‘Fantasy history is racialized’: The Lord of the Rings series sparks race debate | the Lord of the Rings

Ais the new Lord of the Ringss gearing up for its September launch on Amazon, the company finds itself navigating treacherous, albeit familiar, waters, and has already sparked fierce debate about race by introducing characters of color to JRR Tolkien’s fantasy world.

The tech giant spent a dungeon of a dragon’s gold adapting the famously beloved story for its cult fans, some of whom are deeply enmeshed in the right-wing culture war industry. Yet he is fully aware that his end product must reach a wide and modern audience to justify his mind-boggling expense.

Co-produced by New Line Cinema, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is not part of the phenomenal success of Peter Jackson the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, but it’s meant to capitalize on their success: a streaming series set in the world of Tolkien’s high-fantasy novels, with characters and battles drawn from the inner story and mythology featured in the many appendices books. Jackson himself isn’t involved but the sets and costumes would be right at home in his films.

The new series will star Saint Maud star Morfydd Clark as a younger version of Cate Blanchett’s Elven Queen Galadriel, Benjamin Walker as the heroic Elven-King Gil-Galad, and Maxim Baldry as the future Human King. Isildur among many others. The first season cost $465 million, making it the most expensive television show in history. Over its projected five seasons, that budget will almost certainly exceed $1 billion.

It’s the crown jewel in Amazon’s growing investment in film and TV licensing and production, which rose from $11 billion to $13 billion last year according to the annual report. of the society. In general, licensing old TV shows and movies will only cost more. So it’s in Amazon’s interest to create new shows and movies to attract subscribers and gain some breathing room when it comes time to renegotiate the price of Parks & Recreation reruns.

The Lord of the Rings appendices are more of a “show bible” — the kind of notes you’d give teleplay writers — than a narrative of their own. So the producers weaved their own stories of romance and palace intrigue into the book’s timelines, fairy tales, and genealogical footnotes.

This allowed them to feature people of color as some of the series’ elves and dwarves, pleasing some of the books’ fans and angering others. Recently, Vanity Fair released a series of promotional photos for the show, including images of Sophia Nomvete as the dwarf princess Disa and Ismael Cruz Córdova as the elven warrior Arondir.

On YouTube, the trailer for The Rings of Power has 67,000 comments so far, and thousands of them are the same Tolkien quote about the corrupting, uncreative nature of evil. “Evil cannot create anything new, it can only spoil and destroy what the good forces have invented and created,” reads several languages. Others were more direct. “Imagine spending millions of dollars promoting your social justice woke warrior movie. Way to tarnish a good franchise,” reads one. “Amazon has decided to destroy Tolkien’s work. Because why do a good job when you can just be corrupt and force your political beliefs,” said another.

Non-fans rolled their eyes. South Park retroactively changed the name of its only black child character from Token to Tolkien, the kind of backhanded acknowledgment of its own mistakes that are a staple irreverent cartoon sense of humor.

It’s tempting to dismiss complaints as the usual rage of internet nerds. Similar conflicts unfolded when actors of color began playing major new roles in Star Wars merchandise. But the conflict is also about the rise of two types of media empires, not just one: there’s Amazon, the crown jewel in the vast business empire of Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man , and there’s YouTube, a place for all the dorks who like to complain about pop culture and whose darker corners are a frequent haunt of racism and bigotry.

One group is populated by people who can afford to buy the rights to The Lord of the Rings, and the other is populated by people for whom The Lord of the Rings is the second best thing after the Bible, but for both of them an amazing amount of money and influence is at stake. And Amazon is probably wary that its grand scheme could be vulnerable to attack from aggrieved online superfans.

YouTubers complaining of “mistreatment by fans” have hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of subscribers. Inevitably, these fans dedicate themselves to the movies, TV shows, and comics of their childhood and many are constantly on the lookout for a new release that might expand the role of women, add characters of color, or include characters that don’t. are not straight.

