Tolkien and race
J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth fantasy writings have often been accused of embodying outmoded attitudes to race. However, scholars have noted that he was influenced by Victorian attitudes to race and to a literary tradition of monsters, and that he was anti-racist both in peacetime and during the two World Wars.
With the late 19th century background of eugenics and a fear of moral decline, some critics believed that the mention of race mixing in The Lord of the Rings embodied scientific racism. Other commentators thought that Tolkien's description of the orcs was modelled on racist wartime propaganda caricatures of the Japanese. Critics have noted, too, that the work embodies a moral geography, with good in the West, evil in the East.
Against this, Tolkien strongly opposed Nazi racial theories, as seen in a 1938 letter he wrote to his publisher,[T 1] while in the Second World War he vigorously opposed anti-German propaganda. His Middle-earth has been described as definitely polycultural and polylingual, while scholars have noted that attacks on Tolkien based on The Lord of the Rings often omit relevant evidence from the text.
Evidence of racism
Some critics have found what they consider to be outmoded views on race in Tolkien's Middle-earth stories, generally based on their views of how his imagery depicts the relationship between evil and race (the main races being Elf, Dwarf, Hobbit, Man, and Orc).
Fear of moral decline through racial mixing
The scholars of English literature William N. Rogers II and Michael R. Underwood note that a widespread element of late 19th century Western culture was fear of moral decline and degeneration; this led to eugenics. In The Two Towers, the Ent Treebeard says:[T 2]
It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Darkness that they cannot abide the Sun; but Saruman's Orcs can endure it, even if they hate it. I wonder what he has done? Are they Men he has ruined, or has he blended the races of Orcs and Men? That would be a black evil![T 2]
The film-maker Andrew Stewart, writing in CounterPunch, cites this speech as an instance of "mid-twentieth century scientific racism ... which alarmingly spells out the notion of 'race mixing' as a great sin".
Orcs as a demonised enemy
In a private letter, Tolkien describes orcs as:[T 3]
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."[T 3]
A variety of critics and commentators have noted that orcs are somewhat like caricatures of non-Europeans. The journalist David Ibata writes that the orcs in Peter Jackson's Tolkien films look much like "the worst depictions of the Japanese drawn by American and British illustrators during World War II." The scholar of English literature Robert Tally calls the orcs a demonized enemy, despite (he writes) Tolkien's own objections to demonization of the enemy in the two World Wars. The science fiction author N. K. Jemisin wrote that "Orcs are fruit of the poison vine that is human fear of 'the Other'."
Andrew O'Hehir describes orcs as "a subhuman race bred by Morgoth and/or Sauron (although not created by them) that is morally irredeemable and deserves only death. They are dark-skinned and slant-eyed, and although they possess reason, speech, social organization and, as Shippey mentions, a sort of moral sensibility, they are inherently evil." He notes Tolkien's own description of them, saying it could scarcely be more revealing as a representation of the "Other", but that it is "the product of his background and era, like most of our inescapable prejudices. At the level of conscious intention, he was not a racist or an anti-Semite", and mentions his letters to this effect. In a letter to his son, Christopher, who was serving in the RAF in the Second World War, Tolkien wrote of orcs as appearing on both sides of the conflict:[T 4]
Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in 'realistic' fiction ... only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For 'romance' has grown out of 'allegory', and its wars are still derived from the 'inner war' of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels.[T 4]
The literary critic Jenny Turner, writing in the London Review of Books, endorses O'Hehir's comment that orcs are "by design and intention a northern European's paranoid caricature of the races he has dimly heard about".
Moral geography: West versus East
Stewart states that the geography of Middle-earth deliberately pits the good West against the evil East; John Magoun, writing in The J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, concurs, stating that Middle-earth has a "fully expressed moral geography". The peoples of Middle-earth vary from the hobbits of The Shire in the Northwest, evil "Easterlings" in the East, and "imperial sophistication and decadence" in the South. Magoun explains that Gondor is both virtuous, being West, and has problems, being South; Mordor in the Southeast is hellish, while Harad in the extreme South "regresses into hot savagery".
