OPINION: Backlash against ‘race swapping’ in ‘The Rings of Power’ misses the point

Backlash against ‘race swapping’ in Tolkien-inspired “The Rings of Power” gatekeeps the fantasy classic “The Lord of the Rings” within a racialized framework, argues Yifei Cheng PO ‘24. (Courtesy: MaxPixel)

 

The contemporary fantasy genre owes its existence to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” In it, Tolkien consolidated and popularized the various fantastical archetypes — like elves, dwarves, and the dark lord — that have since ingrained themselves into humanity’s collective cultural psyche. 

The cinematic adaptation of LOTR matches the legendary renown of the original trilogy, with “The Return of the King,” the final installment, making an unprecedented $1.1+ billion at the box office. “The Hobbit” series, despite its unfavorable critical reception, remained on par with its predecessor in terms of popularity and financial success

This fall, another mega-project will join the Tolkien cinematic universe.The Rings of Power,” Amazon’s latest television adaptation of Tolkien’s mythopoetic legendarium, is set to chronicle the events in Arda (the franchise’s universe) thousands of years before the original trilogy. With a five-season budget estimated to exceed $1 billion, this show might become the most expensive television production in history.

While the upcoming Amazon series has sparked considerable excitement from fans and critics alike, its most recent announcement elicited a massive controversy within and beyond the LOTR fandom over the show’s multiethnic cast. “The Rings of Power” marks the first time non-white actors will portray prominent characters in Tolkien cinematic adaptations: Arondir and Disa, played respectively by Ismael Cruz Córdova and Sophia Nomvete, will be the first non-white elf and dwarf on screen. 

This casting decision, however, has antagonized many LOTR fans who argue that this act of “race-swapping” undermines the authenticity of the adaptation. Beyond simple Internet rage, the backlash has become a consolidated phenomenon prevailing on almost all major platforms. YouTube comments under the teaser trailer lament the supposed destruction of the Tolkien classic at the hand of the “woke social justice warrior garbage of a film.” Thousands vented their frustration by reposting an ironically misattributed Tolkien quote, “Evil cannot create anything new, it can only spoil and destroy what good forces have invented and created.”

For them, the inclusion of a multiethnic cast seems quite analogous to the atrocious deeds of Sauron. Unsurprisingly, the most-viewed trailer reaction videos from independent YouTube channels almost unanimously decry the casting decision, their bitterness matched only by the overwhelming unison of disapproval in their comment section.

This collective frustration towards “The Rings of Power” reflects a misinterpretation of Tolkien that, if left unchecked, gatekeeps the fantasy classic within a stringently racialized framework. This implication becomes clear when we examine what such arguments contain. Those lamenting the supposed “race swapping” decision follow a similar thread. They often begin their polemic by pointing out that LOTR and other source materials composed by Tolkien contain occasional references to the pale skin tone of elven and Númenórean (ancient human) characters. 

Furthermore, they claim that Tolkien intended his legendarium to become the Anglo-Saxon national mythology (this veracity of this claim is dubious), and hence its protagonists must be white. Casting non-white actors as protagonists, the argument goes, risks turning the series into an inauthentic bastardization that breaks the world-building tenets of the source material. In essence, those decrying the upcoming show see the homogenous skin pigmentation of its characters as a must-have for all Tolkien adaptations, and when challenged, back up their arguments with different versions of “because Tolkien said so.”

But did Tolkien really intend this? The answer is a resounding no. From a technical standpoint, sporadic references to certain fair-skinned characters cannot preclude the possibility that non-white characters exist. This applies especially to Arondir and Disa, who the show created and do not appear in Tolkien’s original work. 

Technicalities aside, characters’ skin color does not play an integral role in Tolkien’s narratives in the first place. “LOTR” and the broader legendarium tell stories of friendship, conviction, and courage in the face of despair. Facing incredible odds, the distrusting kingdoms of humans, elves and dwarves must overcome their past grudges and collaborate with open arms to vanquish the dark lord. The downfall of Sauron is not precipitated by indomitable armies or mighty heroes, but rather by the simple yet unbreakable bond between Sam and Frodo. The work certainly champions a pluralistic worldview, as, without the cooperation and understanding between different races, the Middle Earth would forever fall into Sauron’s thralldom.  

So we see how absurd the backlash against “The Rings of Power” truly is: it pretends that racial uniformity — an unimportant detail at best and a nonexistent imagination at worst — is an indispensable part of Tolkien’s works. Despite Tolkien’s vehement opposition to racism, as demonstrated by his “hatred of apartheid in [his] bones”, these critics still view race as the sole disqualifying factor that bars actors from becoming involved in Tolkien’s universe. More ironically, they issue such absurdities while proclaiming themselves as the defenders of Tolkien’s literary legacy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Tolkien’s works are complex, particularly when it comes to their relationship with racism. While the author repeatedly expressed his opposition to racism in various letters and addresses, certain elements in his writing, such as the depiction of the orcs — a race of humanoid brutes — as irredeemably evil can be construed to signify racial determinism. While it is arguably impossible to pinpoint where the legendarium stands on the political spectrum, Tolkien’s works can be and have already been exploited by extremist forces for sinister ends. Far-right groups like the British National Party, for instance, have appropriated the trilogy and its movie adaptations to promote recruitment. 

This is why we must be wary of the anti-“race swapping” tide that swept parts of the Internet in the aftermath of casting announcement: Beneath the façade of preserving authenticity lies a dangerous misinterpretation of Tolkien that carries real-world significance.

Yifei Cheng PO ’24 is from Nanjing, China. He enjoys hiking, reading (especially fantasy literature), and playing Starcraft 2. 

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