Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Yet Another Bigotry in Middle Earth Post
One thing that occurs fairly regularly is a piece showing how a certain piece of fiction or another is racist or sexist or something else offensive and should thus be cast aside. Most of this recent spate of accusations depend upon reinterpreting some pieces of symbology from a perspective of modern context rather than using the more ancient attitudes. This is not to say that pieces of fiction which are deliberately racist don’t exist. They most certainly do. If you have to work hard to find the symbols and metaphors that prove your assertion that a work is racist, then it is most likely you are seeing what you want to see. For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to focus on Lord of the Rings. It has often been suggested that Lord of the Rings is racist and sexist. These interpretations are largely fueled by modern eyes and context and make little sense within the context of Tolkien’s life.
In the first place, trying to apply specific meanings and messages to Tolkien’s works is especially problematic since Tolkien himself believed in applicability and the idea that one story could applicable to many different perspectives. He basically believed that meaning was the province of the reader rather than the author. He most certainly had his own opinions about what lessons the book could teach him and what metaphors existed within it, but in general he felt that a good peace of fiction was like a Rorschach Test that reflected the thoughts of the audience and helped make clear what was on the mind of the person reading it. Basically, if you go into a story expecting to find signs of prejudice and bigotry, then you will find it. With that said, I’m going to address some of the specific concerns people have had about the Lord of the Rings which they say proves the bigotry within it.
Another couple of theories I’ve heard recently from a Cracked video is that the Hobbits represent pagans. They noted that the Hobbits had very simplistic and naïve views of the world and pointed out that willpower was repeatedly noted as important throughout the books and that the hobbits were notably lacking in it. This fails to note that this simple way of life is one that Tolkien seemed to consider the most ideal and most natural. It was very much based on the way of life of the English farmer. Even the numerous Hobbit meals are based on the real life meal schedules used by such farmers.
Their argument that the Hobbits lack the will to deal with evil in general or the Ring in specific is undermined by the fact that Hobbits consistently deal with the Ring’s temptations better than any other race in the setting. Smeagol, otherwise known as Gollum, takes the Ring in an act of murder and keeps it for hundreds of years and even though he was foully corrupted into a scuttling thing, he kept some level of resistance to the Ring's influence even until near the end. Bilbo held the Ring for more than sixty years and was able to give it up with some difficulty. Frodo bore the Ring when it was at its most active and though it drove him insane and took over in the end, he recovered quickly once the Ring was taken. As for Samwise, well Samwise pretty much says “no thank you” and then easily dismisses it where as everyone else in the story was immediately compelled to keep and use it. Another instance showing the sheer willpower of Hobbits lies in the fact that Pippin is able to come out of his brush with Sauron’s mind with no lasting damage to his mind and that Merry is able to muster the will to walk into Minas Tirith himself after helping to defeat the Witch King whereas most Men would have died on the spot from the Black Breath. None of the Hobbits of the story show anything less than tremendous willpower.
It is noted in several cases throughout the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that if the Hobbit way of life were more generally accepted then the world would be a happier place. The Hobbits are given the place of being the people that bring simple common sense and practical perspective to the Fellowship. They cut through all the thousands of years of tradition and politics and lay bare the root facts of the matter. In the end they are accounted as being the most highly respected heroes of the age. This is not the way one would portray a society that they mean to be perceived as naïve and simplistic.
Another idea was that the Dwarves represented Jews and it was pointed out that they were greedy, vindictive and secretive about their culture, which are all traits that had been associated with Jews in the past within Europe. However, this is another case of ignoring ancient precedent. Jews became seen as greedy, vindictive and spiteful because Christians were forbidden from being moneylenders and thus Jews filled that niche within Christian societies. Many Christians in the Middle Ages would only deal with Jews through the small number that acted as moneylenders. Given that moneylenders of every religion tend to either be seen as stingy and greedy the source of the unfair Jewish stereotype is clear.
