The official first look into Amazon Prime’s new series The Rings of Power was released recently and, as expected, the racists are angry. They are angry because the cast isn’t all white. [cue: shock]
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One comment that stood out to me reads as follows (original poor grammar and spelling included for authenticity): “Horrible casting choise. There are two explanations how could you cast black elf or dwarf. It’s either a deep ignorance of Tolkien’s work or you do not value it enough to follow its rules. I am deeply disappointed. “
And you know what, he does have a point. Tolkien’s work is not for or about people of color. It’s a glorification of colonization. That’s why modern reinterpretations of the beloved fantasy epic desperately need to include diversity, to start a reinvention of this staple of fantasy often credited as being the origin for the modern fantasy genre as a whole. Of course, having a black actor or two in the cast is literally only surface level change, but it’s a good start and I’m curious as to what direction the writers and directors will take for this show.
While I currently write lots of lovey dovey queer Paranormal Romance stuff, my first love was fantasy. If it had dragons, elves, magic, witches, or a made-up language, I read it as a child. Most of the people who know me in real life are actually pretty shocked that my first book is going to be paranormal romance rather than an epic fantasy. So, I’d like to share an essay I wrote for a Native American Literature class I took in college focusing on colonialism represented in Lord of the Rings, something I wrote from the perspective of a fantasy reader and fantasy lover. I hope you find it interesting and that the racists find it offensive.
An Essay: Representations of Imperial Colonialism in the Various Works of Tolkien
Native Americans are not a group often found in the forefront of fantasy literature. Epic fantasy literature is almost notorious for a specific aesthetic, one of Celtic elves, Scottish/Viking dwarves, and English humans. There is usually a mystical, druidic quality to magical groups like elves, which leads to a very common trope: colonialism of native populations, and the need to eradicate/erase the old to make room for the new. Originating from an interpretation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, this is a reflection of a primarily white Christian notion that their specific culture is the best, most civilized, and the only real future direction for the world to progress in – a notion that started in real life with the original Christian Roman Empire’s assimilation and conquest of Europe, and continues to this day in the residual effects from Europe’s efforts to colonize already inhabited countries and continents by destroying the people and cultures they encountered. Since the victors (or self-perceived victors) write the stories, Western fantasy reflects this colonization strongest in one of the most classic of all high fantasy series, the Lord of the Rings series by J. R. R. Tolkien.
Before diving into Tolkien’s elaborate world of epic battles, strange languages, and descriptions of doors that last pages longer than most readers have patience for, one needs to consider a concept which influenced Tolkien’s writing: the white man’s burden. This ‘burden’ is a term coined by another author named Rudyard Kipling, who was famous for adventure novels starring British protagonists in colonized countries perceived by his general audience at the time to be backwards and exotic, such as India, the Pacific Islands, and parts of Africa. The term “white man’s burden” comes from a poem of his, which goes in part as follows:
“Take up the White Man’s burden
Send forth the best ye breed
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child” (Kipling)
In this first verse, and in the verses which follow, Kipling makes the argument that the burden of “the White Man” is his superiority to all those who are not white men. His burden is to force those perceived to be lesser to be as much like him as possible, for their own betterment. The line describing non-whites as ‘half devil and half child’ is perhaps the most telling line in the entire poem. Calling someone part devil insinuates innate, inborn evil which is to be feared, loathed, and treated with harshness. In calling non-whites half child, he effectively infantilizes everyone not like him. Children have no agency; their intelligence is not fully formed because they are incapable of understanding adult subjects and so for their own safety and future development they must be wards of their parents. The idea that adults whose cultures are different or who’s skin color is darker are children while white men are the proper adults makes a whole range of abuses justifiable in the minds of the perpetrators of this myth. Much more so in the time period Kipling was alive and in previous centuries than is the case now, children were seen as property of their parents and it was perfectly acceptable to beat a child who was thought of as unruly. Carrying this behavior to race relations and imperial colonialism, slavers may have genuinely fooled themselves into thinking that beating their ‘property’ was good for that person and that even if a person fought or begged not to have their language and/or culture stripped giving every indication that this was a cruel and unwanted thing to do, that white men were in the right because they were the all-knowing adults.
