A Racist Backlash to ‘Rings of Power’ Puts Tolkien’s Legacy Into Focus

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For a time, it seemed as though a great shadow had passed over the world, and then faded — still present, though not quite as ominous. There were those who could confidently believe they were seeing progress. A fantasy? Perhaps. But not one without value. Yet, there were those who sought the cover of that shadow to hide from their own insecurities, failings, uselessness. They could not conceive of the endless potential of progress. Miserable little trolls left stewing in their own ugly ignorance and hatred, who sought regression, but proved too incompetent to succeed, even when emboldened by the lies from their weakened leader.

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I could very easily be discussing Middle-earth, but I’m not. What I’m discussing is our very real world, and social media as an extension of that world. For the past week, I’ve been bombarded with messages of hate, called the N-word, told to go back to Africa, and called on to be executed. The reason? The Lord of the Rings. It would almost be laughable if it wasn’t so profoundly sad. A wealth of stories, and a willingness to believe in wizards, Balrogs, giant spiders and magical swords. But allow people of color to exist in Middle-earth? Well, that is an affront to all that’s good and decent. At least that’s the primary argument for those ruinous trolls apparently review bombing and harassing fans of color over Amazon’s Rings of Powers series.

I’ve been a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world for almost as long as I can remember. I grew up watching Rankin and Bass’ The Hobbit (1977) and The Return of the King (1980) on repeat. When it was time for school book fairs, I was the class’ early adopter of Tolkien’s works. Not just The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, but The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-Earth. I did my fifth-grade biography report on C.S. Lewis and his friendship with Tolkien. When Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings (1978) was re-released on VHS, my mom took me to the store to buy it on the day it was released.

In middle school, I spent my bus rides listening to The Lord of the Rings on audio cassettes. And when Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings came out, the films defined my adolescence as much as Star Wars and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. The Fellowship of the Ring was the first DVD I ever owned. I collected every single Burger King goblet, and played every video game despite being admittedly terrible at most of them. I say all of this not to cast myself as an expert on all things Middle-earth, but to paint the picture that this world of fantasy is an inherent part of me, as key to my makeup as DNA. So why shouldn’t I be able to feel the joy of seeing people who resemble me within Middle-earth? What makes me less deserving of this pop culture heritage?

At this point, I’ve heard every argument in the book against why castmembers Lenny Henry, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Nazanin Boniadi, Sara Zwangobani, Maxine Cunliffe and Sophia Nomvete shouldn’t play harfoots, elves, dwarves, or even humans in the Middle-earth where Amazon’s series is set. The most common refrain is that Tolkien didn’t include people of color in his stories. Not only is this untrue, as harfoots are described as having “browner” skin, but Tolkien didn’t often make a point to describe skin color, though he occasionally leaned on the open-ended “fairer than …”

Yet, there remains the idea that because Tolkien sought to create an English mythology that he intended Middle-earth to be comprised only of white people. This ignores the individuals of color who have populated England throughout its history, and that the first modern Britons had dark skin, based on DNA evidence taken from the Cheddar Man, a 10,000-year-old skeleton discovered in 1903.

And while there’s no sense in speculating on the reactions of a dead man who could not possibly fathom the 21st century by the time of his death in 1973, Tolkien was notably anti-racist, even for the time period. Biographers have noted Tolkien was very much opposed to the Aryan ideology popularized by the Nazis, and of colonialism in South Africa. While there are those, as a number of Twitter accounts have to sought to remind me, who believe orcs are intended to be Tolkien’s perspective on people of color, there’s no evidence from Tolkien’s writing or life to justify that (as opposed to, for instance, the wide array of evidence that speaks to the racism of his contemporary H.P. Lovecraft in both his writing and personal life).

But here’s the thing: Even though Tolkien’s early 20th century progressiveness was not analogous to the progressive attitudes of today, it has no bearing on an adaptation or extension of his works. Things change. The movies and television released in 1954, when The Fellowship of the Ring came out, obviously look very different in terms of casting choices than what we see today. As such, Rings of Power looks different from Peter Jackson’s films from 20 years ago. Systems adapt, people formally denied opportunities to showcase their talent are afforded a spotlight in which they can and do earn it. Audiences of color, who have been asked to, and excelled at, empathizing with white people throughout the history of visual media, can wish to see themselves onscreen and see those wishes validated.

If anything, Rings of Power has an opportunity to be more inclusive in future seasons. While the cast features Black, Latino, MENA and Pacific Island actors, there is, as of now, a lack of Asian performers, which actor Ludi Lin noted last year. Chinese-British executive producer, and director of the majority of the first season, Wayne Yip, showcases behind-the-scenes diversity in that regard, but there is obviously room to grow in front of the cameras as well. Ultimately, let’s be real here. The vast majority of the cast is still white, and the characters that audiences will recognize from Jackson’s films are still played by white actors. The only reason folks have to complain about the casting choices is purely a result of bigotry, despite attempts to cover their own asses with claims of “bad acting” and “not enough experience.”

What the discourse over Rings of Power has made clear is we’re living with the rationalization of racism. People who constantly consume corporate media to give their little smooth brains some character, while boasting profile pictures from popular IP, are now crying that fans of Rings of Power are supporting the “evil” ethics of Amazon and Jeff Bezos. So-called Tolkien purists are using Jackson’s films as armor to support all-white casting, despite the fact that Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens made many significant changes to Tolkien’s novels when adapting them to film, including playing with the timeline and adding new characters, just like Rings of Power.

And of course, there’s the tried and true argument: People of color should make their own stories instead of inserting themselves in existing worlds, which again presumes that we don’t already exist within those worlds, and that they would support those stories if we did. But my favorite, which has been spat at me numerous times: “If these projects weren’t trying to force diversity and wokeness, then these actors wouldn’t have to deal with the racism. Really, they’re the ones being used.” And all this ultimately means is, “If you didn’t exist, if you didn’t have that skin you had, you wouldn’t have to suffer abuses.”

I’m making a concentrated effort to keep these matters as light as they possibly can be, to prod at the absurdity of it all. But the reality is that being told you cannot exist in a fantasy world, that you cannot be an elf because you have a fade, or a dwarf because the climate wouldn’t cultivate dark skin, while also being unable to exist freely in a real world in which every walk through a neighborhood could be your last, where simply going shopping can get you shot, and where blinking lights from a cop car are reason for anxiety, is egregious and grotesque.

The easy answer, at least on Twitter, is to block. Trust me, I’ve blocked hundreds. But it does little to quell the noise. So, let’s make a little noise back. Sting is aglow, and all sorts of trolls, orcs and goblins are afoot, but they shall not pass. I refuse to be told that I can’t be a part of this world I love, and I urge others facing the barbs of arrows to do the same. Because we’ve occupied Middle-earth now, we exist, and we’re not leaving.

A Racist Backlash to ‘Rings of Power’ Puts Tolkien’s Legacy Into Focus

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