When I was about fourteen, there was a lecture at a Tolkien convention I attended called ‘Tolkien: The Biggest Racist of the 20th Century?’ I remember laughing at it like it was some kind of absurd joke, not just because of the obviously hyperbolic name, but because the idea of Tolkien being racist seemed silly to me. Racists were the bad guys, right? And we all liked Tolkien and we were good guys, so clearly, this was impossible.
Sometimes I miss that sort of innocence, because in actual reality, once you start delving into the depths of Tolkien’s racial implications, you never emerge from the realm of the uncomfortable ever again.
I’m not just talking about the orcs, either. They are the most glaring example in some ways, being the universally evil race and all, but on the other hand, when one examines the depths of Tolkien lore, one realizes that it’s more complicated than it would seem from just reading Lord of the Rings, at least. That doesn’t really excuse anything – Tolkien never even intended for many of his later works get published, so it’s doubtful if it even counts in some ways – but still, there are all the other things we can talk about and which are less obvious, so let’s do that first.
First, there is the matter of humans and elves. These two races are equal even if no others are. They are the two races of Children of Eru – Eru being the name used in Tolkienverse for what is, effectively, the Christian idea of God. They are supposed to be different but equal. Sure, the elves are immortal, but if you accept the theology of the universe, it’s not such an awesome thing.
Humans, when they die, go straight to Eru. Elves have to stick it out in the world until the apocalypse comes around, and if someone kills them, they just reincarnate after a while. They wouldn’t really mind under normal circumstances, since they’re made differently from humans, made to withstand the long millennia of life. But then, under normal circumstances, humans wouldn’t mind dying either, because they would see it as freeing from the burdens of the world and they would look forward to meeting Eru. Also, they would live a few hundred years.
Unfortunately, Morgoth, Tolkien’s version of Satan, is really overpowered, so he managed to mess up both of these things. This, however, is where the trouble starts. Because, well, for the elves, this being messed up means they have trouble living outside of Aman (a cross between faerie and paradise), because they don’t forget like humans do and so every bad thing that ever happened to them just sticks with them, and that, as I’m sure you can imagine, sucks. They get to constantly feel the grief of a loved one recently passed away, many times over.
Fortunately, there is an easy solution to this problem: they jump on a ship and sail to Aman, and there, they get to live happily ever after. Many of them don’t do that for various personal reasons, but the solution is still there, available.
Humans, on the other hand…well, they get to fear and hate death, even natural death, and go through grief every time someone they love dies, and- well, there’s no need to explain. It’s what we live through. And there’s no escape from that, since they’re barred from Aman. They just have to suck it up.
Supposedly, the difference is that humans screwed up worse than elves did, hence the permanent punishment, as opposed to temporary barring from Aman the disobedient elves got. I don’t want to descend into pure theology, because the human original sin in Tolkienverse is devil-worship where the devil-worshippers don’t really know it’s the devil they’re worshipping, and there’s a lot of issues with that and this is where the backstory turns out not to be so very Christian after all. But the basic point is: even in the messed up world, humans are messed up worse in their fate than elves are. Being human sucks more than being elven.
And then, there are all the skills and abilities. Let me tell you, if these were DnD races, elves would have one hell of level adjustment. And, I mean, it’s not that humans always suck – look at Aragorn. He shows pretty well that they can be awesome too (except for that sexist jerk part, obviously). He mind-wrestles Sauron and wins.
On the other hand, he is also the single best and strongest human to walk Middle-Earth at that time, and most of his skills are comparable to Legolas’s, who is basically just a random dude, his royal blood notwithstanding. It’s hardly equal ground.
If one compared the best and the best, it would the elves from Aman with the humans of Númenor during its early years, and well, the elves would win, on all fronts. They are stronger and wiser and more agile and just, you know, better. Because they didn’t worship the devil at any point, obviously.
Their fates – death versus immortality – are not treated as equal by the stories either, not by far. When the fate of the lovers elven Lúthien and human Beren is being decided, no one mentions the possibility of Beren gaining her immortality. She can take on his fate, or they can be separated. Her fate is clearly out of his league. The story where the opposite seems to maybe happen, Idril and Tuor, is never clear-cut about it. It just says Tuor sailed with Idril to Aman and that maybe they live there now, maybe they don’t. The entirety of fandom accepts they do, but still, we get this uncertainty. The difference in the way the stories are framed is obvious, too. Tuor gained a special grace, Lúthien sacrificed herself for Beren.
