Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Tolkien and Racism

The charge of racism has been frequently levelled at Tolkien after the release of Peter Jackson's Lord of The Rings. I have been involved in a lot of discussion with interested viewers and readers who are genuinely concerned with the perceived racial elements of Tolkien. The following FAQ was written about the time of the release of the Return of the King. After seeing the volume of accusatory material on net I thought it might be advisable to compile all the arguments into one single FAQ-style essay so as to save future effort and redundant recycling of arguments. As a biased fan and I may have missed a lot of points so I would appreciate any further arguments from either side.

There are no African, Indian, Japanese (…etc) humans in the story. Is Tolkien guilty of racism because of this?
The story was written as a mythology for Northern Europe and specifically England. Tolkien explicitly states his motivation in Letter #131:
I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country; it has no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, and Germanic, and Scandinavian, and Finnish; but nothing English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing.
This would explain why most human races in the story are 'white'. You wouldn’t expect to see a large number of Caucasians in an Indian, African or Chinese myth would you?

Another factor is that Tolkien had used Celtic and Teutonic myths and the myths of the Anglo-Saxons of pre-medieval England as inspiration for his story.

An internal answer would be that Middle Earth resembles the descriptions of the English countryside, the northern reaches of Scandinavia, Ireland and Scotland therefore it would damage the authenticity of this geographical setting if races from other parts of the world inhabited these lands.

As a testament to how inclusive he was it may be worthwhile (even if it is irrelevant) to mention that he had considered non-European societies when constructing some of his cultures. Evidence of this can be found in Letter #211 where Tolkien compared several significant aspects of the society of Gondor to that of ancient Egypt.

Why was he so concerned about England and Northern Europe over other parts of the world? Isn’t he overly preoccupied with Nordic regions?
Personally I think this question is counter-intuitive but I have heard it being asked in earnestness many times so I will answer it using the following quote from Letter #294:
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.
He also takes offence at the use of the word ‘Nordic’ as "a word I personally dislike; it is associated with racialist theories". And in any case,
the action of the story takes place in the North-west of 'Middle-earth', equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean. But this is not a purely 'Nordic' area in any sense. If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is about the latitude of Florence. The Mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy.

Orcs are black and Elves are white. Isn’t this showing that 'black' represents evil and 'white' represents good?

Yes; but I don’t believe this to be racial distinction. Almost all mythology and imaginative stories in human history, whatever culture or society, have made the association of 'Darkness' to Evil and 'Light' to Good. This should not be mistaken for distinction based on colour of skin.

The sun is the primary source of energy for all living things. Humans are diurnal creatures and have always been afraid of the night. Thus it is not very hard to see why light and darkness have created these associations in our historical psyche.

The reasons are obvious as Tolkien states in Letter #131; "Light is such a primeval symbol in the nature of the Universe, that it can hardly be analysed".

Orcs are bad, Elves are noble, Dwarves are selfish and greedy. Doesn’t this mean that character traits are predetermined by race?
It is important to remember that Orcs, Elves and Dwarves are completely different species, not different races of humans. It’s a bit like comparing a domesticated dog to a tiger in the wild. In fact orcs aren’t really even ‘natural’ beings, but were actually manufactured by the Enemy.

How about the different classes of Humans that are defined by their blood and ancestry? In the Gondorian society why are the men of Numenorean decent considered nobler than men of mixed blood?
This is probably the question that has the least satisfactory answer. During Tolkien’s time there was a commonly held conception in his society that blood carried a set of rights with it. Even in this day the British (and many other societies) have a monarch and an aristocracy. This is really more to do with the right of material inheritance rather than the qualities inherent in blood.

We can find a more plausible answer in the story of the Edain, ancestors of Numenoreans, who "alone of the kindred of men fought for the Valar (gods), whereas many others fought for Morgoth." and for this they were rewarded with "wisdom and power and life more enduring than any other of the mortal race have possessed" (from the Akallabeth). I think all three characteristics were not just 'learnt' but were permanently endowed in their biology, to be passed on to their heirs. In addition to this the descendants of Elros further enriched the Numenorean blood. (Elros being the Elf who chose to be a human, one of only two Elves to be given that choice.)

Even given these gifts we know that the Numenoreans commit grievous crimes, eventually resulting in great catastrophe. The damage that they caused due to their arrogance and thirst for power was far greater than any other that Humans or Elves have caused since.

Ok then let us look at the different races of humans, the Haradrim and the Easterlings were described as swarthy and squint-eyed. Tolkien mentioned in the Two Towers that "they were ever ready to His (Sauron’s) will". Doesn’t that imply that they are racially predisposed to evil?
That statement was made by the character Damrod, a Ranger of Ithilien, and thus you must take into account his biased view towards his country’s historical enemies.