The real heart of the issue in Tolkien’s work lies in the relationship between elves and humans. Contrary to what one might gleam from a surface reading of the Lord of the Rings books or watching the movies alone, Tolkien’s works do not describe the rising human forces as conquering a once native people when compared to the receding elven race. The idea is not so much that elves must die off or disappear for the sake of the rise of humans, but is in fact more subtly insidious than that. If one only reads the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the impression left might be that just like many other works of fantasy, the elves represent a dying native population similar to mythical and magical stereotype of druids and Celtic tribes that Christianity wiped out through wars, massacres, witch hunts, and general mayhem and cruelty through forced assimilation/conversion. However, that is not accurate. The Silmarillion is a companion to his Middle Earth based novels, and details the history of the elves. This history shows what Tolkien thought to be the proper manner in which the white man’s burden was supposed to play out, and gives his novels an interesting predicament in which the magical elves are not actually representative of Native populations, but rather are the conquering white Christians come to civilize the savages in a strange land from across the sea where their real homeland lies. This is why in his other works elves are never childlike and evil, and the race of men (humanity) is never depicted as the adults. In fact, part of the catalyst for the entire quest to destroy the ring comes from a petulant, irresponsible, evil, and child-like decision of one human to not destroy the one ring, as the wiser more adult elf says he should.
The Silmarillion speaks from the perspective of the elves as they come to Middle-Earth and encounter the Atani – the race of men, identified as mortals. These Atani (who are also given a slew of other names and will hereafter be referred to as humans or men) are described in a similar way to how encroaching Europeans described Native American tribes – as offensive, crude, godless, and in need of elevation:
“Yet the Elves believe that Men are often a grief to Manwë [a character comparable to a king god or a Christ figure, but perhaps more closely inspired by Odin from Norse mythology or Zeus from Greek mythology and ultimately a combination of all three mythologies], who knows most of the mind of Iluvatar; for it seems to the Elves that Men resemble Melkor [a character most comparable to the devil from Christian mythology] most of all the Ainur, although he has never feared and hated them, even those that served them.” (“The Silmarillion” 36)
In order to elevate these poor human beings to a state closer to the superior elves, the elves now have to rule and educate them. Obviously, if they saw humans as being similar to the Tolkien version of the devil, then humans were indeed considered half devil and half child by the elves. An interesting note is that the elf who founds the royal house that rules humans does not come to humans out of a sense of pity or overt superiority, but more out of a sort of paternal love. Tolkien is saying in this that while humans, and therefore the real-world metaphoric equivalent of non-whites, are closer to evil and immature in their development, the duty that elves should feel towards them is not to feel hatred, but love and desire to share their culture and knowledge with them.
“Long Felagund watched them, and love for them stirred in his heart; but he remained hidden in the trees until they had all fallen asleep. Then he went among the sleeping people, and sat beside their dying fire where none kept watch; and he tok up a rude harp which Beor had lain aside, and he played music upon it such as the ears of Men had not heard; for they had as yet no teachers in the art […]
“Now men awoke and listened to Felagund as he harped and sang, and each thought that he was in some fair dream, until he saw that his fellows were awake also beside him; but they did not speak or stir while Felagund still played, because of the beauty of the music and the wonder of the song. Wisdom was in the words of the Elven-king, and the hearts grew wiser that hearkened to him; for the things of which he sang, of the making of Arda, and the bliss of Aman beyond the shadows of the Sea, came as clear visions before their eyes, and his Elvish speech was interpreted in each mind according to its measure.”
