With Amazon’s new Middle Earth based television series on the distant horizon of at least 2020, a question that pervades online discussion on the show is that of diversity. Tolkien’s Middle Earth Legendarium is one of the most beautiful and creative fictional universes ever put on a page, but it is pretty darn white. This is partly caused by the context of when it was written and partly by design; Tolkien first started creating Middle Earth during the First World War, long before issues of inclusivity and racial diversity were concerns of popular culture, with the aim of creating a legendary version of ancient Europe. Tolkien was heavily inspired by Norse and Anglo-Saxon myths of old, and he framed his world with this lens. Of course, an Anglo-Saxon/Norse inspired world is not going to be racially diverse, and so most of his characters and cultures are as white as they come.
Of course, we live in a very different world than the one Tolkien inhabited one hundred years ago. In making this new Middle Earth series, Amazon has poured more money into it than any other television show in history. Are they really going to feature solely white characters and leave themselves open to criticism of racism? They will definitely not, so the question arises as to how they will handle inserting racial diversity in the series. Peter Jackson’s famous film adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings was very loyal to the books in regards to diversity: The only non-white characters shown are the Easterlings and Haradrim, peoples from the unknown regions of the East and South who are loyal servants of Sauron by the time of the story.
Portraying the only non-white characters solely as soldiers of the Dark Lord understandably left a bitter taste in some watchers’ mouths, and so by the time the Hobbit Trilogy was being made, we can see more of an effort to being diverse. In Laketown, for example, we can see different ethnicities living alongside each other
Part of the issue with placing more diversity into Middle Earth is that Tolkien crafted his world in a very consistent manner. The history of his cultures and civilizations is charted very intricately all the way from the dawn of the world, and this is something fans love about the series. Suddenly showing an African Americn Hobbit in the East Farthing or showing an Indian Elf in Rivendell can break the immersion for long-time Tolkien fans, since it doesn’t really make much sense within the context of Middle Earth.
So what can Amazon do? Do they upset nerdy purist fans by inserting diversity where it breaks immersion? Do they risk accusations of racism by adhering strictly to Tolkien’s lore? Well, at the risk of pissing off both sides, I would like to present my own solution to try to please everybody.
- For the love of Eru, move the series out of the West
Now, when people say something like “there are no black people in Middle Earth”, they are being disingenuous. All the races that make up our world do exist in Arda, it’s just that most of the stories take place in the part of Middle Earth that represents Europe. So, one way to tackle the issue of racial diversity in the series would be to have the focus shift to the other, unknown parts of the world.
We already know that the rights Amazon have purchased from the Tolkien estate are very strict. What those exactly these guidelines say is unclear, but we do know that Amazon cannot use material from the Silmarillion nor adapt Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit directly. So, it is definitely going to be a side-story set not too long before the War of the Ring. We also know that Sir Ian McKellen said he would be interested in portraying Gandalf one last time. So, why not have Gandalf set our new heroes, whoever they may be, the task of venturing out into these unknown places of the world to find out if Sauron has influence there? We know that by the time of The Lord of The Rings Sauron has managed to conquer most, if not all, of these places, so perhaps our protagonists can work with those peoples trying to resist or usurp the Dark Lord.
This would give Amazon the creative freedom to do whatever they liked with the series, since Tolkien was deliberately mysterious in regards to these regions of the world. Fans would be pleased, because we could finally see the homes of the elephant riding Haradrim and the warlike Easterlings. This plot would also allow Amazon to be as inclusive as they like without detracting from the canon.
The only negative I can really think of is that we would not really revisit the big locations that people remember from the series. All I can think to say to that is ‘so what?’ We’ve seen the Shire before, we all know about Minas Tirith and Rohan. Do we need to see them again? If you are a Tolkien fan, you should be familiar with each of his stories featuring completely new locales. Did we see the Lonely Mountain in The Lord of the Rings? Does Children of Hurin ever show us the Dwarven city if Khazad-Dum? No, because Tolkien understood not to retread old ground. This is even the message of the early part of The Lord of The Rings, as all of Frodo’s early adventures show us that this will not be like Bilbo’s light-hearted journey in The Hobbit.
- Use the city of Umbar as a hub
So, we have our basic plot of heroes venturing into the unknown world to gather information for Gandalf. However, how will they get to all these new places? Lord of the Rings is famous for all the hours upon hours of walking, but with our hypothetical story, the distances are much greater. A leisurely stroll from Hobbiton to Mount Doom is roughly the same as walking from London to Istanbul, but getting to the realms of the Haradrim and Easterlings would be much further than that. At the risk of alienating Middle-Earth’s cobbler guild, I would cut down on the walking measurably. While people mainly remember Tolkien for his great landscapes and forests, he also had a love for maritime legends. There is the story of Earendil, who sails across vast Oceans to plea for aid from the Gods, there is the story of Aldarion and Erendis, in which a Prince’s love of the Sea alienates him from his loving wife, and many more. If I were to write this story, I would make it a maritime adventure, allowing them to believably sail to lots of distant and exotic locations.
