In case you haven’t heard, Amazon is making a “Lord of the Rings” television show. The official title is “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”. The show will be set during the Second Age of Middle Earth, well before the events of “The Hobbit” or “The Lord of the Rings”. Amazon is spending a billion dollars to bring this portion of J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision to life. You would think all of this would be cause for joyful celebration. You would be wrong.
“The board is set, the pieces are moving. We come to it at last, the great battle of our time.”
Before we jump in, I want to give you an out. I realize this topic is too deep in the weeds for some of you. If you are a casual fan of “The Lord of the Rings” movies but have no plan to obsessively follow every scrap of news about “The Rings of Power”, this might not be for you. If you don’t really pay attention to social media, YouTube content creators, or various cultural hot button issues, this might not be for you. I’m simply saying, you don’t have to keep reading. It’s okay. We have a ton of other content you would enjoy so poke around a bit and see what piques your interest. For the rest of you, let’s get started.
Loudly and as obnoxiously as possible, there are two camps or groups forming around this show:
First, sauntering into the fray, we have the “woke” avengers who take any criticism of the show, the cast, or anything else related to it as alt-right trolling at best or outright racism, misogynism, or homophobia at worst. From this point forward, we will call them Group #1.
Second, marching into the battle, are the anti-woke justice league who perceive every image, news story, plot point, or casting decision as some attempt to make Tolkien’s grand story into some woke, social justice warrior love fest. And because they have deemed Amazon’s new show as woke, that pejorative taints everything about the show from now until eternity. We will call this camp Group #2.
They are both misguided. Or worse. And they are both driving me crazy. The two groups are making any conversation about “The Rings of Power” complicated and intense. Worse, they are making any productive conversation about the show nearly impossible. And compounding these issues even further, these groups seem to take great joy inflaming the tensions on purpose with little to no regard for facts or truth.
“Let me risk a little more light.”
Group #1 is fully on board with all sorts of different interpretations of Tolkien’s text. Reading it through various critical lenses: queer, critical theory, deconstruction, feminism, etc… So, when fans outside of that group criticize something from the production of the show – an image, the fact that there are black elves and dwarves in the show, Group #1 attacks them and says they are alt-right trolls or racists. And, as foreign to the themes, values, and worldview of Tolkien as it would be, many in Group #1 would love to see a version of LOTR where Sam and Frodo are lovers. This is who Group #1 is.
Group #2 is the inevitable backlash to Group #1. But, in their zeal to counter absurd narratives like Frodo and Sam LGBT, or the filling of Tolkien’s mythology with every race, color, and sexuality, Group #2 attacks everything related to the new show. Every image1 or story is framed as being “WOKE” or pushing an agenda. Nothing can simply be viewed as anodyne. This group is just as bad as Group #1, even if I probably agree with them about a number of things in general.
“Now for wrath! Now for ruin!”
I realize all this discussion about groups, “woke” agendas, and alt-right trolls probably feels far removed from what we typically publish. And, I hesitate to dive even deeper into this particular rabbit hole, but I do feel that to fully articulate my case as clearly and as effectively as I can, I need to venture a little further down. I would like to do that by sharing a few examples to illustrate the two sides of this war.
Recently, after Amazon released the teaser trailer for “The Rings of Power” there was some backlash to some of the casting decisions. Most of the concerns involved the prominence of invented characters (characters who were not created by Tolkien) and what appeared to be race-swaps: taking white characters and turning them into a racial minority. On its face, the second complaint sounds problematic, but once you get past the initial shock of the thing and actually understand where the criticism or concern comes from, you start to see that it’s not merely racism rearing its ugly head in Middle Earth.
Without going full nerd here, and to be clear, I lack the knowledge or expertise to go full nerd, it has been said that the world of Middle Earth was in part, J.R.R. Tolkien’s attempt to create a mythology for Britain. There is debate if this is actually an accurate representation of Tolkien’s goals in the end. Suffice to say, there are many well-intentioned fans who truly believe this to be the case. There are other fans who disagree. (You can read a good essay from that perspective here.)
I probably land somewhere in the middle in this debate. I do not believe Tolkien’s primary purpose in creating Middle Earth and all the stories and characters that populate it was to give Britain its own mythology. But, I believe it did play a role. There is no doubt Tolkien’s fascination with all things Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Germanic greatly influenced his works. There can also be no doubt those influences were unambiguously integral in the specific shape and form of Middle Earth’s geography, cultures, languages, customs, and racial characteristics. So, when fans believe that this mythology of Britain is being deconstructed, subverted, or bastardized, they react swiftly and with very little patience or grace. Whether their reaction is fair or unfair is not my call to make, though, I can, with full conviction, state that the reaction by Group #1 to this reaction is unfair.
“It is altogether evil.”
After the initial backlash, one of the oldest and most respected fan websites for all things Tolkien and Middle Earth, TheOneRing.net chose to go full scorched earth. You can read their response here. If you cannot already tell, I believe their response to be the worst sort of gaslighting imaginable. It’s ugly, despicable stuff, and it saddens me that a website I have been frequenting nearly every day for the better part of 25 years would publish something like this.
