I've written here before about representation and racism in fairy media and later expanded that into a full length article which was published in Witches & Pagans magazine under the title 'The (White) Elephant in the Room: Race & Identity in Fairy Lore'. In both of these pieces I emphasized the diverse descriptions of fairies, elves, and other Otherworldly beings that we find across folklore and the way that such diversity is largely ignored by those with an agenda towards an imagined pale skinned, blond version of folklore or warped to vilify a group within a game structure to play into real world prejudices. I do think that its vital for people to look beyond the popculture surface of fairylore to appreciate the diversity of the material - and will continue to advocate for a wider understanding of this. But within this wider discussion I think we also need to be honest about the way that these beliefs are and can be twisted to support particular agendas.
With that in mind lets tackle a current controversy: diversity in Rings of Power
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There's been quite a hue and cry from one segment of the population over the diversity in the new Rings of Power show, by people who feel strongly that Tolkien meant for the elves to be envisioned and depicted only as they were shown in the Lord of the Rings movies. I'm not going to get into Tolkien lore here about why some aspects of this criticism don't hold water, but rather address a different issue: why Tolkien's work does need to be adjusted today. Because we are stuck with two different inherent issues: Tolkien himself fashioned his orcs along anti-Asian stereotypes; and Jackson's movies in turn portrayed them in ways that fed into anti-black sentiments. That Tolkien was working with an anti-Asian intent isn't in question, he himself says as much "The orcs...were squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” (Chance, 205, p 114). Compounding that Tolkien also described some orcs in Return of the King as explicitly black skinned, and very clearly defined orcs as irredeemably evil. Tolkien himself was elsewhere outspoken against apartheid, Nazism, and racial classifications, as well as anti-Semitism, and its likely the racial stereotypes that appear in his work were subconscious reflections of his own cultural milieu; however that those stereotypes are there is indisputable. While Tolkien, in a letter to his son, expressed that it was the evilness of orcs that made them what they were not their appearance and that they were to be found in the real world among all people, the idea of the orcs and goblins fitting these stereotypes was concentrated and expanded on in Jackson's movies, cementing a visual narrative that gave us ethereal Caucasian elves and violent, dangerous, dark skinned orcs and goblins. That this is canon isn't arguable, however, I will argue that just because its canon doesn't mean its acceptable.
Many people argue that Tolkien was writing based on existing folklore, specifically Anglo-Saxon and Norse, and therefore his elves are based on that and should be kept true to that. I agree, and the Elves in Rings of Power are much closer to older folklore than those in Jackson's movies. There is unquestionably a great deal of diversity in older folklore and descriptions of elves, across both Anglo-Saxon aelfe and Norse alfar. The idea, for example, of various groups of elves described by colour appears from at least the 13th century with Snorri Sturluson writing about the Ljosalfar or light elves and Svartalfar or black elves. His black elves appear across multiple stories both helping and sometimes competing with the Aesir, and have their own world, Svartalfheim, or black elf home (Simek, 2007). Although today we tend to give heavy moral weight to these colours, associating white with goodness and black with badness that does not seem to be a factor for Snorri's black elves; just as the light elves can act maliciously towards humans so too the black elves can be helpful and both groups are generally more ambivalent. When we add in the 'dusky elves' (dokkalfar), usually thought to be formed by human dead, the concepts get even more nuanced and complex. We are given three groups of elves with various colour associations - light, dusky, and black - who all have various interactions with humans and whose colours seem to indicate literal appearance but not morality or behaviour.
However while Snorri didn't play too much into this idea, with his black elves no better or worse than the Aesir in many stories, Jakob Grimm writing in the 19th century certainly did, discussing a groups of spirits as white, pale, and black and relating these to angels, the dead, and devils, then further connecting the light elves to angels and black elves to devils (Grimm, 1888, p 446). We cannot have this discussion without acknowledging that or the apparent wider cultural move towards strongly codifying spirits by colour associations which was clear by at least the early modern period in Europe. It is likely, in my opinion, that this did affect Tolkien's choices in his writing in the early 20th century. Arguably a Christian overlay trying to fit these older pagan concepts into Christian cosmology they nonetheless created a moral implication where none had been previously* and which fit in with racist ideologies.
