Is It True There is Racism in The Lord of the Rings?

Q: Is It True There is Racism in The Lord of the Rings?

ANSWER: Yes, it is true there is racism in The Lord of the Rings. However, many people who ask this question may really mean to ask, “Is The Lord of the Rings a racist work of fiction?” Although some people claim that is the case they are mistaken for J.R.R. Tolkien embedded numerous examples of the folly of racism in The Lord of the Rings. In other words, it would be difficult for any other modern work of fiction to be as anti-racist as The Lord of the Rings.

Among the numerous misconceptions that are used to condemn The Lord of the Rings for racism are:

  • All the “good” peoples are light-skinned
  • All the “evil” peoples are dark-skinned
  • All the Dunedain are blond-haired, blue-eyed
  • The Elves are portrayed as being incapable of doing evil
  • The Northmen are portrayed as being a “superior race”
  • The Orcs are depicted as completely evil, having no worthy qualities
  • The story includes racist caricatures like “black men like half-trolls”

I cannot list all of the false statements similar to the above that are used to condemn The Lord of the Rings as a racist story, but these are some of the most favored accusations. Let’s take a look at them.

All the “good” peoples are light-skinned In fact, no one ever explains what “light-skinned” means. Some of the good characters such as Goldberry and Galadriel are described as being quite pale. Aragorn, on the other hand, is said to be “weather-beaten” with a “pale stern face” — which seem contradictory to each other.

Some of the folk of Gondor are swarthy men from the coastlands; they march to the defense of Minas Tirith. The men of Bree are said to be related to the swarthy-skinned Dunlendings. And though the Dunlendings themselves serve Saruman it turns out they were deceived by him and used as pawns against the Rohirrim, because of the ancient enmity between the two peoples.  Dwarves and some hobbits have darker complexions than the Dunedain so it’s hard to picture them as “light-skinned”. Of the Harfoots, the most numerous of hobbits, Tolkien wrote: “The Harfoots were browner of skin, smaller, and shorter, and they were beardless and bootless; their hands and feet were neat and nimble; and they preferred highlands and hillsides.” Analysis of the name Fallohide suggests that this smallest group of hobbits had the palest skin. But Sam, the dark-skinned hobbit, is said by Tolkien to be the real hero of the story. Take that for what it’s worth.

All the “evil” peoples are dark-skinned The orcs are sometimes cited as dark-skinned servants of evil, and certainly many of them are described as having black skin or swarthy. But there are light-skinned evil folk as well. The Noldor fell into great evil not once but twice. Their failures and tribulations are only barely mentioned in The Lord of the Rings but it is nonetheless the Elves who made the Rings of Power; Sauron had, in fact, seduced Celebrimbor and his contemporaries to “the dark side”.

Saruman, one of the Istari, who appears as a wizened old (white-skinned) man is the chief example of an evil “light-skinned” person. One could argue that the hobbits who sided with Sharkey/Saruman (such as Ted Sandyman) might be grouped with the “light-skinned” crowd if hobbits are considered “light-skinned”. Essentially, however, the divisions among hobbits and Rohirrim (Wormtongue served Saruman) shows that the light-skinned and dark-skinned “good” peoples could also side with evil.

In fact, the Black Numenoreans were descended from the pale-skinned Men of Numenor (Kings’ Men) — so even though Tolkien names them “Black” they are in fact light-skinned people who serve Sauron.

All the Dunedain are blond-haired, blue-eyed I am not sure where the “blue-eyed” idea came from (the Dunedain of Arnor and Gondor are described as having “grey eyes”) but the “blond-haired” Dunedain were mostly descended from the Marachians, the Third House of the Edain (also known as “the House of Hador”). According to The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth the majority of the “Faithful” Dunedain were descended from the dark-haired Beorians (the First House of the Edain), and it was largely from the Faithful that the Dunedain of Arnor and Gondor were descended. The Black Numenoreans were, in fact, mostly descended from Marachians (the blond-haired Numenoreans).

The Elves are portrayed as being incapable of doing evil Unfortunately very little Elvish history is shared in The Lord of the Rings so they do seem rather “goody two-shoesy” in most respects, but LoTR nonetheless stipulates that it was the Elves who made the Rings of Power. In Letter No. 131 (which he wrote to Collins publisher Milton Waldman in late 1951) Tolkien described the making of the Rings as a “second fall” so it becomes clear (post-LoTR) that the making of the Rings was in fact evil.

One must unfortunately read The Silmarillion to understand the great evil Elves are capable of (Fëanor’s rebellion, the three Kin-slayings, Celegorm’s lust for Luthien, Saeros’ cruel teasing of Turin and his subsequent attempt to kill Turin, etc.) committing. Elves may be “good folk” as The Hobbit claims but even Elves can rebel against good and commit evil. The bickering and mistrust that Tolkien depicts between Elves and Dwarves in a few passages shows that Elves were not above basic human emotions of pride, arrogance, and condemnation. Some Elves are, in fact, prejudiced against Dwarves (and Men). Lindir of Rivendell treats all mortals as being essentially alike (unable to distinguish between a hobbitish poem and a Dunadan poem).

The Northmen are portrayed as being a “superior” race This one has always made me shake my head. The so-called Superior Race gets its butt kicked in about every other historical anecdote. The Northmen even go so far as to betray Gondor, forcing one of its early kings to step in and lay down the law. And when Northmen are recruited to reinforce Gondor’s armies and population their presence eventually ignites a civil war between “pure blood” Numenoreans and the half-caste King Eldacar and his supporters. Racism is at the very heart of Gondor’s Kin-strife, and there is no indication whatsoever that the Northmen were viewed as a “superior” race.

