[image from here]
Recently there have been a couple of new engagements with the vexed question of Tolkien and race (follow @Dr_Dimitra_Fimi on Twitter and read what she has to say, would be my advice). It's not a question that can be evaded. In common with many of his class and generation Tolkien’s imagination was shaped by assumptions it's hard to avoid calling racist.
So: his elves are, to modern sensibilities, rather alarmingly Aryan in conception: tall, slender Überelfen, literally a superior race, in notable (though not all) cases blonde-haired and blue-eyed: a caste of wise, authoritative warrior-artists with a mystic connection to the land. By the same token Tolkien's enemy races, from his pygmy goblins to his orcs and hulking uruk-hai, are manifestly racially othered: barbarous, ugly, dirty, savage, bow-legged and long-armed (simian, we might say), dark skinned ‘as if burned’. If that doesn’t sound orientalist enough, here’s a letter in which Tolkien describes orcs as ‘squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes’ [Carpenter, ed. Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (1981), p. 274]. And then there are the men of Middle Earth who, we could say, exemplify that structurally racist logic whereby characters whose race is not specified default, as it were, to whiteness—figures like Aragorn and Boromir are Tolkien’s version of medieval European princes, just as figures like Éowyn and Théoden are his versions of Anglo-Saxons. So: white. The appearance of Southron warriors out of the Harad allied with Sauron—Frodo and Sam see one of these geezers up close, and note his brown skin, braided black hair and scimitar—confirms, by the contrast, the Caucasian nature of Tolkien’s ‘men’.
There are several directions, critically speaking, we can go from here; but flat denial is not one of them. Tolkien is writing a fantasy in which he imaginatively projects a battle between Good and Evil onto the widescreen of his invented world, and he tends to conceptualise good as, broadly, white, and evil as, broadly, black—it’s light versus darkness, it’s cleanliness versus dirt, its purity versus contamination, it’s all those things generations of scholars have identified as the sort of conceptual binary that underpins systemic racism. And the emphasis on the systemic component of this is important. One needn’t believe that Tolkien was, himself, personally racist to critique the ways in which his writing reproduces and reinforces immanent attitudes and prejudices.
Take the dwarfs, or, as JRRT idiosyncratically insisted on pluralising that word, ‘dwarves’. Now dwarfs are, of course, figures from Germanic and Norse legend (yes) who appear in various Grimms’ tales (of course) and whose anti-Semitic cultural associations certainly predate Tolkien. But nonetheless here they are, popping up in bulk in The Hobbit, a novel published in 1937 at a time when anti-Semitism was in the process legally and officially of swallowing the whole of Continental Europe. Here they are, these big-nosed, bearded, strange, keep-themselves-to-themselves folk, living in underground tunnels and dens like vermin, devoting their energies to accumulating and hoarding money, pursuing their own mysterious rites and secret rituals. We might want to argue that staging a work as Fantasy gives its author a kind of plausible deniability (‘how can you say Jar Jar Binks is a racist stereotype! He’s an alien!’) but we can be grown-up about this. Tolkien's dwarfs are no more to be blithely acquitted of anti-Semitism than are C S Lewis’s Narnian dwarfs, those willing assistants to Jadis, those stubborn refuseniks when it comes to the manifest bounty of Aslan’s grace (even the Calormen, or at least some of them, come to accept Aslan’s grace as Narnia ends in The Last Battle, but not the Lewisian Jews: ‘Yah! The dwarfs are for the dwarfs!’ they yell, turning their backs on the heaven-of-heavens opening directly before them. ‘“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is their own minds.”’) By the time we get to J K Rowling’s dwarfish goblins, hook-nosed crafty-eyed abstainers from the great battle of Dumbledoric good against Voldemortal evil who literally run the global banking system, the mask has slipped so far it’s lying on the floor.
But stop a moment. Lots of Englishmen were anti-Semitic to one degree or another in the 1930s (lots are today, still, alas) and Tolkien was intensely English, small-c conservative, traditional and Roman Catholic. That’s the core demographic, right, for this brand of prejudice? Maybe not, though. In 1938 Tolkien was approached by the publisher Rütten & Loening with a view to issuing a German translation of The Hobbit: potentially a very lucrative proposition at a time when Tolkien, with a young family and an ill-paying day-job, really needed the money. But there was a sticking point. Under the Nazi race laws, and considering Tolkien’s unusual surname, they needed an assurance that he wasn’t a Jew. So they wrote, asking him to confirm his Aryan heritage. His reply was rather magnificent:
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 that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. 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 be a source of pride.(This particular draft of the letter may or may not have been sent, but it is splendid on any terms). The first German translation of The Hobbit didn't appear until long after: in 1957.
