Tuesday, 23 August 2022

The Word For World Is "West"


I suppose I might as well, eh? 

Almost ten years on, this post is becoming more and more prophetic.

Cimmerian Dreams

It's been over ten years since I went to Cross Plains to watch the world premiere of the 2011 Conan the Barbarian's red-band trailer at Cross Plains: over ten years since I attended my first film premiere with a press pass. I don't know how many words I ended up contributing to the Conan Movie Blog in the runup to the film's release. I know I wrote a 4,600 word review and a 21,000 word critique of the film in the week after its premiere, which might be the most concentrated analysis that film's ever received (in density if not necessarily in substance). I recall spending a ludicrous amount of time poring over set photos, concept art, trailer stills, interviews in multiple languages, hoping for something - anything - that I could sink my teeth into. Something that made me excited for a film that I feared would be just another failure in the long sad history of failed reboots.

It was... well, you read the review. You saw the box office. You smelled the Rotten Tomatoes, collated the Metacritics, counted the IMDB stars. The big bold venture, beset with production problems, Too Many Cooks (one day we'll hear the story of that damned elephant - but it is not this day) and the uphill struggle of trying to appease both Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Robert E. Howard fans, just couldn't get on the incline. And sometimes, I thought: what are you doing, Al? Why are you spending all this time on something you don't have any confidence in? 

Well, two reasons. The first is that I hoped positivity could will a good film into being - the Pollyanna effect, highly unscientific but essential for mental coping mechanisms. The second is a sense of duty to Robert E. Howard himself: an author whose work affected me so profoundly and introduced me to dozens of intelligent, empathetic, and compassionate individuals who remain lifelong friends. I felt that I owed it to him, that if somebody didn't seek to evangelise Howard's work in the wake of this film, then it would be subsumed in a sea of ignorance and irrelevance. We Howard fans were smaller in number compared to other popular culture juggernauts like Star Trek or Marvel Comics - but what we lacked in size we made up in dedication. If we didn't do it, no-one would: that was the worry.

I don't have that same fear with Tolkien. He has a wealth of fans ready to defend his work and his legacy with a much greater visibility & support network than Howard did. This is because, for almost every year since his death, the keeper of the Keys to Middle-Earth was Christopher Tolkien, who dedicated his life to the integrity and purity of Tolkien's work. By contrast, Howard's Conan was largely in the hands of a science-fiction author who considered himself Howard's literary superior: editing the original stories, altering historical adventures into more lucrative Conan adventures, selling the rights off to comics and other authors to continue the "official" adventures in a way that would've been utter anathema to someone like Christopher Tolkien. De Camp, for all his own literary merits and clear success in monetising Conan, didn't rate Howard, and certainly didn't defend him the way a guardian should have. Luckily Robert E. Howard's work and name fell into more grateful hands - even as I worry that the reverse seems to be happening with Tolkien.

Tuneless Songs and Disbelieving Belief

One interesting wrinkle in this discussion is that people of colour portraying fantasy beings isn't actually new - an example from over 2 decades ago is Kristen Wilson's Norda in 2000's Dungeons & Dragons.

There are a lot - a lot - of bad faith takes in regards to Tolkien and most Tolkien adaptations, especially in recent years.

A typical bad faith take is "oh, so you have no problems with dragons and elves and all sorts of fantasy creatures, but the minute you see a non-European in a fantasy-European setting, that suspends your disbelief and breaks with the lore?" Well, that's the thing: dragons and elves are not real. People are real. Every human being has in them, from their memories to their genomes, the history of their ancestors, and their journeys within them, whether they are conscious, known, unknown, or otherwise. Dragons do not. Elves do not. Most people - I would hope - have a basic awareness of human history, which includes the grand saga of culture, migration, and civilisation. It is that knowledge - in many cases, that presupposition - which, I think, is a stumbling block when it comes to fantasy fiction.

(It is always important to note that Tolkien, like Howard and Smith and other early fantasy fiction writers, were not creating entirely new worlds: they are explicitly meant to be our worlds in the distant past. This is why cultural migration in the Hyborian Age and Middle-earth matters in a way that it wouldn't for an entirely fantastical planet unconnected to ours save for the presence of humans - they are not "fantasy worlds" in the way most people think of them, where fantasy is used as a synonym for "literally anything goes.")

