Friday, December 12, 2003

Tedious Topic: Tolkien and Race
I normally try not to feed the trolls, and there's more trolling going on over here, but I'll take one more swing at this annoying, shallow topic.

I've previously shown, in this post, that the charge that Tolkien was personally a racist is completely contradicted by biography and published writing.

But there are actually three different charges mixed in with the tiresome 'Tolkien is a racist' attack. The first is the intentional, discussed in the links above. The second is only a little harder to counter: it's that the work itself is racist because readers can make links between, say, orcs and African Americans (my African-American wife and daughter have, well, strong feelings that this comparison is not polite or accurate). I think it's pretty simple to show the origins of the orcs as tortured elves, their lack of humanity, and, most importantly, this distinction from the Southrons, who could be matched up with people of African descent, shows that the case for orcs=black people is pretty weak.

Likewise the foolishness about the blond, blue-eyed overlords doesn't quite work if you actually read the books. Almost all the elves are supposed to be dark-haired and gray eyed (Galadriel is a major exception due to her ancestry; more on her later). Likewise the "high men" of Gondor. It's the "middle men" of Rohan who are Nordic blonds. [n.b.: there are some complexities here that I'll deal with in a moment].

But there is a third thread in the racism charge that is harder to deal with only because it is cast an an irrefutable charge: Tolkien is racist because he posits entire races of creatures that can only be dealt with by genocide (orcs; trolls). Q.E.D., Tolkien is promoting the genocide of 'inferior' or 'evil' races.

I think Tolkien obviates this problem by making the evil 'races' exist without true free will. That is, they came about either via the torture of elves or, and this is the latter, more developed explanation in the Athrabeth na Finrod Andreth, they proceeded from Morgoth like icebergs calving from a glacier. The amount of evil in the world remained the same, but Morgoth reduced himself by breaking off dragons, orcs, trolls, etc.

The real source of new evil in Middle-earth, then, is from Men who can be converted to evil through the mis-use of their free will. Since they are Men, the same 'race' as the other men, racial genocide isn't an option.

There are still problems here, because Tolkien ended up, through the power of literature, giving the orcs more "personality" than their metaphysical natures warranted (see Shippey, "Orcs, Wraiths and Wights" for the best discussion). All of a sudden it's not so clear cut that exterminating them is morally unproblematic. But that's a good thing about literature: as Iris Murdoch said, it forces you to admit that other people really exist. Frodo says that he pities even Sauron's slaves, and he is right to. But that doesn't mean that they don't have to be killed when they are a threat.

Thus I would say that if you want to read the Lord of the Rings as advocating genocide, I can't stop you. But I think your reading is shallow and uninformed, and I wonder at the kind of experiences of life and literature had by people who seem so intent on applying theories (political or otherwise) that they miss the great and beautiful individuality of the works that they are not really reading.

[*the complexities of the blond overlord class in elves comes because while 90% of the Noldor and Sindar in Middle-earth are dark-haired, the golden-haired strain of the House of Finwe comes from the Vanyar, the "higher" kindred of the elves. Feanor is jealous of Fingolfin, his younger half-brother, in part because half of Fingolfin's blood is from the "higher" caste among the elves. Thus, while there aren't any real "blond overlords" in the Lord of the Rings, you can find them in the Silmarillion (though the Vanyar pretty much just sit at the feet of the gods and sing; not much overlording for them...).]

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