In the coming months, the fantasy genre will become the focus of the American culture wars as The House of the Dragon (21 August) and The Rings of Power (2 September) are released on HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video respectively.
One of the key battles concerns the casting of actors of African descent in traditionally Caucasian roles. The lore of fantasy genre favourites like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is based on European medieval historical tropes, which invariably feature Caucasian characters. This fact has less to do with oppression and more to do with historical settings.
Of course, ultimately the aforementioned lore is still based on the fantasy genre and so arguably there is wiggle room for artistic license but only if – we would argue – the original author of the work is willing to accomodate such license being used, in the first place.
Therefore, we have less of an issue with The House of the Dragon making Corlys Velaryon (aka the Sea Snake) looking like an African man than a European. This change has been endorsed by Martin and while it makes no sense in the context of his own writings, we are willing to accept this at face value. After all, as creator, Martin is entitled to do so, provided he is able to explain the seeming discrepancy within his own writings.
Note: Corlys is a Valyrian, the bloodline of which the Targaryens also share, which of course have been depicted in the books and in the Game of Thrones HBO series as white skinned with white hair as distinguishing characteristics.
However, the same concession to artistic license should not apply to The Rings of Power. As we have articulated in our recent opinion piece, casting actors of diverse ethnicities in characters Tolkien clearly based on Europeans is tantamount to erasing Tolkien. Unlike Martin, Tolkien is not around to endorse or approve these fundamental changes and for the showrunners and actors to assume that these deviations are made in the spirit of Tolkien is presumptuous and arrogant without any basis whatsoever.
So, come August and September, we can all decide whether this fantasy genre culture war is really about effective storytelling or only about blatant virtue signalling. We shall keeping a close watch…
… still there’s more …