This is a known curiosity in speculative fiction. You can have stories with monsters, aliens, spaceships, magic, all sorts of unreality - but if you have something real that is amiss, that can do more to dislodge people from the narrative than even the most outlandish fantastical elements. Case in point: Highlander. People will happily believe that there has been a secret tournament of immortals decapitating each other until only 2 remain to battle in a New York warehouse 500 years after their first encounter with one another - but you hear only a few seconds' worth of Christopher Lambert's Scottish Accent, and that's enough to make the film a laughing stock for some people. Believe in immortals, believe in taking their power in lightning pyrotechnic displays - but some people cannot believe Christopher Lambert was a Scotsman, because unlike immortals and Quickenings, Scottish people are real.

Now, this is not to say such things are necessarily correct, of course: while obviously technology, infrastructure, and geography were very different in the past, it wasn't as if nobody travelled in the Ancient, Classical, or Medieval eras. As a result, there are depictions of people from all over the world in European Art. The mere presence of such individuals should not, in and of itself, be considered unrealistic or historically inauthentic. It's all about how historically authentic you want to be - a fun satire like Robin Hood: Men in Tights or A Knight's Tale doesn't need to adhere to the same rules as, say, The Name of the Rose or Kingdom of Heaven.

One problem is that people who aren't hoary old scholarly bores like me might have difficulty articulating exactly what their problem is, and understandably feel frustrated when people put words into their mouth. "You find the presence of certain people in this particular settling uncomfortable because you have a problem with certain people" is not only breathtakingly arrogant supposition, it's counterproductive. You aren't going to convince people to do any meaningful introspection into cultural bias in fantasy fiction by saying they're bad people: it's just going to either disengage them, or anger them into rejection.

(Besides, comparing people - any sort of people - to fantastical creatures of myth and legend is not the kind of "gotcha" I have any particular interest in entertaining.)

This quote making the rounds from the Vanity Fair article is illustrative in so many ways:

“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.”

Film writer Chris Gore compares and contrasts with another quote, this time from Peter Jackson (who I'll get to, don't you worry about that):

This is the core of the problem: the past is another world, and people seem incapable of understanding that. Moreover, they don't seem to understand that their world is not "what the world actually looks like."

Here's what the world actually looks like: it is a world composed of 7.9 billion human beings, the majority living in Asia - over a third in China and India combined. Adult literacy is approximately 86.3%, 75% have access to mobile phones, 87% have clean water, 84% have adequate nutrition. 56.3% of the world's people live in urban areas. Mandarin is the most commonly spoken native language, followed by Spanish & Hindi: less than half of all languages. The most common religion (Christianity) is not observed by over 2/3rds of the world's population. 70% of people on this planet cannot access the internet; 23% have no safe housing; 93% do not go on to further education.

When Weber says “It felt only natural to us that an adaptation of Tolkien’s work would reflect what the world actually looks like,” she quite clearly is not talking about "the world," counterintuitive as that may seem. She isn't even talking about a corner of the world that would be analogous to Middle-Earth (Europe), which is - and this might come as a surprise to non-Europeans - is not just "Old America." She's talking about the United States. It's understandable: Amazon is based in the US, this is a US production. Amazon may be a worldwide company, but the studio is as biased towards the superpower as anything else - and that includes people who think they're being critical of American hegemony. And even then, the World-that-is-America isn't reflective of that vast, varied land - it's a particular type of America, a particular dimension that is no more representative of the whole than, say, Oxford is of England.

By "what the world actually looks like," Weber means the tiny corner of the world as she understands it. By "Tolkien is for everyone," Weber means an already phenomenally popular and lucrative intellectual property (because, let's face facts, that's always the bottom line) should be tweaked and altered to increase the potential viewership, even if it ends up like butter spread over too much bread. It's fine - but don't be surprised if Tolkien fans are going to be annoyed about changes, whatever those changes might be.

(Misty) Mountains and (House of the) Molehills

Even earlier, Tony Cox played the Vohnkar Warrior Nelwyn (who resemble but are legally distinct from Hobbits) of colour in 1988's Willow (alongside Mark Northover, David J. Steinberg, and Warwick Davis). Cox has also appeared as the Dwarf of Colour Eight-Ball in 2010's The Warrior's Way, and the Munchkin of Colour Knuck in 2013's Oz The Great and Powerful. (If we count his role in Bad Santa, that makes him one of the few actors in the world to have played a Man, a "Hobbit," a "Dwarf," and an "Elf"!)

