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

While I was travelling my blog attracted the attention of a Danish Fascist group, the Danish National Front, for its posts on Tolkien and fascism. A post went up on their message board indicating that the Tolkien books are recommended reading for fascists and giving my post on Tolkien’s racial theories as an explanation of why. I’m not, of course, going to give a link to the message board, since I don’t want to give them traffic (from my thousands of readers, ha!) and neither do I want to draw their attention (more than I have). The post about my blog only has two replies but one of the replies, translated in google translate, gives an excellent insight into how fascists and nazis think about Tolkien. Here it is, post-google:

There is no doubt that Tolkien’s books based on a Germanic mythology, even his linguistic inventions are rooted in language studies.

In contrast, Harry Potter pure fiction mixed with Marxist ideology of equality. I would never let my children read Harry Potter, but even read Tolkien’s books aloud to them – there is a readily available version of them as suitable for children and adolescents.

The post above this one also claims CS Lewis for the fascists, because

CS Lewis, author of the Narnia series, was surely also a racist or at least accused of it (especially for being anti-Muslim and producing Middle Eastern people as bad guys, etc). May I look at a time.

These two comments also give support to some of my claims about the conservative appeal of high fantasy.Note as well that this stuff transcends any individual national interpretation of Tolkien – now I’ve found it in the UK, Italy, America and Denmark. All strands of fascist thought in the Western world seem to have a strong appreciation of Tolkien’s racial and hierarchical themes, and see them as excellent propaganda material to expose their children to. They also don’t seem to have any concerns about the putative multiculturalism of the Fellowship, presumably because they see all the races of the West as representative of “white” men, and don’t care about the (huge) differences between dwarves, elves, halflings and men. The fact that there are no black men or “mongoloids” (Tolkien’s term) is more relevant to them than the fact that elves and dwarves are so racially different that they can’t even inter-breed[1].

This last point perhaps also is relevant in defense against the claim that the colours of the antagonists in Lord of the Rings are not symbolic of anything. Fascists take the whiteness of dwarves and elves as symbolically more important than the fact of their racial difference. This is a pathological level of focus on the real world notion of race, since their perception of skin colour transcends the very real, “scientific” differences described in the book. But they are largely only able to do this in the works of people like Tolkien and Lewis. I think that this ability to transcend the actual racial codification in the books, and to map onto it their own models, is made possible by the reassuring conservative environment of the books, and the germanic mythology underlying them. These books contain a lot of coda that reassure fascists that they are reading the “right” type of conservatism, and thus able to draw the “right” conclusions about the racial messages in the book.

I’ve read a lot of apologies for Tolkien’s worldview in my various posts about the racial theories inherent in them, but I think the way fascists view him and his work is a pretty clear sign that his politics is not worth rehabilitating. It’s possible to read Tolkien critically without losing enjoyment of the books, and it’s possible to play the fantasy RPGs that inherit his conservatism and racism with the same critical eye, without losing enjoyment of them (or indeed, enjoying those unrealistic aspects of their racial theory that make them so different to the real world). What it’s not possible to do, as far as I can tell, is read Tolkien while somehow claiming he is presenting a world devoid of racial theory, or even (as some seem to want) a world that is at least neutral with respect to modern standards of racial equality and racial determinism. This view of the books is only possible through sleight of hand (e.g. pretending the Fellowship is a multicultural symbol) or outright deception (e.g. claiming, as regularly happens, that the Southrons weren’t meant to be black). Fundamentally, it’s a text on scientific racism, and needs to be read as such.

Which doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great book. It just means that it’s a product of its times and, seen in a certain light, a work of virulent conservatism and racism. But so what? It’s still a fun read.

fn1: as far as we know…

Today I discovered an interesting interview with one Stephen Shapiro, University of Warwick, which was conducted in 2003 by the German Tolkien fanclub (at least I assume that’s what it is). At that time it would appear he had been working on a research theme similar to that which I’ve gathered here and here, about whether Tolkien is racist, racialist, or vulnerable to interpretation as such. The interview contains support for the claims I’ve made before about how Tolkien can be read, and contains some interesting information I hadn’t previously found about the way in which Tolkien is used by the far right in Europe[1]. The interview came out in 2003 and is, I think, a bit unfair on Peter Jackson – I think Shapiro has a very uncharitable reading of the poster advertising The Two Towers.  I’m no film critic so I can’t say anything about the claim that

In visual terms, there are also uncanny references to both Leni Riefenstahl and DW Griffiths’s Birth of a Nation, the film that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan.