Allegations of a North-South bias were denied by Tolkien in a 1967 letter to his interviewers Charlotte and Denis Plimmer:[T 5]
Auden has asserted that for me 'the North is a sacred direction'. That is not true. The North-west of Europe, where I (and most of my ancestors) have lived, has my affection, as a man's home should. I love its atmosphere, and know more of its histories and languages than I do of other parts; but it is not 'sacred', nor does it exhaust my affections. I do have, for instance, a particular fondness for the Latin language, and among its descendants for Spanish. That is untrue for my story, a mere reading of the synopses should show. The North was the seat of the fortresses of the Devil [ie. Morgoth].[T 5]
Evidence of anti-racism
Scholars such as Fimi note that Tolkien was in some ways clearly anti-racist, as he actively opposed "racialist" theories, refused to declare that he had an "Aryan" origin so as to be published in Nazi Germany, spoke out against Nazism, called Hitler a "ruddy little ignoramus",[T 6] and opposed anti-German propaganda in wartime.[T 7]
Opposition to peacetime Nazi racial theory
In 1938, the publishers of the German translation of The Hobbit, Rütten & Loening of Potsdam, wrote to Tolkien asking if he was of pure arisch ("Aryan") descent. He asked his English publisher, Stanley Unwin, if he should[T 1]
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?"[T 1]
I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian... 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.[T 1]
Opposition to wartime anti-German propaganda
Tolkien expressed an anti-racist position during the Second World War. Tolkien reacted with anger to the excesses of anti-German propaganda during World War II. In a 1944 letter to his son Christopher, he wrote:[T 7]
...it is distressing to see the [British] press grovelling in the gutter as low as Goebbels in his prime, shrieking that any German commander who holds out in a desperate situation (when, too, the military needs of his side clearly benefit) is a drunkard, and a besotted fanatic. ... There was a solemn article in the local [Oxford] 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.[T 7]
Opposition to racism in South Africa
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.[T 8]
The historian and Tolkien scholar Jared Lobdell likewise disagreed with any notions of racism inherent or latent in Tolkien's works, and wondered "if there were a way of writing epic fantasy about a battle against an evil spirit and his monstrous servants without its being subject to speculation of racist intent".
Straubhaar calls the "recurring accusations in the popular media" of racism in Tolkien's construction of Middle-earth "interesting". Straubhaar quotes the Swedish cultural studies scholar David Tjeder who described Gollum's account of the men of Harad ("Not nice; very cruel wicked Men they look. Almost as bad as Orcs, and much bigger."[T 9]) in Aftonbladet as "stereotypical and reflective of colonial attitudes". She argues instead that Gollum's view, with its "arbitrary and stereotypical assumptions about the 'Other'", is absurd, and that Gollum cannot be taken as an authority on Tolkien's opinion. Straubhaar contrasts this with Sam Gamgee's more humane response to the sight of a dead Harad warrior, which she finds "harder to find fault with":
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 of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home.[T 10]
Fimi observes of the same scene that Tolkien is here "far from demonising the enemy or dehumanising the 'other'."
Put simply, Tolkien's good guys are white and the bad guys are black, slant-eyed, unattractive, inarticulate, and a psychologically undeveloped horde.
Straubhaar concedes that Shapiro may have had a point with "slant-eyed", but comments that this was milder than that of many of his contemporary novelists such as John Buchan, and notes that Tolkien had in fact made "appalled objection" when people had misapplied his story to current events. She similarly observes that Tjeder had failed to notice Tolkien's "concerted effort" to change the Western European "paradigm" that speakers of supposedly superior languages were "ethnically superior".
Patrick Curry, Christine Chism and others argue that race-focused critiques often omit relevant textual evidence, cite imagery from adaptations rather than the work itself, ignore the absence of evidence of racist attitudes or events in the author's personal life, and claim that the perception of racism is itself a marginal view.
The journalist Ed Power, in The Daily Telegraph, states that Orcs are "a metaphorical embodiment" of evil, just like the stormtroopers in Star Wars, for which, he writes, nobody accuses George Lucas of racism. He notes that Tolkien was trying to create a mythology for England, something that requires characters to be either good or evil.
Towards a balanced view
Some scholars have attempted to take a balanced view of Tolkien and race. Anderson Rearick III agrees that in Middle-earth, darkness and black are linked with evil Orcs and the Dark Lord Sauron, and that the Orcs are essentially expendable, but lists multiple arguments defending Tolkien from the charge of racism. Rearick cites Steuard Jensen's observation that there are "light skinned characters who did evil things",[a] including Boromir, Denethor, Gollum, Saruman, and Grima Wormtongue. He notes that the link between darkness and evil is made many times in the Bible, with phrases such as "the shadow of death" or "you are all children of light". The irredeemable Orcs, he notes, are traceable to Old English vocabularies where Latin Orcus (Pluto, ruler of the underworld, or death) is glossed as "orc, giant, or the devil of Hell". Rearick ends by stating that racism is a philosophy of power, whereas The Lord of the Rings embodies the Christian renunciation of power; he explains that Frodo gives up everything to fulfil his quest, just as Christ did. In his view, "nothing could be more contrary to the assumptions of racism than a Hobbit as a hero".
Fimi, author of an academic study of Tolkien and race, notes the years of heated popular and scholarly debate on whether Tolkien was racist, and concludes that the answer is both yes and no. She writes that Middle-earth is hierarchical like the medieval great chain of being, with God at the top, above (in turn) Elves, Men, and at the bottom monsters such as Orcs. In her view, this makes sense in terms of theology, and indeed in a mythology like The Silmarillion: but a novel like The Lord of the Rings demanded rounded characters rather than symbols of good or of evil.
