Night the Spider

Night the Spider

During the 1960s the novels of JRR Tolkien reshaped fantasy mythmaking into a decidedly Eurocentric genre.  As readers took note of the pronounced cultural dialogue between the inner essences of Middle-earth and northern European Norse sagas and myth, a general consensus soon arose.  It seemed plain enough that Tolkien had little interest in America.  His medievalish mythological world did not extend to the shores of the New World.

The Norse Vinland sagas subsequently attracted little attention in the growing field of Tolkien scholarship.  But in recent years I slowly became aware of an interesting and often overlooked fact.  Vinland and America did play a key role in launching Middle-earth.  This is plainly evident in a modest set of notes that Tolkien prepared in 1914.

An “isolated page” among his early papers sketched an epic sea adventure for a character named Eärendel.  Journeying past Iceland and beyond Greenland, Eärendel arrived at “the wild islands” where a rogue wave carried him farther west.  Here Tolkien set down a mysterious description: “Land of strange men, land of magic.”

In this fantasy version of Vinland we encounter Tolkien’s first fantasy monster character.  This “land of magic” was the “home of Night.  The Spider.”  The story continued with Eärendel’s escape “from the meshes of Night with a few comrades.”  These are sparse notes, but the association with night evoked the same nocturnal gloom that Tolkien attached to his later spider monster, Ungoliont.

Echo-Hawk_EärendelandNighttheSpider (3)
Eärendel and Night the Spider

A few clues are available to shed light on what Tolkien meant by “Land of strange men, land of magic.”  We find a similar description in an essay he wrote during this period: “On ‘The Kalevala’ or Land of Heroes,” prepared in late 1914.  Writing there about the “amazing new excitement” of discovering the Kalevala, Tolkien drew an interesting comparison: “You feel like Columbus on a new Continent or Thorfinn in Vinland the Good.”  Just a few sentences later he remarked on an “almost indefinable sense of newness and strangeness” and then he turned to the “natives” who he termed “strange people” with “new gods.”

In this period “strange people” and a land of “strange men” both materialized in Tolkien’s imagination in conjunction with mention of the Kalevala and the New World and Vinland, and in a second instance with mention of a mysterious “land of magic” located beyond Iceland and Greenland.  Night the Spider had little substance at this early date.  But the 1914 note had Eärendel escaping from Night into further adventures and then departing from earth by sailing “west again to the lip of the world… He sets sail upon the sky…”

Tolkien wrote his first poem about his mythical hero Eärendel in September 1914; it began with Éarendel springing up “From the door of Night…” and speeding “from Westerland.”  It is possible that “door of Night” could refer to Night the Spider.  But we can see that Tolkien rooted both this poem and his note on Night the Spider in the same mythological setting, a Vinland-like “land of magic.”

Did a Norse source inspire Night the Spider?  In a 1966 interview conducted by Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, Tolkien made a mysterious claim that spiders “are the particular terror of northern imaginations.”  This points to some kind of northern European source.  But spiders have no evident presence in Norse cosmology, mythology, or saga literature.  It seems highly unlikely that Tolkien took inspiration from Norse or Germanic sources for the abhorrent arachnids of Middle-earth.  It has been argued that he could have found adequate inspiration for his deadly “primeval spirit” spider in extant fantasy literature of his time.  But it is difficult to see in any of those tales substantive parallels that establish unique indicators of a well-defined connection.

“Ungoliant Evil in Arda” by SaMo-art

Glimpsing Vinland in the homeland of Night the Spider, it is less speculative to survey American mythological texts for a possible inspiration.  In fact, Spider Woman is a widespread divinity of cosmogonical myth in North American traditions, a character of fantasy storytelling.  It is a slight problem that Tolkien envisioned all his fantasy spiders as monstrous and malevolent.  Spider Woman is uniformly portrayed as a benevolent deity, never murderous, and only occasionally somewhat dangerous.

The exception to this uniformity can be found in Pawneeland.  When Tolkien was a youth, James R. Murie and George Dorsey worked with a number of Pawnees to set down a record of Pawnee oral traditions, and in 1904 they published Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee.  The volume was concurrently issued in Britain by a major folklore publisher, and it helped to give rise to a brief flowering of British interest in Pawnee tradition.  Between 1904 and 1908 Pawnee traditional literature was reviewed by British scholars and discussed in lectures before major academic organizations.