If so, that’s a bit disappointing, but it’s also maybe not unexpected – Leni Riefenstahl is supposed to have done revolutionary stuff, isn’t she?

Shapiro also suggests that Jackson’s film could have been tolerably done in a more multi-racial fashion, and says

For Jackson’s part, he gives viewers too little credit, since many contemporary fans in the “fantasy and role-playing community” of games like Dungeons and Dragons and Everquest often encourage players to avoid racial stereotypes in their games, Jackson makes no concession to ethnic heterogeneity and often seems not to have considered if a non-white viewer would feel that her or his dignity had been degraded by the film’s representations.

I don’t know if I agree with this – D&D et al are games which, while they superficially “avoid racial stereotypes,” tend to also err strongly on the side of making the protagonist white[2]. Also, these games strongly encourage racialism, and I’m not sure that racialism is compatible with “avoid racial stereotypes.”

Shapiro also states that he is aware of someone else (internet link now dead) who claims to have proof that Tolkien subscribed for 20 years to an extremely right-wing, racist magazine called the League for Empire Loyalists. I don’t think this claim can be tested from the comfort of my armchair, so I’d like to add that I know someone whose dog has eaten someone’s homework, and on that homework it was clearly written that Tolkien was a member of NAMBLA.

There is s sizable section of this interview which backs up my earlier evidence about how Tolkien is used by the far right. For example, the Heathen Front (some kind of long-since collapsed British organisation of right wing “volkists”) admired him as “racialist”, and he was also extremely popular on the far right in Italy. One far right movement even ran paramilitary youth groups called “camp Hobbits”, and infiltrated the Italian Tolkien Society in the 80s. The modern Italian far right developed from a rump movement that survived Mussolini, but it developed along very different lines – it eschewed the modernist futurism of pre-war fascism and instead developed a philosophy based on sacred fascism, in which a traditional and a modern world view are in constant conflict, with the traditional worldview slowly decaying but then reasserting itself. This decay is associated with a decline due to racial mixing and loss of religious strength. This ideology of the “sacred Right” is consistent with the themes in Tolkien’s work, and is a very common view across much modern extreme right thought – David Duke espouses it, it’s crawled all across the pages of Stormfront and the other far right websites[4], and the people who are closest associated with it also seem very likely to be Tolkien admirers. The links between the spiritual fathers of modern Italian fascism and Tolkien are well described in this essay, which also points out that modern fascism is now so diverse that it is difficult to ascribe it a single guiding philosophy or even to define it clearly as “fascism” anymore.

I think that had Tolkien’s work been popular in the ’30s it would probably not have been popular with the Italian fascists, who were much more into futurism and total war than they were into romantic recreation of bucolic rural utopias. It might have influenced those who wanted religious re-development under the regimes, but these people were never popular with their leaders[5].  Had it been associated with Fascism then I doubt it would be very popular now, either, so it’s all round good luck for us that he published just a tad late. But I think in the post-war age there are clear parallels between the mythology and cultural history of the Lord of the Rings and the tale of cultural decline and racial mixing which the modern far Right want to tell. It’s not a coincidence, because like his fellow fantasy authors (and pretty much all of the white world) in the pre-war era, Tolkien believed in the Aryan mythology, the now-discredited model of Aryan archaeology, eugenics and the dangers of racial mixing; and he was, apparently, on the right-wing of British literary activity. Because he wrote such a detailed, lyrical and evocative world based around these ideals, he has become the literary standard for those elements of the modern far right who subscribe to the same mythology. I think he would probably see a lot of things in the modern far Right of which he would approve, but I think he would also see a lot (particularly in Berlusconi’s Italy) that horrifies him, and I think it highly unlikely that he would ever have supported the goals or politics of any fascist organisations in the 20th or 21st centuries. But his writing supports their ideals and he has been used shamelessly to reinvigorate their cultural background in the last 20 years[6]. Given the influence of Tolkien on role-playing and the fantasy world today, I think it’s fair to say that role-playing has a cultural heritage in these fascist ideals, and the closer one hews to the work of the pre-war canon that was steeped in them, the closer this heritage is to one’s game.

