Multiculturalism in Middle-earth: On Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”
By Kathryn LavezzoNovember 7, 2022
For me, the most satisfying moment, by far, of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power — Amazon’s expensive adaptation of Tolkien’s Second Age — involves Númenor and a dramatization of Tolkien’s “terrible dream.” The fourth episode of the blockbuster series, called “The Great Wave,” opens with a vision of huge waves crashing over and drowning the Númenórean city of Armenelos. Yet this dream also clashes, deliciously, with the supposed memory that Tolkien so cherished. Tolkien understood his dream as part of a racial pattern of white “father-son affinity” that began with Elendil and his son and extended up to Tolkien and his own child Michael. In his appendices — for which Amazon gained the rights from the Tolkien estate for a whopping 250 million dollars — Tolkien highlights the racial purity of Elendil’s ancestral line in Middle-earth, writing that “it was the pride and wonder of the Northern Line that, though their power departed and their people dwindled, through all the many generations the succession was unbroken from father to son.” Elendil is one of the white characters in the Amazon series (played ably by Peter McKenzie). In The Rings of Power, though, it isn’t Elendil but rather a woman of color, Queen Regent Míriel (realized beautifully by Cynthia Addai-Robinson) who dreams of the great flood. Moreover, Míriel’s vision of Númenor radically rejects the white patriarchal bonds embraced by Tolkien. The tsunami hits the island while the queen is blessing newborns brought to her by an emphatically multicultural group of mothers.
It’s hard to imagine an adaptation that would have bothered Tolkien’s racist sensibilities further. As I have discussed, Tolkien was both a little Englander who detested globalism and a medievalist who dissuaded his Jamaican advisee at Oxford — none other than the future multiculturalism pioneer, Stuart Hall — from becoming a medievalist. (As medievalists of color such as Mary Rambaran-Olm have made clear, the whiteness of medieval studies remains a vexing problem.) If Tolkien could not tolerate the prospect of a Black scholar analyzing his treasured medieval English literature, how much more would he have rejected the very idea of a Black Númenórean woman, let alone one who shared his Atlantis dream?
The diverse bodies involved in the queen’s vision are part of an overall effort by the makers of The Rings of Power to reimagine Tolkien’s world as a place where a hobbit, a human, and even an elf can be nonwhite. That casting decision reflects, in turn, a larger shift in Western cultural politics in which stories long associated with whites are portrayed in more inclusive terms, a shift whose flashpoints include Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (2015) as well as recent installations of the Star Wars franchise and Netflix’s Bridgerton. This shift is welcome for many reasons, but it also has occasioned predictably troubling conflicts between fandoms and new adaptations.
As anyone familiar with the popular reception of The Rings of Power well knows, its diversification of Middle-earth has drawn criticism from a sizable and vocal group of fans who are attached to the whiteness of Tolkien’s fantasy world and have decried the new series. Among the effects of this outcry is a paradoxical boon for the makers of The Rings of Power, insofar as the spectacle of trolling might allow Amazon to reject any criticism of the show as somehow rooted in racism. In fact, The Rings of Power suffers from so many artistic issues that it’s hard to single one out (though perhaps its overblown orchestral and choir-heavy music is a strong contender). Actors such as Ismael Cruz Córdoba (the fantastic “leading man” elf Arondir), Joseph Mawle (the wonderfully evil Adar), and Owain Arthur (the big-hearted elf prince Durin) deserve a good deal of praise for eking strong performances out of impoverished dialogue, plotlines and set designs that don’t do justice to the narrative strengths of Tolkien’s secondary world, such as its moments of thrilling adventure.
But in addition to such aesthetic concerns, it’s also worth considering just how much The Rings of Power is also true to Tolkien’s racist vision in works like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Not unlike Jeff Bezos himself, Tolkien was a world maker, and fundamental to his fantasy world was its organization on behalf of whiteness. The immensely enjoyable conflict between good and evil forces in the Tolkien universe takes shape through the elevation of brightness over darkness, light over shadow, high over low, white over black. And unfortunately, the makers of The Rings of Power, for all their putative investment in diversity, by and large hold steady to that larger vision of a world structured in white dominance.
The opening credits of the series signpost these color-charged stakes. Inspired by the angelic music said to create the original beings and objects in Tolkien’s universe, the credits use sound vibrations (in technical parlance, cymatics) to create shifting patterns with golden sand upon a black background. Choral harmonies soar in tandem with harps, violins, and other strings as rings, trees, and other shapes emerge and recede. Suddenly the camera closes in on a new, black river of sand that snakes its way into the golden shapes, as the music turns sinister and ominous. Here, before the narrative even begins, the credits clarify its basic structure as a tale of a golden, beautiful, and good world threatened and corrupted by incursions whose maliciousness is of a piece with their blackness.
