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Diversity in Middle-earth

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 18 2017 · 119 views

Essays, Not Rants! 295: Diversity in Middle-earth

The Lord of The Rings is at once both one of my favorite books and one of my favorite film trilogies. And I don't really feel the need to write another sentence justifying that.

In any case, I reacted with some consternation upon finding out the Amazon was, having attained the rights to Tolkien’s world, developing a new series set in Middle-earth. On the one hand, we get to return to that world. On the other, it's hard to top Peter Jackson’s interpretation of that world – how else could Minas Tirith look if not like that?

But then, revisiting Middle-earth means a chance to do some things differently. Like maybe making the world look a little more inclusive.

The Lord of The Rings is very white. That's not so much a judgement as it is a fact. It doesn't make it any worse as a work, it's just how it is. So if we're telling new stories, let's ask why not and mix things up and cast some people of color as these characters.

Now, my own knee jerk response is “hey, let's make all the elves Asian!” because that way you'll be forced to have an Asian actor on screen anytime an elvish character is in play (and also we’ll get Elrond, half-Asian). But equating fictional races with real life ones becomes real hairy real quick. It runs the risk of feeling like stereotyping and, in the case of my own “make all elves Asian” orientalism and exoticism. Because if they don't look like the normal, clearly they must be other, so let's make them not-human. That line of thinking falls back on to the white-as-default mindset, where if you need a normal Everyman you make him a white guy. And let's not do that.

Because if we're diversifying Middle-earth, let's let everyone be everyone. Let's have black elves and surly Asian dwarves, let's have Latino hobbits and an Indian shieldmaiden of Rohan.

Because why not.

The Lord of The Rings, and a lot of high fantasy with it, falls into the trap of looking a lot like Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Which, I suppose, is fair, given that Rings is the forerunner of modern fantasy and that in writing it Tolkien wanted to give England its own myths to rival those of Greece. So of course it's gonna portray a very (white) England-inspired place. But that’s done, and it doesn't excuse modern fantasy works (and the upcoming Amazon show would indeed count as a modern fantasy work) from being very white and European.

Cuz there's nothing in The Lord of The Rings’ mythology that precludes a more diverse cast. Sure, you'd have to ignore Tolkien’s descriptions of characters as fair and golden-haired, but that's not a loss. Heck, even adding more women makes sense; we've already got characters like Lúthien and Galadriel who've kicked butt in their time. Eowyn’s given the title shieldmaiden so she’s probably not the first. There’s no reason not to.

This is a fantasy world with magic rings and enchanted swords (and, y'know, elves and dwarves and stuff), there is literally no good reason why everyone has to be white. The only reason a black elf or Asian dwarf sounds so odd is because it's outside what we've internalized as normal for the genre. We're simply used to seeing these archetypes as white. And that's s gotta change.

And where better for that change to happen than in the world of The Lord of The Rings? This is the book that elevated fantasy from children’s books to something taken seriously. It's what inspired the world of Dungeons & Dragons, it's the basis for just about every modern work of high fantasy. This is a chance to shift the framework, to redefine how fantasy usually looks.

I love The Lord of The Rings (and The Hobbit and The Silmarillion). Why can't I, someone who's reread the books countless times, quoted the movies in the opening to his thesis, and dominated Lord of The Rings bar trivia, get to see people in those stories who look more like me?

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It's like there's a lot of diversity in the Tolkien world, but it's all different races. Hobbits and dwarfs, ext, and there's definitely some assumptions characters all have of the other races, like the squabbling between dwarfs and elves. And he even had different classes or races of men, like how Aragorn was so much better than the common guy from Gondor, ext. But Tolkien just made it so they all have the same skin tones. :mellow: You're right, there's really no reason to limit the choices, and now I'd be intrigued to see a more diverse showing of middle earth. (Even if I have other reservations about this series, but I'll try not to judge it when its still in the concept stage.)

