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
|image by Zanstardust from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:El_Se%C3%B1or_de_los_Anillos_lectura.jpg|
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.
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.
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