The Rapture or the Ring postscript: Is Tolkien racist?

When I presented this paper, the other presenter raised a troubling criticism of the Middle Earth stories:  that there is an implicit racism in the entire structure of the mythos.  After all, the whole Ring trilogy is structured around a clash of good versus evil, and the evil is not even human–talk about “demonizing the enemy”!  The death of a protagonist is a major event; the slaughter of orcs is treated as not just necessary but as positively celebratory.  Does Tolkien dehumanize and delegitimize the Other in a way that makes genocide acceptable?

I’m not a full-blown Tolkien scholar, so doubtless there are people out there who could write far more about this.  But they aren’t here, and I’ve always regretted that I didn’t have a ready response to that critique of Tolkien.  It is a legitimate concern.  As I see it, there are three questions here:  first, is Tolkien advocating genocide of the evildoers in his description of the wars with the orcs?  Second, is Tolkien perhaps not consciously or deliberately genocidal, but unconsciously or unavoidably so?  And third, is there something inherently racist or even genocidal in apocalypticism, of any variety?  The second and third of these are related, and the third will help to address the second; but I will begin with the first question.

There is something very strange about Tolkien’s treatment of the “bad guys” in his stories.  The orcs are impersonal and thoroughly evil, suitable only for extermination.  The nazguls and the men of the South are little better:  the first were men who were tricked and enslaved by Sauron to become inhuman and immortal ringwraiths, while the second are humans who have sided with Sauron voluntarily and fight beside the orcs willingly.  And then there’s Gollum, a murderer, physically degenerate beyond recognition as a hobbit himself, and literally psychologically dissolute to the point of having dissolved into two separate personalities: one completely corrupt, and the other weak, fearful, still pretty disagreeable, at times infantile and tending towards bestial, but still with some good in him.  Tolkien treats Gollum with a fair degree of sympathy.  There is hope he can be redeemed, more hope for him (even after his centuries of exposure to the Ring) than for the Men of the South or the Hill-Men who trouble Rohan.  Frodo spares Gollum and tries to bring him around to goodness, coming to trust him too much; can we imagine anyone trusting an orc?

After the SECSOR conference I did a little more research on Tolkien’s non-Middle Earth writings, and most relevant here, on his revolutionary essay on Beowulf (“The Monster and the Critics).  Many of us who grew up on Tolkien were unaware that he was first a professor of languages, and well versed in the study not only of ancient languages but also of mythology.  He is credited with reviving study of the epic of Beowulf, which was until then treated as something of a Gilgamesh or Illiad for savages.  Tolkien’s interest in mythology predates Joseph Campbell, and if there was any influence of Jung I am unaware of it.  Instead, his theories were based more on his own sensitivity to the ancient Celtic/British soul as expressed in the language and tales they shared and passed down, as well as his comparison of the ancient tales and priorities with those of his own Catholicism.  To Tolkien, the story of Beowulf, and the story of the pagan in general, is the story of death.  Tolkien likened the ancient self-image with a bird that flies in out of the darkness into the light and noise of a bustling mead-hall, flies the length of the longhouse amidst the sounds and sights and smells of life and conviviality, and then disappears again into the darkness.  That, Tolkien said, is life for the pre-Christian European:  come from darkness, live for a time, enjoy what you can, boast and fight and love, and then return to oblivion.  And that, he said, is what the Beowulf cycle reflects.  Beowulf’s monsters are not just beasties to fight, turning an otherwise good war story into a fairy tale fit for children and barbarians.  They are symbolic representations of the threats to humanity that we all face.  Grendel is humanity twisted by evil.  He has the basic form of a human, but the heart of a beast.  He invades the king’s mead hall, where brave men were supposed to be able to come together in fellowship, to slaughter and plunder, to conquer and spoil the place of community that he his incapable of joining himself.  Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel and his mother represent his defeat of those forces in the human soul that would tear our humanity from us.  Beowulf conquers a deadly threat, manifestly deadly in the story and symbolically deadly as an instantiation of all that is cruel, selfish and hateful in human nature.  By contrast, the dragon appears at the end of his life.  There is nothing human about the dragon; if anything, a dragon has traditionally represented the power of inhuman Nature.  This is Death, pure and simple.  There is no way Beowulf can hope to defeat it.  But just as in his youth he overcame fear and cowardice and all that was base in human nature to become the wise, brave and good hero-king, so in his old age he faces his death bravely, setting out to fight the dragon because he must, as a hero and leader of men.