I don’t wish to draw too many conclusions about what this says about people like me who enjoy playing in these worlds. Some choices:

  1. It’s actually really easy to sterilise artistic work of nasty meaning if you like the work itself
  2. Good literary work can transcend even very powerful politically objectionable ideals (Nabokov, anyone?)
  3. The reader’s intentions and goals are much more important in the interpretation of the work than even the most blatant political intent on the part of the author[7]
  4. I’m an outrageous fascist who’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes

I do think, though, that there must be some extent to which this racialisation in standard fantasy and role-playing has to make it seem exclusionary to non-white readers. Even if 1) were true, some proportion of non-white readers who would otherwise enjoy the work must be put off by their obvious placement on the wrong side of the story in the pre-war canon (and by extension, much of the post-war canon). I wonder how many role-players in the creation of their own worlds unconsciously move away from the outright racialism in the early work, or subvert it in some way. I know I have done by, for example, making Orcs noble (I did this long before I knew about this critique of Tolkien) or by making Elves fascist (in my 4th Age Middle Earth Campaign)[8]. But it’s really hard to preserve D&D in any original sense without keeping the racialism, and I think this must be a turn-off for some people, and I would guess particularly for non-white readers who are perhaps more aware of the consequences of racialism than a lot of white readers are.

fn1: For those who don’t want to wade through all the other crap I’ve written on this, I should point out that although I think the association of LoTR with the far right is evidence that it is easy to read as racist, I don’t take it as evidence that Tolkien was racist and I don’t care if he was[3]

fn2: There is a whole literature and 15 years of internet debate over whether making your protagonists white is a sign that you, your story, your game, or your movie, is racist. I think that it’s better if, where race is an explicit motif, the races in question are inclusive. I don’t think in early D&D they are. I don’t take this to mean Gygax (or anyone else) was racist

fn3: In the sense that, I think it’s bad to be racist, and I think it’s bad if a book sets out to tell a racist story, but it doesn’t change my appreciation of all the other appreciable elements of the book. And I think it’s interesting to investigate the politics of a book and of its writer, but that doesn’t mean I think every book should be PC, etc. blah blah, insert other ritualistic disclaimers about not being a killjoy here.

fn4: As ever, I’m not going to link to these sites, because they’re evil and I don’t want them coming here!

fn5: Am I the only person who thinks it highly suspicious that “hyperborea” and “hyborea” sound very, very similar? I might have to investigate Howard, who wrote “The ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth.”

fn6: It’s worth bearing in mind that after a movement engages in the level of monumental fail that the fascist movement fell to, they need some serious help reinvigorating, and a completely new ideological direction. It’s a miracle really that they’ve managed to survive in any way, shape or form and I’m sure any kind of long-term survival depends on their finding a new ideological basis.

fn7: Again, I’m not saying here that fascism was Tolkien’s intent. It’s worth noting that Orwell is consistently misused too, and loved by people on the right, even though he’s obviously a ferociously left-wing writer

fn8: This is really piss-poor subversion, because it doesn’t change the inherent racial essentialism of the framework, just reverses who gets what trait. Is this better? I would argue not… it’s just fun. I think Stephen Donaldson may be a good example of a popular canonical fantasy writer who screwed with the racial essentialism in the most obvious way – by writing a recognisable fantasy world mostly devoid of racial structures.

I stumbled on this story at a blog I’ve never read before, and – though not surprised – was profoundly horrified at the content of the deception it involved. Truly, the possibilities for nastiness on the internet are endless, and the ingenuity of people in ferreting them out to be admired and pitied simultaneously.

Also, is it not interesting that Lord of the Rings Online uses terms like “kin”, and is it not interesting how that blog post, written using the language of the game, sound strangely insular and, well, nordic-folkish? It’s as if it reflects something I’ve been commenting on recently…

In response to the recent stoush over Tolkien, race and conservatism, I did a little more  research on Tolkien’s racial theories and their similarities to other eugenic and racial theories floating about in the interwar period. I don’t have my primary or secondary sources with me, because my Tolkien Bestiary is in a box in Australia, I returned the MERP books to my mate, and I don’t have copies of the original books, but there are two online resources – the Tolkien Gateway and the Encyclopaedia of Arda – which I am going to use to provide some context and better research to my theories. In this post I am going to give more detail about the human races in Middle Earth, describe Tolkien’s racial mixing theories in more detail, compare them to the Aryan Invasion Theory of history, which was still popular when he wrote, and draw a few conclusions, some of which aren’t so pretty.

