Friday, 11 February 2022

Khand and Rhûn and Harad Too

More information regarding the upcoming The Lord of the Rings series, now subtitled The Rings of Power, has emerged. The response has been predictably polarised between folk excited to see any new Middle-earth content, and unreconstructed individuals who think the people of Middle-earth were ethnically monolithic in their nature. Unfortunately, as is the standard for modern internet discourse, there is little room for nuance. Folk wonder why people are so easily radicalised nowadays, yet the immediate reaction is "SJW/PC/Woke nonsense" on one hand, and "racist/reactionary/privileged bigotry" on the other - leaving folk to either search for a middle ground that serves nothing and only perpetuates the idea of the two poles in the first place, or naturally find themselves caught in one pole's gravity in the end.

The essential issue is one, I think, of intellectual laziness that borders on timidity - of wanting the veneer of diversity, progressiveness, and inclusion, but stopping short of anything beyond the bare minimum. The problem, for me, is not the mere presence of ethnic minorities - far from it. 

The problem is it doesn't go nearly far enough.

Stories of Nations

Many fantasy settings have a multitude of different groups of humans and human-like beings, reflecting the great range and diversity of our own Earth's cultures - sometimes explicitly linked to our past, as Middle-Earth and the Hyborian Age are. I can think of very few fantasy settings where there is no such variety, as it seems practically anathema to the very idea of fantasy fiction. These lands have their own histories, backgrounds, and cultures, and they all have their origin stories.

This sense of lineage is very important. The origins of nations - be they territorial, ethnic, cultural, or social - is historically of vast importance in securing those nations' recognition and legitimacy. The Declaration of Arbroath was written to prove that Scotland had a history distinct to that of England, one that was equal in consideration in the eyes of God. To do that required evidence - from the folklore of Scota and Goídel Glas, to the legendary pre-Alpin kings, to more historically supported genealogies:

Most Holy Father, we know and from the chronicles and books of the ancients we find that among other famous nations our own, the Scots, has been graced with widespread renown. It journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain among the most savage peoples, but nowhere could it be subdued by any people, however barbarous. Thence it came, twelve hundred years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, to its home in the west where it still lives today. The Britons it first drove out, the Picts it utterly destroyed, and, even though very often assailed by the Norwegians, the Danes and the English, it took possession of that home with many victories and untold efforts; and, as the histories of old time bear witness, they have held it free of all servitude ever since. In their kingdom there have reigned one hundred and thirteen kings of their own royal stock, the line unbroken by a single foreigner.

The high qualities and merits of these people, were they not otherwise manifest, shine forth clearly enough from this: that the King of kings and Lord of lords, our Lord Jesus Christ, after His Passion and Resurrection, called them, even though settled in the uttermost parts of the earth, almost the first to His most holy faith. Nor did He wish them to be confirmed in that faith by merely anyone but by the first of His Apostles - by calling, though second or third in rank - the most gentle Saint Andrew, the Blessed Peter’s brother, and desired him to keep them under his protection as their patron for ever.

The Most Holy Fathers your predecessors gave careful heed to these things and strengthened this same kingdom and people with many favours and numerous privileges, as being the special charge of the Blessed Peter’s brother. Thus our people under their protection did indeed live in freedom and peace...

Every nation on Earth, from ancient republics and constitutional monarchies to modern democratic states and the many tribes of all continents, has a story - an origin, a timeline, a narrative. And one of the most profound crimes that can be done is to deprive people of their nation's story.

Among the many atrocities committed against ethnic groups, the removal of their past - in many cases, their very names - is one of the most insidious. Not only were they taken from their families, their homes, their people, they were severed from their memories. Africans kidnapped while young may never have learned their parent's names, their language, their history, because that sort of thing didn't matter to their kidnappers. Hence the descendants of those who experienced those atrocities cannot follow their ancestor's paths, and trace their way through time and space in the way their kidnappers could - or, indeed, their own people who were not kidnapped could. An easy way to dehumanise someone is to treat them as if their ancestors didn't matter enough for you to remember them.

