Tolkien? Racist? Uh…

Right-Wing analysis

Except for the dodgy, bitchy take on Liberals, which should be directed at the extremists only, this is a good criticism of a rather idiotic article about The Lord of the Rings‘ purported racist undertones.

I mean, hell, I thought the temptation for evil was something that haunted every character in the story, from Gandalf to Frodo to Boromir… of course, in the logic of fantasy, species are usually aligned with good or evil in general, the same way race used to be (and in many places still is) linked to something like good or evil in the public imagination. But I think the fall and eventual necessity of rescue of the Shire is one of those indicators that evil can encroach anywhere, anytime, if we are all of us not vigilant.

PC. People just being critical to sound critical. Next someone will be touting that old David Brin criticism (wasn’t it?) about how Tolkien and political systems, and how George Lucas is an anti-democratic SOB. Pfffft. Pft. Pt.

19 thoughts on “Tolkien? Racist? Uh…

  1. What utter crap. Why should we be surprised some idiot yahoo left wing Marxist from The Guardian thinks Lord of the Rings is racist?

    Idiot. The fool who wrote this article is a moron and an idiot. Like all die hard lefties. Isn’t this why everyone hates liberals? Man, what a miserable, guilt ridden sack of shit the guy who wrote this Guardian article is.

    How can someone go through life with SO much, guilt, self-hatred, and bullshit guilty white liberal feelings running through their heads? Sick, sad and pathetic. That’s the only way to describe this P.C. nonsense. The rest of us be we left or right wing will just settle down to enjoy a very fun triolgy of movies.

    The writer of the Guardian piece can stay home and be wracked with misery and guilt. One of the specialties of a die hard socialist.


  2. I am a super fan of Tolkien, I’ve read everything he’s written multiple times,I’m even learning Sindarin in my spare time but it was always really obvious to me that he has a lot of racist undertones to his work. How I deal with it is this: I just ignore the racist undertones, when he refers to “swarthy men” or “heathens” I simply tune it out and replace it with “mislead men” in my head. I think,Its really hard for many white Americans to see when someone is racist. I’ve experienced it first hand so its it hits me like a slap in the face whenever I see it. I’ll give you examples where the racism is clear:
    1)All the noble men and beautiful women are fair and “bright eyed”.
    2)The hadadrim are “swarthy men” they are dark eyed. If you rent the extended edition of two towers you’ll even see the guy that Faramir kills to be clearly a person of Arab origin, even in the movie.
    3)The west and “western” men are symbols of good and everyone from the East and South is primitive or evil. The map of middle earth looks like europe basically , Mordor and the evil eastern people are around where turkey or far eastern europe would be.
    4)Denethor often says things like “I’d rather die before seeing swarthy men feast in our cities” and he also says he wants to “burn like the heathen kings of old”. Its probably very clear to Tolkien, growing up the in era where Britian had colonized India that Hindus still cremate their dead.

    I’m not saying that Tolkien was not imaginative, he was just racist. Perhaps its a function of wanting to provide the English with their own mythology, some sort of racial pride or something.

  3. Smita:

    Very good account of Tolkien’s racism. He is essentially an entertainer, nothing to the stature of a Gandhi, or a Mandela, not even a Mahathir.

    Susma Rio Sep

  4. Okay, well…

    First off, I want to note that I live in Korea. So please don’t tell me it’s hard for me to see racism. I see it everyday. Granted, it’s usually manifested in a kind of extra-nice treatment towards me… but it’s the nervous kind, the kind that often entails some kind of fear of my “stealing” a Korean woman, or trying to actually fit into the society. (And as for nonwhite foreigners, forget it… life in Korea for them is a constant battle with overt racism.) Moreover, when I was growing up, *I* was the minority in a small northern town mostly populated by Cree people, and let me tell you that, even if my family wasn’t poor, I did experience racism there, in shocking ways.

    I don’t know what your experience is, mind you, but I can tell you that white people (Canadian like me, American, or otherwise) do not hold a premium on racist thinking and attitudes.

    That said, I agree some people don’t see racism clearly. Of course, it’s also important to understand that Tolkien is using a lot of the mythological language of Old Europe… by that, I mean stories so old I think it’s quite safe to say the language of that mythology was formed before enough contact with non-Europeans could give rise to anything like racism based on skin color. (Not to say this didn’t exist within Europe for ages, but the criticisms you make smack of much later black-and-white racism.)