The Dwarves of Middle Earth are inspired partially by the Nordic myths with the Nibelungen Saga standing out among them. Nordic Dwarves have had the nature of being vindictive, spiteful and greedy as part of their character for centuries before that reputation was first given to the Jews. There is also the fact that Dwarves of Middle Earth are consistently portrayed as stout and powerful warriors, which is not part of the ancient bigoted views on Jews, which were often seen as cowardly and sinister.
Furthermore, some point out that Elves appear to have this elevated status of perfection. They are these immortal and perfectly attractive people that treat all the other races in a kindly but condescending manner marking them as the benevolent superior race. This is ignoring the way Elves are portrayed in Middle Earth.
When Frodo and Sam meet Galadriel she admits that she does not understand the concept of magic or why Men and Hobbits would use that word to describe both the art of the Elves and the deceits of the Enemy. This is very much the perspective of someone who has grown up knowing and being educated in regards to a specific concept and simply assuming everybody else understands it as well. She has the intellectual knowledge that other races know less of the way of the world than Elves, but her confusion over the concept of magic is similar to the way we feel when someone is surprised that Europe is not a country. This would be somewhat a case of bigotry and condescension except for the fact that Galadriel rather casually admits that she doesn’t understand. Not to mention the fact that she is talking to Frodo and even Samwise as equals rather than condescending to them.
Beyond that there is the fact that the sorrows of the Elves are largely self-inflicted. The Elves have a rather bloody history complete with acts of genocide referred to as the Kinslayings where Elves of one sort committed wholesale slaughter upon Elves of another sort, often helpless populations. Some of the Sons of Feanor and Feanor himself are often shown to be as evil as Morgoth in their own way. Two of them even became so corrupted that the Silmarils burned then when they caught up with them.
As to the matter of skin color, this is also not so clear cut as most people assume. The classic art and the actors chosen for the movies are generally paler than the impression I get from the reading. The Rohirrim are certainly pale, but Aragorn himself is described in contradictory manners including “weather-beaten,” which would imply that he was darker skinned due to exposure to the elements, and “pale stern” which seems counter to that. My own personal imagination of Aragorn was that he was darker complexioned but it is clear that the Dunadan have a wide range of complexions. In addition, the Black Numenoreans, those that allied with Sauron, were of the branch that were typically fair-haired and light-eyed while those that stayed true were dark-haired and grey-eyed. Making the Black Numenoreans more often pale than dark despite their name.
As to other races, the Breefolk were related in someway to the Dunlendings meaning they were likely somewhat darker skinned than shown, though they had been north for quite a long time. Dwarves are also supposed to be darker-complexioned. As to Hobbits, the most common sort, Harfoots, are literally described as being brown-skinned and Tolkien always identified Samwise Gamgee as the true hero of the story and he is the one described as the darkest complexioned. There were also a number of swarthy men from allied nations that went to aid Gondor's defense. As such, there were dark-skinned and light-skinned individuals on both sides of the good and evil divide.
There were, of course, the Southrons, Haradrim and Easterlings which many take to be representations of Arabs and Africans, though I tend feel that Easterlings would relate more toward Eastern Europe and Russia. Regardless, some people seem to think that this implies a condemnation of these peoples. However the only in depth commentary on the Southrons we have comes from Sam's pondering over the death of young Southron shortly after the Hobbits were taken captive by Faramir's rangers.
“He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.” - Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbits
For that matter, some of Tolkien's writings from later in his life suggest that he was looking into writing about the exploits of the Blue Wizards to the East. It was previously assumed that they failed in their mission in a similar manner to Saruman, turning evil, or Radagast, remaining good but straying from the task. It may instead have been that they were key to undermining Sauron's efforts in the East and thus making it possible for Gandalf's gambits to pay off in Lord of the Rings. This would have featured a lot of peoples that are more or less unknown in the stories.
Now, as to racism in Middle Earth, the stories are full of it, just not in the way that the accusers assume it is. There is, of course, the never ending feud between the Elves and the Dwarves. Someone who reads the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and comes to the semi common accusation that the Elves are shown to be incapable of evil would assume that the feud is entirely the fault of the greedy and vindictive Dwarves. However, some Elves would hunt the Dwarves like animals. Elf Lords and Ladies have cheated Dwarven artisans from whom they commissioned works of art. The Dwarves were not blameless, of course, they had their own crimes against the Elves. Of course, the stories of the aggrieved Elves and aggrieved Dwarves spread and each side ignored the malcontents of their own side of the issue.
However, when it comes to Elves and racism there is nothing like what goes on within their own ranks. The Noldor who followed the Sons of Feanor felt no problem at all about committing acts of genocide referred to as the Kinslayings. First there was the slaying at Alqualonde when the Teleri chose to refuse the Noldor the use of their ships. It is said that the Noldor drew their swords and the Teleri their bows and a pitched battle began which might have been in the favor of the Teleri until Fingon arrived and assumed the Teleri had attacked Feanor and stepped in to the aid resulting in the overwhelming victory of Feanor's forces. Eventually, the Sons of Feanor would sack the land of Doriath in search of a Silmaril causing the second Kinslaying. The Third Kinslaying came when the Sons of Feanor pursued the survivors of the Second and killed all the refugees save only Elwing and her children Elros and Elrond. (Yes, you read that right, Elrond is a survivor of an act of genocide committed by Elves upon other Elves).
For a milder form of inter-Elven racism then you can look to the terms Calaquendi and Moriquendi. Calaquendi means “People of the Light” and refers to those Elves who have lived in Aman and thus seen and lived within the Light of Valinor. Meanwhile Moriquendi “People of the Darkness” and refers to those Elves that refused to travel into the West. The Noldor were the only Calaquendi that came back to Middle Earth, excepting Galadriel who was Noldor but had Teleri heritage as well (notably, Galadriel did not take part in any of the Kinslayings). As shown above the Noldor following Feanor committed their first Kinslaying against another tribe of the Calaquendi, they were even more dismissive of the Elves of Middle Earth.
The Sindar were not much better. They objected to being referred to as Moriquendi, prompting the Noldor to come up with a separate term, Umanyar meaning “those not of Aman.” However, their reasoning for the offense was that they didn't like to be lumped in with the likes of the Sylvan Elves or those Elves that remained even further East, tribes that do not appear within the written works of Tolkien. After all, the Sindar had lived in the presence of one of Melian, the maia who married their king, Thingol, who himself had been to the West. An example of Sindarin attitude toward the Moriquendi can be found in Thranduil who showed up in the Greenwood (Mirkwood) and established himself as king supported by his close Sindarin followers. By contrast, Galadriel and Celeborn moved to Lothlorien to offer their protection to the Sylvan Elves there and outright refused to take on royal title because they were unwilling to set themselves above the Sylvan Elves.
The Elves, of course, also extended their prejudice towards Men whom they often considered lesser. This was mostly the Sindar as the Noldor simply did not regard Men at all for the most part and the Sylvan and other Moriquendi tended to be isolationist in general distrusting everybody and staying out of affairs unless forced into matters. A good example of this is the task that Thingol set to Beren for earning his daughter's hand in marriage. The quest was meant to kill him without getting any blood on Thingol's hands and likely would have done so if it were not for his daughter's actions. Beyond that, the Elves tended to praise Men based on how loyal they were, as if they were subordinates to the Elves.
Which brings the matter to the High Men, who treated the so called Low Men. Low Men of various sorts often had reputations for making deals with the Enemy and were often treated poorly as a result. This resulted in Low Men often making deals with the Enemy. Later on the Numenoreans would set up colonies along the coasts of Middle Earth as well as lands to the South and other lands far away. In fact, it was descendants of these Numenoreans that eventually came to Sauron's side and pushed the men of those realms into Sauron's service.
There was also numerous instances of racism among the Low Men, especially as time passed and the High Men became increasingly rare. For example, the Rohirrim had long oppressed the Dunlendings who were the natives of part of the region that Gondor magnanimously granted them. In addition, the Rohirrim would hunt the Woses as if they were beasts. The Stewards of Gondor and the Men of that realm felt themselves superior to the rest of the world by the nature of their continued guardianship over the borders of Mordor.
