The Rings Of Power And Harley Quinn Are Teaching An Important Lesson About Letting Canon Go
We shouldn't ignore the history of long-running, beloved stories and characters, but we shouldn't treat them as sacred when even the creators didn't, either.
When Batman was drawn for the first time, he had purple gloves. Nothing else on him was purple. In retrospect, it looks really silly, but it was the style at the time.
Stories and characters grow and change over time. Superman couldn't fly for 3-5 years after his creation. Huge swaths of Star Wars mythology were created whole cloth from single lines uttered by characters--George Lucas, Dave Filoni, and others have spent the last 45 years backing new stories into neat spaces in the Star Wars universe. Doctor Who has changed numbering methods for the Doctors more than once in its six-decade history.
And this doesn't just apply to modern nerd fare. Humanity's many forms of mythology were assembled through centuries of storytelling and oral tradition, and there is no order to them, no canon per se; you would go insane if you tried to organize them because they were never made with that in mind. They were stories meant to teach lessons, impart wisdom, or entertain--the internal logic of the story was tertiary at best.
In all cases, these stories were made up. They're inherently flexible. But there seems to be a belief in fandom today that what has come before is sacrosanct--while also being incredibly selective about what we want to pick from.
Going back to Batman, a recent episode of Harley Quinn (Season 3, Episode 8) digs into this in the most fascinating way. In this installment, Harley ends up in the mind of Bruce Wayne, where she finds the memory of his parents' murder on an infinite loop. Hiding inside the mind of the intimidating vigilante is the young boy who watched his parents die and somehow believes himself at fault for it. After Harley breaks the loop--temporarily at least--she and young Bruce walk down a hallway of his memories. It's a "best of" Batman. Every Batman. Alfred asks Master Wayne why we fall down (Batman Begins). Bruce talks about being an incorruptible symbol (The Dark Knight). We even see him suiting up for the first time with those bright purple gloves from the first version of the Caped Crusader from the first Detective Comics. He runs down a dock with a bomb held over his head (Batman 1966). Harley wakes up tied to a giant firework, in Robin's body (1960s and 70s Batman comics), but after Batman rescues her, they stand atop a building as lighting flickers behind them (The Animated Series).
Throughout his history, Batman has morphed and changed from a fantastical private eye to a shlocky superhero to a gritty vigilante to a psycho in a costume to a father. Batman is a chameleon who changes with the times his writers live in. He's not alone in that, though. This same thing happens with countless stories that are either told over long spans of time, as is the case with comics, or that are occasionally remade or reimagined, as with Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings is the latest fandom to come under fire for certain elements of the Amazon Prime series, Rings of Power, and the ways the show violates so-called "canon." The truth about how it does or doesn't adhere to canon is more complicated than that, though, and it puts this problem under the spotlight in a new way.
The two biggest elements have to do with Dwarven beards and people of color. With regard to dwarves, Tolkien himself mentioned in some texts specifically that all male dwarves have beards, while other texts say that all dwarves have beards, without specifically dividing between male and female. Certain texts also state that Dwarven men outnumber women two to one. The idea that Dwarven women have beards is not conclusively stated and has to be deduced from context clues. Of course, that's not to mention that at least one female dwarf in Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power, Princess Disa, does have facial hair, though not quite the luxurious chin-manes that her male counterparts have.
With regard to people of color, fans often call upon the story's adherence to history--it is set in an analog to medieval Europe, where there were no people of color. Except… there were. Pretty conclusively. You don't even have to look hard to find it--works of art like Heironymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights depict people of different races, as do others. Countless historical texts do the same. There were black and brown people in Europe, and while not all lived as equals, many others did, as both residents and traveling merchants.
While people of color certainly existed in medieval Europe, what does that mean for Middle-earth? Tolkein's attitudes toward race and his descriptions of the races of Middle-earth are anything but simple. We could fill a book about it. In fact, people have. On the one hand, Tolkien strongly opposed Nazi theories around race and presented a Middle-earth world full of races and languages. On the other hand, Tolkien lived in a time informed by Victorian attitudes toward race and culture, and in a time where Eugenics was treated by many as real and valid science. Letters from Tolkein describe orcs in terms often associated with those used to demonize and other Asian peoples, and the races of Middle-earth are often clearly defined in terms of not just physical attributes but also actions and nature. Orcs are evil, Elves are good.
But here's the thing: those are totally irrelevant. When writing new fiction about an existing world, there are some things you can't change. Darth Vader is Anakin Skywalker, Frodo is Bilbo's nephew, and Bruce Wayne's parents were killed in Crime Alley. If you change too many things, Bruce Wayne becomes Clark Kent and Middle-earth becomes indistinguishable from the Witcher's fantasy world.
The details around those core elements, however, can change. In fact, they have to change. It doesn't make sense for Bruce to grow up with Alfred driving him around in a Studebaker and walking out of a black-and-white movie if you want to put him in a pseudo-modern world. The Punisher can't be a veteran of Vietnam unless you're going to write an Old Man Frank story. Bruce Wayne has to live in Gotham, but Gotham can morph and change to match the story he's living in. Frank Castle's family has to die for him to don the skull, but who kills them can change.
Middle-earth, though, like Gotham City and Tatooine, is a made-up place. In between all the details Tolkien gave us are countless blank spaces to fill in. Tolkien fans should consider themselves lucky that Dave Filoni didn't join up with Tolkienfilm and spend the last 15 years explaining why Boromir is an interesting character with 17 seasons of cartoons.
There's no reason there can't be people of color (or female dwarves with or without beards, for that matter) in Middle-earth or, if we can go back in time to 2015, the world of The Witcher, a place that underwent literally this exact same drama at the time of the Witcher 3's release.
These are fictional worlds and are not beholden to the history of planet Earth. And even then, the history of our world doesn't support these ideas that black people were here, white people were there, and brown people were over there--humans have been exploring the far reaches of their lands for millennia for the sake of curiosity, profit, new homes, proselytizing, and more. Humans wander and migrate.
Canon is a bad excuse for racism, sexism, and hate. Does having people of color in a Lord of the Rings story change anything important about it? Even if there were Hobbits, Elves, and Dwarves with skin of varying pigments, every other element of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films could be identical, from Frodo's departure from the Shire, through the Battle of Helm's Deep, right up to the final moments at Mount Doom.
Overzealous adherence to canon is a crutch for many fans that holds back these stories and characters. Whether it's Batman and Gotham or Tolkien's Middle-earth, for as fleshed-out as these fictions are, there are tons of blank spaces to fill in, and asking new creations to so completely match everything that has come before keeps them from evolving or bringing us anything new--it's just a rehashing once again of the same old story.
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