    There might be room to argue that Tolkien’s fantasy does represent something of the “other-as-enemy” attitude, and that some linkage to his contemporary world is arguable… but I see much more parallel between events in his trilogy and events in Europe at his time, to be honest. I feel more of a link between the Axis and Mordor than I do between Mordor and “Arabs” or “blacks” or whoever takes offense at his writing.

    I have more to say, but I’ll get back to it later. Lunch calls.

    Okay, I’m back a day later, my thoughts on the subject even more scattered than before!

    I’ll just say this: (a) in every place I’ve been, I’ve seen at least some bias against darker skin. I was shocked in seeing Bollywood movies to see such pale movies star on the screen. (I haven’t asked Ritu about it, but I remember seeing some Indians in a movie refer to one rather dark-complexioned girl as a “darkie” and note that her marriage prospects would be accordingly limited.) I’ve apparently unknowingly annoyed a few Koreans by noting their skin is nicely tanned, too. My mom tells stories of the days when she was in the African bush, in very isolated areas of Malawi, and how she saw darker daughters having a much harder time being married off. Does this absolve Tolkien of racism? No, but perhaps it does explain something that he was tapping into, a very common reference point. I have to admit that, when among strangers I am very aware of race; partly a result of my upbringing, partly a result of often being the only white man in the room. I also admit that I would likely not paint my villains darker than my heroes, but I do know that Gandalf’s return in white robes is a signal that no Westerner could mistake: he has taken the side of good.

    While I can’t buy the idea that Tolkien was an outright racist, however, I can very easily imagine him being a colonialist. I know that it’s difficult to separate the two, of course, but I think it’s possible. The problem with racism is that it can sometimes be undone by exposure. I’ve known racists who’ve never met the object of their bigotry: upon meeting them, sometimes racists relent and rethink their positions. But for a colonialist to do so is exceedingly difficult. My father was educated in the remnants a British colonial school system in Malawi and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe/Zambia) and while his education about the British Empire was astonishingly extensive (to the point that he actually, in his sixties, retains a lot of what he learned then), it was also the history of Earth according to the British Empire.

    But of course, there are challenging voices aplenty now, to the point where they are unavoidable. I and my sistet, with our limited knowledge, argued with him for years about the motivations of the Empire in colonizing Africa… our argument of greed opposing his argument of altruism. What is more saddening, I think now that it was, in fact, a combination of greed, hubris, and a kind of mistaken altruism (present to different degrees in different individuals) that drove the British Empire. Greed alone cannot explain the thing, nor can altruism (no matter how mistaken it was).

    To see Tolkien as rendering the collapse of the Empire, now that I can see. The resentful depiction of whole nations rejecting good and turning toward evil or, worse, chaos… I can see that making sense in Tolkien’s perspective. Now, in my book that would count against Tolkien, make no mistake, but I think it’s something more complicated (and more interesting, and perhaps also more vexing) than simple “racism”.

    There’s some interesting discussion on the web about this, some of which contradicts me, but I’m gonna post one of the more interesting links anyway.

    and another:

    Finally… it’s a freakin’ fantasy novel. Shakespeare was much more overtly racist (against Jews) than anyone could ever accuse Tolkien of being (though even that is to some degree open to interpretation), and yet we still teach Shakespeare in school. Frankly, I read those books and didn’t turn out subscribing to any dogma of racially-based disdain or hatred. I think, though, there are much more crucial places to be directing one’s attention right now, if one is worried about racism. One example is the whole panoply of attitudes expressed in so much of the American debate (what debate there is) about Bushie’s War. Have you noticed nobody is discussing Iraqis as if they are humans, a human society equal to any other? I can scarcely imagine people speaking about even the trendily-hated French in the way they do about Iraqis.

    And unlike Tolkien, Bushie is actually affecting the world in a frightening way… and because of prevailing attitudes, Americans as a group are letting him do it.

    Why isn’t anyone challenging THAT?

