Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages

Dear Tolkien Fans: Black People Exist

Lord of the Rings cosplay by three Black cosplayers on Instagram. They, along with nearly a dozen cosplayers, recently created a "Pass the Brush through Middle Earth" video highlighting their work. Galadriel by @c0c0cosplay, Thranduil by @Finalsugahcake, and Frodo by @pinkcreampuffs

This article is part of The Public Medievalist’s series on Race, Racism and the Middle Ages. Find the rest of the series here.

As a young Black girl growing up in the white suburbs of Michigan, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings granted me some escape from the harsh reality of post-Jim Crow America. My father, a German automotive engineer, introduced me to the books and, by extension, to medievalism when I was ten. Although I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain or understand “racism,” I saw it. I noted older white women moving their purses away when my mother, a Black woman, and I went grocery shopping. I saw the assumption on cashiers’ faces that she couldn’t possibly afford necessities without food stamps. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I recognized these as manifestations of white supremacy. I recall thinking about Middle-Earth during these racist encounters. I remember wondering if Legolas would have tolerated such open bigotry and discrimination.

After learning more about Tolkien and his work, I suspect Legolas might have encouraged it.

Orcs and Anti-Blackness

Lurtz, an Uruk-hai character from Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings films wearing beaten metal armor, a white handprint on his face, and a menacing expression
Credit: Lurtz (Lawrence Makoare) the Uruk-hai (half-orc) from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, directed by Peter Jackson. New Line Pictures, 2001.

My escapism into fantasy was not as safe as I thought. As an adult, I discovered that my beloved text was built upon an internally racist foundation that made no room for me, a Black fan. The Lord of the Rings is full of Tolkien’s racist and colonialist attitudes. As scholars such as Helen Young have discussed in detail, Orcs in Middle-Earth are frequently coded as Black and shown to be irredeemable. Tolkien explicitly describes them in a private letter (published in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien) as “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types” (Letters, p. 274). The tusks and horns seen in later illustrations, Dungeons & Dragons manuals, and Peter Jackson’s film adaptations are not part of Tolkien’s original text.

Tolkien’s descriptions of Orcs often reduce them to a singular mass or collective entity, a mob of savage and emotionless beings devoid of logic or reasoning. In contrast to the intense attention he devotes to the languages, cultures, and histories of Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, and humans, he introduces the Orcish language in The Two Towers as an “abominable tongue” (Ch. 3, “The Uruk-Hai”). While the hobbit Pippin is imprisoned by the Orcs, one speaks to him in the Common Tongue, and he observes that “[the Orc] made it almost as hideous as his own language” and that “orc-speech sounded at all times full of hate and anger” (Ch 3). Orcs have no music, nor any other culture that we know of, and few are given individual names, let alone families and histories of their own. Given how much Tolkien associates the cultures of Middle-Earth, especially music and poetry, with divinity, the Orcs’ lack of both confirms them as irredeemably evil creatures.

Two orcs, sporting medieval armor and weaponry. The one on the left has dark purple skin, is hunched and has a bow; the one on the right wears a mail shirt and has green skin.
Credit: Alan Lee, “Uruk Warrior and Orc Tracker” from The Lord of the Rings, Illustrated Edition (HarperCollins, 2014).

Some have argued that the dismissiveness of Tolkien’s descriptions merely reflects the Orcs’ magical “creation” by the Dark Lord Sauron, but this is the wrong way to look at it. Portraying the Orcs this way was a choice made by the author, and the result is that the reader is encouraged to view the Orcs as an undifferentiated mass of specifically black evil. Making the villains incomprehensible is a very common tactic in racist fiction; it makes it more acceptable for the heroes to kill them with impunity.

In The Return of the King, for example, there is a harrowing sequence where the halflings Frodo and Sam pretend to be Orcs to sneak past Sauron’s army:

Presently two orcs came into view. One was clad in ragged brown and was armed with a bow of horn; it was of a small breed, black-skinned, with wide and snuffling nostrils: evidently a tracker of some kind (Ch. 2, “The Land of Shadow”).

This passage not only codes Orcs as Black, it uses specific descriptors (‘wide and snuffling nostrils’) that echo Jim Crow-era caricatures. The use of the pronoun ‘it’, as well as the animalistic vocabulary (‘breed’, ‘tracker’) echoes white supremacist ideologies of purity that differentiate Black people as a separate, explicitly subhuman, species.

An early 20th century stereotyped image of a black man bowling, titled "Jim Crow Ten Pins"
Credit: J. Ottman, “Jim Crow Ten-Pin Bowling” (1910).

