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[1]
Easterlings by John Howe

Some fans and critics of Tolkien's works could observe several ambiguously Racist and race-based elements; these go further into stereotyping or the symbolism of good versus evil in the Tolkien's legendarium. Though the latter is the more established and valid area of study, as early as the first edition of The Lord of the Rings the topic of 'race' has been discussed, including by C.S. Lewis.[source?]

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"[2] (see below). Tolkien can therefore be described as an author whose messages, allegories (or lack-thereof), and agendas as being set aside from the social-political domain and entirely focused within a fantasy-fiction context.

Christine Chism mentions the issue of racism in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, where she distinguishes accusations as falling into three categories: intentional racism, unconscious Eurocentric bias, and an evolution from latent racism in Tolkien's early work to a conscious rejection of racist tendencies in his late work.[source?]

The Lord of the Rings (film series) has done much to perpetuate recent popular interest in, as well as criticism of Tolkien's writings.[source?]

Indications[edit | edit source]

Orcs[edit | edit source]

The mostly white Free Peoples of Middle-Earth doing battle with the hordes of beast-like orcs is seen by some as an indication of racism.[source?]

Of the orcs, the Uruk-Hai are described as "black"[3] and a smaller orc, a tracker, is described as "black-skinned".[4] All orcs are often described as "slant-eyed" and the Uruk-Hai at least refer to the Rohirrim as 'white skins.' 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"[5]

While Tolkien's statement comparing Orcs to the "Mongol-types" may be interpreted as racist, he does put a disclaimer, "(to Europeans,)" before "least lovely", at least recognizing Western cultural bias and also pointing 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 is historically associated with the Middle-East).[6]

Orcs however, are not men. Unlike the wicked men who serve the Enemy, who might have been enslaved or beguiled, orcs are portrayed as irredeemably 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 or men. Regardless of their origins they are not presented as a natural race.[7]

Light vs. Dark[edit | edit source]

Some critics have declared that there is racism in Tolkien's works through his use of the words such as "light" and "white" vs. "dark" or "black". For instance, in 2002, John Yatt in The Guardian wrote: "White men are good, 'dark' men are bad, orcs are worst of all."[8] Other critics such as Tom Shippey and Michael D.C. Drout disagree with such clear-cut generalizations of Tolkien's "white" and "dark" men into good and bad.

The whole of Tolkien's legendarium contains a conflict between "light" (The Trees, the Silmarils) and "darkness" (the literal absence of light). Morgoth's standard was "sable unblazoned" (that is, plain black). "Mordor" means "black land" in Sindarin. If one were to analyse this through a racial lense, the 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. Both these terms refer to remaining outside the light of the two trees, not to skin tone. The Black Númenóreans are likewise named because of the color of their allegiance to Sauron and their heraldry, not their skin tone. Considering this, Tolkien's assignment of Good and Evil to "light" and "dark" cannot simply be dismissed as racial undertones within the broader narrative.

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, three Númenórean ships are followed 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.[source?]

Evil Men[edit | edit source]

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 exception of Bór's folk. They are described as being of fairly dark skin complexion, swarthy and exceedingly cruel. The Southrons (or Haradrim) are described as 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). Bill Ferny is said to be swarthy, and this can be traced to his Dunlending ancestry.

While the Easterlings and the Haradrim are dark-skinned people in the service of the Enemy, the Woses 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, Gríma, Gollum, and at least two of the Nazgûl. 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.

Tolkien also wrote that the Blue Wizards, who do not appear in 'The Lord of the Rings narrative, were sent into the South and East lands to spread dissent and resistance against Sauron. While he wrote on one occasion (as given in Unfinished Tales) that they failed, on another occasion (as given in The Peoples of Middle-earth) he wrote that they were successful, making Sauron's hold on these lands throughout the centuries significantly weaker than it should have been. This prevented Sauron from overwhelming the West with his armies and ultimately contributed to his defeat in the War of the Ring. This means that Southrons and Easterlings resisting Sauron were meant to exist, only that their stories remain untold.

Racism in Middle-earth[edit | edit source]

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.[9] The friendship between Legolas and Gimli is portrayed as unusual but commendable,[10] and several scenes illustrate them learning to understand and respect each other's cultural differences. When Gimli meets Galadriel and hears her speak the names of Kheled-zaram, Kibil-nala, and Khazad-dum in his own tongue, he is described as feeling as if he had"looked into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding." Later, when he originally asks for nothing of Lady Galadriel, although she had given every other member of the Fellowship a gift, she says, "Let none say again that Dwarves are grasping and ungracious!"[11]

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. They are not without prejudice, however, and Gandalf is shown reprimanding Frodo for his comments on Barliman Butterbur.

The Númenóreans 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 Númenórean Castamir while the hero was the half-Númenórean Eldacar.