One of my most treasured quotes is from the late Bashir Ahmad: "It's not where we came from that's important, it's where we're going together." It is a great sentiment in regards to Scotland's direction in a civic national context. But Mr Ahmad, like myself, knew where he is from. He was born in Amritsar when it was "British India," and emigrated when it was part of the new nation of Pakistan. He knew his ancestors, the ancestry of his nation, and the lineage that took him from British India, to Pakistan, to Scotland. It is not a case of him being formerly Punjabi or Indian or Pakistani and then Scottish - he was all those things at once, the citizenship being a legal formality. His being Scottish - and a member of the Scottish National Party, at that - did not erase his being Punjabi any more than the reverse was true. To say he was just Scottish would be to diminish his remarkable story.

Which leads me to fantasy fiction.

Whole Wide Worlds

Still needs more Nyumbani.

Fantasy worlds may echo our own, but they are not. Decisions made, disasters suffered, and roads traveled are not inevitable. That's what makes them fantasy worlds. But a lack of imagination can sometimes mean reinforcement of historical wrongs - even when the intent was the polar opposite.

Consider The Witcher, a world where there are indeed multiple ethnic groups and nations. There is no need to choose between ethnic diversity and cultural continuity when both can be done at the same time. Any show would be blessed to have talented actors like Mimi Ndiweni, Wilson Mbomio, Anna Shaffer, Chuey Okoye, Adjoa Andoh, Terence Maynard, and more in important roles, and so The Witcher is. The problem for me is that the showrunners relied on the Royal Shakespeare Company mantra that "skin colour doesn't matter" - not as a (correct) statement of a person's worth & value, but as an excuse to keep the show pseudo-European without going to the effort of showing a wider world beyond. "Yes, we can have people of different skin colours - but they only get to play in our castles." How much richer would the world of The Witcher be if we saw more of the deserts of Ofir, the tropics of Zangvebar, the canyons of Zerrikania, and the people populating those lands? Again, those who've seen the show know how much of it is not in the books - so why not go in a different direction?

Likewise with The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, which is explicitly pastiche drawing upon The History of Middle-Earth rather than a finalised, polished work by one of the great authors of the 20th Century - in other words, they have to make some things up. There are several characters who are explicitly creations of the showrunners, indicating that there are going to be further inventions in the narrative, and their casting of people with a lot more melanin than the stereotype suggested the possibility of going further beyond the lands Tolkien concentrated on. The announced cast was even more tantalising: Lenny Henry, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Nazanin Boniadi, Thusitha Jayasundera, & Sophia Nomvete. The fact that I didn't have a clue who they would portray had my mind racing.

Great, I think: we can finally expand Tolkien's world of Arda beyond that of the northwest corner which forms Middle-Earth. Tolkien provided more than enough material to inspire a nuanced depiction of Harad - a people with a legitimate grievance with the imperialist Númenóreans and their Gondorian heirs: a series set in the Second Age is thus the perfect time to explore Harad and perhaps come up with some heroes of their ownAnd since the networks are all about the "grimdark," we can see a dark side to the Forces of Good in the Númenórean's conquest of Tal-Elmar's people & their massacres of Haradrim in sacrifice to Melkor, as well as the Rohirrim's persecution of the Drúedain.

Some might think this a stretch: after all, the Second Age lasts thousands of years, with human lifespans mere ticks in the Clock of Ages. But we know that, like the New Line films before them, the showrunners will condense the timeline:

Speaking of Sauron, the villain’s presence is a major factor throughout the Second Age, culminating in his resurrection as a tyrant. As the show begins, there are only hints of the danger to come. Some see them clearly; others don’t necessarily want to. Bayona drew from his memories growing up in Spain, a country still recovering from a civil war decades before he was born. “We had a dictatorship for 40 years, so you notice the repercussions of war and the shadow of the past,” he says, noting that “Shadow of the Past” is in fact the title of the first episode. “I think this is all about the repercussions of war. There is an idea that feels very faithful to Tolkien, which is intuition. Galadriel has an intuition that things are not fixed, and there is still something lurking.”

