Why “The Lord of the Rings” is not racist.

There has been posed on Quora the question, “Was J.R.R. Tolkien a racist?” Many answers adduce evidence, such as Tolkien’s own letters, to prove that he was not racist. Little evidence indicating otherwise could be found, and one nonetheless persistent in deeming Tolkien a racist perhaps confuses his fecund imagination for reality.

However, one may harbour this curiosity with regard to his novel The Lord of the Rings. It seems to me that those discerning racism in the novel have allegorized it overmuch. I tenaciously hold that the novel is not racist in character, and I should like to elaborate.

I watched a video in which the presenter referred to the generally racist paradigms prevalent in the relevant era (when such authors as J.R.R. Tolkien were active), and to the possibility that these paradigms may have influenced the conception of fictional characters even if the concerned authors did not themselves subscribe to notions of racial superiority. He illustrated that a racial undertone was present in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which he described the members of the Epsilon caste as dark-skinned, unintelligent and hideous people meant to perform menial labour.

At that moment, a thought struck me: What if this was not a racist view on part of Huxley, but in fact his attempt at conveying that so stratified a world as Brave New World would be racist, and that his novel was a disapproval thereof? Indeed, it is a dystopian novel, and thus by no means presents the traits of its world as commendable. Why is skin colour alone an indication of a ‘race’? This leads to the question: what is a race? Which is why I find problematic the definitions of ‘racism’ from the American Heritage Dictionary which has been included in the aforementioned video, for it defines even the ascription of varying attributes to different races as racism:

I personally regard the third definition as codswallop influenced by politics. I hold that acknowledging differences in traits amongst races must absolutely not be regarded as racism. Differences are only natural, and misconceptions in this regard could always be clarified through free conversation. I must hasten to add, however, that I do not refer to genetic, immutable differences, but cultural ones.

He who has dwelled in a megacity of a first-world country may preconceive of the average citizen of a penurious country in Africa as a witless savage. However, free conversation with those who have been to the country in question, or that with citizens of that country themselves, may well dispel these preconceptions. It could transpire that they could exhibit as much faculty for intelligence and a desire for progress as would those in the West.

Accordingly, I would re-phrase the third definition as follows:

n. The belief that each race has distinct and intrinsic attributes, whereby the attributes of one race are dogmatically held to not be present in another.

The first clause, namely, ‘The belief that each race has distinct and intrinsic attributes’, is insufficient for the purpose of implying racism. Merely acknowledging inherent traits in a given race is not perfectly synonymous with the declared impossibility of varied races to share traits. It is necessary to be precise with definitions given the profusely negative connotations that the words ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ have, lest petty events be conflated with veracious racism.

I for one contend that such acknowledgment of different traits morphs into racism only in either of the following circumstances:

  • when mere recognition is taken further to insinuate immutable genetic differences with regard to personality traits and suchlike, and to consequent endorsement of different treatment through different laws;
  • when such an insinuation morphs into practice, which is prejudicial to one group and which thereby unjustly elevates another.

The former can be resolved with free speech, so that voices of reason backed with evidence could refute such views of racial superiority or inferiority. The latter would need deeming racist laws unconstitutional.

Tolkien’s universe is deeply redolent of the medieval era, of a feudal, hierarchical society and the likes. Collectivism was very much the norm in that era, and it would thus make perfect sense for him to portray different ‘races’ as possessing different characteristics, for these ‘races’ would tend to think of themselves in terms of a community, wherein elders possibly have much influence in shaping the dispositions of other members, thus immanentizing one trait or the other. For instance, the elders may mandate that a particular profession alone characterize their ‘race’, and other professions be rendered secondary. Over a period of time, that ‘race’ may have specialized in that profession, and thus evince a uniqueness that is by definition to not be found in other ‘races’. It could be latent, but may not have manifested.

This is not to say that different ‘races’ may not share any trait at all. It just so happens that a particular trait may be more noticeable in a particular ‘race’. As Jordan Peterson has often demonstrated, the similarities between two large groups of people far outnumber their differences, which pulverizes the very ground for racism. Yet, one could certainly appreciate that an emphasis on differences is key to such storytelling. There are many examples from The Lord of the Rings:

  • It makes perfect sense for hobbits to lead a quiescent life, given their bucolic, scenic geography, but our five hobbits (I am tempted to include Bilbo Baggins) are adventurous.
  • It makes perfect sense for dwarves to become greedy in the fullness of time, for they are masters of craftsmanship and can build great things, but Gimli defies this and is prepared to be selfless.
  • It makes perfect sense for elves to seem (if not be) very wise and almost perfect, given that their long, long lives bestow upon them much invaluable experience, and yet some of them were corrupted and became Orcs (it is true, however, that one would be hard pressed to find much nuance in Legolas and Elrond, but one may well attribute this either to lack of sufficient thought into writing these characters, or to the other possibility that Tolkien for some reason did not find them as crucial to develop as the others; or some reason that I may have overlooked).
  • And Man? Man has ever embodied imperfection, but Aragorn is testimony to the fact that Man can nonetheless be noble and strive to overcome such imperfections; temptation towards power being noticeably chief among them. I do not, therefore, see The Lord of the Rings as in any way endorsing such negative attitudes as racism or sexism, or even as having been conceived out of such a disposition.

All of this drives home a crucial observation: while one’s identity as part of a community has its own relevance, one’s individuality matters in equal if not greater measure. And this is not an allegory, which Tolkien ‘cordially’ disliked; this is the very essence of his novel. One’s individuality matters. As Gandalf would say about hobbits, “Hobbits really are amazing creatures. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you.”

If this is not an appreciation of individuality, and by extension a disavowal of the view that group identity alone matters, I do not know what is. That such disparate characters with almost every member defying his prominent trait should form an eclectic Fellowship and should resolve to prevent an imminent Dark Age, makes for a wonderful story. This, to me, is a celebration of diversity at its finest. Unlike unimaginative movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe today, the diversity in The Lord of the Rings does not exist for the mere sake of ‘representation’. It has substance; a reason to exist.

I therefore find it rather ironic that proponents of ‘diversity’ today, who often overlap with the professed enemies of racism and who are satisfied with mediocre storytelling only because it includes a polychromic cast, should deem The Lord of the Rings racist and not representative enough.

And for those who are neither of the above but are genuinely interested in exploring the possible reflections in the novel of real-life racial relations and suchlike, there are always many answers on Quora as well as Tolkien’s own letters.

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Samved Iyer

Samved Iyer

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Write as I do for contentment alone, it is made more worthwhile still by the patience of readers, and for that virtue, herewith, my sincere appreciation.