The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power Has People Of Colour, Get Over It

Vanity Fair has published the first official images from The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power this week, and fans are dissecting every pixel to try to understand exactly how the show is going to look. I even had a go myself, getting sucked into Morfydd Clark’s damp Galadriel to work out whether her armour spells non-canonical controversy or not.

However, the reveals have come with sadly predictable backlash from certain members of the community, as Vanity Fair’s new images showed that the Amazon series will include people of colour. Before we get any further, I want to make this clear: whether you’re trolling, gatekeeping, plain old racist, or all of the above, you have no place in this fandom.

Ismael Cruz Córdova plays the first elf of colour in any on-screen Tolkien adaptation as Arondir, a non-canonical Amazon introduction. Ever since the cast was announced, we knew he was going to be an elf. Nothing was announced, but with his piercing eyes and those cheekbones as sharp as any sword of Gondolin, he was hardly going to be a hobbit or dwarf. He’s now confirmed to be a silvan elf, and one of the story threads of The Rings of Power will follow his forbidden relationship with a human, Bronwyn, played by British-Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi. British comedian Lenny Henry, who is Black, plays a harfoot, an ancestor of the hobbits we know and love from The Lord of the Rings.

It’s sadly not surprising that comments are usually rooted in misogyny, too; I’ve seen far more people complain about Sophia Nomvete’s dwarf princess Disa – the first Black dwarf in a Tolkien adaptation – than Córdova’s elf or Henry’s harfoot. As is so often the way with these things, racism and sexism go hand in hand, and the most marginalised people suffer for it.

A lot of the criticism about hiring non-white actors stems from the premise that Tolkien was trying to create a mythology for Britain. We return to the illuminating Letter 131, which Professor Tolkien wrote to Milton Waldman. In this, he describes his idea to create a legend for England and that Middle-earth is based on “the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe.” However, the assumption that all people in this region were white stems from 19th Century white nationalism in Germany, and later Nazi propaganda. Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor of medieval literature at Brandeis University, explains this through the lens of our collective imagined Viking history in Time magazine if you’d like to read more. So, if you’re complaining about people of colour being cast due to ‘historical accuracy,’ move along.

Tolkien’s works aren’t free from criticism themselves. The anti-Semitic stereotypes in his depiction of dwarves may have been written with good intentions, but calling Jewish people “gifted” does not atone for the stereotypes he perpetuated. If you’re only okay with actors of colour appearing as Orcs or Easterlings, you’re also perpetuating the stereotypes that appear in the text of The Lord of the Rings, whether intentional or not, that people of colour often represent evil or ‘other’. I would recommend reading Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits by Dr. Dimitra Fimi for more context.

But at the end of the day, nothing in The Lord of the Rings needs to be historically accurate anyway, because it’s made up. It’s a fantasy world. Make-believe. Ultimately, if your idea of fantasy only includes white people, then you need to do some serious soul-searching.

Tolkien had a vision, but it was a vision that he wanted others to fill in the blanks of, as he says in Letter 131 he fully intended to “leave scope for other minds and hands”. We’re applying our contemporary minds and hands to his works, and Amazon is filling in the gaps in his Legendarium with multicultural stories that are more accurate to both medieval and modern worlds.

However, I also think it’s worth saying that anyone dismissing the series’ detractors as ‘not real fans’ or ‘not a part of this fandom’ are missing the point. I don’t care if Firstname Bunchofnumbers on Twitter made their racist account 12 days ago, they’re still a part of this fandom and they’re a problem with it. Relegating them to ‘not real fans’ dismisses the problem within our fanbase without dealing with it. There are racist Lord of the Rings fans, we just need to make sure they’re unwelcome in our communities.

Lindsey Weber, The Rings of Power’s executive producer addresses the ‘controversies’ of hiring actors of colour in the Vanity Fair article, saying, “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.”

And here is where the racists and gatekeepers really come undone. If you read The Lord of the Rings, or any of his works – like really read, beyond the fact that he once points out an elf has pale skin or whatever – these are stories about people of different races overcoming their differences and working together for a common cause. This is never more apparent than with the relationship between Legolas and Gimli, who begin the fellowship bickering and treating one another with genuine hatred based on their race alone. We all know how it ends, with the pair travelling around Middle-earth together after the events of The Lord of the Rings are over, sharing their cultures. Gimli becomes the first dwarf to go to the Undying Lands. The two have been presented as white in all adaptations to date, but why can’t we treat each other with the same respect?

The backlash towards the cast of the Rings of Power reminds me of something Sir Ian McKellen wrote on his website at the time he starred as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings about the abuse he received as a gay man.

“It was unsurprising that an uncensored Internet should recently criticise my casting as Gandalf in homophobic terms,” he writes. “Cranky anti-gay remarks in chat rooms remind me of verbal abuse in the playground – not that that didn't hurt too. Many unthinking people just don't like the idea of gays joining in their games, nor in the military and, it would seem, in the movies.”

As fans tried to gatekeep Ian McKellen from the films, now they are subjecting new actors to abuse for the colour of their skin. The world may be more progressive 20 years on, but some people refuse to change and are stuck in racist, sexist, and homophobic mindsets. So it’s on us to make everyone feel welcome in this community, no matter the colour of their skin, and go into The Rings of Power with an open mind.

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