The One Part of the Rings of Power that Bugs Me

So there’s this article from a satirical news site called Clickhole. It came out four years ago but it keeps coming up on social media. Like a lot of these joke articles, I get the feeling that very few people have actually read the piece, but the headline is clever enough that the article was destined to go viral. The article’s headline is “Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made a Great Point.” The headline is joined by an image of a man who I’m sure is perfectly pleasant in real life but who just looks like a total douchebag in the photo. Funnily enough, the article itself is even more free of content than most of these things, especially because its lacking in the specificity of stuff like The Onion’s best work. But that doesn’t matter because the headline and image are instantly memetic and perfect for online “discourse.” I’ve been thinking about this image a lot for the past couple of days because it keeps haunting my thoughts whenever I sit down to write about Amazon’s new TV Show, Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. I’ve tried to write a broad, initial first impressions of the show (which overall I really liked) but there’s one instance, a brief exchange of dialogue that has stuck in my craw for days. So I figure it’s time to break out the ole analytical lens to discuss this stuff. So hit the Read More button and let’s discuss this new show, online fan culture and the perilous art of having a nuanced opinion online.

First, let’s establish the groundwork. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is a new streaming series that debuted September 1st on Amazon Prime Video. The series, which has been in production since 2018 when Amazon acquired the rights to make a show based on Tolkien’s writings from Warner Brothers and The Tolkien Estate, has been touted as the most expensive TV Show ever made. The show is loosely based on the “writings and appendices” of J.R.R. Tolkien, who famously wrote detailed histories of his Middle-Earth setting long after finishing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In 1977, the Tolkien Estate published a near complete history of J.R.R.’s world in the form of The Silmarillion. To give you a sense of The Silmarillion‘s scale, The Rings of Power is based on like, a dozen pages of content from that book.

Set hundreds of years before The Hobbit, the story of this new TV Show follows an ensemble cast of iconic Tolkien characters and some originals created for the show. The story is apparently going to be focusing on the cycle of events that eventually built up to the events of The Lords of the Rings, including the creation of the titular Rings of Power. So just like HBO’s House of the Dragon, it’s a prequel to the thing everyone’s seen. And so far I think it’s pretty good! The show’s production values are stellar, the cast is great and I really like the whole aesthetic. Instead of just portraying the Second Age as a Golden Age of Middle Earth, the showrunners made the wise decision to make everything (except maybe the elves) more primeval. The humans especially are shown as being just barely out of the stone age, living in small villages and communities. Or maybe they’re just now rebuilding from some kind of apocalyptic war. Either way, they’re living a subsistence level existence. The Harfoots, who are apparently the predecessors to Hobbits, are shown to be almost druidic nomads who follow star charts to map seasonal migration. And the dwarves! I love dwarves in most fantasy media and these dwarves, living out of Khazad-Dum, (aka Moria, the abandoned mine where Gandalf dies in the first movies) are excellent bearded fellows. But for all of those high points, there’s one piece of writing that has soured my thoughts like a discordant note in an otherwise beautiful song. (Silmarillion fans, that reference was just for you, don’t let it be said I never did anything for ya.)

One of the new characters original to the show is an elf named Arondir played Puerto Rican actor Ismael Cruz Córdova. I want to start by saying that Arondir is already my favorite of the new cast of characters. He’s essentially an immortal beat cop who’s been patrolling through the same handful of human settlements for the last couple hundred years. We’re given to understand that the ancestors of these humans sided with Morgoth, the First Dark Lord in the great war that ended the last age. That war brought the Elves to Middle Earth and they’ve been here since. Arondir serves as an important character in the cast for a lot of reasons. Despite being an immortal, he’s one of the more down-to-earth characters in the cast. He’s just a guy with a job that he kind of hates. It’s implied that he was essentially drafted into this role, and we’re even told that he used to be a farmer back home. He’s got a partner he doesn’t particularly like. Most importantly, he’s met and become infatuated with a beautiful human healer from one of the villages in his precinct. All of this is good stuff. But there’s this exchange in Arondir’s first scene…

Now out of context, nothing about this scene is remarkable. It’s basically the iconic scene from any given Western. The lawman wanders into a lawless town, gets accosted at the local saloon and shuts up an aggressive braggart to establish how cool he is. But it’s what the guy says to Arondir that got a lot of people’s attentions. In the scene, Arondir inquires with the bar keeper about a patch of tainted farmland in a nearby town, causing a bitter young man to leap to his feet and ask why he’s badgering them about what it is clearly just a bad harvest. He then says:

“The lot you lump us in with died off a hundred years ago. When are you people going to let the past go.”