:music:
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I saw a good post on Tumblr once pointing out that if you go back to the source material, Aragorn and the Dúnedain should really be portrayed as North African. Gondor in general also has a number of Egyptian-inspired characteristics. While of course there's no reason a new Middle Earth adaptation needs to be beholden to the source material, Tolkien's descriptions certainly leave much more room for more racial diversity than Peter Jackson's adaptation did.
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Paradoxical Paperclip
Nov 21 2017 06:21 PM

much of what influenced the story was Northern European mythology. Northern Europeans (or at least those native to the section of Europe) have a tendency of being on the whiter side in terms of skin color.

I'm all for asian dwarves and black elves, but only if the argument for them existing in a story is more than diversity for the sake of diversity.

You're right in the idea that modern fantasy does not need to be limited to European inspiration. what I've seen of African/Asian mythology seems like it could hold a lot of potential for a pretty great high fantasy story that contains diversity (so long as diversity isn't the cast's entire personalities because it's really annoying when a story includes characters where race/sexuality is their whole personality).

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Ta-metru_defender
Nov 22 2017 12:52 AM

much of what influenced the story was Northern European mythology. Northern Europeans (or at least those native to the section of Europe) have a tendency of being on the whiter side in terms of skin color.

I'm all for asian dwarves and black elves, but only if the argument for them existing in a story is more than diversity for the sake of diversity.

You're right in the idea that modern fantasy does not need to be limited to European inspiration. what I've seen of African/Asian mythology seems like it could hold a lot of potential for a pretty great high fantasy story that contains diversity (so long as diversity isn't the cast's entire personalities because it's really annoying when a story includes characters where race/sexuality is their whole personality).

Hi. I'm Northern European. Well, as Northern European as I am Chinese. I want more stories with people who look like my Dad.

 

If I'm reading this right, it sounds like you're cool with having people of color in roles if there's a reason for said character to be a person of color. So like, having Rob R. Johnson, leader of an African tribe be black is fair. But to have Rob R. Johnson, entry level datatech trying to make ends meet in New York be Asian (instead of white) might just be for the sake of it?

 

I agree, non-European mythology is ripe for stories (Where's my Game of Thrones style epic for Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, darnit). But I disagree that that's where we should say "Hey, it's okay for folks of color to be in this!" I am here for an Indian shieldmaiden of Rohan and that is the hill I will die one.

 

Look, Paperclip, I get what you're saying, I do. But we've gotta move away from the idea of white-as-default. It's very possible to write a really boring white character (see: Everyone in Fant4stic, Lincoln in Agents of Shield, etc), to the point where if they were a poc, that'd be the only defining thing about them.

 

I will champion diversity for diversity sake. It's something I do in my scripts and movies, it's something I encourage my writing friends to do. I want more Asian/Black/Latino/etc characters in stories. Why? Because I want more Asian/Black/Latino/etc characters in stories.

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Paradoxical Paperclip
Nov 22 2017 01:23 PM

I'm not against the idea of making literature and films break away from the white as a default race, all I'm saying is know your time period. England didn't have much of diversity pre 1700s besides a couple shades of white. When writing a story that takes place/is based in ye olden times Africa, you can hold off on the white people and have an all black cast. I haven't watched Fant4stic or AoS, but if you're making a story that takes place in a modern setting(aka Fant4stic/Agents of Shield), there's no excuse for not having a diverse cast.

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Ta-metru_defender
Nov 23 2017 01:22 AM

And when's Middle-earth?


 

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Paradoxical Paperclip
Nov 25 2017 12:59 PM

mxrW9WE.png
from the wikipedia page
this means that the events that took place in the books was set around 4000 BC
not many people besides those who arrived in England about 800,000 years ago lived in England until Roman invasions during the 1st century AD.
The native peoples of England were white
The Romans were mostly white. The were some Egyptians and Middle Easterners due to the Roman presence in those areas. I haven't done enough research into whether or not they spread into the France/Germany areas, but I'm leaning towards the idea that they didn't.

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Ta-metru_defender
Nov 25 2017 03:14 PM

Orrrr maybe they left afterwards? Population migrations?

 

But yo, this is a fictional, fantastical world. Best part of make-believe? We can do whatever we want.

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josh

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studied Narrative (Re)Construction

at New York University


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