The term “legendarium”—first used by Tolkien to describe those writings in which he labored for much of his life on the mythopoeic backdrop to The Hobbit and, later, The Lord of the Rings—suggests a literary collection of folkloric accounts, often from different hands and of varying historical value. As this term suggests, Tolkien’s role in his creative process, imaginatively speaking, was less as a creator or author than a curator or literary scholar: a role which, in time, passed to his son Christopher, who edited, emended, and ultimately published several works of Tolkien’s legendarium, including The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales.
To put it another way, Tolkien imagined himself not so much telling a story as assembling a library of disparate texts from various hands. The Hobbit he saw as the memoir of Bilbo Baggins, who also began the work on The Lord of the Rings before leaving it to his nephew Frodo to consolidate and complete it, with some additional work by Samwise Gamgee. Some materials from The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales are presented as Elvish tales collected and translated either by a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon mariner called Ælfwine (also known as Ottor Wæfre and Eriol) or by Bilbo himself.
Perhaps that’s a helpful point of entry to a project like The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the ambitious new Amazon Prime Video series from creator-showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay. Set during the Second Age in the build-up to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, it’s a fundamentally new narrative woven around historical background from the appendices and the works themselves (but not from The Silmarillion or other works of the legendarium, the rights for which Amazon wasn’t able to obtain).
The Rings of Power might be imagined, then, as an adaptation of some previously unpublished text from the diverse literature of Middle-earth, partly overlapping with known material, but also partly diverging from it. It is not meant, for example, as a literal portrayal of the Second Age, for the plan is to conflate events unfolding over thousands of years into a much shorter period of time. If it doesn’t all feel like something Tolkien himself might have written—and, based on the first couple of episodes, at least, it seems to me a mixed bag on this point—perhaps even serious Tolkien fans might keep an open mind whether that’s necessarily a bad thing.
The Lord of the Rings ranks for me among the greatest literary works of all time. Along with The Hobbit, I’ve read it more times than I can count, from childhood to several readings aloud, complete with character voices, to successive subsets of my children. It would be hard to overstate the influence of Tolkien’s moral universe and cosmology as well as his aesthetic and cultural sensibilities on my thinking and imagination. This doesn’t prevent me from acknowledging limitations and areas of concern in Tolkien’s work with respect to areas like racial issues (in spite of Tolkien being personally antiracist and working antiracist themes into his work) and the portrayal of women. It’s not just that the noble Elves, for example, are fair-skinned while orcs are “swart” (dark-skinned) or “sallow” (an ambiguous term that can mean either “dark” or “sickly/yellow”). Even among strains of humans, the noble, wise, long-lived Númenóreans are tall and fair, while lesser, more suspect groups of men who allied with Sauron include the dark-skinned Haradrim (also called “Swertings” or “Swarthy Men”) and the swarthy/sallow Easterlings.
It might be noted in this connection that the literary perspectives in Tolkien’s library are overwhelmingly those of Elves and of Hobbits closely associated with Elves. One might reasonably wonder, then, what stories and memories of Middle-earth’s history might be passed down among other races like Dwarves and Men, particularly the humans of lineages other than the Númenóreans. In a not unrelated vein, the literary perspectives represented in Tolkien’s mythopoeia are overwhelmingly, though not entirely, male. (Exceptions include “The Tale of Tinúviel,” the earliest version of the story of Lúthien and Beren, told to Eriol by an elf-girl named Vëannë; Lúthien herself is arguably the story’s protagonist. Holly Ordway alerted me to a poem of Dwarvish provenance, strangely known in German translation: “The Complaint of Mîm the Dwarf.”)
Considered from this angle, there are encouraging signs in the early episodes of The Rings of Power. The perspective of Hobbit-kind in this tale is represented primarily through the eyes of a high-spirited young woman of the Harfoot folk (one of three strains of Halfling in the Second Age) called Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenagh), along with her more cautious but loyal best friend Poppy Proudfellow (Megan Richards). Dwarf women are at last not just a punchline but a vital presence in the formidable person of Disa (Sophia Nomvete), the wife of the proudly irascible Durin IV (Owain Arthur). The main human point of view may be that of a woman healer of the Southlands named Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) who is romantically involved with an Elven soldier named Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova).
Racially diverse casting includes Córdova, who is Puerto Rican, as Middle-earth’s first Black Elf character, and Nomvete, an English actress whose casting makes Disa the first Black Dwarf character as well as the first woman. There’s also Lenny Henry as a Black Harfoot elder named Sadoc Burrows. All of this is as it should be. If Tolkien meant to create a mythology for England, England is not populated solely by light-skinned peoples, nor was it in medieval or ancient times. In any case, Middle-earth has long since come to belong to a wider fandom, and the demographics can and should change in retellings, as the demographics of the Round Table changed with the passing of Arthuriana from one culture to another.
Demythologizing the Elves
Less welcome, to me, is the characterization of a younger Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) as a headstrong military commander obsessed with seeking out any lingering signs of the presence of Sauron, widely supposed to have been destroyed in the great war in which Galadriel’s brother was killed. Nothing against Galadriel handily dispatching a vicious snow troll wreaking havoc on her company in some godforsaken northern stronghold or whatever, but the badass approach to writing Strong Female Characters is long since a tiresome cliché. To be fair, the show could be out to subvert the trope, particularly if Galadriel’s insane choice at the end of the first episode is ultimately seen as a disastrous mistake rather than a heroic gambit. Even then, it seems like a terrible storytelling decision. There’s a lot of time to make the character interesting and credible, but my initial take is that there have to be better ways of bringing a feminist perspective to Middle-earth.
The portrayal of Galadriel seems to be part of an overall tendency toward demystifying the Elves, who are less beatific here than in The Lord of the Rings. Even the legendary High King Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker), though gifted with foresight, seems untrustworthy. This is jarring, but may offer intriguing insights into the perspectives of other races. Humans generally seem to dislike or distrust Elves, and those of the Southlands particularly see the military Elves of their region, with their watchtowers and rounds, as an unwelcome occupying force, like Americans in some Middle-eastern country. Slurs like “knife-ears” and “pointies” are heard; more provocatively, racist attitudes are also found among the Elves. Disparaging the humans of the southern village of Tiharad, whose ancestors allied with Morgoth in the great war, Arondir’s superior officer tells him that “the blood of those who stood with Morgoth still darkens their veins.”
The second episode touches on the famous animosity between Elves and Dwarves, with an unexpected and poignant reason for the chilly reception of young Elrond Half-Elven (Robert Aramayo) at the Dwarven city of Khazad-dûm. Elrond thinks of Durin as a friend, but the different worlds that Elves and Dwarves inhabit can create blind spots and grievances.
Moral and religious themes
What about Tolkien’s moral and religious themes? The first episode opens with an extended, nearly Johannine meditation on “light” and “darkness.” “Nothing is evil in the beginning” is the promising first line of Galadriel’s opening voiceover, and we are told that the High Elves of the Blessed Realm of Valinor “had no word for death.” Yet the episode ultimately proposes that sometimes we don’t know which light to follow “until we have touched the darkness”—a conceit that might seem to point in a direction more Jungian than Tolkienesque.
