One of our finest speculative fiction writers on how the Lord of the Rings fandom is damaging mana whenua.
There are kākā on my porch. They are circling each other, fanning their beautiful green and red feathers. They’ve found the pāua shell my flatmate picked up on the beach last week. It is shiny, so they fight over it. Their fight ends in a draw so they drop the shell and take off, back over the bunkers on the hill – built to fend off a Japanese invasion, now a sanctuary for teenagers who need somewhere quiet to smoke weed – to the wildlife reserve in Kaharore. It’s the ridge of many bird snares, an old Māori hunting ground, better known as Karori, an upper-middle-class suburb with a nice library and a bird park. Kaharore is a strange place. There is a faultline that runs directly through it, and the land is broken, rising and falling without rhythm. It is a reminder that this land is young and seismic, ready to erupt, to shatter, to remake itself at any moment. And at no point, while I sit and watch the kākā, do I think “this sure reminds me of The Lord of the Rings”.
And yet, New Zealand lives under the shadow of three movies that are coming up on two decades old. They gave our tourism industry a boost that remained fairly reliable until, well… about six months ago. But they also reshaped our labour laws and turned a thriving film industry into a struggling gig economy. They brought tourists, but they also brought a wave of cultural imperialism that hides our history, our traditions, our people and our language underneath a fantastical blanket. It might be comforting for some, but it’s suffocating for us.
For many tourists, New Zealand is Middle-earth. George R.R. Martin made that exact joke during his address at the 78th World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, ostensibly hosted (remotely) in Wellington. Considering the rest of his now-infamous speech, the line went mostly unnoticed, but I was at a watch party in the Wellington convention centre we were meant to be hosting the thing in (hey, if you’ve rented the space, you may as well use it), and a visible flinch went around the room.
It echoed an earlier conversation in mid-2018 when I asked: “Do we need a Tolkien panel?” The reply flew back like a gunshot: “Fuck off”. The Tolkien panels happened anyway. We all knew there would be a riot if we didn’t. The digital tourists loved it; the locals mostly stayed away.
There are three main strands of this endless garbage braid: the anti-worker laws passed to make the Hobbit movies happen, the fact that Americans and Brits have been bringing LOTR into every single conversation about us for nigh-on two decades now, and the erasure of Māori mana whenua in service of some books written by an Englishman about a fantastical England which to me, at least, is the worst one of all. It’s a cruel echo of colonialism, a sort of soft colonialism: by making Aotearoa a proxy for England, you say Aotearoa is England, and by saying that, you’re recreating the mindset of the people who stole our land, who beat our language and culture out of us, who signed a treaty swearing to keep our sovereignty intact then left it to rot in a cellar in Wellington after a judge decreed it null, and Māori “primitive and barbaric” savages with no legal rights. By imprinting Middle-earth – this Other-England – upon us and our whenua, you recreate a little of that violence over and over; it is an echo of a scream, carried along the Kaharore cliffsides.
I’m not the first author to raise the issue, nor even the most prominent – Witi Ihimaera was talking about this years ago. This isn’t a new problem, but it is one that seems to be coming to a head, and one that needs proper address: the place where Middle-earth and Aotearoa collide is one fraught with pain.
But of course, there were Māori actors in The Lord of the Rings. They mostly played orcs. I’m not here to call out their performances (they often, quite literally, crushed it out there, and a man’s gotta make a dollar) but the colonial subtext of the books made it into the movies: the evil dark-skinned foreigners from the east and south banding together to destroy the pale-skinned lands of men. You know, real humans, as opposed to savages. If you’re rushing to the comments with that allegory quote, let me retort in advance: Tolkien himself said the orcs were stand-ins for tribal peoples, infamously referring to them as “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes”.