Another comment from Tolkien scholar (and fellow Scot) Mariana Rios Maldonado bears examination:

“Obviously there was going to be push and backlash but the question is from whom? Who are these people that feel so threatened or disgusted by the idea that an elf is Black or Latino or Asian?”

Now, I can only speak for myself, but I'm of the opinion that the people who are "threatened" or "disgusted" by someone's ethnic background are not worth consideration in any discussion at all. Undoubtedly there are those who will seek to undermine minority representation in media, but they don't deserve either the oxygen of publicity or the dignity of acknowledgment.

It's incredibly easy to spot: these are the people who decided John Boyega's casting in Star Wars was a bad thing, complaining about "politics being injected into escapism," and all sorts of stupid nonsense that was inflated precisely because it is easy to refute. To suggest that Star Wars, of all pop-culture properties, is bereft of politics only until a black stormtrooper is cast in a lead role, is so self-evidently inane that it's honestly demeaning that fandom spent all these years having internecine wars over it. Likewise with Star Trek Discovery: of the many, many problems I have with the series (one day I'll get into them, but for now Crude Reviews gets most of them), the ethnic background of the cast makes up precisely zero of them. So why even waste your time and your energy on these trolls? Because - and I'm ashamed to say I do this myself - it's easy to knock down stupid arguments, and it makes you feel good knowing that you're right. It's more difficult to face nuance and complexity, and not everyone is comfortable or confident enough to do that. But sometimes we must.

So we can set aside the troll comments that don't deserve consideration, and onto the more robust one of ethnicity and representation. However, you cannot on the one hand suggest that ethnicity is an irrelevance or minor detail, and simultaneously discuss how important representation of said minorities in media is. I am absolutely quite happy to say that, yes, ethnicity does matter, because I actually take the idea of diversity and promotion of ethnic minorities seriously, rather than fluidly skip between it being "what's the big deal about someone's skin colour?" and "wow, look what a big deal this is for underrepresented people of colour!"

2019's The Dragon Prince has multiple varied ethnic groups of elves: Sunfire Elves such as Rena Anakwe's Janai are a brilliant example of how to do diversity well - by going full-tilt into an original universe.

This goes hand in hand with fidelity (or not) to the source material. It is legitimate to want to hew as closely to the source material: it is equally legitimate to want to put a new spin on things. A faithful adaptation is not necessarily good or bad, nor is an unfaithful one - all that matters is doing what you set out to do. Heck, sometimes you can specifically set out against doing a faithful adaptation and achieve a remarkable sense of fidelity despite your best efforts, like Paul Verhoeven when he adapted Starship Troopers. Faithful, unfaithful - it's all good. What is not, in my opinion, is trying to do both - and ending up doing neither.

Ms Maldonado and her University of Glasgow colleague Dimitra Fimi fall into that trap unnecessarily. While I agree with many of their sentiments and motivations, I disagree when it comes to the conclusions and their working:

Some fans argue that Tolkien never described elves, dwarves or hobbits as anything but white, and claim that the casting is disrespectful to his books. But this argument is flawed in two ways.

First, these are imaginary creatures which are not always clearly described in the original books – Tolkien was more interested in metaphysical than biological questions. Still, there is some evidence of dark-skinned elves and hobbits in drafts of The Silmarillion and the prologue of The Lord of the Rings

Second, even if Tolkien had specified that all elves, dwarves and hobbits were white, it still wouldn’t matter. Adaptations are original cultural products that can imitate, question, rewrite or interpret source material in various ways. Each adaptation is a new text. And each is an opportunity to update outdated and unacceptable tropes, and find ways to represent and normalise non-white characters. 

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje portrayed a (particularly) dark elf - Algrim - in 2011's Thor: The Dark World.

The evidence for these dark-skinned elves and hobbits is not produced, and I cannot find them - which is frustrating, as Tolkien aficionados like me devour details like this to broaden & enrich our understanding of Tolkien's worldview as it changes over time. But these two points are contradictory to one another: on the one hand, you're suggesting that the central premise of the argument (of physical phenotypes Tolkien described) is flawed and implies a lack of care in paying attention to Tolkien's specifications... and on the other hand, you're saying that Tolkien's specifications don't matter and can be changed and updated. So either Tolkien's world has evidence of greater diversity which some fans are not taking into account, or Tolkien's specifications don't matter because we can change them. Both stances, which would be contested for different reasons, are nonetheless legitimate ones to take - but they are not complementary, and are in fact mutually exclusive.