  5. I love ‘Lord Of the Rings’ in so many ways, the imagination, the scope of the story is amazing. Is Tolkien racist? First I would say that he like his famous book is many things. Tokiens book tries and succeeds to inspire in the reader a sense of honour, of love and beauty and what those who value those things must do to protect and indeed save them. So far so good. The problem for me starts when he begins to refer to ‘lesser men’ and when he equates character with ‘noble blood’. The notion that Aragons character is somehow basically determined by his blood (in that he is decended from the kings of numenor) is a constant which becomes a cresendo in ‘The Return Of The King’.
    The links to nazi volkish race ‘ideology’ which argues that character is basically decided by race or by blood is clear. However it is important to remember a few facts before concluding that Tolkien was an overt and deliberate racist. First it is this, do nazi notions of race and blood have much in common with Tolkiens equation with character and blood? i think not. Tolkien wishes to discuss character traits, good and bad and his notion of character being linked to blood and race (wether for good eg men of Rohan or bad, Orcs of Mordor)is an metaphorical one. They are merely a vehicle which he uses to give a struture to his fantasy world. The true point of Tolkeins message concerns love, not racist hate. I do not believe that Tolkien would seriously believe that real people were determined by ‘blood’ or race but rather by ideas, philosoiphies and beliefs. It is Saurons belief in power that the ‘men of the west’ must defeat, not the fact that he is from the east.

    True some of these methphorical images are racist but this is more a reflection of the eurocentric world whcih Tolkien inhabited than of any subtle and deliberate racist message. In other words Tolkien racism is the same racism which almost every British or even European person probably held without even realising it and Tolkien himself may not have recognised his institutional racist view of people
    We can also see enviromental influences on character, Tolkien was an early environmentalist and quite cleary shows the orcs (wether they were black or white is not the point) as being perversions or distortions of what they once were. He does not insinuate that they are bad because they are coloured black.
    However the eastern men are clearly called ‘swarthy’ and seem to conjure up images of arabic people as indeed the recent movies demonstrate. However these people are also presented as brave but corrupted by or fearful of Sauron and not intrinsically evil because of their racial descent.

  6. I googled this topic to seee if I was alone in my concerns and was both dishearten and encouraged to find that I was not. But after reading some of the responses, except for the one from the very angry nutter, I’ve come to the conclusion that whether Tolkien was or wasn’t of a racist bent, does not matter to me as much as the fact that there are intelligent thoughtful people discussing it. And even if there are things we can agree on, talking about it honestly and openly can help to heal a long history of hurt.

    Now that my Oprah monent is over.

    My opinion is that he probably had the mindset of the men of his era and wrote from that point of view. Aren’t we lucky that we now live in a world so full of opportunites to get to know so many different people and learn from them.

  7. IMHO, the trilogy and its author are NOT racist. IMHO the Orcs, Haradrim symbolize people who can’t think for themselves. they’re slaves and they do not realize they’re slaves [to Sauron] …..reminds me of the passage in the Bible that essentially says seek first the kingdom of God and all else will follow.

    also, these books were BOOKS and if they did not contain descriptions full of color, imagery, they’d be flat and nobody would read them. only those who aren’t introspective and cerebral would conclude that white equals good black equals bad

  8. It’s normal if Tolkien was a racist. In early 20th century there were no ideas about the equality of the races. The world had theories about the white superiority and no one should expect that one could think in the “right way” when the world vision is different.

  9. Mariana,

    (Not that I imagine you’ll come back to read this, but in case you do…)

    Well, my thinking is a little different, but I’m saving my words and energy for when I post about another fantasy book I’ve recently finished. So I’ll save my comments about Tolkien and discussions of his “racism” until then…

  10. Yes tolkein was racist. Who isn’t to some degree? Even when we don’t know it we are. This is not a comment of despair but awareness of the scope of the problem. I’ve tried to imagine a racist reading tolkein lets face it there is a lot there to ‘confirm’ his or hers views. ‘lesser me’, ‘noble blood’, the west being the hallmark of civilisation surrounded by babarians, all the dark things associated with death, decay and evil and all those blond and riders of rohan. Just all part of the ‘aryan’ family?
    Tolkein, wehter deliberatley or not uses racist imagery, but this is unsurprising. Lord Of the Rings is a mythology for Engerland, and Engerland is racist.

  11. Dear Steven,

    You’re simplifying, I think. Tolkien was certainly race-conscious, as nearly all humans tend to be.

    Is “Engerland” supposed to mean “England” and if so, is the mispelling due to ignorance or feigned cleverness? “Wehter deliberatley or not”? Do you own a dictionary? It may turn out to be a good investment for you. England is probably about as racist as any other Western nation, though it may be more open about it than North America (so I’ve heard).

    As I said before in this thread, it’s be nice if people were as concerned with the outright lies perpetrated by the Bush Administration as they seem to be about whether Tolkien expressed racist views in a 50-some year old piece of fantasy fiction.

