In response to the recent stoush over Tolkien, race and conservatism, I did a little more research on Tolkien’s racial theories and their similarities to other eugenic and racial theories floating about in the interwar period. I don’t have my primary or secondary sources with me, because my Tolkien Bestiary is in a box in Australia, I returned the MERP books to my mate, and I don’t have copies of the original books, but there are two online resources – the Tolkien Gateway and the Encyclopaedia of Arda – which I am going to use to provide some context and better research to my theories. In this post I am going to give more detail about the human races in Middle Earth, describe Tolkien’s racial mixing theories in more detail, compare them to the Aryan Invasion Theory of history, which was still popular when he wrote, and draw a few conclusions, some of which aren’t so pretty.
It’s my thesis that, independent of Tolkien’s actual political views, his books are a model of interwar racial theory, which holds that whites are superior to blacks, that when whites interbreed with blacks they civilise them but dilute the “good qualities” of whites, and that in general race determines psychological as well as physical traits, and racial mixing is bad. This doesn’t change the significance of Tolkien’s work, but it has ramifications for the political position of the genre it spawned.
Noisms at Monsters and Manuals suggested in comments that a “formalist” reading of Tolkien is necessary to properly understand how the races in Middle Earth might reflect real racial differences. Others online have suggested that Tolkien didn’t give any formal characteristics to his races – that he never said elves are white and Haradrim are black – and that subsequent racially-specified images of them reflect the readers’ prejudices. But reading Tolkien doesn’t support the view that his races weren’t racialised. For example, here is the first Haradrim we meet:
“…a man fell, crashing through the slender trees, nearly on top of them. He came to rest in the fern a few feet away, face downward, green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck below a golden collar. His scarlet robes were tattered, his corslet of overlapping brazen plates was rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched with blood. His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword…“
We’re talking here about a race with brown skin and black braided hair, which lives in the Jungles and deserts of a hot Southern land, and which rides elephants. I don’t think the racial symbolism of this accidental. They were in the thrall of Sauron and fought for him, so also therefore presumably evil.
There is very little about the physical nature of Easterlings in the descriptions in the novels, because they don’t play a big part; but their most famous contingent are the Wainriders, who pretty clearly represent the mongol hordes. The Easterlings are clearly also allied with Sauron, and are evil. As we will see in the next section, Easterlings were of a different racial stock to the Men of the West. Whether they were physically distinguishable, they were clearly racially distinct.
Tolkien himself described the Orcs as
…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types
and some Orcs are black-skinned. They are clearly racially distinct from humans and elves, and by definition evil. He also clearly associated the Dwarves with Jews in one of his letters. Details of this controversy over race in LoTR are given a very balanced exposition at the Tolkien Gateway.
Tolkien’s racial theories
Tolkien obviously construed the Elves as superior to Men and Dwarves. He also clearly constructed a racially deterministic world, where some races (Orcs, Haradrim and Easterlings) were evil and some (Mixed and High Men, Elves and Dwarves) were good but flawed. While his good races were capable of doing evil, his evil races were incapable of doing good, or at the very least were so vulnerable to the thrall of evil that they were for all intents and purposes racially evil. But of particular interest here is his division of humans into two racial kinds – Wild Men and Middle or High Men. Wild Men are explicitly under the thrall of evil – they were corrupted from their genesis. On the other hand, the Edain escaped from Morkoth and were contacted by the elves, who gave them special gifts (of long life and magic) which ennobled them. They then returned to Beleriand, and settled in the western half where they slowly intermingled with the Middle Men, and diluted their special gifts. Some of these Middle Men (such as the Dunlendings) are described as swarthy, and were oppressed by the Edain.
The strongest and most obvious example of this racial theory in action in the books is Aragorn. Racially pure, he has retained the gifts of High Men and so has special rights to command his undead ancestors, to use the special magical devices of his old people, and to use magic no-one else knows. Some of these properties are drawn from his noble lineage, but some are a consequence of his racial purity. Noble lineage in the third age is, of course, associated with racial purity, and with nobler traits.
