Racism and Tolkien
[Images, Top to Bottom: The Silmarillion cover; The Five Races – Dwarf, Human, Elf, Orc, Hobbit; An Oliphaunt; Valinor, the Westernmost land; Cover of ERB’s Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. The 2nd and 3rd images are by John Howe. 4th image is by Ted Nasmith. Last image is by Boris Vallejo.]
Growing up, I was a big fan of some of Tolkien’s works. I started with the Lord of the Rings, which I had heard a lot of hype about. I bought the trilogy at Calcutta’s great book fair, which used to be one of the high points of my year: at par with Diwali and other festivals. Having bought it, I struggled to get through the first book; its pace was too slow for me. On my second attempt I managed to get through the first book, and then found the next two impossible to put down. I’ve since read LotR about 5 or 6 times; and I’ve also read The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, and admired the early Tolkien-inspired artists. These are among my favourite books, evoking a sense of fantasy and romance that the multitudes of more recent pretenders fail to. Yet, they are not without their faults.
One negative aspect of Tolkien’s works is the racial division in the books. Races in Tolkien’s universe seem to have inherent morality. This morality is often expressed in terms of light and darkness, fairness versus swarthiness. It isn’t impossible for elves to be evil, but they are overwhelmingly good. Men are good as long as they throw their lot in with the West, and evil if they choose the East. The evil men are swarthy, the good men are fair. Orcs are inherently, irredeemably evil. Though intelligent, they are not dignified with a personal pronoun such as he or she; an orc is just “it”. Common notions of justice don’t seem to apply to them: if a “good” person sees an orc he is justified in simply killing it. In the Silmarillion, the superiority of humans in which Numenorean blood runs true is made quite explicit. Men of that race (Aragorn was one of them) have longer life, but also have deeper vision and can comprehend things lesser mortals cannot. They can create wonderful things that less men can’t. Beyond these, a second look at LotR and The Silmarillion reveals that Tolkien’s works presents fears and prides from Western culture. A common tragic theme is that of a small (Western) population valiantly but hopelessly battling vast hordes of ravening Easterners. (In the movies, the Oliphaunts – elephants – versus horses battles take this West vs. East rivalry another step further. But this isn’t attributable to Tolkien.)
East vs. West
The East/North vs. West/South aspect of Tolkien’s writings is bothersome and also peculiar. This goes beyond the story in his book, where of course Mordor lies to the East. Tolkien’s phrasing implies no dissociation between evil in the East and the East itself. The sense is that there is something inherently bad about lands that lie East, as if the compass direction is itself imbued with an immanent malevolence. There is a similar implication for the South (Southrons, for example) though this isn’t fleshed out as much.
Defenses of Tolkien
The question of racism in Tolkien’s works is pretty old. A search on google turns up several links on this topic; most defend Tolkien. The Wikipedia article on the Lord of the Rings mentions several encyclopedia articles defending Tolkien. Christine Chism writes (J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, Racism, Charges of):
Critics who accuse Tolkien of racism fall into three camps: those who see him as intentionally racist; those who see him as having passively absorbed the racism or Eurocentrism of his time; and those who, tracing an evolution in his writing, see him becoming aware of a racism/Eurocentrism implicit in his early works and taking care to counter it in his later ones.
I believe the defenses of Tolkien can also be classified into three categories. Some say Tolkien was born during a racist time and his works should be seen in that context; he wasn’t especially racist. Some provide anecdotes from his works where a member of a fair/Western race is evil, and say this proves Tolkien wasn’t racist. The remaining is a miscellaneous catch-all category, including such peculiar explanations as “Tolkien was a Christian, hence couldn’t have been a racist”.
I would tend to agree with the first defense, which actually admits the racism. Other writers of that period have similar attitudes. (For example, the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, would be unpublishable now. The racist content of ERB’s Tarzan or his Mars and Venus books is explicit and clear.) While this does implicate Tolkien, his racism was perhaps milder than that of his peers the British, who held a number of juicy and choice racist opinions about Indians. He was certainly less of a racist than Winston Churchill.
The second defense cites examples such as Saruman or the Numenorean kings who turned evil. Since there exist some members of the “noble races” who are evil, Tolkien’s defenders argue, Tolkien didn’t think the noble races were actually noble. This defense is silly and is invalid for several reasons. First, the only “crime” of Saruman and the Nazgul was to side with the East. As such, their evilness presupposes the goodness of the West. It’s a cyclical argument. Second, one or two bad apples change nothing. Tolkien’s construction still attributed much racial nobility to the Western races.
In Lieu of Summary…
So does this mean I won’t read Tolkien’s books again? Nope, and there’s no bitterness either. Tolkien remains a great storybuilder. Before his works, the West had a few mythologies but these were before Europeans came into conflict with the rest of the world. As a result they are Eurospecific. Tolkien’s mythology is perhaps the first in the Western world that includes the aspirations and fears of the West that arise from conflict with other, distinctly non-Western cultures. This might explain why so many Westerners can viscerally identify with it. For me, it is simply the high fantasy, the detailed mythology and the restrained profundity of the events.