I have always found it impossible to play magical cyberpunk outside of Shadowrun; I can’t imagine adapting the Shadowrun system to play, say, space opera or high fantasy. Similarly, I can’t imagine playing high fantasy with Traveller rules, or cyberpunk with D&D. Something about these classic games prevents them from being used outside of their genre remit, which is why I don’t naturally turn to D&D Modern, though no doubt it’s perfectly capable of the task. This is probably partly because they’re the games I grew up with, and back in that more innocent age I adhered to the setting constraints they gave me and then when I grew up I couldn’t escape them; but I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling, and I think there’s a more fundamental artistic achievement here than merely capturing the attention of a 13 year old boy when he was vulnerable. Even now I can remember what it was like to open the AD&D Player’s Handbook (I think first edition, with the badly-drawn wizard on the front), and smell the very special smell of the paper, and see that densely written text; read Gygax’s strange (and in many ways wrong) prose, and appreciate the spells and monsters and actions described therein. There’s something very specific and powerful about the way that game is presented, like it contains its own lexicon and cosmology, right there in those 200-odd pages. The style of the game determines what you can do with it, and the presentation of AD&D, along with its gaming style, is so particular that you can’t just strip out the spells and monsters and use the system to run a space opera. I’d wager no one ever has, or if they have, they’ve slowly regressed.

I was reminded of this today by this excellent review of The Name of the Wind and The Children of Hurin, which compares the modern style of one genre novel (The Name of the Wind by Richard Rothfuss) with another, more suited to its task (The Children of Hurin, by Tolkien). The reviewer says about style:

style—the language and form of the novel—is seen as an unimportant adjunct to the “story.” It is not. A bourgeois discursive style constructs a bourgeois world. If it is used to describe a medieval world it necessarily mismatches what it describes, creating a milieu that is only an anachronism, a theme park, or a WoW gaming environment rather than an actual place. This degrades the ability of the book properly to evoke its fictional setting, and therefore denies the book the higher heroic possibilities of its imaginative premise.

I think this applies to RPGs as well. Creating style in RPGs isn’t just about the book (though the AD&D 1st edition is a great example of how this is done) but about how the gaming environment is constructed. Fiddly dice and tabletop mapping (AD&D); fiddly cards and tokens (WFRP3); miniatures and maps (D&D 3rd); starmaps and starships and sparse use of props (Traveller) – these are tools to create an environment that invokes a style. In some games this style is very carefully evocative of the nature of the game, and in others it is sterile (Aria) or actually versatile (Rolemaster/Spacemaster/MERP/Cyberspace). But without creating this specific environment – in the rules, in the aesthetic of the book, in the gaming environment, and in the nature of challenges and dramatic process – the game will fail to impress. Maybe this is why generic systems tend to be less successful than genre systems, and maybe also why some setting-specific games fail (because they don’t match their style to their setting).

The reviewer gives an example of this with Tolkien, contrasting the modern 20th century style of Rothfuss with Tolkien’s genre-specific style:

It’s a book by a man who knew intimately not only the facts and paraphernalia but the mindset, values, and inner life of his relevant historical period—more Dark Age than medieval, this time, but assuredly not modern. The most obvious, although certainly not the only, level on which this registers is that of the style, which actually does approach the classic elevation that Wollheim wrongly identifies in Rothfuss. The Children of Húrin‘s syntax is compact, declarative and unafraid of inversion (“Great was the triumph of Morgoth”). Its vocabulary is almost entirely purged of words not derived from Old English sources: so much so that the occasional Anglo-French term—for instance, the phrase “Petty-dwarf” with its petit-derived qualifier—jars a little. More, it is a prose written with a careful ear for the rhythms of English; a prose with a very satisfying balance of iambic and trochaic pulses, sparingly leavened with unstressed polysyllables (it reads well aloud)

This shows well the numerous tools that a writer can use to invoke effect, beyond just plot and ideas.The task of RPGs isn’t just to provide a distracting few hours of your life (as the reviewer so dismissively characterizes Rothfuss) but to provide a means of escape to another world. You don’t get this by slinging together a skill resolution system and a character sheet. You need a style for your game, a bridge between the imagination of the players and the mechanism by which they play it out interactively. Is this more difficult than constructing a good genre novel? I’m not sure, but I’m fairly confident it’s less financially rewarding. In any case, there’s a lot to be said for the stylistic achievements of the early gaming world, even if the systems themselves were crap and we eventually moved on to better ones. And I think the linked review gives some powerful examples of why these early games held our attention despite their flaws, through the comparison of two fantasy novels.

Incidentally, this review is also an excellent and powerful defense of Tolkien.

I once ran a campaign in the Fourth Age of Middle Earth, shortly after the war of the ring during the period when it could be reasonably imagined that elves were still present in Middle Earth, and the kingdom of Gondor was still recovering from the war. I imagined that this would be a fairly free and lawless time, when political powers would be jockeying for position in the new order, Orcs and Goblins would be in flight and causing trouble, and enterprising adventurers could make their fortune. But the main reason I chose the Fourth Age was simple: its politics and culture are not set in stone in the canon of Middle Earth, and so it is a more flexible setting for the types of campaign I like to run. My preferred campaigns involve a lot of base politics and the exercise of temporal power, as well as many of the banal consequences of the evil that ordinary men do. For some reason, setting a campaign in any of the prior ages of Middle Earth – the ones that had been written about extensively by a better world builder than me – felt like it would be blasphemous unless I a) stuck to the setting faithfully and b) made it somehow directly connected to the canonical events and movements of those stories. This kind of campaign could also be fun, but it’s not the kind of campaign I’m best at.

