Tolkien, Race and Cultural History

One of the things that we have learned over the years about social media is that it has an almost total lack of nuance. Arguments rage, but they can never resolve because you can only ever be for or against a very simplistic position. Some of those arguments concern Tolkien. Was he a racist? Was he ‘just a man of his time’? Was he a great man whom none should dare question? These questions do not have simple answers. And this is where we can turn to academics for some in depth analysis.

Dimitra Fimi is an acknowledged expert on Tolkien. She’s also one of the senior academics at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic. I should note that she’s also a friend and was one of the editors of the recently published volume on Celtic Fantasy that I had an essay in. She’s very well placed to look into these issues. Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits, is the result of her investigations.

The main point that needs to be made here is that the Legendarium, that is the complete world created by Tolkien in which he set his books, was not created overnight. Rather, its creation was a continuous process starting when Tolkien was a teenager and moving on through the publication of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. During that time, Tolkien grew up, studied a lot, married and had a family, and lived through two World Wars. It should not be surprising that his attitudes and objectives did not remain constant throughout his life.

When Tolkien first embarked on created a “mythology for England” he was very young and living through a particular time in history when such a thing might have seemed necessary. Britain had witnessed the rise of Celticism, led by characters such as the notorious inventor of Welsh tradition, Iolo Morganwg. England had nothing of this. If you went too far back, everyone was Welsh anyway. The Romans had gone, the Normans were only ever conquerors (and French at that!). So England focused instead on its Germanic invaders. Fimi notes:

It was mainly during the nineteenth century that Anglo-Saxonism became a national myth; it is not accidental that this happened during a period when the British Empire was slowly declining.

Something very similar can be seen in the present day, when Anglo-Saxonism was first deployed as an excuse for Brexit, and then as a crutch when the real effects of that political disaster hit.

Tolkien, however, did not have to live through Brexit and its aftermath. Instead he lived through two deadly wars in which Germany was the main enemy. This didn’t seem to shake his love for Nordic culture, but that didn’t mean he was overly fond of the Germans. Famously he described Hitler as “a ruddy little ignoramus” who is:

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

We’ll come back to the racism question later, but first I should note that Fimi presents another motivating force for the creation of the Legendarium. Tolkien, as we know, was a huge fan of languages. He loved inventing them. Sindarin was based on Welsh, and Quenya on Finnish (which Tolkien fell in love with after reading the Kalevala (another piece of national myth-making). It appears that being a language nerd was something that Tolkien was a bit embarrassed about, and the process of creating Middle Earth gave him a very plausible excuse for his hobby. The point here is that Tolkien wasn’t just engaged in myth-making. There were other reasons for the ways in which his work developed.

There was also a third force acting on Tolkien and his writing: the need for a book. The Hobbit was hugely successful has his publishers were desperate for a sequel. Quite rightly, they rejected his attempt to fob them off with the mess that was The Silmarillion. (It is less of a mess now, having been extensively edited, but I still couldn’t finish it.) So Tolkien embarked on creating The Lord of the Rings, and in the process he had to stop fiddling about with hobbyist ideas about mythology and language, and instead create a functioning novel for adults. That caused him to change a lot.

Back with the racism question, as is always the case, it is complicated. Where I disagree with Fimi is when she says that racism is a modern concept that can’t be applied to Tolkien’s time (pg 157). This is rather like saying that people couldn’t have had same-sex relations before homosexuality was invented as a concept (1869, thank you for asking). Racism is something that people do, not an airy concept. What we can say, however, is that Tolkien grew up in a society that was institutionally and culturally racist. In addition, as Fimi points out, the theory known as “race science” was very much accepted as factual by the (white) academic community for much of Tolkien’s life. It isn’t surprising that he developed racist views of the world, because pretty much everyone did. Heck, I have enough trouble dealing with ideas that got drummed into me as a kid, and I’m a couple of generations younger.

So what matters is what Tolkien did with his views. In some ways he clearly grew up. His teenage enthusiasm for ethno-nationalism was severely broken by his experience of how Nazi Germany used such ideas. However, his portrayal of non-white peoples in The Lord of the Rings leaves much to be desired. Saruman is clearly a eugenicist, but equally the fact that he is suggests that eugenics works.

Which brings us to the orcs. Here there’s an issue that I felt lacking in the book: class. Fimi is Greek, so like every other foreign visitor to the UK she’s probably struggling with the complexity of the British class system. But it is relevant. The hobbits are clearly rural English, divided into gentleman farmers such as the Bagginses, and “sons of the soil” like Sam Gamgee. The dwarves are noble artisans such as a village blacksmith might have been, whereas the orcs are working class labourers that you might find in a coal mine or steelworks. The humans have all of the usual range of social classes. And the elves, well they are clearly upper class, above even human royalty. They live apart from the rest of society, and yet they are supposedly in charge of everything. At least, when they can be bothered to exert themselves. Elrond, being famously half-Elven, is notoriously snooty about human-elf relationships, just as you might expect.

Tolkien doubtless regarded himself as upper middle class, at least when he became an Oxford don. Quite how he felt class impacted his subcreation of Middle Earth I can’t say (though I’m hoping that someone will look into it with the same depth and rigour that Fimi brings to her book). What I can say is that, consciously or not, it will have influenced him.

Niggles aside, this is an excellent book, full of sharp observations about Tolkien and the times through which he lived. If you have a deep interest in the Legendarium, I highly recommend it.

book cover
Title: Tolkien, Race and Cultural History
By: Dimitra Fimi
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura