Culture / Fantasy

Racial Stereotyping in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien

Imagination: the preeminent emblem of our humanity.

Through it, we obtain the capacity to revise – or might I say, reimagine – the world around us; to create, alter, and improve that which is tangible and arcane. From J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis to George R. R. Martin and J. K. Rowling, authors of the fantasy genre utilize this gift to spin tales of tragedy, utopia, and romance – after all, fantasy is derived from phantasia, the Greek word for imagination. While these fantastical universes seemingly breach the boundaries of reality at every turn, their conceptions are products of this earthly plane. The worlds of these narratives in some way mirror our own, whether through direct reference – Harry Potter – or subliminal allegory – Lord of the Rings. Indeed, although not preventable, this foundation in reality taints the process of world-building, by which it becomes nearly impossible to separate non-fictional knowledge from fictional creations. Thus, while the fantasy genre inherently symbolizes a sort of escapism from the tribulations of contemporary society, its fictional world-building actually serves as a more profound reflection of the opinions – and prejudices – that plague reality.

This article, therefore, means to examine the integration of real-world stereotypes into the world- building processes of the fantasy genre, most notably J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Originally published in the 1950s, the series is considered by most to be the literary paradigm for modern fantasy fiction, especially in high-fantasy circles. The story, split into three volumes – The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King – of two books each, follows Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, four hobbits from the Shire, across Middle-Earth to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Orodruin. On their journey, they encounter among others: Strider, a ranger of the Dúnedain and the heir-apparent of Gondor, Legolas Greenleaf, a Silvan elf from Mirkwood, Gimli, a dwarf from the Blue Mountains, and Gandalf, an istar. Now, if absolutely none of that made sense, then Tolkien was successful in devising a world different from our own – hence why many refer to him as the father of modern fantasy.

Thus, it is not a surprise that the novels and their world grew to be so popular in the 1960s, and not only in Tolkien’s native Britain. In fact, this fascination with Middle-Earth continued in the 20th century with the publication of The Silmarillion, a sort of prequel-slash-lore compendium, in 1977, as well as the animated versions of The Hobbit (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978), and The Return of the King (1980). However, the series only truly penetrated mainstream consumption with the release of Peter Jackson’s live-action film trilogy in the early 2000s, which won several Academy awards and remains some of the highest-rated movies to date. Today, this love of Tolkien’s world has paved the way for the production of more stories, including the Hobbittrilogy and Amazon Prime’s highly-anticipated – and widely-criticized – The Rings of Power.

An attempt to capture The Silmarillion on screen, the series was first bashed for its bastardization of the source material – it does, after all, condense three millennia of Middle-Earth history into a few, short years; however, over time, further reproval arose over the constitution of the cast, particularly its inclusion of people of color. This is not a new issue. Just earlier this year, for instance, Moses Ingraham, who played Reva Sevander / Third Sister in Disney’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, faced severe racial abuse from Star Wars fans online. However, the apparent ubiquity of this variant of abuse, especially in the context of fantasy literature, raises questions about the construction of race in these novels. Indeed, J.R.R. Tolkien has featured at the center of modern discussions on race and stereotyping in fantasy literature. A prolific world-builder, his Middle-Earth is home to nine different species, each bearing immutable character traits: Elves, Men, Dwarves, Orcs, Hobbits, Trolls, Ents, Maiar, and Valar. Now, the existence of separate races itself is no issue. However, when attributes are juxtaposed with specific physical characteristics, it becomes problematized.

Consider the Elves. Throughout the novels, they are repeatedly referred to as ‘the fairest creatures’ in all of Middle-Earth, extraordinarily tall and slender, wise and learned. The term ‘fair’ could be in reference to their ethereal, other-wordly beauty – after all, one of the word’s archaic definitions simply pertains to attractiveness. And yet, ‘fair’ also suggests fair-skinnedness, fair-hairedness. Indeed, this latter interpretation appears to be more accurate to Tolkien’s visions, as Elven hair has a proclivity for being blonde, as noted through descriptions of Legolas, Galadriel, and Glorfindel – arguably, the most famous Elves from Lord of the Rings. Of course, Arwen Undómiel, the fairest of all Elves, is the notable exception. Instead of silvery hair, she possesses long dark tresses; nevertheless, all of them share grey eyes. Here, then, one starts to conceptualize the Elf: a tall, light-skinned, grey- eyed figure – an image that could be easily equated to the conventional figure of Northern Europeans. There is no inherent issue with drawing on the physical appearances of a group as inspiration – after all, it is incredibly challenging to conceive an idea that is entirely divergent from reality and lived experience. However, the subsequent addition of biologically-determined attributes complicates matters. Tolkien’s Elves, for instance, are viewed as the wisest and most cultured inhabitants of Middle-Earth, a convention that is applied to every Elf, not simply the scholars and rulers. With how easily the appearance of Elves and Northern Europeans is conflated, there is a suggestion – however subliminal or subconscious as it might have been – of white supremacy.