Likewise, Tolkien's work itself is simultaneously "for everyone" yet "uses many stereotypes associated with orientalism and the language of prejudice." Well, if that's true (and to a certain degree it is - again, Tolkien was informed by historiography as well as history) then Tolkien's work can't be for everyone, can it? But the sad, unfortunate thing is that no work is "for everyone." There is always something in someone's work that will be offensive, traumatic, or upsetting: even if it's only one person, that person's response is as valid as yours or mine. I cannot stand the presence of Captain Carter in Marvel's "What If" - not because she is a woman (if anything it's despite her being portrayed by the brilliant Hayley Atwell), but because the presence of a superhero proudly bearing the Union Flag in the 21st Century is deeply offensive to me. But I'm not going to insist Captain Carter be removed or changed to suit my political sensibilities, precious as they are to me - because Captain Carter isn't for me, but for the many people who love Carter's character, and who are either neutral to, or actively enjoy the presence of, a politically-British superhero in a Marvel film.

But as disgruntled fans might reason, if Amazon must have a diverse cast in this drama, why not stick to having actors of colour playing the characters who are dark-skinned in Tolkien’s texts? But that would perpetuate and reinforce the racialised view of good and evil in Middle-earth. Despite Tolkien’s overall message of friendship and co-operation, and despite his raging against the Nazis, the face of evil in Middle-earth is invariably non-white/non-European.

Tolkien’s portrayal of the Orcs (legions of evil creatures) and the men who ally themselves with Sauron (the arch-villain of LOTR) uses many stereotypes associated with orientalism and the language of prejudice often found in literature from the era of British imperialism (Tolkien was born and grew up in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods). Reproducing this white/non-white divide along moral lines would endorse a very old fashioned and harmful equation of physical characteristics with moral choices.

Quite apart from the weird comment about the face of evil in Middle-earth being "invariably non-white/non-European" (which doesn't seem to take Saruman, Grima, Ted Sandyman, Bill Ferny, the Sackville-Bagginses, the Black Numenoreans, and the Dark Lord Sauron's own "fair" form of Annatar into account), the notion that an adaptation of Tolkien's work must necessarily depict the men who ally with Sauron as evil is, in my mind, deeply unimaginative, problematic in its own right, and not really much better to me than cynical tokenism. If you're going to be making changes and additions, why not acknowledge Tolkien's nuances in regards to the "Men of Darkness" (always a literary device used by the Men of the West: Tolkien was well aware of historians' own prejudices in their writings) - it would be just more defensible than other decisions made.

The short-lived The Shannara Chronicles featured Emilia Burns as Commander Diana Tilton, leader of the Black Watch, in 2016. 

Sticking to "having actors of colour playing the characters who are dark-skinned in Tolkien's texts" does not necessitate "reproducing (this) white/non-white divide among moral lines," especially considering the exceptions which go both ways - doubly so in the 2nd Age, where Numenor's predatory imperialism and the Rohirrim's brutal ethnic cleansing of the Druedain and Balchoth would almost seem like deconstructions of what is so often simplistically considered "Tolkien's moral world view."

There's another thing often forgotten here - Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs may resemble humans, but they are not human. Their functional immortality dramatically alters not just their internal physiology - in the case of Elves their immunity to disease, vastly keener senses, faster healing, resilience to the elements, suspended ageing processes - but their psychology. There are far fewer of them in comparison to humans in the 2nd and 3rd Ages. Their entire outlook on the world is different as a result. There is a distinct Otherness to them which marks them as obviously and indisputably separate from humanity, be it the ethereal magic of the Noldor, the cthonic ruggedness of the Naugrim, or the grotesque degradation of the Uruks. To depict these beings with the same phenotypical variety as humans undercuts that inhumanity. (To say nothing of the "modern" haircuts).

And we come full circle:

But why would audiences these days think of England as white anyway? The country has become a vibrant melting pot of which people of colour are very much a part. Why would an contemporary adaption not reflect that?

In any case, the idea that people of colour were not part of Britain or Northern Europe in the ancient and medieval past is false. There is plenty of evidence of diversity in Roman Britain, for example. As for the Vikings, they were not a homogenous or “pure” racial group (especially due to trade and raids).