The orcs are evil as the dragon in Beowulf is evil.  In Tolkien’s mythology, elves are equivalent to angels:  the Creator’s first and most perfect creations, immortal, beautiful and good.  The orcs are twisted, mutated elves; if the elves are angels, then orcs are demons.  Evil cannot create on its own, Tolkien believed, (as any Catholic knows, evil is a privation of good, not a positive power), so when Melkor arose to oppose the Creator he had to seduce and distort what was originally created good. Now, however, the beings that he thus seduced are completely enthralled to evil.  They are no longer what they once were.  They are outside of our nature, an external threat of subjection and destruction; to oppose them is to oppose death itself.

Gollum, on the other hand, is more like Grendel.  Gollum represents our nature, fallen and corrupted by the desire for power (symbolized by the Ring).  He was, after all, once a hobbit, and hobbits are essentially human (perhaps humans as they ought to be:  humble, agrarian, enjoying life’s simple joys).  The orcs were never human:  they were superhuman and thus when they fell they had no human nature to lose, so they became subhuman.  To hate Gollum is to hate ourselves, individually and as a species.  We must hope that his redemption is possible, because we need redemption so; and because we need redemption so, we ought to have an essential sympathy with him, and in fact with all those we otherwise think of as evil.  That is not to deny Gollum’s evil, but it is a refusal to deny his humanity.

To accuse Tolkien of racism or genocide for his treatment of the orcs is to misunderstand the symbolic/mythological role of the orcs.  As fallen elves, they are more extensions of evil’s power in the same way that demons are extensions of Satan more than individuals themselves.  The proper way we should think of our fellow humans is the way Frodo thought of Gollum:  he fought when he had to and would have killed him if necessary, but as far as he could he sought to win him over.  Sam’s refusal to trust Gollum or to help the sinner’s repentance may seem to have been validated by Gollum’s final relapse; but at the same time, Sam’s judgmental hostility towards Gollum is his least admirable characteristic and ultimately contributes to Gollum’s failure.  The dehumanizing of the Other can often prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy:  if you say “you can’t trust those types” often enough, you will not be able to trust them and, in fact, you will push them towards the very undying enmity you predicted.

Whether he is unconsciously or inadvertently racist is another question.  First, there is the question of whether as an Englishman born a colonial and raised as a citizen of the British Empire, he might reflect and unconsciously accept the prejudices of his culture. That, however, is not a question that interests me.  Even when we recognize the failures of our culture, we cannot help but be dyed by it.  For example, Tolkien describes orcs as physically resembling the worst example of “Mongol-types;” but that is not intended as a criticism of Mongolians.  It simply reflects that as an Englishman, a fair-skinned person living at the beginning of the 20th Century, his aesthetic preference is for fair-skin, and “swarthy,” dark-skinned, dark-haired, and narrower eyes seems foreign and generally unattractive; so when he sought to describe the orcs he put it in terms of “think of those foreigners and imagine the worst possible physical distortion along that continuum.”  This may be unfortunate, but is not really malicious or dangerous; we can grow out of that sort of thing with experience.

But the question of whether Tolkien was perhaps unavoidably racist or genocidal comes back to the third of our questions:  is apocalypticism in itself dangerous?  And if so, I would ask a further question:  are some forms of apocalypticism more dangerous than others?  The danger that the criticism implies is that anytime we think of the “other” as evil, particularly as cosmically evil, we are in danger of dehumanizing that other, and can easily justify anything we might do to that other.  This is pretty much inevitable in literal apocalypticism.  As I discussed in the first paper, that is the problem with the Left Behind sort of apocalypticism.  The blurb on the back of the film box may ask, “Who will you be?” and invite the viewer to identify with one of the protagonists; but they were all “left behind.”  They were good, too good to fall for the Antichrist’s wiles, but not good enough to be saved. The viewer expects to be raptured away, and to watch these events unfold for others who didn’t believe the right way or the right things.  This lacks earnestness.  It is an aesthetic sort of religiousness, not true faith.  Faith is earnest; faith does not need Nathan to say “Thou art the man,” because the earnest person always assumes that the story is told about the hearer.  The earnest approach to apocalypticism does not have to deny the literal truth of the prediction, but the literal prediction is the least important part of the truth; the earnest truth is only whether it is true of me.  If the Left Behind story gives me valuable role models, shows me how to resist temptation and endure persecution, then wonderful; if they lead me to judge those others who don’t believe and distract me from examining myself first, last and always, then they are worse than useless.