It is true that at the time of the War of the Ring, the Haradrim and the Easterlings were allied with the Enemy, but this was not always so. During Nirnaeth Arnoediad, Bór, the Chieftain of the Men from the East allied himself and many of his people with the Sons of Feanor against the forces of Morgoth.

We also have to consider their particular geographic position. The men of the West have access to the knowledge and experience of the Elves and Numenoreans, who have had extensive prior dealings with Morgoth and Sauron. The Southrons and Easterlings on the other hand are left to fend for themselves without such information.

It may also be true that the men of the West are more technologically advanced than those in the south and the east, because they had extensive connections with Numenor in it’s prime. In addition the exiles of Numenor had formed kingdoms and colonies in the west. Unfortunately for the Southrons and Easterlings, they had no such technological advantage available to them, making them a weaker opposition. They simply had to comply with the wishes of Mordor.

In LotR Tolkien has in fact made a point of making sure the reader considers the terrible situation that these 'strange' men were in. He wants us to understand what compelled them to do what they did. Sam, after witnessing the death of an Easterling in a skirmish, wonders "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 lead him in the long march from home; and if he really would rather have stayed there in peace."

Also as I mentioned earlier, even the Numenoreans, who are considered the most noble of Humans did commit great crimes.

We also know that some of the men of Gondor and Bree are dark skinned.

Aren’t the bad characters predominantly black or ‘swarthy’, i.e. Melkor, Sauron, Bill Ferny?
How about Saruman, Grima, Gollum, Boromir, and Denethor? There are just too many exceptions when you consider individual characters. Melkor is a Valar and Sauron is Maia in any case.

This statement was made by Tolkien in Letter #210: "Orcs are 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." How is this not racist?
This statement gave me a lot of grief initially. At first glance it can be taken as evidence of racism. However as a poster on this board (I’ve infortunately forgotten who it was) mentioned a long while back, the qualifier; "to Europeans" actually proves otherwise. It shows that he actually acknowledges the different measures of beauty existent in different cultures. He shows that beauty is not an absolute quality but is rather in the eye of the beholder whose opinions are shaped by social constraints.

I have to admit that by today’s standards this statement is highly inflammatory and insensitive and can be taken as evidence of his sub-conscious prejudices.

He also stated in Letter #45 (9 June 1941) that: "There is a great deal more force (and truth) than ignorant people imagine in the 'Germanic' ideal." Isn’t this admitting support for the policies of Nazi Germany?
The term 'Germanic Ideal' has been used in modern historic literature, erroneously and far too prolifically, to describe the ideals of Nazi Germany. This identification is racist in itself. The term could very easily mean the ideals of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger or Schopenhauer; all more influential than that “ruddy little ignoramus” (Tolkien’s words); Hitler.

“You have to understand the good in things to detect the real evil”. These words follow almost directly from the above statement. To me this shows a mind more than ordinarily aware of the importance of empathy and understanding of those who are different from us.

And goes on to say that the Nazis are "ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, which I have ever loved and presented in it’s true light."

Tolkien does admit to feeling that obedience and patriotism are virtues, but then again most people still feel this way today.

Here are some further statements made by him that goes a long way in showing that he is in fact ahead of his times when it came to ideas of pluralism and equality:
There was a solemn article in the local paper seriously advocating systematic extermination of the entire German nation as the only proper course of after military victory….The German have just as much right to declare Poles and Jews as exterminable vermin as we have to select the Germans; in other words, no right. – Letter #81
To me this communicates his ability to perceive beyond the prevalent mists of nationalistic antagonism to come to a rational outlook of the whole matter. If only the political leaders of his time and ours had such clear sight.

This next scathing letter was written to German publishers who inquired whether he was ‘arisch’ or Jewish. The laws of Germany at the time required this inquiry before any work was to be published:
…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 to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany:…I have accustomed…to regard my German name with pride…

…I cannot, however forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer he a source of pride." – Letter #30 (25 July 1938: Unfortunately his London agents failed to pass on this letter to the intended recipients for fear of financial repercussions.}
In my mind this letter absolves any doubt about Tolkien’s values. He is not only extraordinarily modern and rational but he also has the courage to stand up for his pluralistic values. His tone and dry sarcasm shows how deeply he is offended by the racist attitudes of the German publishers.

As Aule said a while back (in a post that I had luckily saved);
One of the major themes of Lord of the Rings is the coming together of the races in a common cause. It's just that the races are elves, dwarves, men, and hobbits rather than Whites, Blacks, Orientals, etc.
The fact of the matter is that most of us have preconceptions and prejudices in our minds. Tolkien is no exception. But by considering his rhetoric in social context I think we can safely claim that he was indeed far ahead of his time in his inclusive and pluralistic perspective of the world. The key to dealing racism is to accept that they exist within each of us and do everything you can to defeat it within yourself.

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