Then there are the hints of Providence woven into Tolkien’s work, from Gandalf’s affirmation of “something else at work” in Bilbo’s finding of the One Ring that he “was meant to find” and that Frodo was “meant to have” to the seemingly accidental destruction of the Ring that no one could bring themselves to destroy. A pronouncement of this sort is prominently featured in the official trailer for The Rings of Power: “Ours was no chance meeting,” Galadriel says in voiceover, presumably to Halbrand (Charlie Vickers), a human with whom her story becomes entwined in the second episode. “Not fate, nor destiny—ours was the work of something greater.” This is so on point that Tolkien’s Christian fans might wonder if the line was highlighted in the trailer specifically to reassure them.
A similar sentiment is expressed in the second episode by little Nori, who feels responsible for the enigmatic stranger (Daniel Weyman) who fell like a meteor from the sky and landed practically at her feet. “He could have landed anywhere, but he landed here,” she says to Poppy. “It’s like there’s a reason this happened, like I was supposed to find him—me. I can’t walk away from that.” The ultimate weight of such pronouncements, of course, will depend on how events unfold, and whether these seemingly chance events still look providential in retrospect.
Spectacle and atmosphere
As spectacle, The Rings of Power is so far an unqualified triumph, from the capable direction of J.A. Bayona (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) to the rich production design, spectacular landscapes, and persuasive special effects. Every setting in Middle-earth has a distinct feel, from the elegant birch colonnades of the Elvish capital of Lindon to the rugged, geometric grandeur of Khazad-dûm. Small touches I love include the ornate, dovetailed trapezoid design of Durin’s flagon and the foliate-headed Green Man emblems on the tunics of the Elven soldiers. The camp of the Harfoots—rustic, nomadic ancestors of the respectable Shirefolk Hobbits—is a homespun delight, with shelters designed to vanish into the landscape at a moment’s notice. (Tolkien’s introductory remark about Hobbits having “little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off,” is well honored here.) It’s a shame that the most challenging sequence, the Sundering Seas, also comes across as the most wrongheaded.
Some well-crafted dialogue adds to the atmosphere. Nori’s mother has a memorable speech about the freedom in the nomadic Harfoot lifestyle compared to the settled cares of other races. Elrond admires how the Dwarves “sculpt the rock as one cares for an aged parent” and listens appreciatively as Disa waxes poetic regarding the Dwarvish practice of singing to the mountain.
Payne and McKay say that the show’s planned five-year arc has been set since they first pitched it to Amazon in 2018. Early fears about The Rings of Power taking a raw Game of Thrones approach—or recapitulating the gilding-the-dragon excesses of Peter Jackson’s misbegotten Hobbit trilogy—aren’t borne out in the opening chapters, at least. Where will the series go from here? Will it build to the War of the Last Alliance? Will it end with Isildur’s failure at Mount Doom, his death, and the disappearance of the One Ring? Or will the showrunners find a way to end in Tolkienesque eucatastrophe—a “sample or glimpse of final victory”? The Rings of Power has my attention, at least for now.
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It’s disappointing to see Catholic World Report publishing movie reviews analyzing Tolkien through the lens of anti-racism, postmodern feminist notions. I’m puzzled the author seems to be insinuating racist overtones and anti-woman overtones to Tolkien’s Middle Earth (and linking articles arguing so explicitly) and celebrating that these Tolkien oversights have been corrected by…Amazon? Truly head scratching review from an otherwise great and reliable publisher.
I agree. I’m also somewhat baffled by “ England is not populated solely by light-skinned peoples, nor was it in medieval or ancient times.” What England is like today is irrelevant, and what does he mean by “light-skinned?” Lighter than what? If anyone wants me to believe that medieval or ancient England was teeming with black people, he’s going to have to provide evidence.
“ In any case, Middle-earth has long since come to belong to a wider fandom, and the demographics can and should change in retellings, as the demographics of the Round Table changed with the passing of Arthuriana from one culture to another.”
Gradually, over centuries, not within some 70 years after publication of a work by a single author.
Those who complain about women’s not having equal prominence in adventure tales are the ones showing contempt for women’s traditional roles.
(Note: “Teeming” isn’t my word, and I wouldn’t consider a single Black Elf or Dwarf evidence of “teeming,” but if you’re interested in evidence of people of color in medieval and ancient Europe, including England, it’s out there for the Googling. — SDG)
Steve, the site you linked to doesn’t prove what you seem to think it does. People with black skin or African features do appear in medieval art ( eg: the Queen of Sheba, St. Maurice, Moors) because they could be imagined or whose existence had been reported or even encountered. This says nothing about the complexions, etc of Picts, Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Normans in the British Isles or the other peoples of Europe. Given Tolkien’s account of the creation of the Elves and his description of their three kindreds, a “black” Elf isn’t plausible. But perhaps the “black” Dwarf-woman is a melanistic sport in a species with a founding population of only 13.
(Note: I provided three links, Sandra, not one—and, as I pointed out, there’s a lot more out there for the Googling. Africans and other people of color existed in Europe in the ancient and medieval worlds. The imaginative implications of that reality for Elves and Dwarves are a matter of opinion; I had my say in my article. — SDG)
Richard of Devises was from the late 12th century. Tolkien’s inspiration was Anglo-Saxon. London, a great city, was always filled with foreigners and hardly stands as an example of anything more than trade connections.
The people making this series appear to have confused “Tolkien” with “token,” and provided examples accordingly.
Thank you; I agree with the above comments…and, quite frankly, I feel really angry at the suggestion that ANYTHING written by Tolkien needs correction.
Why, as you rightly say, do we need to analyse everything through the ‘anti-racist lens?’
Thank you Joe Henry. I am also very disappointed by this article; and am grateful for your eloquence…I feel too angry about all the current political correctness to write anything sensible.
Alas, SDG is a committed “anti-racist” Kool-aid drinker who has imbibed and accepted the objectively racist anti-white claims of people like Kendi, DiAngelo, BLM representatives, wokesters, and many others who push the false narrative of ongoing anti-black systemic racism, and that if white people do not “admit some kind of overt or covert racism” within them, such is more evidence of their anti-black racism, which is a ridiculously malevolent charge in and of itself. SDG is also a big proponent of revisionist history that makes white people appear more racist by nature, and he likes to cherry-pick some bad things and pretend they represent widespread realities, which is of course intellectually dishonest and unjust, but such is a big part of his modus operandi. To further support his own anti-white racist thoughts, SDG also likes to cite the USCCB’s factually-bereft and largely obtuse diatribe known as “Open Wide Our Hearts” that also presents the false “white people need to admit their racism” narrative that laughably declares systemic racism is very much alive and continues to punish black people for simply being black, which is just rubbish.
Pray for SDG, but don’t bother really trying to engage him (it was indeed wise on your part to direct your critique toward CWR for featuring more of SDG’s claptrap). As you can see from his comments in response to a few people, he continually plays his cherished straw man card instead of honestly addressing all of the legitimate concerns of those who notice his own destructive bigotry frequently on display.
