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December 18, 2003

Better Left Unsaid, But....

Saw Return of the King today. Good movie.

Anyone can find anything in Tolkien. But one thing that I've always wondered is how liberal Tolkien lovers hande the racio-cultural implications.

When I googled tolkien racism this site comes out on top. The author says this:

The good guys in the story are not racially segregated, but representative of various types of social structures. In fact, the good guys' race is incidental, because the "bad guys" in the story are not another race. Sauron is an evil wizard, not a foreigner, and the orcs are elves who were tortured out of their minds and souls until nothing but empty husks remain. They're "black" in the story not because torture somehow robbed the elves of their Caucasianess, but because they're burnt by hellfire and have become creatures of the night. As for the "slant-eyed" thing, well the eyes are the windows to the soul, and the fact that today we use more PC terms "shifty-eyed" and "beady-eyed" doesn't mean we get to point fingers at a years-dead author for not knowing the term "slant-eyed" would one day become offensive.

Actually, this isn't what I think of at all when I try and glean a racial angle in Middle Earth. I'm wondering about the fact that the "black men" of Harad (who are dominated by a white ruling caste) and "Easterlings" are aligned with Sauron. In fact, only the Men of the West[1] are struggling against his influence. I remember vividly the passages in The Silmarillion which allude to the sexual exploitation of the women of the "Elf Friends" during the First Age by "swarthy" and "sallow" Easterlings after the latter had invaded the lands of the western folk. So one way those who espouse PC views on race and are afflicted by Tolkienophila can dodge the issue is to throw up a straw man (I sure as hell never identify with a monster because they're brown skinned! How stupid do you think I am?).

Now, I'm not very outraged by any of this, I think it is clear that this sort of mindset made sense in the historical and social context that Tolkien was familiar with, and as some commentators have noted, modern film today tends to depict villains as blue-eyed blonde males. But I doubt I am the only non-white person who noticed that I look far more like one of the corrupted Haradim or an Easterling than the Free Men of the West. This is of course a common motif in fantasy, and I have seen Amazon user reviews who comment positively on a book because the swarthy and sallow are not depicted as the enemy (this genre is often aimed at Anglo-American kids, so it makes sense to have noble knights defeating swarthy scimitar wielding nomads. And, I have to admit that fantasy novels that use a non-European context can be hard for me to figure out because the references don't come as easily). Yet, after noting this, I also realize, I do not live on Middle Earth, and the values of the Free Men of the West are more admirable than those of the colored races of Middle Earth, so emotionally with Arnor and Gondor do I stand.

As for the John-Rhys Davies interview, he says:

“There is a change happening in the very complexion of Western civilization in Europe that we should think about at least and argue about. If it just means the replacement of one genetic stock with another genetic stock, that doesn’t matter too much. But if it involves the replacement of Western civilization with a different civilization with different cultural values, then it is something we really ought to discuss — because, [hang it all], I am for dead-white-male culture!”

Hallelujah brother! Of course, as Steve Sailer notes, blood matters in the world of Tolkien. Those who have read The Simarillion know this, a drop of Elven blood goes a long way in giving a hero a prepackaged suite of noble traits and heightened skills. This is hinted at in the first film when Elrond (who is of mixed racial heritage himself, but chose to be a member of the Elven race) notes that the "blood of Numenor is all but spent...." The Numenorians are the natural ruling race of the West, and with a hint of Elvish ancestry they have extended lifespans in comparison to full mortals. Their first king was Elrond's brother Elros, who chose to be a Man. It follows that the Free Men would be more imbued with nobility and courage, it was they during the First Age who mixed their blood with Elvenkind and so the base venality of Humankind is most diluted in them (the "Black Numenorians" are evidence that they are not immune to Sauron's temptation, and black in this context is on account of character, not color).

Please note, I think that most of the criticisms can be deflected if you look at The Lord of the Rings. It is in The Silmarillion, almost a work of narrative history, where the deep historical roots of the general trends can be seen most strikingly. In Tolkien's defense, the virtue of the Men of the West can be argued as coincidence, insofar as those humans who were nearest to the Elves inevitably acculturated their noble values.

This article addresses some of the same points, though there is more outrage in the tone.

fn1. Though the Men of the West are obviously white, some of the rhetorical depictions of them as blonde Nordic superman are pretty outrageous. I recall from The Simarillion that at least one race of the Elf Friends was depicted as dark haired and another blonde (I don't remember the third). If you watch Return of the King, note the contrast between the blond Rohirrim and the almost uniformly dark-haired citizens of Minas Tirith. And I believe that pure blooded Numenorians look like Aragorn, dark-haired and pale-eyed.

Posted by razib at 12:19 AM