According to the last census, England is 81% composed of "White British," a deeply unhelpful grouping which conflates English, Scots, Welsh, Cornish, Irish, Travellers, Romani, and others into a generic clump formed from various waves of Celts, Gaels, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Danes, Norse, and other ethnic groups over the millennia. In comparison, only 61% of United States citizens consider themselves "White American" (an even less helpful melange which includes Germans, Scottish, Irish, Scotch-Irish,  English, Italian, French, Polish, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, and Russian - itself a huge melting pot of different ethnic groups). To call England a "vibrant melting pot" when it's actually one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world is perhaps wishful thinking, and to categorise the imperialist conquest of an indigenous population by an expansionist empire an example of "diversity" is something I've been a bit sick of for a long time. To call Middle-Earth "white" is besides the point, and is - I'd propose - an Atlanticist view of the subcreation that is not borne out in the text. 

I mean, the obvious answer is that Tolkien, who spent his entire life crafting this world, had his reasons for doing things beyond "he was an English Scholar born in South Africa." The ethnic history of England, Britain, Ireland, and the Isles has long been scrutinised and re-examined, but it is impossible to apply modern considerations of diversity over thousands of years of human history, when the very concepts of ethnicity, culture, nation, and even human have changed over those centuries. The perceived ethnic homogeneity of Middle-earth (which is, again, much more complex than usually thought) is not a result of outdated ideas based on early 20th Century pseudoscience, but of a carefully crafted and constantly revised process by its creator. Middle-earth didn't resemble Medieval England any more than it reflected early 21st Century United States University culture.

Once it airs, the new Amazon series will be critiqued by academics and fans alike for many of its choices regarding plot, characterisation and setting. But judging the casting based on skin colour and claiming Middle-earth as exclusively white is not just misguided, it clearly exposes what researcher Helen Young has called fantasy’s “habits of whiteness”.

As a popular element of 21st-century culture, fantasy’s issues with race, racism and white privilege are subjects the genre has not yet fully addressed. Amazon’s new series is a step in the right direction.

Again, I empathise with Maldonado/Fimi's perspective, but it really feels like people are arguing past one another. The debate (a term I use loosely given some of the discourse I've seen) being held is between two premises that are false for different reasons. A small number will be deliberately bad faith, designed to spread resentment & bad feeling among people who, honestly, agree on the great majority of things - but that tiny number of bad apples results in a septic barrel.

In the end, an adaptation only has to be as faithful as you set out to be - and when you're saying you're bringing Tolkien's world to life, while also saying things have to be "updated" and whatnot, then that dichotomy will lead to schisms.

The Self-Fulfilling Western Fantasy Prophecy

Wilson Radjou-Pujalte as Dara, an example of the ethnic diversity within the Elf community on Netflix's The Witcher, also from 2017.

So why all this hullaballoo about changing Tolkien's world to fit a particular interpretation of modern times? To do so seems antithetical to Tolkien's entire worldview, he who rejected modernity to the point that he refused to acknowldge the Novus Ordo Mass in 1965 and responded to the Catholic liturgy in Latin. Multiple actors describe themselves, and their characters, as "activists," which - while admirable - rings hollow considering the platform for their activism is a tax-evading, rights-violating, worker-exploiting multi-billion corporation. As long as Amazon continues to be the 21st Century robber baron, all this activism only comes across as skin-deep. Like those companies which proudly affix their Pride rainbows all through the month of June... except in Saudia Arabia, or China, or any of the other places where their principles would be inconvenient for them.

As a result, The Rings of Power ends up looking just like The House of the Dragon, which looked just like The Wheel of Time, which looked just like The Witcher, and Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, and Willow. Middle-earth should look & feel completely different from Westeros, & Willow's world, & Faerun. This reflects that each of the stories are different, & warrant distinctive cinematography & direction. Instead, they all look like Marvel films - one big sprawling mess of continuity, because the license holders don't want art, they want safe & cosy & familiar while they pretend they're pushing boundaries. Ironically, that same diversity that should make properties stand out & enrich them is executed with such soulless formulaic standards that it ends up doing the opposite - everything starts looking the same. 

You just have to look at the likes of The Green Knight, Immortals, Macbeth (2015 & 2021), & anything Guillermo Del Toro does to see the possibilities for high fantasy films. Indeed, look at "Love Death + Robots," which managed to have more creativity in single anthology episodes than most series. Colour, framing, lighting, sound, art direction - there could be so many different ways of doing things. Yet filmmakers & studios find themselves retreating to the comfort of successes past.

In ye olden days, it was impossible - or at least prohibitively expensive - to depict the wildest images an artist could imagine. Now technology has advanced to the point where imagination truly is the only limit - & it is that imagination which is proving deficient. It seems to be "do what they did in the 50s with miniatures & matte paintings, but better." I don't blame directors or concept artists themselves so much as the studio system which believes it is in their interests to deliver bland, anodyne, tasteless fare so as to appeal to the masses.

