This lady appears for less than 10 seconds in the film, yet she is by far the most interesting character in the entire ensemble.
I went to see The Hobbit: The Disenfranchisement of Smaug. I cannot really say anything I didn't already say about the first one. What follows is a snippet of one of the strange mental gymnastic routines that happens to me when thinking about justifying narrative issues.
Scene: a group of friends are playing a tabletop role-playing game, not unlike Dungeons & Dragons. There is Pete (the Dungeon Master), Ian (a Wizard), Eva (an Elf), John (a Dwarf), Vickie (a Ranger), and Fran (a Hobbit). Their game is very loosely based on The Hobbit, where the DM has decided to make a few changes for the sake of inclusion and to keep the group's interest. Everything in italics is "in character," with breaks in character denoted by normal text.
DM: You now take in the sights around you, shaking the fish-slime from your eyes. An eclectic and unusual town stretches beyond. It is not built on the shore, though there are a few huts and buildings there, but right out on the surface of the lake, protected from the swirl of the entering river by a promontory of rock which forms a calm bay. A great bridge made of wood ran out to where on huge piles made of forest trees was built a busy wooden town, not a town of elves but of Men, who still dared to dwell here under the shadow of the distant dragon-mountain. They still throve on the trade that came up the great river from the South and was carted past the falls to their town; but in the great days of old, when Dale in the North was rich and prosperous, they had been wealthy and powerful, and there had been fleets of boats on the waters, and some were filled with gold and some with warriors in armour, and there had been wars and deeds which were now only a legend. The rotting piles of a greater town could still be seen along the shores when the waters sank in a drought. Among the townsfolk you see strange people unlike any you've seen in Bree - men with dark beards and unusual garb, ladies with strange eyes and silken hair, a woman with the darkest skin you've ever seen on a human -
The Wizard: Where did they come from?
DM: (Sighs) Is this going to be a problem for you, Ian?
The Wizard: Is what going to be a problem?
(The rest of the group sighs and mutters, knowing what's coming next)
The Elf: Why do we keep inviting him?
The Dwarf: Dude, he's read the books inside-out, how many times would we have died if he didn't warn us?
The Ranger: Just wish he'd shut up about Farmer Mir or whoever-
DM: OK guys, this won't take long. I hesitate to ask, but you asked where "they" came from, just after I mentioned a few of the townsfolk.
The Wizard: I'm just saying, this is the first time in any of the campaigns you've described people of Northern Middle-earth who weren't analogous to Northern European. Bree, Rohan, Gondor, the Dunlendings, all fairly similar to Northern European. The only people who didn't fit that were the Haradrim, and they live thousands of miles to the south - technically on the boundaries of Middle-earth itself - and are at war with Gondor. So I'm just thinking it's pretty unusual that here, of all places, we see people who don't look like they stepped out of the Volsung Saga.
DM: Dude, I... just... OK. Middle-earth is full of pasty pale people.
The Wizard: Yes, it's an invented mythology situated in what would become Northern Europe, there would be a fair amount of Northern Europeans, especially in a town situated very far in the North.
DM: So you have to admit that it starts to look really non-inclusive if we have not only hardly any women, but hardly any people of colour, right?
The Wizard: There weren't any people of colour mentioned in The Hobbit, because it was set in a part of the world far away from anyone of colour, with thousands of miles of treacherous wasteland, hostile and isolationist kingdoms, and hordes of bandits and goblins between them. That's kind of the point! Remember how the Elves, Dwarves and Men of Laketown were going to fight over -
The Wizard: It's a 75-year-old book, Pete, and you've been laying the Chekhov's Black Arrow pretty thick already... Anyway, part of the power of Tolkien's world is in the idea of disparate races - as in actual species, not just different tribes of human - banding together for the greater good despite millennia of distrust, war and turmoil. This is because of all that distrust, war and turmoil. Remember what happened when a tribe of Easterlings migrated to Rohan? The Balchoth? They were slaughtered. Massacred. Remember what happened to the Druedain? Driven into the forests, hunted for sport. Heck, remember what happened to the indigenous people of Gondor when the Numenoreans came? So even if you survive roving hordes of man-eating monsters, you're as likely to be killed by your fellow human being if you're not from around there.