There is a prideful condescension that permeates the entire article. At no point, is there any consideration of the genuine concerns of genuine fans. The line is drawn in the sand; you are either all-in on making Tolkien modern and racially diverse or you are a racist. There is no middle ground. Where does that leave us? Where does anyone who has misgivings about the project go? Well, if it’s not already clear, they are all but forced to go to Group #2.
Sadly, Group #2 is no better. In some ways, they are worse. See this video for an example. (Warning: this video contains R-rated language.) To save you the pain of having to watch that video, it basically amounts to a rant about how “woke” and awful “The Rings of Power” will be – simply because of a few quotes in an article published by Vanity Fair about the new series. And yes, the very brief focus in the article on the backlash bothered me. This quote, in particular, has many people in Group #2 upset:
When Amazon released photos of its multicultural cast, even without character names or plot details, the studio endured a reflexive attack from trolls—the anonymous online kind. “Obviously there was going to be push and backlash,” says Tolkien scholar Mariana Rios Maldonado, “but the question is from whom? Who are these people that feel so threatened or disgusted by the idea that an elf is Black or Latino or Asian?”Vanity Fair
Here’s the thing, the person that Vanity Fair chose to quote – Mariana Rios Maldonado – is not affiliated with the production as far as I can find. Earlier in the article, it’s mentioned that “Amazon no longer shares the names of its scholars” so clearly this Maldonado person is not connected to the show in any official capacity. (Adding to this, she is one of the progressive, Woke warriors from Group #1.) Yes, the quote is offensive to anyone who might have a problem with adding races to a work of literature where those races did not exist. (Again, this can be debated with grace and respect.) But, using this quote to declare that the showrunners, writers, and production team of “The Rings of Power” are hardcore progressives hoping to inject their own politics and worldview into the series is premature and unfair based on the limited information we have at this point.
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
We don’t know if the new show is going to aggressively push “woke” agendas. I hope it doesn’t. That will be a deal-breaker to me. If Arondir (the black elf) has a chip on his shoulder because the white elves have discriminated against him and there has been institutional and systemic racism against him and the other black elves, I might join Group #2. But, there is ZERO evidence of this. Yes, they chose to have a more diverse cast, and we can passionately and politely argue whether that is justifiable or not. But, just because they’ve made the cast more diverse, it doesn’t mean the writers and the showrunners are attempting to subvert and destroy Tolkien’s creation.
I will say that it bothered me that the first official article about “The Rings of Power” attacked fans for being upset about the diverse casting. I would be perfectly okay if they said, “We hear you, but here are the reasons we did it.” Instead, they framed it like the fans who have problems with the diversity are trolls or worse. That’s ungracious at best. But, it’s possible that was more of a Vanity Fair angle than the showrunners taking that hard stance. Clearly, another example of having too little information to make any dogmatic declarations.
You can be okay with the race swaps.2 I’m actually not that bothered by it. I’m okay with changes like these as long as they are not using them as a cudgel to beat us over the head with modern narratives about race and equality. You can have legitimate problems with these changes that have nothing to do with racism. And you are not an alt-right troll if you have problems with the race swaps. Or, far less likely, you could be everything Group #1 thinks you are, but if that is the case you have much deeper issues than a television show.
But, these types of reactions to fans having genuine concerns are unhelpful and only further inflame the issue. It creates strawmen that can be easily vilified and destroyed. It creates anger and enemies instead of promoting conversation and discussion. I realize this is hard to believe in our current political and cultural climate, but passionate disagreement is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be an incredibly good thing. It sharpens us. It helps us see other positions and opinions more clearly. These types of articles only push Group #2 further into adolescent rage and stupidity. They will respond to even more attacks of racism with vitriol and anger – and you can hardly blame them. “The Rings of Power” is going to be blanketed by this garbage unless people start being wiser in how they react.
And, to me, that is the saddest part about this whole thing. There have been few things in my life I have enjoyed more than following the production of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Reading the spy reports. Watching the teasers, the trailers, and every bit of media New Line Cinema would release. It was all so much fun and a time I will never forget.
I want to experience some version of that again with “The Rings of Power”. I realize it will probably never live up to my lofty expectations, but there is always hope. Sadly, all of this noise and nonsense is distracting and frustrating. It is manufactured outrage by two sides that are using it for their own gain, notoriety, and agendas. Let’s sit down and have rational, kind, and generous discussions and debates about these things. Let’s stop vilifying each other and seeing the worst in everyone. And most importantly of all, let’s withhold judgment about “The Rings of Power” until we actually see the show. Is that too much to ask?
- Female Dwarves with no beards or Elves with short hair being the most cited offenders. Never mind that neither of those things are essential to Tolkien’s themes or mythology, nor is there any clear consensus if they are even correct. As in: we just don’t know if Tolkien wanted only long-haired elves or bearded female dwarves. It’s such a nonsensical mountain upon which to die. ↩
- Side note: These aren’t actually race swaps. They haven’t changed the race of any known characters. The only characters who have been made a different race (other than Caucasian) are new/invented characters. So, even in this, the writers are including more diversity but aren’t dramatically altering what the fans know. They haven’t made Gil-galad a black man. As far as we know, Cirdan the Shipwright isn’t of Korean descent. I think this is a sign that the writers and showrunners are doing what they can to satisfy Amazon’s desire for more representation but not going so far as to change the race of established and loved characters. I’m sure this will be noticed by Group #1 at some point and then they will probably cry racism about the show. ↩