And there are the children of these mixed marriages, too. They have a choice: they can take the elven or the human fate. If they take the elven one, they still do not become fully elven – they are called Half-Elven and their children are Half-Elven as well, which means they have a choice between dying and being immortal as well.
Now when they accept the human fate, on the other hand…well, it just seems they become fully human. There is no choice left for their children. Again, it’s like it wasn’t about two equal fates, but about downgrades and upgrades. Those who decide for elves can always have their kids downgrade to human later, but once you go human, well, no free upgrade for you, sorry, kid.
This is not what equality looks like.
But it’s not just the difference between these two races, either. It’s within the races, too.
There is a helpful diagram in The Silmarillion showing different branches of elves by, basically, how super-human they are. The simple rule is: the more they’ve been to Aman, the more so. The most powerful branch of elves are those who lived in Aman in the early days. Then come their descendants living in Aman, then their descendants in Middle-Earth. After that, it’s the Sindar who had a demigoddess/angel queen and so came in touch with the metaphysical blessings of Aman at least through her. Then it would be their descendants. Then there are elves who never saw even that, and then those who were never even interested in seeing any of it. The last don’t appear in any of the stories we know, so it’s difficult to speak about them, but generally, the further down this ladder the weaker and less wise and so on the elves are.
Now, if it was just the matter of actually personally being in Aman, well, that would be logical enough and not racist at all. But these superpowers are passed down the family line, and as long as you keep breeding with other Aman-descended elves, they never dilute. Second-generation immigrants to Middle-Earth from Aman are no more powerful than tenth-generation, generally speaking. The power of elves is waning by the time of Lord of the Rings, but that concerns all the elves, even if they were super powerful at the beginning.
So you can see how this suddenly becomes rather more racist. There are clans of elves – with a distinct look and all – that are simply better than others, in everything, forever. All right, then.
Basically the same thing is true for humans.
There are actually even explicitly, unironically lesser humans in the text, because why even be subtle?
“The wisdom and the life-span of the Númenoreans also waned as they became mingled with lesser Men.“
And Lord of the Rings was published in the 50s, too, so Tolkien doesn’t get much slack for value dissonance. That was not quite okay even then. Perhaps especially then.
Once again, as with elves, it’s a matter of genetically transferred abilities that come from a metaphysical source. In case of humans, it’s a combination of being from one of the clans who never truly worshipped the devil and being descended from Númenor, with the implication that they had a trace of elven blood in them, because the first king of Númenor was half-elven. Which, look, brings us to the superiority of elves once again! I mean, this is basically genetic homoeopathy. That half-elven king lived six thousand years before Aragorn, and yet Aragorn’s power is still seen as being owed to him to a large part. The poor people who never had any royal blood in them, on the other hand, can never hope to match this.
And once again, the issue is that these guys are better at everything. If it was just one genetic trait carried on, that would be fine. You know, the ability to control the royal dragon, or to open the secret door to the throne room, or whatever. But the way it’s a matter of general superiority is very unsettling.
As for the other races in Tolkien, of the Free Peoples, there are Hobbits, who are meant to be essentially a separate branch of humans, and they are one race I don’t really have issues with. The “big Men” sometimes have a tendency to treat them like children, but I think it’s shown clearly enough that that’s on them, and it’s not endorsed by the story at all.
The dwarves, on the other hand…For one, there is the elephant in the room, which is that it could be argued that they’re a mash of Jewish stereotypes. I don’t really feel qualified to speak to that specifically, though, and there are plenty of other things to mention. Even though these things actually get a ton more offensive when seen in context of the Jewish coding, so, you know, keep it in mind.
First, dwarves, contrary to humans and elves, were not really created by Eru. Instead, they were made by one of the demigods/angels in the universe. They were only given souls by Eru out of pity when he saw how much their maker liked them. Within the theological framework of Tolkien’s work, that immediately puts them in a somewhat subordinate position, so that’s a thing to be uncomfortable about straight off the bat.