I really missed Ghân-buri-Ghân & his people.
DM: So you advocate cross-species camaraderie, but not to the extent that we can have people on the side of good who happen to be black?
The Wizard: She's black!?!
(The group falls silent, dreading the turn the conversation might take)
DM: How does that change things?
The Wizard: How does that change things!?! OK, right, so, we have Lake-town, situated in the far north of Middle-earth, a town of the former Kingdom of Dale. Dale used to be a great city until Smaug destroyed it: the people were forced out into the wilds, with precious few surviving to build Lake-town. To the north was the Lonely Mountain, currently inhabited by Smaug, and the Withered Heath, legendarily populated with dragons. To the west was Mirkwood, with whom they did trade, but not exactly the friendliest of places. To the south were leagues upon leagues of wilderness, the Rhovanion, with bands of orcs, raiders and bandits running wild in the chaos. To the east, the Easterlings, with whom the people of Dale had warred in the past.
DM: Yeah, but there's no reason there can't have been people from further afield-
The Wizard: To continue. Beyond Mirkwood lay the Misty Mountains, hundreds of miles away; there were no other human kingdoms on the eastern side of the mountains until you go hundreds of miles south to Rohan, or over the orc-infested mountains to the barbaric lands of Rhudaur. Rohan is separated from Dale by distance, plus Mirkwood, plus Dol Guldur, plus the River Anduin, plus the Dead Marshes of Dagorlad. South of Rhovanion is Mordor, which is not exactly a free-movement zone; south of Mordor is Harad, a vast desert with tribes that are intermittently at war with Gondor, inhibiting trade and movement. And on top of all this, this woman is the first person we've seen in Middle-earth who happens to be a person of colour.
DM: Not true, what about the Troll-Men of Far Harad?
The Wizard: First of all, you really want to use them as a counterpoint? Second of all, Tolkien was very careful with his language: the Troll-Men might well have been manufactured abominations like Saruman's Goblin-Men, or Sauron's own Olog-Hai and Uruk-Hai, rather than an offensive 1950s interpretation of African tribesmen. Thirdly, you didn't put them in the Return of the King campaign even though they were in the book!
DM: Because they were horrible stereotypes.
The Wizard: Only if you interpret the Troll-Men as humans rather than monsters: you totally could have presented them as gigantic Uruk-Hai.
Could've sworn these'd be right up PJ's alley.
DM: Listen, Ian, if you don't want to play just because I put in a person of colour in an off-handed piece of fluff, I'll understand. I thought you were better than this. I really did.
The Wizard: No Pete, I want to stay. But I want to switch characters.
DM: You're Gandalf. We need Gandalf in the story.
The Wizard: Come on, Pete, you know we only have Gandalf because we needed a spell caster for the party. Gandalf's hardly in the story, and I'm constantly having to leave the group to go rabbit-sledding in Rhudaur or tele-flirting with Galadriel. You've already stuck in an entirely new female character for Eva, and she's not even been with the group for the whole time. I want to play as this woman.
DM: What, the woman?
The Wizard: Yes.
(The group gapes, unsure what to think about this.)
DM: But she doesn't matter to the story! I haven't planned for any of this! I have this whole campaign mapped out for you to play Gandalf, I haven't prepared for you to suddenly switch characters after being the same wizard for four campaigns! Why on earth would you suddenly be more interested in playing a first-level background character after playing the most powerful force for good in the entire campaign?
The Wizard: Look at it this way, Pete. This story is part of Tolkien's world, but it's more than that - it's the foundation of a cultural phenomenon. Since 1937, The Hobbit has been an inspiration to so many authors, inspired so many stories, its formed part of the cultural DNA. Even though this is the first time we've had this kind of adaptation, the influence of The Hobbit has long preceded its actual appearance in this form. Wizards, dwarves, dragons, elves, orcs - they're normal for this sort of thing. They're expected. They're not surprising. So you have all these stories with dragons and dark lords and tiny people, and even if it's the first time for The Hobbit, people have already experienced Willow, Dragonslayer, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad - it just isn't so amazing any more.