It’s my thesis that, independent of Tolkien’s actual political views, his books are a model of interwar racial theory, which holds that whites are superior to blacks, that when whites interbreed with blacks they civilise them but dilute the “good qualities” of whites, and that in general race determines psychological as well as physical traits, and racial mixing is bad. This doesn’t change the significance of Tolkien’s work, but it has ramifications for the political position of the genre it spawned.

Tolkien’s races

Noisms at Monsters and Manuals suggested in comments that a “formalist” reading of Tolkien is necessary to properly understand how the races in Middle Earth might reflect real racial differences. Others online have suggested that Tolkien didn’t give any formal characteristics to his races – that he never said elves are white and Haradrim are black – and that subsequent racially-specified images of them reflect the readers’ prejudices.  But reading Tolkien doesn’t support the view that his races weren’t racialised. For example, here is the first Haradrim we meet:

…a man fell, crashing through the slender trees, nearly on top of them. He came to rest in the fern a few feet away, face downward, green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck below a golden collar. His scarlet robes were tattered, his corslet of overlapping brazen plates was rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched with blood. His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword…

We’re talking here about a race with brown skin and black braided hair, which lives in the Jungles and deserts of a hot Southern land, and which rides elephants. I don’t think the racial symbolism of this accidental. They were in the thrall of Sauron and fought for him, so also therefore presumably evil.

There is very little about the physical nature of Easterlings in the descriptions in the novels, because they don’t play a big part; but their most famous contingent are the Wainriders, who pretty clearly represent the mongol hordes. The Easterlings are clearly also allied with Sauron, and are evil. As we will see in the next section, Easterlings were of a different racial stock to the Men of the West. Whether they were physically distinguishable, they were clearly racially distinct.

Tolkien himself described the Orcs as

…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types

and some Orcs are black-skinned. They are clearly racially distinct from humans and elves, and by definition evil. He also clearly associated the Dwarves with Jews in one of his letters. Details of this controversy over race in LoTR are given a very balanced exposition at the Tolkien Gateway.

Tolkien’s racial theories

Tolkien obviously construed the Elves as superior to Men and Dwarves. He also clearly constructed a racially deterministic world, where some races (Orcs, Haradrim and Easterlings) were evil and some (Mixed and High Men, Elves and Dwarves) were good but flawed. While his good races were capable of doing evil, his evil races were incapable of doing good, or at the very least were so vulnerable to the thrall of evil that they were for all intents and purposes racially evil. But of particular interest here is his division of humans into two racial kinds – Wild Men and Middle or High Men. Wild Men are explicitly under the thrall of evil – they were corrupted from their genesis. On the other hand, the Edain escaped from Morkoth and were contacted by the elves, who gave them special gifts (of long life and magic) which ennobled them. They then returned to Beleriand, and settled in the western half where they slowly intermingled with the Middle Men, and diluted their special gifts. Some of these Middle Men (such as the Dunlendings) are described as swarthy, and were oppressed by the Edain.

The strongest and most obvious example of this racial theory in action in the books is Aragorn. Racially pure, he has retained the gifts of High Men and so has special rights to command his undead ancestors, to use the special magical devices of his old people, and to use magic no-one else knows. Some of these properties are drawn from his noble lineage, but some are a consequence of his racial purity. Noble lineage in the third age is, of course, associated with racial purity, and with nobler traits.

Aryan Racial Theory

The Aryan Invasion Theory is a theory of classical history, used to describe the civilisations of the Indus valley particularly, which posits that a bunch of horse-riding nomads destroyed or captured the peaceful civilisations of the Indus Valley and subsequently learnt the culture of the Indus valley, before writing the greatest religious texts of India. The original theory is mildly neutral or pro-Indian, suggesting that the Aryans were barbarians who were civilised through contact with the Indus valley; but subsequent incarnations of this theory in the interwar period held the Aryans to be a superior Norse race who civilised the Indians. There is no evidence that any of this history ever really happened, and the theory is roundly hated by Indians for its obvious racist overtones.

