Amazon’s woke take on Tolkien provokes another racial controversy

The announcement that there will be elves, dwarves, and other species of color prompts Tolkien purists to claim Amazon Studios is destroying the franchise, which of course prompts accusations of racism and bigotry from the usual suspects.  Of course, few bother to consider that elves and dwarves aren’t real and aren’t human at all…

Last month, Amazon Studios gave audiences a “first look” at the highly anticipated and incredibly expensive Lord of the Rings television series, The Rings of Power.  There is a lot riding on the success of the show, to say the least:  The total costs for five proposed seasons are expected to be well over a billion dollars, making it by far the most expensive television property ever produced.  In addition, Amazon Studios ability to truly create “prestige” television remains in doubt after their earlier big budget fantasy effort, The Wheel of Time, debuted to big ratings yet mixed reviews from both fans and critics late last year.  Adding to the challenge, Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos is reportedly obsessed with Tolkien in general and personally interested in the show.  As if that weren’t enough, the studio has chosen to tackle a storyline not covered in depth by J.R.R. Tolkien himself, meaning this isn’t an adaptation like Peter Jackson’s earlier The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.  It’s something an entirely new, more inspired by Mr. Tolkien than actually written by him.

Regardless of these challenges and a forced hiatus from filming due to the coronavirus pandemic, the show is set to premiere this September.  The cast will include some 22 main characters, sprawled across an entire continent and an island kingdom, ultimately telling the story of how Sauron forged the rings of power themselves.  It’s about “The forging of the rings,” explained showrunner Patrick McKay, who has teamed up with JD Payne to produce the series. “Rings for the elves, rings for dwarves, rings for men, and then the one ring Sauron used to deceive them all. It’s the story of the creation of all those powers, where they came from, and what they did to each of those races.” Mr. McKay is asking himself the same question as every Tolkien fan, “Can we come up with the novel Tolkien never wrote and do it as the mega-event series that could only happen now?”

We will not be able to answer that question until September, but for now the show finds itself embroiled in a racial controversy, one typical of our era and oft repeated with long-standing franchises driven by an engaged fanbase.  In this case, the series is expected to showcase what are being described as the first non-humans of color in Tolkien’s work, in an effort to “broaden the notion of who shares the world of Middle-earth,” to use Variety’s words.  For it’s part, the publication itself seemed pleased overall with this approach, acting as if casting a minority in a key role was some kind of historic achievement in the year 2022 and no one had ever conceived of such an idea before.  “One original story line centers on a silvan elf named Arondir, played by Ismael Cruz Córdova, who will be the first person of color to play an elf onscreen in a Tolkien project.”  In addition, “Sophia Nomvete has a scene-stealing role as a dwarven princess named Disa—the latter being the first Black woman to play a dwarf in a Lord of the Rings movie, as well as the first female dwarf.”  There is also an “Brit of Iranian descent” who plays village healer, and “Brit of Jamaican descent” who plays a harfoot, a group that is distantly related to the hobbits.

The producers explained it this way, “It felt only natural to us that an adaptation of Tolkien’s work would reflect what the world actually looks like,” said Lindsey Weber, executive producer of the series. “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.”  Variety, apparently, anticipated a backlash and the ensuing controversy after previously released cast photos received a less than glowing reception.  They quoted Tolkien scholar Marian Rios Maldonado, “Obviously there was going to be push and backlash, but the question is from whom? Who are these people that feel so threatened or disgusted by the idea that an elf is Black or Latino or Asian?”  The idea that something must be wrong with “these people” for voicing their concerns and either hints or blatant accusations of racism was widespread.  TheOneRing.Net which purports to be a website devoted to fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and his work took the unusual step of accusing their own visitors of racism, claiming that the reaction to “the diverse cast was rather dismaying, shocking even, and even those might be understatements.”  Regarding the black Dwarven Princess, the author claims “rather than geek out over the fact we will get to see this fabled Dwarven realm when it was still full of light, food, and music, what many chose to focus on was the colour of her skin.”  Likewise, Arondir was “ill-received for his ethnicity, skin colour, and hair; rather than through an open-mind for his portrayal.”  Other casting choices “have similarly received criticism for no other reason than simply being people of colour.”

In addition, the author, known only as Earl, has seen this pattern before. “Having been part of the Tolkien community and TheOneRing.net for more than 20 years, helping moderate discussion forums and social media platforms, I have witnessed the attacks of racists, bigots, and trolls on TORn’s many social platforms, and being a person of colour and finding myself at the receiving end occasionally, I have grown accustomed to ignore, and accept, and move on.”  This time, however, “the avalanche of unveiled, blatant, shameless racism that hit our social platforms like a massive wave last week shook me.”  That line was printed in red and bold for emphasis, for the record.  The author circled back to Ms. Maldanado’s question, “I wondered about this myself… who really are these self-appointed gatekeepers of Tolkien’s works, and what conceit leads them to believe they possess this automatic authority?”  One has to wonder why the woke get to be the gatekeepers, changing whatever they want whenever they want and attacking anyone who disagrees, but ultimately, Earl declares, “racism, bigotry, and intolerance simply have NO place in our discourse,” once again in bold and red, before concluding “to the folks at Amazon – we will of course be objectively critical of the show – but we fully support your casting choices, and we can’t wait to see how this ensemble cast you’ve assembled will bring our beloved characters (and then some!) to life.”