Of course, having our story stretch across the globe can be exhausting for viewers, so it may be good to bring in some familiarity from time to time. We need a hub location, where the heroes can return to at the end of a successful, or unsuccessful, adventure where they can recuperate. I would elect a location from Tolkien’s own writings to serve this purpose, the Port of Umbar.
Umbar is an extremely ancient city, having originally been founded over 4000 years prior to The Lord Of The Rings by Numenorean settlers (Aragorn’s great grandpappies). It existed as a huge trading hub between Gondor and the Southern realms of the Haradrim. This, combined with how it has changed hands between many different rulers, led to the city becoming a big ethnic melting pot of Numenoreans, Black Numenoreans, Haradrim and other Southron cultures. This location would be fascinating to see for Tolkien fans, since we never see the city in any of the full Middle Earth tales, and would give Amazon the creative freedom to include as many different ethnicities as they can without risking breaking canon.
Additionally, it could give a really different feel to Tolkien’s world than we have seen before; Umbar is exotic and full of life, but, by the time of The Lord of the Rings, it is ruled by slavers and pirates sworn to Sauron. Perhaps our protagonists have to lay low from Umbar’s harsh rulers, working with the resistance to free the slaves and return Umbar to either Gondorian rule or to full independence. Our maritime heroes will likely also tangle with the Corsairs of Umbar, the infamous pirates that scour the Gondorian coasts in their search for slaves and riches.
- The Blue Wanderers
So, we are framing our Middle Earth series as a maritime adventure taking us to the unknown, mysterious places of the world. Does that mean that we are going to be abandoning all of Tolkien’s material and crafting an entirely new story? No, as luckily for us, one of the biggest mysteries in all of Tolkien’s great legendarium would suit our story perfectly.
Wizards in Middle Earth are very different from what we see in most fantasy. Normally, wizards are portrayed like Dumbledore: wise people with truly extraordinary powers, but still ultimately mortal human beings. Tolkien’s wizards are not people at all, but spirits clad in mortal form to help guide the peoples of the Middle Earth towards a better (read: Sauron-less) world. They are the Istari, and there are five of them: There’s Saruman the White, leader of the Istari till he goes all dictator-y, Gandalf the Grey, the only one who does his bloody job, and there’s Radagast the Brown, a nature themed wizard whom Peter Jackson decided to make a drug addicted hippie in his Hobbit movies.
What about the other two? Well, Tolkien left it all as a big mystery. We know that they were known collectively as the Ithryn Luin, or Blue Wizards, and that they both journeyed far into the East, never to be seen again. That’s really about it, we don’t even know for sure when they arrived in Middle Earth; originally, they were said to have arrived with the other wizards, but then Tolkien later thought that they may have arrived thousands of years earlier. Sometimes, Tolkien wrote that they were heroic, that they helped rally Eastern peoples against Sauron, while in other writings he made them either actively help Sauron or simply drift away from their task. Tolkien never really decided what to do with them, which is why they only get one mention in all of The Lord of the Rings.
Of course, this would make them a perfect candidate for our proposed Amazon series. Perhaps their discovery is the mission our heroes are sent on. With Sauron reemerging on the world stage, Gandalf probably wants all the help he can get, and so the main characters are sent out to discover the Blue Wizard’s fates. Our protagonists have to search the world, looking for any hint or whisper that may indicate where these two have gone. Perhaps we can merge Tolkien’s different stories together as well; we could have one wizard defecting to Sauron, possibly leading his forces in the distant places of the world, while the other is a hero who has fallen into despair. We could have a nice parallel to Gandalf and Saruman going on, though our Smurf-Gandalf would be one who has lost his sense of purpose.
I think the reason as to why this mystery seems so ripe for the series is that it really could take the story in any direction. It is something that fans have always wondered about, and so any recognition of it would get a lot of them invested in the series. Additionally, we could see an entirely different interpretation of wizards, using Eastern or African influences in their design in much the same way as Gandalf is inspired by the European Merlin. The Blue Wizards will also provide a shadow to our protagonists: like our heroes, they have been sent on a seemingly hopeless mission to the unknown regions of Middle Earth, and they have either been driven to despair or have been seduced by the Enemy. Will our protagonists fall like them or will they offer a chance at redemption?