There is evidence in Tolkien’s letters that he at least knew of Aryan racial theory, and subscribed to it, because he had the singular misfortune of having to argue with Nazi publishers over his books, which would not be published in German unless he could prove he was Aryan. He appeared to subscribe to elements of this theory:

I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware noone (sic) of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects.

though his letters make it pretty clear he doesn’t like Nazi racial theory, at least as it pertains to Jews. Like most scholars of his time, he probably believed the then-mainstream theories about racial history which pervaded the academy, but whether he extended this to his perceptions of the relative superiority of whites over blacks or asians at the time is not known, nor to be assumed.

Tolkien’s novels seem to contain a kernel of this racial theory, in that the most superior race ennobles the Edain, who then ennoble the mixed men they encounter, but are in turn brought low by interbreeding with them. It’s clear that the most noble races are white and the least noble (Orcs and Haradrim) are swarthy or black – there is a colour spectrum here. This pattern follows the pattern of the more racist incarnations of Aryan theory extant when he wrote – particularly those of Abbe Dubois, which were translated in 1897, and the archaeologists who uncovered “evidence” of western influence in the Indus in the early 20th century. It also follows some other theories floating about then about the influence of Nordic culture on the “inferior” slavic and Eastern races, the development of which can be read about in any good (or bad!) text about the antecedents of Nazi racial theory. While these theories are discredited today, they were not at all unpopular or disputed at the time that Tolkien wrote.

Aryan Racial Theory and Fascism

Hitler loved Aryan Racial Theory, which became the cornerstone of Nazi demography, social science, biology and history. Some of the theories on racial mixing – particularly about Jews – propounded by the Nazis can be read online at the Calvin University Nazi Propaganda archive, which is a fascinating way to pass an afternoon. Hitler also took up the Aryan Invasion Theory and ran with it, as part of his two-pronged mission of retaking Europe and founding Nazi colonies overseas. The Nazis believed that Western culture owed all its best properties to the Nordic races, and all its worst properties to the “untermenschen” of the East and South. Any model of racial history which supported this belief was imported and adapted, particularly if it supported any claim to lost homelands in the East or overseas.

Aryan Racial Theory is also very popular with modern Nazis. David Duke (to whom I will not put a link) has a very telling essay on his webpage about the Aryan invasion of India and the effects of inter-breeding with the locals on the morality of the paler Aryan overlords. Modern and WW2-era Nazis both believe strongly that races shouldn’t mix – the Nazis presented the Japanese as racially superior because their island nation had prevented “mixing” with degenerated mongols, for example, while the whites of the US were degenerate through association with Jews and blacks.

Tolkien’s politics

Tolkien clearly objected to the Nazis’ anti-semitism, and plainly thought their race laws silly. He opposed apartheid and didn’t believe language and literature should be held apart. He didn’t like the treatment of colour in South Africa, though it’s possible he did think that blacks were degenerate, or at least that white South Africans were persuasive:

The treatment of colour nearly always horrifies anyone going out from Britain, & not only in South Africa. Unfort[unately], not many retain that generous sentiment for long.”[1]

Tolkien was willing for his books not to be published in Germany rather than be subjected to silly German laws about racial purity, but he also strongly and openly believed that Nordic society had done much good for the world, but had been ruined by the Nazis:

Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.

This quote again suggests an Aryan racial theory for Europe, which has been ennobled by the “supreme contribution” of the Nordic races.

Tolkien is also known to have supported Franco, on the basis of some rumours about Republican atrocities in Spanish churches[2]. His letters and stated opinions suggest a man with politics very similar to most upper class white members of the Commonwealth at the time – racial isolationism, tinged with a strong hatred of Nazism drawn from a class bias against National Socialism (“that ruddy ignoramus”, Hitler) and a conservative distrust of radical politics. But like most members of that class at the time, he didn’t necessarily strongly oppose or even disagree with the racial and political theories at the heart of apartheid or Nazism. In the 30s, particularly, Hitler’s theories were much admired in the West, and their philosophical basis had not yet been discredited. Though we don’t have clear evidence either way in the case of Tolkien, it’s difficult to read his letters and get a clear indication of a man swimming against the current of his time.

