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Tolkien Acknowledged That Black People Exist in Arda, So Why Can’t Everyone Else?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

There’s been so much handwringing and yelling and controversy this week over … Black hobbits. Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel-slash-reboot The Rings of Power introduced a few darker-skinned characters, and Tolkien stans lost their minds. What gives?

That question is the main topic in the latest episode of our podcast Into It, and as A League of Their Own star Chanté Adams put it during the show’s “Into It / Not Into It” segment: “White people are struggling to see themselves in characters that don’t look like them. Black people have been dealing with that forever … Now white people are forced to do that as well. And when something is not centered around them in their experience, that ruffles some feathers.”

To dig further into the polarized reaction to The Rings of Power’s casting, host Sam Sanders called Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a University of Michigan professor and author of The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination From Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. She studies fantasy writing — specifically how people of color are portrayed in the genre — and suggests that the response to Rings of Power is because so much fantasy media is entrenched in whiteness. Then she weighs in about whether J.R.R. Tolkien was racist. You can see an excerpt of their conversation below, and check out the full episode wherever you get podcasts.

Into It

People truly got upset about Black hobbits. So upset that the cast and crew of this show had to publicly denounce Middle-earth racism. Which hobbits and orcs and dwarves and elves got a race change?
There are actually four darker-skinned characters. I think there are other actors of color who are doing a superb job, but there are four in particular in The Rings of Power who have been objected to. I think most of the objections have been against Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova), who is the Black elf. He’s one of the immortal elves of Tolkien’s legendarium. Then we have Disa (Sophia Nomvete), who is one of the dwarf characters. Queen Regent Miriel of Numenor (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) is also played by an actress of color — beauty and desirability and racial politics come into play in those discussions — and then, finally, we have Sadoc (Lenny Henry), who is one of the Harfoot characters — the predecessors of the hobbit culture.

Wait. So the hobbit’s great granddaddy is Black now.

Come on, come on. Okay, talk about it. I like that.
Tolkien says in the legendarium that Sam Gamgee was browner and, of course, there’s been pushback saying, Oh no, we met browner as in tanned.

They didn’t mean Black.
When I was a kid, every time I read a character being tall, dark, and handsome, I imagined Michael Jordan.

They meant Ben Affleck. Dark hair.
That’s not dark to us. It’s interesting to think about the difference in perception. I mean, Black audiences supported Game of Thrones. People-of-color nerds have seen and viewed and read so much that did not include us and then finally, at this late date, we show up and we’re not even the majority.

People are mad about characters of color in Star Wars. They are mad about characters of color in House of the Dragon. There are even grown adults upset that Ariel is Black in the new Little Mermaid. What gives?
My goodness. Grown men are suddenly worried about a mermaid.

You’ve said that whiteness is so entrenched in western fantasy that when a Black character just shows up, it’s shocking.
The only way that the European powers, kingdoms, and empires could ever stop trying to eradicate each other was to set themselves up as an entity against the rest of the world, the West versus the rest, and we certainly see that play out in a number of fantasy narratives, particularly modern fantasy. It’s the Black person sitting up being a knight or a mermaid that causes the hesitation.

But, do any of the critiques from these loud and angry and, in my opinion, racist Lord of the Rings fans make sense to you at all when we unpack the history of all western fantasy?
I wouldn’t call it a valid critique, but I have sympathy. It’s coming from people in an ingrained power structure that have been carefully taught to see the world as white-and-heroic and dark-and-savage. That was how they were taught, but we do have an obligation as a society to begin to unlearn those lessons.

But who wants to go watch a fun fantasy show to unlearn anything?
I hear you. But my question about that perspective is this: What is it about these four characters that makes you feel uncomfortable? They are saying the words from the script that we can argue are or are not like Tolkien’s words. We could quibble with the writing. We can quibble with the plot. We can quibble with the production. I think it is magnificent to see how they have chosen to adapt material that many experts previously said was not adaptable. But instead of having those conversations, seeing people with darker skin is what interrupts the fantastic dream. That must constantly be pushed back against, because if we’re erased in the imagination then it is easier to erase us in the real world.

What about the source material? Was Tolkien himself racist? In his personal life, he seemed to denounce racism and antisemitism — he spoke out vocally against apartheid in South Africa — but a lot of his work has this very detailed racial coding in which race is objectively real. By the standards of his time, was he in his writing progressive on race, regressive on race, or something else?
It’s complicated. If you were to twist my arm and tell me I could only have ten books with me for the rest of my life, The Silmarillion does make that list. I loved the prose, the myth-building. However, I would agree that Tolkien was a man of his time. For all his progressiveness, he could have been a mentor of one of the greatest Black academics of the 20th century, Stuart Hall, and refused him.

Oh, really?
Yes. He went to Tolkien and he recounts that he was rebuffed. Tolkien did not think that he had promise. And that was heartbreaking to me as a Black professor. To know that, Wow, you really did not see me as part of your audience. It’s chilling to know that I see you, but you don’t see me. So that’s my response to whether he was racist or not.

So many fantasy worlds in America and the U.K. are still white when we’re in a time where everything can be changed.
So people may have the best of intentions when it comes to diversity, multiculturalism, and sharing space — but money and power rule this world, unfortunately. You can have every good intention to adapt work from the Global South and from the rest of us in the west, but when you do that, how many Jordan Peeles are you going to allow? Because that would mean fewer spots and less money for your friends to create their own multimillion-dollar projects. When it comes down to it, sharing space means actually giving up something that you’ve always had: Giving up power, giving up the spotlight, giving up money so that you can share that space. And that’s hard for folks.

There you go. The next time I have you on this show, we’re going to talk about how one of the Black characters on this little Amazon show has a nice, tight, clean fade. Who’s doing the hair in Middle-earth?

This interview excerpt has been edited and condensed.

The legendarium is, broadly speaking, the lore behind the universe explored in Tolkien’s books.
The Fantasy Genre Is Too Stuck in Its White-centric Ways