Though not at all an exercise in post-colonialism, what I was engaged in was of a similar flavour to the post-colonial project in literature: adding political and temporal context to a work from the canon that is already, essentially, set in stone. In my case the campaign rapidly evolved into a story involving a small group of elven fascists attempting to recreate the ancient elven kingdom of Lindon, at the expense of the Dunlendings with whom the people of Beleriand had made an uneasy truce. I also slowly reconceived the Dunlendings as simply politically “evil,” that is they had served Saruman only for the purpose of regaining ancestral land as a crude political calculation, and had no native sympathy for his evil visions (though they were far from a nice people in my retelling). So it did have elements of a classic post-colonial rewriting: giving a bad side to the “good” people, or re-examining their inherent goodness through a political and temporal lens; and giving a political or cultural explanation for the behavior of the evil savage, or attempting to explain the savages actions as if their story were of equal validity to that of the heroes in the original text.

Good examples of this type of post-colonial reworking of the canon are Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, which attempts to give context to the “mad wife” of Jane Eyre; and the frontier stories of Katherine Susannah Prichard, such as Brumby Innes and Coonardoo, which attempt to tell the stories of the Australian outback with a sensitive eye to how they affected women and Aborigines, and without the usual rose-tinted glasses that were applied to the conquest of the Australian frontier in her time.

One common argument mounted against my claim that Tolkien’s work includes a strong racial essentialist element is that in fact none of the “evil” of the Easterlings and Southrons is inherited or racially inherent, and their alliance with Sauron is a purely cultural and political decision, perhaps driven by cold calculations about the value of the alliance and what they can gain, or driven by particular cultural features that make these peoples more likely to be sympathetic to Sauron’s claims to their loyalty than those of the people of the West. Good examples of such possible arguments might include, for example, tension over land rights in the areas east of Mirkwood, or Sauron claiming to restore old empires in Harad. I recall Tolkien himself implying (or stating) in The Two Towers that part of the reason the Dunlendings sided with Saruman was anger about being driven out of their land by the Rohirrim, so the precedent is there. Unfortunately, Tolkien wrote nothing at all about the events in Harad or the East during the Second and Third Ages, and the Easterlings and Southrons only feature in the Lord of the Rings when they rise against the people of the West – this is exactly the kind of role allotted to savages in colonial literature, as essentially culture-less lumpen opponents, with no story or voice of their own. Since we don’t know anything about the stories of these peoples, it’s impossible to prove or disprove the claim that their alliance with Sauron was simply a calculated political move rather than an innate property of their race.

But, the absence of a story for these peoples qualifies their regions of Middle Earth for the same treatment as I gave the fourth age: they’re a blank slate, there for their story to be explored by enterprising GMs or writers. I think their story would be an interesting one. How did Sauron corrupt them, and what political and cultural battles were being fought within the Empires of the South to decide who to follow and what to do? Did colonialism by the Numenoreans turn the Men of Darkness against the West? Was it something to do with their failure to receive the same birthright as the Men of the West. If the shadow of Morgoth is real, could the Men of Darkness fight against it and if so how did this manifest in their society? Were most Southrons inherently corrupted, but small kingdoms held out against them? Were their political currents opposed to working with Sauron? Did he present himself as an anti-colonialist, in a similar way to the Japanese in World War 2?

I think the general view amongst Tolkien’s fanboys is that his canon cannot be touched and reinterpretation is impossible, but role-playing doesn’t allow this view 100%: those who play in Middle Earth will always change it in some way. But the peoples of the South and East only enter the canon as two-dimensional faceless enemies, and so reinterpretation of their story need not affect the core of the work at all. I think a post-colonial rewriting of their story – to give the context and background for their alliance with Sauron – would be an interesting and entertaining phenomenon, whether done as a role-playing campaign or in fiction. I don’t know if it has been tried, and I guess many would disapprove, but it could also lead to a very interesting and rich gaming or reading experience.

The Guardian reports today that the archives of the committee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1961 have been declassified, and one of the nominees was Tolkien. The archives include brief descriptions of the committee’s opinion of the various nominees, though I suspect that the Guardian’s reports are a little limited. The reason given by the jury member Anders Osterling[1] was that his prose

has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality

Fair enough, I suppose, his prose isn’t the best. But the eventual winner, Ivo Andric,  was apparently chosen by this same juror because of

the epic force with which he has traced themes and depicted human destinies drawn from the history of his country

Hmmm, does that sound like it might be relevant to, say, Lord of the Rings? Tolkien may have many faults, but a failure to trace themes and human destinies with epic force is probably not one of them.