Tolkien and British Nationalism

Tolkien ended up required reading for the Youth Wing of the BNP, on the basis of its raical theory and lauding of western ideals over eastern savagery. His inclusion may have been subsequent to the movies, which are rather popular amongst people who like watching dark-skinned people getting butchered; but it is no coincidence that the far right associates his work with their message on racial identity. Fascism and racialist nationalism hasn’t moved its racial theories on from the 30s when Tolkien wrote, and there is a lot of concordance between the racial essentialism of his world and the kind of racially segregated world that the modern BNP would like to see.

What this does and doesn’t mean

It’s unsurprising that an upper class academic from South Africa, writing in the 30s and 40s, should subscribe to a racial model for the creation of his imaginary world. It’s also not surprising that his racial theories would be consistent with Nazi-era racial theories or modern nationalist writing, since all three are drawn from the same source and people at that time were generally supportive of some portion of racial theories of history.

This has obvious consequences for that stream of “High Fantasy” which is highly derivative of Tolkien’s work. Tolkien’s worlds aren’t necessarily popular because of this racial essentialism, but much of the derivative work carries these ideas with it. Some of these notions are comforting for modern writers, some are just easy, and some are fun to play with. But copied whole, they project into the modern literary world a view of race relations which is anachronistic and highly consistent with mainstream conservative views of 60 years ago. They are also congruent with modern fascist politics, which of course holds racial essentialism at its core.

This doesn’t mean that Tolkien’s work is more or less admirable. The timeless appeal of Tolkien’s work as a whole is not due to its political-racial content, but the powerful story elements, the myth-making and the characters. For these elements to maintain Tolkien’s popularity even as the politics underlying the stories becomes anachronistic, they must indeed be very well crafted. This is the miracle of literature – a story whose fundamental social and political basis is no longer valid can still appeal to us, as Shakespeare does, through the power of its non-political elements.

It also doesn’t mean that Tolkien was a fascist or a racist, at least no more than any other upper class man of his time. But most people alive today would  consider the politics of an upper class man writing in the 40s to be quite repulsive, and its no surprise that some of Tolkien’s racial theories fit this category. But being a racial isolationist or believing that mongols were inherently inferior doesn’t make Tolkien a fascist, nor does it invalidate his work or even make him a bad person. However, it also doesn’t liberate his work from the obvious criticisms : it promotes a divisive vision of racial separatism and essentialism; and as an influential work in the genre, it has been essential in the reproduction of conservatism in High Fantasy. Critical reinterpretation of this work can liberate modern High Fantasy from the racialist and fascist origins of the genre, without necessarily leading to its political debasement or politically correct caricatures. Just as Tolkien can write an inspiring and great novel with odious racial politics, modern genre writers should be able to liberate the genre from this type of conservatism and still write inspiring and great novels.

fn1: A lot of people quote the first half of this sentence approvingly as evidence that Tolkien was opposed to apartheid. The second part makes me think that, while he opposed apartheid, he didn’t necessarily oppose the racial stereotypes underlying it.

fn2: which were certainly known to have occurred, but also exaggerated in a viciously anti-Republican western press. See, for example, Antony Beevor’s work on the Spanish Civil War.

In the interview linked to below, China Mieville claims that high fantasy is conservative, and that due to its prominence the fantasy genre in general is judged as conservative by critics. This seems pretty uncontroversial to me, but over at Monsters and Manuals this claim was disputed as a shallow interpretation of Tolkien and of high fantasy generally. It’s not just the 3 people I’ve been arguing with over there, either (hi guys!). Many people try to rescue Tolkien (or their other favourite high fantasy writers) from this claim, because they think that somehow being conservative means they shouldn’t be reading it  (or that people think they shouldn’t be). But it doesn’t work. Tolkien’s books are fun but they are politically pretty obnoxious, and the same goes for high fantasy generally. I’m going to expand on Mieville’s throwaway points in that interview, and add in a few of my own, with examples. Then we’ll discuss the core issue of choices. It’s been a while since I read much high fantasy, so I hope my examples aren’t too off beam – and of course when i say “High Fantasy novels say that…” I don’t mean every novel shares every point. Just add a silent “in general” to my phrases. Let’s first look at the characteristics common to most high fantasy novels:

  • Racial Essentialism: This is the main criticism of Tolkien, and it’s definitely a strong one. High Fantasy tends to divide the world into races with really clear essential characteristics, both physically and psychologically. The physical characteristics are exaggerated, and the psychological characteristics are really restrictive. Dwarves are stubborn and proud, elves are more intelligent and creative than anyone else, etc. This extends to the evil races too, which are clearly intellectually and socially inferior. The stereotypes of the evil races clearly relate to stereotypes of black people that were extant in the 30s, and in general the evil races also happen to be swarthy and kind of, well, blackish. If the humans ever have any racial diversity, this also follows strict characteristics – the “cruel haradrim”, for example. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether the races follow black/white colour lines, because the key conservative point is the essentialism. Races are different, and they shouldn’t mix, and when they do society degenerates. The model for Gondor and the mingling of High and Common Men is a clear reference to racial theory of the 30s. Wriggle as much as you like, but Tolkien is an established eugenicist and his writing doesn’t shy away from that. This trope is repeated in an awful lot of subsequent high fantasy – it’s a struggle to find any that doesn’t contain this idea, and this idea is a cornerstone of 20th century conservatism.
  • Racial exclusion: almost all heroes in high fantasy are white. For more information about this – and for some example of what it means and has meant historically for non-white readers – I recommend this article, which I came to from Ursula le Guin’s website. This problem has been discussed extensively as well in the world of literary criticism, and as far as I can tell it’s not up for debate anymore. High Fantasy is white. Now, it may be that the authors only want to write about their own colour, but if that’s the only reason, it’s kind of an unfortunate coincidence that racial exclusionism also happens to be an essential element of much conservative politics.
  • The male saviour: Most fantasy stories involve a male saviour rescuing a crumbling nation state from an external threat. The saviour is always male, and of course white. Harry Potter, Belgarath, Frodo (not to mention everyone else in that story), Eragon, the kid in the Robert Jordan series, Druss, Tanis Half-elven, Conan, whatever… they’re all male. When women enter high fantasy they do so as teachers or wise women, or occasionally in support roles.
  • External threats and nation states: In LoTR, the world of men was crumbling through racial intermixing, and awaited a racially pure king to resurrect the nation state. In most High Fantasy there is an external threat which only a strong nation state can protect against, and the role of the hero is to uncover their puissance and take power over the nation state, guiding it again to greatness. Although the nation state was not a strong concept in Dragonlance, the external threat was (it was an evil god); but the presence of both together is prevalent throughout the genre. The enemy within is usually a nerdy, anti-war figure who accomodates the enemy out of fear and is used as a spy or traitor. Consider the Wheel of Time, that awful Terry Goodkind stuff, Stephen Donaldson, the Worm Ourouboros, Eragon, the Belgariad, Magician, etc. It’s a very common idea.
  • Gender roles: sure, in modern High Fantasy there are sometimes female characters, but the world itself is continually recreated as a world in which women serve and men rule. It’s fantasy, anything goes, but for some reason women always are “goodwives” (shudder) or feisty aunts at best. And the female characters are not acually quite the feminist achievements one might expect – read this review of the Wheel of Time for a good description of how female characters often serve to reiterate classic stereotypes of feminine weakness, intransigence or triviality. Often as well the powerful ones get knocked down a peg or two before the end, and although women in general can’t rule in these worlds, they are often over-represented amongst the bad guys (e.g., there are two female characters in Dragonlance and one is evil). Harry Potter is a good example of this – Hermione is ostensibly a strong female character, but at every climax in the first novels she is knocked unconscious or otherwise unable to be an active participant in the plan she helped formulate, ultimately being rescued by the boys.
  • Nuclear family: we know that in the middle ages Nuclear families were not the norm, and that this is a modern invention, as is childhood as a concept. Yet High Fantasy worlds – which are sticklers for the truth when it comes to the role of women in peasant societies – seem to be very good at ignoring the real family structures of their carefully reconstructed societies, and instead populating them with perfect nuclear families. The nuclear family is a touchstone conservative issue, and is reproduced out of time and place in almost all fantasy novels.
  • Inherited Wealth: Not necessarily in the form of money, because in fantasy worlds money plays second fiddle to magic, which is usually inherited either as a talent or through attendance at a special school which it is only possible to enter through selection. Even though magic breaks the rules of conservation of matter, and therefore in principle enables High Fantasy worlds to be utopias like The Culture, magic is always hoarded by a powerful class who dispense it amongst their favourites. Harry Potter is a really good example of this – there is an elite world which he is allowed into by dint of his having inherited this form of wealth, and throughout the novels he is given for free things which only the very rich can afford. Free to those who can afford it, very expensive to those who can’t – a conservative trope, and well reproduced through the medium of magic.
  • Heteronormative: do we know of any gay characters anywhere in High Fantasy? How coincidental, in a world of nuclear families…
  • Glorification of war: having read the Silmarillion, I find it impossible to comprehend the claim that Tolkien doesn’t glorify war. That’s all his stories are about. I  suppose you could excuse it because he’s british, but still… it’s also not the case that “glorifying war” means saying “yay! more people dying”. Literature which glorifies war always talks about the tragedy, the loss of youth, the hardship. It’s part of the admiration of muscular masculinity and discipline which is going on beneath this glorification. It’s a hard life to be a soldiering bloke, but how noble it is, etc. This is prevalent throughout fantasy too – in The Worm Ouroubouros, at the end of the novel the battles are over and they all go back to their homes to plan the next war because life without war is boring. The Sturm side story in Dragonlance is a classic example of this mixed glorification/tragedy complex. High Fantasy stories without war at their centre are rare.
  • Genocide is cool: because of the glorification of war and the racial essentialism, it’s inevitable that the bad guys are going to be wiped out to a man. This has been discussed extensively as a criticism of D&D and it’s true – there is an unquestioning acceptance throughout High Fantasy that mass murder is acceptable. It’s worth noting that when the genre began, eugenics had taken over in anti-semitic literature, and extermination as the “final solution” was beginning to become an acceptable notion, because racial essentialism based on biology (rather than culture) demands it. You can read about this link in Hitler’s Willing Executioners (which is otherwise a pretty dodgy book). I don’t think anyone believes Tolkien supported genocide in reality, but the logic of High Fantasy demands it and that is essentially what was planned throughout the novels, by both sides. It has continued to be an acceptable act in subsequent iterations of the genre.
  • Libertarian or authoritarian communities: High Fantasy tends to allow the good guys only two types of community. On the one hand we see small rural idylls run on generally libertarian or communitarian grounds,  because life is so simple that they can be self-managed, and there is no racial mixing to cause crime; and on the other we see large kingdoms run by strong men, usually inheriting their position but sometimes voted in. The concept of a strong man appointed by popular election was popular in the interwar period, when liberalism and democracy were beginning to look a bit shonky, and it was supported by a much larger segment of the world than  just Germany and Italy. In fact most of Europe was under this leadership, and many in England and America beyond Oswald Mosley were looking for the same thing. This is reflected in modern High Fantasy, whose origins lie in that turbulent time. In contrast, the bad guys often have a classless or semi-classless society, run by a strong man or sometimes anarchist, often with strong inter-racial mixing. Sounds a bit like a well-described conflict from that time…

