Racism in Tolkien's Works
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- "For years, Tolkien scholars have waged a fight on two fronts: against an academic establishment that for the most part refused to take the author's work seriously, and against white supremacists who have tried to claim the professor as one of their own."
- ― David Ibata, Chicago Tribune
In the Foreword to the revised edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien cautioned strongly against viewing it as an allegory, saying that he disliked allegory himself. Furthermore, according to his own claims, Tolkien denounced Hitler, Nazi beliefs, "race-doctrine" and apartheid and praised the Jews, calling them a "gifted people" (see below).
The Lord of the Rings film trilogy has done much to perpetuate popular interest in, as well as criticism of, Tolkien's writing. In Italy, Lord of the Rings is considered fascist by some groups and Italian fascist organisations are allegedly using the book for recruiting. Natalia Aspesi from the Cannes Film Festival called the movie 'naziskn'. According to Italian website Caltanet, Alleanza Nazionale a right-oriented Italian political party had taken a picture from Fellowship of the Ring movie to promote a speech by his leader, Gianfranco Fini
Synopsis of the controversy
Tolkien's creation arguably rests upon the same kind of oversimplification that racial prejudice does. In descriptive terms, he can be said to depend on superficial details: (such as physical features, language, clothing); the exaggeration of common aesthetic values of beauty and ugliness to extremes; the wholesale assignment of values of good and evil to a whole class of creatures. On this basis his writing has been criticized, for displacing human contact and nuance.
Tolkien's defenders contend that the various "races" are exaggerated personifications of broadly accepted value judgements, along a wide spectrum of traits from benevolent and just to wicked and perverse. A perspective that can be supported from Tolkien's own discussions of his work is that he distributed human traits: none of the types represents a complete person.
The mostly white Free People's of Middle-Earth doing battle with the hordes of beast-like orcs is seen by some as an indication of racism. As early as the first edition of the Lord of the Rings this topic was discussed, including by C.S. Lewis who wrote that people who dislike a clear demarcation of good and evil "imagine they have seen a rigid demarcation between black and white people."
To start, of the orcs, only the Uruk Hai are described as black skinned. However, in one of his letters, Tolkien described Orcs as "...squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types."(Letter 210)
While Tolkien's statement comparing Orcs to the "Mongol-types" is undoubtedly insensitive given today's standards, he does put a disclaimer "(to Europeans)" before "least lovely", at least recognizing Western cultural bias and also points out that they were "degraded and repulsive versions" of "Mongol-types", not actual "Mongol-types". It is worth noting that some Orcs use crooked or bent swords (Tolkien also uses the term scimitar, which are historically associated with the Middle-East).
Orcs however, are not men. Unlike the wicked men who serve the Enemy, who might have been enslaved or beguiled, orcs are portrayed as iredeemably evil, or at least having a redemption outside the scope of the narrative. The origin of orcs is not clear, but they may be products of Morgoth's sorcery, or the descendants of tortured and ruined elves. Regardless of their origins they are not presented as a natural race, indeed there is no mention of orc women, children, villages, or culture. Perhaps inspired by his Roman Catholicism, Tolkien's orcs may have more in common with demonic armies than foreign ones .
Light vs. Dark
The whole of Tolkien's Legendarium contains a conflict between literal light (The Trees, the Silmirils) and darkness (the literal absence of light). Morgoth's standard was "sable unblazoned" (that is, plain black). "Mordor" means "black land" in Sindarin. This ongoing clash may be interpreted as containing racial symbolism of light skinned versus dark skinned peoples, although Eol, father of Maeglin was known as the Dark Elf, and the Moriquendi were called the Elves of Darkness, although both these terms refer to remaining outside the light of the two trees, not to skin tone. the Black Numenoreans are likewise named because of the color of their heraldry, not their skin tone.
But white is not associated only with Good. Saruman the White has the White Hand as his symbol. Similarly black is not only associated with evil as Gondor uses a black standard bearing the White Tree, and the Guards of the Citadel of Minas Tirith wore black chain mail. In The Peoples of Middle-earth, a Numenorean fleet is headed by a boat with black sails. One of the mariners explains to a native of Middle-earth, scared that the black sails indicate doom, that the blackness is in fact a thing of beauty, the night sky of Elbereth (who kindled the stars). Indeed, Tolkien states that one of Morgoth's (literally, the Black Enemy) victories was in associating darkness and night with fear and evil.
One potentially racist element in Middle-Earth is that the majority of the men who serve Sauron are the dark-skinned peoples of the Easterlings and Southrons. They come from the South and East of Middle-Earth, corresponding with Asia and Africa in the loose connection between Middle-Earth geography and that of the real world. The Easterlings are aligned with Morgoth or Sauron with the single exception of Bór. They are described as being of fairly dark skin complexion, swarthy and exceedingly cruel. The Southrons (or Haradrim) are black-skinned, cruel and evil, and are apparently at least inspired by Indian cultures with traits such as fighting on Mumakil-back.
