The Null Device

Lord of the Rings racist?

A Guardian piece denouncing the Lord of the Rings as racist; in particular, taking issue with the way that the entire orc race is condemned, and the problematic characterisation of good and evil ethnicities and races:
To cap it all, the races that Tolkien has put on the side of evil are then given a rag-bag of non-white characteristics that could have been copied straight from a BNP leaflet. Dark, slant-eyed, swarthy, broad-faced - it's amazing he doesn't go the whole hog and give them a natural sense of rhythm.

Over-the-top political correctness, or does he have a point? Is LotR any more "racist" than mainstream consensus was 50 years ago? If not, should old literature be sanitised or censored to kill the poisonous ideas lurking within it? (Perhaps it should be treated like Mein Kampf, and released only with scholarly annotations deconstructing it?) Discuss.

There are 23 comments on "Lord of the Rings racist?":

Posted by: gjw Wed Dec 4 12:51:10 2002

LOTR has been considered racist for years. The story I heard was, The Shire represents white-bread Britain (of course). The mountains surrounding Mordor represent the Caucus (sic?) mountains, and on the other side, Mordor represents Asia, filled with evil, slanty-eyed, mongoloid asian types (Orcs), with the "Red Eye" representing the ever-watchful, ever-present thread of Communism. Blah Blah bloody Blah Blah Blah.

Posted by: acb Wed Dec 4 13:01:08 2002

And the ring is said to represent technology. Which implies that technology is a Communist plot to enslave peaceful, agrarian Britain under the yoke of subhuman mongoloids from across the Caucasus. Which seems, to me at least, to be stretching things a bit.

Certain militant leftists (particularly those affected by postmodernism) tend to see their particular devil everywhere. For example, when David Icke toured Canada, a group of neo-Marxists were convinced that the "giant shape-shifting lizards" he rants about could not be anything but a code for "Jews", and agitated to silence him. Jon Ronson (a Guardian journalist) documents this in his book "Them".

Posted by: acb Wed Dec 4 13:04:28 2002

Having said that, I did find that the set of ideals presented in LotR (such as the inherent virtue and justness of royalty/nobility, and everything being well-ordered in its place) are rather archaic and reactionary. Not enough to condemn the book, mind you, but enough to keep an eye out for.

A good antidote, though, is Philip Pullman's _His Dark Materials_ trilogy. Very humanistic in outlook, and yet it's imaginative fantasy (not falling into the trap of socialist-realist over-earnestness or preachiness).

Posted by: gjw Wed Dec 4 13:09:27 2002

It's all a bit pathetic; good stories like this have got to have goodies and baddies. It reminds me of Michael Palin asking an Egyptian film-maker about the content of the films he made for the middle-eastern market. "Oh they only censor three things...just sex, religion and politics!"

Posted by: Graham Wed Dec 4 13:17:26 2002

Amelie, Brave New World, They're a Weird Mob, they've all copped the veiled racism tag. So it goes. As the man himself noted, it's just a bloody story. True, it does reflect Tolkien's somewhat luddite agrarian mindset up to a point, and perhaps a bit blokey (though Eowyn, phwoar!), but beyond that, hmm.

Posted by: gjw Wed Dec 4 13:18:53 2002

I read a decent thesis of the politics behind "Watership Down" was a bit more believable, but the author seemed a bit confused about the political philosophies he attributed to the various warrens.

Posted by: kstop Wed Dec 4 13:22:28 2002

The eastern humans are, however, consistently portrayed as being honourable and brave, just misled. Then you have the tribes in the forest between Rohan and Gondor, whose chief delivers a verbal bitchslap to either Theoden or one of his lieutenants when they imply he's a primitive. (I can't remember which offhand.) If you go back to the Silmarilion, numerous white tribes of men are traitorous and evil. In fact, the entire history of Middle Earth could be seen as a commentary on racism, with Elves, Dwarves, and Men all being turned against each other by Morgoth and then Sauron for their own ends, effectively fomenting racism to help their own cause of world domination.

