The Lord of the Rings, though widely (and rightly) considered one of the greatest fantasy stories of all time, doesn’t do so great on the whole diversity thing. In fact, pretty much the only non-white characters in the books are the evil Haradrim elephant-riders. Leaving aside deeper, more probing questions into the series’ philosophy on race, this clearly presents a problem for a company like Wizards of the Coast when it comes to creating the MTG Lord of the Rings set.
Wizards has made plain its commitment to diversity, and done an increasingly good job representing a wide variety of different kinds of people on MTG cards, through cool characters like Kaya, Teferi, Narset, and Alesha. And so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Magic: The Gathering’s interpretation of The Lord of the Rings has a good deal more diversity than most versions of the franchise. In particular, one of the most well-known heroes, Aragorn, is depicted as a black man.
But, just like when Amazon’s Rings of Power show dared to present viewers with a black hobbit, a rotten subsection of so-called fans are raising a big stink about this. Comments on the recent Magic livestream where the card was revealed were particularly poisonous, and mods on the MTG subreddit soon locked the card’s thread, because “productive discussion largely ain’t happening”.
Obviously, it’s really depressing to see such predictable racism rearing its head in the MTG community, especially given the inroads into inclusivity Wizards seems to have been making. It’s also been cathartic to see big Magic content creators respond to the outrage and fragility with mockery and a verbal middle finger. Yet so many of those making arsey comments shirk away from the ‘R’ accusation, seeking out a more palatable excuse instead.
It seems like most of the complainers allege that they just want the cards to be ‘accurate’, and ‘true to Tolkien’s vision’, pulling up quotes to show how Aragorn and others are described in the books. Obviously, I’m highly sceptical of this. I think this reasoning is generally just a fig leaf, poorly disguising the uglier true intent behind the outrage.
But if it’s not just a bad faith excuse, and you’re genuinely upset about Aragorn being black instead of white on a Magic: The Gathering card, then you really need to think long and hard about where those feelings are coming from. No one likes to hear that they’re racist, so I’ll be kind and do this gently.
First of all, yes, Tolkien, when writing, almost certainly imagined Aragorn as white. But so what? Do you really think future interpretations of a work have to be exactly identical to past ones? Of course they don’t. Stories shouldn’t be frozen, fixed, unchanging, and dead. If people are going to keep making Lord of the Rings content, they should try doing different things with it, or what is the point? You already know the story – why would you want a new but identical copy?
The very best stories inspire people to retell them in different ways, and put their own spin on things, or inject their own lived experiences. Today, you’ll rarely find a Shakespeare play that’s played straight. Instead you get Hamlet during a modern military dictatorship, or Julius Caesar in the Blitz, or an American Horror style retelling of Macbeth. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than endless reruns. In this case, if making the Lord of the Rings characters more diverse can help more people to identify with them and see themselves in these great stories, can’t that only be a good thing?
Being as charitable as humanly possible, I know nerds hate the things they’re nerdy about changing from the way they first formed a connection with them. I know this; I watched Game of Thrones after reading the books and at first squirmed over every event that I knew didn’t happen quite like that. Major alterations in retellings of stories you love can be jarring, can take getting used to, can provoke a knee jerk response.
However, a character having a different skin colour to the one you imagined is not a major alteration to Lord of the Rings. It’s a very minor one. So frankly, it’s rather strange to be this upset about a fictional character’s appearance getting a reinterpretation, when everything else about their person – their personality and their role in the story – seems to be exactly the same. Other than better diversity, Wizards isn’t reinventing the series, so if you’re dismayed, I think you ought to ask yourself: why?
And guess what? If your favourite Aragorn looks exactly like Viggo Mortensen, he was very dreamy, you can just take six hours this weekend and rewatch Lord of the Rings, or (less likely) dust off those books. They’re good books. They’re good movies. Nothing has been taken away from you.
If you honestly find yourself alienated by just a handful of MTG Lord of the Rings characters that aren’t white – note that Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Arwen (the vast majority) still seem to be – then doesn’t that prove the value of diversity? If characters not looking like you upsets you, can you not empathise with those who normally have to experience a Lord of the Rings where no one looks like them?
Can’t you be happy that Magic: The Gathering is providing a chance, for a change, for more people to see themselves in characters like Aragorn and Eowyn? Did you never learn to share?
This article was originally published on March 17, 2023.