A copy of Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee made its way onto the shelves of the Taylorian at Oxford University – Tolkien studied there as a student, and as a professor he lectured at the Taylorian.  And it is evident that by 1914 he had become aware of the book.  In Tolkien in Pawneeland I have explored a variety of instances of shared clustering of narrative details, and I argue that Tolkien picked up the Skidi collection on various occasions, and he borrowed from various Pawnee narratives in the course of inventing Middle-earth.

In Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee Spider Woman holds diverse aspects of character as a celestial divinity, as an earthly figure of mystery and power, and as an evil fantasy sorceress.  Studying two stories about Spider Woman told by Red Fox (John Box), I came to the conclusion that Tolkien had seen the stories, and he had drawn from them to invent Night the Spider.  It is clear that this creature gave rise to his later spider divinity, Ungoliont – a monster whose progeny would infest the pages of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.

In “The Death of Spider-Woman” Red Fox told how Spider Woman appeared as a murderous old Witch Woman with the horrific habit of slipping poison into the food she served to guests.  Then she dismembered the bodies, removing the head to “take out the brains” and “cut the ears off…”  Spider Woman captured people, and in the end, heroic celestial opponents defeated her and exiled her to the moon.


As I explain in detail in Tolkien in Pawneeland, comparison of this narrative to Tolkien’s 1914 note on Night the Spider reveals obvious parallels to every element of his planned visit to Vinland.  And textual alignments can also be readily identified between these Skidi Pawnee traditions and Tolkien’s later invention of Ungoliont.  I discovered that notable aspects of all of Tolkien’s spider monsters can be found in Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee.  It is difficult to see how these parallels can be reasonably explained as coincidence, as unrelated independent inventions.

In Tolkien’s circa 1930 poem, “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun,” we glimpse another set of shared elements pertaining to spider imagery.  In these verses Aotrou chases a “white doe” into a forest and meets a witch who wields “spider-craft.”  The white deer appeared in the original Breton lay, “Aotrou Nann Hag ar Gorrigan,” but the “spider-craft” was Tolkien’s idea – an addition to the story.  And it produced an unusual conceptual cluster of deer + witch + spider.

This spectrum of imagery can also be found in another Skidi story, “Scabby-Bull, the Wonderful Medicine-man,” told by Mysterious Sun (Peter Wood).  In this story a man follows a deer around a forested island, and we soon learn about “the ability of the Spider-Woman to transform herself into a deer and vice versa” and the deer turns out to be “‘stataciks’ (Deer-Ears-Spider).”

We can identify a few additional minor parallels between the two texts.  The poem mentions “listening deer” (the Pawnee story mentions deer ears); laughter ends the white doe episode (Scabby Bull laughs when he transforms from a deer to a man); the witch combs her “long hair” (the deer woman’s “hair was loose”); the cave of the witch hosts bats and cats and owls (the Pawnee cave hosts deer and eagles and other animals).  These slight incidental details of coloration add to the weight of the shared matrix of deer + female enchantress + spider.  It seems safe to observe that this is a highly unusual cluster of shared images, difficult to attribute to chance coincidence.  Tolkien must have valued the creative result of his early 1914 visit to Pawneeland, given his later experiments with Pawnee spider imagery.

He never prepared a complete account of the adventures of Eärendel, and instead became disenchanted with the idea of sending Eärendel to Vinland.  Writing sometime around 1920, Tolkien complained of “the unfortunate existence of America on the other side of a strictly limited Atlantic ocean” and “there are no magic islands in our Western sea[.]”  During that period he dropped the idea of situating a “new god” – his newly incarnated spider monster – beyond the “wild islands” in a “land of magic[.]”  Instead, he proceeded with storytelling about a divine spider monster “whom even the Valar know not whence… she came[.]”

“Melkor-Morgoth vs Ungoliant” by Jossand

Night the Spider was an explicit founding experiment with Vinland.  And several more visits to Vinland materialized in Tolkien’s later projects.  During the 1920s he invented the place-name “Dorwinion,” a term that can be read as “Wineland,” and he applied it at one point to a locale in a realm of the western seas: “the Lonely Isle, Tol Eressëa, whither few mariners of Men have ever come, save once or twice in a long age…”  Then during the early 1930s he inserted Dorwinion into The Hobbit, together with a spectrum of details that echo aspects of one Norse Vinland saga, Eirik the Red’s Saga.  Tolkien next toyed with sending Númenórean aircraft to America.  Later drafts of his Númenor narrative revised away the New World – ever after, Tolkien had little to say about America.

