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This trope appears everywhere in literature - especially in fantasy. Everywhere you turn, black means bad and white means good. This is particularly true when applied to people, or the consequences of peoples' actions.

The Lord of the Rings does it. The Chronicles of the Black Company does it. Harry Potter does it. Less recently, Paradise Lost does it. Tekkonkinkreet, The Golden Age, Myst, The Belgariad, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Heart of Darkness... in some respects, all of these use the color black to denote and describe which people are not worth trusting, and the consequences of their actions that hurt people.

But if we go back far enough, with peculiarly higher frequency in the non-Western/European world, it seems to disappear as a relied-upon trope. Much of ancient Greek literature, for example, seems to entirely (or nearly entirely) ignore using black as a symbol for evil. Even some modern literature uses it as a neutral symbol, or just as a color signifying the presence of magic with no particular alignment; e.g., The Sandman. Its use as a reliable trope, then, seems to be maybe deceptively recent.

To where should we trace the roots of its popularization in contemporary Western-style literature?

(As an aside, I've thought about this question a lot. I'm hoping to find and learn something deeper than the fundamental notion, or basic Googleable ideas, esp. about its Western fantasy popularization.)

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The black and white dualism is probably the most common dichotomy and can be traced back to Pythagoras' Table of Opposites, which lists both good and evil as well a well light and darkness. Usually all of those light/white/day/good are opposed to darkness/black/night/evil.

Since you asked for the first occurrence in Western literature, I'd go with Pythagoras and not Confucius.

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    While "black and white" is a natural set of paired opposites, and a more concrete one that pairs well with the abstract and metaphysical concepts of "good and evil," your answer does nothing to explain why white would consistently be mapped linguistically to "good" rather than evil (specifically in European languages and literature). – Chris Sunami Jun 5 '17 at 19:25
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In western culture, black has been a symbol for death, mourning, sin & evil, and the strange or the "other", but also of humility, and of writing and literature.

  1. Black as a symbol of death (sometimes associated with night) goes at least as far back as Homer's Iliad, where Death and Ker (plural: Keres are black. Black is also the colour of the personified death in Statius's Thebaid and in Seneca's Oedipus. Hesiod's Theogony also mentions "black Ker". In Dante's Divine Comedy, Hell and the devils are black.
  2. Black as a symbol of mourning can also be found in Homer's Iliad. It is also the colour of black bile, which, in the theory of the four humours, causes "melancholy" or depression.
  3. Black as a symbol for the devil, sin and evil can be found in the Bible (Acts 26, 18).

In western culture, white has been a symbol of innocence, virginity, virtue, the holy but sometimes also of death.

  1. White as a symbol of innocence, virginity and virtue goes at least as far back as the Book of Revelation (3, 4f): "Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; (...)." (King James Version). For this reason, the white lily has often been used as an emblem for the Virgin Mary.
  2. White as a symbol of the sacred and godly wisdom and sublimeness can be traced back to Exodus (chapters 26-27), where the tabernacle should have a kind of white linen fence. The god Apollo was also associated with white.
  3. More recently, white has also been associated with the power of untamed nature over humans, e.g. in White Fang and Moby-Dick.

(White as a symbol of death is much more recent; there are several examples in 19th-century German literature.)

Works of literature that specifically use the contrast between black and white are also old. For example, in Plutarch's Theseus, Theseus promises to his father to return on a ship with white sails if he survived, otherwise the ship would have black sails. Due to an unforeseen incident on the way back, the sailors forget to put up the white sails, and Theseus's father Aegeus, seeing the black sails, commits suicide before the ship reaches the harbour.

However, the Theseus myth uses a distinction between white and black sails, not on black and white as skin colour. An example of this can be found in Jean Bodel's La Chanson des Saisnes ("Song of the Saxons", late 12th century, France), in which Saxons and black Nubians fight against white Franks. The Saxons are the enemies and are portrayed as oriental Saracens. In this way, "white" and the Franks ("we") are associated with the good side, and the "others" (Saxons and black Nubians) and black with the bad side of the story.

Main source: Günter Butzer and Joachim Jacob (ed.): Metzler Lexikon literarischer Symbole. Second edition. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 2012.

  • Also Isaiah 1:18 "though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow" – Mike Aug 16 '18 at 4:31
  • @Mike Thanks. There are probably many other relevant quotes. I might come back to this later and add more examples. – Christophe Strobbe Aug 16 '18 at 13:52
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A lot of our standard language encodes subconscious in-group, out-group preferences. As theorist Franz Fanon explored in his work Black Skins, White Masks, the probable origin is the psychological desire to distance oneself from non-desired traits by displacing them onto a group readily distanced from the target audience.

Since racial examples can be controversial, and tend to garner instinctive resistance, let's start with a non-racial example. The word dexterous is a positive adjective meaning "skillful and competent with the hands" whereas "sinister" is a negative adjective meaning "singularly evil or productive of evil" (see also gauche). Yet, the words originate in ones meaning "right-handed" and "left-handed." The fact that a significant majority of people are right-handed has resulted in a distinct semantic preference for right-handedness being encoded into language that is used commonly, and without any malicious intent.

Similarly, the advent of positive/negative word pairs in European languages contrasting white and black is at least arguably related to the formation of a unified European racial identity privileging lighter skin, perhaps as a reaction to increased collective competition with the darker-skinned cultures of the Middle East and Africa. Recent literature that counters this trend often does so as a direct and explicit response against the perceived subconscious racism in the color-coding of older fantasy works.

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    Ooohh, not sure how I feel about this answer. One the one hand, you are absolutely right that this is related to race (I say this as someone who has done quite a bit of research and thought about race in Tolkien's work). One the other hand, you're wrong about the trope decreasing in prevalence: it's just changed forms (think about Darth Vadar having a black suit instead of black skin, or Orcs' skin colors changing from black to green). – user111 Jun 5 '17 at 19:20
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    In addition, your analysis of the formation of European racial identity is completely incorrect. Historical figures who we identify as European, such as the Romans or Greeks, came into frequent contact with people who we now would identify as black, but they didn't form racial stereotypes. There's a lot more going on than just contact, including things like economic exploitation (you can read a little bit about this in the blog post I linked, but it was written a year ago, and I really need to go back and update that blog post, because several things I say there are incorrect). – user111 Jun 5 '17 at 19:24
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    @Hamlet - I edited to respond to your comments. As far as the ancient Romans and Greeks, however, it doesn't seem likely that they ever viewed themselves as being part of a unified "white" race the way later Europeans did. Good essay, btw. – Chris Sunami Jun 5 '17 at 19:34
  • As far as the ancient Romans and Greeks, however, it doesn't seem likely that they ever viewed themselves as being part of a unified "white" race the way later Europeans did. Yeah, that's exactly my point. Hence why racism is about more than just contact with people who look different than you. – user111 Jun 5 '17 at 19:39

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