Fimi writes, too, that Tolkien "agonised" over the origins of Orcs. If they were corrupted Elves or Men, that would fit the view that Morgoth could corrupt but not create; but Elves and Men had free will, and if they did evil, could perhaps be redeemed. She writes that the earlier author George MacDonald had created a race of evil goblins, something that she finds an equally uncomfortable "product of 19th-century anxieties about race and evolutionary degeneration".She notes, however, that a novel is written within a tradition; Tolkien's orcs fit into the tradition of MacDonald's goblins, and ultimately of the monsters in Beowulf. She concludes "I believe Tolkien's racial prejudices are implicit in Middle-Earth, but his values – friendship, fellowship, altruism, courage, among many others – are explicit, which makes for a complex, more interesting world", and that complexities of this kind get people of each generation to read The Lord of the Rings, and to interpret it afresh.
- Rearick was citing Jensen, Steuard (1999). "Meta-FAQ: 7. Was Tolkien racist? Were his works?". Archived from the original on 30 June 2012.
- This list identifies each item's location in Tolkien's writings.
- Carpenter (2000), #29 to Stanley Unwin, #30 to Rütten & Loening, both 25 July 1938
- Tolkien (1954). The Two Towers, Lord of the Rings book 3, ch. 4, "Treebeard"
- Carpenter (2000), #210 to Forrest J. Ackerman, June 1958
- Carpenter (2000), #71 to Christopher Tolkien, 25 May 1944
- Carpenter (2000), #294 to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, 8 February 1967
- Carpenter (2000), #45 to Michael Tolkien, 9 June 1941
- Carpenter (2000), #81 to Christopher Tolkien, 23-25 September 1944
- Carpenter (2000), #61 to Christopher Tolkien, 19 April 1944
- Tolkien (1954). The Two Towers, book 4, ch. 3 "The Black Gate is Closed"
- Tolkien (1954). The Two Towers, book 4, ch. 4 "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit"
- Yatt, John (2 December 2002). "Wraiths and Race". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 26 August 2013. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
- Bhatia, Shyam (8 January 2003). "The Lord of the Rings rooted in racism". Rediff India Abroad. Archived from the original on 3 November 2010. Retrieved 4 December 2010.
- Straubhaar 2004, pp. 101–117.
- Fimi, Dimitra. "Was Tolkien really racist?". The Conversation. Retrieved 20 January 2021.
- Rogers, William N., II; Underwood, Michael R. (2000). Sir George Clark (ed.). Gagool and Gollum: Exemplars of Degeneration in King Solomon's Mines and The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 121–132. ISBN 978-0-313-30845-1.
- Stewart, Andrew (29 August 2018). "From the Shire to Charlottesville: How Hobbits Helped Rebuild the Dark Tower for Scientific Racism". CounterPunch. Retrieved 4 March 2020.
- Ibata, David (12 January 2003). "'Lord' of racism? Critics view trilogy as discriminatory". The Chicago Tribune.
- Magoun, John F. G. (2006). "South, The". In Drout, Michael D. C. (ed.). J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. Routledge. pp. 622–623. ISBN 1-135-88034-4.
- Rearick, Anderson (2004). "Why is the Only Good Orc a Dead Orc? The Dark Face of Racism Examined in Tolkien's World". Modern Fiction Studies. 50 (4): 866–867. doi:10.1353/mfs.2005.0008. JSTOR 26286382. S2CID 162647975.
- Curry, Patrick (2004). Defending Middle-earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity. Houghton Mifflin. pp. 30–33. ISBN 0-312-17671-6.
- Chism, Christine (2007). "Race and Ethnicity in Tolkien's Works". In Michael Drout (ed.). J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia.
- Chism, Christine (2007). "Racism, Charges of". In Michael Drout (ed.). J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia.
- Straubhaar 2004, p. 113.
- Tally, Robert (2019). "Demonizing the Enemy, Literally: Tolkien, Orcs, and the Sense of the World Wars". Humanities. 8 (1): 54. doi:10.3390/h8010054. ISSN 2076-0787.
- O'Hehir, Andrew (6 June 2001). "A curiously very great book". Salon.com. Retrieved 3 March 2020.
- Turner, Jenny (15 November 2001). "Reasons for Liking Tolkien". London Review of Books. 23 (22).
- Power, Ed (27 November 2018). "JRR Tolkien's orcs are no more racist than George Lucas's Stormtroopers". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 20 January 2021.
- Lobdell, Jared (2004). The World of the Rings. Open Court. p. 116. ISBN 978-0875483030.
- Shapiro, Stephen (14 December 2002). "Lord of the Rings labelled racist". The Scotsman.
- Fimi 2009, p. 1.
- Fimi, Dimitra (2012). "Revisiting Race in Tolkien's Legendarium: Constructing Cultures and Ideologies in an Imaginary World (lecture)". Dimitra Fimi. Retrieved 20 January 2021.
- Carpenter, Humphrey (2000) . The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0618056996.
- Fimi, Dimitra (2009). Tolkien, Race, and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-230-21951-9. OCLC 222251097.
- Straubhaar, Sandra Ballif (2004). Chance, Jane (ed.). Myth, Late Roman History, and Multiculturalism in Tolkien's Middle-Earth. Tolkien and the invention of myth : a reader. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-2301-1.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954), The Two Towers, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), ISBN 0-395-08254-4