`It began with the tea,’ the Hatter replied.
`Of course twinkling begins with a T!’ said the King sharply. `Do you take me for a dunce? Go on![i]
During a recent slow and careful re-reading of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Book of Lost Tales, I have noticed phrases both in narrative sections and in characters’ speech (often as asides or oblique references) that might have helped lead some readers and critics to assume that Tolkien’s own attitudes to human difference lay behind them; in other words, such allusions may be one source of the misapprehension of Tolkien as ‘racist.’
Upon investigation these comments are clearly not attributable to or approved of by ‘Tolkien himself.’ But who, in the context of these narratives, can be accurately identified as ‘Tolkien himself’? Attentive reading suggests that, rather than Professor Tolkien, it is internal narrators and characters who reveal these attitudes in their speech, and that it cannot be assumed that Tolkien approves of them. In some instances there is clear indication that he does not. It may well be that at least part of the ‘problem of racism in Tolkien’ is due to the difficulty of distinguishing between the multiple levels of narrative and narration in his work. Inexperienced readers may not notice the interweaving of narrator-levels, while some critics may refuse to acknowledge their existence.
How many potential narrators, authors, creators can we identify and label with a word beginning with T?[ii]
T1 – The Tale-Teller; the original writer, speaker or recorder of the tale (in M-e.)
T2 – The Translator/Transmitter/Editor (in M-e.)
T3 – Tolkien Projected – the persona of the narrator, translator, historian, editor (in two worlds?)
T4 – Professor J R R Tolkien of Oxford, author (in the world habitually labelled real)
T5 – Christopher Tolkien, real-world editor of, and latterly co-author in absentia of, the works of T4.
Running back down – for reinforcement of our understanding of the theory – through this numerical sequence, we see that:
T5, in ‘The History of Middle-earth’ and other late editions, is telling the story of how;
T4 told the tales of his legendarium through the figure of;
T3, who is T4’s projected persona, claiming to translate, transmit and edit the tellings of;
T2s who transmit the tales derived from;
T1s, who are their original authors, recorders, or transmitters.
I believe that the supposed racism of T3 and T4 is in fact attributable to T1 and T2, while strong narrative and textual indications of the disapproval of T3 and T4 of the attitudes expressed by these characters are apparent. T5 is not closely considered in this exploration of what exactly is going on, but anyone who feels enough interest to develop, refute or discuss this proposal may feel that he should be.
First, it must be admitted that all of Tolkien’s texts have a lot to say about the differences between peoples, and between groups within those peoples, expressing notions of better or worse by tripartite divisions based on the premise that further east is dark and bad, while further west is light and good:
- Valar – brightest, best and most westerly (excepting Morgoth)
- Children of Ilúvatar
- Elves – whose move from east to west split them into three main kindreds
- Vanyar – brightest, best and most westerly
- Noldor – less bright, less good and less westerly
- Teleri – some of these are known as grey, being most easterly. These (here simplified) divisions relate to time spent, or not spent, in the light of the Blessed Realm.
- Men – Moving from east to west had a similar effect: ‘For so we reckon Men in our lore, calling them the High, or Men of the West, which were Numenoreans; and the Middle Peoples, Men of the Twilight, such as are the Rohirrim and their kin that dwell still far in the North; and the Wild, the Men of Darkness. ‘ (Faramir, The Window on the West)
- Elves – whose move from east to west split them into three main kindreds
- Not the children of Iluvatar: not subject to the trifold division.
- Dwarves: created by Aulë and never quite at ease with other races.
- Ents: created by Eru Iluvatar, but in response to the plea of Yavanna, for the protection of the trees.
- Orcs, trolls, balrogs, dragons brought into existence by Morgoth by whatever means as enemies of all the other races.
Examining the quotation from Faramir above about the classification of ‘Men’, we see that this is presented to us by T4 (JRRT) through the mediation of T3 (Narrator Tolkien) but is a statement by a character (Faramir) acting as a T2 in relating a longstanding ‘everyone knows that’ assumption of Numenorean lore about the nature of humanity. This may have descended from a T1 creator or transmitter of a document or tradition later lost at the fall of Numenor; we don’t know. In ‘The War of the Ring’ (157) Faramir says with regard to the origins of the Rohiroth (later Rohirrim): ‘it is said by the loremasters among us that they are somewhat our kin in speech and blood.’ These Loremasters may stand as the T1 figures behind Faramir’s report to the hobbits of these beliefs.
This does not demonstrate that the hierarchical view of humanity is what T4 thinks; or rather we cannot assume that this is what T4 thinks. Rather, we should note that T4 via T3 presents us with this following statement too, also from Faramir (either as T2 or T1 at this point; most probably T2, speaking from the knowledge of the Loremasters from whom he learned):
‘But the stewards were wiser and more fortunate. Wiser, for they recruited the strength of our people from the sturdy folk of the sea-coast, and from the hardy mountaineers of Ered Nimrais. And they made a truce with the proud peoples of the North, who often had assailed us, men of fierce valour, but our kin from afar off, unlike the wild Easterlings or the cruel Haradrim.
