If you haven’t heard, some people (conservatives) are upset that people of Color have been cast in Amazon’s new series, “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” The series is a prequel to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, which was adapted in the early 2000s into an award winning film series by Peter Jackson. Now, the new series is being criticized by some on the right for being “too woke.”
In an interview with CNN, Brandon Morse, an editor at RedState.com, a conservative news site, lambasts Amazon for “corrupting” Tolkien’s legacy and universe. He claims that the inclusion of Black people in Tolkien’s Middle-earth universe, which is modeled after Europe, is heresy, because obviously Black and Brown people never existed outside of Africa and Mexico. He asserts that inclusivity and diversity are attempts to “woke-ify” the story. He calls these changes “perverse” and states, “if you focus on introducing modern political sentiments, such as the leftist obsession with identity issues that only go skin deep, then you’re no longer focusing on building a good story.” In one of his many blog posts, he backs up his criticism with his credentials, boasting, “I’m such a Lord of the Rings fan that I’ve read the Silmarillion four times and I’ve played almost every ‘Lord of the Rings’ video game that’s ever been created.”
I have never seen someone write something more idiotic, more childlike (“I’ve played almost every Lord of the Rings video game that’s ever been created”), more devoid of intelligence than what this grown man wrote about this show. We can break down why I believe he is wrong about the show, but first let’s go over why I care that he sullied Tolkien’s name in the first place.
To put it lightly, I adore Tolkien. I’m surprised I’ve only made one passing reference to him throughout the nearly four years I’ve written for this publication, but I’m here to set the record straight. I’ll be honest, I’m only moderately interested in the vast fantasy world of Middle-earth that has had an unparalleled impact on western culture and the fantasy genre today (by “moderately interested,” I mean that last spring I dropped over $100 on a collector’s edition box set of “The Lord of the Rings”). What I find more interesting is Tolkien’s life, both as an academic and as a human being. I’ve read every published lecture, letter and story he’s written. His Beowulf translation sits lovingly on my shelf next to Seamus Heaney’s translation. (Did you know that Tolkien, in his seminal 1936 lecture “The Monsters and the Critics,” is the one who introduced Beowulf as a topic of serious academic inquiry? In other words … the author of “The Lord of the Rings” is why you have to drudge through “Beowulf” in high school.) The stories he wrote for his children, such as “Letters From Father Christmas” and “Roverandom,” grace my bedside table at home. I have a full shelf dedicated to scholarship on Tolkien. My point is: My level of fandom rivals that of even Stephen Colbert.
So when some amateur blogger like Brandon Morse waltzes in claiming that his dedication to “Lord of the Rings” somehow justifies his complaint that Black and Brown people have no place in Tolkien’s universe, I am more than a little qualified to tell him why his decision to wake up that morning and spew out that garbage was a worse decision than my choice to take a STEM class this semester.
Don’t get me wrong, I have a few problems with Amazon Prime’s new “Lord of the Rings” series (and only part of it is because I’m a snob): Jeff Bezos, who’s one step away from being Lex Luthor, is a life-long Tolkien fan, and this is reportedly Bezos’s passion project. I’m pretty sure Tolkien would hate Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in the world, not the least because Tolkien was deeply suspicious of “modernity” and industrialization, and Bezos represents nothing if not those two concepts, given the power of Amazon and its impact on the world.
I also have to acknowledge the elephant in the room and address the fact that Tolkien — a white, upper class British anglophile in the mid-20th century — was probably at least a teensy bit racist. If he saw me walking toward him on the street in the dark, he might have even clutched his pearls. Not to mention that for decades, the Lord of the Rings trilogy has been accused of having racist undertones. However, here is not the place to debate whether those accusations have any credibility. Ultimately, Brandon Morse’s complaints don’t hold water anyway.
Many others have broken down why Morse and those like him are idiots for thinking Black hobbits are heresy, so we can start with the fact that the works that Amazon’s new show is based on — primarily “The Silmarillion” — were all published posthumously. Tolkien died before he ever completed these stories, they went through countless drafts and were never meant to be published in that state. They were only published after Tolkien’s son, Christopher, cobbled together numerous drafts to form a cohesive story that resembled his father’s original vision. This means Morse’s logic that woke leftists are corrupting the original intent of the story is hogwash because the story was never meant to be seen. There’s nothing to corrupt. Morse speaks as though art isn’t inherently mutable and subject to change, especially when adapted. Even though The Tolkien Estate has been notoriously stingy when it comes to adaptations of its intellectual property, Tolkien himself acknowledged in some of his letters the need for change when adapting his work.
