As you may have assumed, I’m both a fan of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, which means I’m watching both of the current series right now. Although I’ve tried to avoid it, I haven’t been able to escape reading negative comments about “black elves” and “black Velaryons”. Basically the complaints are that having non-white characters is not “historically accurate”. But is this actually true?
I decided to do some research and I found that having a diversified cast is more historically accurate to medieval England than the previous iterations we’ve seen where there has been an all-white cast. I’m sharing the results of my findings below as well as all of my sources. I’m writing all of this well ahead of Black History month and if someone wants to use this blog post as inspiration for an upcoming school report, I’m all for it.
Okay, let’s address the concept that LOTR and GOT needs to be historically accurate. GOT takes place on a planet that is orbiting around two suns, hence the whole unpredictable summer and winters thing. LOTR does take place on “our Earth”, but it is during a prehistoric period. In both cases, there are dragons and other beings that are mythological in nature. These are complete works of FANTASY, and thus, anything goes.
That being said… George R. R. Martin has admitted that GOT is based off of The War of the Roses. Tolkien wrote in a letter to a friend that The Shire is based off of Warwickshire Village. So it’s by no means out of line that people naturally associate both books with Medieval England.
Any discussion about race in Medieval England immediately makes me think of Shakespeare’s play Othello. Although Othello was the only reference that immediately came to mind for me, for Shakespeare to create a play staring a black character that takes place in 1570, made me think that black Britons could not have been that rare. As it turned out, I was right.
In the rest of this article, I’m going to be discussing various historical examples of black elves, black knights, and painting a very diversified image of Medieval England. A lot of people reading this are going to wonder “Why have I never heard of this before?” The reason why is because black people have been deliberately erased from history. I’ll finish off the article with a discussion of when abouts that started happening and why it happened.
A lot of us think of diversity and inclusion as being a relatively new thing. We think of countries of the past as having had a relatively uniform cultural and racial make-up. We seem to ignore the fact that both Italy, Spain and Portugal are a relatively easy boat ride from Africa. By the time Othello had been written, Africans had been traveling into Europe to provide trade for centuries. They traded gold, ivory, and spices. They didn’t all just come and go either. Many established businesses in Europe and permanently settled there.
People have traveled and traded from all over, going back to the earliest days of human history. With the ease and availability of DNA genealogy tests, most of us are learning that our ancestors traveled and intermarried quite a bit. In fact, many self-identified “European Americans” are discovering that they had a black ancestor just within the past 6 generations.
In addition to a rich history of trade, laborers in Africa were often called upon to refresh the European labor force after a bout of Black Plague wiped out the population. So yes, there were definitely black people in Medieval Europe.
If you try to research this subject, a lot of what you’re going to find is the colonization of Africa by European Imperialist’s. But if you go back to before the 1600s, you discover an Africa that was very much respected and at times even viewed as culturally superior by those in Europe. It was not at all uncommon for European people to undertake pilgrimages to Africa to become educated in Philosophy and to partake in religious mysticism. The Egyptian Mystery Schools were particularly sought after destinations of learning.
And although we readily think of European conquest in Africa, there was a time in history when the opposite took place. In the year 711 AD, an African army lead by Tariq ibn-Ziyad, invaded and conquered Spain. This wasn’t a brief conquest either. They ruled for 800 years! During that time they built Universities and educated the populace. Advances in astronomy, chemistry, physics, mathematics, geography and philosophy took place and flourished in Spain.
This new Black royal family in Spain produced Princes and Princesses that married into other European royal families. This definitely calls to mind the Velaryons in House of the Dragon.
I could keep going, but I think I should specifically focus on Medieval England since that seems to be the issue here. Let me begin by saying that there were definitely Medieval Black Britons. Black Britons were a significant presence in both Medieval English cities as well as in Court. In those times, people of African descent were called Black, but would have also been called Moors or Saracens.
One of the most poignant examples is the fact that one of the Knights of the Round Table was in fact black. His name was Sir Morien. The name itself is derived from the word Moor. The name Maurice also comes from Moor.
If you’re at all into the Arthurian Legends, you have no doubt heard reference to a “black knight”. Black Knights were often distinguished by their bravery and exceptional skill. These days many assume the term Black Knight simply refers to a Knight that wore black armor, but since Sir Morien was the original referred upon “Black Knight”, can we not assume that there were other knights of African decent?
I could simply keep going, but the fact of the matter is that medieval Europe and England was a racially diverse landscape. It’s simply a myth that Europe and England was racially uniform prior to the 1800s. So what changed? Why is this belief so widespread? This is where we get to the outright erasure of history.
Simply put, kingdoms rise and fall and it is the victors that write history. in 1609 the Moors were expelled from Spain. The transatlantic slave trade began soon after that. Historically, we’ve seen this before. When the Roman Empire surpassed the Greek Empire, the Romans began capturing and trading in enslaved Greeks. In part, this is simply a matter of opportunity. But it can serve the other purpose of ensuring that a once formidable enemy never rises again.
What was different this time is that we are now at the cusp of the Enlightenment. In order to make people feel okay with an activity that most people were not themselves participating in, a cultural shift needed to happen. White Europeans needed to feel distanced from the people they were enslaving. It is around this time that we start seeing black Saints depicted as white. Saint Augustine and Saint Maurice are probably the best examples of this.
This overall erasure was so successful that I had a very difficult time gathering sources for this article. Even well-educated open-minded individuals will readily believe that black people simply did not exist in pre-1600 Britain or Europe.
So some might be willing to believe in a diversified Medieval England, but scratch their head at the idea of black elves. If you have been watching the new LOTR series, you have undoubtedly noticed the scene-stealing character Arondir. Tolkein based the Elves in his books off of Norse mythology and the Irish Tuatha De Danaan.
I hesitate to call this “mythology” because belief in Elves is still very much alive and well in Iceland where “elf experts” are hired to act as consultants when deciding where a new road can be built. But back to the question at hand, were there black elves in Norse mythology? Absolutely! The elves were called the svartálfar or dökkálfar specifically. It is once again only a myth that the ancient Norse were uniformly white.
When reading this post, you might wonder what this has to do with my blog. After all, this is primarily a website devoted to spirituality. The reclaiming of ancient spiritual teachings is a passion of mine. Shows like House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power are a testament to a growing interest in the ancient spirituality and old European myths that these shows are based upon.
However, there is also a growing trend of white separatists in the pagan community. There has also been backlash against these shows for having a multi-racial cast. When I decide to research a topic in order to educate myself and I find that the information is not easily accessible, I put all of my findings in one place so that the next person that’s interested can easily find the information as well as know where I got it all from.
I realize that not everyone can spend all day researching a topic, so in the spirit of information-sharing, here it all is. I hope you enjoyed it and if there is any additional information of this topic that I have missed, feel free to share it in a comment below.