“Thus it was that Men called King Felagund, whom they first met of all the elder, Nom, that is Wisdom, in the language of that people, and after him they named his folk Nomin, the Wise. Indeed they believed at first that Felagund was one of the Valar, of whom they had heard rumour that they dwelt far in the West; and this was (some say) the cause of their journeying. But Felagund dwelt among them and taught them true knowledge, and they loved him, and took him for their lord, and were ever after loyal to the house of Finarfin.” (“The Silmarillion” 177-178)
This describes an ideal European example of colonization, from the perspective of the colonizers. Translating the metaphor from fantasy to the real world, Tolkien is describing a white man coming to a Native village, where he teaches his language, stories, religion, and culture to the people there who are all too willing to absorb these things. The Native people mistake him for a god at first, because they inherently understand that this individual is so much wiser than they are, but the ever patient and understanding white man stays and lives with them to teach them his ‘true knowledge’, for which they love him and appoint him their leader. This is exactly how Europeans viewed their colonization efforts, and wished that they would play out. Tolkien’s views seem to be that problems only arise when one or both sides of this equation do not play their parts ‘correctly’. For example, if the colonizer comes in with hatred in their hearts, or if the colonized do not bow down and abandon their own way of life in favor of the ‘true knowledge’ their oppressors supposedly have to share with them.
The final step in the elves’ reeducation of humans is when they raise the future king of men, Aragorn, also known as Strider and as Estel. While not done in so harsh and terrible a manner as the boarding schools Native American children were forced to attend, it is interesting to note the similarities between Tolkien’s benign version of assimilation and the reality that was inflicted upon America’s Native populations. Aragorn’s father was killed, and his mother gave him up to the elves of Rivendell to be fostered by the elven Lord Elrond. At her request, his heritage as royalty was kept from him. He was given an elven name, Estel, meaning hope/trust (despite his name ‘Aragorn’ already deriving from the elvish Sindarin language: ara meaning king and gorn meaning revered – not the best way to hide royal heritage), and was taught to speak elvish. He even fell in love with and eventually married an elven woman – Elrond’s daughter. In all but blood, Aragorn is an elf. In this way, they killed the man, and saved the elf, similar to what Captain Richard Henry Pratt claimed was a noble goal in his 1892 speech: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
The parallels are uncanny. There is the implication that a human/non-white should be glad to willingly give up her child to be raised by the superior elves/whites. In America, this was a severe problem as the U.S. government would forcibly remove Native children from their families to be raised by non-Native families, effectively erasing Native American cultures and languages from large numbers of children. Aragorn’s renaming is like what happened in the government run boarding schools for Native American children, when they were forced to choose Anglicized names instead of allowed to keep their own names and identities. Yet, Tolkien’s insinuation is that Native American parents should gladly hand over their children for reeducation, and be happy to do so – as if any sane parent would want their child ripped away from their care to be raised by strangers in a strange culture.
By the end of the Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is crowned king and will rule with all the knowledge and wisdom granted to him from his time spent being raised by elves. His king’s name is King Elessar – an elven name that literally translates to ‘Elfstone’, referring to an elven jewel. His reign is a symbol that the ‘child’ of humanity has grown into an adult. He is an example of a man who has become civilized, and will lead the rest of humanity into that ideal civilization from his position of power.
At this point, the elves leave Middle Earth. Their work is done – they have brought their culture to the savage humans and successfully converted them. Tolkien’s commentary on society here is not that the old must die or disappear for the new and better to replace it, but that the true purpose of Kipling’s white man’s burden is not to stay and rule perpetually over other peoples, but to teach them to rule themselves… only if they rule themselves the way European Christians prefer. Tolkien is saying that Europeans implement the philosophy incorrectly when they decide to hate, destroy, or conquer other cultures/people, and instead should be like the noble elves and back off once their work is done.
