A new adaptation of a beloved nerd property has dropped and you know what that means: it’s time to argue about “diversity” and “wokeness” in media. You didn’t have to dig deep on social media to find an enormous contingent of viewers outraged over the presence of non-white people amidst the elves, dwarves and proto-Hobbits of Middle-Earth on Amazon Prime’s new Rings of Power series. We’ll call them “viewers” instead of “fans,” because fans would probably know that J.R.R. Tolkien’s world has always, explicitly included Black characters.
Rings of Power includes a race of characters known as the Harfoots — early ancestors of the Hobbits of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Amazon’s show has a number of Black actors playing Harfoots, a fact which has driven a number of fans to anger and even sparked a weirdly racist CNN article. But as no less a fantasy expert than Neil Gaiman noted, Tolkien himself described the Harfoots as “browner of skin” than other hobbits.
Tolkien described the Harfoots as "browner of skin" than the other hobbits. So I think anyone grumbling is either racist or hasn't read their Tolkien. Your mileage may vary.
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) September 2, 2022
Gaiman is correct. When Tolkien described the various types of hobbits, he wrote that “The Harfoots were browner of skin, smaller, and shorter, and they were beardless and bootless… The Stoors were broader, heavier in build; their feet and hands were larger… The Fallohides were fairer of skin and also of hair, and they were taller and slimmer than the others.” So there you have it.
But you don’t have to go digging deep into Tolkien lore to find the existence of non-white Middle-Earthlings. The Lord of the Rings itself actually describes no less a hero than Samwise Gamgee as “brown” — in contrast to Frodo’s “white” skin. Check out this passage from The Two Towers:
“Sam sat propped against the stone, his head dropping sideways and his breathing heavy. In his lap lay Frodo’s head, drowned deep in sleep; upon his white forehead lay one of Sam’s brown hands, and the other lay softly upon his master’s breast.”
And then again, from Return of the King:
“Sam drew out the elven-glass of Galadriel again. As if to do honor to his hardihood, and to grace with splendor his faithful brown hobbit-hand that had done such deeds, the phial blazed forth suddenly, so that all the shadowy court was lit with a dazzling radiance like lightning.”
It seems pretty clear that when it comes to racial diversity, Tolkien was actually way ahead of Jeff Bezos and Co. They’re just following his lead.
The same is true of Rings of Power‘s woman characters. Two episodes in, and the show has hinged much of its story on a young Galadriel, played with spirited ferocity by Morfydd Clark. This depiction has upset no less a titan of masculinity than Elon Musk, who declared that Tolkien was “rolling in his grave” and whined that “almost every male character so far is a coward, a jerk or both. Only Galadriel is brave, smart and nice.”
Setting aside Musk’s obvious vested interest in seeing Amazon fail, this is just not the case. Plenty of the series’ men seem plenty “brave, smart and nice,” from the elf warrior Arondir (played by Ismael Cruz Córdova) to our young Elrond (Richard Aramayo).
But more to the point, Galadriel has good standing to be the most impressive person in this world. The Simarillion describes her as “the mightiest and fairest of all the Elves that remained in Middle-Earth” and “the only woman of the Noldor to stand …tall and valiant.” So if Galadriel seems like the coolest person on Rings of Power, that just means the show is staying true to Tolkien’s wishes.
It’s true that modern adaptations sometimes increase the amount of racial and gender diversity from the source material as a way to correct historic blindspots. Gaiman’s own recent Netflix adaptation of his The Sandman saw a dramatic uptick in diversity — a move Gaiman enthusiastically defended on social media. But in the case of The Rings of Power, this isn’t so much an update as it is paying attention to Tolkien’s original vision — one in which the world of Middle-Earth is every bit as diverse as our own.