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”

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”

What Really Happens in a Challenged Election

by David W. Tollen and guest contributor Robert W. Tollen

Many commentators assume the new House of Representatives would choose the President after a challenged election — with each state’s delegation casting a single vote. Others say the Supreme Court would decide. Each scenario gives Republicans an advantage, since they’ll probably control more state delegations, despite their overall minority in the House, and they appointed most of the Justices. But in fact, neither scenario is likely, and the commentators focused on them misunderstand the law. State governments resolve disputes about their voters’ presidential electors, under state law. And the new Congress rules on challenges to those decisions in the normal way, with each house voting by simple majority.

The Unlikely Case of a Tie or Plurality in the Electoral College

When does the House of Representatives choose the President, voting by state? Only when no candidate gets a majority of the electors, per the rules in the Twelfth Amendment.

The electors tied in 1824, so the House decided.
In 1824, the House chose the President because, with three major candidates, no one had earned a majority of electors. That had never happened and hasn’t since.

Continue reading “What Really Happens in a Challenged Election”

America Has No Guarantee of Freedom

In a second term, the ballot box would no longer restrict Trump. So we can expect:

  • Expanded use of the Department of Justice (DoJ) against the President’s opponents, including members of Congress.
  • More use of force against protesters.
  • Federal tolerance of crime against the President’s opponents (e.g., Michigan’s governor).
  • Refusal of federal disaster funds and other resources for blue states.
  • Further suppression of information on Covid-19’s nationwide impact.
  • Prompt firing of senior officials and federal prosecutors who try to restrain the President.
  • White House orders blocking DoJ prosecution of the President’s allies.
  • More separation of children from immigrant parents.
  • Withdrawal of federal resources aimed at curbing White supremacists.
  • Federal support for attacks on the voting process, particularly in swing states, probably leading to “disqualification” of large numbers of ballots and voters in 2022 and 2024.

Continue reading “America Has No Guarantee of Freedom”