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 Lost World of Neanderthals, Hobbits, and Other Hominins

It seems fantasies like The Lord of the Rings have cornered the market on “multi-species worlds”: on worlds peopled by dwarves, elves, goblins, and other not-quite-humans. Yet history has a claim on the multi-species world too. Or rather prehistory does. For most of prehistory, we Homo sapiens shared the planet with several species of upright, tool-making, fire-burning people.

Neanderthal child (imagined)

“Hominin” refers to Homo sapiens and our closest relatives: to extinct creatures far closer to us than chimps and bonobos, our closest relatives today. It’s likely our Stone Age ancestors ran into fellow hominins on a regular basis, or at least once in a while. Continue reading “The Lost World of Neanderthals, Hobbits, and Other Hominins”