In the wake of the fall of Arnor, the Dunadan of that realm were left homeless and they kept themselves secret, trusting only the Elves, in order to avoid the spies of the enemy. This secrecy and distrust resulted in giving them a dark reputation with the Breefolk who would stay well apart from them as much as possible and give them pejorative names such “Strider.”
Everybody, of course, was rather dismissive of Hobbits. Nobody thinks much of them or their deeds. For example, Tolkien recorded that the Shire sent archers to the final defense of Arnor and that they gave a rather good account of themselves. This fact, however, is not remembered by the rest of the world and is only barely remembered by the Hobbits themselves. Meanwhile, the Hobbits consider outsiders to be rather ridiculous and unimportant themselves.
Now, I think it should be noted that up to this point I've only discussed incidents of racism within the heroic races of the setting. There is, of course, racism among the Orcs. They're just bubbling over with it. They hate each other and speak of other races as “scum”, “upstarts” and “rebels”. Barring the presence of a strong leader, they are prone to turn on each other as much as on other races. Tolkien had multiple possible origins for the orcs. The most well-known being that they are corrupted and tortured elves but he also accounted that they may have been fragments of the spirit of Morgoth or else maiar like Gandalf, Sauron and Saruman. He even noted that all three options might be possible as it is shown through the birth of Luthien that a maia who takes mortal form can produce children. As such, the orcs might be demons, might be corrupted elves, might be pieces of Morgoth or might be a mix of all three. Regardless, they are a caricature of of other beings, broken and miserable.
Some people think that the orcs represent a specific ethnicity of people, but the most credible theory I have heard regarding the possible inspiration for orcs comes from Tolkien’s experiences in trench warfare and his encountering people on both sides of the war who reveled in war. In this interpretation, orcs don’t represent a specific ethnicity but rather represent those men and women who thrive on the cruelty and savagery of war and are quite willing to engage in any of a number of brutal activities when ordered to do so. Thus these are the brutes of all races condensed into one thing.
Tolkien did respond to a statement by someone regarding the thought that Orcs were an irredeemable evil. His statement was that if there was nothing for Orcs to contribute to the world then Eru would not allow them to exist and denied the idea that anything could be irredeemable. (Though I can no longer find that quote) However, the redemption of the orcs is certainly beyond the extent of the narrative of the story. My personal opinion is that Men and the remaining Elves and Orcs blended into one whole sometime between the end of the Third Age and the modern time, if you accept Tolkien's thought that the modern age would be the Seventh. This possibly included Hobbits. Dwarves I am not certain of. Tolkien has stated that from a genetic stand point Elves and Men are the same species only differing in the manner of their spirit and it seems that the Hobbits are branch of the line of Men in some ways. If the Orcs have Elvish blood then they would likewise be able to mingle with the other species and there were even hints of that process already occurring in The Lord of the Rings via Saruman's plots.
In any case, these incidents of racism never proved justified and they are often sources of the great sorrows that plague the Middle Earth. This is why the Elves of The Lord of the Rings are so melancholy and stand-offish within the time period of The Lord of the Rings. The Elves that remain are those that have seen their own actions destroy everything they ever loved. As much as they would love to blame Morgoth and Sauron for everything, they are well aware that most of their troubles were brought on themselves. The remaining Elves are largely those that have gotten past their prejudices and some succumbed to begin with. They show a resistance and awareness of committing evil because they are damn well aware of how easily they or their kin can be tempted by pride and wrath to become that evil.
Saruman likewise managed to use the generations of Rohirrim mistreatment of Dunlendings in order to raise large numbers of the hill folk to serve as cannon fodder in his war against the Riders. Without the Rohirrim racism, their troubles would have been much less than they were. This repeated again with the troubles between Elves and Dwarves, the distrust between Dunadan and Breefolk, the dismissal of Hobbits and the dismissal by Hobbits of the outer lands have all caused at least as much disruption to the efforts of the Free People of Middle Earth as the machinations of Sauron and Morgoth. Most likely they are even more responsible. However, given that Dwarves, Dunadan, Men and Hobbits are not immortal, they more frequently forget the mistakes of the past, again making it seem as if the Elves are more inherently good then the others.