Tolkien's choices in describing his orcs and goblins as well as his decision to refer to his various Middle Earth beings as 'races' and to describe them in ways that reflect wider racial stereotypes has had a huge and long lasting impact on both the genre of fantasy fiction as well as role playing games based on that genre. This has been written about in more depth and by better voices than my own here and here and I encourage readers to dig into these and the other articles on race on the public medievalist site. But ultimately the issue comes down to the stereotypes in Tolkien's work being taken, expanded on, and codified across the genre of fantasy, and into gaming based on that, in ways that amplify the racism within those stereotypes. The ideas of pale skinned beautiful elves in contrast to dark skinned violent orcs isn't reflective of older folklore, but of this early 20th century influence. It remains in the genre because it continues to be perpetuated, not because it is a requirement.
Just because an author writing almost a hundred years ago created material that played into racial stereotypes of the 19th and 20th century doesn't mean we must therefore continue to adhere to those stereotypes. Especially when we do have wider folklore and material that supports diversity among elves and a modern understanding that we cannot simplify good and evil into skin colours. The newest Tolkien spin off, Rings of Power, may deserve legit criticism on different fronts, but including diverse casting isn't one of them - if anything that is only reflecting the array of source material Tolkien was drawing on to begin with and the author's own expressed opinions against racial classifications. As Maya Angelou so wisely said: "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."
We know better now and we also know the harm that incorporating human world racism into the fantasy genre has done. We must do better than to keep perpetuating it.
*I'll note discussion this is specifically about English and continental European colour symbolism; Irish colour symbolism around spirits tended to focus on different colours particularly red, green, and white
Grimm, J., (1888) Teutonic Mythology vol 4
Chance, J., (2005) Tolkien and the Invention of Myth
Rearick, A., (2004) Why Is the Only Good Orc a Dead Orc? The Dark Face of Racism Examined in Tolkien's World. Retrieved from https://muse.jhu.edu/article/177550/pdf?fbclid=IwAR3t7hkj0E05DJxpnHkm4RLbKDrRMrclncZ3axfhfiMzTFM6YSgZlsOmH5I
Warmbrunn, C., (2020) Dear Tolkien Fans, Black People Exist. Retrieved from https://www.publicmedievalist.com/tolkien-fans-black-people/
Strurtevant, P., (2017) Race: the Original Sin of the Fantasy Genre. Retrieved from https://www.publicmedievalist.com/race-fantasy-genre/
Racism in Tolkien's Works (2022) Tolkien Gateway. Retrieved from https://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Racism_in_Tolkien's_Works
D'Anastasio, D., (2021) D&D Must Grapple With the Racism in Fantasy. Retrieved from https://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Racism_in_Tolkien's_Works
Hi Morgan, you said "why Tolkien's work does need to be adjusted today" Allow me to respectfully disagree: a literary (or sacred, for that matter) work doesn't have to be adjusted to the mores of the times. We don't re-write the Old Testament, The Odyssey, The Tain, Beowulf, etc to remove those bits less palatable to modern western society. We might dislike them, but we must understand these or any works in the context of the society which produced them.ReplyDelete
If we are creating new works, well, that's another story, we can line them up with the current cultural traditions and it will be up to future generations to likely criticise them (but not re-write them).
Tolkien's world was among other things an attempt to provide a missing mythology for Anglo-Saxon England. Like the Icelandic Eddas, the Finnish Kalevala, or any other European traditional mythology it reflected the world of those ancient Europeans and that world didn't include black or oriental people, not because they were racists, simply because those people weren't around. Much in the same way that the myths from Senegal, Mali or China don't include white or native american people.
I would greatly like to see more TV series and Hollywood movies based on African mythology (or history) (for all the shouting of diversity they seem to be shy of creating any fantasy not based on European culture). I'm actually looking forward to the Anansi Boys series where the whole cast should be black, as per the book. I would be as disappointed in watching a white actor playing an ethnic African-based character in Anansi as I am in watching black actors playing ethnic European-based ones in Rings of Power
we have a different perspective on things. While I agree that we shouldn't edit mythic or ancient works for our own modern comfort, I don't think that materials written within the modern period as fiction are beyond updating. Much like the way that HBO's Lovecraft Country (based on the novel) was a way to take on issues inherent in HP Lovecraft's work I think that depicting diverse people in middle earth is, ultimately, a good thing which makes Tolkien's work more relatable not less.Delete