Even in Frodo’s day the Rohirrim are deferential to the Men of Gondor, whom Faramir concedes have become more like the Northmen even as he notes that the Northmen have become more like the Dunedain. In fact, there is Dunadan blood in the royal house of Rohan. But it is the Northmen who are seen as “inferior” to the racist Dunedain, plain and simple.

The “superior caste” card is played often in Tolkien’s fiction, and every group that views itself as superior — even the Valar — becomes divided and responsible in some way for great evil, contributing to the “marring of Arda”. No one is perfect in Tolkien’s fiction (except Ilúvatar) and all species or races have their flaws and introspective weaknesses. Even the Valar are capable of hubris, and there are no exceptions to that sin as you descend the chain of superiority from Valar to Maiar to Eldar to Avari to Edain to other Men, etc.

The Orcs are depicted as being completely evil Tolkien felt it necessary to defend the Orcs as being enslaved by mightier wills; in fact, the One Ring was created to subvert the wills of weaker creatures to Sauron’s will. But that wasn’t enough for him. He included a few acknowledgements in The Lord of the Rings of the human-like qualities of Orcs. Aragorn points out that they will travel far to avenge a fallen captain; the Uruk-hai of Isengard show great loyalty to each other; the Uruks of Mordor share feelings of comradeship, perhaps friendship with each other; and they secretly, sometimes openly question orders and the “laws” that have been imposed upon them.

When Gandalf says that he pities even Sauron’s slaves, I think he includes the Orcs and trolls, and not just the miserable humans who have been forced to do the Dark Lord’s will. There are no noble Orcs in Tolkien’s fiction, but that very exclusion disturbed him and he struggled to explain what they were and why they seemed to be irredeemable — asking if they could not in some way be redeemed (eventually).

The story includes racist caricatures One of the most damning complaints made about The Lord of the Rings is the passage where he describes in half a sentence “out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues”. White eyes don’t sound quite human to me (I suppose they could have been blind, of course). And red tongues aren’t exactly human, either. If they were “like half-trolls” they must have been overly large.

There is another race of Men whom Ingold, the Rammas warden of Minas Tirith, describes when he retreats to the city with the last of the defenders of the great wall surrounding Minas Tirith’s townlands: “…countless companies of Men of a new sort that we have not met before. Not tall, but broad and grim, bearded like dwarves, wielding great axes. Out of some savage land in the wide East they come, we deem.” Some people refer to these men as “half-Dwarves” (I, myself, have used that description) although technically Tolkien does not describe them so.

Are these “black men like half-trolls” and “broad and grim, bearded like dwarves” men supposed to be racist caricatures of real, living peoples or are they just supposed to represent different peoples in the service of Sauron? The arguing will continue for ages, I am sure, but to me these are just fantasy races not intended to be a slur on anyone.

It is the Orcs, whom Tolkien described as “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” (Cf. Letter No. 210), who are most easily associated with a historical people. But he doesn’t imply that the Orcs were Mongols or that the Mongols were Orcs — rather, he used a nightmarish caricature of Mongols as an archetype for a fearfully menacing enemy that would evoke the kind of terror once associated with the Mongols.

This may be the only clear evidence of racism in Tolkien’s fiction — in that he uses a racist stereotype as a model for one of his fantasy races. Some people argue that the “black men like half-trolls” (who merit less than a sentence-worth of text) are based on Blackface — an American theater practice dating to 1830 that was carried overseas and which remained popular in the United Kingdom until the late 1970s. Blackface has a long and complex history but I just have a real problem seeing Tolkien’s “black men like half-trolls” as being directly inspired by Blackface. There is really nothing to be gained from such an association and this issue may arise more from what Tolkien described as “applicability” rather than an intention on Tolkien’s part to portray black-skinned Africans in a negative way through a fantasy caricature.

It’s Very Hard to Prove Racism in The Lord of the Rings

Tolkien hated racism and he went to great pains to depict it as both evil and a basic failing of the promise of the human spirit in his fiction. The racists among his characters always get a comeuppance. Every time someone views himself as superior he ends up either accepting the person he originally rejected (such as Thingol and Beren) or he just plain loses (such as Sauron against the hobbits).

We can rationalize — perhaps to the extent of justification — that J.R.R. Tolkien was as culturally influenced to think in terms of “us and them” as anyone else on Earth. But we cannot eradicate his staunch opposition to anti-Semitism and his literary condemnation of racism. I think he would have been appalled at the accusations that have been leveled at him by people who see racism more easily than others; not because he would have disagreed with all the accusations but because he would have tried to appreciate what the other person was thinking and, more importantly, feeling.

Tolkien comes across as curmudgeonly and sometimes as a bit of snob in some of his letters, but he quickly follows up with candid admissions of his own failings. One of the most interesting incidents, in my opinion, is his encounter with an American soldier (an officer) who insults Tolkien with American stereotypes about the British; after firing back his own verbal assault Tolkien eventually engaged the rude American in an afternoon conversation and both men came away with a little more respect for each other.

Isn’t that the classic plot of racist comeuppance? Tolkien lived in an afternoon what some people devote an entire lifetime to achieving. He undoubtedly had his own preferences and comfort levels but he certainly was capable of seeing past the veneers of superiority with which people drape themselves. Racism is essentially a defense mechanism, perhaps born out of a fear of reprisals from conquests and other ill deeds. It is a weakness to which all people are susceptible and some who have stood tall in the American Civil Rights movement have demonstrated perfectly tuned racism on their own parts.

Hence, racism is inescapable in our experience. Those who are victimized by it see it differently from those who grow up in a world where “others” are treated differently. But to suggest that Tolkien was sub-consciously promulgating racist ideas and attitude with The Lord of the Rings is to completely misunderstand the entire story. There are few literary works that could stand beside The Lord of the Rings and honestly claim to be more anti-racist.

November 29, 2012

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