Tolkien himself detested racist practices. Over the course of his life he spoke out against apartheid and Hitler. Among other things when a German publisher asked him to sign a statement that he was of pure Aryan descent, he stated “Personally I should be inclined to refuse to give any Bestätigung (although it happens that I can), and let a German translation go hang. In any case I should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print. I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine." There is further an unsent letter in which he would have told his publishers “I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware noone (sic) 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."
Racism causes nothing but sorrow and unnecessary pain and suffering within Middle Earth. It is as ubiquitous in that world as it is in our world. The “heroic” peoples of Middle Earth are largely those that have recognized or else come to recognize the shame of their behaviors. Such as the bulk of the Elves, Theoden's efforts to correct the ways of the Rohirrim and the efforts of Legolas and Gimli after the War. No doubt the cycle would continue down the line, especially if you accept the idea of the Middle Earth Legendarium being set in a potential past of our own planet.
Then there is the matter of the limited number of women characters in the stories and how that shows a definite sexism. This is somewhat true for The Hobbit, which has absolutely no female characters aside from a mention of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, and superficially appears so in Lord of the Rings which has only a handful of female characters. However, this says more about the time period the book was written in than it does about the intended message of the book. At the time Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion were written it was assumed that warrior women were very rare in history and that most would not have been involved in such wild adventures as he was writing about. Actually in the context of the time period it was written, the novels of Tolkien were incredibly progressive, enough so that some women have noted that their parents didn’t want them reading the book in their childhood lest they got ideas.
The women that do appear and how they appear within the storyline are far more significant than the number of women that appear. Contrary to the standards of the time, Tolkien’s women are not the sort of do-nothing damsels in distress, prizes waiting at the end of the finish line or passively helpful goddesses that were expected. Tolkien’s women by and large do stuff.
Theoden’s niece, Eowyn, is a favorite female character for people to point to as an example of a progressive woman fighting against the expectations of patriarchal society that insisted on keeping women safe and having men do the dangerous bits. They point to how she was told to stay home with the women and children as the men went off to war. This attitude betrays ignorance of certain medieval military and governmental practices.
Eowyn is not directed to stay at home with the women and children, she is given the responsibility of leading the garrison that remains behind to protect the home front from anybody who would want to take advantage of the fact that the bulk of the military is away. This is not a dismissal, this is a charge of honor and respect. The sort of post she’s given is the kind one gives to a trusted and capable general. Those given the assignment to guard the home front are almost never portrayed as enjoying the assignment and almost always shown to prefer to be on the front lines, but it is considered an honorable and prestigious charge.
In addition, it had always been considered unwise to send all the members of the royal bloodline out on the same military engagement. In crude paralance, Eomer is the heir and Eowyn is the spare. You don’t put both in danger if you can help it. The expectation of the war was that, even in the case of victory, there would be a large number of casualties. Theoden was hoping to secure both the royal line and establish an effective ruler in the case that both he and Eomer perished in the war.
This appointment and Theoden’s treatment of her is significant in the fact that nobody bats an eye. It is just done. Nobody gives even the slightest outcry at the idea that a woman is being given the military and governing role on the home front. Far from showing this as a society that considers women inferior, this reveals a society that is fine with accepting a woman as a general and ruler. Given the reaction, I don’t doubt that there were indeed women among the riders that arrived on the Pelennor Fields. People noting that the numbers were listed as Men rather than Men and Women should note that “Mann” was originally a gender neutral term similar to “person” or “someone.” In Old English, wēr would refer to a male human while wīfmann were female humans. The use of Man to refer to male humans only began after the Norman conquest and had almost eclipsed the old use by the end of the 13th Century. As a scholar of Old English, Tolkien would have known this and the character of his writing fits the use of “Man” as a gender neutral term which can refer to men or women.