‘So it came to pass in the days of Cirion the Twelfth Steward (and my father is the six and twentieth) that they rode to our aid and at the great Field of Celebrant they destroyed our enemies that had seized our northern provinces. These are the Rohirrim, as we name them, masters of horses, and we ceded to them the fields of Calenardhon that are since called Rohan; for that province had long been sparsely peopled. And they became our allies,’…
While Faramir here goes on to sound slightly patronising in discussing the Rohirrim and their moderate success in learning the higher lore of the Gondorians, there is a theme emerging. ‘High’ people may do better when they do not hold themselves aloof from groups they perceive as lower. Might this perspective be closer to ‘what Tolkien (T4) thinks’?
Certainly T5, in ‘The peoples of Middle-earth’ (page 312) is at pains to explain Faramir’s terminology: ‘The Men of Darkness was a general term applied to all those who were hostile to the Kingdoms, and who were (or appeared in Gondor to be) moved by something more than human greed for conquest and plunder, a fanatical hatred of the High Men and their allies as enemies of their gods. The term took no account of differences of race or culture or language.’ This underlines my own suggestion that Faramir is reproducing old assumptions, which he then qualifies with some conclusions of his own.
Tolkien’s tales are crammed with people telling stories, stories they have heard from other people who heard them from yet more people; stories written and sung by the people who tell them, yet perhaps based on tradition and lore from earlier times. I don’t intend to try mentioning every occurrence I can remember of an attitude expressed by a character regarding another group of beings, that may sound racist; but to select some more that may have led the unwary or the hostile to apply that label to Professor Tolkien of Oxford (T4).
In ‘The Book of Lost tales 1,’ Eriol seeks the dwelling of Meril-i-Turinqui in search of the marvellous drink limpe, hoping that it will give him eternal life and a true kinship with the elves he has grown to love. Instead, Meril gives him tales. Before starting her first story she tells him his hope of kinship is vain: ‘But Meril said: ‘Fellowship is possible, maybe, but kinship not so, for Man is Man and Elda Elda, and what Iluvatar has made unalike may not become alike while the world remains.’
This pronouncement may well arouse suspicions in readers and critics disposed to seek racism in Professor Tolkien. But Meril is a T1 source, delivering a tale – to her a fact – from the internal pre-history of Arda, whose premises are disproved in later ages. Not only do three marriages take place between human and Eldar, they are seen to be a source of salvation and hope, as Faramir acknowledges the intermarrying of Gondorians and Rohirrim to be. This argues against the conclusion of racism in Professor Tolkien (T4), who presents his readers with T3’s tale of how the developing relationship between the two races at least partially overturns Meril’s certainty.
Turning to another familiar instance of ‘racism,’ this time in The Silmarillion: Thingol the elven King of Doriath is aghast at the very idea of his exquisite and obsessively-loved daughter Lúthien becoming romantically involved with a mortal.
When Beren flees into Doriath from the dangers of the Beleriand where Morgoth makes war on elves and mortals, he declares Lúthien, ‘fairest of all the Children of the World.’ Thingol responds by calling him a ‘baseborn mortal, who in the realm of Morgoth has learnt to creep in secret as his spies and thralls.’ Thingol wilfully goes against the advice of Melian his wife and sets his face against the sorrow of Lúthien in sending Beren on the quest for a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth. It is Beren who retains his dignity and plausibility in his parting words to Thingol: ‘“for little price,” he said, “do Elven-kings sell their daughters: for gems, and things made by craft.”’
The tone of Thingol’s reaction to Beren is so haughty, so filled with a sense of elven superiority, that one can imagine mortal retellers’ delight in showing, through the working out of the Great Tale, how utterly wrong Thingol was; it was the love between Beren the man and Lúthien, half-elven and half Maia, that brought salvation for elves and mortals from the depredations and cruelty of Morgoth.
T4, in his T3 persona, wrought this tale to show the rightness of the two races coming together; ‘Tolkien the racist’ is clearly, here and in other examples throughout his works, not racist, but writing about racism and undermining its assumptions.
[i] Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 11: Lewis Carroll, 1865
[ii] In order to create this structure, of course, I first had to accept, along with Gergely Nagy in Tolkien Studies 1 (21) that ‘the Silmarillion is…inside the textual world…not a unified text but a compendium, a collection of texts.’ Nagy holds this to be true extra-textually as well. For evenhandedness sake I should mention that Dennis Wilson Wise, in Tolkien Studies xiii, (101-124) takes an opposite stance and argues that the work is ‘a single unified text.’ Each article has great merit and it may not be the end of the world, or of the sub-world, if the tensions between them lead to the collapse of my T-list!
Starting my seven-day turn at posting a book cover image on FaceBook with no commentary, with this:
It’s now almost five and a half years since Andrew’s death, and I am still getting unsolicited mail addressed to him, and even phone calls. All from companies trying to sell him things.
I always send them back with a note that Andrew has died and that the receipt of the letter has upset me. On the phone, I ask how the caller thinks I feel when this happens and ask them to remove his name from their databases. (I had to ask The Guardian newspaper 3 times to do that.)
Everyone says unsolicited communications are a pain, by which they mean a nuisance. This side of it causes pain; a stabbing pain that often doesn’t go away for a few days.
from Ursula le Guin:
‘All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people.’