Brandon Morse has read J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” the “Lord of the Rings” series and watched extended editions of Peter Jackson’s ring trilogy so often that “I can almost quote them all line for line.”
But Morse is dreading a new addition to the Middle-earth canon that he says “perverts and corrupts” Tolkien’s mythical medieval universe because TV showrunners have committed this storytelling crime:
They are trying to “woke-ify” Amazon’s new series, “The Lord of the Rings: “The Rings of Power.”
Morse is deputy managing editor of RedState, a conservative news site. He says “The Rings of Power” producers have cast non-White actors in a story based on European culture and who look wildly different from how Tolkien originally described them. He says it’s an attempt to embed “social justice politics” into Tolkien’s world.
“If you focus on introducing modern political sentiments, such as the leftist obsession with identity issues that only go skin deep, then you’re no longer focusing on building a good story,” says Morse, who wrote an impassioned essay about his misgivings. “You’re effectively making propaganda, or art meant to fit a message, not a message to fit the art.”
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.
Tell Rev. Michael Coren, author of “J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Created the Lord of the Rings,” that some people are complaining casting non-White actors in the new series will ruin the medieval world that Tolkien built, and his response is terse.
“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.
“They are happy with a dragon flying,” Toussaint said. “They’re happy with white hair and violet-colored eyes. But a rich Black guy? That’s beyond the pale.”
“The Rings of Power” producers cast several actors of color as major characters in the show. One is the Latino actor Ismael Cruz Córdova who plays the warrior elf, Arondi. Another is Cynthia Addai-Robinson, whose mother is from Ghana and father is from the US. She plays the Queen Regent Miriel.
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.
“And when I said, ‘I want to be an elf,’ people said, ‘Elves don’t look like you,”’ he said in an interview. “When I heard about the character on the show, it felt like a mission.”
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.
Some point out they have also condemned the portrayals of White characters in the show, such as the elf Galadriel, who has been criticized for being not feminine enough.
Louis Markos, author of “From A to Z to Middle Earth with J.R.R. Tolkien,” says casting Black and brown actors in “The Rings of Power” threatens story believability. He said Tolkien described elves, for example, as “fair-faced.”
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.”
Other critics use arguments about political correctness to lodge their objections. They describe Amazon’s casting choices as affirmative action descending upon Middle-earth, using terms such as “forced diversity,” and warning that Amazon will “go woke and go broke.”
There is even disagreement about what it means to be “woke.”
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “woke” as being “aware and actively attentive” to systemic racial injustice and prejudice.
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.
Amazon Studios did not make anyone connected to the series available for comment. But the show has plenty of defenders.
Marc Burrows, a critic and comedian, sees it as ironic that some Middle-earth fans have no trouble accepting giant, walking tree people and fire-breathing dragons, but “darker skinned dwarves are a bit far-fetched.”
Others say the ancient world was not as White as some “Lord of the Rings” fans believe. They say the ancient Europe that inspired Middle Earth was filled with more racial diversity than is commonly understood due to overseas trading, conquest and migration. Science backs them up. The first modern Britons, who lived 10,000 years ago, were not White but had “dark to black” skin with curly hair, scientists recently discovered.
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.
N.K. Jemisin, an acclaimed Black fantasy and science fiction writer, has criticized Tolkien’s depiction of “orcs,” the dusky-hued, villainous foot soldiers who terrorize hobbits, elves and other pale-faced heroes. She said they are depicted as “faceless savage dark hordes” that exist so the good guys can “gleefully go genocidal on them.”
“Think about that,” Jemisin 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.”
Withering criticisms like Jemisin’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.
One essayist asked a question that’s been circulating for years: Was Tolkien really a racist?
Some racists think so, according to John Garth, author of “The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien.”
“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 was a White man who lived in a tweedy, virtually all-White world as a professor of Anglo-Saxon in early to mid-20th century England. But just as Tolkien wrote “not all those who wander are lost” about an enigmatic Middle-earth hero, his background could be deceiving. His biographers say he was not a racist.
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.
Amazon’s “Lord of the Rings” series is reportedly the most expensive TV show ever made.
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.
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