Looking at the list of past winners, there are certainly some on there who qualify as not having written the best prose. There are also lots I’ve never read (or heard of) so I guess I shouldn’t judge. But if anyone’s going to be dumped on the grounds of prose quality, surely Steinbeck could be? Surely the quality of Patrick White’s prose is a fairly subjective judgment, given that he (at least sometimes) writes “stream of consciousness,” which is torturous for many readers and can also be interpreted as lacking in craft (or just plain shit, depending on your perspective). I’ve read Dr. Zhivago (Boris Pasternak), and I have to say it’s not memorable. Maybe the committee members liked the movie?

So I wonder if the judgment actually hides a simpler, more old-fashioned motive: fantasy just isn’t highbrow enough to get a gong. As one of the commenters on the Guardian article notes, the committee do seem rather pretentious, and we all know that pretentious literary types frown on fantasy. Or maybe they just frown on popular books? As far as I can tell there’s no one particularly popular on that list. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that long after Seamus Heaney’s name is forgotten even in the Academy, everyone will know Tolkien’s. Just to inch further along that limb, I’m willing to bet that Tolkien’s reading of Beowulf[2] was much better than Heaney’s.

The comments of the Guardian article are, of course, gold. How did culture sustain itself before bigoted fools got the chance to comment in newspaper articles? I like the slew of comments on Tolkien’s “turgid” prose by people who can’t spell his name, or refer to his prose as “flay.” Incidentally, I think the dismissive phrase “turgid prose” has become a fly-blown cliche. No one who uses it actually knows what turgid prose is, just as no one who says a book has a “lyrical writing style” actually knows what a lyrical writing style is (I certainly don’t – is it a style that includes, like, words?). I think most people who use these phrases mean to say “I didn’t like it” or “I liked it.” Now, fair enough, you could say Tolkien’s prose is occasionally boring (or perhaps more relevantly, his storytelling is occasionally boring) but you can’t say that, e.g. his introduction of the Dwarves in The Hobbit is turgid. It couldn’t really be terser, could it?

Also, as far as prose goes, Tolkien is occasionally sublime, and one of my favourite parts of the movies is the part where they very carefully move a beautiful passage that Tolkien consigned to an appendix into the centre of the movie (it’s Elrond’s description of Arwen’s fate if she marries Aragorn). It’s a good example of why we love him and why he’s flawed: he can’t arrange his stories very well, but he definitely can describe human destinies with epic force, in prose that measures up to storytelling of the highest quality. I guess that’s why his books have sold millions, and the movies based on them are so enormously popular, even though he’s never won a major literary prize.

Whether or not you think Tolkien deserves a Nobel prize (or even care about the prize, which seems pretty dubious to me), it’s interesting to read the snooty dismissal of his work, the age-based discrimination against another author, and to see that the eventual winner was nominated on the basis of what Tolkien did best.

fn1: umlaut omitted, because he’s too old

fn2: apparently he used to open his classes on old English with a reading of the first few lines of Beowful, in old English, and his classes were famous for it. That’s cool!

The Guardian has 6 pictures from an early collection of Tolkien’s sketches for the Hobbit, that were apparently discovered recently. I particularly like number 3, which despite its roughness gives the sky and Smaug a certain vitality.

The Guardian has a very cute article about reading Lord of the Rings in Lagos, at age 13, by Claire Armistead. Trapped for 6 months in the sweltering Nigerian capital, her mother set her the book to read to keep her out of trouble, and she has since always associated Tolkien’s world with the mangrove swamps and rivers of Africa. She describes imagining Ents as Baobab trees and Nazgul as vultures, and sees spies of Sauron in the crabs in the mangrove swamps. It’s a testimony to the power of personal experience to shape the way we imagine someone else’s worlds, and also shows how important context (cultural and physical!) is to interpreting any text.

And, of course, it’s a strong testament to the power of Tolkien’s world-building, that it holds its magic even in the minds of children reading it in a completely different place and time.

The latest nerdrage over the depiction of Dwarves in The Hobbit has really hit home to me something I often suspected about fanboys but never really paid much attention to: they don’t actually know much at all about the text they love. They’re much more interested in their personal, often (usually?) quite fantastic misinterpretations of it than they are in the text itself. Thus we have the following misunderstandings about the Dwarves in The Hobbit:

  • They were based on nordic myth
  • They all had voluminous beards tucked into their belts (1)
  • They were just tinkers and blacksmiths, with no special skills (1)
  • They didn’t carry any special weapons or armour at the start of the adventure (1)
  • They were “just” on a quest for treasure (1)
  • Tolkien described them well, and attempts to represent them in the way Jackson has are a betrayal of Tolkien’s original description
  • Thorin wasn’t a warrior
  • Thorin Oakenshield should have a shield
  • All Dwarves should be fat
  • They would look better if they were represented as they are in the book

None of these are true, and the ideas I’ve marked with a (1) are direct results of imbibing too much D&D, specifically OSR D&D that envisages all adventurers as starting at 1st level as vulnerable meat on a hook, with no special weapons or armour. The actual facts from The Hobbit are:

