Race Has No Role in Tolkien’s World

Recently, the new Tolkien series, “Rings of Power,” stirred up controversy by casting non-white actors. And the casting debate has awakened old claims that racism shapes Tolkien’s fiction. Those accusations rely on misunderstandings of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and the other tales of Middle Earth — and of history.

Middle Earth draws on a pre-racial world

J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters and descriptions use terms like “fair” and “light” for good people and “dark” and “black” for evil. That’s led to claims of racism. But race has nothing to do with Tolkien’s words and images.

Gudvangen Norse carving: face of Tolkien's ancient northwest
The face of the ancient northwest, Gudvangen, on the Nærøyfjord, Norway

Race is a relatively new concept. It dates back to the 1400s CE — though some interpretations suggest dates as late as the 1700s or as early as the 1000s. Prior societies had no concept of race. (My new book, Origin Stories, will explore the history of race.) And Tolkien based Middle Earth on ancient and early medieval northwestern Europe. Terms like “fair” for good and “black” for evil come from the early Anglo-Saxons and other distant peoples who had no concept of race — and essentially no knowledge of “other races.” Tolkien keeps faith with those people, particularly their words. He dedicated his career to their languages. Continue reading “Race Has No Role in Tolkien’s World”

Foreigners Understand Shakespeare Better than English-Speakers

It’s a sad reality, but English-speakers understand Shakespeare less than anyone else. That’s because foreigners regularly translate the bard’s plays — into German, Spanish, Mandarin, etc. — so they’re free to use language they understand. But English-language productions usually refuse to translate or even to edit Shakespeare. So audiences have to wrap their heads around 400-plus years of language change.

Semantic Drift

Shakespeare's Juliet, Romeo and Juliet
Juliet by Philip Hermogenes Calderon, 1888

Most Shakespearean confusion results from semantic drift: changes in the meaning of words. Juliet says, “Romeo, oh Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” To us, it seems Juliet asks, “where are you, Romeo?” (That would actually make some sense for the scene on the balcony.) But “wherefore” meant “why” in Shakespeare’s time. So Juliet asks (rhetorically), “why are you Romeo?” Why does her new boyfriend have a name that ties him to an enemy family? Continue reading “Foreigners Understand Shakespeare Better than English-Speakers”

The big lie was not a conspiracy, and the next attack won’t be either

The January 6 Committee accuses President Trump of running a conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election. They may be right about parts of the plot, but not about the larger campaign surrounding the big lie. A conspiracy is a secret plot, and the big lie was not secret. That may sound like a technical objection, but it’s vital. From McCarthyism to Russian “democracy” to the Holocaust, the greatest abuses of power happen in broad daylight. Conspiracies like Watergate threaten us a little. Overt, unapologetic contempt for law and for democracy destroy lives and liberty. If we focus on the small danger, we will not prepare for the real threat.

Joe McCarthy, Senate hearings (not a conspiracy)
Senator Joseph McCarthy erodes freedom in broad daylight, 1954

Conspiracy Requires Secrecy

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “conspiracy” as “the activity of secretly planning with other people to do something bad or illegal.” Conspiracies, in other words, are secret. That limits the harm they can cause. A corrupt county official can quietly miscount a few votes. But if you want to overturn millions of votes, you can’t keep it secret. Continue reading “The big lie was not a conspiracy, and the next attack won’t be either”

Putin and Appeasement’s Bad Track Record

Today, Russia celebrated Victory Day: the anniversary of Germany’s 1945 surrender in World War II. That milestone offers a lesson about the war in Ukraine, but not the one claimed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. For the past fifteen years, Western nations have ignored one of World War II’s most obvious warnings … possibly until now.

Putin, May 9, 2022 Victory Day

Putin at today’s Victory Day parade in Moscow

Britain and France Appease Hitler

In 1938, Adolf Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia. He’d been supporting a separatist movement in a border area called the Sudetenland, by German-speaking Czechoslovak citizens. And he claimed he had to invade to protect those German-speakers. Continue reading “Putin and Appeasement’s Bad Track Record”

Democracy Creates a Mess for the Rest of the World

Modern democracy gives us the best governments the world has ever seen. Or maybe Winston Churchill put it better when he said, “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” But democracy hasn’t taken root everywhere. And its success has robbed all other governments of legitimacy — everywhere. That includes monarchy: once the world’s most stable form of government. So a country that can’t adopt democracy has no legitimate option. The result: brutal strongmen, like Vladimir Putin, as well as authoritarian hierarchies, like the Chinese Communist Party.

Louis XIV: essence of monarchy
Louis XIV of France (in 1701 or 1702), king by divine right

Royal Legitimacy

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The Black General in 18th Century Europe

Revolutionary France had a Black general.

His name was Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, and he was born a slave in Haiti — then a French colony — the son of a French nobleman and his African slave. Dumas’ father had little money and actually pawned the boy in 1776, when he was fourteen, but then bought him back. Father and son moved to France, where Dumas gained his freedom and a gentleman’s education. He enlisted as a private in the army at age twenty-four and soared to the rank of general by thirty-one. That was thanks to courage, brains, and charisma — and thanks to the French Revolution, which created unheard-of opportunities for humble-born men. Dumas repeatedly distinguished himself in combat, and France’s Austrian enemies called him the Schwarzer Teufel: the black devil.

General Dumas on horseback
Général Alexandre Dumas, by Olivier Pichat (1825-1912)

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The U.N. CAN Remove Russia’s Security Council Seat

Today, Ukrainian President Zelensky called on the U.N. to remove Russia’s permanent seat on the Security Council. That would end Russia’s power to veto Security Council action — including authorization of international military force. The British ambassador tweeted that the United Nations can’t do that. But she’s wrong.

Removing Russia’s permanent seat seems unlikely at the moment. But the member-nations have a mechanism if they want it. And crisis often breeds fast change, like today’s aggressive sanctions against Russia — unimaginable two months ago.

the U.N. Security Council
The U.N. Security Council

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The Historic Ties Binding Russia, Ukraine, and Crimea

The world risks a new cold war thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — of the Crimean Peninsula. The conflict calls for short history of the two nations and of Crimea.

[Originally posted in 2014. I’m reposting because this article has so much to say about today’s news from Russia and Ukraine.]

KievanRus.map - Ukraine, Russia, Crimea
Kievan Rus during the early 1200’s

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EU Superpower: The New Holy Roman Empire

Vladimir Putin may have created a new superpower — and it’s not Russia. In the weeks since Putin invaded Ukraine, the European Union has changed. A recent New York Times opinion piece suggests the invasion has both united and militarized the EU (transforming it into a far more effective partner for the U.S). Europe could become an aggressive advocate for democracy, with power to rival China’s, as well as America’s. If so, how would this third superpower operate, given the EU’s decentralized structure? Europe’s own history offers an answer. The EU starts to look like the Holy Roman Empire.

European Union predecessor: Holy Roman Empire
The Holy Roman Empire in 1356 (red borders)

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