Amazon ‘Rings of Power’ Promos Threaten to Burn Middle-Earth in the Fires of Industry
We’ve seen many heated responses to Amazon’s first teaser trailer for the much-anticipated The Rings of Power (TROP) series, prequel to J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This reminds me of my introduction to Middle-earth.
And I recall that Tolkien’s works did not release in a vacuum.
Tolkien was a subversive influence at the Catholic school I attended.
It was 1972 and the Vietnam War was raging. In the states, the nightly news featured anti-war protests, women’s rights marches, environmental panic, and civil unrest. Little did my thirteen-year-old mind comprehend that we had entered a cultural revolution that would reshape the Western world.
At the time, I was one of the “cool kids” in our school. But I was too awkward and aloof to remain a member of that circle for long. The draft was still in effect and it loomed over the near-future of me and my companions like a toxic fog bank. The flower children may have begun wilting, but we entertained aspirations of draft dodging and gauzy utopianism. That’s when my classmates smuggled in copies of The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, passing them around like an illegal substance, a gateway drug to “the Trilogy.” The stories fueled our youthful idealism and imagination.
When I began reading The Hobbit, Tolkien was still alive (he died in 1973). Back then some fans framed him as the ultimate peacenik, a grandfatherly, pipe-smoking rebel. His trilogy was a protest against the war, a summons to a life of agrarian simplicity, yet a call to arms for defending our individual shires. The Hobbit quickly became a respite from my cultural and adolescent worries. Likewise, the Shire showed an archetype for a simple homeland I aspired to discover and defend.
The Lord of the Rings emerged in Tolkien’s context
Tolkien’s grandson, Simon Tolkien, wrote eloquently about his grandfather and how “the War to End All Wars” shaped the mythology of Middle-earth. Its themes of courage and camaraderie, industrialized evil, and above all, hope of a “far green country” awaiting, were mined from the author’s experience of the great war.
Tolkien was a soldier during World War I. The author reminisced about seeing dead bodies strewn across the battlefield. He was greatly affected by the war, both mentally and physically. Two of his best friends from school were killed in battle. While digging a mass grave, Tolkien contracted trench fever. But as fate would have it, during his time recuperating he began developing the mythology of Arda, the universe that would become home to Middle-earth.
The Lord of the Rings emerged in this context, formed by its author and its early readers. War, industrialization, and ecological disregard were the cauldrons in which the story and its fandom were forged. Yet sadly, it is these contexts that the creators of the new Amazon series appear to disregard.
Amazon’s ‘superfans’ don’t know much about LOTR history
A good example of this disregard may be a YouTube video, uploaded by Amazon Prime Video UK, entitled “Lord Of The Rings Superfans Review The Rings Of Power Official Teaser Trailer.”1 The video consists of four twenty-somethings gushing over the trailer. What are they so excited about?
Well, one of the “superfans” squees that “Sauron is hot.” Another foresees that this series, unlike Peter Jackson’s trilogy, will pass the Bechdel Test by having two women speak to each other about something other than men.
Yet their predominant praise heaped upon the trailer was that the series is apparently making a push toward ethnic diversity. They reach this conclusion because the trailer features a black elf and a black dwarf, ethnicities never before featured in either the source material or the Jackson trilogy.2 This effort by the creators to represent more minority characters gave one panelist hope that as a “queer disabled” person, she may one day see people like herself represented in Middle-earth.
Apparently, Amazon’s new “superfans” see Tolkien’s epic mythology as simply a vehicle for diversity and inclusion. Its themes of courage and camaraderie, the temptation to power, and devotion to the Land are now subsumed by themes of gender and ethnic representation.
Now Ilúvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws. But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.
—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Series executive producer Lindsey Weber told Vanity Fair:
“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.”
Of course, Weber was correct when she said that “Tolkien is for everyone.” But the notion that something can only be “for everyone” if it contains significant visual representations of everyone is deeply flawed. Under that rubric, none of the great stories are complete without checking enough diversity boxes.
Disney’s film versions of Mulan lack Hispanic representation for a good reason.
Criticizing Amazon’s appropriation doesn’t make you ‘racist’
Sadly, if you challenge these changes to Tolkien’s mythology, you’ll get labeled a “racist.” In the Vanity Fair article, Tolkien scholar Mariana Rios Maldonado said,
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?
Not coincidentally, Maldonado is a feminist activist and the Equality and Diversity Officer for the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic.
For several days after Amazon’s first The Rings of Power teaser dropped, I watched as numerous discussions about the Amazon series descended into charges of racism. Apparently, to challenge the insertion of black elves is, as one Christian creative publicly wrote, “racist as s***.”
While filming his epic trilogy, director Peter Jackson admitted the temptation to interject outside themes or political messaging to the story. He said,
We made a promise to ourselves at the beginning of the process that we weren’t going to put any of our own politics, our own messages or our own themes into these movies. What we were trying to do was to analyze what was important to Tolkien and to try to honor that. In a way, were trying to make these films for him, not for ourselves.
