Sunday, March 26, 2006

Is The Lord of the Rings a Racist Work?

In an opinion piece about the implicit racism in Peter Jackson’s cinematic remake of King Kong, James Pinkerton casually asserts a connection between the film and the medieval-inspired epic romance The Lord of the Rings by Oxford professor JRR Tolkien (1892-1973). This is not the first time that Professor Tolkien’s novel has been charged with racism. Pinkerton’s passing comparison with King Kong, however, seems too facile and convenient, especially when considering his equation of a Hollywood screenplay with the life’s work of a careful philologist and methodical Anglo-Saxon scholar. Pinkerton may simply be echoing the latest fulminations from some of the literary critics who balk at the continued success of Tolkien’s imaginative fiction. Apparently there are some who seem unable to entertain the possibility that a piece of serious literature can have wide-spread popular appeal. In such cases, the only solution available is to stigmatize the exception. This does not mean that The Lord of the Rings is beyond criticism. There exists a substantial and growing body of serious and nuanced Tolkien scholarship and criticism carried out by able and honest scholars. Some are sympathetic to Tolkien’s fiction, some are not.

Was JRR Tolkien a culturally-bound individual with native prejudice? No more so than any other Oxford don of his era. Anyone familiar with the shape of Tolkien’s life, career, fiction, and the cultural attitudes he articulated in his letters would recognize that he was an anachronism even in his own time. He loathed the dehumanizing consequences of industrialization, which not only encroached upon the idyllic meadows of his childhood home, but also wrought with easy dispatch the deaths of so many of his Oxford classmates in the trenches of France during World War I. The Great War, as experienced by Tolkien at the Battle of the Somme, was an “animal horror,” and unlike other literary figures who survived that conflict, Tolkien’s experience confirmed to him the need for a reinforcement of traditional Roman Catholic culture, social teaching, and morality. He resented the loss of place, land, and belonging that was brought about by the thoughtless and uncritical uses of ever-advancing technology, and he recognized in the atom bomb that “Mordor was in our midst.” Perhaps this is why so many readers with disparate political and social worldviews resonate with Tolkien’s writings, be they environmentalists or oil executives, traditionalists or new-age hippies, believers or non-believers, and conservatives, liberals, or libertarians. Such factors seem to undermine any serious charges of racism. It appears that the best Pinkerton can muster is the shallow observation that the evil minions in The Lord of the Rings tend to be dark-skinned brigands. A careful reading of the work reveals, however, that skin color has little to do with the propensity for evil. Several of the principal antagonists in the story are Caucasian-like in appearance, and there are examples of characters of color joining the protagonists in the fight against Sauron’s encroaching darkness. Such criticism, however, misses the deeper point of Tolkien’s story.

Mr. Pinkerton is correct in his assertion that The Lord of the Rings was—for Tolkien—a meditation on Western uniqueness. English uniqueness would probably be more precise. Every culture, Pinkerton admits, believes itself to be unique. Is that racism? I suppose it would depend upon how such belief in that uniqueness manifested itself in a culture’s actions and customs toward other societies and peoples. Tolkien loved England, and he possessed a life-long desire to create for and dedicate to his native land an imaginative mythology worthy of English history, culture, and language. He argued that the proper designation English referred to the Anglo-Saxon period in English history from before the Norman Conquest. Tolkien viewed the Arthurian legends as not English through and through. He believed that many of the cultural and historical elements in those legends were imported into English lore, especially from France. The sophisticated social antagonism between the English and the French was particularly strong in the early part of the 20th century, so one can understand Tolkien’s English antipathy toward French culture. In this, he probably was prejudiced. No doubt, he would have been amused at and then irritated by the current cliché that designates all things Caucasian as generically “Anglo-Saxon.”

Why does The Lord of the Rings continue to be so popular? Why does it elicit such shrill criticism from some members of the literary aristocracy? If it is a racist work, why do those who read and re-read it come from so many different ethnic, cultural, and social perspectives? Why has it been translated into over 40 languages? Perhaps readers discover within its narrative noble human virtues that are common—though increasingly rare—to most cultures: moral courage, heroic sacrifice and self-denial, honor, duty, loyalty, love of land, kin, and custom, and resisting evil in the face of ambiguous circumstances and seemingly insurmountable challenges. At the same time, the narrative also reinforces moral caution: power corrupts, evil cannot be used to destroy evil without evil consequence, evil’s craft is subtle enough to seduce even some whose dispositions are otherwise honorable, and human virtue can be manipulated by evil for nefarious purpose. Those who successfully resist evil to the end nonetheless bear the scars of that resistance. Moreover, the epochs of history that seem a slow march toward defeat still occasion glimpses of a hopeful future on the farthest shore. In an era when many of these archaic and parochial virtues are viewed with contempt by the intelligentsia and academic elite, who seem bent only upon deconstructing them as oppressive expressions of class, gender, and race, it is little wonder that a work of such moral imagination and depth as The Lord of the Rings continues to attract, fascinate, and inspire so many people. Modern society needs more thoughtful and reflective traditionalists like Professor Tolkien. His epic legendarium has challenged, influenced, and redirected some of my own perspectives, in directions that have been, for me, unexpected and surprising. Gospel, myth, and story often pack the punch of ethical persuasion more viscerally than ideological expository tracts or abstract cultural critiques.

Let me encourage you, fellow reader: have a go at Middle Earth. If you travel there even for a short time, you will not return unchanged. The only risk in the reading itself is the sheer joy of a numinous wonder.