  • The Dwarves are based on mediaeval images of Jews (as best we can tell) and would not suit “nordic” dwarves, who are generally evil, mischievous and untrustworthy[1]
  • Tolkien mostly doesn’t describe the Dwarves’ beards, but in fact only one had a beard tucked into his belt (Dwalin) and the rest were barely mentioned at all; at one point he mentions 4 Dwarves tucking their hands into their belts and explicitly avoids mentioning, e.g. “alongside their beards.” For Tolkien, beards were a fixture on Dwarves but were given no special attention at all
  • In the text Thorin states that the Dwarves were at times even reduced to smithing or mining, but he doesn’t suggest that this was their profession – he suggests that they hated this work and did it when they had to
  • Tolkien doesn’t mention the Dwarves’ equipment beyond their hoods at any point up until the Troll encounter. We go through five chapters (or is it 3?) with these adventurers without ever finding out what they’re carrying or wearing. However we do know that they had several pack horses (“one of” the ponies was lost in a river before they meet the trolls, but was carrying mostly food). Why should we then assume they were lightly armed and armoured?
  • Thorin makes clear from the start that he hopes to kill Smaug and regain his kingdom
  • Tolkien’s descriptions of the main characters in this story were “a dwarf” along with a description of their hood colour, belt colour, and sometimes their hair colour or a detail about their eyes or physique. Most of the Dwarves get no description except “a dwarf with a [colour] hood.”
  • Thorin is introduced as THE Thorin Oakenshield, clearly acts like a leader (he doesn’t do dishes or speak to closely with Bilbo, only Gandalf) and is later established (in other books) to have distinguished himself at a major Orc battle. He is an experienced warrior and leader. This is not a first level fighter by any stretch of the imagination.
  • Thorin is named “Oakenshield” after his shield broke and he used a piece of oak to defend himself. He is explicitly not named “Oakenshield” because of the shield that broke
  • Tolkien only singles out one of the Dwarves for any kind of physical description (Bofur, I think) and says he is fat and heavy. The physique of the rest of the dwarves is not mentioned at all at any point. In fact, I don’t think even their height is mentioned explicitly in the book
  • Tolkien basically doesn’t describe the Dwarves at all. There is not enough information about any of the Dwarves in the book to motivate a casting decision – Jackson was basically completely on his own and unable to use the source material when choosing how to depict the Dwarves

You would think that people who really care about these books would know some of these things before criticizing Jackson’s efforts, but they don’t seem to. Instead the fanboys just complain as if Jackson’s sole responsibility on this earth was to delve into their mind and design his Dwarves exactly according to their wierd personal amalgam of The Hobbit/D&D/some movie they saw 30 years ago and liked. But they cloak the whole thing in “respect for the original work.” But in order to show this respect, it would really help if they actually paid attention to the original text.

And while I’m at it, if this book is so good, how come none of the main characters actually warrant any kind of physical description? That’s pretty shoddy writing, in my view.

fn1: This is a pretty fucking basic thing to have to get right if you are going to valorize Tolkien’s “imaginarium” or whatever it’s being called this month. Nordic dwarves are dodgy vicious magical monsters; the dwarves in The Hobbit are not. Can you reconcile these two facts? No? Then you should be paying more attention to the sources Tolkien used to establish his stories.

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.

The Daily Mash has responded to claims that The Hobbit is racist in its typical style. Their commentary on alcohol tax increases is also hilarious.

Comments on my last post have become bogged down in a debate that makes it hard to think clearly about the things I’ve been discussing in this series of posts about Tolkien and racism. Specifically, I think we’ve drifted off the main thread of the arguments, and become distracted from the issue of racial essentialism in Tolkien by a nasty debate about whether Tolkien’s work was fascist. So this post is an attempt to regather my thoughts (I find the cut-and-thrust of internet debate can cause me to drift off of the main thread of a thought).

I think my interlocutors have become a bit bogged down in defending Tolkien against a misinterpretation of scientific racism, which gives it a stronger set of conditions than it actually and historically carries, so I’m going to try and clarify that. In this post I will remind my readers of the way scientific racism works, and discuss the additional properties of Nazi racism. I’m also going to try and set out a method by which an author can unintentionally make a Nazi racial model for their work through combining two quite separate narrative ideals, and I’m also going to try and set out an alternative plot for Lord of the Rings that would be almost exactly the same as the original but substantially less concerned with the inherent moral differences of races, in an attempt to show how a very similar text could be less vulnerable to scientific-racist interpretation.

Scientific racism and racial essentialism

The fundamental property of a theory of scientific racism or racial essentialism is that it ascribes moral properties to a race, and assumes they’re racially inherited. This is different to, say, racism, which ascribes moral properties to a race but assumes they’re not genetic; or scientific analysis of cultures, which assigns certain properties to a culture and assumes that you have to grow up in the culture to get them; and connects this to a race only inasmuch as a race is connected to the culture.

When scientific racism assigns a moral property to a race, that assignation isn’t absolute or invariant – it’s an average level around which the race is generally assumed to deviate, and in most models it’s not absolute. As we’ll see, the exception to this is Nazism which (pretty much) assigns immutable, eternal and unvarying evil motives to a single race (Jews). So in general a scientific racist theory will make statements like

  • [Race A] is less moral than [race B]
  • [Race A] is inclined to savagery and barbarism [with the implicit contrast to race B]
  • [Race A] cannot rise above their base instincts, and will never aspire to the higher art or culture of [race B]

These statements tend to allow for diversity within the framework, and specifically they allow members of race B to be degenerate. In fact, the concepts of degeneracy applied to [race A] tend to be grounded in discussion of the “worst types” of [race B], and historically they’ve often been taken from descriptions of the poor and working class members of the society of [race B]. Saying [race B] is better than [race A] is not a statement that is everywhere and absolutely true; it’s sometimes (or often) the case that members of [race B] behave like [race A] or can be corrupted to so behave – this is the essence of the fear-mongering and salacious marijuana scare books of the 50s, for example.