Again, out of context this line isn’t terrible. In fact, it helps establish the dichotomy that’s at the heart of the scene and Arondir’s subplot throughout the first two episodes. Tolkien’s elves are immortal and it’s likely that Arondir has been “the law” in this region since before any of these people were born. He has memories of the war their ancestors fought in. He probably remembers which side they fought on. But in context, the scene is much more fraught. Because the actor accosting Arondir is white, and Córdova is black.

I’ve struggled with trying to offer some kind of critical analysis of this moment because I’m worried that anything I say will inevitably be lumped in with a very particular subset of so-called Tolkien fans. See, there’s already a vocal minority of nerds online who have been very critical of The Rings of Power sight unseen. To be clear, they’re racists. Since the show’s initial debut of its cast, so-called Tolkien purists have raged that the show has had the temerity to include women and POCs. And that sucks. I should note that many of them try to couch these arguments in the idea that the series is diverging from Tolkien’s vision. To which I say, so what? The Jackson films were almost slavishly devoted to the books, only cutting some elements for a more cinematic pacing. And the Tolkien Estate hates those movies. Pleasing the Tolkien purists is a fool’s errand. At this point, the screenwriters and showrunners are better off using his lore and appendices as a jumping off point. Besides, if the show’s 25 million viewer debut is anything to go by, the purists are a niche the show doesn’t need. Plus, if we really are going to stay true to Tolkien’s vision then we have to deal with the most dated aspects of his writing. Like the part where he described orcs as being essentially caricatures of the mongol hordes that invaded Western Europe in 1200s. What I mean to say is, we live in a modern world. The kids who are going to watch this show and discover the fantasy genre the same way I did through the Peter Jackson films should have the chance to see themselves up there on the big screen. No matter what ethnicity or gender they are. And yet, here I am, about to say some pretty critical things about these creative decisions. And I don’t like the idea of being even adjacent to these weirdos or giving them even the slightest amount of credit for being right. I’d like to think my criticism is coming from a place of concern, rather than hate. And with that being the case, let’s continue.

Tokenism, as defined by Merriam-Webster is “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort (as to desegregate).” I don’t know if I’d called Córdova’s casting and the character of Arondir a token gesture. He’s not the only person of color in the cast. For example, I really enjoy what Sophia Nomvete is doing with her role as the dwarven princess of Khazad-dûm. But after that line I started thinking. It’s clear the writers want to establish that some of the humans of Middle Earth (including those still loyal to Morgoth, the First Dark Lord) are biased against elves. They’ve even taken the time to come up with a racial slur for them, as the patrons of the bar back in that scene I described above call Arondir a “knife-ear.” It’s worth noting that this is taken verbatim from EA and Bioware’s Dragon Age video game franchise, a series and setting where the “elves as metaphor for racial minorities” is more consistent and explicit. Either way, there’s no problem with establishing that tension, especially because this series seems to be about a rising darkness in the world. Plus, we learn in later scenes that the racists actually are probably still loyal to Morgoth or Sauron. But the only character who experiences this racism subplot in the first episode is played by a black actor. The white actress who plays Galadriel deals with suspicion in the second episode but almost immediately she’s given a chance to prove herself to her distrustful humans. Added to that is Arondir’s personal arc, or at least what is set up in the first two hours. Arondir has apparently fallen in love with a woman named Bronwyn played by British-Iranian actress Nazanin Boniadi. Everyone talks about their mutual attraction in tragic terms saying stuff like “it’s only been attempted three times before,” and “it only ends with tragedy.” So not only is the only black elf the one who’s experiencing racism, now he’s the one whose storyline involves interspecies/interracial relationship drama.

The problem is that elves, dwarves and orcs are, on average, poor analogues for real world social issues like racism. I already mentioned how Tolkien envisioned his orcs as analogues to steppe cultures invading Western Europe. This particular decision is one that has haunted the fantasy genre all the way into the present day, where orcs are still portrayed as marauding, vaguely ethnic invaders. This despite the fact that Tolkien adapted the word “orc” from the Norse saga of Beowulf. And that’s just Tolkien. That’s coming from the guy who did the legwork for every part of his world. We aren’t even talking about more modern fantasy works. In my experience, in pursuit of providing a halfway decent explanation as to why these groups are discriminated against, the writers often fall into the pitfall of justifying discrimination. Because this is fiction and maybe they feel the need to fill in those blanks. For example in the aforementioned Dragon Age franchise, the elves actually were conquerors and empire builders brought low by civil war and a magical cataclysm. There are clear and one could argue logical explanations for deep seated distrust on a cultural level, which isn’t great when you’re trying to make them sympathetic. The creators basically end up “both sides’ing” the issue of racism. Because in the real world, racism or discrimination has no logical precedent. In other cases, they just fall into racial essentialism. That’s why for the longest time orcs were always Chaotic Evil in the Dungeons and Dragons pen and paper game. To be clear that second one is even worse. Nothing says “rousing fantasy adventure” like quack science from the 1920s. But in the case of Arondir we have the extra layer of having a real world POC playing the character in live action. Does making the real world analogue even more explicit turn this into something worthwhile? Well maybe, but I don’t know if it’s my place to say.

