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Was JRR Tolkien, The Author Of The Lord Of The Rings, A Racist?

J.R.R. Tolkien

Was the British fantasy author JRR Tolkien a racist? That is the issue being debated in the wake of last November’s discussion on The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast by Wired Magazine, which touched upon the treatment of the “orcs” or goblin-like beings in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately some of the points in the hour-long conversation were subsequently blown out of proportion by other online and print media, reviving arguments about the Oxford academic’s supposed prejudices, as interpreted through his published works. These debates have circulated on internet forums and discussion groups for many years, usually devolving into rancorous exchanges between opposing camps. However it has rarely been given an airing in the mainstream press until now.

Predictably the ensuing controversy has become rather melodramatic, with a host of partisan, ill-informed or hopelessly simplistic judgements being offered by all sides (and with little reference to the original podcast discussion featuring the American science-fiction writer Andy Duncan). Thankfully the Greek lecturer and Tolkien expert, Dimitra Fimi, has stepped into the fray with a well-reasoned post for The Conversation explaining many of the cultural and social influences which shaped Tolkien and which can be seen in his Middle-earth tales. To summarise, the English writer had very little truck with racialist theories, even if he himself was born into an era when such notions were commonplace and not without some impact upon him, however unacknowledged.

Does a slight taint of chauvinism mean that JRR Tolkien should be relegated to some form of literary purgatory or hell hereafter? Of course not. Searching for reflections of real life bigotry in a fantastical setting is not without merit as long as such explorations are contextualised within the expectations of the imaginative world itself, the intentions of the creator and that person’s behaviour or actions away from his or her artistic endeavours. By all of those measures the South African-born author passes the racism test and in rather better standing than many of his more lauded contemporaries.

Of greater interest in this debate is Dimitra Fimi’s related essay, Revisiting Race in Tolkien’s Legendarium: Constructing Cultures and Ideologies in an Imaginary World, where she notes the nature of the Rohirrim or the “People of the Horse-lords” in the works of the philologist-turned-writer. This was a race of people granted the province of Calenardhon by the rulers of Gondor, a quasi-imperial power in Tolkien’s fictional Middle-earth, giving the region a new name: Rohan. It seems that this particular sub-tale was created by the author with one eye on the legendary history of the English settlement in southern Britain, in what was to become England. An event which supposedly began with an invite by one of the country’s rulers to two Anglo-Saxon leaders, Hengist and Horsa or “Stallion” and “Horse”, in the 5th century CE.

The main opponents of the Early Medieval English, an amalgamation of diverse and warlike immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia, were the indigenous Celtic or Romano-Celtic inhabitants of the island. Communities eventually driven to the western and northern fringes of the country, becoming the primary ancestors of the modern Welsh, Cornish and Scots. In a similar if wholly imaginary vein, the Rohirrim of Middle-earth pushed the native peoples of Calenardhon into the western outskirts of the territory, labelling them as the Wild Men of Dunland. While JRR Tolkien consciously invoked an “Anglo-Saxon” feel for the Rohirrim, he opted to impose a gloss of “Celticness” on the primitive Dunlendings. Or at least, what popular culture in early 20th century Britain saw as the stereotypical characteristics of that despised ethnicity or nationality.

Yet, despite the suspect portrayal of the Celtic analogues in Tolkien’s fantasy creation, we know from the writer’s own life that he held the communities of Wales in very high regard, admiring their language and culture, and drew deeply upon both for his own artistic endeavours. Furthermore, for a man of his background he was surprisingly open-minded on the question of the British Empire, regretting how England had become synonymous with the imperial construct (though this does not mean that Tolkien was an anti-imperialist, as such). This is a useful reminder that we should be careful about reading too much into an author’s fictional works, seeing purposeful prejudice where a search for creative inspiration or familiarity was probably of greater relevance.

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5 comments on “Was JRR Tolkien, The Author Of The Lord Of The Rings, A Racist?

  1. Sharon Douglas

    Ah…..sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. 😉

  2. A while back Nisi Shawl said something in a similar vein. Basically she’s a science fiction writer (African American) who grew up loving Victorian literature and who studied it in college, despite having found many elements of it……..troubling. So she did her own steam punk stuff as a sort of response.

    Basically she was in an interview where she said something to the effect of “Look Tolkien’s work does have its flaws and its blindspots with regards to culture, gender, British Imperialism and what could be interpreted as racism. However, if you look at almost any other British and/or S.African born writer of his rough cohort, you’ll see stuff that will make your skin crawl and make Tolkien’s flaws almost look like nitpicking by comparison.”

    (Ms. Shawl in her own right had a lot of original thoughts about science fiction, writing, fantasy, culture, race, gender, and the question of how you can write about people from different backgrounds….some I’d agree with some not.)

    • Arguably the greatest flaws in Tolkien’s works, if we are searching for some, are to be found in the areas of gender and class. The first is maybe forgivable in terms of the early 20th century English decades he composed his Middle-earth “lore” in, and the pseudo-Medieval/prehistoric setting where women’s roles would have been of minor significance in any case (though given the fantasy nature of the universe he could have pushed the barriers out when it came to female characters). However the very English class system and the idea of favoured bloodlines is a bit harder to take, even making an allowance for the in-universe rules.

      Of course, Tolkien is not the only one guilty of putting forward the idea of special bloodlines. It is a stock theme in certain types of sci-fi and fantasy fiction to the present day. Even with otherwise very liberal and “politically correct” writers.

      • You know the first I ever saw/heard of Tolkien was watching the cartoon versions of “The Hobbit”, Bakshi’s “Lord of The Rings”, and cartoon “Return of The King” followed by Baskhi’s “Wizards” when I was on “partial bed rest” from a minor head injury. It wasn’t too serious and wouldn’t have caused that much more alarm even in today’s brain injury aware climate. But my generous father temporarily moved the TV into my room during the day. I had bandages and stitches and had to crawl to the toilet at times to avoid the unpredictable attacks of vertigo and nausea.

        I remember thinking even as a kid, that the whole part where Eowyn defeated The Witch King, and said “I am no man!!”, seemed silly.

        I remember thinking, “That’s not sexist in the usual way. But…….” I couldn’t quite define why!!!!

        Suzy McKee Charnas author of the HoldFast Chronicles (Talk about subverting usual tropes!!, But I doubt that society could last.), had a theory about The Hobbits. Basically the theory started with the question of why it is that these Hobbits these small “persons” from this rural largely farming community, can talk to all these Wizards, high born Dwarves and Humans, Elves and other high ranked characters. Charnas decided that the only reason she could think of, would be if their economy was based at least partly on smuggling. But she submitted that if the Hobbits were smugglers, Tolkien should have been upfront about that.

        Where I come from we have a joke about Tolkien and Ayn Rand:

        “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

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