Alas, Amazon appears to be reversing Jackson’s pledge and “trying to make these films [not] for him, [but] for ourselves.”
Don’t colonize Middle-earth with modern woke TROPes
Tolkien created Middle-earth in a specific historic and cultural context. His literary influences stemmed from the folklore of Norsemen, Celts and the Anglo-Saxons, which are typically viewed as white ethnic groups. His epic tale was intended as a mythology for England and from England.
The Lord of the Rings is an important cultural artifact. Like most cultural artifacts and symbols, it emerged from a specific context. Understanding the historical settings and influences of cultural byproducts often brings richness and clarity to their structure or message.
However, colonizing Middle-earth for the sake of diversity is an abdication of the author’s creative vision. The push for diversity threatens to rip creative contexts from the very icons we claim to honor. Globalization gives us unprecedented access to numerous cultural artifacts, but inevitably strips cultures and their commodities from their contexts. Populating Middle-earth with Botswanan dwarves or Arabic elves may please Equality and Diversity Officers everywhere, but it ignores the story’s historical roots (both literally and figuratively).
As a teenager, growing up in a world of war and protest, reading Tolkien gave me respite. His tales spoke to courage and battle, to adventure and Home, to green hills and far-off isles. Samwise Gamgee once reminded Mr. Frodo about “the great stories … the ones that really mattered.” Sadly, to today’s Lord of the Rings “superfans,” the only stories that “really matter” are those that meet diversity quotas.
- As of Feb. 28, 2022, the video had fewer than 200 likes and so many (hidden) dislikes that Amazon de-listed the video. You can still watch it, but only if you have the link. ↩
- Editor’s note: Few fans are remarking about female Dwarves appearing in Jackson’s first Hobbit film, or people of color appearing in The Hobbit part 2, as residents of the city of Laketown, a center of trade in northeast Middle-earth. ↩
To make minor changes or additions (as the movies did) is one thing; a wholesale disregard for the author is clearly another. If the producers wanted to Reimagine™ LOTR, they should have wrote their own fantasy, or found one fitting their vision. Middle-Earth has a deep well of meaning (and mythos) they could have mined. Many have studied these layers for decades such as: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War (Loconte), A Hobbit’s Journey (Dickerson), and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth (Birzer)
Just watched the “superfans” video. Man, they were eviscerated in the comments, and rightfully so.
Tolkien got nearly blown away in the Somme so that he could create the ultimate fictional villain that some random clown 100+ years later would think is “hot.”
Well yeah, Sauron was hot before he fell: he’s a not-so-subtle analog for Lucifer, who was pretty much hot pre-Fall, based on Catholic-approved art.
That’s what I was going to say! Well – sort of. I mean, Sauron certainly ought to be “hot” – though one should not gush about it anymore than one gushes about the hotness of other villains (which happens all to often)
Good take! Though I would say that multi-ethnic casting is the least of my concerns with this series. After all, it’s Middle-EARTH, which to me implies that these stories encompass a broad area and potentially many ethnicities. As long as they have a good reason why Mr. Black Elf Dude has that skin tone, I’m ok with it.
We do have a right to be concerned that diversity is considered the best quality of a new show, when the source material has so many other worthwhile themes. And we can be rightly disappointed when the focus seems to be on that and only that.
But it is the lack of those themes of courage and comradery, etc., that concern me more. Not to mention how this seems to be telling entirely made-up stories and I honestly don’t trust the showrunners to do it justice.
We’ll see, of course. The effort to make the show diverse for the sake of diversity alone may indeed prove an ill omen.
I am baffled by the underlying premise of this article—that “racial inclusivity” is an objective evil that must be resisted, as though there is virtue in barring actors with more melanin from participating in a beloved franchise. Yes, racial inclusivity IS an agenda—a GOSPEL agenda. As people who love Jesus, can’t we see this major theme of love throughout the New Testament?
Christ’s ultimate goal is to “ranso[m] people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” so they can “become a Kingdom of priests for our God.” (Revelation 5:9-10 NLT). How much holy ink does Paul spill demonstrating that the church Kingdom is for all races, while his opponents clap their hands over their ears and shout, “No, but in a historical and cultural context, salvation is only for Jews!”
Yes, I understand there is a difference here—the Holy Spirit’s work in bringing all races to Himself is Reality, and it is important. This article is regarding a fantasy TV show in an imaginary universe. But Lorehaven’s stance is that the way we interact with speculative fiction is intertwined with our faith. If we are attuned to the Spirit in matters of the Greater, why is our knee-jerk reaction so anti-Gospel in the lesser?
Are we actually welcoming people of every tribe and tongue into the church if we post a guard outside the door to keep them out of a fandom franchise? What is the motivation behind making this a big issue?
Hi Emily! I’m sorry that you think the “underlying premise” of my article is that “‘racial inclusivity’ is an objective evil that must be resisted.” That is certainly NOT my premise! We’re in agreement that God seeks to reach and include all people groups. Heaven is described as having “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev. 7:9). However, the push for diversity in the arts, entertainment, the academy, the sciences, etc., etc. is quite different than the biblical approach to diversity. In fact, it has descended into absurdity on many fronts.
