There seems to be a lot of nerdrage going on at the moment about the new Hobbit movie, and the depiction of the Dwarves who form the bulk of the characters. The Dwarves actually seem pretty cool to me (you can see them here) and I particularly like Fili and Kili because they actually represent an attempt to present Dwarves as something more than just fat, bearded fighters. They are Dwarven rogues, which is exactly what the book tells us they are. Man, how’s that for textual interpretation?

Leading the charge against this terrible misrepresentation of Tolkien’s work is Grognardia, who complains about Fili and Kili’s non-dwarvishness here and disputes some others here and here. But he also presents us with an alternative “vision” of The Hobbit‘s Dwarves, in the old Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit, which thankfully I’ve never seen. Looking at these screen captures, I see only The Eternal Jew, and contra Grognardia’s title for this post, there is no “variation” here. The Rankin-Bass version of this book presents us with 6 Dwarves who are exactly the same except for their cloaks and hats, and then it gives us Fili and Kili. But amongst those 6 we see the classic hook-nosed, suspicious-looking Jew. They have exactly the same faces. It’s like a caricature from a Nazi pamphlet.

Which is interesting, because wikipedia tells me that Tolkien based his Dwarves on mediaeval representations of Jews. How fascinating that they adopted the negative characteristics of “being gold-hungry, overly proud and occasionally officious.” Sound familiar to anyone? Plus of course their women-folk are hidden from view, they have access to secret lore (Golems, anyone?) and they are a very insular race.

This is another, classic example of Tolkien’s habit of racial determinism. The Dwarves are the worst of the bunch, in this regard – Middle Earth has half-elves but no half-Dwarves, in fact it’s not even clear if Dwarves can breed with non-Dwarves. This is exactly consistent with common views of Judaism at the time he wrote the novel, as an insular and secretive racially determined religion that admits no outsiders and cherishes its secret lore. Now, we know that Tolkien had a generally positive view of Jews (or at least, of their intellectual and cultural achievements) but in writing this kind of racial determinism he is subscribing to the politics of his era without dissent. The Dwarves of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are a classic example of scientific racism.

Obviously Tolkien has no responsibility for the way that some stupid Americans decided to interpret his racial determinism, but it’s refreshing that Jackson has chosen to widen the range of cultures from which he draws inspiration for the appearance of the Dwarves. If we’re really lucky, he’ll even find a way to make their personalities less racially determined, and make some small effort to break down the kind of scientific racism that drives so much of “high” fantasy. And I bet that if he does the fanboys will squeal.