Throughout the series — and often with a clunky, silly obviousness — those color-charged terms are reiterated. Consider the heavy-handed conclusion of episode eight: with the aid of a magic black sword fragment, Adar seizes the Southlands and then tells his orc progeny they finally have a home. Cued by the human Waldreg, the orcs start chanting “Hail Adar, Lord of the Southlands,” but they are cut off by Adar, who says, “No, that is the name of a place that no longer exists.” Waldreg replies, “What shall we call it instead, Lord-father?” The camera then follows Adar’s gaze and pans out to a smoky, red-dimmed, and ruined landscape dominated by a live volcano. In the upper left-hand corner of the screen, a large golden title in a Tolkienesque font reads “THE SOUTHLANDS,” then morphs into a burning black title, again in a Tolkienesque font: “MORDOR.” The transformation is not just of appellations but of light to dark colors.
Or consider the Númenórean cavalry that leaves its island and traverses — with unbelievable speed — over Middle-earth to assist a Southlands community struggling against Adar and his orc army. Bedecked in full white fish-scale armor topped with white helmets that are adorned with long gold ponytails of white horsehair, the diverse humans of Númenor become a sea of soldiers who look as porcelain-white and blond as their fearless elfin leader, Galadriel. When it comes to war, Númenor must default to whiteness.
During the ensuing battle, the camera lingers over the blond Númenórean fighter Ontamo as he is pinned temporarily to the ground by the darker body and clothing of a dead orc, highlighting how — regardless of any efforts to lighten the orcs — this is fundamentally a clash of good and evil understood in terms of shades of light and dark.
A closer look at how the show diversifies its cast regrettably supports this overall structure. In keeping with Tolkien’s hierarchies of color, elite beings in The Rings of Power are whiter than their primitive counterparts. Episode one begins with what can only be described as a spectacle of elf whiteness: a group of all-white, sun-drenched elf children, clad in white gowns, play in the gleaming golden fields of Valinor as Galadriel sails a white paper boat. An older Galadriel provides a voiceover about how “Nothing is evil in the beginning. And there was a time when the world was so young, there had not yet been a sunrise. But even then, there was light.”
Later, that same episode presents the hobbits, or, to be more precise, one of the three “breeds” of hobbit described by Tolkien, the Harfoots. Faithful to Tolkien’s account of them as “browner of skin” and less skilled, brave, and tall than the “fairer of skin” Fallohides, The Rings of Power presents the Harfoots as a dirt-covered and unkempt group of nomadic hut-dwellers who boast many POC members, including their leader Sadoc Burrows (played by an absolutely wonderful Lenny Henry).
Yes, The Rings of Power introduces wrinkles to this schema, such as the heroic Arondir. But one exceptional elf of color fails to disrupt the overall white dominance of Tolkien’s world. Moreover, the show supports stereotypical associations of blackness with the natural world and wildness by rendering Arondir a Silvan or woodland elf bearing a Green Man on his breastplate. And The Rings of Power preserves the whiteness of mainstream elf society by isolating Arondir from it. Stationed to watch over Southlands humans, he is always remote from the elven center of Lindon. In episode seven, he disappears from both elf society and the narrative altogether, as he and his human beloved, Bronwyn (movingly performed by Nazanin Boniadi), relocate the survivors of the orc war to a former Númenórean colony in Middle-earth.
Such problems bespeak how the Rings of Power showrunners, boyhood friends J. D. Payne and Patrick McKay, have a near religious regard for Tolkien. Payne exhibits “an almost spiritual respect for […] material” he deems “precious,” and McKay has stated that he and his partner are “stewards and caretakers” who are “treading on sacred ground.” Amazon Studios chief Jen Salke even claims that the two “had such a deep connection to the material that was there from the beginning […] There was no education you could do for that; it was their natural organic interest.” Salke’s phrasing disturbingly echoes Tolkien’s own essentialist belief that he had inherited a facility for the northern medieval languages and literatures with which he worked. The show’s casting, as well as revisions like the dream of the flood, might signal a revision or even a critique of Tolkien’s racial politics themselves, but the narrative architecture of the show betrays how foundational they remain.
McKay and Payne aren’t the only white people of late to maintain such an allegiance to Tolkien. Giorgia Meloni, the new prime minister of Italy, also sees The Lord of the Rings “as not just a series of novels, but also a sacred text.” An ultraconservative and attendee of the post-Fascist Campi Hobbit that have taken place in Italy for decades, Meloni has voiced her regret that the demands of politics have prevented her from watching the new series. Some have viewed as nothing more than a regrettable coincidence the fact that The Rings of Power appeared at the same moment as Meloni’s election. But The Rings of Power arriving at a time when Meloni’s politics are on the rise — not just in Italy — suggests otherwise.
When Meloni finally does find the time to watch the series, she might well look beyond its diverse cast to recognize its larger white ideological program and its culmination at the end of season one, when the stranger who now seems to be Gandalf sets out on the open road with a hobbit. The tall white wizard’s companion isn’t, tellingly, one of the many hobbits of color portrayed in The Rings of Power, but the heroine Nori, thus enabling a white fangirl like Meloni to imagine herself in the white hobbit’s place, holding Gandalf’s hand, heading out into a bright new world.
Kathy Lavezzo teaches English at the University of Iowa. She is the editor of Imagining a Medieval English Nation (Minnesota, 2003) and author of Angels on the Edge of the World: Geography, Literature, and English Community, 1000–1534 (Cornell, 2006) and The Accommodated Jew: English Antisemitism from Bede to Milton (Cornell, 2016).
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