When pissed off, they can coordinate widespread harassment campaigns and even threats of violence on social media and distort public opinion. It’s the sort of thing that often meets with the approval of the wider right-wing media, which sometimes fan the flames of a useful argument. Talented social media trolls have moved on to cable tv jobs.

Still from a trailer for Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series. Photo: Prime Video/PA

On a human level, being the target of right-wing hate campaigns can be exhausting and depressing. in business terms, it can really waste a marketing budget, and that kind of power is appealing to permanently aggrieved pop culture followers.

The extreme protest against the “unrealistic” presence of a dark dwarf princess seems silly, given that the stories themselves are about wizards and magic rings and the occasional dragon. But the public, says Ebony Thomas, author of The Black Fantastic and associate professor at the University of Michigan, are not mistaken when they say that the black characters seem not to belong to the notoriously white fantasy genre.

“Fantasy history is racialized,” she says. “People are used to seeing fantasies and fairy tales as all-white, especially in faux-medieval or magical-medieval settings,” says Thomas. “We take them out of the dream space. We take them out the way they imagined it might be, and so it doesn’t suit them. That’s why they say, you know, ‘Who are these people? This is not what Tolkien wanted! This is not correct! »

Of course, if you’re willing to go back to the poems and legends that inspired Tolkien, you’re bound to find characters that aren’t white.

The Norse Prose Edda, compiled in 1220, includes the svartalfar, Dark Elves who live in Svartálfarheim; Tolkien was adept at Old Norse prose and verse and even translated some verses into English.

But, despite that, it’s hard to adapt anything with even a hint of Norseness. American Fascist organizations publicly use Norse iconography instead of the more easily recognizable swastikas and Confederate flags. American “European heritage” bands are obsessed with Norse gods and runes. These groups are often violent and when they rally around a symbol, the people they target tend to turn away from it.

Some devotees refuse to cede that ground, arguing that such symbols – and fantasy more broadly – ​​should be for everyone. “White supremacists don’t own Norse mythology, even though some of them think they do, nor do they own the Bible or the US Constitution, even though they might think they do. “wrote fantasy Neil Gaiman on Twitter.

Gaiman is qualified to deliver that rebuke: he wrote his own Norse mythology and a novel incorporating it (and other traditions) into American mythmaking, American Gods.

In fact, despite its array of wizards, magical artifacts, warring races, and deep wells of mythology, The Lord of the Rings is a decidedly unthreatening tale: fundamentally a heartwarming tale of middle-class heroes of multiple races. who triumph over huge odds. to save their way of life by working together against a common enemy. It’s poor ground for exterminationism – more of a sugary conservatism, complicated by Tolkien’s own experiences in World War I.

“I don’t think these books are ‘fascist’,” wrote the great British fantasist Michael Moorcock in 1978, “but they certainly don’t exactly challenge the enlightened eighteenth-century Toryism with which the English so often take comfort in those years- the. shocking moments. Moorcock thought Tolkien owed much to AA Milne; he called the Rings books “Epic Pooh”. American conservatives too, especially evangelical Christians who revere Tolkien and CS Lewis, love Tolkien’s preoccupation with the simple life and disdain for anything urban or industrial.

So is it fundamentally disrespectful to do what Amazon did by doing a modern adaptation of such a traditionalist work with a non-traditional cast?

Thomas, who likes Tolkien, doesn’t think so, and she points out that Tolkien’s notoriously restrictive realm doesn’t think so either. In this case, Tolkien’s official interpreters are far less concerned with evenly pigmenting the cast than with making sure the new series doesn’t touch on the potentially lucrative events of The Silmarillion, a posthumous novel the estate would surely love. see sold to a major movie studio for tons of money.

The issue, says Thomas, is not simply accuracy, but authenticity, and given that race is an arbitrary construct anyway, casting black actors is no less authentic than casting black actors. white actors.

“My ancestors have been here, speaking English, for 10 generations,” she says. “It’s not the case that some weird people who aren’t of Anglo-American culture suddenly ask to be portrayed. We have been here for centuries. We exist.

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