Another year, another Lord of the Rings adaptation under fire. The same week as Ismael Cruz Córdova revealed that Amazon hired an on-set therapist to help actors fight against racist backlash while filming The Rings of Power’s second season (abuse which racists then denied and demanded receipts for), people are angry that Magic: The Gathering’s Aragorn is black.
Generally speaking, engaging with racists is a losing battle. They don’t care about facts, their arguments are contradictory and make no sense, and they are not beholden to the usual rules of debate: using and accepting facts, or adjusting arguments when presented with new information. However, if you wanted a resource to explain why characters may have different skin colours in different adaptations, or some simple examples that disprove certain arguments, then I’ve got you covered.
Despite the latest round of this whole discourse arising from a card that depicts a sword (we’ll get to Andúril later), it’s the bearer who has borne the brunt of the backlash. Magic: The Gathering’s Aragorn is black, and people predictably have a problem with that. You know, like they did with Kaldheim, too.
The most common criticism is that Aragorn is descended from Númenoreans, and they were all white. I don’t buy it. Even if we’re ignoring the fact that Númenoreans are made up and Middle-earth is make-believe, there are plenty of people of colour in Tolkien’s works. There are entire populations that are described as being majority PoC, mostly in the Harad and the east, places where Númenorean expeditions canonically invaded and colonised. Umbar was a city created by Númenorean forces, and you’re telling me that the peoples stayed completely separate at all times? They didn’t so much as look at one another, let alone form relationships or have children? There is plenty of room for lore-accurate black or mixed race Númenoreans if you’re willing to actually think about it.
Another criticism of Magic’s Aragorn is that Tolkien described him as white. Firstly, I’d like to congratulate these critics on actually reading the books, which can’t be said for those in the above group. To this point, however, I have a few questions. The nature of adaptations is to adapt – it’s right there in the name – and there is room for people of colour in modern retellings of old stories. Why is it only characters that have been swapped from traditionally or canonically white skinned descriptions that you care about, and why only now?
Samwise Gamgee is often described by Tolkien as having brown skin, and yet you’re fine with every white adaptation of his character? Many Hispanic fantasy fans saw themselves in Ralph Bakshi's Aragorn from his 1978 animation, who clearly has darker skin tones than his white compatriots. Where was your outcry then? It makes it feel like this is just a new front for your culture war, that it’s not about Tolkien at all, and that you didn’t care about the fantasy author or his worlds until it suited your agenda.
The calls to ‘respect’ Tolkien’s work begins and ends with skin colour. I heard no outcry for the canon-breaking Balrog or Silmaril-infused Mithril in The Rings of Power, only anger against Dísa and Arondir, the characters of colour in the show. Peter Jackson’s film trilogy is now held up as a paragon of Tolkien, when in fact many complained at the time, whether criticism about Ian McKellen turning Gandalf gay (seriously?) or the fact that there was too much fighting (yeah, I get that one). I love those films, but I’ll never forget how they massacred the character of Gimli – yet I never hear a peep about these hefty departures from Tolkien’s lore in conversations about a Black Aragorn.
The backlash against the people of colour in The Rings of Power also disproves another point, which is the oft-parroted adage that actors of colour should be limited to roles that are written for them, instead of ‘taking’ those that are reserved for white actors. Aside from the incredible prejudice of this idea (suggesting that PoC should stay in their lane and only land roles arbitrarily selected for them) and the fact that PoC have been systematically shut out of any roles in Hollywood for decades, the actors portraying original characters in a Tolkien adaptation still received torrents of abuse.
If you want to use the whole ‘Middle-earth was a fantasy version of England’ argument, you’re also wrong. While The Shire was based on England, specifically the outskirts of Birmingham, Middle-earth was based on western Europe as a whole. Vikings travelled as far south as Morocco and I present to you the same argument I did with Númenorean invaders of Harad: they didn’t consume the culture at all? They didn’t have peaceful relations with people in the places to which they travelled? Sure, they were often hostile invaders, but skeletal DNA tests and archeological evidence has proved that Vikings not only established trade routes as widespread as Iraq and Newfoundland, but also started families with people of these cultures. Medieval Europe, including England, was nowhere near as white as you think. The myth of a monoracial Europe and Viking people has been disproven as Nazi misinformation.
The criticisms of Andúril itself are less serious – it’s an inanimate object – but speak to the knowledge of Magic’s critics. Complainants have expressed dislike of the ‘Norse runes’ along its blade – you know, the blade of Narsil that was forged by Dwarfs who, you know, use a runic language – and the fact it glows blue, which isn’t mentioned in the books. While Andúril isn’t entirely Elvish, there are an array of Elvish blades that do glow blue – Glamdring and Sting most notably – so why wouldn’t the Elves imbue Andúril with this property when they reforged Narsil? It’s got a lore-accurate reasoning behind it, and while Tolkien didn’t write this explicitly, it fits within his parameters. Apologies for the crude example, but Tolkien also didn’t detail every shit that Frodo took on his way to Mordor, but we can assume he left a trail of fibrous droppings along his path.
When it comes to interpretations and adaptations, why would you want things to be boring? We’ve seen countless white Aragorns and even more plain, silver swords, so why would you want the same again? Even if you don’t like an adaptation or an artistic choice, it doesn’t ruin the books. They’re still there. Magic: The Gathering hasn’t stolen and burned every copy of The Fellowship of the Ring that you own, it’s put its own spin on a fantasy world. This is all make-believe, so dream bigger.