Amazon is now three episodes into The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power, its billion-dollar, 50-episode television series based on the backstory of Tolkien’s novel, The Lord of the Rings, which he described in appendices to that work.

Riding on strong expectations from Tolkien’s crowded fanbase, the show is now the biggest thing in TV, with the first two episodes having drawn the biggest audiences ever.

Backlash

Unfortunately, the enthusiasm hasn’t translated into an overwhelmingly positive reception. Probably primed by fears that Amazon wouldn’t do the story justice, the show has been met with a deluge of withering criticism. Things got so ugly so quickly that Amazon added a three-day pause on viewer reviews and put out a statement condemning racist abuse aimed at some cast members.

Having watched the first three episodes of Rings of Power and spent an ungodly amount of time going through reaction videos, as well as the comments under them, I can confidently categorise the negative reactions into three strands.

The first is classic reviewer turf; it concerns aspects of filmmaking like pacing, action sequences, and character development.

The other two strands of criticism are ostensibly about the show’s fidelity to Tolkien’s idea of Middle Earth. They relate to infilled plot elements and the portrayal of canonical characters, on the one hand, and casting choices regarding non-canonical characters, on the other.

It is the last strand — especially the skin colour of a certain elf — that seems to have generated the greatest controversy.

Over the top

I am neither a film critic nor an expert in Tolkien lore, so I do not presume to respond to the first two strands of criticism. I am only a youngish African who has read Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings a few times; has watched every film Peter Jackson made of them (plus extended editions) even more times; and knows there are a thousand other LOTR books and resources that I’ll never get to.

However, my tenuous claim to membership in Tolkien fandom notwithstanding, I believe that those who centre their criticism of Rings of Power on the skin colours of elves and dwarves are blowing things out of proportion.

There is no reason to be scandalised over the inclusion of a multiracial cast in a 21st century film version of a saga that explicitly involves different “races” of beings.

Now, I know Tolkien had an opinion on this matter, and described his elves in unambiguous detail. However, Tolkien isn’t directing Rings of Power. If anything, had Tolkien had his way, none of the films, not even Peter Jackson’s much-lauded trilogy, would have been made, for the man reputedly despised the idea of adaptations of his work.

Regardless — and like Socrates, who despised writing, but whose wisdom comes to us thanks to the insistence of his disciples on writing it down — Tolkien’s work has spawned a world of adaptations and a prodigious clan of experts, followers and fans, making Middle Earth one of the most popular fictional universes in history, and assuring the continued relevance of the man to whose genius we owe it all.

Yes, Amazon may be pandering to the woke zeitgeist with its elves and dwarves of colour. The question, however, should not be whether this is licit, but rather how it impinges on the storytelling. Unlike its original sources, which are frozen in time, Rings of Power, like any adaptation, is bound to be coloured by the times in which it is made.

Creative licence

Rings of Power especially deserves this treatment, for it is licensed to draw only from the appendices, and must therefore fill in a lot of detail. Viewers should allow the showrunners and cast the grace to co-mingle their contemporary imaginations with Tolkien’s world-building genius. If they wanted to give us only Tolkien’s vision, they would just as well have republished the book.

It’s not as if this is unprecedented. Great literature, from Homer and Shakespeare to Dickens and Austen, have all been interpreted many times, with varying degrees of taste and success.

Not even the story at the centre of Western civilisation has been spared this treatment.

Every Christmas, Christian churches all over the world mount Nativity plays, often featuring children. I watched, and enjoyed, a lot of these plays as a child. As I got older, I started to appreciate them more for the story being told than for the quality of the acting. However, never once did it strike me as odd that the child actors didn’t resemble 1st century Jews.

That is not an exact parallel, but it does illustrate the pettiness of the kerfuffle over the skin colours of elves in Rings of Power.

If, in tacit acknowledgement of its universal appeal, we are willing to bend skin colour rules to tell the most important story in the Western canon, of which even Tolkien’s work happens to be an adaptation, is it not fitting that we should at least consider extending that treatment to Tolkien on his road to universality?

Maybe I am naïve. Maybe I should just shut up because I clearly don’t appreciate the full depth of Tolkien’s lore.

Or, maybe the stringent polarisation and toxicity of our times, along with the temptation to view everything as a salvo in an ever-hotter culture war, makes it too hard for us to step back, breathe, and calmly appreciate the effort of people who claim to love Tolkien as much as we do.

In any case, Rings of Power, like any ambitious work of art, is bound to have a multitude of weaknesses. From where I stand in the Tolkien fandom, the skin colour of an elf is not one of them.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.