Just Gonna Say It: Diversity In Fantasy Shows Makes Them Way More Realistic, Not Less

Arondir and Bronwyn in Lord Of The Rings: The Rings of Power

I’ve recently developed a new Friday night ritual: after work, I sit down to watch the most recent episode of Amazon’s Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power and spend the next hour shouting “slay!” at my laptop screen. My housemates can confirm. After six episodes, I’ve realised one of the reasons I love the show so much is its onscreen diversity — because unlike so many fantasy shows, The Rings of Power feels like a real world. You know, because real worlds have people of colour in them.

Fantasy walks an interesting line in pop-culture. By nature it is (lol) fantastical. Alas, there are no elves on our boring old earth. That’s part of the genre’s appeal.

But the motivations of fantasy characters, the themes and the central struggles are all things we identify with. It’s kind of the point: by isolating those conflicts (like your classic good versus evil conflict à la Frodo versus Sauron ) and popping it in a fantasy world, we’re able to draw parallels back to our own society and values. Corruption, capitalism and yes, racism, are all important themes fantasy tackles.

These are made up worlds with made up creatures, but ones we have to fundamentally relate to and see ourselves in.

If you’ve been watching Rings of Power — or at least keeping up with the discourse around it — you’ll know it’s received a tonne of racist backlash.

Rings of Power has a racially diverse cast. So, in short, one that actually reflects the world we live in better than 99 per cent of other TV shows. Those cast members of colour have copped racist vitriol and threats to such an extent that the entire cast put out a statement condemning the racism.

One of the main criticisms of this diverse casting is that it’s not “realistic” to author J.R.R Tolkein‘s fantasy world.

Point A) it’s a fantasy world so why can’t we have Black elves and dwarves? The whole point is this is a realm of fantastical possibilities. If people can suspend their belief for dragons but not people of colour, we have a fkn problem here.

Point B) it’s embarrassing that media in general and fantasy in particular has taken so long to diversify its storylines and cast, when these are far easier elements to add to a plot than magic and dwarves.

For example, I fkn love Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings movie series. I grew up on them. My dog is literally called Frodo.

But the more I revisit them, the more dated they feel — largely because of the all-white, predominantly male cast.

As a white woman growing up watching LOTR, I was of course obsessed with Galadriel and Éowyn. Two bloody iconic female characters in a time when those were few and far between. While Lord of the Rings made steps in the right direction in terms of having interesting, engaging (white) female characters onscreen, it massively lacks any other form of diversity.

You can of course make the argument that this reflected attitudes of Hollywood at the time, etc, etc. I’d like to think we’ve moved significantly forward in the last twenty years — though the backlash towards The Rings of Power negates that naive belief.

Fundamentally, Peter Jackson’s world doesn’t feel like a real world: it feels like early noughties white man’s fantasy. And it is, dare I say it, a far more boring world because of that fact.

Both the Lord of the Rings movies and The Rings of Power are adaptations of a world created 70 years ago. 

To argue that one is more “realistic” than the other on the basis of its casting specifically is pure white supremacy. It implies all of these fictional creatures and story elements are somehow more easily conceivable than important Black characters.

There might be other reasons why people don’t like The Rings of Power: it’s not a straightforward adaptation of a Tolkien text. Instead, it’s an original story based on appendices in the original novels. And hey, maybe that’s just not your jam.

But if your main issue is the cast, you have to ask yourself: do you have an issue with “realism”, or do you have an issue with accepting people of colour in your (white) fantasy?

Yes, fantasy worlds are fantasies, but they don’t erupt from a vacuum. The Rings of Power feels like the first fully realised, engaging and relevant fantasy world we’ve had. I for one am fkn grateful.

Now back to yelling “slay!” at my TV every time Arondir does a cool flip.