Aryan Racial Theory
The Aryan Invasion Theory is a theory of classical history, used to describe the civilisations of the Indus valley particularly, which posits that a bunch of horse-riding nomads destroyed or captured the peaceful civilisations of the Indus Valley and subsequently learnt the culture of the Indus valley, before writing the greatest religious texts of India. The original theory is mildly neutral or pro-Indian, suggesting that the Aryans were barbarians who were civilised through contact with the Indus valley; but subsequent incarnations of this theory in the interwar period held the Aryans to be a superior Norse race who civilised the Indians. There is no evidence that any of this history ever really happened, and the theory is roundly hated by Indians for its obvious racist overtones.
There is evidence in Tolkien’s letters that he at least knew of Aryan racial theory, and subscribed to it, because he had the singular misfortune of having to argue with Nazi publishers over his books, which would not be published in German unless he could prove he was Aryan. He appeared to subscribe to elements of this theory:
I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware noone (sic) of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects.
though his letters make it pretty clear he doesn’t like Nazi racial theory, at least as it pertains to Jews. Like most scholars of his time, he probably believed the then-mainstream theories about racial history which pervaded the academy, but whether he extended this to his perceptions of the relative superiority of whites over blacks or asians at the time is not known, nor to be assumed.
Tolkien’s novels seem to contain a kernel of this racial theory, in that the most superior race ennobles the Edain, who then ennoble the mixed men they encounter, but are in turn brought low by interbreeding with them. It’s clear that the most noble races are white and the least noble (Orcs and Haradrim) are swarthy or black – there is a colour spectrum here. This pattern follows the pattern of the more racist incarnations of Aryan theory extant when he wrote – particularly those of Abbe Dubois, which were translated in 1897, and the archaeologists who uncovered “evidence” of western influence in the Indus in the early 20th century. It also follows some other theories floating about then about the influence of Nordic culture on the “inferior” slavic and Eastern races, the development of which can be read about in any good (or bad!) text about the antecedents of Nazi racial theory. While these theories are discredited today, they were not at all unpopular or disputed at the time that Tolkien wrote.
Aryan Racial Theory and Fascism
Hitler loved Aryan Racial Theory, which became the cornerstone of Nazi demography, social science, biology and history. Some of the theories on racial mixing – particularly about Jews – propounded by the Nazis can be read online at the Calvin University Nazi Propaganda archive, which is a fascinating way to pass an afternoon. Hitler also took up the Aryan Invasion Theory and ran with it, as part of his two-pronged mission of retaking Europe and founding Nazi colonies overseas. The Nazis believed that Western culture owed all its best properties to the Nordic races, and all its worst properties to the “untermenschen” of the East and South. Any model of racial history which supported this belief was imported and adapted, particularly if it supported any claim to lost homelands in the East or overseas.
Aryan Racial Theory is also very popular with modern Nazis. David Duke (to whom I will not put a link) has a very telling essay on his webpage about the Aryan invasion of India and the effects of inter-breeding with the locals on the morality of the paler Aryan overlords. Modern and WW2-era Nazis both believe strongly that races shouldn’t mix – the Nazis presented the Japanese as racially superior because their island nation had prevented “mixing” with degenerated mongols, for example, while the whites of the US were degenerate through association with Jews and blacks.
Tolkien clearly objected to the Nazis’ anti-semitism, and plainly thought their race laws silly. He opposed apartheid and didn’t believe language and literature should be held apart. He didn’t like the treatment of colour in South Africa, though it’s possible he did think that blacks were degenerate, or at least that white South Africans were persuasive:
The treatment of colour nearly always horrifies anyone going out from Britain, & not only in South Africa. Unfort[unately], not many retain that generous sentiment for long.”
Tolkien was willing for his books not to be published in Germany rather than be subjected to silly German laws about racial purity, but he also strongly and openly believed that Nordic society had done much good for the world, but had been ruined by the Nazis:
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.