In the novels, the aforementioned things take place over thousands of years, but Payne and McKay have compressed events into a single point in time. It is their biggest deviation from the text, and they know it’s a big swing. “We talked with the Tolkien estate,” says Payne. “If you are true to the exact letter of the law, you are going to be telling a story in which your human characters are dying off every season because you’re jumping 200 years in time, and then you’re not meeting really big, important canon characters until season four. Look, there might be some fans who want us to do a documentary of Middle-earth, but we’re going to tell one story that unites all these things.”

Boy, I'm getting a lot of use out of this gif...

Now, on the face of it, I (obviously) profoundly disagree with this choice and decision: the idea of a few immortals surrounded by changing supporting cast over the centuries is, to me, a massive distinction of this story, not a detriment. It is, in fact, thematically foundational to the story Tolkien was trying to tell - the disparity between the mayfly lives of Men and the functional deathlessness of Elves and other beings, the passing of magic, the battle between change and stasis. It's almost one of the pillars of the entire legendarium! If familiar faces and actor contracts are an issue, then the inventive solutions presented in Cloud Atlas, American Horror Story, and Foundation (and no doubt the upcoming sequel to Dune) show that actors can play characters of the same soul or family or genetic code across time and space as a visual shorthand to present familial and genetic history. Alternatively, while The Witcher's time-jumping was obfuscating to non-readers, that is more a fault of execution than a fault of concept. "But that's confusing!" Then pay more attention. Other shows can be put on the background for background noise as you're doing the laundry.

Nonetheless, in compressing the timeline in this fashion, it does allow the opportunity to expand certain human characters - and kingdoms. In particular, the kingdoms of Harad are of particular importance in Second Age history, being so relevant to the Fall of Númenór. Just think of the possibilities! We can see the people of Khand, Harad, Rhûn, Umbar, and Dorwinion before Sauron conquered and manipulated their nations into joining him in the war on the hated imperialist successors of Númenór! We can visit the Sunlands desert where the Mûmakil riders roam, the Eastern steppes where the Kine of Araw herd, and all the other locations only hinted at in Tolkien's work! We can right the historical misconception that the lands of what the Edain called "Men of Darkness" were inherently evil, rather than being the first to fall to Sauron in his conquest, who had their own heroes and rebels fighting against the forces of Sauron! We could even (if we're willing to go with The Peoples of Middle-Earth over Unfinished Tales) have the Blue Wizards appear - and since Gandalf, Saruman, and Radagast took the forms of old white-haired wanderers that wouldn't arouse much attention in Eriador, does it not stand to reason that the forms taken by Alatar and Pallando would resemble the peoples of the South and East?

Look at this art by Tomasz Jedruszek for the One Ring Card Game: imagine stories set in such a landscape, with characters completely different from the established wisdom of what a Middle-earth story could be!

No such luck. Ismael Cruz Córdova will be playing the Silvan Elf Arondir in another tiresome "forbidden love story," while Sophia Nomvete will be a Dwarf princess, and Lenny Henry will be a Harfoot Hobbit. Only Nazanin Boniadi's human Bronwyn (not exactly the most Southron name), who is said to hail from the "Southlands," seems to actually take advantage of the cultural enrichment possibilities of Middle-Earth. As of right now, it's unclear what roles Cynthia Addai-Robinson & Thusitha Jayasundera will take: my hopes that they will portray Haradrim, Khandians, Easterlings, or anything interesting like that is rapidly diminishing. 

I'm tearing my beard out in frustration at the missed opportunities. Hopes for Harad lay dashed on the forest floor of Ithilien, because we need yet another Elf/non-Elf romance; rumours for Rhûn are silenced, because there aren't enough dwarves in Middle-Earth already (and they didn't even take the daring solution of casting a woman as a "male" dwarf, which I think would've been quite a clever idea for The Hobbit - since we're already making changes and all). Khand might as well not exist, Rhovanion is rust, and the Druedain are likely to never appear because we can't have moral complexity with the "Good Guys." 

