*
*Sideshow Bob shudder*

Duke Oliver is the flip-side of how racism can manifest itself. Whereas the most common form is straight-up hatred, Oliver is on the other side: he is straight-up fetishizing Reyson based on his race. 8)Whether or not Oliver’s attraction is sexual is neither confirmed nor denied. For the record, multiple characters mention how unsettlingly his demeanor changes when around Reyson. The sale of Reyson as property is not necessarily unique aside from his heritage; though laguz slavery had been outlawed in Begnion twenty years prior, many nobles still participate due to the lax enforcement of the law.

Around the same time Reyson is sold, Ike encounters a group of laguz led by a small boy, Tormod, and Maurim, a former laguz slave. Though everyone is under the impression that slavery is over, Tormod knows differently: “The commoners obey, but there are still many laguz slaves in the homes of nobles. Muarim and I brought this to the attention of the senators, but they would not listen. That’s why we gathered other fighters. We break into the homes where slaves are kept and help them escape. Of course, the nobles can’t let this be known publicly, so they brand us thieves and turn us into wanted outlaws.”

Maurim refers to himself as a sub-human and, after he and Tormod are recruited by Ike, pushes Tormod away out of shame. Ike, ever the idealist, justifies Maurim’s worth: “Since I first arrived here in Begnion, it’s something that’s been bothering me. If you’re born into a noble house, you’re a noble. If your parents are slaves, you’re a slave. Do you think a person’s worth is decided at the moment of their birth?”

Eventually, the current Apostle, Sanaki, takes responsibility for her people’s actions in the Serenes Forest Massacre, as well as pledging to fully eliminate the slavery issue. She prostrates herself in front of Reyson and formally apologizes—something that shocks all onlookers due to the status she holds. Reyson forgives her, acknowledging that hate only begets hate.

There’s even more when it comes to race in PoR: the Branded. The Branded are those with both laguz and beorc blood; they are incapable of transformation and hold no obvious animal characteristics, but they are shunned by both the laguz and beorc. Ike’s tactician, Soren, is secretly Branded. 9)This fact is only revealed should Soren build an A-support with either Ike or another character, Stefan. Though he has laguz blood in his veins, he is openly hostile towards them. When first meeting Lethe and Mordecai, two laguz escorts from Gallia, he says, “You think you’re humans? The only thing human about you is your conceit! You filthy, hairy sub-human!”

Soren’s supports with Ike reveal why he (at least outwardly) feels that way. In the A support, he confesses: “It’s a cross between a beorc and a laguz. Such a taboo union violates every teaching of the goddess. And of society. We are untouchables. Abominations. Condemned to a life of hatred and shunning from both races.” When Ike has no problem with this, Soren is genuinely baffled: “What’s the problem…? Don’t you find me repugnant!? I work beside you, eat beside you. I’m nothing! I don’t belong anywhere! Doesn’t that sicken you?” Soren’s shame is deeply internalized—indeed, this is the only moment in the entire game where he is fully honest with himself.

The prejudice even goes both ways. Soren himself is disenchanted with humans, calling them “shameless creatures that carelessly ignore any misfortune which does not befall them directly.” Ranulf explains that, for laguz, referring to beorc as “humans” is just as bad as beorc referring to laguz as “sub-humans.” The amount of characters that interact with each other is overwhelming, to the point where it would be possible to analyze all of them in one article.

The discussion is undoubtedly continued in the sequel to Path of Radiance, Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, which came out for the Wii a few years ago. Unfortunately I have to report that, even though I have the game right now I have yet to play it all the way through. 10)I’m waiting to borrow a friend’s Wii so I can import my PoR save data. I am That Guy.

For what it’s worth, neither of the two entries that followed Radiant Dawn really continued that conversation, mainly because both of them were remakes of earlier titles in the series. Fire Emblem Awakening, the most recent FE game to be released, is fantastic. But—and this is a big but—it drops the ball pretty severely on race.

It touches upon stuff similar to PoR, due to the presence of shape-shifting characters similar to laguz. Panne, a taguel (rabbit shape-shifter), is the last of her species due to the ritual hunting humans did. Because of this, she feels contempt towards most humans and it understandably takes some time for her to warm up to people. Nowi, a manakete (dragon shape-shifter), is introduced having just narrowly escaped a life of slavery. But neither of these characters are central to the plot like the laguz of Path of Radiance. It gets brought up in supports now and again, and while the supports are excellent, that’s about it.

The greatest shortcoming is the inability to customize the skin color of your avatar. No matter what, you’re white as a sheet. This would be less of a problem (though still a pretty big problem!) were it not for two characters who are not only crucial to the plot but also people of color. Spoiler warning for this footnote! 11)And, you know, there’s also the avatar’s father. But that’s neither here nor there. Awakening is a fantastic game, even with its flaws taken into account, and hopefully since Nintendo is listening a lot more closely these days, the next Fire Emblem will be a bit more open-ended with any character creation it may have. 12)I do acknowledge that, due to the children mechanic, the ability to customize skin color in Awakening might have introduced more problems than it solved. But still, those are problems worth solving!

As a Japanese company, Nintendo’s relationship with race is and has always been tricky. Then again, we can say that for any company anywhere in the world. But Fire Emblem is a series that has done more than probably any flagship Nintendo series in that respect, at least in the past decade or so. Let’s keep that conversation going!

Notes   [ + ]

1. That game was localized as just Fire Emblem. It is the seventh FE game overall.
2. The region she is from, Sacae, is home to many nomadic tribes with different names and customs.
3. See! Royal families, right?
4. The emphasis here is my own.
5. Lundgren had also spread the rumor that Lyn had an illegitimate claim to the throne.
6. Serenes Forest is an area in Begnion that the heron tribe are native to. We’ll touch more on that in a bit.
7. There’s actually Plot Stuff behind this, but I won’t bore you any more with Plot Stuff.
8. Whether or not Oliver’s attraction is sexual is neither confirmed nor denied. For the record, multiple characters mention how unsettlingly his demeanor changes when around Reyson.
9. This fact is only revealed should Soren build an A-support with either Ike or another character, Stefan.
10. I’m waiting to borrow a friend’s Wii so I can import my PoR save data. I am That Guy.
11. And, you know, there’s also the avatar’s father.
12. I do acknowledge that, due to the children mechanic, the ability to customize skin color in Awakening might have introduced more problems than it solved. But still, those are problems worth solving!

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