Whenever Magic: The Gathering (MTG) releases a new set, the usual critique would be the busted card interactions that will eventually get banned. But with the advent of Magic: The Gathering’s The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth crossover set, the most vocal critique is surprisingly not related to the game’s mechanics.
Wizards of the Coast, MTG’s parent company, decided to spice up their imported Lord of the Rings characters for the crossover set. To put it bluntly, some characters whom the Lord of the Rings film adaptations depicted as Caucasian are now portrayed as having a darker shade of skin color– Aragorn, specifically. They made Aragorn Black in Tales of Middle-earth.
It’s not just Aragorn.
Legolas was portrayed as what appeared to be East Asian. Eowyn was also rendered in a darker shade of skin color. But it was Aragorn– mostly Black Aragorn, that drew the ire of too many Magic: The Gathering fans and players.
Is the pushback even justified if we are to base it on facts and evidence about how Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings? Let’s address that, shall we?
Before we get to that, though, a reminder is in order that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy films are by no means an ideal metric for determining the faithfulness of other LOTR works. Because it, too, has its own shortcomings with the depiction. The books will be our standard here. With that out of the way…
What Was Aragorn’s Skin Color in The Books?
Gandalf described Aragorn as tall, dark, and lean. Dark can mean many things here, from tan to gruff or seasoned or merely black hair, like how it was used in “tall, dark, and handsome.”
Meanwhile, other descriptions in the text make Aragorn out as having “a shaggy head of dark hair flecked with grey, and in a pale stern face a pair of keen grey eyes.” Pale either nails down his skin color and tone, or pale here could just be the opposite of flush.
Another case to be made that Aragorn was White was his Númenórean heritage. Númenóreans are a race of fair-skinned people whose progenies intermarried with elves. For all intents and purposes, they were the half-elves of Middle-earth, and Aragorn was one of them. It’s still an assumption, of course.
Hence, let’s say he was a vaguely fair-skinned hero, which was typical for an author like J.R.R. Tolkien and his Eurocentric upbringing and views, especially at the time. What he wrote was derived from what he saw, and his environment; Lord of the Rings had some of its roots based on Germanic legends and Norse mythology, which explains the lack of darker-skinned characters as heroes.
But times have changed dramatically over the decades, and old traditions or standards of storytelling don’t always age well.
Magic: The Gathering and its Black Aragorn is about as faithful an adaptation as Peter Jackson’s trilogy Aragorn, played by Viggo Mortensen. Perhaps even fan outrage for a Black Aragorn is impulsive and needs further introspection.
No One Got Aragorn Completely Right Except Tolkien
With Aragorn as the best representative here for the notion of MTG‘s changes, arguing whether this or that is faithful to the books is a moot point. Because thus far, Tolkien’s attitudes on adaptations are skeptical.
He believed that adaptations were unrefined translations of any work (his work included) though he still believed in the power of making his works more accommodating for other cultures, more so if it brought attention to the original.
Tolkien was right about his skepticism; because even Peter Jackson’s Aragorn didn’t quite cut it if we’re being strict about faithfulness to the source material.
What Was Aragorn Supposed to Look Like?
For the record, Aragorn was supposed to be really tall, NBA height. Being a Dúnedain and Númenórean, he stands formidably at 6’6” or 2 meters. This height emphasizes his uniqueness as a Dúnedain heir and how he’s different from most humans in Middle-earth.
Viggo Mortensen– great of an actor he is, stood at 5’11” or around 1.8 meters (Hollywood height, so it might be less). Aragorn is supposedly the tallest human of his time, but looking back at the LOTR trilogy, Aragorn was around the same height as the average non-Númenórean human. Someone like Dolph Lundgren would have been closer to the books.
Moreover, Aragorn, being a Dúnedain and having a strong ancestry to elves means he shouldn’t or couldn’t have a beard or any semblance of one. Tolkien has more or less confirmed it back in the 1970s. In fact, even Isildur and his whole lineage– including Sean Bean’s Boromir, shouldn’t have a beard, unlike what Peter Jackson portrayed in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.
By those accounts, Aragorn (and most characters) in the most popular Lord of the Rings adaptation was subjected to some glaring liberties. There was little to no outrage over the drastic height and facial hair changes, and those are all definitive physical traits– especially for someone as important as Aragorn.
It’s a bit unfair for Magic: The Gathering and Lord of the Rings fans then, to find MTG’s Aragorn unsatisfactory over a mere skin color change now, isn’t it? That’s a physical characteristic as well and should hold a similar significance to height and facial hair.
Why then is it harder to accept a skin color change than a height change? It’s something furious MTG fans might want to ask themselves. That’s probably an argumentative fallacy, but this isn’t a debate class, nor is it a debate. There’s just genuine bewilderment here over the selective disapproval towards MTG‘s Black Aragorn, what with the other Aragorn taking the same level of liberty in the adaptation.
In the event that you actually find all Aragorn adaptations unsatisfactory and not just Black Aragorn– as logic should dictate, then it’s probably best to just stick to your books.
Aragorn’s Skin Color Doesn’t Affect Your Matches or Roleplaying
But we’re not here to dwell on Lord of the Rings lore despite that lengthy discourse above.
Because at the end of the day Magic: The Gathering is a card game. There’s no blaming Aragorn, Legolas, or Eowyn’s skin color when a guy wielding a $1,000-Azorius deck with that bullsh*t Jace -Teferi duo beats you at Friday Night Magic.
The card’s art won’t ruin anything MTG-related for you, nor would it ruin anything Lord of the Rings-related since a measly change in skin color doesn’t affect the story and the rather vague or unspecific fantasy lore.
Let’s not forget one simple reason why even a Black Aragorn is possible in Magic: The Gathering. The whole MTG lore operates on a multiverse (which it calls planes for a more fantasy flavor); there are limitless possibilities in every one of them.
That’s the lore explanation for the Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth crossover. Anything in MTG is possible– even liberties with character adaptations from franchise crossovers. It shouldn’t be too hard to believe that some heroes can have a darker shade of skin in a fictional world with talking trees and talking rings.
On a final note, Lord of the Rings has a strong and ageless message of races uniting together for the greater good and setting aside their differences for peace and prosperity. It’s a lesson we should all recall during racially-charged indignations, especially for fans.