Similarly, J.R.R. Tolkien’s characterization of Orcs comments on race and ideas of biological determinism. Throughout the novels, the Orcs are servants of Sauron – the series’ ‘big bad’ – and his ally- lieutenant Saruman, which naturally frames them – all of them – as evil and malignant. Indeed, there is very little multiplicity or depth in character, with shallow generalizations describing the entire species rather than individuals. Despite this, however, their physical appearance is never actually described in The Lord of the Rings, only in one of Tolkien’s many letters. In Letter 210, the author writes that Orcs are “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” Whereas Elven descriptions tout their beauty, grace, and intelligence – as well as visually equating them to Northern Europeans – this depiction is underscored by revulsion, a disgust of their physical appearance that acts almost as an extension of their character traits. It is important to acknowledge and dissect the terminology being implemented in this passage, as it bears direct connections with historical eugenics movements.

By the late 18th century, ideas of race and biological determinism had infected the academic discourse of European intellectuals. While there were many theorists, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s theory of race gained the most traction. By collecting and examining human crania, he concluded that the human species could be split into five categories or races: the Caucasian, the Mongolian, the Aethiopian, the American, and the Malayan race. As with many theories of race during this period, Blumenbach’s ‘discoveries’ were grounded in a desperate need to differentiate and distinguish, to justify systems of racial hierarchy and power, rather than science and logic; and, graciously favoring them, European high society perpetuated these notions. The fact that Tolkien uses “Mongol-type” in his treatise, then, cannot be treated as coincidental, even if his novels were written after eugenics became unfashionable. Indeed, this language is calculated in its use and thus informs the audience about the author’s perceptions on race. Here, the author is understood to share, or at least entertain,these antiquated and erroneous notions, which colors his characterization of a main antagonist as “Mongol – type” as all the more important.

Furthermore, while the genesis of Orcs is contested within canon, one theory suggests that the species is descended from Elves; specifically, it posits that Morgoth, Sauron’s predecessor, captured and corrupted a handful of Elves at the beginning of the First Age, creating a sullied and twisted version of the originally pure race. In the contemporary context, this fictional explanation eerily aligns with several historical race concepts which further demonstrates the intertwinedness of racism and Tolkien’s works. By conceiving Orcs as lesser iterations of Elves, he replicates the systems of power constructed through the eugenics movements, those institutions that endeavored – and still endeavor – to subjugate and suppress the ‘other.’ This, then, is where biological determinism enters the discourse. As aforementioned, Tolkien assigns particular, fundamental attributes to each of his species – a method that greatly simplifies the process of world-building, but reduces the dimensionality and potential of many characters. Though perhaps a harmless practice on the page, the determinism in this fictional universe is complicated by its extensive connections to the real world.

Indeed, throughout The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, one can link J.R.R. Tolkien’s physical conceptions of species – whether that be Elves or Orcs, as investigated in this article – with their assigned immutable character traits to produce a firm image of his authorial prejudice – and thus, the temporal zeitgeist. Of course, there are those that dispute his racism, his bias. This is unsurprising, despite the fact that his characterizations establish astoundingly simple syllogisms that join his fictional Middle-Earth with the social atmosphere of his era. On the one hand, there are Elves: beautiful, graceful, sage. On the other hand, there are Orcs: ugly, savage, obtuse. At the end of the day, to him:

Elves are good. Elves are “fair.” Thus, the “fair” are good.

Orcs are “Mongol-types.” Thus, “Mongol-types” are bad.

Though this article scrutinized the influences of personal and socially-instilled prejudice and racism in Tolkien’s works, this is not a call to “cancel” this fandom. Rather, it is a request to more deeply examine the faults of the author, of his depictions of race, and work to forge a more inclusive, more diverse portrait of Middle-Earth. Moreover, the discussions broached in this article are meant to serve as pipeline for a broader evaluation of stereotyping in the fantasy genre – and, in truth, literature en masse – as these generalizations have by no means been abandoned in the 21st century. Rather than disregard the ongoing issue or simply “cancel” the subject without further thought – as is the contemporary norm – it is important to critically scrutinize the manners in which racism and stereotyping is promulgated in popular literature so that we may understand and more successfully eliminate their continued existence.