And yet there's a whole world beyond that of Middle-earth. Tolkien said that Middle-earth was just one corner of Arda, which was our world in a different mythic time. Ergo, all the peoples of our world - Africans, Indians, Native Americans - it follows that they were all in Arda too, right? Tolkien refers to many lands beyond Rhûn and Harad: the Straits of the World, the Hitherlands, the Dark Land, Oronto, Hildórien, Cuiviénen, the Last Desert. Yet we know next to nothing about them. Doesn't that make them ripe for adventure?
Middle-earth's just a tiny corner of this map Tolkien drew in the 1930s.
The Wizard: So when you put a person of colour in Lake-Town, do you know what I think?
DM: That it pulls you out of Tolkien's meticulously-crafted world?
The Wizard: I was pulled out when you mangled the history of the War of the Ring before we started playing, dude. No, what I think is what is her story? Think about it: Middle-earth is a chaotic, vastly depopulated landscape. It's been ravaged by war, plague and geological upheaval. The few human kingdoms are mistrustful of the mysterious Elves and Dwarves, live in constant fear of monsters roaming the countryside or descending upon towns, and are struggling as it is. Widespread movement in Middle-earth is difficult if not impossible for most people, only the likes of Aragorn able to travel far - and the journey is always perilous. Frodo's journey was dangerous even before he got to the Misty Mountains, and that was just outside the freakin' Shire.
The Dwarf: What was that?
The Elf: I think he's ranting about the Barrow-Downs again. Sometimes I think he secretly wants to get the whole party wiped.
The Wizard: So if Frodo's journey from the Shire to Mordor is the stuff of legend, then this woman turning up in Dale from who knows where is even more amazing. And just think of the journey itself - there are so many ways to get to Dale fraught with peril and adventure. So let's assume that this woman is from Far Harad. By this time, the Haradrim have already allied with Mordor through force or coercion, with their allies the Corsairs of Umbar a perennial threat to Gondor's shores. The War of the Ring hasn't started yet, but the Watchful Peace is anything but a paradise. It's only a few decades after the Fell Winter, Aragorn's father was killed by orcs, Sauron's consolidating his forces in Dol Guldur-
DM: Spoilers, man!
The Wizard: You spoiled it in the last campaign at the White Council! Remember? When Saruman started moaning about Radagast's teeth?
DM: Oh yeah.
(The Wizard pulls out his map of Middle-earth. The other players groan.)
OK, I might have gone a bit nuts here, but anyway.
Purple: Frodo's journey from the Shire (for comparison purposes)
Red: Quickest, but most dangerous route through known Middle-earth lands.
Blue: Quickest reasonably-safe route from Poros Crossing
Green: Safest, but longest route
Yellow: Route through unknown lands south and east of Middle-earth
The Wizard: Let's say she takes the land route. So she'd have to take the Harad Road, unless she can navigate the desert. At the crossing on the River Harnen, she'd be in Harondor, currently controlled by the Haradrim, who may or may not be friendly to someone of Far Harad. She'd continue along the Harad Road for a few days until the Crossing of Poros, a vital strategic point which has been battled over for millennia. Gondorians would be suspicious of anyone from Harad, so trading or emigrating there would be tense at the very least. After crossing the river she could travel north, past the ruined Osgiliath, through the no-man's land of Ithilien, until coming upon the treacherous Dead marshes: the chances of being waylaid by orcs or bandits is high, if she isn't drowned in the marshes or dies of exposure or starvation. Or she could go through the southern Gondorian fiefs, away from the Mordor lines, but that'd take more time.
From here it gets tough: north of the marshes is the complete anarchy of Rhovanion. There are few people here save petty princedoms and tribes which survived the Dark Plague and the Wainrider's invasion, though with the return of Sauron it's probably swarming with dark forces. North will just take her to Dol Guldur and Mirkwood. Best to go west into Rohan: they aren't much more accomodating than Gondor, but at least they aren't yet in open war with Far Harad. So our heroine lives with the Rohirrim for a while, but eventually decides to travel again.
She could take the Old South Road, but this would put her on the other side of the Misty Mountains, not to mention taking her through barbaric Dunland. She'd have to go through the Wold, and cross to the Field of Celebrant. This is orc territory, and Dol Guldur is very close, albeit separated by the Anduin. Luckily she's near Lorien, so either she manages to get past without being shot by elf or orc, or she does some trade with Lorien. She needs to keep to the west side of the Anduin to maximise her chance of avoiding orcs, but unfortunately she's then on the same side as the Misty Mountains and the goblins of that region. But after the Gladden River, she'd be in the Vales of Anduin, so Beorn and his kin could handle any orcs. From here she'd go north to the Old Ford, and it's a hop skip and a jump to Rhosgobel, and then the Old Forest Road.
