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. ↩