- Dark Elves and Asian Dragons
So, we have a rough outline of where our story will be headed and the goal our characters will be seeking to achieve in the world. Still, we are missing an ingredient that is key in making the story feel like Middle Earth: fantasy races. A story would not feel like Tolkien without some of the weird and wonderful species he reimagined when creating his fantasy world. However, in setting our story in the far South and East, we run into some issues with canonically including one of the more famous fantasy races: Elves.
In Tolkien’s history, Elves awoke in the far East of the world by the shores of the Helcar Sea. Soon, the Valar, or Gods as men call them, visited them and invited them to live in Valinor, the Undying lands. Most agreed to this journey, and so began a great pilgrimage to the Western sea. Nearly all the Elves eventually made it to the Valar’s realm, with only some Teleri, or Wood Elves, remaining in Middle Earth, with some others returning later. This history places pretty much all Elves in the Western parts of Middle Earth, where we see the last remnants living in The Lord of the Rings. If we are framing our story in the East, how will we include Elves?
Well, the easy option (and probably what will happen) is that one of our heroes is an Elf, much as Legolas was a member of the Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings. However, I think we also have a good chance to see the mostly forgotten group of Elves, the Avari or Dark Elves. These Elves are the ones who did not make the pilgrimage to the West, instead of remaining in the Eastern parts of Middle Earth. Perhaps our story could go to Helcar, the birthplace of the Elvish race, where we find the Avari still lingering. Maybe they do not match our expectations of what Elves should be, having lived so isolated from their kin in the West.
Now, having mentioned ‘Dark Elves’ in a discussion of inclusivity in a Tolkien adaptation, I am sure many of you Middle Earth fans are going to roll your eyes and say ‘Tolkien did not mean Dark Elves were literally dark skinned’, though of course, most fantasy settings do make this distinction. That is true, and Tolkien distinctly said as much. However, I think it would make sense that the Avari still living in the hotter climates of the East may have adapted by becoming darker skinned. In my opinion, this would also make these Elves feel far more distinct from those who live in Rivendell or Lothlorien, and would also make the viewers feel like they are being transported to distinctly different parts of this fantastical realm. It could be a nice way of including more diversity in our story while furthering the narrative aims of the series.
Another one of Tolkien’s fantasy races we could use to make the story more culturally diverse is through dragons. Now, dragons in Tolkien’s works are already hugely varied: we have the traditionally winged fire-drakes (such as Smaug in The Hobbit), we have enormous disgusting slithering serpents (Glaurung in The Children of Hurin being an example) and we also have the non-firebreathing cold drakes, among many more. The variety of dragons presented could extend further as we journey into the far East and South. In our world, every culture has some form of dragon existing in its mythology, and Middle Earth is meant to be seen as our Earth in the far distant past. Why not include Chinese inspired dragons in the far East? Or include some African inspired ones in Southron lands? This would allow Amazon to do what Tolkien himself did nearly a century ago: Take inspiration from real-world mythology and create something new.
To finish off this long tirade about how Amazon should incorporate diversity into Lord of the Rings, I would like to discuss how likely it is that they would go down the route I have presented. Sadly, given the state of modern television and filmmaking, I would say not very likely at all.
Amazon have spent $250 million on acquiring the rights to create a Middle Earth series, and many are predicting they will spend and an equal amount on the show itself, if not more. This will make the series the most expensive television show ever made, and this will likely make the producers err on the side of caution. The plan I have presented to you is one that is bold and different, where we visit many locations untouched in Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth. This is probably exactly the kind of show the producers don’t want. Amazon will want something safe and familiar, in order to ensure that their investment is sound. It is very probable that we will see the Shire, Rivendell, Rohan, Minas Tirith, Mordor and all the other famous locations from the books (or more specifically, from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film series).
So where does that leave the issue of inclusivity and diversity? Well, as I said at the start of this article, this series will definitely be ethnically diverse. But will it seek to use diversity as a way to explore different cultures in Tolkien’s world? I doubt it. More likely, they will resort to simple tokenism, and sprinkle in some black hobbits in Shire crowd shots and some Asian Gondorians among the Tower Guard. In my opinion, this will be a missed opportunity to include diversity in a way that will actually help to shape the story in a more interesting way.
We currently know very little about the series, so who knows? Perhaps Amazon will surprise us all, but the sheer size of the budget makes me think they will be very averse to risk-taking, and not just in regards to diversity either. We will probably have to wait until next year, when Amazon will likely start promoting the series, to learn more and be able to speculate with more certainty. Regardless, I hope this article has made you think more about Tolkien’s world and ways to include diversity in a way that doesn’t feel token or out of place.