I am a voracious reader and viewer of all things fantasy and science fiction. I love the feeling of escaping into magical and fantastical worlds, and seeing new and magical beings. One of my favorite worlds is Middle-earth. We’ve recently return to that world in The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s world-building is unmatched. So far The Rings of Power has shown many regions of Middle-earth, including Lindon and Khazad-dûm. The expansive journey through Middle-earth has brought something else new to Tolkien adaptations: people of color.
This has ruffled some feathers. So-called fans have made their dislike of the series’ diversity perfectly clear. The people of color in the main cast, especially those who are Black, have received hateful comments since Prime Video announced their casting. Fans online have had to continuously defend the show and its more diverse cast. Then those fans have received harassment and hateful comments—all because they dared to exist in a space alongside white people. This harassment prompted the Rings of Power social media accounts to release a statement in solidarity with the show’s cast and crew.
Unfortunately, this is an increasingly familiar pattern with fandoms online. Just last week, Disney released a teaser for the new live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid. Halle Bailey stars as Ariel. The teaser faced a ridiculous amount of backlash. People complained about how Ariel’s story came from Danish folklore so a Black woman shouldn’t play her.
When Disney announced Leah Jeffries would portray Annabeth Chase in the Disney+ adaptation of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, she faced an obscene amount of harassment and hate online. And she received those comments simply for playing a character that was written as white in the books. Rick Riordian, the writer of the original novels and executive producer for the series, swiftly released a statement in support of Jeffries.
Moses Ingram played the Inquisitor Reva in Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Star Wars Disney+ series. She faced racist and sexist harassment on social media. Ingram even shared a video on her Instagram story showing the kinds of messages she received. John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran got a similar response. They both shared that they faced hateful comments throughout their tenures in the most recent trilogy.
This pattern continues with The Rings of Power. The show has markedly more people of color in its main cast than previous Tolkien adaptations. The “fans” who have bemoaned the diversity in the series continue to cite Tolkien wrote a world based on Medieval England. And apparently, there couldn’t possibly be Black or brown people in England at that time. Middle-earth features elves, dwarves, wizards, hobbits, and even dragons. Surely Black and brown people existing in it are not that far out of your imagination? Unless, of course, what these “fans” of Tolkien really mean is that, in their imagination, they don’t want any Black or brown people.
Tolkien never really defined anyone’s skin color in the books, although he did often use “fair” to describe beauty. So, really, people don’t have any lore-based valid excuse for these complaints. Simon Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien’s grandson and director of the Tolkien estate, had involvement in the production of the series. Surely if he felt concerned about lore and respecting Tolkien’s legacy, he would have something to say about it.
Even if Tolkien didn’t imagine Middle-earth would include people of color (which is debatable), The Rings of Power is an adaptation. We actually don’t know a lot about the Second Age. The show had to work with only the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings. The adaptation features entirely original characters, too. The people complaining about Arondir, the one Black elf, don’t seem to have similar complaints about Nori Brandyfoot, a Harfoot, played by Markella Kavanaugh, who is white. I wonder why that is.
In every instance where I have seen so-called fans of a franchise shout the reasons why people of color or women are ruining the story because it is “not true to the source material”, I have always been confused. They seem to have an overblown sense of ownership over worlds that are not real and that they did not create. Fantasy is often a method of escape from our world. What these “fans” are really trying to say is that they want an escape from seeing people of color in their own life.
This reaction towards people of color on-screen is essentially telling fans of color and lovers of fantasy that we don’t belong. According to these “fans”, we don’t even belong in the worlds we take refuge in. Apparently they do not belong to us. It is also important to note that primarily Black cast members and fans have been targets of racist and sexist comments.
If you can identify with an elf, but not a Black person, it is obvious you think only people who look a certain way deserve your empathy. I identified with Hermione and Annabeth and their overachieving natures, even though they were both white. Almost always, I’ve had to find some piece of myself in someone that didn’t look like me.
I first truly saw myself in a character when I was 13 years old, and it was a brown Muslim girl just like me. Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel, made me realize that I had no idea what I had been missing this whole time. This is the case for many fans of color who can see people like them playing major roles in the stories they love. Instead, for many Tolkien fans, their joy at seeing people like them in Middle-earth has been dampened by having to constantly defend the fact that diversity exists in the series.
The point of fantasy is to push the limits of your imagination and give you a different perspective about your own world. That is what Tolkien intended. And if someone didn’t consider the possibility of Black elves, then The Rings of Power is doing just what he tried to do. Tolkien wrote about how true friendship carried a fellowship of different races through their journey to defeat the greatest evil of their time. He taught the value of humility, selflessness, persistence, and of courage in the face of the most formidable of foes. Perhaps these “fans” should look to emulate the lessons they should have learned from the story they claim to love so much.
People of color should not have to fight continuously to justify their existence in fandom, or in stories like those of Middle-earth. Fantasy does not belong to any one kind of person. In a world with dragons and Orcs and all kinds of creatures, anyone should be allowed to see themselves represented.