  12. Dear gordseller,

    Yes I was simplfying what else from a simpleton (if thats the right spelling)?
    What does ‘race consciousness’ mean? do you mean nationalism? (which can be different from racism) whatever, it sounds like a racist concept.
    England is as racist as any other country but how racist are western antions in general? I think its important to look at this issue along with many others (such as bush and his lies) because despite its age ‘Lord of the Rings’ is still very popular (i like it myself) and influential. Therefore if it is portraying racist ideas as acceptable then it is very relevant and concerning.

  13. Steven,

    Yes, I think you spelled simplifying wrong. I hate to be insulting, but being very sloppy in your writing does you no favors. I didn’t say you’re a simpleton, but I think your comments show a lot of evidence of simpleminded thinking, yes.

    For example, the difference between racism and being race-conscious. Every human in the world is race-conscious, I think. Or almost every human. We’re just like that as humans. Probably it’s wired into our brains to notice if new strangers we meet look like us or look different from us.

    Racists are the people who believe that race *means* much more than that. There are racists all over the world, by the way, and those who think the Western world is the worst haven’t traveled much outside of the Western world. Come and see Asia if you don’t believe me: here, you can be told you’re a sex maniac, be regarded the way black men were in America anywhere from 50-100 years ago (the sexual myths, the danger myths) — though of course it’s unlikely you’ll get lynched, and it’s better paying.

    But being race conscious is an inescapable part of human consciousness. It kind of matters not at all at certain points in human relationships, and in the good ones it usually doesn’t matter except as a point of recognizing uniqueness and respecting one another.

    You said everyone is racist. I beg to differ. Everyone is race-conscious, I believe, but I think there are a number of people who can rise above their local bigotries regarding race. I’ve seen that time and time again, and once more, it’s usually not the simple-minded who manage it.

    You may not believe it, but politically I’m as anti-Bush as you. However, I think it’s pointless to freak out about a fantasy novel when other fantasies do much more harm (such as any evangelical version of God that is about to end the world, so why deal with the environment; or the fantasy that Osama bin Laden is evil incarnate and his existence justifies any war America wishes to wage against any state in the world).

  14. Gordfeller,

    You’ve made several good points which basically I agree with, I like your distinction between racism and ‘race consciousness’ but still wonder whether they both (despite the differences you point out) form part of the same spectrum.
    Yes its natural to notice differences between ourselves and others but are some differences not made more relevant than others? for example, if I met a black man (Iam white) who was the same height and build as me would he be more or less similar to me than a fat white women? I think ‘race consciousness’ would determine that I had more in common with the white women despite the fact that I do not. My ‘culture’ might be more similar to the white womens but people tend to confuse cultural identity with some notion of biological belonging to a certain ‘race’. In other words it seems to me that any ocncept of race consciousness is a social construct, not a biological reality or if it is then so must ‘gender consciousness’ ‘size consciouness’ and a infinite amount of other ‘conciousness’.
    I don’t really accept the concept of race, biologically all human beings are 99.99 percent identical and so any differences whether ‘racial’ or otherwise are completely superficial. In my view its not so much respecting each other for our differences as realising that most of the differences do not really exist, except by cultural construct. Until the human race can handle that reality then all the same shit will continue is some form or other. The key of course is education, proper education 9not being trained into ‘social constructs’ to suit a particular society).
    Of course all antions are racist (or have racism in some form) but the western world presently is the most powerful part of the world and it has the chance to either challenge or inflict racism becuase of that power.
    Finally can I just say that I certainly am not ‘freaked out’ by Tolkiens racist assumptions, I just think its interesting.

  15. Gordfeller
    Sorry that Bush won. Only consolation is that moves to the extreme usually indicate an ideas demise rather than it’s beginning.

  16. All this about Tolkiens racism or non-racism. is disembelling bullshit. Tolkien was a man of his time who probably didnt think to much about race. He certainly cared more about a persons religion than the colour of their skin. Also he was far too involved in his writing and teaching to be overtly concerned with the colour of someones skin ( I imagine, though having read extensively, especially his letters, I would say that it wasnt something that came up too much). He lived in a Britain that was on the beginning of the wave of major immigration from countries that had once been part of the Empire and he was a patriot( no,not a nationlist but someone who cares enough for their country to defend it), he was also a don, one of those dusty scholars that never seem to be too aware of the world around him.

    Im sure if he were alive today he would be as horrified as anyone else that people were trying to intepret his works in such, if you excuse the pun, black and white measures. He was a fantasist, and at that time their romances were based in Western traditions ( hey! even the greek gods and heroes were portrayed as blond blue-eyed Adonii. Nary a swarthy Mediterranean among them).
    He abhorred allegory and Im sure he would abhor this kind of analysis too.

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