The most direct thing that Eowyn is fighting against is her own depression and self-hatred. She had been subjected to Wormtongue’s advances and seeing her great people reduced to ill-educated dullards and cowards who let orcs and wizards do whatever they wanted in their lands. She wasn’t seeking to prove that she could fight. She was seeking a quick end to a life she felt was unbearable. Her abandonment of the post to protect the home front is a show that she has lost all faith in the power of her people to survive the onslaught of Sauron. Her suicidal thoughts were the reason that Aragorn had so much trouble healing her and the impression I got from the epilogue is that after she marries Faramir and serves as an active official in Aragorn’s kingdom, she still deals with her depression for the rest of her life.
Galadriel is another example of a very active female character in a role that is a significant departure from the standards of the time. Among other things is the fact that Tolkien took some flack for having female Elves at all. Apparently there was an impression at the time that Elves already represented the perfect feminine wisdom and power and thus that it was redundant to make them feminine in body. I suppose the idea was that being male in body made it acceptable for them to take part in adventures while representing the feminine perfection, but this is an idea that seems more than a little bit psychotic and is something I rather hope I have wrong.
Recognized as the second in power of all the Noldor after Feanor, she also possessed much greater wisdom and intelligence than he did. She was a great friend of the maia Melian and is rumored to have been taught by her as well. It is out right said that only Sauron himself could have broken the protections her power placed on Lothlorien and it is her power that was the key to the eventual destruction of Dol Guldur. While she boasted being able to look into Sauron's mind, Sauron could begin to pierce hers. Saruman and even Elrond found her enigmatic and hard to read. Possibly Gandalf had some insight into her thoughts since he was accounted to be the wisest of the maiar, but it is hard to say. She certainly held him in high esteem and had initially desired him to lead the White Council from the beginning.
Galadriel had minimal significance during the First Age as she had not taken any of the oaths in pursuit of Morgoth. Nor did she take part in any of the major battles and certainly did not take part in the Kinslayings. She did not believe it was within the power of the Eldar to overthrow Morgoth and was more or less proven correct when the Valar sent a host of Maiar to overthrow him. Her significance is much greater during the Second Age when she had a heavy hand in exposing the schemes of Sauron including advising Celebrimbor to hide the Three Elven Rings. Regardless, Galadriel was a major power of the Second and Third Ages and people mostly listened to her when she spoke. The one exception being that Saruman ended up the leader of the White Council against her advice.
And this discussion of Galadriel and Eowyn doesn't even begin to touch on the single most bad ass character in the whole of the Legendarium: Luthien Tinuviel. Among other things, Luthien broke Sauron in a Jack Bauer interrogation sequence where she basically threatened to feed him to a dog (granted the greatest dog to ever live) until he freed Beren and gave them the keys to Morgoth's fortress. She then later enchanted Morgoth when he saw through her disguise (her disguise as a vampire, to be specific). This is roughly like making Cthulhu cry and then conning Nyarlathotep. Luthien may not be the most powerful of the people in the history of the world, but the lady got things done, and she got things done with style. Nobody else had her initiative, drive and cleverness.
Unfortunately, this has not stopped people from spotting bigotry in his books. Some of this would be due to the environment he grew up in. A person cannot eliminate a flaw in themselves that they cannot see. Tolkien was a staunch opponent of racism where he saw it and casually treated women with the same respect he treated men, but we all have prejudices we're unaware of. In other cases it would be people seeing things in the words that Tolkien did not put there and indeed lacked the context to have been able to put it there deliberately. Beyond the incidental products of a culture which Tolkien was unaware of and the efforts of the willfully offended, the more sinister matter are those that appropriate the work for their own purposes.
Words on a piece of paper can not defend themselves. They cannot explain what the author truly meant to say. They cannot correct someone when the message that they take away is entirely counter to the message that was intended to be given. Tolkien knew this, which was why he disliked the idea of allegory and preferred the idea of what he called applicability. He knew that most of the meaning of a story or any other piece of art came out of the audience, not the author. None of this helps when people do take up the writings of Tolkien and use his words to support their own bigotry.
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