How on Middle-Earth is casting Lenny Henry & others as an invented "multi-cultural tribe of Hobbits" meant to mean anything when entire nations of brown people are depicted purely as villains in league with the enemy? Samwise's iconic rumination on the heart of the dead Haradrim soldier doesn't mean much if the only other Haradrim we see are fighting alongside monsters against the Forces of Good. Again - they're already making characters and stories up, so why not make up characters and stories that do justice to the most marginalized & maligned people on Middle-Earth?

More Art with a Capital A from Scharb depicting a different landscape from the typical forests and mountains of Eriador

Because, for all the showrunner's fine talk of inclusion and togetherness, it's only (literally) skin deep:

“It felt only natural to us that an adaptation of Tolkien’s work would reflect what the world actually looks like,” says Lindsey Weber, executive producer of the series. “Tolkien is for everyone. His stories are about his fictional races doing their best work when they leave the isolation of their own cultures and come together.”

That's a revealing comment. The idea that fantasy world "would reflect what the world actually looks like" sounds like a nice line, but in practice it's antithetical to the very idea of fantastic fiction. "What the world actually looks like" is that a brown person can be a princess, but the grotesque systemic inequality inherent in monarchy must remain; a black person can be a President of a modern democracy, but he can't change the laws which protect the elite in any meaningful manner; "Races doing their best work when they leave the isolation of their own cultures and come together" only works when you're part of the right cultures - the predominantly Western European ones who are familiar and safe and comfortable. You're allowed to play in our castle, just pull the drawbridge up when you come in.

This has consequences for the story. In modern times, in questions of equal opportunities or status or employment, absolutely it is completely irrelevant who your parents were, where your ancestry hails from, and what hue your skin is. That is how it is, and that is how it should be - just like equality of access to healthcare or education, citizenship, and all these other things that too many nations take for granted. But we're talking about a world where only some people are allowed to rule even in the "good" nations: a world where who your parents were defines much of who you are and what you will do. This is a world where many of the appendices are dedicated, quite literally, to genealogy trees. For Disa to be a Dwarf Princess that looks so dramatically distinctive from the majority of her subjects (and, indeed, absolutely fabulous, let it not be denied), her family tree should reflect and explain her story. People of colour have indeed been monarchs of Western European countries, so it is not an insurmountable cultural barrier by any means. But is the series going to acknowledge what would surely have been a rich, fascinating history of how she came to be princess - perhaps a descendent of the little-known clans that dwelt in Rhûn like the Ironfists, Blacklocks, Stiffbeards, or Stonefoots - or are we just meant to ignore it, in a story where genealogy and ancestry is so prominent?

For all the showrunner's talk of dragging a work written over half a century ago into the 21st Century (not to mention the breathtaking arrogance in stating their belief that the show "could be the novel Tolkien never wrote") there's an amazing reticence in tackling the even older concepts which have gone unchallenged - likely because the showrunners personally benefit from the notion that some people deserve to have stupidly more money, power, and influence than the vast majority; that some countries are just inherently corrupt, evil, or otherwise "lesser" than our enlightened modern civilisation. Are we going to see a democratic revolution take place in Calenardhon that creates a Republic of Rohan? Will we witness a denunciation of state-mandated Valar worship in the interests of secular agnosticism? What about an movement to rehabilitate Orcs, the most hated and feared creatures in Middle-earth, the loss of their free will considered Morgoth's greatest crime by Tolkien himself? That would be bold, that would be interesting - but I doubt we'll be seeing anything like that, because reconstruction will only go so far.

Oh, and they'll all have received pronunciation, won't they, save for the Salt-of-the-Earth Know-Your-Place Hobbits with accepted regional British accents, right?