I do think there's more to the Ring as technology (or progress) argument, though. I'm almost certain that Tolkien himself said that the Shire bits were motivated by his own experiences watching his rural birthplace becoming an urban center. From that perspective, you could see the orcs as being representative of city dwellers, and the hobbit

Posted by: acb Wed Dec 4 13:22:42 2002

Still haven't read that though heard good things about it. Apparently it makes sense to interpret it as a scifi/adventure story about protagonists in a strange environment than as a twee little story about bunny rabbits.

Posted by: kstop Wed Dec 4 13:26:51 2002

apparently comments have a maximum length. Probably a good thing really.

Posted by: acb Wed Dec 4 13:27:59 2002

Minas Ithil/Morgul == industrial-revolution Manchester then?

Posted by: kstop Wed Dec 4 13:33:09 2002

Something along those lines.

The article does have a point though. Said commentary, if in fact it does exist and isn't just a very favourable interpretation, probably won't make it in the movies.

Posted by: Ben Wed Dec 4 13:45:12 2002

Yes. the Lord of the Rings is racist. It is racist towards Orcs and Trolls. Some of these people need to pull their collective heads in, there is so much real racism and sexism there is no need to go imagining it in every bowl of KKKorn flaKKKes or every volume of Hitler Potter.

Posted by: kef Thu Dec 5 01:36:17 2002

I don't think it's any worse than how the American government/president is behaving today.

Tolkien apparently hated allegory, if people saw parallels to various things, then it was their own interpretations, nothing meant by him at all, (but then again, authors' experiences always infect stories).

Posted by: sc http:// Thu Dec 5 07:10:43 2002 . sickening.

Posted by: Graham Thu Dec 5 09:11:20 2002

CS Lewis, now you're talking... Mind you, I did enjoy the Narnia books, even though The Horse And His Boy is indeed thinly veiled racism.

Posted by: Ben Thu Dec 5 15:55:24 2002

I don't know about that. A lot of people who are into that sort of thing have been spiritually uplifted by the Archbishop Lewis' scribblings. Indeed, if you look for them the Christian allegorys are everywhere. But again, Narnia doesn't seem racist to me unless it is promoting racism against talking animals and mythological creatures.

Posted by: Luke Fri Dec 6 01:39:11 2002

The thing that annoys me most about this is that it's the same stories from last year being hosed off and re-used, because apparently, we'll have forgotten that the whole "JRR was/is/ate racist" debate had been trotted out in broadsheets interminably when the first flick came out. Who's up for next year, too?

Posted by: Graham Fri Dec 6 08:04:57 2002

You notice people generally don't try to do this with works by authors who are still alive...

Posted by: Ben Mon Dec 9 07:35:28 2002

Herr Irving not included of course ;-)

Posted by: Joe http:// Wed Mar 5 06:27:56 2003

So, in summation, most stories are racist and all buildings are phallic and nothing can be what it is, but must represent something else. . . Sounds like a load of bollocks to me! Mind you, if I saw an Uruk walking down the street, I'd probably run away, or hit it with a sword!

Posted by: bonhomme http:// Wed Jan 14 22:58:44 2004

the "race" of men..."race" of elves. all the good guys look white. all the bad guys look like aborigines or arabs. sauron is reduced to an all-seeing eye, (an egyptian or african symbol) again, black magic. "white" is the highest rank among the sorcerer's order.

the "black riders" ride on black horses. all the good guys ride on white horses. yes, the lord of the rings is racist beyond any shadow of a doubt.

Posted by: Graham Thu Jan 15 06:24:33 2004

No, if they were pink and brown, that'd be racist.

Posted by: mark Thu Jan 15 14:16:09 2004

Black traditionally represents evil in European society, and white purity. Black for death, white for weddings, etc. I believe it's the reverse in Asia, though I don't know the specifics or the reason (also, some East Coast Aussie Aboriginals apparently associated white with ghosts, too; and when Frodo puts on the ring in FotR, what colour does he see?).

It's only natural for a fantasy story, especially one written by a luddite, to use white=good, black=bad. It has nothing to do with Europeans being white/pink, Asians yellowy/brown, or Africans pinky/browny/black.

(How do you properly define skin colour? It's obvious that "whites" aren't white, but we're not pink either, especially not in Aus. And "blacks" aren't, although some are almost pink, and some are pretty damn close to black. And what colour are Asians? Which Asians?)