For example, I know a writer — a “white” writer — who was forced to drop their agent because the YA industry has become devoted to diversity and inclusion. They’d written a story with a Hispanic lead, but because the writer was not Hispanic, their agent believed it wouldn’t sell. (This is the push behind such movements as #OwnVoices.) So the author was forced to rewrite their entire story to feature a white protagonist. However, after edits, the agent admitted that the industry is no longer looking for “white voices.” The author was forced to publish independently. Stories like this are now quite common.
While diversity and inclusion are great, what we’re seeing is an over-correction. And as I note in the article, this even extends to “queer disabled” inclusion. Do you think it’s “biblical” to seek the inclusion of “queer disabled” voices in your stories? Do you think true diversity means inserting Hispanics into Mulan or Native Americans into Norse mythology? I mean, at some point the push, though well meaning, is just silly.
Anyway, I’d humbly suggest that you misread the main point of my article. We totally agree about God’s heart for all people! But operating from a demographic quota is rather unbiblical.
It’s really good to hear we are on the same page when it comes to the Major Theme of God’s love for all people. This is wonderful.
What you’ve discussed about the white writer you know is indeed absurd. This is an extreme. But to combat this wisely is not just to go to the opposite extreme, fighting against something just because the other side likes it and we don’t want them to win. Our polarized culture often teaches you’re either 100% Team Red or Team Blue, take no prisoners. But I believe the Gospel calls us to a third path. Both sides miss the mark in some ways; we must go to the Bible and discern point by point how to live wisely in our cultural context, in love.
To answer your question, is it biblical to include a “queer disabled” point of view? We have to parse out that those are two different things. The Bible’s stance on human sexuality is clear. But is it biblical for me to include a disabled voice in my story? Yes, indeed! The Bible represents many disabled people, and they were special recipients of Christ’s attention.
In writing such a character would my motivation be shallow, simply be to check off some diversity boxes? No, it wouldn’t—and it isn’t, because I actually have a book with a major character who is disabled. My motivation wasn’t “diversity quotas,” but love—love for the visually impaired teens I ministered to (who really only get two types of blind characters in fantasy: Helpless Beggars or Magically Able to Feel Colors). It was also out of love for my sighted friends who were nervous around the blind because they didn’t know how to relate to them. I sought to represent this disability in a realistic and affirming way that ministered in love to those who are visually impaired and to help humanize them in the eyes of sighted people. I hope this approach to representation is indeed biblical.
Anyway, this is all minor theme stuff. May the Major Theme of the Gospel be what the watching world hears from us loudest, and this minor theme stay in this little corner of the Internet, away from unbelievers who desperately need Christ and in this context may not be able to see the whole picture of what we mean.
I feel this. Maybe most of it is, in fact, their purity-pony nerd-snobbery (which has its own problems), but whoa dudes, this is not a good look. And it could be passable if they just reframed it as being upset at a blatant money grab with no other redeeming qualities besides slapdash efforts at diversity/inclusivity/moarbuzzword, but as it is, this is at least one (1) yikes.
Very interesting article. I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot as I watched the first season of Amazon Prime’s Wheel of Time and then reread the first book. Amazon pulled the current progressive agenda into this work as well. While the disparity is smaller, as Jordan’s original work is closer to current societal values, it still bothered me that a work cannot stand on its own, but must be changed to suit current trends.
I feel this is less an issue about progressive vs conservative values, though that comes into it at times, as with LOTR, or diversity vs exclusivity, and more about honoring a person’s work for what it is, as the creator intended it to be. How much is a writer’s work a blank slate for others to bend and change at will, and how much is it a product that stands as an extension of the originator’s world view and values? As a writer, I find myself leaning toward the second option. I don’t want my own stories, once they get out into the world, to be appropriated for a more progressive viewpoint, or for that matter, for a more conservative one. I write to incorporate my own ideas of the world and my values into a story that will speak for me. Do others have the right to appropriate that? They wouldn’t want me to appropriate their work to speak for my values, so why is it ok for them to do the same?
The thing is, that is not a thing you can control. There’s a limit to how much you can control when it comes to other people’s thoughts and ideas. And because there’s almost no such thing as originality, mostly recombinations of previous ideas, it’s even a bad idea to control who is allowed to take inspiration from previous ideas. Even copyright law is centered around who gets to make money off the idea, not who gets to control the idea itself — which is pretty much unfeasible. Even if Didney went after innocent fanartists who like drawing Aslan pics for their tiny, unmonetized followings on Tumblr, they can’t stop people drawing Aslan on notebook paper for their own fridges.
This is a thing that has been going on for generations. When stories outlive their original context, people need to find a new meaning for it within the new context, or it falls out of relevance. I think authors need to accept that the story they want to tell may be, in the wider context, fluffy trash that falls out of fashion in the next decade. And that is okay. That is the hard part, that you cannot control if no one else thinks highly enough of your story or if they only think it’s worthwhile once they tweak it.