In some cases, people having the slightest blood relation to enemies, like Freca and Wulf, who are related to the Dunlendings, are presented as evil themselves, as if evilness is hereditary. Some of these are also called "swarthy" (dark). Usually, those whose appearance was 'unpleasant' (Maeglin, Bill Ferny) and disliked by the main protagonists, turn out to be traitors. Bill Ferny is said to be swarthy, and this can be traced to his Dunlending ancestry.
While the Easterling and the Haradrim are dark-skinned people in the service of the Enemy, The Woses, the Wild Men of the Druadan Forest, are primitive, small, and alien compared to other peoples (their chief Ghan-buri-Ghan only wears a grass skirt) yet they are valuable allies (in The Return of the King). While Tolkien does not mention their skin colour, they were considered monsters by the Rohirrim who hunted them as animals, which the narrative explicitly condemns. However in the First Age they were counted as Edain, or noble Men, and were allies of the Elves.
However, not all enemies are non-white. Noteworthy examples are Saruman, Grima, Gollum, and at least two of the Nazgul. Also Lotho Sackville-Baggins and the ruffians are white-skinned characters who ravage and take over the Shire. Indeed, while during the timeframe of Lord of the Rings those enslaved and serving Sauron are darker skinned people from the South and East, during the history of Middle-Earth many of the white races of man and even some Elves were fooled and coerced by the Enemy.
Racism in Middle-Earth
Tolkien portrays racism within the "heroic" races as unabashedly negative. Elves and Dwarves distrust each other. Some Elves hunted the Petty-dwarves as animals, as did the Rohirrim to the Woses. The friendship between Legolas and Gimli is portrayed as unusual but commendable, and several scenes illustrate them learning to understand and respect each other's cultural differences. When Gimli takes a strand of Galadriel's hair, he is described as having "look[ed] into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding."
It is notable that there is apparently racism within the ranks of Orcs as the Uruk-hai held themselves as superior to the common Orcs, whom they called snaga (slave).
The point-of-view characters of the book -- the hobbits -- are themselves of a race that is frequently described as being overlooked, under-estimated, and lightly regarded by the other races of Middle-earth, yet they often demonstrate far greater courage and nobility than the races who denigrate them.
The Numenoreans of Gondor fell to infighting because of a supposed need for racial purity, especially concerning the ancestry of their king (the Kin-strife), and grew weaker as a result. In this affair, the villain was the pure-blooded Numenorean Castamir while the hero was the half-Numenorean Eldacar.
Dwarves as Jews
Tolkien himself compared Dwarves to Jews:
- ""The dwarves of course are quite obviously - wouldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.""
- ― J.R.R. Tolkien
One may interpret this comment in many ways. It should be noted that he only made an explicit connection between the dwarf-language Khuzdul to Semitic languages. In another letter, he makes the same comparison, but this time it is explicitly about both peoples being dispossessed of their lands, forced to wander the world, and adopt the languages of other lands: both were "at once natives and aliens in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue…" (Letter 176)
Throughout the books, Tolkien paints a mostly positive picture of th dwarves (Gimli of course is brave and honourable, and it is stated in one of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings that "few Dwarves ever served the enemy willingly", contrary to the tales of Men) and elsewhere he made explicitly positive statements about the Jewish people.
However, one of the weaknesses of the Dwarves was their greed for gold and other riches, amplified by the Seven Rings. Some see a connection between this and the stereotype of the Jewish usurer. It is also possible to draw a connection between the bearded Dwarves and the beards of Orthodox Jews.
- Tolkien has divine beings blessing or gifting peoples or persons and their descendants, having thus the concept of the chosen people who differ from others — in Tolkien's case, the Dunedain (literally "Men of the West") of Numenor.
Tolkien's defenders assert that many criticisms of racism and elitism levelled at The Lord of the Rings and other writings are oversimplifications and generalizations, and do not take account of everything the author may have written concerning these matters.
- Tolkien was English, and wanted to make a mythology for England. Therefore he wrote The Lord of the Rings according to his people's point of view. He could not make his protagonists, say, Incan or Japanese, or even put the setting anywhere else than (an alternative) North-western Europe, in spirit if not in actuality.
- Tolkien only made precise geographic correspondences of Third Age Middle-earth locations to those in the real world. For example, Hobbiton was at the latitude of Oxford. The Shire was based upon, but was not actually rural England, since "the lands have changed" since then. Tolkien made no precise correspondences regarding the peoples concerned. Though the Hobbits were based upon rural English folk, they were not literally ancient Englishmen. He never said that Harad was Africa, nor the Eastlands Asia, nor their inhabitants ancestors of Africans or Asians. The Silmarillion presents tales of a time when the Earth's lands were different from that in the Third Age.
- Not only the East and South are associated with evil, and neither were they always so. In the First Age, evil came from the North when Morgoth based himself in Angband. Also, all Men and Elves first awoke in the East. Boromir is introduced as a "man of the South" without qualification (actually South-west).