Further, it’s important to note that a lot of scientific racism is based on an underlying fear of [race A], and especially of [race B] becoming like [race A]. For such a fear to be viable, there has to be some real life risk that [race B] will occasionally (or frequently) behave like [race A]. This is especially evident in racial essentialist arguments against cultural mixing. The fear isn’t just that the races will interbreed, but that the mere presence of large numbers of [race A] doing bad things will cause [race B] to do more of them.

As a concrete example, consider some more modern racial essentialist theories based in pop pscyhology. Under these theories black people have “poor impulse control.” This means that, for example, young black girls can’t resist the urge to have sex, and get pregnant as teenagers. This theory doesn’t preclude white teenage pregnancies, because it allows for the existence of white girls with poor impulse control (usually it sees these girls as poor or working class, often living in neighbourhoods with lots of black people). But it is used as an explanation for high black teenage pregnancy rates (and is often followed up with an argument that special funding for programs to reduce teen pregnancy in black communities are a waste of money because the problem is “biological”). This racial essentialist theory will be stated as “blacks have poor impulse control” but it doesn’t actually exclude poor impulse control in whites.

Nazism’s special additions

Nazism is unique among these theories for adding a narrative of purposeful evil and corruption to the racial model. Jews are seen as not just immoral but always and everywhere evil, as represented in the essay The Eternal Jew. This evil is racially inherited, so immutable, and the deviousness and evil of the race is seen as such that mere exclusion is insufficient – extermination is the only solution. This model does not, however, preclude the possibility of evil in the “superior” races of whites. It presents a heirarchy of corruption, in which Jews are, for example, much better able to manipulate blacks than whites, and Germans and British are much more resilient to manipulation than, say, slavs or (sub-human) Russians. In fact, this racial theory was adapted quite neatly to explain the importance of Jews in American life, and a theory of cultural isolation and racial and cultural mixing was used to explain the “special vulnerability” of Americans to Jewish manipulation.

Nazi racial theory doesn’t assume that all white people are pure though; in fact, it allowed for the possibility of genetic flaws in whites, and had eugenic programs to manage them; and it had a criminal justice policy which, though racially-oriented, also assumed that white people could do bad things. The key point here is “could.” The Nazi view of race was that white people could do good or evil according to their free will (though they were always looking for genetically eradicable causes of propensity to do certain things); but Jews could only do evil. This kind of model is essential to explaining the presence of gay Aryans, and of Aryans who voted against their racial interests (i.e. voted Social Democrat).

Nazism also has a narrative of corruption, with the Jew whispering in the ear of the white man to corrupt him from good. Such a narrative doesn’t preclude people choosing to do evil acts by themselves, but the big movements of the time were all seen in the light of Jewish corruption: Bolshevism was Russians being corrupted by the international Jewish plot of Marxism; British views of Germans were the fault of the Jewish media; and Germany’s defeat in world war 1 was the fault of Jews corrupting Germans at home through fear and hunger.

Tolkien and racial essentialism

Tolkien’s work fits perfectly into a racial essentialist model, presenting tiers of morality in the races. Elves, Dwarves, Halflings and humans have the power to do good or evil by their own free will; Orcs and Southrons do not, with Orcs being always and everywhere evil and Southrons somewhere in between. Amongst humans, levels of goodness are genetic, with the Rohirrim and Gondorians at the top, then the men they interbred with, and then the Dunlendings, and then Southrons etc. (all the servants of Sauron). These traits are clearly presented as racially inherited – even halflings’ resistance to the siren song of power is racial.

Note here that “level of goodness” is defined as a propensity to do good; a race doesn’t have to be presented as everywhere and always good in order to fit a racial essentialist model. It simply has to be more moral than other races.

Tolkien’s model has the further unfortunate property of mapping these genetically-inherited racial differences to a geographical and morphological scheme that fits our real world, making the races very easily interpreted in real-life terms.

Tolkien and Nazi racial theory

In addition to presenting a race as immutably evil, just as Nazis do, Tolkien’s work includes an additional narrative of corruption, which brings it closer to Nazi racial theory. The evil races are corrupted by a pair of evil Gods, and the most evil movements in human and elvish history are related to corruption and deception by these evil Gods. From a Nazi racial theory perspective, this is Morgoth as Marx and Sauron as Lenin. They deceive and corrupt other races to following an evil creed, but unlike the real-world versions, they don’t rely on races being created inferior; they corrupt them with their magic so that those races become their permanent servants. The inclusion of this additional magical element to a fantasy text doesn’t rescue the racial theory from the interpretation it deserves; and the use of supernatural figures to do the corrupting, rather than representatives of the evil races, is simply a device of the genre. These points don’t fundamentally change the narrative, which is one of corruption of basically good peoples by the representatives of an evil race. In this case the representatives are magical, not political activists; but the effect is the same. The single difference is that these representatives pre-date the races they control, and created the (genetically-inherited) corruption in those races, rather than arising from it. This is not a hugely important element of the narrative structure of the Nazi racial theory represented in the text, though it suggests a way in which a Nazi racial theory can be constructed by accident.