It isn’t clear exactly how Tolkien proceeded in his use of Pawnee mythology, but there is no evidence that he engaged in any careful systematic study of Pawneeland.  Casually skimming Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, Tolkien appreciated and felt suspicious of what he conceived of as “primitive” myth.  He wrote in one 1967 letter that “‘primitiveness’ is no guarantee of value, and is and was in great part a reflection of ignorance.”

Verlyn Flieger suggests that these conflicting attitudes could coexist in Tolkien’s mind.  She asserts that Tolkien’s distaste for French fairy stories did “not preclude influence – indeed, it can sometimes foster it…”  Studying “The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun,” Flieger shed no light on Tolkien’s insertion of spider imagery into a French Breton traditional tale.  I am aware of no alternate model to explain the origin of this Breton witch’s “spider-craft.”

Comparative textual analysis tells us that in making use of Pawnee and Breton materials, Tolkien followed his usual creative process.  He carefully wove multiple texts into new myths.  Following this path, the story told by Mysterious Sun made a secret journey into the wide world, and it became a clandestine borrowing, a subtle coloration designed to evoke half-seen antiquity.

Nothing explicitly attributed to America ever made it into JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth publications – with the exception of random vegetables and vegetation, transplanted without any explanation.  Tolkien had the option to create a more encompassing mythological narrative.  His storytelling could have encircled more of the world.  But in the end, guided by his enthusiasm for a racial construction he termed “a noble northern spirit,” he chose a more circumscribed cultural path.  Propounding a comfortably parochial Eurocentric antiquity in the pages of his Middle-earth legendarium, Tolkien powerfully defined the future of fantasy literature.

But there is a curious secret woven into the mythic fabric of Middle-earth: Tolkien did draw inspiration from the mythological heritage of the New World.  Given that he rejected the option to construct an inclusive global legendarium, this was a clandestine appropriation project designed to enhance the lost antiquarian aura of his Eurocentric Middle-earth.  But traces of Skidi Pawnee tradition can be glimpsed in Middle-earth, murmuring to modern imaginations worldwide, and Pawnee storytellers who lived and died long ago helped to shape 20th century fantasy literature.



Tolkien’s Squinteyed Orc-men

Tolkien’s Squinteyed Orc-men

Pondering how Frodo Baggins should at last arrive at Hobbiton, JRR Tolkien sat down one day in 1948 to plan the end of The Lord of the Rings.  He decided his homecoming hobbits would see a troubling sight: “…they were astonished and disturbed to see four ill-favoured men lounging at the street-end.”[1]  These are “Squint-eyed fellows” led by “Ruffian Sharkey,” who is himself a “squinting man” and a “squint-eyed rascal” and “a large man, bowlegged, squinteyed…”  And hobbit Pippin feels “staggered” at the thought of “half-orcs in the Shire…”  Soon enough, confronting the insolence of these “halfbreeds,” heroic Frodo stabs “orc-man” Sharkey with Sting.  Wiping the bloody blade on the lawn, Frodo muses, “…the world has really changed!”

Tolkien revised away a good part of this story, retaining “half a dozen large ill-favoured Men… squint-eyed and sallow-faced.”  And at the final battle to liberate the Shire, Captain Meriadoc Brandybuck “slew the leader, a great squint-eyed brute like a huge orc.”  We can assume that Tolkien brewed up these brutish semi-men to impart a sense of fantasy horror for his carefully imagined world.

In my book Tolkien in Pawneeland (2016 edition) I explore in detail the making of Tolkien’s orcs.  We can identify some external ingredients drawn from Beowulf, George MacDonald’s goblins, and other sources, and it is interesting to sense Tolkien’s creative choices, the hidden processes that energized his invention.  In the case of his half-orcs, however, we can also glimpse the social context of his imagining and his attitudes about the world.

When Tolkien’s orcs / goblins made their debut in his earliest writings as monstrous soldiery of evil, they were not squint-eyed; there was no mention of interbreeding between orcs and humans.  But between 1939 and 1942 Tolkien spliced new elements into his orcs / goblins.  He now made a decision to reshape these fantasy monsters.  He decided he would colorize them with distinct details drawn from the traditions of British racial typology.

