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.
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 what we’d call “other races.” Tolkien keeps faith with those people, particularly their words. He dedicated his career to their languages.
Further, Tolkien uses those terms mostly as metaphors, as the ancients did. He does not connect light or dark skin with good or evil.
Orcs are not black
Tolkien foes often claim Middle Earth’s evil orcs have black skin. But the books don’t say that. In fact, Tolkien called the orcs “sallowskinned” in a 1958 letter. (Letter 210.) “Sallow” describes “white skinned people,” according to The Cambridge English Dictionary. It means “yellowish and looking unhealthy.”
Peter Jackson correctly interpreted Tolkien for the movies. Jackson’s orcs often have pale skin. In fact, many have (straggly) blond hair and green or blue eyes. See the photo above.
Middle Earth has brown “good people”
The stories of Middle Earth offer only a few hints at skin color. But The Lord of the Rings twice mentions the hobbit Sam’s brown hands. And Sam is arguably Tolkien’s noblest character. Dwarves sometimes have brown skin too, while the men (humans) of southern Gondor have “dark” skin. And they’re both “good people,” like hobbits.
We don’t know exactly what “brown” and “dark” mean on the few occasions when Tolkien applies them to skin. He tells us too little about skin color — no surprise for stories set in a pre-racial world. (So I see no problem with actors of color in “Rings of Power.”) But Tolkien’s good guys are not limited to light-skinned people, as his critics have claimed.
Tolkien’s characters don’t oppose “race-mixing”
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s orcs crossbreed with men (again, humans). And several characters express horror at the resulting hybrids. Critics have claimed that’s a swipe against race-mixing (“miscegenation”). But the orcs themselves are vile. So horror at their offspring doesn’t require racism. Also, cross-breeding creates orc-like hybrids who can withstand sunlight, eliminating one of the orcs’ weaknesses. Naturally, that upsets their foes.
Tolkien’s own foes may see race-mixing, but his books offers no such parallel.
Valid Criticisms: Hierarchies and the Men of Harad
Tolkien’s work generates two more significant concerns.
First, Middle Earth features a hierarchy of peoples. The elves stand at the top — the most noble, mighty, and wise — arguably followed by the men of Numenor (the Dunedain). Orcs, of course, stand at the bottom. Racism imagines hierarchies of peoples too. Tolkien doesn’t connect his greater and lesser peoples to modern populations — with one possible exception, below. So his hierarchies don’t imply racism. But the concept of hierarchies can feed racist thinking.
Second, Tolkien’s bad guys include the men of Harad, whose description sounds Middle Eastern. (Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis did the same with the wicked Caloremenes in the Narnia books.) That suggests prejudice against Middle Easterners and could encourage it. That’s a valid criticism too, but it doesn’t mean prejudice defines the books, much less racial prejudice. The men of Harad play a small role.
Tolkien Hated the Racism of British Africa
Tolkien apparently deplored British racism in Africa. In 1944, his son wrote a letter complaining about the treatment of black people in South Africa, where Tolkien had been born. The author replied: “As for what you say or hint of ‘local’ conditions’ … I used to hear them discussed by my mother; and have ever since taken a special interest in that part of the world. The treatment of colour nearly always horrifies anyone going out from Britain & not only in South Africa.” (Letter 61.)
Tolkien Hated Nazi Racism
Tolkien also hated Nazi racism. In 1938, a German publisher asked for assurance that he was Aryan. Tolkien replied: “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.” In that one sentence, Tolkien refuted the entire foundation of Nazi ideology: that Aryans are a European national group. They are, he points out, actually Indians and Iranians who speak certain languages. Tolkien continued: “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.” (Letter 61.) In other words, bugger off.
During World War II, Tolkien wrote: “I have in this War a burning private grudge — which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler …. Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.” (Letter 45.) To Tolkien, Nazi racism had no connection to Europe’s ancient legends. That suggests he saw no place for racism in the world he built around those legends: Middle Earth.
© 2022 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.
- Norse carving, Gudvangen, cropped, by Jetiveri / 86 images – courtesy of Pixabay.com
- Orc from the Newline Cinemas movie, “The Return of the King” – fair use reproduction of a third party copyrighted work
- Tolkien in 1925 – provided through Wikimedia Commons
- She-elf, by Victoria_rt / 10943 images – courtesy of Pixabay.com
- Wizard and tower, by KELLEPICS / 1062 images – courtesy of Pixabay.com