- The white but darker-skinned Dunlendings themselves are descendants of the Edain (through the House of Haleth), therefore distant though unrecognized relatives of the Dunedain of Numenor, and their ancestors grew hostile to the Dunedain due to the latter despoiling their forests. The mostly benign and hearty men of Bree are descended from Dunlendings.
- In the War of the Ring, the enemies are not truly evil, since they are described as deceived, enslaved or exploited. Sam sees a dead warrior of Harad and wonders if he was truly evil — or rather deceived or coerced to go to war (see below). The Dunlendings are persuaded by Saruman to attack Rohan, playing on their grievances due to Gondor giving what they considered their land to the Eotheod, the ancestors of the Rohirrim. Earlier, Sauron persuaded their ancestors to fight against the Numenoreans, the cause of their relocation from forests into the hills.
- Tolkien does not actually mention the physical features of the Easterlings in The Lord of the Rings; however the Easterlings of The Silmarillion are described as either sallow or swarthy. There is no certainty that the Easterlings of the First Age are the same people as those of the Third Age though: in fact, many of the "white" Men of Eriador are indicated to be descendants of the First Age Easterlings.
- Tolkien first describes the Haradrim in The Lord of the Rings as tall, dark, and looking fierce and nasty (according to Gollum), with long black hair, painted faces and gold earrings and ornaments. Later a warrior of Harad who falls at Sam's feet has black plaits of hair braided with gold. Notably, the author does not describe them as black, nor their hair as kinky, nor give them any other typical African features.
- All the "superior" people, be they Elves, Edain or Dunedain, have no direct analogues in peoples of the real world. If the Dunedain could be put somewhere, they would belong in Atlantis, since Numenor was Middle-Earth's counterpart to Plato's Atlantis. The Rohirrim, who have been parallelled to blond and fair Europeans, are "inferior" to them, being Middle Men, in their view.
- Kings, princes, heirs and noblemen as protagonists is not necessarily an advocation of blood nobility, since it is a theme and concept common in myths and fairy-tales. Also, Sam Gamgee represents the common man, and sees insights that more "noble" characters apparently do not, such as the true situation of the human enemies. Note that in a letter (#131), Tolkien states that Sam is the chief hero of the whole book.
- There are no truly "perfect" peoples in Tolkien's writings. Given that Tolkien loved trees and nature in general, having his Numenoreans wantonly cut down trees for ships is decidedly negative. The Noldor rebelled against the Valar and killed their fellow Elves.
Relevant Passages from the text
- "It is not unlikely that they [Orcs] invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them""
- ― The Hobbit, "Over-Hill and Under-Hill"
- "It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace."
- ― The Two Towers, "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit"
Tolkien on Racism
- "I must say that the enclosed letter from Rutten & Loening is a bit stiff. Do I suffer this impertinence because of the possession of a German name, or do their lunatic laws require a certificate of arisch origin from all persons of all countries? ... Personally I should be inclined to refuse to give any Bestatigung (although it happens that I can), and let a German translation go hang. In any case I should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print. I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine."
- ― Letter 29 — Tolkien's German publishers had asked whether he was of Aryan origin)
- "Thank you for your letter ... I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware noone (sic) of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people."
- ― Letter 30 (Tolkien's unsent response to his German publishers; a more neutral version was ultimately sent)
- "There was a solemn article in the local paper seriously advocating systematic exterminating of the entire German nation as the only proper course after military victory: because, if you please, they are rattlesnakes, and don't know the difference between good and evil! (What of the writer?) The Germans have just as much right to declare the Poles and Jews exterminable vermin, subhuman, as we have to select the Germans: in other words, no right, whatever they have done."
- ― J.R.R. Tolkien — September 23, 1944
- "I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White."
- ― From a valedictory address to the University of Oxford in 1959
- "As for what you say or hint of ‘local’ conditions: I knew of them. I don't think they have much changed (even for the worse). I used to hear them discussed by my mother; and have ever since taken a special interest in that part of the world. The treatment of colour nearly always horrifies anyone going out from Britain, & not only in South Africa. Unfort[unately], not many retain that generous sentiment for long." — From a letter to Christopher Tolkien, who was stationed in South Africa during World War II"
- ― Letter 29
- "Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge--which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that it in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will). Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light."
- ― Letter 45
- ↑ http://metromix.chicagotribune.com/movies/chi-030112epringsrace,0,341461.story
- ↑ http://www.theonering.net/perl/newsview/8/1001628604
- ↑ http://www.daisy.freeserve.co.uk/jrrt_int.htm
- Portion of a Tolkien FAQ attempting to give an answer to the matter
- Relevant article on the movies by Michael Martinez
- Critique of the Lord of the Rings as an 'epic rooted in racism' by Dr Shapiro
- Critique of the Peter Jackson movies, pointing out possible racist messages by Dimitris Danikas (in Greek)