On what basis do you attack Steve’s treatment of race in his reviews? The links he provided on Tolkien’s supposed sexism and racism are rebuttals of those all-too common charges. (I myself have published articles on women in Tolkien’s work.) The Amazon series, unfortunately, seeks to remedy these perceived weaknesses in ways that distort Tolkien’s subcreated universe.
And allow me to add: I consider Steve the best Catholic media critic of his generation. I trust his reviews as a guide to my own viewing.
Thanks so much, Sandra. I’m grateful for your appreciative words, especially coming from you.
There aren’t that many Catholic media critics to begin with.
I’d be honored to be called an anti racist also.
I’m probably about the least woke person you might meet but “anti racist “?
I’ll take it.
To the woke mentality, wokies and their fellow travelers are the only people who qualify as being “anti-racists,” and those opposed to the woke agenda are racists. If you are not woke, then you are not “anti-racist.” The term was originated and/or made popular so to speak by the radical racist Ibrahim X. Kendi. To qualify as an “anti-racist,” you have to promote the idea that black people are still systematically maltreated by white people in general, and you must oppose equal treatment of all people because that will continue the bias against blacks. Basically, you follow and promote critical race theory, BLM, and others who are the true racists.
Soooo……you might want to reconsider what in saner times would indeed be an honor, but not in the present context.
I’m in agreement with you that these are crazy times but I’ll still own the title of “anti racist. ”
There’s a lot of politics, foolishness and invented history in CRT but we still have a ways to go before racism is actually a thing of the past. If that’s even possible because in nations like Haiti where virtually everyone has African ancestry there are still socioeconomic divisions based upon complexion shade. I guess our fallen human nature will always find something to divide us.
Hi DocVerit and Mrs. Cracker, there’s an entry on “anti-racism” on Wikipedia, a source that many would consider “woke” on such topics. Ibram (not “Ibrahim”) X. Kendi’s name is mentioned just once, under “Further reading.” Mention of “critical race theory” is also limited to “See also,” “Further reading,” and “References.” Neither is name-checked in the entry as any kind of canonical reference point for “what anti-racism is.”
Nothing in the entry supports the claim that the term “anti-racism” belongs exclusively to, or is generally understood to imply support for, people like Kendi or their specific views. Which doesn’t mean that a lot of people don’t use “anti-racism” this way, but there seems to be plenty of room to use it other ways too.
Wow, that’s some serious criticism of Steven Greydanus. In many years of reading his work, I’ve never found him to be leftist or woke in any way, and I’m a very conservative, anti-CRT (Critical Race Theory) TLM/traditionalist Catholic. He has been a terrific and reliable guide to movies, bringing to light themes both lovely and troublesome, and assessing films’ artistic and moral/religious worth for my family.
I agree with Mr. Greydanus’s concerns in this review, mostly whether the Amazon series will be true to the Catholic heart of Tolkien’s work (even if they don’t know that’s what they’re doing!). I also agree with him that a new adaptation should reflect a balanced, ethical, Catholic perspective on race and sex, because it’s the right thing to do, and because it might help to quell the concerns of people *of good will* who may have been led to misunderstand Tolkien’s perspective. There will be no convincing those of bad will who are determined to exaggerate the views of a good Christian man born in 1892!
Who knows, a miracle may occur and Amazon might portray a few women in the series as noble, important characters who find joy staying at home, teaching their children, cooking, cleaning, and caring for husband, home, and family! I wish that was not such a far-fetched idea these days. It would be the ultimate “rebellion.”
Thanks, Mr. Greydanus, for another interesting and helpful essay. God bless you & yours, and all your readers.
Thank you for the review. Despite the cautious optimism of the article, I will probably wait until there are more episodes. Amazon burned me before with its Wheel of Time (started good, then not so much) and I’m still bitter.
It’s always the anti-racists who are the first to insist that the orcs remind them of black people. If only there were a cartoon that reflected on this theme.
If only there were sources where we could suss out the established meanings of terms like “swart/swarthy” as well as “black-skinned” and “black-handed” (a term Tolkien explicitly states was “physical in reference”)
As the article notes, Tolkien also uses “sallow,” of both orcs and Easterlings, alongside “swart.” It seems “sallow” can mean “sickly,” “yellowish,” or “lightish brown.” Since the races described as “sallow” are also called “swart,” Tolkien seems to mean the darker end of “sallow.”
Amazon, Netflix and Disney all pay for employees to travel to states that perform abortions. If Deacon Greydanus and CWR are not interested in boycotting such companies, can you at least consider not promoting them?
You see how they’ve already got you? Your first move is to start justifying and rationalizing based on race and feminism. This is by design, a ploy to change and control to conversation, a trap to snare viewers into ignoring Tolkien’s work in favor of CRT-esque perspectivism, and eventually accepting Amazon’s heavy thumb on the scales of social mores.
What will you say when you find out Elrond or one of the Hobbit girls is gay? Will you be surprised? If so than I suggest you aren’t a particularly good judge of intent. If not, then I wonder why you’d steer people toward this show in the first place.
Steven writes nearly 600 words of review before touching the issues of sex or race.
I was curious if this show was well-made, had interesting characters and situations, was exciting to watch, and felt appropriately mythical. According to Steven’s review, those things are largely the case. In which event, I’m excited to watch it.
If the presence of non-white people and women in entertainment bother you this much, perhaps you should re-evaluate your priorities.
My thoughts too Colin.
Tolkien is fantasy. What possible difference does it make if mythological characters are a different shade of complexion? It may well be about checking off diversity boxes but so what?
“Popular culture” is neither.
From Please Don’t Make a Tolkien Cinematic Universe
By Michael D.C. Drout
Sept. 1, 2022, 5:00 a.m. ET
Dr. Drout, a professor of English at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, is a co-editor of the journal Tolkien Studies.
“The Rings of Power,” which will come out weekly after its two-episode premiere, is based primarily on only a few dozen pages in one of the historical appendices to “The Lord of the Rings,” meaning that almost the entire plot of the show has been created by Amazon Studios’ writers and showrunners. And there’s a huge gulf between Tolkien’s originality, moral sophistication and narrative subtlety and the culture of Hollywood in 2022 — the groupthink produced by the contemporary ecosystem of writers’ rooms, Twitter threads and focus groups. The writing that this dynamic is particularly good at producing — witty banter, arch references to contemporary issues, graphic and often sexualized violence, self-righteousness — is poorly suited to Middle-earth, a world with a multilayered history that eschews both tidy morality plays and blockbuster gore.
If it doesn’t all feel like something Tolkien himself might have written… perhaps even serious Tolkien fans might keep an open mind whether that’s necessarily a bad thing. I’m not myself interested in Messrs N. and A.’s fantasies, nor in their ‘popular’ version of historical demographics (I watched a trailer etc yesterday and, by its representation, four of the twelve main characters are arguably ‘white males’ (and that includes the Dwarf)– maybe five but I suspect that fellow is the shadow LGBxyz character, waiting for his moment. Pft. And not a word about Amazon’s pro-‘culture of death’ ethos.
