Yesterday, Magic: The Gathering revealed the remaining cards of its special Universes Beyond collaboration with Middle-earth Enterprises. The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth is the first crossover collection of its size with Magic: The Gathering, and it is, frankly, the most obvious property to invest in.
The endeavor spanned three years and Ovidio Cartagena, the lead art director, commissioned hundreds of new art pieces. From the start, Magic: The Gathering was committed to creating a Middle-earth that reflects our world, which meant illustrating diverse peoples across many races and ethnicities. So nobody should have been surprised when some characters traditionally represented as white were now more obviously illustrated in a way that reflects Black, Latino, Pacific Islander, and Asian heritages.
Some people have had opinions about this. For example, Aragorn was one of the first characters revealed (leaked, technically), and one of these early cards—“Aragorn and Arwen Wed”—showed a Black man in a crown dressed in white, standing next to a white elfin woman dressed in green. The usual suspects immediately hated this. By usual suspects, I mean racists. Racists hated this, because Aragorn has been traditionally depicted as a white man. But I think what people are fixating on is a kind of misplaced nostalgia—the assumption that simply because Aragorn is white in that edition or whoever’s version, it means that singular depiction becomes immutable, when in reality, it’s all just in service to the story that people want to tell. And for Magic: The Gathering, that story is “originality and diversity.”
“Some characters may look different from previous depictions—and that’s intentional,” Wizards of the Coast said in an announcement ahead of the release. This is also where the company declared its guiding pillars of originality and diversity. While the announcement didn’t directly address the racist backlash, it doesn’t take a palantír to see that Wizards of the Coast knows what’s happening out on Al Gore’s internet. During the YouTube premiere of the set, many commentators expressed “disappointment” that their fictional faves weren’t white this time around. You can read some annoyance in the comments that remain under the video.
Here’s one that I found particularly silly: “So Aragorn is now an Easterling and not Numenorian (misspelled, I know)? If you don’t care about the lore, why work with the property?” Numenorians are the first men of Middle-earth. They can be Black, much like the first men of the world were African. One’s fastidious reliance on lore is a crutch to expansive interpretation. Here are a few more that are more obviously racist. “Black Aragorn is nonsense and madness.” “They turned Aragorn and Galadryl [sic] black? That isn’t in the books. I’ll be skipping this one and just buy singles I want.” These people are so unserious, as if skipping the release but still buying the product does anything to support “what’s in the books,” as if the books actually matter in the context.
The Magic: The Gathering expansion is not canon. The books are canon. Honoring the books is not the same as catering to a preconceived idea of interpretation, such as “Aragorn is a white man” or “Éowyn shouldn’t be Black.” If this is your vision of the fiction, I want you to ask yourself why these characters being white matters. If your answer is any variant of “because of the books,” I want to ask you to check again. There is nothing in those books that is dependent on skin color or on contemporary ideas of race. Nothing. Those characters could be mapped onto any heritage and it would not change the story. (We won’t dive into the racist depictions of orcs in Lord of the Rings, I simply don’t have the time, but there is an argument to be made that this set is taking steps to develop a more nuanced understanding of good and evil than depicted in Tolkien’s work.)
Essentially, the change in this set is a deliberate aesthetic and (more cynically) a marketing choice. But it’s still a choice that fundamentally does not change the books, canon, lore, or even the story. Race shouldn’t matter when it comes to how we portray these characters. But it does matter to the fans. It matters to people who finally see themselves reflected in this artwork. White people have had white Aragorn for decades. If Magic: The Gathering wants to show a different Aragorn, it takes nothing away from any other interpretation. Celebrate the stories you love, regardless of the race of one of the main characters.
This set, while it does indulge in obvious fan service, is still honoring Lord of the Rings. Honoring the books means bringing them to life with your own interpretation. Honoring the books means expanding them to include the audiences that were always there to begin with. Honoring the books means bringing more depth, nuance, understanding, and, ultimately, a loving critique to the books. Honoring the books is a modern audience looking at all this gorgeous art and saying “maybe Tolkien should have just made Aragorn Black to begin with.”
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