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Friday, 29 December 2017

Some thoughts on race and politics in The Lord of the Rings

Recently, I re-read The Lord of the Rings. Tomorrow I will publish a fairly in-depth exploration of what I found there, but first I’d like to address the charges that Tolkien was a fascist (this link is mostly about Michael Moorcock – you’ll have to scroll down for the relevant part), and that the Lord of the Rings contains elements that are racist. Although the two suggestions could easily be conflated, I find it easier to address them separately.

I do not think Tolkien was a fascist, but he (or at least his work) is deeply conservative. The idea of a nobility that is naturally suited to rule permeates the novel, but Tolkien is highly critical of those who misuse their power. The closest we get to a description of a fascist society is in the Scouring of the Shire, where a military police force brutalises the countryside, reduces the population to a barely subsisting serfdom, and any dissenting voice is locked up without trial or hope of release. This section of the books can feel like an afterthought when compared to the grand scale of the main narrative, but in its description of how ordinary hobbits get drawn into working as Saruman’s sheriffs (some because of ‘badness’, but some out of a desire for status and some just for the offer of steady employment) is perhaps Tolkien’s most nuanced look at power and its misuses, and one of the few clear links between the plot of the novel and the geo-political context of its writing (after the Second World War, during the Cold War). In contrast, the ‘good’ characters are noted for their mercy, and Aragorn – the novel’s archetypical king – shows, through his reluctance to enter Minas Tirith before being invited by the stewards of the city, and through his refusal to force unwilling men to follow him to a last stand at the gates of Mordor, an understanding of the legal and moral limits of even monarchical power. It would be difficult to say from this book alone whether Tolkien supported the idea of absolute monarchy in real life – he only supplies us with three types of government: the essentially self-governing pastoral feudalism of the shire, monarchs (good unless corrupted by outside influences like Denathor or Theoden), and tyrants. What can be said undeniably, is that he admires the idealised version of feudal monarchy that he presents. This is not the place to look for criticisms of feudal power structure, but Tolkien is at least critical of the sort of impersonal, oppressive and militarised power found in fascism and other forms of totalitarian regime.

On the other charge, that of racism, I must unfortunately find Tolkien guilty by modern standards, even if his racial views were relatively progressive among his contemporaries (according to his Wikipedia page, Tolkien was critical of the British Empire’s treatment of its colonial subjects, and he was critical of pre-war Germany’s anti-Semitism – let us not forget that until the outbreak of war, Hitler had many supporters in the Anglophone world). Even as a younger, less aware reader in a less PC world, I found some of Tolkien’s portrayals of non-white people uncomfortable. At the time, I thought that his one humanising description of a dead Southron soldier in Ithilien made up for the rest, but it does little to counter-balance all of the times that the Easterlings and the Haradrim are described as being cruel or barbaric, even if he does go out of his way to point out that they have been fooled by Sauron. The non-white humans of Middle Earth may not be naturally inclined to evil, but they are exotic and gullible worshipers of a false god, an ignoble ‘other’ to the fair skinned, noble people of the West. The best that can be said in Tolkien’s defence here is that he is perhaps no worse than other writers who grew up under the paternalistic vision of the British Empire, but where someone like Agatha Christie, for example, whose novels are set in roughly the time they were written, says something which seems backwards, it can more easily be recognised as part of the attitudes of her time. In Tolkien, whose setting is distant from his context, it is harder to see these attitudes as being ‘of their time’. Worse, Tolkien magnifies this problem through setting his story in an idealised past society where attitudes could have easily been different, and by emphasising the idea of racial superiority in his use of the Elven and Numenorean bloodlines. And it has to be said that while Christie might have her supporting cast of rakes and cads tell the occasional racist joke, at least she never penned a novel in which hordes of dark-skinned barbarians from a continent to the south ally with goblins and demons to invade Europe.

We should take a moment to discuss those goblins. A determined critic could argue that Tolkien’s orcs, while not as directly offensive as his Southrons and his Easterlings because they do not map onto a real world ethnicity, create an argument that evil is something which can be inherent in a culture – that evil can be so deep in a people that it passes through their DNA. When placed alongside his portray of non-European (and there is no denying that the North West of Middle Earth is a stand in for Europe) human characters, they draw attention to attitudes about race and moral strength that were prevalent at the time of writing. However, I think this is to put the wrong sort of emphasis on what is essentially a common storytelling technique. Tolkien uses orcs in the same way that George Lucas uses his masked Stormtroopers, or so many video games use zombies – as a faceless evil that can be killed without diminishing the innocence of our protagonists. Beyond this, they provide a counterpoint to the Early-Medieval societies that inspired Tolkien. Tolkien dedicated his professional life to studying the literature of warlike people, and his fictional cultures draw inspiration from them. While he makes a point of not having his characters love war, it is still a source of honour and glory for them. Weapons are treasured artefacts, and the great war-leaders are remembered in song. The nature of the weapons might have changed, but man’s warlike nature was just as evident as ever by the time Tolkien was writing. He fought in the First World War himself, and lived through the second. The orcs are a distorted mirror to Tolkien’s Elves, Dwarves and Men, and to mankind throughout real history. They are a society in which all but war has been stripped away – they write no songs and have no love of beautiful things, either crafted or natural, despoiling the Earth in order to create more means to kill. Fighting orcs neither allows for, nor requires much moral complexity, but that is not the type of story Tolkien is trying to tell.

So, Tolkien is not a fascist, and his portrayal of Orcs is not racist, but his portrayal of non-European people probably is. While this made me a little uncomfortable in places, it did not ruin the book for me. Again, I do not believe that Tolkien hated people of colour, he may not even have had the same sort of ‘White Man’s Burden’ paternalistic views of his contemporaries, but in this book he does present a dangerous non-European other which is out of step with our times. However, this is far from being a central element in the books, and I think it should be treated the same way we would treat the racism of his contemporaries  – acknowledge it for what it is, then, so long as it is not the core argument, move on to looking at other elements of the work. This post is my acknowledgement – tomorrow I will begin a proper investigation of the novel.

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