What Tolkien fails to take into account is the possibility that the culture that has been so drastically altered is not one that is inferior. He depicts humanity’s early days in Middle Earth as inferior because that is how he views non-white civilizations. Instead of trying to see the beauty in something that is different, he proposes that everything must become more elven: i.e., more white. In his ideal world, non-white cultures would willingly give up their languages, religions, and way of living and even their offspring for the chance to be just a little more like elven society, ignoring the possibility that there is value in those languages, religions, and ways of living because he is perhaps too brainwashed to be capable of understanding such a situation from any point of view other than his own.
The choice to make humanity – a group that Tolkien and most of his readers would associate themselves with simply due to the fact that they themselves are human – the colonized rather than the colonizers seems to be an indication that he believes if he were part of an inferior culture, he would submit to any wiser culture that sailed across the sea and encountered him. It is as if he is saying, “See, we’d do it too if our situations were reversed, and we’d be grateful for it! You should submit to our superior knowledge!” to colonized countries. But there is no such thing as inferior culture. If, say, a Chinese Empire were to set out conquering the world and made it all the way across Europe and into Britain, there isn’t a chance that Tolkien would give up Christianity in exchange for Buddhism, or English for Chinese, despite Chinese culture being very rich and at many times in history more technologically advanced than Europeans with innovations such as silk, gunpowder, and paper currency to name just a few. Tolkien’s is an ethnocentric viewpoint incapable of empathy with groups he is not a part of.
The Lord of the Rings have become the staple off of which almost all fantasy is based. As a result, this imperialist colonial mentality lives on. Sometimes the roles are reversed and it is the elves who are the natives, or some other race of fantasy beings, but the general idea remains the same: one way of life is better than others. It is up to future fantasy writers to change that notion and promote the idea that there is no such thing as inferior culture. Literature has come a long way since Tolkien’s era, but the lack of widespread awareness of this colonial trope within his novels proves that there is still a long way to go.
To diverge from the essay:
I would like to address one point that people usually preface with the statement “I’m not a racist, but” that Tolkien’s works are specifically based off of European cultures and so should have a European cast because it’s faithful to the original mythologies of Celtic and Viking lore. I think this isn’t a completely baseless desire, when mentioned in good faith. But it isn’t as if we’re lacking for European representation in fantasy. And it’s important to remember that THIS IS A FANTASY WORLD. It can ultimately look like whatever the creators interpreting the work want it to be. Just because Tolkien couldn’t imagine a fantasy where the good guys weren’t all white doesn’t mean we in modern times have to adhere to it like it’s a bible. Tolkien was a visionary, but he wasn’t perfect.
I’d also like to say that there are indeed mention of black characters within the works called the Haradrim, so it’s not as if the idea of people of color having a role within Tolkien’s world doesn’t already exist.
However, and it’s a big however, given the colonial history of European culture and the advocation for it within Tolkien’s texts, there is absolutely nothing wrong with changing that representation to something more positive and casting actors of color. Modern fantasy, to me, is kind of like America as a country. It may have started with heavy European influence, but it is a place for everyone. And the alleged representation of the Haradrim is… well… You remember that scene with the elephants? That’s supposed to be them. Honestly, when I watched the movies before reading the books, I had no idea that the humans allied with Sauron were supposed to be black. Which, it may be for the better that the decision was made not to make all the bad humans black and stick to orcs… which that’s another post in and of itself, so I’m just going to wrap this up.
In short, yes, Tolkien’s world already has a place for black people that isn’t black elves. But Tolkien was a bit racist and revamping his stories for modern audiences in our blended world will only elevate the story
What do you think of the points raised regarding colonialization in Tolkien’s works? Share in the comments, I’d love to hear from you! (Please be civil)
Do note that while I love fantasy, I was never really big into Lord of the Rings. It just didn’t grab me as much as other fantasy works did, so if I messed up a minor lore point, apologies in advance.
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Kipling, Rudyard. “The White Man’s Burden.” McClure’s Magazine 10 Feb. 1899: n. page. Print.
Pratt, Richard Henry. “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880–1900. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973, 260–271. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. New York: Ballantine, 1970. Print.