Let's go back to Middle Earth for a moment. If we're saying that in some sense Elves ‘are’ Aryans, Men Caucasians, Dwarfs Jews and Orcs Orientals/Blacks then what are hobbits? We could say ‘white’ (although I think I'm correct in saying the only colour-term associated with their skin is ‘brown’, as in sun-tanned: because, I suppose, they're so fond of being outdoors, gardening and walking and so on). But maybe a better way of talking about the semiology of Tolkien's hobbits is to stress not their race but their class. Uniquely, really, in all the peoples of Middle Earth Tolkien characterises hobbits by whether they are upper-middle-class, middle-class or working-class. When I first read The Lord of the Rings as a kid I suppose I assumed Frodo and Sam were just two friends on an adventure, but re-reading as an adult made clear what was obvious: Frodo is of a higher social class than Sam. Sam's not Frodo's servant in the sense that he's salaried staff, like Jeeves with Wooster; but he serves Frodo nonetheless, and Frodo is (in Gollum's phrase) master. All the comedy-of-manners stuff about the Sackville-Baggins's envious attitude to the Baggins's possessions, all the eighteenth-century gentlemanly attributes of Bilbo, and then of Frodo, situate this body of representation in a network of asumptions and unchallenged attitudes about class. I persist in insisting that nothing can be understood about any aspect of English culture or society without first understanding how completely Englishness is interpenetrated by bindweed constrictions of class and snobbery.
I'm not suggesting, of course, that class and race stand magically separate from one another. We need to think, to use the current term, intersectionally, of course. But I am suggesting that because the hobbits are Tolkien's closest approximation to Englishness (as he understood it) it's worth thinking about them in terms of class in the first instance, and race secondarily. The contrast with the other scare-quotes ‘races’ of Middle Earth seems to me undeniable, and important. Consider the elves (of the field, they toil not neither do they etc). Tolkien's text really doesn't construe them into aristocratic elves, middle-class elves and a large population of solid working-class elvish peasantry. Even thinking about them in these terms seems absurd, somehow. They have their heirarchies of nobility and royalty, but in another sense all Tolkien's elves are aristocrats, because elves themselves are his legendarium's natural aristos. Does dwarf society divide into upper, middle and working-classes? Are there middle-class orcs? Of course not.
Push it a bit further. What ‘race’ is Gandalf? He looks like a man but he's not. He is in fact one of the Istari, supernatural entities sent—by whom is only vaguely intimated in the novels—into Middle Earth as messengers and guides. In one sense we can parse the Istari as angels. (‘You! Shall not! Parse!’) ... Now: it is surely nonsensical to describe angels as a race. Wizards, like elves, are immortal: they can be killed but cannot otherwise die. Immortality is not a racial descriptor. Indeed, putting it like this throws the emphasis, in the terms of Tolkien's legendarium, elsewhere—what's remarkable in the logic of Middle Earth is not that elves are immortal, but that men are not: they labour under some opaquely-explained curse. I say they; I mean, of course, we: mortal men and women, doomed to die.
So let me come at this question of race once again, from another angle, and ask again: what are Orcs? In terms of ethnic semiology their (as it were) discursively orientalist provenance is inarguable, but where do they come from in terms of Tolkien's legendarium? The short answer is: we don't know, because Tolkien never made up his mind. He toyed with three different theories, none of which satisfied him. One was that Orcs were fashioned from mud (this is what he says in the earliest drafts of The Fall of Gondolin, written c.1917: made of mud through the sorcery of Morgoth ‘bred from the heats and slimes of the earth’). In these terms Orcs are something like golems or automata. There's a problem here though: defeating mere automata is hardly heroic, or indeed much of a challenge. Later, then, Tolkien toyed with the notion that Orcs, though they look somewhat like men, are actually a species of higher animal: ‘beasts of humanized shape’ fashioned by Melkor ‘to mock Men and Elves’. But how can they be animals, if they have their own unique language? Tolkien fretted over this question, and speculated. Maybe
their ‘talking’ was really reeling off ‘records’ set in them by Melkor. Even their rebellious critical words—he knew about them. Melkor taught them speech and as they bred they inherited this; and they had just as much independence as have, say, dogs or horses of their human masters. This talking was largely echoic (cf. parrots). [Christopher Tolkien (ed) Morgoth's Ring (1993), 34]Parrots. Right. Both of these theories proceed from one of Tolkien's core beliefs: only God can create actual life. Evil can pervert what has been created, but cannot itself create. But neither of these theories satisfied Tolkien, so he toyed with a third: that Orcs are descended from elves and men captured by Melkor, reshaped and uglified by dark arts or by some monstrous breeding programme into corrupted creatures. This is the origin-story Peter Jackson's movie trilogy endorses (‘Do you know how the Orcs first came into being?’ Christopher Lee's Saruman explains to his deputies: ‘they were elves once, taken by the dark powers, tortured and mutilated. A ruined and terrible form of life.’ Sarumansplaining, we might call this). But for his own part Tolkien wasn't happy with this theory either, and never fully endorses it. As we have it, Tolkien's legendarium nowhere categorically explains the provenance of the Orcs.
