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I've watched a few episodes of Amazon's new Wheel of Time series. It has its pros and cons, but something strange about it is that just about every single place has strong ethnic variety, as though it was a modern city with large immigrant groups from different countries, that we have these days; maybe even more extreme than that - a bit more reminiscent of the olympics or an international conference.

It would of course make perfect sense that people from different regions are of different ethnicities; and consequently also an order like the Aes Sedai which brings together women from all around the world/continent - but a medieval-ish village like the Two Rivers would be racially uniform with relatively little variation.

I read some of the WoT books many years ago (more than 20 years actually), and I don't remember this feature in the writing. Am I mis-remembering the books or has this feature been added artificially?

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    I don't think it's a book thing. I think it's a Hollywood thing; salon.com/2014/11/08/…
    – Valorum
    Dec 4, 2021 at 22:03
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    Let me guess -- is there also a variety of sexual preferences and some gender fluidity? If yes: Was that in the books from 20 years ago? Dec 6, 2021 at 1:43
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    It's obviously because of modern politics, it's a trend on nearly every netflix-produced show. For some reason historical (or in this case, fictional) accuracy is out the window when there's a chance to score political brownie-points. You'll also see a lot of people defending that particular choice for the same reason.
    – Achi
    Dec 6, 2021 at 8:04
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    @Achi - There is not really any such things as "fictional accuracy" in a made-up setting. There are choices that make sense in a story's setting, of course, and several of the answers argue persuasively that this is a choice that does make sense.
    – Adamant
    Dec 6, 2021 at 15:26
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    @Adamant: If this choice made sense, I'd probably not be asking this question. I find it rather distracting.
    – einpoklum
    Dec 6, 2021 at 18:59

4 Answers 4

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This is an intentional move on the part of the makers.

Per the show script, as revealed by the WoT showrunner Rafe Judkins:

[A QUICK NOTE: race in the world of Wheel of Time is much less defined than in our world.

As much as possible, our cast should look like America will in a few hundred years—a beautiful mix of white, brown, black and everything in between]

Per Twitter

We'll apparently see a 'trend' of certain races in certain regions.

Q. Certain cities definitely trend towards certain demographics, but I suppose the same can be said for the US[?]

RJ: For sure. Fal Dara will look more East Asian, you’ll see plenty of gingers in the Waste, etc ;)

It's noted in various interviews that this is a very intentional attempt to modernise the series to fit in with present-day concerns about diversity on screen, rather than anything that's reflected in the books.

io9: While Jordan rarely mentions anything regarding race in the novels, the show’s incredibly diverse casting feels like an update as well.

Kehoe: I think you’ve got to. We absolutely have done that and tried to keep it up to date and make it organic, which I think we’ve done very successfully. It doesn’t feel like you force those characters into that situation. As Mike said on various other calls, the [show’s] physical Breaking of the World allowed us to have cast diversity from all over the world. In Emond’s Field, for example, there are people who come from all these different countries. So that’s the way we portrayed our world.

Adapting The Wheel of Time for TV Is an Epic All Its Own

You may wish to note that Brandon Sanderson (who completed the novel series on which the show is based after the original author's death) doesn't agree that this is his vision of what the world looks like in the books, but is happy enough with this as an adaptation of the source material by others.

That's a legit gripe [referring to the multiracial casting]. I don't blame anyone if they don't like this decision for book/film continuity reasons--just as I would have trouble blaming anyone for disliking a casting like Jackman as Wolverine, because he's so different from the source material. Most of us loved him, but it's okay for someone to dislike the choice.

The WoT casting looks good to me. It's more than it doesn't bother me; it's more that I actively like how these people look as the characters. Granted, I have information others don't have. I've read Rafe's scripts, I've read his treatments, and I get what he's doing with the series--and in almost every case, I like the choices he's made.

Deciding to do the Two Rivers with a variety of skin tones but a unified cultural identity is cool to me because I think it expresses some of the broad themes of the Wheel of Time. Themes that might be difficult to get across otherwise without the text, the internal monologues, etc.

To me, this is like putting the Harry Potter kids in street clothes in the third of those films, or making Frodo push Sam away in the LotR films--both are pretty big deviations from the letter of the story, but both (I think) achieve something in setting the tone the right way for a film.

