Race Has No Role in Tolkien’s World

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 what we’d call “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”

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

Continue reading “The Historic Ties Binding Russia, Ukraine, and Crimea”

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)

Continue reading “EU Superpower: The New Holy Roman Empire”

Leofric and Lady Godiva

The legend of Lady Godiva is based on real events, according to a startling new discovery — but the facts were distorted right from the start, during the heroine’s lifetime. Several months ago, a student found a medieval manuscript in a cellar beneath Queens’ College, Cambridge. It included a 14th Century copy of the 11th Century text below. Queens’ is my alma mater, so I was one of the first non-academics to receive this translation from the Latin. It will blow your mind. (And after all these years, it’s about time we heard the other side of the story: the legend of Lady Godiva from her husband’s point of view.)

Lady Godiva, Claxton painting
Marshall Claxton, Lady Godiva, 1850

I, Dunstan, priest, wrote this from the mouth of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, on the seventeenth day of July in the fifteenth year of the reign of our most gracious King Edward [1057 AD].

My wife’s Latin inscriptions call her Godiva, but in English her name is Godgifu, God’s gift. I will not offer the obvious play on words about whether the Lord actually meant her as a gift, and if so to whom. But I have my doubts. Certainly she was beautiful in her youth, but that fair quality brought me little joy. More often than not, when I knocked on her chamber door in the wee hours, she said her blood had come or she was fatigued. Yet those ailments interfered not at all when a handsomer, younger man knocked on Godgifu’s door. Of course, they all kept that from me, my loyal people. But I had my informants, for not all in an earl’s household fear his wrath. My truest spy was my housekeeper, Tydfil, who fears little and has more wisdom than any woman I know, or any man. Tydfil told me of all Godgifu’s lovers. Did you never wonder why so many handsome young men of Mercia found themselves fighting in distant Ireland or Scotia, rented as mercenaries to warring lords? But Godgifu had her revenge. Now I am old, and I can hear the rustling wings of the Angel of the Lord. So I need a son to follow me. Yet doubt plagues me. That warlike young man who waits so eager to take my place: is he my own getting or the son of some handsomer man? They say only a wise man knows his own child, and though sometimes even Tydfil praises my wit, I cannot tell my wife’s truths from her lies. Continue reading “Leofric and Lady Godiva”

“Thay”: Gender-Neutral Pronoun

Here’s a crazy idea that might work.

“They” has become the English language’s preferred third person singular pronoun, for gender-neutral use. But of course, we use the same pronoun for the third person plural. That creates confusion. Why not revise the pronoun’s spelling when it’s singular? Why not switch out the “e” for an “a”?

You’d need only a few words of explanation. “In this [article/book], I use ‘thay,’ ‘thair,’ and ‘tham’ as third person singular pronouns, equivalent to ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘them.’ I use the latter three solely as third person plural pronouns. Continue reading ““Thay”: Gender-Neutral Pronoun”

This Week in History: Althing

This week in 930 CE, the chieftains of Iceland established the Althing, which remains the country’s parliament. It’s the world’s oldest surviving legislature. Northmen (sometimes called Vikings) had arrived on the island about 60 years before, and now they set about to govern themselves – meeting outdoors at a place called Thingvellir, which means “assembly fields,” near modern-day Reykjavik.

Continue reading “This Week in History: Althing”

This week in history: Kublai Khan

This week in 1260, Kublai Khan became ruler of the Mongol Empire. Grandson to the great Genghis Khan, the empire’s founder, Kublai was the fifth Khagan, or Great Khan. He succeeded to the throne after the death of his eldest brother, Mongke. The latter died in 1259 without naming a successor, and almost immediately Kublai’s younger brother, Ariq Boke, held a Mongol great council and had himself named Khagan. But Kublai then held his own great council, which declared him Khagan, and went to war against Ariq Boke. The Mongol civil war that lasted four years, and of course Kublai won. Continue reading “This week in history: Kublai Khan”