Which isn’t to impugn Tolkien personally. He wasn’t Lovecraft; it seems he was genuinely a man of his time trying his best. Still, he lived in a racist time and regardless of his intentions, he filled his books with racist images of savage foreign hordes baying for white blood. It no coincidence that so many orcs were played by Māori and Polynesian actors: the subtext was already there for Jackson and his crew to pull out. They didn’t have Mongols, so they went with the savages they had on hand. I doubt they even realised they were doing it. I think this is a good point to make an important distinction: overt racists are relatively rare, but racism is extremely common. For every Boogaloo Boy trying to kick off a race war, there are a thousand people who simply refuse to examine the culture around them, who can’t see the channels that centuries of colonial violence have blasted into the rock, but who travel them anyway and wear them deeper with their footfalls.
To me, te ao Māori is about relationships: relationships between people and the land, and people and each other. Te reo Māori has a wide array of pronouns that often baffle new learners, because when our ancestors first began to speak, they knew one of the most important things was to understand clearly who everybody was, and what they meant to each other. In great Māori art and song, the land itself comes alive, provides solace and imparts wisdom. I’m reminded of the Māori lover conjured by Tayi Tibble, who – in an act of resistance against her lazy white boyfriend – considers ramming clothes pegs into the ground, to “plunge them back into the earth’s dark wet cunt”. It is an electric line from a truly electric Māori poet, that speaks of the intimacy between our people and our land, of the way that intimacy can be power and comfort. It is a potent, elegant line, one that speaks of a people whose first language is song.
And yet, when I see depictions of Māori from the outside, I see only savages. I watch us exalted for our capacity to inflict violence; I see Māori men depicted as wordless hulking brutes; I hear Jason Momoa saying that our haka makes him want to rape. When I see my own people through an outsider’s lens, I don’t see tāngata, I see orcs. Often literally. When I hear people call Aotearoa “Middle-earth”, I see my people once again turned into monsters on their own land. I hear a judge declaim that we are too savage to understand the concept of a pact, and thus all pacts with us may be freely broken. I hear footsteps rushing through the wounds in the land carved by English bayonet and cannon, wearing them deeper.
The Lord of the Rings is a great trilogy. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t cue up Theoden’s big speech from time to time when I needed a pick-me-up, or that I didn’t love every second of Christopher Lee’s performance as Saruman, or that I didn’t have the pile of tabletop wargame Uruk-hai sitting in a box in my garage. The books and films are gorgeous, and contain messages of hope, perseverance and the indomitable power of fellowship (forgive me, I had to get one in). It would be a shame to cast them aside entirely, and I’m not asking anybody to do that. You’re allowed to read, watch, and enjoy The Lord of the Rings! You’re allowed to look at the landscapes and find them beautiful! You’re allowed to come to New Zealand because you love The Lord of the Rings! You’re allowed to visit Hobbiton and the sets!
All I’m asking you to do is stop conflating Middle-earth with Aotearoa and understand that the fictional Middle-earth was shot in the real Aotearoa, which is a land with its own culture, history and people. I’m asking you for one tiny act of decolonisation: I’m asking you to understand our grief and take a small part of lifting it. If you’ve read this far, you probably love science fiction and fantasy, so think of it like this: my people are living in The Empire, and this is your chance to join the rebellion. All you need to do is change your mind. It’s just a little tremor, but it’s ready to tear the earth open and remake it anew.
And if you’ve got this far without charging to the comments section to scream about video game feminism for some reason, then I know you’ve got the courage and insight to make that start. I don’t think you came here from a place of malice, quite the opposite – I think you came here because you read a book or watched a film that made you feel something, and you wanted to celebrate that. I’m not asking you to give up your favourite stories, I’m simply asking you to see us as a people, to see us in the ridge of bird snares, in the rough earth we worked to build our pā, in the towns and cities we call home today.
Our songs are not the songs of dead Englishmen: our songs are honeyed and sweet, calls to our whānau returning home. Songs of new love, calm water and wet earth; songs of the tangata whenua. All I ask is that you hear them.
Writing as Sascha Stronach, the author has just been awarded the country’s biggest prize in science fiction and fantasy writing: the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Novel.