Per Reddit

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    Have they changed the timeline for the show? It does not change the overall conclusion about the racial and ethnic diversity of the setting, but in the books, a few thousand years pass between the end of the Age of Legends (already some time in the future relative to a modern technology level) and the events of the story, not a few hundred.
    – Adamant
    Dec 4, 2021 at 22:11
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    @Adamant - The showrunner is referring to what he thinks that real-world America will look like in a few hundred years, e.g. entirely diverse, with Caucasians no longer forming a majority
    – Valorum
    Dec 4, 2021 at 22:12
  • Correct, and that will likely happen in fewer than a few hundred years, which makes me think that the figure has some story meaning. Is that meant to be the end of the Age of Legends and the beginning of the Third Age?
    – Adamant
    Dec 4, 2021 at 22:14
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    "RJ" is a slightly confusing abbreviation for Rafe Judkins, as it's also the initials of Robert Jordan, the (now dead) original author of the book series.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 5, 2021 at 20:51
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Because the world of The Wheel of Time is not medieval, it's actually post-apocalyptic.

If you watched the first episodes, you learned about an event called The Breaking of the World, that happened at the end of The Age of Legends. Well it turns out this Age of Legends corresponds chronologically to a sci-fi post-modern-day society (you can actually see remnants of sci-fi architecture in S01E01 at the end of the cold-open scene). This is not an invention from the showrunners, as the books have visions of the Age of Legends including flying vehicles (link contains spoilers).

And with minor spoilers from the books:

The Age of Legends is actually our own future, as suggested in the books and confirmed by the author (see the 40th question in the linked page).

In that light it is logical that the population of the whole world is homogeneously heterogeneous in terms of skin color, as the civilizations of the world all included such diversity from their very inception post-breaking.

If you then ask why this diversity did not disappear during the 3 millenia following the Breaking, this is reasonably explained by the relatively small timeframe and lack of isolation between the locales currently shown is the series. At the very least, my own limited understanding of genetics does not make the "differences even out" scenario more likely that what is shown in the series.

The books do have visible differences between nations and cities however, but those are focused on architecture, culture and of course — as is notorious for Robert Jordan prose — the way people dress.

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    You do realize that inter-racial marriage evens out initial racial differences to a great degree, even in racially-stratified society, right? This argument doesn't make sense.
    – einpoklum
    Dec 4, 2021 at 22:34
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    @einpoklum On a timeframe of a few thousands years ? Likely not. Genetics don't work by averaging characteristics from both parents. Biracial families can have a lot of different skin tones, sometimes very contasted, even between siblings. And even if 3500 years were enough to select a somewhat local homogeneity, nothing guarantees the differences would appear on skin color or other 'racial' characteristics as we know them today.
    – Vallahga
    Dec 4, 2021 at 22:43
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    @einpoklum Also please note that until now, the show featured cities and locales from the same continent. The lack of 'ethnic' contrast between Tar Valon and the Two Rivers is consistent with what you would see between Paris and Rome in medieval times. The contrast is much more apparent with the Aiel, as they indeed have had very few mixed lineages with the people of the wetlands since the Breaking. And the show and books are both giving a clear 'racial' signifier: red hair.
    – Vallahga
    Dec 4, 2021 at 22:51
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    @Vallahga - Also, while I am not specifically an expert on genetics, I think einpoklum's reasoning may not be correct. If physically notable recessive traits such as red or blond hair and blue eyes can remain in populations for millenia (and they have) without either disappearing or dominating, should we automatically assume that the alleles responsible for characteristics like skin color would simply "even out," even in the absence of high intramarriage within ethnic groups? Maybe they would, but it does not seem like an obvious assumption.
    – Adamant
    Dec 4, 2021 at 22:55
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 6, 2021 at 16:45
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In-universe, it is a logical consequence of the setting. Recall that the Wheel of Time series is not (exactly) set in the distant past, or at least not only in the distant past. The setting is the future of a world something like our own: one in which, during the Age of Legends, magic and technology reached levels of advancement unknown in the modern real world. As such, movement of people between countries and continents would likely have been easy and commonplace, and we would expect to see more racial and ethnic diversity than in most parts of the real world.

By contrast, only about 3,500 years pass between the end of the Age of Legends and the present day of the story. That is a sufficiently short time period for there still to be recognizable national and ethnic groups from the Age of Legend, particularly if there is a great deal of intragroup marriage, something that has been common in societies of a similar technological level in the real world (for instance, intragroup marriage among Jews conserved a number of ancient Near Eastern alleles).