Creating and recreating racial stories

In this section we will consider narrative structure and intent, but by inferring possible intents we shouldn’t assume that we’re commenting on the author’s actual intent or character. It’s generally assumed, I think, that because Tolkien put a great deal of thought and work into his world then any representation of racial essentialism must also have been intended. I don’t think this is necessarily the case. All Tolkien had to do to put a racial essentialist context in his books was to a) want to put non-human races in and b) recreate the social and cultural theories of his time uncritically. Having spent years developing the languages, geography and histories of his world, it’s entirely possible that he didn’t put any specific effort into thinking about the underlying racial cosmology; he just assembled it unthinkingly from the standard model of his day. Just as today many sci-fi authors unthinkingly write the democratic and liberal structure of their own culture into their novels, so he may have reproduced the racial theory of his time.

I think this seems hard to believe to some people because of the detail of his effort, but I’ve been reflecting on gender and fantasy recently and I don’t think it’s so unusual. Ursula le Guin put a great deal of thought into the race of her protagonist in A Wizard of Earthsea, she outlined the geography of the world and the peoples therein, and she is generally respected for creating a detailed and internally consistent magic system that formed the core of the narrative of the stories; but when she sat down to write the book she unthinkingly reproduced the gender conventions of the genre even though she’s a feminist. By contrast, Tolkien seems to have been a bit of a radical in women’s issues and I think this shows in the text – I think he consciously chose to eschew the gender politics of the genre he was writing in (which at that time was not fantasy). In order to eschew the conventions of a genre or a social order, you have to make a decision. Reproducing them merely means writing within the genre without effort. If le Guin could do this with one of her central political ideals (feminism) I don’t see any reason to believe that Tolkien wouldn’t have done it with a political ideology that may or may not have been his central concern (I don’t think it was). The result is a powerfully racially essentialist narrative.

Unfortunately for Tolkien, he also put in a narrative of corruption and downfall, probably based on his Catholic principles (though again he may not have thought about this). I think it’s very easy to write two separate themes – one of corruption, and one of racial essentialism – in a text and produce by accident a Nazi racial theory. That’s pretty much what the Nazis did – they combined pre-existing religious ideas about corruption and downfall with a particularly strong racial theory of evil, and the result was an exterminationist racial theory. They did this deliberately, but I think you could do it by accident and get a quite similar politics. If you unthinkingly reproduce racial theories of the interwar era and consciously put in a narrative of corruption, you’ll probably get Nazi theory.

Another way of looking at this is to consider a modern version. Suppose you write a fantasy book in which one race – from amongst whom you select the protagonists – go to war to save another race from an evil magical ruler who has enslaved them. Now, without thinking about it at all, simply make the society the good guys come from be a democratic liberal society – that’s what you know and politics isn’t your central concern, so you just write it that way. Then, because you’re really concerned with censorship, or because you want to make the evil magical ruler an allegory for the Wizard of Oz, or because you want to make a feminist comment on beauty culture, or for some other similar reason, suppose that you write into your story that the evil magical ruler has banned all images of himself. Without meaning to, you’ve produced a fantasy text which is a perfect image of modern liberal interventionism, with the bad guy a model of the Prophet. It’s US vs. Iraq all over. Having done this, I don’t think you can complain if your novel is trumpeted by the Hitchens and Abramovitch’s of the world as the next Orwell.

An alternative racially neutral text

Now I’m going to present a slight modification of the original story which would make it less racially essentialist, though I don’t claim this version would be better – I’m doing this just as an example. First, suppose that Tolkien had written the Orcs as humans, whose savagery was caused by a curse invoked on them by Sauron. This curse is tied up in the one ring, which has been lost. The one ring maintains all its other properties, too. So long as this ring exists, any descendant of the original nation cursed by Sauron is reduced to barbaric savagery – i.e. behaves like an Orc, but is human in form. The books proceed in exactly the same way, except that at the end when the ring is destroyed it undoes the curse, and the cursed humans resume normal human traits. This provides an explanation for the sudden victory at the Black Gate, it allows us to understand what happens at the end of the story, just as does the original, but it removes the genetically inherited trait from the Orcs. Even if the enslaved humans at the end of the story remain evil, their children will have free will. In such a story the inherited evil is a transient curse, rather than a genetic property. I think this version probably still is open to criticism, but it’s also much more defensible because an inter-generational curse that can be lifted by killing the magical source is (within the genre) completely different to an inherent trait that is genetically transferred and renders a race of “mongoloid” people evil by birth.