All the general vices of Hollywood aside (and they are many), I find that, for me, the “demythologizing” aspect seems to be the biggest worry about this new production.
In his writing, Tolkien was above all interested in creating an air of wonder, “magic”, the numinous, that would provide refreshment, consolation, and recovery of humanity to a dark, desacralized world — the essential quality of all true Christian fantasy. This quality of Faerie, this “shadow of holiness” (as C.S. Lewis once put it) is a pearl beyond all price. Yet it is also extremely fragile.
In his lecture “On Fairy Stories” Tolkien said: “The essence of a fairy-story…[depends] upon the nature of Faerie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country.” It is precisely this air, this beautiful breath of fresh air, that makes Middle-Earth such a treasure to so many. It reminds us of spiritual things, of a world that is beyond this one: “That which is beyond Elvenhome and always will be.”
“The Rings of Power” may be entertaining; it may be interesting. But does it preserve the air of Faerie? Does it echo the divine Music of the Ainur?
Ambrose, what a beautiful comment. LOTR (and Narnia) literally called to me, decades before my conversion from atheism. They baptized my imagination before my intellect was engaged at all. It would be fantastic if Amazon’s series could do that as well, but I guess most of us are extremely skeptical that a “culture of death” company could produce that invisible thread of holiness that distinguishes the work of Tolkien and Lewis, and elevates it so far above normal works of fantasy, which are merely entertaining and often very shallow.
On a side note, I hope you have read _The Princess and the Goblin_ by George MacDonald who inspired CS Lewis. It’s wonderful!
Yes I have read it! and the sequel to it as well, “The Princess and Curdie” which is also excellent. Tolkien, Lewis, and MacDonald really are the big three in Christian Fantasy. The thread of holiness and beauty is so evident in them. I just wish there were more books like theirs out there: we have such a need for them in our desacralized world. I’m in the middle of trying to write one right now in fact. Slow work, but very rewarding. 🙂
FYI, anyone who wants an excellent Catholic commentary on Tolkien’s work should read Craig Bernthal’s book, “Tolkien’s Sacramental Vision.” It is just the most beautiful possible study one of the world’s most beautiful authors. It changed my way of looking at Tolkien, and at literature!
Ambrose, I totally agree about JRRT, CSL, & MacDonald! I’ll read the Bernthal book ASAP. Best wishes with your own book…we really do need more quality Christian works. God bless you & yours, and may He guide you in your writing!
I really wanted to like this series. But if I’m honest, it just doesn’t live up to the standards of quality that we’ve seen from the past decade of streaming and some of the gems that it’s given us.
I can’t help but watch it because I’m in love with seeing Middle-earth and the beautiful locations. But if you stripped away the LOTR skin and set it somewhere else than Arda, (so far at least) it doesn’t seem more than a cliche B-level fantasy series. The first two episodes have some pretty terrible dialogue, the plodding story lines failed to truly capture me, and I have zero emotional attachment to any of these characters. In my estimation, that’s a poor pilot.
Despite my original hopes for this show (and excitement for Númenor), I’m beginning to think that adapting the Second Age wasn’t the best idea. There are too many gaps to fill and characters to create. The more original content created (as opposed to adapted), the harder it will be to feel like Tolkien. When you’re creating your own source material within this universe instead of adapting trusted tales and characters, you’re more likely to fall short. Maybe someone could do it well, but I’m not sure it’s these writers. Here’s hoping the series improves with time. For now, 5/10 stars.
I enjoy the fact that, even though the production is replete with our modern obligatory ‘Look mom! Proper Demographic Labeled Groups Represented!’ most of the articles I’ve seen still lament the racism of Tolkien and his works anyway. Because of course they do. The subtle insinuation being that the West has no right to exist, and anything penned from its perspectives is inherently racist.
Fun moment though: NBC had an article musing on the ongoing racist debate with Tolkien. In the piece was a poll asking if the Orcs were racist portrayals in Tolkien’s works (one of the biggest points of reference for those ever on the prowl for evidence of racism in Tolkien). This is NBC with an NBC readership. A whopping 74% say no, the Orcs are not racist portrayals. That gives me some hope at least.
That’s good, about the poll! Are you reading mainly conservative or mainstream (i.e., leftist/woke) sources that are complaining about supposed racism?
It’s been a variety. Most conservative outlets I’ve read – most mind you – have trashed and hashed the thing. The MSM approach that’s bothered to mention it has either been neutral promotion, sort of like the pro-Game of Thrones hype back in the day, or like the NBC piece: Sure, there are valiant attempts to expunge the obviously racist elements, but can the racism of Tolkien’s works ever be saved? Again, I loved that NBC (which would be nowhere near Conservative Media) had on its story an interactive reader poll, and the overwhelming majority rejected the idea of ‘Orcs as Racist dog whistle’ (the Orcs as racist is one of the biggest go-to targets for those trying to hang the ‘racist’ sign around Tolkien’s neck). It gives me hope. But then I’m also reminded that much of the iconoclasm and eradication of the West today is driven by an extreme fringe on social media that the press/Left uses as justification for its own designs. So just because the majority hasn’t been suckered by it may not mean that much in the end.
Thanks very much for the further detail, its very helpful. The “can the racism of Tolkien’s works ever be saved?” attitude is so frustrating! However, as the culture is driven not by the majority in the mushy middle, but by the most vocal (like you said), at least we have hope that OUR minority view may win out in the end. God bless you & yours!
Mr. Greydanus recently took to Twitter to complain about the quality of his comboxes. Clearly, the problem isn’t with him. It’s with everybody else.
[FWIW, my most recent Twitter comments about combox quality were occasioned by people saying to me “Good piece, but yikes, the comments…” — SDG]
Okay? You wrote a piece, and people disagreed with it. It’s the Internet.
Good insights, BB, but note how SDG intentionally avoids your primary point in his response to you while pretending to have provided a sufficient response. Yet again, another straw man argument that is intellectually dishonest, but it’s the way he is. As I and others have learned, directly engaging SDG with any legitimate critique is actually a waste of time because of his practiced dishonesty, but so long as CWR publishes his opinions, many of which contain false claims infected by his promotion of the false anti-white racist narrative, then making such abject nonsense clear to CWR readers is a good thing to do to help them avoid being taken in even a little bit by his anti-white narratives that include the extremely unjust claim of ongoing systemic racism engaged in by white people against black people.
Not to pile on, but I admit it has been sad to watch. It seems a common development with those who swing ever to the left of center. I’ve watched the same with others. Remember, a foundational doctrine of the modern Left is that the historical religions are bupkis, there’s either nothing when we die or it’s automatic paradise – either way the hereafter is entirely irrelevant. So if we just learn to target the real enemies of our goodness, we are promised it will never be us who gets targeted. We’ll just reap all the worldly (only thing that matters) rewards.