The Novel Tolkien Never Wrote

I would be lying if I said I didn't get my hopes up, because I can't help myself. I honestly prefer to be disappointed by high expectations than surprised with low ones, because willing something to be good is preferable to me than just expecting something to be bad. And I'm sure the series will be technically excellent, beautifully directed, and well acted. I just think that when the boats are pushed so far out in other areas of production, the casting and scripting could do so much better than they do in so many fantasy series. Thus far, the biggest issue for any Middle-Earth adaptation has always been the script - this, despite dialogue usually being (unfairly) placed in prominence above nearly all other considerations in film criticism. If a script is bad, the whole film's bad; if it's good, everything can be forgiven because the script's good. So why are fantasy film and series scripts so often content with mediocrity?

Perhaps I have only myself to blame. In my presumption, I had let my imagination run wild. I had imagined a story where a great King of the East, one of Nine Great Kings of Men, would be a major character in a story about the Rise of Sauron. A story not just featuring him, but his allies, his family, his circle - those who counseled him against accepting the gifts of a strange Westerner, who warned him not to trust appeals to power and riches. A story of a great, noble leader, whose grievances against the Western Invaders made him amenable to the manipulations of a true master puppeteer, and the consequences of his choices. A story showing the tragedy of a king who became a wraith.

I had imagined a story where the tribes and kingdoms of the coasts and sands lived their lives free from the treachery of Elves - until the Men of the West came. They called it "civilising" when they indoctrinated their children against the Old Ways; they called it "progress" when they destroyed their sacred sites and built their towers of stone over our holy places; they called it "good" when they outlawed our religion and replaced it with theirs. When the people dared to defy them, they were put to the sword. When some of their own defy their island masters, promising vengeance and recompense for their crimes, of course they sought their aid. A story showing the sins of the ancestors echoing through fear and resentment.

It just makes sense.

I had imagined two mysterious old men travelling through the burning sands, the vast steppes, and the hidden forests beyond the lands of Middle-earth, where they fought to undermine the growing corruption and conquest of Sauron and his minions, sparking the fires of rebellion and kindling the flame of hope in the hearts of the people. Initially, they would fail - but later, they would succeed, neither falling into irrelevance like the Brown, nor succombing to the shadow like He Of Many Colours, redeeming their failures by ensuring Sauron's forces could not overwhelm their allies in the West. A story of the best intentions leading to a Fortress of Fire - and of cooperation moving Mountains of Doom.

I had imagined a story of indigenous people who had to deal with newcomers to their shores: strangers with great boats, strange clothes, and mighty weapons, who claimed to come in peace and friendship - but ultimately brought only domination and oppression. Some of those original inhabitants persisted, fleeing into the wilderness, while others remembered that the lands of Drúwaith Iaur, Gwathuir, Minhiriath, and Enedwaith had once belonged to them. A story of a people forgotten, but never lost.

I had imagined a land occupied by the forces of darkness where some still chose to stay and fight. The shadow is strong, but the Sun is stronger still in Harad where the Stars are strange. Some are resigned to their pact with evil, their very kings shackled to their ironically titled Rings of Power, so long as it allows them to destroy their hated foes - others are not. Some are content to see their people transformed into raging fanatics and worse, the animals they ride and worship transformed into monsters, their history warped and supplanted by worship of a prisoner god - others are not. And there were more among those who defy the Great Enemy than he would like the Elves, Dwarves, and Men of the West to think. A story of those who chose to stay and fight.

Bah. Enough of this negativity. Perhaps it was too much to hope that The Rings of Power would show the creative chutzpah to go beyond Fantasy England. We can still hope that the late lamented Charles Saunders' Imaro series gets some traction. Perhaps the inevitable blowback from the timid "representation" in The Rings of Power once people realise that this is still a Western European Fantasy Land will encourage TV fantasy to go further. Black Panther certainly showed it is possible in superhero cinema; Lovecraft Country showed it is possible in horror series. 

In a sea of sub-par Generic Fantasy Worlds, is there not space for a goddamn decent black fantasy series? Can we not see maps of Nyumbani, or Abengoni, or Meji in the background of titles? Could we have fantasy series with non-European Fantasy being the star, rather than the guest? Would it not be, at the very least, refreshing to see black speculative fiction that doesn't rely on adjacency to black trauma?

The time will come, no doubt. Sooner, rather than later.

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