But even apart from that, it’s hard not to think that the variability of characters we get among the dwarves is somewhat less than with the other good races. Even with elves, just in Lord of the Rings, we get Legolas and Galadriel and Arwen and Glorfindel. Plus Elrond if you count his half-elven self. It’s clear enough that each of them is completely different. And then there is the whole of Silmarillion, of course. We meet and get to know five Hobbits. While Merry and Pippin are similar in many ways, the remaining three are each very distinct.
With the dwarves, though… In Lord of the Rings, there is effectively only Gimli. In The Silmarillion their most important part is being villains. Of course the big dwarf book is The Hobbit, but it’s also one that’s not well suited for character depth studies. Well, none of Tolkien’s books are, really. He hardly tried to write psychological masterpieces. But still, The Hobbit fares the worst in this, being mostly a silly fairy tale book (in the best possible sense). So in spite of having eleven dwarves there, there are very interchangeable for a large part. That’s not exactly helpful. The whole race tends to be a big caricature, and Gimli saves its face only partially.
So much for the Free Peoples. But since I don’t actually think it’s possible to write about race in Tolkien without mentioning orcs, let’s take a look at that, too.
Orcs were a problem for Tolkien. The reason why they were a problem are the few conversation among them that we witness in the books, the most illustrative of which takes place in Return of the King.
‘You come back,’ shouted the soldier, ‘or I’ll report you!’
‘Who to? Not to your precious Shagrat. He won’t be captain any more.’
‘I’ll give your name and number to the Nazgûl,’ said the soldier lowering his voice to a hiss. ‘One of them’s in charge at the Tower now.’
The other halted, and his voice was full of fear and rage. ‘You cursed peaching sneakthief!’ he yelled. ‘You can’t do your job, and you can’t even stick by your own folk. Go to your filthy Shriekers, and may they freeze the flesh off you! If the enemy doesn’t get them first. They’ve done in Number One, I’ve heard, and I hope it’s true!’
Because, you see, the orcs are presented as always evil. And it might have been plausible, if it wasn’t for these conversations. Tolkien had many theories by which he tried to justify the idea of an always-evil race. Effectively, they all danced around orcs not really being self-aware. If they were just flesh golems built by Morgoth or Sauron, then it wouldn’t really be a problem. They could all be evil very easily. But, well, this is not a conversation between golems. Neither are the other orc dialogues we come across in the books. Orcs have clear personalities and wills of their own. And that means trouble.
The version of origin of orcs Tolkien seemed most married to is the one where they were made by torturing elves. Humans could be good or evil and still stay human. Elves, once they fully turned evil, become orcs after some time. The first Dark Lord weaponized this process by unspecified torture. The elves can let themselves die, because they have control over things like that. Or they can let themselves be twisted enough to become orcs.
Do you see the lovely, victim-blamey potential here? Tolkien backed himself into this corner because the idea of being turned evil fully against one’s will was not in accordance with his beliefs. He had to introduce the aspect of choice somewhere in there. As a result, the narrative becomes even more problematic. And, as with elves and humans, the metaphysical is inherited once again. The evil elves have orc children, not elven children.
All of this comes back to the principle of original sin and the Fall, in case of all three races. But that concept becomes so much more problematic when you have different sentient races and they fall to different degree. Putting them all together at once in a world that stays mostly Christian in its cosmology will always inevitably lead to superior and inferior races, ethically speaking. So that’s a problematic decision right there.
But Tolkien didn’t even stop there. He went further, to indicate that mental and physical superiority goes hand in hand with moral qualities. It’s an idea very present in many mythologies he worked with. It’s also a deeply problematic one and one that runs contrary to real life experience.
Tolkien managed to fight the direction he was headed in with this with the Hobbits. Their presence is really the saving grace of his whole work in this respect. The prominent role they play casts in doubt the whole assumption of all kinds of superiority tied into one. Frodo is not wisest or strongest of all. When it comes to moral high grounds, however, he has all of them. It is, of course, a crucial point of the books, if not the crucial point.
Still, even from my own reading experience, I know it’s too easy to ignore him in favour of the glorious deeds done in the Fields of Pelennor. It’s so much more shiny, after all. So much closer to what typical heroes look like. Given its implications, though, it’s a dangerous road to take.
All images courtesy of New Line Cinema.