Hence even Deacon Greydanus reacted to President Biden declaring a segment of the electorate to be enemies of the State with applause and affirmation. This because apparently Deacon Greydanus is positive such a presidential declaration will never be made against him. Which is a driving force behind so many today – I fully support those other people being targeted since I’m sure they’ll never do it to me. As they say, the trick to learning from history is to learn from history. But those who continue to warm to the modern Left seem almost obligated to do the opposite. Which might be why their rhetorical tricks become so common – given what they are forced to defend, believe or ignore.
Alas, Mr. Greydanus is in thrall to the online commentariat. This is why he almost never discusses the abortion issue on his Twitter feed. And on the rare occasions when he does discuss the issue, he always prefaces his pro-life musings with a disclaimer about what he perceives to be the pro-life movement’s moral failings, as though being associated with Donald Trump is any less ethically sound than being associated with George W. Bush. (I should add that I’m a nondenominational Christian, so I’ll let the Catholics here sort out the moral dimensions of that sort of political engagement. But let me just add that I’m not a Trump voter, and I’ve cast a write-in ballot in every presidential election of my lifetime.) While he hasn’t graduated to the level of Mark Shea, who routinely equates the pro-life movement with Satan or the Antichrist or whatever, he legitimizes Shea’s mentality by softening its edges.
As for The Rings of Power, I’ve watched what’s been released of the series thus far, and I fail to see why it needed to exist. It doesn’t improve on Jackson’s rendering of the series. Why spend hundreds of millions of dollars remaking a film series that was close to perfect? Like I said, I’m a non-denominational Christian. I use all of the major streaming services and go to the movies multiple times a week. But I don’t write about film and television from a Christian standpoint. Shouldn’t somebody who does so at least assess the ethics of using $200 million to churn out a subpar remake? And shouldn’t a critic who judges movies from a religious standpoint provide some commentary on the fact that Amazon (and Disney and Netflix and Paramount and Lionsgate and the like) pay for their employees to obtain out-of-state abortions? None of this would be relevant if the critic were writing from a nonsectarian standpoint, but since this is a faith-based website, it should merit some sort of consideration, no?
I have not got around to watching this yet, but thank you Steven. This is a very thoughtful and fascinating piece about an ambitious project that will inevitably result in mixed levels of success. Like you, I’m hoping the pluses far outweigh the minuses. I’m happy to hear that things are off to a fairly promising start.
Black Lives Matter is not all about racial justice for black people. If it were why is there not the same uproar when there is black-on-black crime or murder? It seems to me, that it is only when a white person perpetuates violence on a black person. In the Rings of Power having a diverse racial cast I don’t think is necessarily something that Tolkien would be in all up in arms about were he alive today. It is staying true as much as possible to the depiction of his work I think he would care more about., the color of the skin of the characters less so if at all.
Steven further writes:
“The Rings of Power might be imagined, then, as an adaptation of some previously unpublished text from the diverse literature of Middle-earth, partly overlapping with known material, but also partly diverging from it. It is not meant, for example, as a literal portrayal of the Second Age, for the plan is to conflate events unfolding over thousands of years into a much shorter period of time. If it doesn’t all feel like something Tolkien himself might have written—and, based on the first couple of episodes, at least, it seems to me a mixed bag on this point—perhaps even serious Tolkien fans might keep an open mind whether that’s necessarily a bad thing.”
Although, I think that is a very bad thing you have to take some license when you’re making a movie with the source material as it is written. The extent of this is what concerns me. I am somewhat sympathetic towards Amazon having access to a limited amount of Tolkien’s source material, though. They had to make the best of what they were given. But as Steven says as far as staying true to Tolkien, in his opinion, the first two episodes were a mixed bag.
Steven writes: “Demythologizing the Elves
Less welcome, to me, is the characterization of a younger Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) as a headstrong military commander obsessed with seeking out any lingering signs of the presence of Sauron, widely supposed to have been destroyed in the great war in which Galadriel’s brother was killed. Nothing against Galadriel handily dispatching a vicious snow troll wreaking havoc on her company in some godforsaken northern stronghold or whatever, but the badass approach to writing Strong Female Characters is long since a tiresome cliché.”
I couldn’t agree more. Look the issue isn’t there being black characters and a diverse racial cast in the Rings of Power. I am not against that, and, perhaps, though not in Tolkien necessarily, to argue that they should all be white could be racist, or at least justifiably seen as racist in my opinion. Adding a diverse racial cast is certainly a good thing.
The real issue for me is woke directors including black actors just because they are black who really have no real skill at real acting. Everyone should be judged on the merits of their acting abilities and chosen accordingly and not based on the color of their skin. The cast being racially diverse is not the issue. Whether Amazon did this I have no idea.
I think this may have been the issue with the villainous Inquisitor Reva played by Monique Denise Ingram in Obi-Wan Kenobi. In my opinion, and apparently, the opinion of many others, Reva did not have the acting skills for the role. She, unfortunately, took a big hit, not because of the color of her skin, though. At least I hope not!
However, Disney immediately jumped on the occasion to call all the actor’s critics racist. As far as feminism goes in the Rings of Power, yeah it is annoying, but I still have yet to see how they worked it in the first episode. It is clear from the little I watched Galadriel was going to fit a woke narrative in taking center stage. Why? Well, I am sure a great deal of it had to do with the fact that she is a woman, I am certain of it, and not just because she is an important character in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
“Black Lives Matter is not all about racial justice for black people. If it were why is there not the same uproar when there is black-on-black crime or murder?”
Tolkien sets the events of the Lord of the Rings some 6000 years before his own time (and those of the second age even earlier). So it is hardly relevant to what extent “people of colour” might have been present in Europe in ancient or medieval times. Tolkien is, of course, the biggest authority concerning his own legendarium, and Tolkien was, in his work, incredibly consistent in the smallest details, thinking about all possible things and how they relate together – historically, geographically, religiously, etc. So I wonder if the makers of this series really think they can do this better than Tolkien himself, and change the details (and even more than details, it seems) without overhauling the overall consistency of Tolkien’s work. I prefer in any case to stick to the original 🙂 We can, moreover, learn incredibly much from what Tolkien had to say (in his fictional works, his academic writings, as well as his letters). Maybe focus on listening to what he really had to say (and don’t project attitudes of racism and sexism on him that are entirely absent from his own writings as well as his spirit).
Well, this is a few thousand years earlier, but I thought it might be pertinent:
“A cutting-edge scientific analysis shows that a Briton from 10,000 years ago had dark brown skin and blue eyes.
Researchers from London’s Natural History Museum extracted DNA from Cheddar Man, Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, which was discovered in 1903.
A University College London team analysed the genome, and the results were used for a facial reconstruction.
It underlines the fact that the lighter skin characteristic of modern Europeans is a relatively recent phenomenon.”
I don’t know that this is the last word on ancient British DNA & of course there’s probably an incentive to look for certain characteristics but it’s still interesting to consider.
Thank you for finding this link. I remember the PBS documentary where the local school teacher turned out to be a direct descendant of Cheddar Man but not in enough detail to find it. Note that he was shown to be a descendant on the maternal side. The incoming farmers–6,000 years ago–seem to have eliminated the previous occupants’ men. (And of course most Europeans also carry a drop of Neanderthal blood.)
