So, it has come to my attention that there is some discussion about the decision to use non-white actors in Amazon's new Lord of the Rings prequel series. Some think it's a valuable example of admirable diversity, others that it is political correctness intruding into what is clearly meant as an Anglo-Saxon mythological tale, where it makes no sense. While I have some sympathy with the reservations of those who don't think it's a good sign of what the eventual series will be like, I thought it might be relevant to point some things out about Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In the introduction, Tolkien tells us that the Hobbits of the Shire are actually descended from three races (Stoors, Fallohides, and Harfoots). By the time of LotR, they had essentially fused, but "the Harfoots were browner of skin" and "the Fallohides were fairer of skin and also of hair", so it is not as if a mingling of races is a modern intrusion into Middle-Earth. For that matter, Aragorn and Elrond were distantly related, both of mixed race; Elrond was known as "Halfelven" because he was half Man, and his brother was the ancestor of Aragorn (many, many generations back). Aragorn and Arwen were a biracial couple, differing biologically more than any biracial couple today (elves were immortal), and were often compared to the First Age couple of Beren and Luthien, also a biracial couple (the comparison being intended as a compliment). The story arc between Gimli and Legolas is all about different races (and cultures) overcoming initial suspicion and hostility to become fast friends.

We also see plenty of examples of racial animosity that is not managed well. The orcs of Saruman and Mordor are visibly of different races, even to the eyes of the Hobbits (who presumably had little experience telling the difference between orcs of different ancestries), and it leads to blows. The way that it is settled is for the leader of Saruman's orcs to lop heads off. Contrast this to the way in which Gandalf responds to tensions between Gimli and Legolas, or later how Galadriel speaks up for Gimli to her husband Celeborn, defending his relatives' decision to attempt to retake Khazad-Dum. In Tolkien's world, the wisest of the Free Folk are not just without bias based on race, but they are shown repeatedly persuading the many different races of the Free Folk to put aside their differences. It's not just that Lord of the Rings is not racist (of course it isn't), but also that race and overcoming racial bias very much is a central issue in the entire work. The Fellowship had four or five races in it (depending on how you count Wizard). Rarely has a tale been told that so often touched on the issue of racial animosity and the wisdom of overcoming it.

But still, it may seem odd to have dark-skinned characters in central roles. Consider though: have you ever thought it odd that William Shakespeare wrote a play, "Julius Caesar", in which all of the characters are presumably of Mediterranean skin tone, and then had it performed by (we can assume) some very, very pale-skinned northern Europeans in London? If Tolkien ever found the idea odd or objectionable, I have found no mention of it. And, it's not hard to imagine why not: the important thing about (Shakespeare's fictional version of) Julius Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, and the rest is that they embody eternal and universal human attributes like pride, ambition, honor, envy, and the like. "Julius Caesar" is a great story, and it doesn't matter if the people playing the parts are of northern or Mediterranean skin tone. It is the story that really matters. Heck, I once saw a live version in which every character but Caesar was played by a woman, and I have to say the actress who played Brutus was great. As a young man, I would have followed that Brutus into war without a doubt. After not very long, one forgot entirely that the character wasn't even the expected gender.

Consider also: should Peter Jackson's movies have had elves with pointed ears? It is almost indisputable that elves in Tolkien's works, did not. When the Rangers of Ithilien come upon Frodo and Sam, and are trying to figure out if they are elves, they make no mention of any difference in ears (though they do say that elves are better looking than these two, which Samwise takes some offense at). In every description of elves, there is never any mention of pointed ears, not even when a character is attempting to determine the race of another. For example, when attempting to figure out who or what Tom Bombadil and Goldberry are, Goldberry in particular might have been mistaken for an elf, but the hobbits do not appear to have tried to look at the shape of her ears to help determine this. Pretty clearly, by omission, the elves of Tolkien's Middle Earth do not have pointed ears or, like the beards of dwarves or the height of hobbits, it would have been mentioned. But, in Peter Jackson's movies, the elves do have pointed ears. Does it matter?

Regardless of what one thinks of Jackson's movies, the answer has to be: not really, because the important thing about Elrond is that he is wise, cautious, and learned. The important thing about Galadriel is that she is kind, far-seeing, and powerful enough to prevent Sauron's sorcery from overwhelming Lothlorien (but still feels enough responsibility to protect others to be tempted by the Ring). The important thing about Legolas is that he starts out suspicious of dwarves such as Gimli, but overcomes that, and while less wise than Elrond or Galadriel performs his part with courage and wit. None of this, obviously, is impacted in any way by the shape of their ears. It's just a quirk of their physical appearance, of no more importance than when Shakespeare first staged his play of the death of Julius Caesar with a bunch of very non-Italian looking actors.

And there, we come to the point where I do have some sympathy with those who consider it a bad sign that we have ethnically diverse casting in Amazon's upcoming Second Age saga. If it doesn't matter in a bad way, it also won't save your book, movie, or TV series if that's all you've got.

There is a term, "plot armor", which refers to the phenomenon of a character being implausibly preserved through dangers that, by the internal logic of the story, ought to be a major threat. I think there are some modern storytellers (in every medium) today, who are guilty of attempting to use "diversity armor" for their works, to shield it from criticism. If one of the most important things about the character(s), is that they are more diverse than you might have expected, that suggests that the creators might be hoping you won't pay too much attention to, you know, whether or not the story is any good. "The Lord of the Rings" has an awful lot of examples of interracial tension and interracial cooperation, but you don't think of that as one of its defining traits, because it's also got a lot else going for it. If Amazon manages to get a great script based on Tolkien's writings about the Second Age, then I really don't think it matters all that much what the actors' skin tone or ancestry is. But that also means, that if their script is a muddle-by-committee mess that tries to use copious CGI and a diverse cast to try to cover up that fact, it will fail, and I think that is what some are instinctively starting to suspect whenever they see diversity casting. In this case, though, the correlation is the exact opposite of diversity causing bad stories; it is the wish to divert attention away from a lackluster script, that causes the diversity (and also the copious CGI). Amazon, if you make a lame story, diversity armor will not save you. Frankly, my expectations are not high. But, if the series has a good story, there is no reason an ethnically diverse cast should subtract from that.