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?