This week Crooked Timber seems to be on a bit of a thanksgiving roll, and has various commentaries on the greats of the revolution and the civil war, mostly negative. In amongst them is a nasty little piece on Thomas Jefferson as prototypical fascist racial theorist, which is stirring some aggressive debate. As always there’s some really interesting material in the comments, and it appears that some genuine historians of that era are stalking the comment thread, dispensing their wisdom. At the same time, various defenders of Jefferson are rocking up and throwing stones, and I note that (rightly or wrongly) the response over there to the suggestion that one of the founding fathers was a racial essentialist is very similar to the response that I sometimes see here to my accusations that Tolkien’s work presents a model of inter-war or Nazi racist theory. We get quotes from his letters presented as proof against his public utterances; we get elision of the central question of the debate (did the man propound a racist theory?) with other, less relevant questions (was he a bad man?); we get accusations that it’s all just do-gooding liberal self-haters hating; we get told to leave off because he was just a product of his time[1]. Admittedly the debate as presented there is simultaneously murkier and clearer: Jefferson’s writings are political writings, and he held political influence, so any racial theorizing in his writings is rather more relevant to black people in America than anything in Tolkien’s; but at the same time Jefferson enacted good laws to free slaves, so we have to find a way to understand the laws in light of the speech, and this is not a problem that applies to Tolkien. But I sense that a certain proportion of the American populace, including academia, hold the founding fathers in a similar degree of reverence to that with which the nerd world holds Tolkien, and for those people the challenge of reconciling Jefferson’s private words with his public acts induces a level of distress that is interesting to observe, and I think similar to the distress some nerds feel when they realize that their central, canonical text is also a racist guidebook.

For my lights, I haven’t a clue about Jefferson and I don’t think the founding Fathers should be held in any esteem – we’re 300 years past their due date and the constitution they wrote is a flawed business, as is the Republic they founded. But the debate is interesting[2], and it seems that Jefferson’s defenders can’t cope with the central thrust of the post, which is that Jefferson believed it right to free slaves, but was preparing a quite unpleasant racial theory to justify nasty measures in the aftermath. There’s a lot of evidence presented in comments that having unpleasant views about black people is not inconsistent with being opposed to slavery, so for example Lincoln is quoted as having said:

I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgement will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality… I agree with judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects – certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man. (emphasis in original)

I think that this kind of position – standing up to your fellow racial equals for the rights of people you think are inferior, in a situation that is rapidly heading towards war – is an enormously brave and noble undertaking, although the stupidity of the beliefs presented there should be self-evident in the modern age. But it shows that we can judge people of previous eras by our modern lights: Lincoln, though he thought black people inferior to whites, still understood the importance of compassion and basic dignity, and his actions and words show that it is possible to demand a certain basic universal compassion at all stages of history. And from what’s written in the main post, it’s not clear that Jefferson was on board with that compassion, and his defenders aren’t able to make a clear argument to state that he was[3]. This is rather disappointing for an academic blog, but not unexpected given the topic.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see that similar defensive strategies appear in both debates. I guess it’s a universal hallmark of the fanboy …

fn1: though Chris Y at comment 24 deals with that nicely:

Samuel Johnson also: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

fn2: There’s a cute side-note about Washington in the comments, that players of my Compromise and Conceit campaign will love: during the retreat from New York the British evacuated all their black allies, and Washington, charming soul that he was, made repeated demands of the British that they leave behind “American property” (i.e. several thousand human beings). That’s exactly what the Washington in my campaign would have done too, had he lived. Or perhaps in suing for peace he would have demanded the repatriation of his “property.”

fn3: Though neither his defenders nor the writer of the post seem to be interested in making an effort to reconcile the conflicting opinions Jefferson seemed to hold, which I would have thought was a key part of the task of defending or damning him.

The Guardian reports that JRR Tolkien’s apparently unfinished Arthurian epic, The Fall of Arthur, is to be released soon. The story is a poem in old-English alliterative style, with passages like these:

His bed was barren; there black phantoms

Of desire unsated and savage fury

In his brain brooded till bleak morning

I’m a fan of alliterative poetry and Tolkien was apparently a master of reading it in its original language, so I’m intrigued that he could have written a modern-day Arthurian poem based on this style. A lot of people can get this sort of thing wrong but when it’s done well it can be very evocative, and I see every possibility that Tolkien could pull it off. Of course, it’s not always the case that specialists in a field make good practitioners, as shown by the long-standing rule that one should never let a film studies student choose your Saturday night movie, but Tolkien is a published writer and some of his other more stylized writing, though hard going, is quite rewarding (see e.g. The Silmarillion). I don’t like every aspect of the passage I cited above, but it seems like a nice first pass, and I will certainly be checking out the full poem. It could be that while Tolkien can often be mediocre in his standard prose, he will be consistently good in this style, so it will be fun to give it a go – plus, it looks like a dark reinterpretation of the Arthurian legend, but will no doubt lack much of the rape!rape!grimdark! of more modern writers who attempt to “subvert” the classic fantasy style through dark reinterpretations. If it’s grimdark without the salacious shock value, I think it could be an excellent addition to the Arthurian canon…

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.