But that doesn’t affect my objection to RoP featuring a black Elf. Tolkien describes the Elves’ appearance and their genesis in sufficient detail to preclude that. The producers were bowing to the current vogue for “inclusive” casting. (cf the recent Masterpiece Theater version of Jane Austen’s “Sanditon” with its historically impossible black characters. A black Dwarf is perhaps justifiable given the circumstances of their creation, but Dwarf females are supposed to have beards.
I remember that documentary also Sandra. It was pretty amazing how they figured that out.
cf the recent Masterpiece Theater version of Jane Austen’s “Sanditon” with its historically impossible black characters
You seem to be referring here to the character of Georgiana Lambe, who was explicitly described as black (or more specifically “mulatto”) in Jane Austen’s original text, written in 1817. Unless you’re implying it would have been impossible for Jane Austen herself to write such a thing, the television series is simply being faithful to her vision.
I love the LOTR and the Hobbit trilogy but I am not sure I will watch this new Amazon series. The main things I love about the movies are the Characters! After watching the preview of Ring of Powers I found myself disappointed. Being a diverse cast is fine but it feels forced because it is.
I got a failed confederacy resents the union occupation and “waiting for the South to rise again” vibe from the men’s attitude towards the elvish guards in the Southlands.
Steven (if I may):
This is a well-informed, thoughtful, and well-balanced approach to the series. Thank you so much.
As someone who has been working a bit at the intersection of Tolkien’s fiction and his moral theology (such as it is), I find your comments on target and helpful (the whole issue of providence is complicated, though, as Tolkien makes the comments about some things “meant to be” while at other times, it seems that the failure is always a real possibility- as in Galadriel’s comment about “fighting the long defeat”). The essay on “Fairy Stories” also points to the possibility of real failure; but as you point out, eucatastrophe is a possibility (and this, for me, is a key element of the virtue of hope).
You also may be familiar with David Roseau’s essay. “The Core of the Original,” where he discusses Jackson’s adaptation. I think Rozema’s critique would also be relevant here with re: The Rings of Power. In any case, thank you for such a well-reasoned reflection.
*Sorry, it’s David Rozema.
Hi Craig (if I may!),
Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comments about my essay. In passing, I appreciated your review in the Journal of Inklings Studies of Christopher Snyder’s Hobbit Virtues; it inspired me to request the book from my library.
Regarding your point about Tolkien’s moral theology, “such as it is”: In response to a query from Auden about the theological implications of the irredeemably evil orcs, Tolkien wrote: “I cannot claim to be a sufficient theologian to say whether my notion of orcs is heretical or not. I don’t feel under any obligation to make my story fit with formalized Christian theology, though I actually intended it to be consonant with Christian thought and belief.” I think he may say other things along the same lines, but that’s what occurs to me.
I think Rozema makes good points in “The Core of the Original.” I especially appreciate his critique of Movie Aragorn’s conflicted self-doubt (a character trope I facetiously dubbed “Aragorn Complex” in my movie glossary). For Gandalf, I believe Rozema actually understates his case: One of the things that most bothers me about Jackson’s Return of the King is Gandalf’s loss of faith: his grim lines about having sent Frodo “to his death” and even his lovely speech to Pippin about life after death. Jackson does this for the same reason that he makes Frodo turn on Sam: to ratchet up the drama. It’s a mistake, worse in Gandalf than in Frodo. (On the other hand, I love Jackson’s exorcism-styled take on the awakening of Theoden!)
I think you’re right to say that Tolkien allows the Providence he will not name to coexist with the real possibility of failure. Because Bilbo was “meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker,” and that Frodo therefore was “meant to have it,” does not mean that success is assured. (Thus Gandalf concludes hopefully, but not with certitude, “And that may be an encouraging thought” — a line subtly altered in the movie to “And that is an encouraging thought”!)
Frodo was meant to be the Ring-bearer; it does not follow that he had to succeed, or at least come so close to success as to turn over the fate of the Ring to a single moment of Providence. For example, had Frodo (and Bilbo before him) not shown mercy to Gollum, nothing would have stopped him, like Isildur, from walking away with the Ring.
In the case of The Rings of Power, there is some fan speculation that either Halbrand or the Stranger could turn out to be Sauron in disguise. Both speculations seem unlikely to me, but either possibility could easily subvert the seeming providential import of the lines of Galadriel and Nori above. (Or not! Eru Ilúvatar could have his own hidden reasons for wanting to throw Sauron together with one of this story’s heroines. All remains to be seen.)
“his moral theology (such as it is)”
That has some buckshot in it. I wonder if unpacking a little might shed some light on that appraisal.
Thanks for that prodding. It’s a fact that he was devout in his faith, and I think he offers brilliant depictions of the various virtues (esp. hope, charity, fidelity, prudence, etc.) and vices (esp. despair, pride, and envy). He even uses the word “exemplify” on occasion, like many virtue ethicists do. But it’s also true that he shies away from “doing theology” (and I can’t find the Letter where some of this addressed). . . That’s a brief account of what I meant. I hope that helps somewhat.
Thanks for that. That clears it up. I agree he doesn’t go full theological treatise in his works. I see that as a strength, however, since it has a way of subtly pointing the reader in the right direction, rather than preaching (something I fear the modern show does in spades, like so much produced today). I feel he could have delved, but chose that famous ‘stealth’ evangelism. That’s why I often say I valued Tolkien before I became a Christian, I came to value Lewis only after I became a Christian.
The eternal dilemma of the MAGA Catholic:
1) “I don’t see color or race. That is a lib obsession. Donald Trump is the least racist person you will ever meet!”
2) “Eek! Brown people in Middle Earth is a desecration of all that is holy, pure, and good! It’s all brainwashing prelude to the Invasion of our Land! Stand, Men of the West!”
Yup, it can appear that way sometimes & it’s annoying but that can become a false stereotype.
A great many people who were not “White” voted for Mr. Trump. And appreciating Tolkien isn’t colour-related. I live in a part of the country with an historically large population of folks with African ancestry & I can tell you LOTR movie audiences at the theatres I took my children to were very “diverse.”
Worrying about what shade of skin trolls or elves have is pretty ridiculous. I agree.
That was the silliest comment I’ve seen in a long time. It’s as good as saying you don’t have anything to add to the topic at hand. Try engaging with real people again, not just cardboard caricatures of people who disagree with your politics, and you might find it helpful.
You can always count on Mark Shea to blame everything on the pro-life movement, Trump supporters, or both. It’s a shame that people like the author of this piece lend credibility to his hateful, fanatical ramblings.
The problem with Mark is that he doesn’t engage at all. If he comments on stories, it’s like this. It’s an insult or false accusation or insinuation aimed at his political opponents, and that’s it. He doesn’t return to discuss or debate. He seems to have no stomach for such things outside of the controlled environment of his own social media pages. It’s a shame.
It’s really not a shame. I have no interest in engaging with Mark, only in steering people away from his hateful ravings.
