There are plenty of reasons to be worried about the new Lord of the Rings series – but the inclusion of POC cast members is not one of them!
Why are people mad?
Earlier this month, Vanity Fair published several Instagram posts revealing first looks at some of the characters in the new Lord of the Rings series, The Rings of Power, set to be released later this year. And unfortunately, some of these images have been bombarded by racist comments from Tolkien purists.
I am not going to repost the racist language used by these commenters – for the curious, you can go under any Instagram post or TikTok video that uses images of the characters of Arondir and Disa. I guarantee you will find plenty of outright racism as well as racism that is a bit more disguised – whines about “forced diversity” or comments lamenting that the integration of people of colour into Anglo-Saxon/Western European-inspired lore in some way “discredits” Tolkien and his works.
In what way exactly does this discredit him? Who knows.
These people seem to think that just because much of Tolkien’s lore was inspired by European folklore, that Black skin somehow sullies their media. This is a huge shame – especially when you consider that the story of The Lord of the Rings is about people from multiple races (dwarves, elves, wizards, humans, hobbits) coming together to take on great evil and uniting as one. The series literally ends with a marriage between an elf and a human. Multiculturalism being a positive is definitely a part of Tolkien’s messages.
And anyway, this isn’t some kind of “woke, diversity-forcing takeover”, as some of the commenters seem to think – in addition to their Instagram posts, Vanity Fair also revealed 23 posters depicting the hands of each major character. And though it is impossible to tell the ethnicity of all the actors by hands alone, it is clear that white characters are very much in the majority – and actually, I think the casting team could have done more to include more POC characters.
So make no mistake – I am not saying that you cannot criticise the show. Indeed, there is plenty to criticise. You might be concerned over choices in hair & makeup (why don’t the elves have long hair? and why doesn’t Disa, who is a female dwarf, have a beard?). You may not like that the series will be hosted on Amazon Prime. You may be upset over the hiring of an intimacy coach, when many (myself included) believe that sex really doesn’t belong in Tolkien stories. Or you may be concerned over the announcement that Bad Robot (the same production team that brought us the somewhat soulless Star Trek and Star Wars revamps) have joined The Rings of Power production.
There is plenty to be worried about. But to be upset simply because one of the elves is Black is inexcusable. If someone has no problem imagining orcs, or magic rings that make you invisible, or that Gandalf resurrected himself with seemingly no trouble at all, then that person should have no problem imagining a Black elf or a Black dwarf. This is fantasy. To hell with Anglo-Saxon purists.
Modern day approach to Tolkien
This backlash stings especially considering that, in more recent years, the idea of race in Tolkien has come under heavier scrutiny – mainly due to the notion that there are certain races in his world that are all simply evil (i.e. trolls, orcs). And while there are story-based reasons for this when it comes to orcs (they are not really seen as people with free will and are instead simply the servants of Sauron), this does still call to light questions of race supremacy. Tolkien once wrote in a letter that orcs are:
squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-typesTolkien Gateway (2021). Racism in Tolkien’s works. Tolkien Gateway [Online]. Available at: https://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Racism.
It is important to highlight that Tolkien described orcs as “degraded and repulsive versions” of Mongolians – not as actual Mongolians – but it is still easy to see why people take offence and how descriptions such as these trickle down into the wider community and feed into racist ideology.
What’s interesting is that Tolkien actually actively opposed the racist wartime propaganda that he witnessed. However, he is still a product of his time. Writer Andrew O’Hehir notes that Tolkien’s orcs are “by design and intention a northern European’s paranoid caricature of the races [Tolkien] had dimly heard about”. That is to say, although he opposed racist thinking, he may still have been (unknowingly or not) influenced by it when creating his orcs.
I want to be clear – no one is trying to “cancel” Tolkien. No one is asking you to burn your Frodo Funko POP. But just because you enjoy a work doesn’t mean you cannot criticise it or highlight some of the problems with it. It’s important to think critically about these things, so that works can be enjoyed in the context of when they were created, and so that future adaptations don’t lean into some of the more problematic subtext.
Because – Tolkien’s material is not the only piece of media being re-evaluated. These conversations are happening across the board when it comes to fantasy realms, and it’s a good thing. For example, race is a topic that the makers behind the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons have had to reconsider in recent years too.
For those who don’t know, D&D borrows a lot from Tolkien. The game’s halflings were inspired by hobbits (and in fact used to be known as hobbits until they changed the name due to copyright reasons). More importantly, D&D borrowed Tolkien’s depiction of orcs directly from him, and, like in the books they were inspired from, they used to be categorised as purely evil characters.
But then, in a statement in 2020, the studio behind D&D rescinded this idea:
Throughout the 50-year history of D&D, some of the peoples in the game—orcs and drow being two of the prime examples—have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated. […] Here’s what we’re doing to improve:
– We present orcs and drow in a new light in two of our most recent books […]. In those books, orcs and drow are just as morally and culturally complex as other peoples.Wizards of the Coast (n/a). Diversity in Dungeons & Dragons. Dungeon & Dragons [Online]. Available at: https://dnd.wizards.com/articles/features/diversity-and-dnd.
This was a huge, positive move in the role-playing world, and sent a message to the wider fantasy community, which is often accused of being too Eurocentric.
And so, in this same way, the inclusion of POC characters in The Rings of Power is a healthy and natural way to help recalibrate past harm that has been caused, and helps bring the world up to speed with modern day thinking.
And thankfully, in response to online backlash, executive producer of The Rings of Power, Lindsey Weber said:
It felt only natural to us that an adaptation of Tolkien’s work would reflect what the world actually looks like.
Tolkien is for everyone. His stories are about his fictional races doing their best work when they leave the isolation of their own cultures and come together.Joe Price (2022). ‘Lord of the Rings’ TV Series Team Responds to Internet Pushback Over Diverse Cast. Complex [Online]. Available at: https://www.complex.com/pop-culture/amazon-lord-of-the-rings-tv-series-team-responds-pushback-diverse-cast.
It’s good to see that the team are sticking up for their actors. Could more be done to protect them? Probably. But I’m happy they are speaking out against the backlash nonetheless.
What remains is this – the people complaining are out of touch with today’s standards. Tolkien’s world is diverse. Our world is diverse. The inclusion of people of colour does not go against Tolkien – it works with him. It elevates the messages he intended to deliver in the first place.
And anyone who has a problem with that will just have to deal with it.
Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is set to air on Amazon Prime in September 2022.