That road is probably the most dangerous part of the journey: the north side is dominated by the Wood Elves, while the south has the orcs increasing in number and growing bold. She runs a real risk of being shot by both sides, and both for the same reason - that she's a human. And, of course, you can't forget about the spiders. So after a few days of travel through spider/orc/elf-infested forest, the road turns north after crossing the Celduin, and eventually takes her to Lake-Town.
And that's our heroine's journey, through deserts, warzones, death marshes, rivers, wilderness, forest and hills, avoiding battles, skirmishes, rangers, scouts, orcs, goblins, giant spiders, elves and who knows what else. She travels further than Frodo & Sam, without the magic invisibility ring, and without the future King of Gondor watching her back. But it doesn't have to go that way either: she could've taken a ship from Umbar to Andrast, and travelled to Rohan through the White Mountains; she could've travelled in Rhun for many years before going east from Dorwinion. And of course, it's possible she was born in Dale, but that would just mean her ancestors would've made just as perilous a journey. That's why there are so few people of colour seen in Middle-earth: outside of the Shire, nowhere is safe. Traders stick to civilisation: it's just too risky to brave the wild lands of Middle-earth when you could be eaten by a troll or stuck by an orc.
Angus McBride = Best Tolkien Illustrator.
DM: But you have to admit, there must me something beyond what we see in the books, right?
The Wizard: Of course there are - that makes them even more ripe for original stories than some fanfic with Mary Sue elf girls.
The Elf: Hey! HEY!
The Ranger: Come on, Eva, she's a total Sue. I mean, you portray her really well and she's a sympathetic Sue, but she's still a total Sue.
(The Elf sulks.)
The Wizard: Tolkien leaves plenty of hints that there's more going on in Arda than what we see in Middle-earth. Aragorn travelled to Harad before the War of the Ring - what was he doing there? Gandalf is said to have a name among the Haradrim - what was he doing in Harad? Harad weren't always the bad guys - Numenor started all this grief by invading and taking their lands, then murdering their people in mass sacrifices to Melkor. And if there's one thing the constant comparisons to World War 2 tell me, it's that there are always those who resist - and that would apply in Harad as surely as it did in France, Poland, even Germany itself.
That's why the appearance of a woman of colour in the middle of Lake-Town is so distracting: because despite appearing for only a few seconds, she's the most interesting character in the entire story. Why on earth would she risk life and limb on such a hazardous journey? Why would anyone? Whatever her reasons, this woman has done something incredible. She's either travelled across a dangerous world to Lake-Town, or she's the descendant of people who made that journey. She's unlike anyone else in that city, that part of the world. She's completely and utterly fascinating.
DM: Ian, don't you think exoticising her is just as bad? You're going on about her uniqueness and specialness, when I was attempting to normalise the character, to show that there are some people of colour in Middle-earth.
The Wizard: Then why is she the only one we've seen after four campaigns? You've already changed plenty of things from Tolkien based on extrapolation, you could easily have extended that further. The Gondorians of the southern provinces, like Pelargir and Dol Amroth, were described as darker of skin than their northern cousins, and there was doubtless some admixture with their proximity to Harondor and Umbar - why didn't you put them in? Or the Druedain? Why didn't you put the Haradrim leaders making peace with Aragorn in your interminable saga of endings? Why didn't you have a Haradrim among the Nine Kings of Men during the prologue to go along with Khamul the Easterling - making them a bad guy, sure, but also acknowledging them as one of the nine most powerful mortals in the world? I'm just saying for someone so concerned about diversity, you've missed an awful lot of perfectly legitimate chances to act on that.
I guess the two on the far left could be Easterlings, maybe, if you squint?
DM: ... OK. OK. ... OK. So let's say I let you completely mess up my meticulously planned campaign so you can play this woman. Could you at least come up with some backstory?
