J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous and influential series, The Lord of the Rings, has been accused of purporting racism and discrimination due to its depiction of orcs.
Appearing on the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, hosted by Wired magazine, science-fiction author Andy Duncan states his views on The Lord the Rings concerning racism during a conversation about his work Senator Bilbo:
“But it’s hard not to miss that repeated notion in Tolkien that some races are just worse than others. That some peoples are just worse than others. And this seems to me, in the long-term, if you embrace this too much, it has dire consequences for yourself and for society. So, Senator Bilbo is a parody in which you have a racist demagogue stomping around the world of the halfings in a sort of desperate holding pattern to keep at bay all the change that is coming about as they resolve the Lord of the Ring.
Think about it this way. I’m not questioning that in this parodic middle-earth-like setting that I am imagining, I am not questioning that there was a Sauron, anymore that I am not denying all that bloodshed and all that wickedness that needed to be beaten back any more than I would be, in our world a holocaust denier. On the other hand, I can easily imagine that many of those people that were doing the Dark Lord’s bidding were doing so out of simple self-preservation and so-forth. That a lot of those creatures that were sort of raised out of the Earth by Sauron, had not a great deal of choice in the matter of what to do. So, I had this very complicated sense of the politics of all that.”
Senator Bilbo is a short story by Duncan which reimagines Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins as a racist, xenophobic senator afraid of an influx of post-Return of the King war refugees. Duncan was inspired to write this story after noticing that Tolkien’s hero shared a name with former US Senator Theodore G. Bilbo, an outspoken proponent of segregation and white supremacy, and imagined a scenario where the two were one in the same.
While much of his rhetoric concerns the ‘parody’ world of Senator Bilbo, Duncan’s claim against Tolkien’s writing is entrenched in the real-world ideologies of bigots and racists who routinely define those who differ from them as innately ‘inferior’ or ‘worse’. However, in applying these ideologies to The Lord of the Rings, Duncan ignores both the context of the story and Tolkien’s out-spoken condemnation of racism.
In The Lord of the Rings stories, the Orcs are depicted as disgusting, grotesque humanoid creatures that serve as the bulk of armies for both Melko, Dark Lord of the First Age, and Sauron, Dark Lord of the Second and Third Ages. In The Silmarillion, it is suggested that Melkor corrupted the bodies of minds of captured elves in an effort to twist them into the original orcs. Duncan’s point of racism may stand if not for the fact that the Orc race simply exist to lay siege to the lands of Middle-Earth. The Orcs are not fought and feared because other races merely hate their differences- but because they are a terrifying force of destruction and evil that leaves death in their wake solely existing in service of the Dark Lord.
It is also a bit insulting to Tolkien, who was staunchly opposed to racist rhetoric. When a publishing house in Nazi-era Berlin required Tolkien to provide proof of his ‘Aryan’ heritage, Tolkien submitted two drafts of his response to his publisher, one which ignored the request altogether and another that told the publishing house, in essence, to ‘shove it’ (Letter 30):
Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject – which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.
Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.
Furthermore, within The Lord of the Rings itself, Tolkien often depicts the various race relations of Middle-Earth as sometimes tense and divided, which is never celebrated and is often lamented by his characters. When the Fellowship reaches the gates of Moria, Gandalf notes that though Elves and Dwarves have a distaste for each other, despite their previously amicable relationship:
“Well, here we are at last!’ said Gandalf. ‘Here the Elven-way from Hollin ended. Holly was the token of the people of that land, and they planted it here to mark the end of their domain; for the West-door was made chiefly for their use in their traffic with the Lords of Moria. Those were happier days, when there was still close friendship at times between folk of different race, even between Dwarves and Elves.’
‘It was not the fault of the Dwarves that the friendship waned,’ said Gimli.
‘I have not heard that it was the fault of the Elves,’ said Legolas.
‘I have heard both,’ said Gandalf; ‘and I will not give judgement now. But I beg you two, Legolas and Gimli, at least to be friends, and to help me. I need you both.’
Rejection of this divide is also seen when Galadriel greets Gimli when the Fellowship arrives in Caras Galadhon:
‘Welcome, Gimli son of Glóin! It is long indeed since we saw one of Durin’s folk in Caras Galadhon. But today we have broken our long law. May it be a sign that though the world is now dark better days are at hand, and that friendship shall be renewed between our peoples.’ Gimli bowed low.
Despite Tolkien’s anti-racist beliefs and writings, the man and his works are no stranger to accusations of racisms. Tolkien’s work has been almost routinely criticized over the years by numerous authors, such as academics, movie critics, and thinkpiece writers attempting to boost their careers. Thankfully, one must only point to Tolkien’s own words and actions as proof that these accusations are tired and baseless.