Fandom-esque | Supposed Tolkien fans hide their racism behind “book purity”

Fandom-esque is a biweekly blog about the fandoms of the pop culture sphere and their latest ongoings in TV, film and more.

By Diana Velasquez, Senior Staff Writer

In the official Merriam-Webster dictionary there are many definitions of the word “fantasy.” I’d like to examine two of them. 

Number one — “the power or process of creating especially unrealistic or improbable mental images in response to psychological need.” So it’s something you make up in your head that’s probably fictional, and is un-grounded in reality.

Number two — “imaginative fiction featuring especially strange settings and grotesque characters.” It’s a pretty broad definition that does a good job of giving us a catch-all for every typical fantasy fiction trope — dragons, orcs, talking trees, or another kind of shenanigan you and your friends thought up for your DnD campaign.

This might be hard for some people to get, because somehow in 2022 we’re still fighting over dumb shit like this, but nowhere in any of those definitions is fantasy specified as being white. 

And yet many people argue that it must be.

On Sept. 7, members of the original cast of “Lord of the Rings” — Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monahan — shared photos on Twitter to support the new show “Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power.” In the photos, the actors wear a t-shirt or hat featuring human, hobbit and elf ears in various skin tones. Above them are the words “You are all welcome here” in the fictional Elvish language — Sindarin.

Why did they need to do this? Well, surprise surprise, after “The Rings of Power” premiere, many of the cast members of color faced a wave of vitriolic racist backlash to their presence on the show. According to these people, elves, dwarves, hobbits and Middle-Earth men can’t be anything but white.

Wood, Astin, Boyd and Monahan each played Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Peregrin Took and Merry Brandybuck, respectively — hobbits from the region of the Shire in Middle-Earth — in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy helmed by Peter Jackson in the early 2000s. In this adaptation, all of the main characters were played by white actors.

In the new series, characters like the elf Arondir (Ismael Cruz Cordova), Numenor’s queen regent Miriel (Cynthia Addai Robinson) and the dwarven princess Disa (Sophia Numvete) are played by actors of color — and they’re not relegated to side roles.

Now let me say upfront that whenever a creative adapts a J.R.R. Tolkien story, there’s always going to be backlash. Even Jackson’s first trilogy, which is considered by many critics and fans to be some of the best filmmaking of all time, isn’t held in too high of regard by some Tolkien purists.

“The Hobbit” movies fared even worse, and while personally, I love “The Hobbit” trilogy — shoutout to Richard Armitage, whose performance as Thorin could go toe-to-toe with any of the original trilogy’s actors — the movies are often a sneered-at example when it comes to adapting children’s books.

Let’s get one thing sorted right now. You cannot make an exact adaptation of a book to film. That’s just not possible with the medium. Whether you’re restricted by budget, time or literally the ability to translate an aspect to film, there is always going to be something left out or reworked.

For the so-called “Tolkien” fans screaming about white purity into these actors’ DMs, let it be known that you’re just straight-up wrong. Tolkien did have people of color in his works.

Tolkien described the Harfoots, the ancient ancestors of the hobbits we know and love, as being “browner of skin.” He also described the longtime enemies of the kingdom of Gondor, the Haradrim, on various occasions as “brown” or “black” skinned.

Now, these people that Tolkien described were nowhere near the front and center of his work. And the racist implications he had in describing the Haradrim and even the orcs should be examined with a critical eye. But the accuracy of Tolkien’s works isn’t what these weirdos are harping on.

They’re mad all the actors front and center in a fantasy show that aren’t lily-white blonde maidens or whatever. This makes me laugh because there are still plenty of white people in “Rings of Power.” So what exactly have you lost?

It’s really futile to argue with racists. But it is important to point out their patterns and their tendencies. The fantasy genre has suffered for a good long while from a diversity problem, that’s not just a Tolkien issue.

“Game of Thrones” if anyone cares to remember, wasn’t really touting a diverse cast. The show’s dark-skinned actors weren’t exactly in pivotal roles, and frequently these characters had endured one form of slavery or another.

In the new show “House of the Dragon,” set about 200 years before “Game of Thrones,” the showrunners cast Black actors to play characters belonging to House Velaryon — a noble Valyrian family as old as House Targaryen, who made their living as world-renowned shipmen.

Steve Touissant, who plays Lord Corlys Velaryon, faced a racist backlash of his own in late August. He put through his point very succinctly in an interview with Men’s Health. “It seems to be very hard for people to swallow. They are happy with a dragon flying. They’re happy with white hair and violet-colored eyes, but a rich Black guy? That’s beyond the pale,” he said.

I could literally go on all-day sourcing interviews from creators and actors defending their shows and movies. Neil Gaiman’s defense of “The Sandman”, Rick Riordan condemning racist fans after the abhorrent treatment of Leah Jeffries and the continuing complaints about Halle Bailey’s casting in the live-action “Little Mermaid” — even after that beautiful trailer was released yesterday.

But I don’t have enough character count to keep going. Instead, I, like I’m sure many of the actors and creators do, find solace in the community of fans who aren’t dumb enough to waste their valuable time complaining about Black elves on the Internet. And I will continue to enjoy these shows, even if they’re bad, just to spite the racists.