In fact, as a translator of Old English, he understood better than most the necessity of changing source material so it can be properly “translated,” whether it’s from one language to another or from the page to the screen. I’m starting to wonder if Morse skipped over all the hard words in “The Silmarillion” each of the four times he supposedly read the book.
All of that aside, Morse might want to check out some of Tolkien’s many condemnations of racism, including a 1944 letter in which he describes apartheid in South Africa as horrific and a 1959 Valedictory address in which he says, “I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones, and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.” Let’s also not forget that time in 1938 when Tolkien refused to work with German publishers after they asked him if he was of Aryan descent and then drafted a letter back in which he roasted them for being anti-Semitic.
Unfortunately, Brandon Morse and the band of racist fanboys aren’t the only sad sacks who have co-opted Tolkien’s body of work for the purpose of right wing extremism. Italy’s new far right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has also joined the crowd, except to a much more concerning extent. Keep in mind that Meloni once praised Benito Mussolini — you know, that guy who allied himself with Hitler in WWII and ran a fascist dictatorship in Italy? — as a “good politician.” This woman (along with many who belong to Italy’s far-right) insists that Tolkien describes “better than we can what conservatives believe in.” Maybe if you weren’t paying attention while marathoning Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy you could interpret the story as an endorsement of fascism and nationalism (I will admit, it would be an understandable, if flawed, reading), but your reading of the narrative would be pretty out of line with what Tolkien himself believed and intended.
Tolkien’s political leanings are a bit difficult to parse in general (he once described himself as an anarchist, but he’d probably be better understood through the lens of his religion rather than his politics), but by looking at many of his letter correspondences and other writings, it’s clear he wouldn’t have been a fan of many core tenets of the far-right. In one of his letters, he denounced imperialism, writing, “I know nothing about British or American imperialism … that does not fill me with regret and disgust.” And he, unlike certain far-right figures today, wholeheartedly condemned Adolf Hitler and surely would have been appalled by Meloni’s comments on Mussolini. With all that in mind, it’s pretty ironic that someone like Meloni would dare to disgrace the man’s name with her flirtations with fascism.
And, out of all this idiocy surrounding Tolkien, we must address perhaps the biggest idiot of them all: Elon Musk. On the fateful day of Sept. 5 2022, Musk tweeted “Tolkien is rolling in his grave.” Why, yes, Elon! He probably is rolling in his grave! He’d be appalled at how much climate change has ravaged the natural world, and he’d be horrified at the self-serving multi-billionaires who put their own interests before the interests of normal people!
Oh, sorry. Musk followed up with “Almost every male character so far is a coward, a jerk or both. Only Galadriel is brave, smart and nice.”
I understand now. Musk is upset that the men in the show aren’t manly enough. I wouldn’t expect any less from the founder of Tesla given his track record of problematic takes. That said, his assertion that Tolkien is rolling in his grave because the men in Amazon’s show are shitty people is laughable.
On the contrary, Tolkien was pretty critical of men in general, and honestly, same. Men are trash, and Tolkien thought so too. In some letters Tolkien wrote to his son in the early ’40s, Tolkien laments that most men lack self-control and are naturally inclined to stray and sin (can’t help but notice that good ol’ Catholic guilt baked into his comments). He went so far as to say that within the context of marriage, men are too stupid to stay faithful to their wives without the help of God. There’s no time to unpack any of that right now, but considering those views, I don’t think Tolkien would have been too upset that men are portrayed negatively in a narrative that already heavily focuses on the wickedness of humankind. Maybe if Musk had read up a bit on Tolkien, he would have known that.
Sadly, it’s pretty common for people like Musk, racists or far-right sympathizers to latch onto concepts and media they don’t actually understand. Most of the time, I sit and shake my head. But for some godforsaken reason, these three stooges of stupidity decided to converge upon the works of one of my favorite authors, and the result is this article. At least it was fun to write.
Daily Arts Writer Tate LaFrenier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.