We can’t help that the original stories were written in the interwar period when racial essentialism, nuclear families, eugenics and dictatorship were popular. But we can help the choices we make as modern authors. Why, for example, do modern authors decide to be meticulously careful in their reproduction of mediaeval gender roles for their fantasy society, but completely ignore the family structures of the time? In both cases, the result fits perfectly with a conservative project. Why do they go to great lengths to reproduce the poverty of that time, while sprinkling the world with a series of perpetual motion machines (i.e. magic) which could solve all economic problems overnight? Because they want to reproduce and intensify structures of inherited wealth, and present them as inevitable, objective facts even where the solution is freely available. This is why those early fantasy novels provided the means to ensure free health care to everyone (healing magic) but you never saw it in action – except when the king goes to war, and his soldiers go to the healing tent.

Many authors are no doubt reproducing these tropes without thought, but when you reproduce a conservative worldview without consideration, you are by definition being conservative. That’s what conservatives do. Some authors (such as Goodkind and Tolkien) are more actively using their work as a political screed in favour of conservatism. The beauty of the High Fantasy world is that it is fun, so you can reproduce these things without boring your readers’ socks off. But let’s not pretend that the world couldn’t be just as interesting without a few changes – women and men being equal, for example,  or racial intermixing being positive instead of negative. And if you don’t want to do these things, you have to accept the conservative label which this kind of thoughtless reproduction of conservative politics will earn you.