The Unbearable Weight of Fantasy, Tolkien, and Race (or, Eh, Black Elves Are Fine)
The Internet is abuzz about the one fantasy author to rule them all, J.R.R. Tolkien. Over Superbowl weekend, Amazon released the first trailer for their new Tolkien adaptation, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. As with any highly-anticipated media property, the trailer (and the still shots released earlier this year) have sparked considerable debate about the nature of Tolkien’s work, the process of adaptation, and, in particular, Amazon’s decision to feature more diversity than we have seen in previous adaptations of Tolkien’s work (or, indeed, in much of the public conversation of his work).
The last of these debate topics would be disheartening if it weren’t so utterly predictable — both because it’s a talking point we’ve seen before in this same community and because it’s a talking point that has been used as a response to diversity in basically all media going back long enough that it’s essentially tradition. While there may be value in discussing these attitudes of (sometimes racist) rejection in particular terms, I think it’s more fruitful to consider the root assumptions which make these debates even possible.
The core of this centers on how fantasy has been conceived as a genre in its modern incarnation. Since Tolkien, we’ve seen the genre treated as a platform for Eurocentric ideals, most notably in its interpretations of what I’d call the “medieval Europe myth,” which largely presents some version of medieval Europe in ways that more accurately reflect the social dynamics of the period following scientific racism (especially its intellectual justifications for slavery) than they do the actual makeup of cultures in much of medieval Europe. This myth is most apparent in historical conversations about the racial and ethnic makeup of Europe in relation to media representation; if a work of modern art presents people of color in a medieval context, one might hear someone complain that this is unrealistic or doesn’t reflect the reality of the period (i.e., Europe was basically white), etc. Some part of this is the self-fulfilling prophecy of fantasy, which has historically presented either explicitly white or de facto white societies modeled after European societies (sometimes quite loosely), thereby reinforcing existing biases about the…