A final note on racial theory and free will

It’s important to understand that in all of its incarnations racial theory isn’t just a piece of pointless propaganda or a catechism to be invoked in foxholes. It’s a model of how society does and/or should work, and as such it has to take account of the real properties of the people it describes. This is why the Nazis had to write a special pamphlet explaining why the Japanese are superior to other Asians, and this is why racial theories in all their hideous variety have to accept that the “good” races aren’t purely good. This is usually done by ascribing to the “good” races more control over their baser instincts, and the free will to choose between evil and good, between delayed impulses and immediate drive, and between their personal desires and their racial survival. But such free will has to include the possibility of being a traitor to one’s race; being an impulsive criminal; or being evil. All racial theory arguments – even in their purest form under the Nazis – rely on acceptance of variation between individuals within a race, and build a structure based on averages and tendencies. The singular exception to this is the representation by the Nazis of Jews as especially and unavoidably evil; and this is a trait that the Nazis’ imaginary Jew shares with Tolkien’s imaginary Orcs. If the parallel stopped there then it would be meaningless, but the additional tale of corruption in the novel, and the geographical and morphological similarities to Europe, make it ideal Nazi propaganda, which is what we see in action today.


One doesn’t have to accept the similarity between Tolkien’s model and modern Nazi theory to accept that the races in the Lord of the Rings are based on a racially essentialist model. It’s important to note that Nazi racial theory gives no explanation for the genesis of Jewish evil (or black/slavic/Russian inferiority) – there is neither a natural selection nor a religious depiction of this. This means that the order of corruption in the Lord of the Rings – Morgoth corrupts the orcs, rather than being a political leader of that corrupted race – is not an important determinant of whether this book’s racial model is essentially Nazi. There is only one racial model in history which assigns one race to be pure evil, on a genetic basis, and sets them against a race capable of moral judgment and attainment of superior moral qualities. That model is Nazism, and Nazi racial theory has a lot in common with the racial theory of the Lord of the Rings.

This commonality, however, should not distract from the broader, and more insidious problem of scientific racism. Racial essentialism survived the Nazis, and has been reborn multiple times – most recently in the contentious IQ debates in the US. Tolkien’s works accept racial essentialism in full, and make it an essential part of the story; and there is nothing in the novels that contests this.

As a follow-up to recent posts on race in the Lord of the Rings, I think I should have a look at the possible multicultural symbols in the books. This is both a nice counterstory to my recent criticisms of his politics, and provides useful background information on the politics of Tolkien’s fascist admirers. How can fascists appreciate Tolkien if he’s mulitcultural? By what sleight of hand do they overlook the central role of the fellowship in the story? Was the politics of racial interaction in the Lord of the Rings ahead of its time, or not?

The possibility of the Fellowship being seen as a multicultural was raised by commenter Paul as a possible alternative explanation of the racial politics of the story. I confess I hadn’t thought of it.

What is multiculturalism?

The first thing to note is that multiculturalism is not just a random word meaning “lots of different races” (though maybe semantically it should). It is a specific political philosophy adopted in Australia in 1972, and an accompanying theory of political integration for diverse races. It can be characterized as “a bunch of different racial and cultural groups living together under a single law, while retaining their own unique cultural and linguistic practices.” In Australia the law is Australian, the shared language is English, and everyone is welcome to do whatever they want in their personal lives. In fact, they’re openly and actively encouraged to, because their culture is assumed to be important to them. Multiculturalism was originally envisioned (in 1972) as “a society in which equal
opportunity is accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance” and is now presented in essentially these terms:

Australian multiculturalism recognises, accepts, respects and celebrates cultural diversity. It embraces the heritage of Indigenous Australians, early European settlement, our Australian-grown customs and those of the diverse range of migrants now coming to this country.
The freedom of all Australians to express and share their cultural values is dependent on their abiding by mutual civic obligations. All Australians are expected to have an overriding loyalty to Australia and its people, and to respect the basic structures and principles underwriting our democratic society. These are the Constitution, Parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the national language, the rule of law, acceptance and equality.

It’s important to note that before Canada adopted this policy, there was really no such thing as a concept of multiculturalism, and if Tolkien had propounded such a theory he would have been well ahead of his time (though not unique – various other peoples across time have advocated this idea, especially anarchists and libertarians).

Multiculturalism is not the same as “cultural diversity” or easy immigration policy. In fact Australia has quite a strict immigration policy, setting specific barriers to entry, though the policy is non-racist (in keeping with its multicultural practice).

Multiculturalism in the era of Tolkien

Contrary to the claims of people who love London a little too much (e.g. the crew from London Timeout), London has not been a multicultural city for long, and it certainly wasn’t in the interwar period. It definitely has always been a famously diverse city, perhaps reaching its pinnacle of diversity in the late Victorian era[1]. But this is not the same as multiculturalism, and in fact London is generally quite intolerant of foreigners, and compared to Australia has quite a strong culture of guest workers – a kind of “come here while we need you and then fuck off home please” attitude. At the time that Tolkien was writing it was likely that London was at a low point in its diversity (I don’t know) but pretty certainly areas outside of London were not diverse at all. And we know that Tolkien’s country of origin, South Africa, has a pretty poor history of handling cultural diversity. So, Tolkien could be excused in the context of his time for writing a book in which any form of cultural mixing was seen as bad.