This quote again suggests an Aryan racial theory for Europe, which has been ennobled by the “supreme contribution” of the Nordic races.
Tolkien is also known to have supported Franco, on the basis of some rumours about Republican atrocities in Spanish churches. His letters and stated opinions suggest a man with politics very similar to most upper class white members of the Commonwealth at the time – racial isolationism, tinged with a strong hatred of Nazism drawn from a class bias against National Socialism (“that ruddy ignoramus”, Hitler) and a conservative distrust of radical politics. But like most members of that class at the time, he didn’t necessarily strongly oppose or even disagree with the racial and political theories at the heart of apartheid or Nazism. In the 30s, particularly, Hitler’s theories were much admired in the West, and their philosophical basis had not yet been discredited. Though we don’t have clear evidence either way in the case of Tolkien, it’s difficult to read his letters and get a clear indication of a man swimming against the current of his time.
Tolkien and British Nationalism
Tolkien ended up required reading for the Youth Wing of the BNP, on the basis of its raical theory and lauding of western ideals over eastern savagery. His inclusion may have been subsequent to the movies, which are rather popular amongst people who like watching dark-skinned people getting butchered; but it is no coincidence that the far right associates his work with their message on racial identity. Fascism and racialist nationalism hasn’t moved its racial theories on from the 30s when Tolkien wrote, and there is a lot of concordance between the racial essentialism of his world and the kind of racially segregated world that the modern BNP would like to see.
What this does and doesn’t mean
It’s unsurprising that an upper class academic from South Africa, writing in the 30s and 40s, should subscribe to a racial model for the creation of his imaginary world. It’s also not surprising that his racial theories would be consistent with Nazi-era racial theories or modern nationalist writing, since all three are drawn from the same source and people at that time were generally supportive of some portion of racial theories of history.
This has obvious consequences for that stream of “High Fantasy” which is highly derivative of Tolkien’s work. Tolkien’s worlds aren’t necessarily popular because of this racial essentialism, but much of the derivative work carries these ideas with it. Some of these notions are comforting for modern writers, some are just easy, and some are fun to play with. But copied whole, they project into the modern literary world a view of race relations which is anachronistic and highly consistent with mainstream conservative views of 60 years ago. They are also congruent with modern fascist politics, which of course holds racial essentialism at its core.
This doesn’t mean that Tolkien’s work is more or less admirable. The timeless appeal of Tolkien’s work as a whole is not due to its political-racial content, but the powerful story elements, the myth-making and the characters. For these elements to maintain Tolkien’s popularity even as the politics underlying the stories becomes anachronistic, they must indeed be very well crafted. This is the miracle of literature – a story whose fundamental social and political basis is no longer valid can still appeal to us, as Shakespeare does, through the power of its non-political elements.
It also doesn’t mean that Tolkien was a fascist or a racist, at least no more than any other upper class man of his time. But most people alive today would consider the politics of an upper class man writing in the 40s to be quite repulsive, and its no surprise that some of Tolkien’s racial theories fit this category. But being a racial isolationist or believing that mongols were inherently inferior doesn’t make Tolkien a fascist, nor does it invalidate his work or even make him a bad person. However, it also doesn’t liberate his work from the obvious criticisms : it promotes a divisive vision of racial separatism and essentialism; and as an influential work in the genre, it has been essential in the reproduction of conservatism in High Fantasy. Critical reinterpretation of this work can liberate modern High Fantasy from the racialist and fascist origins of the genre, without necessarily leading to its political debasement or politically correct caricatures. Just as Tolkien can write an inspiring and great novel with odious racial politics, modern genre writers should be able to liberate the genre from this type of conservatism and still write inspiring and great novels.
fn1: A lot of people quote the first half of this sentence approvingly as evidence that Tolkien was opposed to apartheid. The second part makes me think that, while he opposed apartheid, he didn’t necessarily oppose the racial stereotypes underlying it.
fn2: which were certainly known to have occurred, but also exaggerated in a viciously anti-Republican western press. See, for example, Antony Beevor’s work on the Spanish Civil War.