Tolkien’s word choice in part reflects the Hobbits’ elitist and racist attitudes (and those of other central characters) toward Orcs. The Elves have either refused to help other races or attacked them outright, and it does not reflect well on them. For example, in The Hobbit, King Thranduil of Mirkwood’s dislike for Dwarves leads to the imprisonment of Bilbo Baggins and his companions. In the Peter Jackson film adaptation, Thranduil refuses to help the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain after they are attacked by the dragon Smaug. Legolas proves an exception to this rule in The Lord of the Rings through his friendship with Gimli the Dwarf. But, it is worth noting that the bond between these characters is partly formed through their collective killing of hundreds of nameless, undifferentiated Orcs.

Anti-Blackness in Medievalist Fantasy

The examination of Orcs as the racist “other” is not new. But there is a clear hesitancy—from both a fandom and academic perspective—to have serious dialogues about how these racist passages translate into fan spaces and persist in contemporary discussions.

As one exception to this rule, in her 2018 book, The Dark Fantastic, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas remarks on the sad reality that Black girl characters in fantasy literature often:

do not offer agency but are marked by the narrative for death and haunting. This may be why even Black girls might find themselves drawn toward White protagonists instead of Black sidekicks. (138)

A black man's face lit by a blue lightsaber, with poster details for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"
Credit: John Boyega as Finn, Disney and Lucasfilm

Such re-examinations appear throughout Thomas’ book, which exposes the treatment of Black girl protagonists in fantasy fiction as “both the problem and the solution, always.” Thomas touches on a crucial historical element here—that Black women are almost always secondary characters, and that Black fans are almost always considered less important than white fans. More specifically, Black women are continuously expected to perform unpaid emotional labor—explaining their existence in fandoms, in creative roles, and as critics of medievalism.

This mentality—still held by white fans—is ironic given that the fantasy genre is full of different races, worlds, demons, dragons, and other mythical beings, all of whom are given creative license to exist. Yet, Black faces in white fandom spaces are not. This, and other controversies surrounding popular culture franchises has resulted in the contemporary re-examination of Black fans and their racialized experiences within the fandom. Actor John Boyega, who portrayed Finn in Star Wars trilogy, has been openly critical on how the Disney franchise failed both him and his character. Boyega received numerous death threats upon the announcement of his casting—the first Black main character in the Star Wars universe. Ultimately, Finn’s Force-sensitivity and backstory is effectively discarded to center on the Skywalkers (again)—leaving Black fans confused and hurt.

Seven actors standing in a row, portraying characters from the Broadway play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
The Broadway Cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Credit: Charlie Gray for Entertainment Weekly.

Similarly, when Black actress Noma Dumezweni was cast in the role of Hermione Granger in the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, some fans pointed to the canon text, insisting that she was white. And, in a particularly glaring case that Ebony Thomas discusses in The Dark Fantastic, Rue is described in the novel The Hunger Games as a Black girl, yet some white fans were outraged at the casting of Amandla Stenberg in the film version.

Anti-Blackness in Tolkien Fandom

The character creation screen for the "Lord of the Rings Online" video game. Of particular note, while you can customize your character in many ways the range of "skin colour" options goes from "white" to "extremely white".
Credit: Character creation options for The Lord of the Rings Online (Turbine/Standing Stone Games, 2007). Note the range of skin colors available.

Even as children exploring medievalist fantasy universes, Black fans are consistently told this space is not meant for us, and that we can never fully belong to it. Gatekeeping is at the core of #GamerGate, a 2014 right-wing harassment campaign directed at several notable women in the video game industry that escalated to doxing and rape/death threats. Typically, gatekeeping introduces itself with white male fans questioning fans they see as ‘inferior’ (typically women and BIPOC) as a tactic to discredit their existence in the fandom. This notion of needing to demonstrate some undetermined level of expertise in literary canon is both deeply problematic and horribly classist. For instance, I enjoyed reading The Hobbit in my youth, but I did not read the other books in The Lord of the Rings series until adulthood. I chose instead to watch the Peter Jackson films, which I consumed in a single weekend. Given the length and Tolkien’s writing style (more history book than fantasy novel), this is the case for many fans. Despite what the gatekeepers might say, that does not mean I cannot call myself a fan if I want.

After the release of Lord of the Rings Online, an MMO video game, in April 2007, I attempted to get more involved with the Tolkien fandom through online forums. However, I quickly noticed how often my knowledge and expertise were challenged to “prove” that I was a real fan. When I brought up a lack of darker skin tones for the elves in the game, I was told by other fans that the game creators were “following an accurate depiction of the book.” Whether this is true or not in the books (and it’s debatable), that does not mean the game had to follow suit. This choice, made by the developers and reinforced by the fans, clearly relayed to me that I, and my skin, was not really welcome. If I wanted to engage with and criticize the lore of Middle-Earth, I would need to find a safer space. I later learned that this was not an uncommon experience for Black fans—especially for queer Black women—who often felt isolated and silenced in such spaces.