The Wizard: Well, the way I see it, anyone who came all this way through such wild and varied terrain has to be a seasoned traveller. She'd have to be extremely brave to go into unfriendly and even hostile territory: she may have had combat training too. There are plenty of stories of African warrior women: the Dahomey Amazons most obviously, Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba drove out the technologically superior Portuguese, the Kandake of Meroe even faced down Alexander the Great according to legend. Why would she go north? Well, we know Aragorn went south, and it's hinted that Gandalf and Saruman did too: it seems logical that they made allies there in the search for Sauron and the One Ring.
DM: I don't know, later in the story I have her shaking her head in fear of what Smaug did to Dale...
The Ahosi, as the outcast people of Dakome came to be known, constantly foiled and undermined the Mordor foederati's war efforts against Gondor. They were resourceful, and found allies - other independent tribes and kingdoms which rejected Sauron's lies - who were also rendered outlaws and rebels. They knew that the distant peoples in the north would be great allies, but they had no knowledge of the lands north of Poros, where the stars are strange. This changed when a stranger from the West came among the Haradrim: Inkā-nūsh, "North-Spy," a pale man, grey of beard and mantle, who sowed dissent and chaos in Harondor. The Ahosi made allies with him, and he relayed vital information about the lands beyond.
By the time of the Quest of Erebor, the Ahosi are quiet. They are not yet ready to bring the fight to the Haradrim, but the Kandake is eager to aid the White Council in their search for Sauron and the Ring. The Kandake sends her most trusted Gbeto on their most dangerous mission yet: to travel to the northern lands in search of any information which could aid in their fight. Nawi embarks on her journey with a small group north, posing as traders with papers, maps and knowledge of the land supplied by Inkā-nūsh. The journey is fraught with tension and danger: the Men of Gondor and Rohan are deeply mistrustful of Southrons, and Elvish antagonism to non-Elves is compounded. As Nawi's depleted group finds itself lost in Rhovanion after a skirmish with Easterlings, she learns of a dragon having taken residence in the far north: having experience of battling Glaurung's brood in the baking desert, she braves the wilderlands of the East Bight in the walk north, losing more warriors still. By the time she crossed the Celduin, she was the only one left - but she made her way to Laketown. There she began her search for information.
DM: ... What about stats?
The Wizard: Mahunno. Just basic Ranger, I guess. You saw Grace Jones in Conan the Destroyer? She's like that, mixed with Aragorn.
(As the DM scribbles, the rest of the party exchange glances)
The Elf: ... You know guys, after we've finished this campaign, maybe we could do a bit of roleplaying in Far Harad? I mean, we've been playing in Middle-earth all this time, and yet it's like Ian says, there's a whole world out there. I'd kind of like to play a campaign with the Haradrim resistance, you know? It makes a change, is all.
The Dwarf: The far east sounds cool too: those women with "strange eyes" and "silken hair" sound like they're from the far east, right? And I remember you saying Sauron's base there was a fortress surrounded by fire, how cool is that?
The Ranger: I've read a few cool stories set in Africa that might be good for inspiration. I mean, obviously there's Haggard, Burroughs and Howard, stuff like that?
The Hobbit: There's a whole subgenre out there, Sword & Soul. Charles R. Saunders, Milton J. Davis, N.K. Jemisin, Carole McDonnell, Valjeanne Jeffers, John F. Allen, P. Djeli Clark, Stafford L. Battle, Ronald T. Jones, Maurice Broaddus, Anthony Kwamu, Melvin Carter. There's a collection of stories called Griots, edited by Davis & Saunders. In fact, we don't even need to do Middle-earth, we could have a Nyumbani or Meji campaign, or make up our own adventure in a new fantasy land.
(The rest of the group always listens when The Hobbit speaks.)
DM: Bah. Fine. Fine. On one condition: you still play Gandalf when he comes along, and you stop complaining about the liberties. OK?
(Murmers of begrudging assent.)
DM: Right. Let's see how this goes.
Note: I have gone to extreme lengths to use the correct term for individuals not of Northern European genetic ancestry, but unfortunately what is polite in one country may be considered offensive in another, and vice-versa. As such, I have used the terminology my cousin uses - being a person of colour herself, I figure her choice is the most appropriate for me to adopt. If I've used it incorrectly, or if there's a better phrase, I will happily use that here and from now on.