Dwarves as Jews[edit | edit source]

Tolkien himself compared Dwarves to Jews:

Tolkien: "The dwarves of course are quite obviously-"

D. Gueroult: "wouldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews?"

Tolkien: "[pausing] Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic."[12]

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…" [13]

Throughout the books, Tolkien paints a mostly positive picture of the dwarves (Gimli of course is brave and honourable, and "few Dwarves ever served the enemy willingly", contrary to the tales of Men[14]) 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.[15] 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. This, though, has more of an origin in Norse mythology than Jewish stereotypes.

Númenóreans[edit | edit source]

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 Dúnedain (literally "Men of the West") of Númenor. It should be also noted that according to Theosophy, Ariosophy and Nazism[16], the Aryan race is supposedly descended from Atlantis.[17]

Although gifted, many of Tolkien's Númenóreans are evil. In the Appendices to the Return of the King, Númenórean fleets sail to Middle Earth, where they conquer and subjugate native peoples in what may be a commentary on European imperialism. The Númenóreans ultimately cause their own downfall by following the teachings of Morgoth, conducting human sacrifices, and making war on Valinor. At least three of the Nazgûl are Númenóreans.

Counterindications[edit | edit source]

Tolkien's defenders assert that many criticisms of racism and elitism leveled 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.

  • The symbolism of light as good and dark as evil is a prehistoric dichotomy present in a great many cultures, Western and otherwise. It is also a part of Christianity (John 8:12 Jesus Christ said, "I am the Light of the World, Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."). Variations such as the Manicheeist heresy and further the ancient religion of Persia - Zoroastrianism.
  • 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 human 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.[18] 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 sub-Saharan African features.[19]
  • 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, Samwise Gamgee represents the common man, and sees insights that more "noble" characters apparently do not, such as the true situation of the human enemies. Tolkien states that Sam is the chief hero of the whole book.[20] Sam himself is twice referred to as having "brown hands",[21] leading some to argue that Sam is "non-white".[22]
  • The blood of Númenor ran nearly true in the character of Faramir,[23] a man whom Tolkien described as "modest, fair-minded and scrupulously just, and very merciful",[24] yet he chose to marry Éowyn, who was a woman of Rohan and therefore undoubtedly of the race of Middle Men.[25]
  • There are no truly "perfect" peoples in Tolkien's writings, save perhaps the Vanyar. 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.

The Lord of the Rings and Fascism[edit | edit source]

In Italy, Lord of the Rings is considered fascist by some groups and Italian fascist organisations are allegedly using the book for recruiting.[26] 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.[27]

Tolkien's works have also been embraced by self-admitted racists such as the British National Party.[28]

However, Tolkien himself stated in a letter to his son in 1943 that My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning the abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)-or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy.[29]. Thus this makes any notion of Tolkien being fascist defunct.

Relevant Passages from the text[edit | edit source]

"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[edit | edit source]

"I must say that the enclosed letter from Rütten & 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 Bestätigung (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 none 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. Since he mentioned two drafts existing it is assumed that the other one was 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."
Letter 61 — Written to Christopher Tolkien who was stationed in South Africa during World War II
"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

External links[edit | edit source]


  1. http://metromix.chicagotribune.com/movies/chi-030112epringsrace,0,341461.story
  2. J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 30, (dated 25 July 1938), p.37
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Bridge of Khazad-dûm"
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Land of Shadow"
  5. J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 210, (undated, written June 1958)
  6. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The Departure of Boromir"
  7. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor"
  8. The Guardian (2 December 2002)
  9. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Ride of the Rohirrim"
  10. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix B, "Later Events Concerning the Members of the Fellowship of the Ring"
  11. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Mirror of Galadriel";J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Farewell to Lórien"
  12. "J.R.R. Tolkien 164 Interview" at https://youtu.be/bzDtmMXJ1B4?t=631
  13. J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 176, (dated 8 December 1955)
  14. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, "The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age", "Of Other Races"
  15. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age"
  16. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aryan_race#Occultism
  17. Alfred Rosenberg, The Myth of the Twentieth Century
  18. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin"
  19. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit"
  20. J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 131, (undated, written late 1951)
  21. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The Stairs of Cirith Ungol";J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Tower of Cirith Ungol"
  22. "Sam Gamgee’s Brown Hands", Ask About Middle-Earth (accessed 6 December 2023)
  23. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "Minas Tirith"
  24. J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 244, (undated, written circa 1963)
  25. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Steward and the King";J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The Window on the West"
  26. http://www.johnreilly.info/ata.htm
  27. http://www.theonering.net/perl/newsview/8/1001628604
  28. The Sunday Times - The BNP has declared Lord of the Rings essential reading. They’re not the only extremists to get the wrong idea
  29. {{L|52]], p. 67