Why are films & TV series set in realms of fantasy, by definition the genre most suited to pushing the imagination, so... Similar?

The Franchisement of Middle-Earth

Justice Smith as Simon, an Elf Sorcerer (presumably no relation) in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

But this is not a vaccuum: this is the same age as big-budget fantasy series like Game of ThronesThe Witcher, and The Wheel of Time. Moreover, it is the same age that Marvel, Star WarsStar Trek, and other franchises are expanding rapidly to fill up ever-populating channels and streaming networks. And the irony is that in seeking to appeal to the broadest possible audience, the showrunners have run into the precise trap that they sought to avoid - homogeneity.

“There will no longer be a time where you can say there are no Elves of color. So we erased that one, you know? This conversation will never be there. No, I’m an Elf. The next person that comes after me won’t have to talk about this. That’s what it means to me. I always say that if you can see it, you can imagine it, then if you can imagine it, you can create it." - Ismael Cruz Córdova

I've illustrated this post with examples of "elves of colour" (a phrase which, hilariously, Know Your Meme was calling a hoax back in 2018) to show that, far from being a bold, brave new step, this is not new in the slightest - elves of colour (and Dwarves and Nelwyns for that matter) have been in fantasy films and television for decades, and they'll almost certainly be present in future productions. Rings of Power is not breaking new ground, beyond simply being the first Tolkien adaptation to depict elves of colour. Whether he means to or not, Ismael Cruz Córdova is himself erasing all the "elves of colour" who did come before him - Norda, Janai, Algrim, Diana, Dara, Eithné, to say nothing of elves of color in literature, comics, anime, video games - for the exact cause that he's trying to promote.

Likewise, for all Sophia Nomvete's personal pride in depicting the first major female dwarf character in The Lord of the Rings franchise, it is unfortunate that concentrating only on Tolkien means neglecting previous female dwarves, be they dwarf/Hobbit-adjacent like Willow's Kiaya Ulfgood & her children, "big people playing little people" like the unnamed female dwarves of Erebor in The Hobbit trilogy & named ones of The Huntsman: Winter's War, or actual female dwarf characters. The token black elf or dwarf has become a thing now - long before The Rings of Power came around - but that's just one of many counterintuitive issues resulting from box-ticking exercises.

Nonetheless, there's more at play here than a simple overabundance of cooks destroying a broth in death by committee. There is a sense of ownership the creators of Rings of Power have over Tolkien's world that only makes sense when you consider the contemporaries they wish to emulate - Disney. Marvel. Star Wars. Star Trek. All massive franchises; all have multiple stories & media. And, most crucially - all have multiple creators.

I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama.  

 - J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to Milton Waldman, publisher (1951)

This excerpt from Tolkien's famous "Mythology for England" letter often comes up. While the main thrust of the argument over whether Tolkien intended his writings to constitute such a grand purpose has its advocates and its critics, I've seen the two sentences above quoted as tacit endorsement from Tolkien on the idea of "other minds and hands" working upon his legendarium. That the likes of the Tolkien Society, The One Ring.net, & celebrity fans use it as such should leave little doubt, no matter how often they tout Tolkien as The One True Creator.

But the showrunners evidently do think that they are those very "other minds and hands" whether Tolkien intended it or not. "Can we make the novel Tolkien never wrote?" For all the talk about honouring the text, the fact that they are legally prohibited from adapting the vast majority of the text they're supposed to be adapting means they cannot honour it. Nothing that does not appear in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings can appear, or even be referenced, as seen in the farcical nod to the Blue Wizards in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The creators are not acting like adaptors - they're acting like co-creators.

And why shouldn't they? They aren't thinking of Middle-Earth in terms of one man's creation, but as a multimedia franchise created by many minds and hands. George Lucas may have been the prime mover of Star Wars, but it would be unrecognisable without the contributions of Martia Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, Irvin Kershner, Ralph McQuarrie, John Williams, Ben Burtt - and the fruits of later creators like Genndy Tarkovsky, Timothy Zahn, & Dave Filoni are considered as worthy additions to the universe. Likewise, Gene Roddenberry may be the Great Bird of the Star Trek Galaxy, but Gene L. Coon, Herb Solow, D.C. Fontana, Bob Justman, Matt Jeffries, Bill Theiss, Fred Phillips, Wah Chang, & Alexander Courage shaped & populated it. So is the case with all multimedia franchises from Marvel to Disney - including, ultimately, The Lord of the Rings, and therein lies the rub.