The Tolkien apocalypse lends itself to earnestness better because there is no temptation to use it as a prediction of the future, or to mine it for knowledge to satisfy my curiosity about the past.  I may dismiss it as idle entertainment, but I may also take it as a mirror to examine myself, and see it proposing possibilities that I could dread or aspire to in my own life.  I can imagine myself in that situation and ask what I might do, for good or ill.  I can even imagine that situation as some sort of analogy to my own life.  If I think of the Ring stories earnestly, there seems no danger I am going to attempt to identify “who the orcs are.”  Just as the monsters of Beowulf are paradigmatic of the existential threats of all people (in Tolkien’s theory), so too the orcs are paradigmatic not of some particular person or people, but represent the threats to my life, which I must face with courage and perseverance.  Since the War of the Ring is self-consciously a myth, and intends to be taken as such, it is a lot more natural to take it symbolically and metaphorically.  By contrast, if one believes the Bible must be taken literally, then it is natural to ask, “Who is the Antichrist?’  And that is not an easy question to answer.  For this reason, many millions of believers go beyond the literal word of the Bible, often unconsciously, to accept some one person’s interpretation.  Nothing in the Bible says the Secretary General of the United Nations is the Antichrist; in fact, the words “Secretary-General” never appear at all!  Most likely, original readers would have thought the Antichrist was Nero.  If you reject that theory, then you probably wonder who the Antichrist actually is.  But the earnest perspective would be to say that whomever the Antichrist is, what matters is how I live, how I will face persecution or troubles of any sort, and so on; speculations about whom the Antichrist might be is idle curiosity and a distraction, even an intoxicant.

I believe that Tolkien’s mythology has the elements of apocalyptic writing, most notably in the cosmic good-versus-evil theme; but Tolkien is earnest and his apocalypse is earnest, and thus it avoids the racist and genocidal tendencies of so much other apocalypticism.  However, he cannot avoid the danger of someone taking his writings without earnestness, and thus misinterpreting them as an indictment of “those others” rather than as an invitation to self-reflection.  This is the danger with all apocalyptic, but it is of course worse when it is presented by someone who lacks earnestness or at least lacks clarity about the nature and task of earnestness.  This is the problem with so much apocalypticism today.  To use a particularly notorious recent example, Harold Camping’s predictions seem to be more about the sense of power one feels when one is able to know the future.  It is about control.  I know the exact moment when the world will end, so I know how long I have to enjoy my money and when to give it all away to earn a place in Heaven.  I have special knowledge that makes my wisdom superior to others’, whether I choose to gloat privately or feverishly proclaim the secret wisdom I have to try to convince others.  It is “us” and “them,” insiders and outsiders.  The earnest person knows that whether the world ends October 21st or December 12, 2012, or never, doesn’t really matter.  My world will end, because I will end.  Will my death catch me “like a thief in the night,” unready to face my Maker?  How should I live, knowing that the world may outlast me but that either way I will not outlast me?

In earnestness, there is no time or motive for judging “those others,” those outsiders who are a different race or class or politics or whatever.  My concern is not to identify the Antichrist, because as 1 John 2:18 suggests, there are in fact many antichrists, any of which may attempt to destroy my faith.  My search for one is simply my attempt to escape the anxiety of uncertainty, which is the essential human condition.  When I can rest in faith, and sit in the darkness without striking a light for myself (as Isaiah puts it, Isa 50:10-11) then I can wait for the future to unfold without anxiously inquiring what will happen, or looking around for the evildoers to fight (as if there were no evil in my own heart enough to worry about).  I can even avoid that worst sin of all:  looking for others to blame and punish when things go wrong in my life, as when Falwell sought to blame 9/11 on the ACLU, instead of saying with Job, whatever comes from the Lord, is good.

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