What's his problem? I'll tell you what I think, and why I see reasons therefore for not thinking of orcs as primarily racially-conceived. The ‘problem’ is that Tolkien's entire project in his legendarium is, at root, religious, Catholic, spiritual. Friends noted that Middle Earth, which contains so much carefully worked worldbuilding detail in terms of history, custom, culture, language, geography, architecture, dress and so on, includes no churches or temples, no priests of religious celebrants at all. This was no oversight; it was a deliberate choice by Tolkien. ‘The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,’ he wrote to a friend; ‘unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion,” to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.’ If we ask where is the religion in Middle Earth? we can be answered: Middle Earth doesn't include religion; it is religion. Including specific cults and fanes into the worldbuilding would only tangle obstructively with that aim.
Now, for Tolkien ‘religion’, which can of course mean a thousand things, means certain things above all others, and one of the most central for his imaginative work is: free will. To a Catholic like Tolkien it is an absolutely fundamental fact of the cosmos that God created men and women with free will, such that we can choose to do good or evil. Indeed, Tolkien thinks we must choose: that the choice cannot be escaped or evaded, and moreover that the nature of our fallen world is such that choosing to do good will be difficult, painful, perhaps fatal. But nonetheless we must choose, actively and consciously. This is what The Lord of the Rings is, at root: a great dramatisation of the difficulty and necessity of moral choice, and the ring itself works as powerfully as it does because it foregrounds the urgency and inevitability of that choice, and the implacability of that choice's consequences.
Orcs, then, focus a particular problematic for Tolkien. In a nutshell the question is: do orcs have souls? If not, if they are mere automata or beasts, then the whole battle of good versus evil comes down to a sort of animal management issue, like hunting wolves or de-verminising your barn. Do we really want to conceptualise the Battle of the Pelennor Fields as the heroic defence of Gondor against hordes of evil parrots? We, I think, do not.
But if orcs have souls and therefore free will, how can it be that they all choose, in lock-step, to follow Evil? Wouldn't some of them choose otherwise? Can we imagine an orc repenting and joining the forces of good? I'm not sure Tolkien could, but I'm also not sure he wanted to surrender the idea that his characters were combatting active, wilful agents in a battle between meaningful good and meaningful evil. In fact I don't think he found a way of squaring that circle. Of shireing that cirith ungol.
This, though, has implications for the racial reading of Tolkien's work. Because a racist reads the world via a flattening essentialism, thinks en masse: as it might be ‘you were born with a black skin and that makes you by definition inferior to me, because I was born with a white skin.’ But despite the various (undeniable) prejudice-markers he bore from his generation, class and culture, Tolkien really didn't think that way. For him the most important thing about any given human is not whether they are born black or white, rich or poor, but that they are born with immortal souls and therefore free will; and the most important question is how they choose to engage that will in the world. Everything else, really, is epiphenomena.
Go back to elves. Why are they immortal? Because, I think, they not only have souls but in some representational sense in the (resolutely non-allegorical but undeniably semiotic) logic of this text, they are souls: material embodiments of a spirutual reality. And this is the larger symbolic architecture of Middle Earth: that mortal men exist in the middle between, on the one hand, a spiritual realm of maiar, istari and elves, and on the other a soulless realm of created life: animals and plants and so on. Hobbits are men in this broader sense (the question of whether other creatures are men in this sense remains moot: do Tolkien's eagles have souls? And if they do, why not Tolkien's ravens? How do Ents fit? And so on). It's not that this avoids the racial problematic of course; but it does frame it in a different way. Or so it seems to me.