Can’t say I agree. Mark is a shame. He wasn’t always like this. Why he ended up here I don’t know. I do know that it hasn’t helped when individuals like Deacon Greydanus uncritically support and even repost what Mark writes. As I’ve said, if you encourage bad behavior, you’ll get more of it. This isn’t to take away Mark’s culpability. it is to say that those who give him a thumbs up deserve some of the blame. And that is a shame.
Thanks, Steven, for this thoughtful piece. I’m not sure why so many of these comments are negative. I’ve always thought you bent over backwards to be both as clear as possible in your reasoning and as charitable as possible with those who disagree with you.
Also, I don’t think “The Rings of Power has my attention, at least for now.” is a very controversial landing spot for a review of a cinematic work as controversial as this one.
I certainly can’t speak for everyone, but it seems in many cases the criticisms are based on two separate issues. First, what I call the Fanboys vs. the Brandboys. Fanboys are fans of something, a sports team, a genre, an author, a movie franchise. They are usually passionate but not unwilling to call out problems or criticize their faves, even if they are fans. Brandboys, on the other hand, take passion to the next level and will typically put a positive spin on anything to do with the franchise. If it has Lord. Of. The. Rings. in the title, it will be the most awesome thing ever – somehow. Clearly you’ll get some interesting clashes between those approaches. I remember the same clashes back in the Harry Potter days. In that regard, Deacon Greyanus as a film critic seems inclined to give a benefit or two of doubts to films in the Fantasy/Sci-Fi realm because Fantasy/Sci-fi (he gave Phantom Menace a B- after all). Those who don’t agree will obviously say so.
The other issue is the obvious DEI identity politics mandate of modern media that this series clearly demonstrates. They don’t have black or female lead characters because a long, scholarly study of the source material suggested it. They have it because currently the presence of uniquely male heroes or an all-white cast is anathema to our sensitivities. An all-female or all non-white cast is fine, but not those. More seriously, the idea that anything from a Western European perspective is itself deemed racist or white nationalist and must be deconstructed is extremely troubling. It isn’t as if Deacon Greydanus doesn’t see this, he just seems rather nonchalant about it. Since we know he doesn’t hold back his opinions about some things, that he lets this slide with little substantive push-back has raised more than a few eyebrows.
Hi Dave G, I don’t know what “DEI identity politics” is, but I do know that women and minorities continue to be underrepresented in popular culture. Take the single most dominant pop culture franchise of our time, maybe of all time, Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’re up to, what, 25 movies now? Until Captain Marvel, about 20 movies in, virtually every one of them either starred a white man, or was about a team with at most one token female or black character. Black Panther did star a black man and the Wasp did get second billing in Antman & the Wasp. Lots of studies of popular movies and TV shows have found that white men get more screen time and more dialogue than women or minorities.
You say “an all-white cast is anathema to our sensitivities. An all-female or all non-white cast is fine, but not those.” Where are all the movies and TV shows with “all-female or all non-white casts”? What’s the last one you saw? Black Panther, set in Africa, made a heroic white CIA agent named Everett K Ross an important character. Captain Marvel practically costarred Samuel L Jackson in what I’d guess was Nick Fury’s biggest movie role ever, along with other male characters.
So, if someone sets out to tell a new story in Middle-earth where the most important characters aren’t all white men, as a white male myself, I’m not feeling so very oppressed.
Hello other Dave G.! First, DEI identity politics. Per the DEI training my wife had to do in 2020, when I could watch over her shoulder due to the lockdowns: Equality hasn’t worked, we must now embrace Equity (and, of course, liberal dogma in the name of diversity). In a nutshell, it’s saying ‘you have heard we should judge by the content of character rather than the color of one’s skin, but we now say you will judge by the color of one’s skin, or a host of other demographic identifiers, and treat people accordingly.’
Hence this show. This isn’t an attempt to examine the source material through scholarly analysis. It was based on the DEI assumption that anything predominantly featuring white men is ipso facto racist and sexist, the works racist and sexist, their presence racist and sexist, and we need to fix that problem pronto.
That’s what this is about and, as I said above, it still didn’t work. Despite the obvious banner of ‘Look Ma! Not just white men!’, there were reviews and articles saying that no matter how ‘diverse’ the cast, LoTR remains a racist work by a racist author in a racist nation that’s part of a racist empire in a racist civilization (see some media reactions to Queen Elizabeth and the British Empire for another example). That’s the problem with this. I simply have too many decades of historical studies under my belt to muster the credulity needed to accept such a template.
I have no problem with diverse casts if the material calls for it, whether ethnic or gender diversity. And challenging the leftwing theories of DEI, white privilege, or systemic racism, does not mean you necessarily deny the existence of racism, discrimination, or any other sin common to the world. I do have a problem with the modern idea that where two or more white men were gathered, there racism and sexism were also. That this anti-white racism is largely driven by college educated white people doesn’t change the fact that it’s as racist as a 1920s KKK rally. A brilliant spin on racism to be sure, but naked racism nonetheless (with a dash of the Pharisee’s prayer for good measure).
Dave G., I meant I wasn’t familiar with the acronym “DEI,” but I googled it, so that’s one topic down. And you may be right that for some critics of a certain school of wokeness, Tolkien is irredeemably racist and evil, and all the diverse casting in the world won’t change that for them. (I haven’t read those critics, but I have no trouble believing they exist.) But there are also plenty of people who love Tolkien (and CS Lewis, and Chesterton, Belloc, etc.) and would defend them against their most hostile critics, or at least against 99% of what their most hostile critics say, without going so far as to say that there was nothing at all deserving critical attention.
Chesterton condemned racism and was consciously philo-semitic, but his writings aren’t entirely free of anti-semitic influence. It’s possible to love and value Chesterton’s work, including philo-semitic statements like “The world owes God to the Jews,” and still feel qualms about Chesterton’s admiration for Hitler (“I have always said that there were healthy elements in Hitlerism, and even in Hitler; indeed I rather suspect that Hitler is one of the healthy elements in Hitlerism”) and statements like “They beat and bully poor Jews in concentration camps; and, what is even worse, they do not beat or bully rich Jews who are at the head of big banking houses.”
In the same way, “The Lord of the Rings and the Legendarium are great, and Tolkien was anti-racist and his work reflects that, but his work is not entirely free of racist cultural influences” is at least an intelligible idea, and, I would say, a plausible one (see the links in the article). So it seems to me you’re bringing a hermeneutic of hostility to The Rings of Power, based on your ideas about “DEI identity politics” (“now say you will judge by the color of one’s skin” etc. — something I don’t see in the show so far at all). You seem hung up on a false dichotomy: If the diverse casting doesn’t reflect “scholarly analysis,” it must represent hostility to white people and Western civilization. Those aren’t the only alternatives. From what little I’ve read, it seems like the creators of The Rings of Power (JD Payne and Patrick McKay) aren’t haters who set out to deconstruct or vandalize Tolkien, but fans who set out to honor his legacy while also, in their judgment, updating it in some ways.