In addition, contrary to the assumption implicit in the question, it is not immediately clear that a homogeneous spatial distribution of the alleles that influence, e.g., skin color (that is, alleles for darker or lighter skin are equally common everywhere in the world) is at all equivalent to complete homogeneity between individuals (skin color is the same between any two individuals). As a counterexample, consider hair color, which is also determined by several genes, and has been non-homogenous in many regions over the course of millenia. That is, intermarriage between individuals with various hair colors has not eliminated blond, orange, or black hair from populations in favor of an intermediate light brown hair, for instance.

Of course, the out-of-universe explanation is likely to involve a desire to ensure that all actors had an opportunity to access most roles, and were not excluded purely on the basis of their background, as well as to ensure some degree of diversity and representation from the outset, without having to wait many episodes for all of the wider world to come into play or to expand the storyline with plot threads set in far-flung parts of the world but only hinted at or not included in the books.

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    @einpoklum - Much as how intermarriage erased genetic differences between Jews and their neighbors over 2000 years?. Or between Romani and their neighbors over some 1500? I think you might need to consider intramarriage as a factor.
    – Adamant
    Dec 4, 2021 at 22:34
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    "The setting is the future of a world something like our own" Not just "something like our own". It is literally intended to be future Earth.
    – Arthur
    Dec 5, 2021 at 18:05
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    @einpoklum "Jewish" is both a religion and an ethnic group. (Okay, actually it's like three ethnic groups, but still.) You can be ethnically but not religiously Jewish, or vice versa. Judaism discourages conversion and outside marriage, so Jewish people have historically been both religiously and genetically distinct from their neighbors. Dec 5, 2021 at 22:07
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    @einpoklum, odd, that. Perhaps you could explain why India, as an example, still shows a wide variety in phenotypes and non-homogenity among the native populations despite well over 3500 years of getting it on? Dec 6, 2021 at 5:17
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    @einpoklum Genetics don't work like that. In my own family, a single family, some family members will be born with darker skin and some with lighter skin. Some with slanted eyes and some with round eyes. Some with straight hair and some with very tightly curled hair. This is within a single core family with the same mother and father. This is because I live in Malaysia where intermarriage have been going on for thousands of years and my family on my father's side can trace their ancestry to both China and Indonesia and...
    – slebetman
    Dec 6, 2021 at 7:16
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Spoilers are from the books. Don't assume they're safe just because you've seen season 1 of the show.

Others have already provided an answer as to why this may make sense in the show's canon, sumamrised as:

The show is set in a post apocalyptic setting ~3500 years ago, which provided plenty of opportunity for travel and intermingling between people with different skin tone.

However, these answers are not necessarily complete, because they leave out two important and linked elements:

  • The wheel of time is cyclical - we're not jsut considering the impact of one age of wonders, but uncountably many; and
  • reincarnation is real, and influences your genetic makeup in ways we don't understand.

Reincarnation is established fact in the Wheel of time. We know it as a general fact of existence for everyone, and we know it for the dragon reborn. Assuming the tv show follows the books, we also can assume we know of specific reincarnations for

the Heroes of the Horn - such as Birgette and Gaidal and Artur Hawkwing.

And we see in both the dragon's case, and the others, there is a correlation between your genes before, and after reincarnation

None of these four characters change gender during reincarnation, despite having lived many lives each. There is discussion that the dragon may have changed gender during reincarnation, however, this was not the case. It may reflect Moraine being incorrect, or it may just be that reincarnation strongly influences, without completely controlling your gender.

If reincarnation can influence that, it could influence skin color.

We still don't know how reincarnation works though. Obviously, traditional genetics still has some impact on the offspring, for example

Rand has red hair like the rest of the Aiel, but unlike the Lewis.

What the tv show depicts is not inconsistent with a situation in which both reincarnation and traditional genetics impact skin color, and where the arbitrarily high age of the cyclical universe has provided plenty of opportunity for people of all skin colors to appear in every city, town and tiny village but traditional genetics still leads to certain areas having higher representation of certain characteristics.

Other answers on this site support the 'genetics and reincarnation combine to impact' theory https://scifi.stackexchange.com/a/147177/29187

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  • I'd actually go as far to state that the original story is not very consistent in that regard. Since humans have been around for so long, all the bigger cities are always full of travelers, war keeps reshaping counties and there aren't actually so many people living in the known world, it does not really make sense that things like hair color and nouances of skin color can be attributed to areas on maps. Dec 9, 2022 at 12:43

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