But to get to the heart of the matter, is any of this bad writing, per se? I honestly don’t know. At this point I have to assume that all of these choices were made intentionally. And the cynic in me can absolutely imagine a writer’s room of nominally progressive screenwriters fist-pumping and giving each other high fives as they come up with the idea. Like, guys wait a second, what if the black elf is dealing with racism in Middle Earth too?! Brilliant! We’re a lock for the Saturn Award now ladies and gentlemen! But that doesn’t make it bad writing. It just makes it blunt or obvious. In a way you might even say that it’s sincere. And for that reason, I’m willing to give the writers the benefit of the doubt, at least for now. Allow me another brief digression.

Fun fact: did you know that Tolkien actually started to write a sequel to Lord of the Rings? It’s true. He started writing something he called The New Shadow sometime before 1964. He produced all of 13 pages before deciding to scrap the project. Those drafted pages were eventually published by Christopher Tolkien in the 12th volume of The History of Middle-Earth. For the record, that would be the 13 volumes’ worth of Tolkien’s writings, appendices, and correspondences that even the hardcore Silmarillion buffs probably haven’t read. They exist at the spot where we leave mere fandom and get into the realm of “Tolkien Scholarship.” Anyway, Tolkien explained to a correspondent why he couldn’t continue working on The New Shadow. It was a story set 100 years after The Return of the King and it would’ve involved the discovery of secret cults of men who worship orcs and other old, forgotten evils. Tolkien realized that the core theme of such a story would’ve been a depressing one. Men often grow bored of goodness and peace, so they seek to sow chaos, discord and mischief. In essence, Tolkien was on the cusp of inventing what modern fans might call “low fantasy,” the more cynical and wildly popular version of the genre. Instead, he simply chose not to continue because it made him sad. Because for all of his imperfections, most of which stem from his being a white Anglo-Saxon academic from the 1940s, Tolkien was a very sincere writer. Not only did he believe in Middle-Earth, or Arda as he called it, but he believed in the message of the Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings is the story of small, unassuming hobbits who save the world, not with grand heroic gestures or because they have the blood of kings, but because of simple, innate goodness.

I firmly believe any adaptation of Tolkien has to embrace a core of sincerity. Jackson certainly did. And so far, I think The Rings of Power has done so as well. I’d wager the writers are definitely going to inject some moral relativism because its the Golden Age of Television and that’s what the audience wants. But it’s still a story set in Middle Earth, so it’s still going to be about themes of heroism and friendship. Otherwise, what’s the point? Which brings me back to Arondir and the problem of the token black elf. Is placing one of the show’s only black actors at the center of the show’s racism subplot thuddingly obvious? Arguably yes. Would it be even more awkward if the actor playing Arondir was white? Whoof, I don’t even want to start in on that conversation for so many reasons. But I’m optimistic that ultimately the series will be better for its inclusion and for Córdova’s portrayal of the character.

I haven’t talked at all about what is said immediately after line I spent way too many words analyzing. After the bar patron accosts Arondir about why “you people” won’t just let the past die, the elf replies with “The past lives in all of us.” It’s a good line. If I’ve been thinking about the line in question all week, then I’ve been thinking about the rebuttal as I put my thoughts together for this essay. The modern fantasy genre has a very awkward relationship with race. A lot of this is because so much of it is based on the work of Tolkien, C.S Lewis, Robert E Howard and others, most of whom are white dudes who were fascinated by a version of medieval European history. And while the actual, historical reality of Medieval Europe was culturally and ethnically diverse, our stories haven’t always been so. In recent years we’ve taken steps to correct that, to be more inclusive. It’s an incremental process and assholes have hounded those with good intentions every step of the way. But ultimately I think we’ll be successful. There have been three major fantasy television series to debut this season: The Sandman, House of the Dragon and now The Rings of Power. Each one has boasted a much more diverse cast than the source material. Writers, showrunners, actors and the rest are doing the work. But we still have to reckon with that awkward past. And if that means rolling our eyes or wincing through some overt metaphors, then so be it. I guess I’m saying that I’d rather we got blunt writing on this topic than no writing at all.

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