Of course, this is the same reaction anyone raises to any objection to the woke warriors incessant desire to diversify everything for the sake of diversity itself, or the belief that in many cases these decisions are nothing more than stunts, designed to provoke instead of actually advancing any coherent desire to make Tolkien or any other work more accessible.  Rather than engage with the criticism, they cry racism when, in this life-long lover of fantasy’s opinion at least, objections to these casting choices have little to do with race or racism in general.  It is rather about the world Tolkien created in particular, and how changes in the name of diversity dilute and distort his vision.  They hide behind catch phrases like making Tolkien’s world better reflect our own, while refusing to acknowledge that Tolkien’s world isn’t our own and that’s the entire point of building a fantasy world in the first place.

In other worlds, elves and dwarves aren’t human at all.  They are unique species with their own characteristics and therefore cannot be reduced to human conceptions of skin color and ethnicity.  In Tolkien’s mythology, elves are immortal beings “awakened” by Eru Iluvatar, the prime mover, before the sun and moon had even been created, indeed before time itself was running in a normal course in the Years of the Trees.  If an elf is killed, their spirit ultimately returns to the Halls of Mandos in Valinor in the exact same body as before.  A “living” elf can also choose to make this journey if they become weary after eons on Middle Earth.  The oldest elves shed their bodies entirely and continue onward in spiritual form, invisible to mortal eyes unless they choose to reveal themselves.  The dwarves were likewise awakened in the Years of the Trees, after the elves but also before the sun and moon.  They were not the work of the prime mover, however.  Instead, they were awakened by a lesser god, Vala Aulë, who’d grown impatient and did his work in secret.  Dwarves aren’t immortal, but live some 250 years.  They are a race of stout warriors and blacksmiths, and males outnumber females some two to one.

Neither species conforms to anything resembling human conceptions of race, and many like myself feel that trying to make them so cheapen’s Tolkien’s vision.  They aren’t black, white, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, Latinx, or anything of the sort.  To liken great things to small, describing one as such is akin to wondering whether a doberman is a dog of color or a golden retriever is a white supremacist.  These concepts simply do not apply to elves and dwarves as described in the Lord of the Rings.  We know this because Tolkien has a similar mythology for humans and they are conceived in different races, similar to our own world.  The humans awoke years after the elves and dwarves, and are known as the “younger children,” “Afterborn,” or “Second People.”  These peoples are specifically modeled after the human races and are described variously as analogues to people of color including blacks, Asians, and middle easterners.  To be sure, Mr. Tolkien did employ language we wouldn’t use today in describing the different races of men.  The Haradrim, aligned with Sauron in the Lord of the Rings trilogy are called “swart” and “swarthy,” an archaic term for dark skinned.  The Easterlings from Rhun are “slant-eyed.”

Regardless, the introduction of these various races, especially for use in events that Tolkien didn’t specifically describe, offers plenty of opportunity for diversity.  The series will also feature the harfoots, an ancestor of the hobbits, who are described as having browner skin, yet another opportunity for a far less forced diversity.  The creators could also have considered that, while elves do not conform to human conceptions of race or color, there are different types of elves, organized roughly around those that returned to the undying lands and those that remained.  These different branches of the elven lineages could easily be represented by different skin colors without altering Tolkien’s complex mythology.  Instead, they did what they always do:  Force diversity for the sake of diversity, and call anyone who disagrees a racist.  It’s not like we haven’t seen this before.  We live in a world where Superman is bisexual and fights global warming.  There are calls to make James Bond gay, black, or perhaps both, all in the name of diversity.

It is true that great characters, works of literature, and franchises are usually such because they are readily adaptable to different times and places, representing something universal in humanity that engages readers and viewers across generations.  The works of J.R.R. Tolkien have already been translated into dozens of languages and enjoyed around the world, belonging to the entire world and not a single ethnicity, giving the lie to the idea that there is a pressing need to “broaden” the notion of who shares Middle Earth.  The fact remains, however, that as adaptable as some great works are, there are parts that are considered essential.  To many Tolkien fans, that means staying true to his conception of elves and dwarves as different species than humans who do not conform to our notions of race and ethnicity.  Fair or unfair, we believe they are intentionally disrespecting Tolkien simply to make a woke point and they aren’t treating his legacy with sufficient respect.  Further, we reject that Tolkien needs to be “broadened” to fit their agenda, and think the idea that you broaden a classic fantasy work by claiming you are making it look like the real world is a bad idea.  You might disagree with that, but claiming someone is a racist for wanting to remain true to their opinion of Tolkien’s vision is an insult to avoid debate, not constructive dialogue about what Tolkien means in the modern world.  Of course, the cynic in me would say that is precisely the point.  We have seen this movie before, even if the Rings of Power in particular doesn’t debut for another six months.

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