Part II: Race, Casting, And The Case For LOTR Antiracism
There was no avoiding this article. By way of quick explanation, these images can be found here: https://tekdeeps.com/the-lord-of-the-rings-series-amazon-announces-cast/ More information on specific characters can be found at IMDB. Besides the casting of Morfydd Clark as Galadriel (second image, top row, second from left) I couldn’t name for you a single character from this list, as my Second Age lore is weak and the show has been as tight-lipped about whose who and what role their characters will play as it has been about everything. A few things should be noted, however. First, a quick usage of the oracular organ should alert the viewer that about a third or more of the actors shown above are people of color. The second is that I am deeply, deeply tired of “controversy” in fantasy casting. It is infantile.
The Lord of The Rings is racist. I say this as a devoted fan of the films and the novel who would unhesitatingly take up arms against those who would argue for expelling it from popular culture on that account. I say this as one who has read selections of Tolkien’s letters and is well aware that in them he speaks with disgust towards British Imperialism, The Holocaust, and Apartheid. Much fruitful discussion about Tolkien’s personal racial attitudes may be found here and in its constituent sources, from which this article is mainly drawn, and to which I refer those seeking detailed examples of LOTR racism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tolkien_and_race. Tolkien mostly acquits himself of the charges, in my opinion. But his text, despite its literary magnificence, does not, and so the purpose of this article is neither to hand waive the racism of The Lord Of The Rings nor denounce LOTR as a work of art, but instead draw needed attention to the problematic nature of the text in order to neutralize the most extreme criticism of it and its adaptations. This is not an act of destruction, but an act of preservation. The Lord Of The Rings is a universal classic of aesthetic brilliance, and like all great art it reflects the human condition and calls for the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Yet universals, being abstractions, are always expressed in particulars, and for better and worse the particular aesthetic of The Lord Of The Rings is a deeply Northern European and White one.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong in it being a Eurocentric work, because the notion that all things European, Western or White are innately oppressive and supremacist is a political slander that simultaneously degrades the Western Tradition and at once endows White Supremacy with a superhuman power over history that it, as one in a long line of toxic ideologies, does not deserve. It is, as Cornel West and Jeremy Tate argue here, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/04/19/cornel-west-howard-classics/, a conflation of the achievements of Western Civilization and the multiracial history and applicability thereof with the evils of Western Colonialism and White Supremacy. The former and the latter two are distinct, and I will insist upon this premise long after you and your righteous vitriol have been cancelled on Twitter by the next generation of high schoolers. But my point here is not to engage in an extraneous debate about the excesses of intersectional theory in current journalism, nor the degree to which its most zealous exponents have found in it all the thumping certitude of the Anglo-American Protestantism they loathe. The god-fearing can debate which ideological master they will serve and I will continue, as an atheist, to serve none of them. My argument is simple. If the Western Tradition and White Supremacy are distinct, conceptually and morally, that is no logical safeguard against the two overlapping, and often this has historically been the case. The Lord Of The Rings embodies this unfortunate admixture throughout.
LOTR is an imaginative world of singular brilliance deeply rooted in Northern European legend; but it is also the product of a White man born at the close of the Victorian Era whose work was infected with the historical influence of orientalist, eugenecist, and anti-Black racial tropes inheritted from the 19th century and earlier, which he lacked the awareness to interrogate. Despite Tolkien’s professed loathing of racism and its role in the politics of the 20th century, he was not immune to succumbing to many of the egregious racial shorthands White writers had employed in their works in the past and have employed since. The Lord Of The Rings is not an ideologically racist and White Supremacist work, nor has it ever found an exclusively White audience. But it is loaded with the unthinking racial baggage of an antiquated age, and for reasons of both social justice and the survival and continued relevance of the franchise, it is imperative that it jettison this baggage. It is only by acknowledging the flaws of the novel and the films, as well as the context from which they emerged, that we can adopt a mature appreciation of the work rooted in aesthetics and humanism rather than White Fragility. To do so is not a vilification or corruption of Tolkien, but an affirmation of him.
At a time when hand-wringing over Critical Race Theory is causing a mass conniption on the right, I can think of nothing more fruitless than to waste time debating the diversity of a goddamn television show. If right wing politicians were serious in their intellectual objections to intersectionality, they would make arguments instead of employing the very language of weaponized grievance they claim to deplore. Disingenuous purists disguising their racism under a claim of “fidelity” towards Tolkien’s work ignore the fact that in a production facing stricter demands on authenticity from The Tolkien Estate and Trust, there have been no outraged expressions from that entity on the casting of Black and Asian actors in the work. J.R.R. Tolkien is the fountainhead of modern fantasy, but his world is an homage to Northern European mythology and Anglo-Saxon literature, not a phenotype. For six decades it has and will continue to find resonance with a diverse global audience that can grasp its implicit prejudices without licensing them, and it is ultimately the best form of fan service to that audience that they need not be forced once again to make the empathic leap of identifying with characters who do not look like them as they kill Orcs, Uruk-hai, Easterlings, and Haradrim who, disconcertingly, resemble the worst stereotypes of People of Color. Besides, I too in my White privilege feel entitled to know one day I can grow up to be a flesh-eating Uruk-hai, though I have deep suspicions that Gothmog was not actually Lawrence Makoare in monster whiteface, but an uncredited cameo by Ted Cruz.
“Let us hunt some Orc.”