By strange coincidence, everyone in charge was white …

There has been a lot of racist backlash against the decision to cast some non-white characters in the new Lord of the Rings tv series. Tolkien fanboys and fascists (a not very distorted circle on a Venn diagram, it would appear) are very angry that a few new characters – some Harfoots, Durin’s wife, a random elf – have been cast as black or brown-skinned rather than the “fair” skinned characters that Tolkien originally envisaged them as. I’ve already written on here that I think this is a good thing, and a direct confrontation with the worst part of Tolkien’s legacy, his racist theories. But now, as the show starts to get, well, boring, I’ve had more time to think about the composition of the cast, and I think that the people making this show have taken an easy road to diversity and inclusion, which is going to have the unlikely consequence of reproducing the race and sex-based power relations of modern America. I think my disappointment in their decisions and their consequences is best summarized in a simple question: why isn’t Durin IV a woman?

Durin and Disa and the shackles of domestic life

First, let’s consider all the material that has been written about Durin IV (the particular King in the show), from Appendix A of the Lord of the Rings:

There [Durin 1] lived so long that he was known far and wide as Durin the Deathless. Yet in the end he died before the Elder Days had passed, and his tomb was in Khazad-dûm; but his line never failed, and five times an heir was born in his House so like to his Forefather that he received the name of Durin. He was indeed held by the Dwarves to be the Deathless that returned; for they have many strange tales and beliefs concerning themselves and their fate in the world.

This does not specify the sex of Durin, it only uses the generic “he” to refer to all the Durins, of whom there were six. Given that Tolkien refers to all humans as “men”, and it is quite common to refer to mixed collections of men and women by the male pronoun, there’s no particularly strong reason to believe that every Durin “so like to his forefather that he received the name of Durin” had to be a man – there could have been one or two Durins who were female, and Tolkien would probably have referred to them as “he” anyway. This is what Tolkien’s fan-boys and assorted fascist hangers-on would want, they would strongly object to to the use of the “woke” “their” to refer to a mixed group of male and female characters from (for example) the race of “men”. If you think I am being facetious with this, consider the responses by D&D players to this EN World thread about choice of pronouns in D&D, which makes clear (and I remember this!) that AD&D used the masculine pronoun generically, and people responding to the question at the top of the thread include some loser saying anything else is “woke nonsense”. What do you think Tolkien would have done?

Sometimes even elves have to negotiate with the help

Anyway, we are dealing with poetic license here. There is no reason, given how little is written about Durin IV, that he should have been made either male or white skinned in this show: the show-makers chose to go with this decision based on a disputable fragment of a sentence in an appendix, and on the general assumption that no women could be rulers anywhere in Middle Earth (except among the elves). So, Durin IV is a white man, and his wife is a black woman. And what is his wife’s job? She cooks and cleans for him. We know this because there is a quite elegant conversation in episode 4, where Elrond is sitting in Durin’s home while Disa does stuff, and he tries to fool her into revealing where her husband has gone, and it is made very clear that she is waiting at home, minding the kids and cooking his dinner.

So there we have it: white husband black wife, black wife is a housewife. Sure, we see her do some stone-singing later, but it’s clear that she doesn’t have an actual job otherwise – she’s a housewife (she also prepared Durin’s dinner in episode 1, in case it wasn’t clear) who can sing a little when everyone’s desperate. What’s the implication here? Probably it was her job before they got married and she settled down into her domestic role.

This isn’t the only time that we see the gender roles at work in Middle Earth (or Numenor for that matter). Women are cooks, housewives, mothers and cleaners, while men are leaders and fighters. In Numenor in Episode 4 when Elendil calls for warriors to go to Middle Earth we get a general scene of the crowd and only men raise their hands to join the battle. Perhaps we don’t see this division of labour amongst the Harfoots but the Harfoots are essentially comic relief at the moment, and it’s telling to me when the only time gender roles can be reversed is among the comic relief.

What are the consequences of these decisions going to be, in terms of representation? Let’s consider the case of Galadriel.

The consequences of Galadriel’s Whiteness

Galadriel is white in this show, so painfully white she has no lips and limited facial expression. Why is she white? Because in the books we know a lot about Galadriel, and she is definitely described as fair. So the show-makers have decided to stick to the text in this case, and make her a fair-skinned maiden with no lips[1]. Why didn’t they make her black? Is there any reason that any of these characters need to stick to the descriptions in the book, other than fidelity and making them easy to identify? Now that we have established through the presence of Disa and Arondir that canon can be broken as regards skin colour, why not extend this to established characters within the canon?

There’s no reason to do this of course – we could have all the established characters keep their descriptions from the book, and then only make the new characters black or female. That’s a completely defensible choice, really, isn’t it? But what does it mean? It means that Galadriel, Elrond, Gil-Galad, Celebrimbor, Durin, Elendil and Gandalf are going to be white and only subordinate characters are going to be black. All the leaders are going to be white men and their inferiors, servants, wives, maids and sub-alterns will be black.

What an amazing coincidence! In a magical world far away with no rules to bind it, except the long ago text written by a dead English Professor, all the people in charge are male and white, and all the black people are subordinates[2]. Who could have guessed such a circumstance would arise?

This could be solved by making at least one of the major characters black. Why not Gil-Galad or Celebrimbor? Nobody gives a fuck about them! Elrond had a human mother, we could easily run with that. But no, we can’t, we have to be at least that true to the text, but instead of being fully true to the text so that all the housewives and maids and foot soldiers and subordinates are white, now some of them are black. Even Middle-Earth has red-lining, glass ceilings and a black-white pay gap!

So, at this point we are beginning to see how race and sex relations will play out in this supposedly too progressive, overly “woke” show: the leadership will be white men, women will be in the kitchen, and somehow black people will remain servants and followers of white people. If this is how the show plays out it will be, if anything, worse than the books.

Why is it that so many modern American cultural works can conceive of playing around with racial roles but can’t upend the gender conventions underlying so much of US society? And why do all their decisions reproduce current class-, race- and sex-based power relations? Why couldn’t they just have made Durin a woman?

fn1: and apparently no magic and no radiance and not really any ears, since she can disguise herself as a human simply by pulling her hair over her ears…

fn2: Except one! Miriel, who is the queen regent of Numenor, who is an actual character in Tolkien’s world (the Silmarillion I think) and who should be Queen but <em>in the books</em> has her title usurped by a man. This man is not on the scene in the show, and Elendil is about to set sail to Middle Earth (where her usurper husband does it in the books) so it’s entirely possible it will be Miriel, not her usurper husband, who is deceived by Sauron and brings about the ruin of Numenor – so the only black leadership figure in this story is going to be one who is not officially a ruler, but has taken the place in someone’s stead, and who brings about the downfall of a great race. Good choice of character from the books to make black …