The Fellowship of the Ring

The central organisation of the first book is of course the Fellowship, which consists of the peoples of 4 races, joining together on a desperate quest. They overcome some fairly serious obstacles by working together, and they fall apart ultimately because a human turns on a hobbit in the interests of his nation. But is this a multicultural fellowship? From the background material on the Lord of the Rings we know that it doesn’t represent the natural social structure of any of the societies from which the Fellowship’s members hale. There are no elves or Dwarves or humans in Hobbiton, no humans in the Grey Mountains, and very little evidence of racial diversity in Gondor, the capital of the age. There is one and precisely one foreigner in Rivendell. In the scene where the Fellowship is formed (in the council chamber at Rivendell) the formation is clearly described as a unique event – as races putting aside their differences to fight a common foe. This is no natural extension of the social order of the time in the way that, say, a New Zealand rugby team represents 3 races working for the glory of the Fern, or a lesbian with Chinese parents represents Australia in international climate change talks. This is a special moment in Middle Earth history, just as the gathering of humans and elves at Mount Doom 2000 years earlier was also special.

This is not a multicultural phenomenon; it’s a political alliance. And like most political alliances, it falls apart when one of its members decides to privilege the interests of his own nation over the rest.

Tolkien of course had experience with political alliances, in World War 1, when people from all over the Commonwealth (and Frenchies) joined together to kill Germans. And Turks[2]. And this model is pretty congruent with the structure of the Fellowship.

The races of the Fellowship as “white”

It seems pretty likely from Tolkien’s stories that the only races in the Fellowship that can interbreed are elves and humans. There is no evidence of Dwarves breeding with anyone, and who would shag a halfling? Women with hairy feet are so 80s. This is a pretty strong qualification for “different races.” But in their analyses of Tolkien’s racial politics, Nazis tend to overlook this. I think this is because the races of the West, even though incapable of interbreeding, are established in Tolkien’s world as roughly equivalent to those of Western Europe. They share so much in cultural familiarity that their profound racial differences are overlooked. This occurs in the books and in Nazi ideology, where Nazis from all across Europe see each other as allies even though they’ve spent the last 200 years fighting. The atmosphere of old conflicts set aside in the late third age is also the atmosphere of the modern fascist movement. They look for their true enemies to the East and the South, and see Europe as a single entity under threat from enemies without. This is exactly how the people of the Fellowship see their world. This commonality is sufficient for the races of the Fellowship to be seen as a common unit. After all, they united against a common threat. Isn’t that sufficient definition by which to assert a common political interest?

Additionally, Tolkien presents a set of conservative tropes – hereditary kings, absent and virtuous women, colonialism rewarded, the downfall of races through interbreeding – to enable sympathetic readers to see a model of Europe in the peoples of the West. Even the geography bears a resemblance. So it’s no surprise that the Fellowship’s genetic incompatibility is overlooked in favour of its cultural similarity, even as its enemies’ cultural differences are ignored in favour of their racial similarity (corrupted by Morgoth, dark-skinned, foreign).

Other examples of racial mixing in Tolkien

The general model of racial mixing in Tolkien is that they don’t. There is precisely one foreigner in Rivendell, that being Bilbo; and he is only welcome because branded by a powerful magical item and so rendered culturally closer, if not racially radically different. We spend much of two books reading about Gondor, but see little or no evidence of any foreign races. There are no foreigners in Rohan. Rohan was gifted to the Rohirrim by the Gondorian king, and rather than sharing it with the Dunlendings, they drove them out (along with the Woses, whose eventual extinction is presented as a sad inevitability). This is no multicultural model, but one of races staying firmly separate. The only model of racial mixing is Arthedain and Gondor, which used to be occupied by a race of pure common men. When the Numenorians arrived they took over the land, despite being tiny in number, and formed a hereditary ruling class. This class slowly degraded with contact with the locals, but retained their hereditary power. Essentially, the only long-lasting racial mixing model in Tolkien is a caste-based system – it’s a fairly pleasant one, but it’s still a caste system. It’s rather like England after 1066, where a new power has taken over the country and maintain their own language (Dunadan) and hereditary line, but occasionally interbreed with some of the pre-existing local aristrocracy. But unlike that model, the invading power is seen as a separate race that slowly declines in time (but still lives 4 times as long as the locals after 2000 years, and retains special magical powers).

The only common racial mixing in Tolkien is between Orcs and Goblins, about whom its dubious to maintain that they’re even separate races. Sure, the evil armies are made up of (roughly) 5 races, but they aren’t drawn together as part of a multicultural society – they too are a political alliance. There is no model in Lord of the Rings for the natural interaction of races.


The model of racial mixing in Lord of the Rings is one of political alliances built out of expediency, either through mutual defense or desire for power. This is consistent with the real-world great power politics of the time, but does not reflect the politics of multiculturalism. The fellowship is not a natural outgrowth of multicultural societies, but an alliance of disparate interests thrown together out of desperation and destroyed when one of its members chooses base national interest over common defense – it is formed and collapses along the model of a treaty. The only political model based on racial mixing is a caste system in which a powerful race rules over a weaker one. Although there is a temptation to describe the Fellowship of the Ring as a multicultural model, such a comparison relies on a misreading of the politics of multiculturalism, and a false interpretation of the causes and political meaning of the alliance that the Fellowship represents.

fn1: I get this idea from A.N Lee’s The Victorians, and also from an article in London Timeout about how modern fears about Eastern Europeans very much resemble Victorian fears about the same people

fn2: Though from the perspective of the Australians involved, it was the Turks who did most of the killing