Unlike Star Wars or Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings - and The Hobbit, and all the Middle-earth & Arda legendarium - was not a collaborative effort. It was not the result of discussions, debates, arguments, or shared creation - it had one author alone. Tolkien, of course, insisted on calling it sub-creation, as was his preference, but there is a significant distinction between a work and its author, and a franchise and its owners. For most of the recent history of The Lord of the Rings, that distinction was maintained. No new authors wrote sequels or prequels or sidequels with little "Approved by the Tolkien Estate" stickers; nobody presumed to "complete" Tolkien's unfinished tales in the manner other authors' skeletons have been crudely animated; none dared to say Tolkien was only the first Middle-earth writer. 

With the accomplished Kenji Kamiyama directing and the writers behind "The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance," how could it possibly fai-DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT

It is easy to say this is in large part due to Christopher Tolkien's stewardship of his father's work, mostly because it seems blatantly obvious. The actions of the Tolkien Estate since his departure speak for themselves. The goal is to begin a new age for Middle-earth, one of multiple media, to go beyond the mass commercialism of the early 2000s to include more Middle-earth - new Middle-earth that can be copyrighted, trademarked, monetised. I am not so naive as to think the Estate were perfect prior to 2017, but there is a distinct change of tact since C. Tolkien left, and it is not one I think his father would necessarily approve of.

So when Sophia Nomvete talks with great pride about being "the first female dwarf we see on screen in this world," understand that from her (and the showrunners') perspective, Middle-earth is not a singular creation (sub)created by one author, which is complete and can never be added to or extended. They are looking at Middle-earth as a living document that can be extended, subtracted, and altered by "other minds and hands" - the kind of living document that can have milestones like "first black stormtrooper" or "first series with a female captain lead." It makes no sense otherwise.

Whether you think this is a good thing or not depends entirely on what you think of authorial intent, intellectual ownership, and franchises as a whole. In terms of franchises, the copyright holder is the arbiter of what is or is not "canon." Hence how what is now known as Star Wars Legends has been all but expunged from Star Wars Canon, or how the heinous episodes "Turnabout Intruder," "Code of Honor," and "Threshold" are Star Trek canon while the sublime novels of Diane Duane, Peter David, and Diane Carey are not. Canon, a tool for codifying the works and acknowledging the rights of a creator (with a capital C or otherwise), is too often used as a weapon of control. As it can be with religion, so it is with fiction.

To the people behind The Rings of Power, Tolkien is but one of many co-creators - perhaps afforded a pre-eminent position among them, but only as part of a greater process. After all, Tolkien did not create Halbrand, Bronwyn, Arondir, Sadoc, "Nori," or any of the other main cast members who are nonetheless sharing as much promotional time as Galadriel, Elrond, Durin, & Míriel, so who should get the credit for them if not the people who wrote them? 

The Fanatics Taking Over

Look, I loved DS9 & Ira Steven Behr's contribution was immense, but this pompous, arrogant image and his idea for DS9's finale can go straight to Gre'thor.

It is inevitable that, as a subcreation (I hate "franchise," "property," "content," or any other term that demeans a work in terms of economics) develops a following, there will come a time where members of that following wrest control of it from its creators. Usually (frankly, preferably) it takes place after the author's death: if the heir is generous, then they will not tamper with the original works, or leave them languishing out of print, or outright destroy them. But that's the thing - someone being a fan does not always mean they are well-suited to being caretakers.

Such a statement may seem strange to someone who is, well, a gigantic fan. But if there's one thing I've learned about fandom, it's that they're full of deeply-held, vigorously argued, and completely contradictory sentiments. So when one fan - be it Ronald Moore for Star Trek: The Next Generation, J.J. Abrams for Star Wars, Russell T. Davies and/or Stephen Moffat for Doctor Who, August Derleth for the Cthulhu Mythos, or Kevin Smith for Degrassi the Next Generation - takes the reigns of a subcreation, it's practically a guarantee that some fellow fans are going to have massive disagreements about their direction. 

Is it preferable to having some producer drone looking only for a stepping-stone to a "real" project? Undoubtedly - but it does not eliminate the need for talent, resolve, and competence. Peter Jackson was a fan, and Crom knows I have my problems with his adaptations. Fandom is not an excuse.