A black woman dressed as Wonder Woman in a red, gold, and blue leather bustier and skirt.
Credit: Dru Phillips for SyFyWire. Model/Costume by CutiePieSensei.

There is a seldom-discussed duality at play here. It is often employed by white fans to discredit Black fans in such fantasy fandom spaces, and it is often rooted—at least on a surface level—in concerns about ‘authenticity’. This occurs when Black fans cosplay white-coded fantasy characters. But extends much further, and includes comments I have heard like: “Well, I’m not trying to be racist, but [insert fantasy character name] is white,” or micro-aggressions such as “Isn’t there a Black-centered fandom you can be a part of?”

Two black women, one dressed as an elf and another dressed as a dwarf.
Credit: Kyujo Cosplay, 2015.

For example, such micro-aggressions are a daily occurrence for Black cosplayer extraordinaire CutiePieSensei who is well known on social media for her amazing cosplays of Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and Starfire (to name a few). She’s frequently addressed topics such as colorism and racism in the cosplay world, and recently described being accused of “appropriation” for cosplaying a white comic book character (Wonder Woman) as a Black woman. Nor is cosplay policing isolated to comic book characters; Tolkien fans who feel a sense of ‘ownership’ over how Dwarves or Elves appear do such policing work in community boards and comment sections. Despite this, Black excellence persists within the cosplaying community.

This sense of ‘ownership’ some Tolkien fans feel might seem innocuous. But in feeling such entitlement to Tolkien’s world, they force out Black fans and create a space fuelled by white supremacist ideologies. White fans seem hesitant to address the rampant racism and white supremacist rhetoric deeply entrenched in the collective understanding of fantasy-medieval genres. So too are white academics often unwilling to acknowledge the whiteness at the heart of medieval studies.

Conclusion: Ongoing Acts of Resistance

An artistic portrait of a black woman elf, with long pointed ears, gold-beaded dreadlocks, and lavender facepaint.
A golden-eyed elf. Credit: len_yan on DeviantArt, 2013.

So, how does a Black fan reconcile all these truths within Tolkien fan spaces? I recognize that many Black fans choose to sever ties with a beloved fandom due to the horrendous nature of its community. I too, considered leaving the fandom. Engaging with racist trolls was a drain on my mental health. But leaving felt like giving in to their wishes to erase me and my community. Instead, I no longer engage directly with white-centered fandoms/fan spaces and, instead, participate largely in Black-centered and led community spaces for fans of fantasy/sci-fi works.

Resistance is an important and persistent part of the Black narrative—one that we must continue to endorse and weaponize to proclaim our spot within fandom spaces. Resistance does not take one form; it doesn’t look like one answer – resistance is fluid and manifests in the smallest and largest actions. The Dark Fantastic touches on these small acts of resistance in discussing the curious case of Bonnie Bennet—the sole Black protagonist in the CW teen drama The Vampire Diaries (2009-2017) and a source of comfort to Black fans. Amplifying the existence of such modern dark fantastics is an act of resistance. The presence of a Dark Other should not be a narrative of violence and fear as is it in Tolkien, but rather, reinvented as a story of power and hope. As brilliant Black scholar Dr. Matthew Vernon states in his article on The Public Medievalist “African-Americans resisted and subverted the dominant myths of the nation.” Whether it be the myth of white medievalism or of a color-blind America, it’s precisely this resistance that is crucial to the historical relevance of medievalism.

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to these talented cosplayers on Instagram for allowing us to use their creations in the cover image for this article.
Galadriel is @c0c0cosplay
Thranduil is @Finalsugahcake
Frodo is @pinkcreampuffs
These cosplayers recently created a video showcasing their amazing work (and that of many others in their community) called “Pass the Brush through Middle Earth”; you can find it in the Instagram post linked below.

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Christina Warmbrunn

The author Christina Warmbrunn

Christina Warmbrunn received her B.A. in English from Wayne State University in 2019. She credits her love of medievalism to her fantastic medieval literature professor, Dr. Hilary Fox, and is planning to pursue a graduate degree in medieval studies. During her time at Wayne State, she found her strengths in writing about her own personal experiences as a queer, Black fan and connecting them to medieval studies (both contemporary and past).An avid fan of video games, particularly League of Legends, she enjoys delving into the intersections between the "bro" gaming culture and medieval history.