The makers of “The Rings of Power,” which premiered Friday, promise viewers plenty of epic battles. Yet some of the biggest battles surrounding the Amazon Studios series have erupted offscreen. Middle-earth fans and scholars like Morse have clashed in online forums and dueling op-eds over this question: Does casting non-White actors enhance the new series, or is it a betrayal of Tolkien’s original vision?
And because “Lord of the Rings” fans are notoriously opinionated about all things Middle-earth, the debate can get heated. Some fans are even questioning if Tolkien was a racist.
Some say fantasy stories have reinforced the notion that all heroes are White men
“My most intelligent response would be, that’s total bulls**t,” he says.
Middle-earth is not history — it’s fantasy, Coren says. Coren says he grew up in the United Kingdom during an era when it was common for popular shows to offer blatantly racist and antisemitic depictions of Black and Jewish people.
“It’s not being woke to say no, that’s not acceptable anymore,” Coren says. “This is simply being sensible, courteous and empathetic.”
This clash is part of a larger debate about including non-White, LGBTQ and other nontraditional characters in fantasy and science-fiction stories. Critics say the fantasy and science fiction world has long normalized the notion that only White men can be the hero and in charge.
Steve Toussaint, a Black actor who plays a wealthy naval commander in the current “Game of Thrones” prequel, “House of the Dragon,” spoke to this debate recently when he revealed he’s been criticized by White fans for being cast in the HBO series.
Cordóva said he didn’t see anyone who looked like him in Middle-earth while growing up in Puerto Rico as a fan of Tolkien’s works.
Critics say diverse casting betrays Tolkien’s vision
But critics of casting non-White actors in “Rings of Power” say their objections have nothing to do with racism. It’s about being faithful to Tolkien’s vision.
Casting a non-White actor to play an elf makes it more difficult for audiences to maintain their willing suspension of belief, he says.
“This is not something organic that’s coming out of Middle-earth,” Markos says of casting brown and Black actors in the show. “This is really an agenda that is being imposed upon it.”
Morse, the RedState editor, said in his essay that “diversity isn’t a bad thing by itself,” but that when it becomes a major focus, the story takes a backseat to an ideological agenda.
“If someone created a story about a great African kingdom of old, but one of the royals was White, people would naturally find this very out of place,” Morse says. “This would especially be an issue if the story was previously established as all characters having black skin.”
There is even disagreement about what it means to be “woke.”
Morse has a different definition. He sees “wokeness” as a hard-left ideology that focuses on “shallow forms of identity to create victims and oppressors” and elevate a person’s race, gender or sexual identity over other issues like character.
Some see racism in the ‘faceless dark hordes’ of Tolkien’s world
Amazon Studios did not make anyone connected to the series available for comment. But the show has plenty of defenders.
Defenders of the series also say Amazon Studios isn’t being woke — it’s being savvy. All-White casts are no longer acceptable to modern audiences. “The Rings of Power” is being streamed in more than 240 countries.
“They want to have as many people watching as possible,” says Coren, the Tolkien biographer. “So, morally, economically, culturally on every level, it (diverse casting) is the right thing to do.”
Others say Amazon Studios did a public service by expunging some of the implicit racism in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
“Think about that,” Jemison wrote. “Creatures that look like people, but aren’t really. Kinda-sorta-people, who aren’t worthy of even the most basic moral considerations, like the right to exist. Only way to deal with them is to control them utterly a la slavery, or wipe them all out.”
Where did Tolkien stand on race?
Withering criticisms like Jemison’s have been aimed at Tolkien’s works for years. The heroes in his stories tend to be White, while the villains are often depicted as snarling, darker-skinned people. This has naturally led to speculation about the author’s views.
“The extreme right has been misreading Tolkien as a representative of its own race-supremacist views for a long time,” Garth says. “They’ve really come out of the closet in the past few years, with the rise in populism and the breakdown of taboos over what it is acceptable to say.”
Tolkien spoke out publicly against racial and ethnic hatred, Garth says. He rebuked a German publisher who asked him if he was Jewish, saying he regretted not having Jewish ancestors. He detested Nazi Germany, which was built on a foundation of racial and ethnic hatred (Tolkien called Hitler that “ruddy little ignoramus”).
Tolkien was also a Roman Catholic in a mid-century England dominated by Protestants, and would have known what it felt like to be treated as a persecuted minority, Garth says.
“He was born in South Africa, and he said, ‘I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones,’ ” Garth says.
Tolkien’s embrace of all humanity can be seen in the premise of his beloved fantasy series, says Coren, his biographer.
The plot is propelled by the ability of different groups — elves, humans, hobbits and dwarves — to band together and see beyond their superficial differences. And two of the most endearing characters in the books are Legolas the elf and Gimli the dwarf, who become dear friends despite mutual distrust that had divided their groups for thousands of years, he says.
“Tolkien certainly wrote about good and evil, but he never attributed this to race,” Coren says.
This debate casts a shadow over the enchanted world of Middle-earth
What price, though, will it pay for featuring non-White actors in its main roles? How fans react will be one of its most interesting plot twists in the coming months.
No matter what happens, though, the debate over diverse casting casts a shadow over this highly anticipated series.
People become devotees of fantasy books, movies and TV series in part because they offer an escape from the bitter divisions of our mundane everyday world.
But the reception to the new Amazon series reveals that even the enchanted world of Middle-earth is no longer immune to political divisions.
The elves, dwarves and humans in “The Rings of Power” may eventually band together to defeat a common enemy. But the fellowship among Tolkien fans is now just as divided as the real world that so many of them try to leave behind.