“The folks at Middle-earth Enterprises take their roles as stewards very seriously, and every decision about characters has been made with deep reverence to the original,” wrote Wizards content manager Adam Styborski. “With that in mind, together we set out to make a set that follows two guiding principles: diversity and originality.”
So who's this character - a Harondarian who joined the Rangers of Ithilien, an Umbarian who rejected the Black Numenoreans, a warrior of Far Harad who made his way north? Nope - it's AragornLe siiiiigh

See, when I said a few posts ago how I hoped the project which ended up being The Rings of Power would go beyond the worlds Tolkien described, it was not in the spirit of "writing the novel Tolkien never wrote." Only Tolkien could do that. Nor was I saying it would be preferable to a genuine adaptation - if I believed these jokers were capable of that, I'd be screaming for one & tearing my hair out at the inaccuracies rather than shrugging with all-too-expected resignation. Rather, I was speaking from a position of seeing endless fan-fiction that just keeps repeating Tolkien's Greatest Hits without bringing anything new to the table.

All the "new" stuff in the Jackson trilogies was just extrapolations of settings, people, and ideas that Tolkien did elsewhere, better. Lurtz is just another Uruk-Hai; Tauriel just another Silvan Elf; the less said about Alfrid the better. But it's every bit of Middle-earth "original fiction" that does this. The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age follows the adventures of (among others) Idrial, Berethor, & Hadhod - an elf, a man, and a dwarf. The Lord of the Rings: The War in the North follows the adventures of Andriel, Eradan, and Thandrin - an elf, a man, and a dwarf. The Lord of the Rings: Shadow of Mordor follows the adventures of Celebrimbor, Talion, and Torvin - an elf, a man, and a dwarf.

OK, I'm exaggerating, but only by a bit. The vast majority of the Middle-earth expanded universe seems aggressively dedicated to known ground - which means that their imaginations are limited thus. As ever, it seems a shame that the only room for diversity in Middle-earth is in toneless, pointless box-ticking exercises that don't even glance towards the rich possibilities the source material offers. Those precious few folk of Khand, Rhun, Harad, and beyond, even when granted a cursory look, rarely get the opportunity to be anything more than accessory villains.

Whole nations and cultures ripe for exploration, but nooo, we have to have more Elves and Dwarves and Hobbits...

If only the people behind The Rings of Power showed the same imagination as the Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, where Haradrim like Kahliel, Firyal, Jubayr, and Yazan are heroes in the Sands of Harad expansion, or The War of the Ring, where the villainous Saleme at least had agency & complexity. For all its faults, Middle-earth: Shadow of War at least attempted to flesh out the Haradrim with Baranor, and the Easterlings with Zhója and Serka. Even Games Workshop, which has a (let's just say spotted) history regarding extra-European fantasy cultures, put a fair bit of effort into the backstories for Suladân and the Golden King.

Alas and alack. But perhaps it's for the best. "Other minds and hands" operate best beyond the auspices of Seals of Approval, Official Merchandise, and other such authoritative titles. I was very harsh - perhaps unduly so - on Kirill Eskov's The Last Ringbearer, but I absolutely applaud its boldness in taking on the cultural juggernaut, even if I don't agree with the interpretation of Tolkien which inspired it. If The Rings of Power ends up being the poorly-written, vaguely-conceived, threadbare-structured mess I fear it would be, then there isn't much point in hoping it'd be any better if just a few things were changed.

Let The Rings of Power come and go as it pleases. If it brings more folk to Tolkien, so much the better. If it inspires authors to subcreate themselves - rather than flesh out Rhun and Khand and Harad, perhaps just write their own fantasy realms unhindered by Western Dark Lords and Northern Things - then that's the best outcome of all.

The Woman King is out this year. It is not based on fantasy, but history - it tells the tale of the Agojie, or "Dahomey Amazons," the inspiration for the likes of Zula, Dossouye, the Dora Milaje, and any number of African warrior-women in fiction. The usual disclaimers for any historical fiction - accuracy, representation, whatnot - apply here as much as they do for Braveheart, Schindler's List, or The Last Samurai. But I'm more excited for this than I've ever been for The Rings of Power. Perhaps this combined with the success of Black Panther means we'll see the likes of Moremi the Liberator, Muhumuza the Fearless, Yaa Asantewa, and more join the Agojie, the upcoming Queen Nzinga series, and the recent biopic on Amina the Conqueror.

I guess the originals really are the best.

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