Hello again Other Dave G. On one hand, you’re right. That’s why I specifically referenced the NBC article above. Not because it was unique in claiming Tolkien’s racism will never be cleansed, but because of the poll it took showing overwhelming rejection of the CRT/DEI template for interpreting Tolkien’s works in the first place (no, orcs having dark skin does not prove Tolkien was injecting racist ideals into his works). Just how popular is CRT/DEI? For the masses, maybe not that much.
Nonetheless, that is not a ‘we’re out of the woods’ observation. Our corporations, media, pop culture, schools and universities, and even some churches uncritically accept these templates. Their premise being that one can make universal judgments about ‘whites’ in a way Chesterton or Tolkien (or many others in the past) never would have made about other ethnic groups; a way that if applied to any other ethnic group today would be smacked down as racist in a fast heartbeat. The idea that they merely saw the world in their way as we see it in ours (and, if I may, in a far more realistic manner than we do today – see our near deification of American Indians as but one example), seems lost on us because of our current approach to the past.
Unfortunately this show is about all of this. Its marketing and promotion has been up front in flaunting the ‘not just white guys’ cast that is singularly crucial to anything produced in our modern times. Whatever love the creators had, sadly it’s filtered through the prism of the leftwing activism and ideologies that take race obsession, group identity politics and presentism to heights seldom imagined. And all from a generation with so little to show for its time on this blue marble (some have speculated that the ease with which we define ourselves as the generation forever condemning past sinners is due to the fact that it helps us avoid looking at the worldwide dumpster fire getting worse under our watch).
Dave G., it seems like we agree that there is room within Tolkien fandom for some critical perspective in a spirit very different from the root-and-branch / baby-with-the-bathwater condemnation of what we might call the woker-than-thou. Good to know!
So where we disagree, I guess, is your judgment that “this show is about all of this” (where “all of this” in context is woker-than-thou ideas like “the premise that one can make universal judgments about ‘whites’”) and “Whatever love the creators had, sadly it’s filtered through the prism of the leftwing activism and ideologies that take race obsession, group identity politics and presentism to heights seldom imagined.” Based on the first three episodes, I don’t see that at all. (What “universal judgments” has the show endorsed regarding Halbrand, a white man – or for that matter white characters including Galadriel, Elrond, Finrod, Durin, etc? You also take issue with the marketing and promotion, which I guess is a valid area of concern, but not one I care about.)
I can only repeat my impression that your whole approach to this show seems parsed through a hermeneutic of suspicion, and that when you talk about the creators’ love of Tolkien being “filtered through the prism of the leftwing activism and ideologies that take race obsession, group identity politics and presentism to heights seldom imagined,” what you’re describing has nothing to do with the show itself, but instead is all about reactions to the show – including, ironically, your own, as well as that of the woker-than-thou.
What’s especially ironic, I think, is how the outrage cycle of people like you reliably attacking every pop-culture franchise for every single diverse casting choice they make, from Star Wars to The Little Mermaid, is how your very outrage and dissent helps power the machine you oppose. Hostile fans, not creators, turn every new pop-culture installment into a culture-war referendum. And then, of course, the pop-culture media runs with “ReActiOnArY NerDs SaY ‘No BLacK ELvES / DwArvEs / MeRmaiDs / etc. fOR Us, wE RaCiST” (because they’re in the business of selling beer and shampoo) and the marketing team leans into it (because they’re in the business of getting their product in front of eyeballs). You’re doing their work for them. At the very least, it’s a symbiont circle: They give you fresh outrage, you give them sexy controversy.
Hello again Not me Dave G. You’re right. I don’t think we are light-years away from each other in how we are seeing things. However, a few points to clarify.
First, let me be clear: I haven’t seen the show and don’t intend to. I’m not a fan of modern fanboy embellishments no matter what the reasons for being. I find the farther they get from the source material, the less they have to do with it. That’s always tough for a classic work. Perhaps I saw too many Death Wish sequels growing up. Plus, I have a hard time believing our generation could improve on much from the past, given the headlines. As my sons are fond of saying, ‘If it was any other generation than ours.’
With that said, much of the negative reaction focused on the diversity issue comes from two sources. One comes from the fact that ‘cast diversity’ was the focus of the promotional material. From the clips on streaming to posters to interviews, the ‘not just white guys ensemble’ was a major emphasis, more than anything else. When news blurbs said ‘you’ll see new faces’, the clips invariably made sure it was anything but the faces of white men. The messaging being crystal clear. What else the show had to offer seemed small beans next to what we were obviously supposed to focus on. If people therefore focus on that, blame the media and marketing that put the focus there in the first place.
The second, as soon as people saw the first previews and expressed dislike, many jumped on them for being racists or sexists because of course they did. That’s a little vexation I have with this whole ‘production by demographic checklist’: emphasize some demographically diverse acceptable cast, and if the movie bombs or people don’t like it, accuse them of being bigots or such. Think the Ghostbusters remake. People were accused of being misogynists because the promotional emphasis was on the four ‘women!’ in the starring roles. So obviously the negative reaction could be nothing other than sexism (like some elections we’ve heard about in recent years). An annoying and duplicitous trick to be sure.
As for the diverse cast, that itself is no big deal. On the whole, it usually hasn’t been – as long as there is no reason it shouldn’t be. When Lucas dropped Lando Calrissian on the screens, we all knew why. We knew, even then, he had to cater to changing sensitivities (this was the era of Roots after all). Plus it didn’t hurt to broaden the franchise appeal. Nobody I knew at the time cared. But they didn’t care because, even though we knew why the character was added, it wasn’t shoved down our throats. Nor was it done in a way that stated ‘this character redeems the first racist movie that was racist because all white guys, which is expected since America and the whole of Western Civilization was always racist anyway. Oh, and sexist too!’ That’s a big difference in how to do diversity. Calrissian was added when such crazy wasn’t common. This show is now, when the crazy has boiled over and shows no signs of abating.
That’s the beef people have with the whole show and the obvious messaging. Beyond quality issues (and I’ve heard some indicate they don’t give a rip if the characters are androgynous green, they feel the whole is just Game of Thrones in Middle Earth), you have the nakedly obvious pandering to the DEI/CRT movement, which is always bad all the way around.
Thank you, Steven, for a level-headed and illuminating review of the series. I watched the first two episodes and have immensely enjoyed the series so far. The production values, dialogue, and characterization of the principals are rendered so effectively that I’m hooked. Pay no attention to the naysayers caught up in race, or in how “woke” you are. Their regrettable perspective is the log in their own eye.
I am a fan of Tolkien’s works and while this new series has some flaws it also takes me into Middle Earth and that is why I will stick with it. So far, I am enjoying it in spite of the negative reviews I’ve read.
I appreciated Deacon Greydanus’ review because it is obvious to me that he loves Tolkien’s works and is willing to give this series a chance.
It has also given me reason to pause and consider what my ancestors and their world may have looked like thousands of years ago.
The series is entertainment and I find no compelling reason to view it from the perspective of the 21st century…with all our problems.
However, it is historical fact that Northeastern Europe was more stable and democratic than most other places. For all of its wars and tyrannies.