In 1958 Tolkien responded to a film proposal that treated his orcs as fantasy creatures with “beaks and feathers.”  Correcting this imagery, he wrote to describe his orcs as “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.”[2]  This passage has received a good deal of attention from Tolkien scholars and fans.  Some readers assume that Tolkien had Mongols in mind, but in Britain during the first half of the 20th century “Mongol-types” referred to a specific racial grouping – one popular scheme divided humankind into Caucasoids, Negroids, and Mongoloids.

It may not be coincidence that Tolkien’s 1958 description of orcs as “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes” closely followed the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entry for “Mongolic or Yellow Man”: “His physical characteristics are a short squat body, a yellowish-brown or coppery complexion, hair lank, straight and black, flat small nose, broad skull, usually without prominent brow-ridges, and black oblique eyes.”[3]  It is clear that Tolkien hoped that a film representation of his orcs would draw on this specific racial model.

Soon after writing the 1958 note on orcs as “degraded and repulsive… Mongol-types” Tolkien prepared another meditation on these creatures.[4]  Rumor had it, he wrote, that Melkor “captured and perverted” Men in early times.  These captive humans could “be reduced almost to the Orc-level… and then they would or could be made to mate with Orcs, producing new breeds, often larger and more cunning.”  This was Saruman’s “wickedest deed: the interbreeding of Orcs and Men, producing both Men-Orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile.”

This wicked deed is notable because it clearly evoked the issue of miscegenation, a major concern of British racial culture during the first decades of the 20th century.  In those days British magazines and books focused particularly on immigrant “Asiatics,” a Mongoloid subgroup.  We find a spectrum of attitudes in writings that appeared in the years around 1900.  By then Chinese merchant steamship sailors had become a common sight in London in the Limehouse district, dubbed by a journalist in 1905 as “China Town in London.”[5]

Matthew Shiel broke ground in Britain with The Yellow Danger (1898), the first of his popular trilogy of future history novels – in this case, set in 1899.[6]  The Chinese-Japanese villain is Yen How, a man with “long eyes,” displaying “a dirty shade” of “yellow tan” skin and “a bitter aversion to the white race.”  His ambition is “to possess one white woman” and work “an ill turn” on all other white people in the world.  Yen How foretells a future with “the white man and the yellow man in their death-grip, contending for the earth.”  This popular book helped to create an audience for Sax Rohmer’s later Fu Manchu novels, the first of which appeared at British bookstalls in 1913.  These two novels brackett a notable period in the British imagination, a time that saw the rise of an obsession with miscegenation – fears of Chinese men impregnating impressionable English girls.

Jeffrey Richards in China and the Chinese in Popular Film (2017) mentioned a 1906 article in one Manchester newspaper with “accounts of English girls plied with opium and seduced by evil Orientals.”[7]  He also touched on a notorious essay published by The London Magazine in the summer of 1911, titled “The Chinese in England: A Growing National Problem.”  This essay, as Richards explained, “focused on the evil of miscegenation, the racial mixing through sex, and raised the spectre of race wars and of an international conspiracy within the Chinese disapora in London, Singapore, Australia, America and Japan to subjugate the white race.”  In a May 1911 article in Answers: The Popular Journal for Home and Train one author offered some personal observations of the Chinese in Liverpool: “In my wanderings to and fro, the centre of dozens of pairs of Chinese eyes, I saw white women with their half-caste babies, and I reflected sorrowfully that these infants must combine the worst vices of both nations.”[8]

A speech made in April 1914 by a politician named Joseph Havelock Wilson amplified this revulsion: “…one of the most degrading and abominable sights one could witness was to go down into the East End of London and see there Chinese hob-nobbing with our own women, marrying our own women, and bringing into the world mongrels of the very lowest type.”[9]  Another speaker, O’Connor Kessack, added that Chinatowns in English cities were “rotten centres from which there emanates the most degrading and demoralising influences; and it would be futile to deny that many young women have been lured to destruction by the seductive suavity and treacherous lubricity of the Yellow Man.”[10]

Anne Witchard has pointed out that the rise of eugenics crested with the advent of World War I, and this sparked “concerns about racial degeneration.”[11]  These concerns took the form of condemning “the disreputable behaviour of certain white women among the Chinese in Limehouse.”  The national press denounced “the susceptibility of a certain type of white woman to ‘Oriental depravity’” and British culture-makers of the time decided they could not tolerate “racial mixing with non-whites…”

After 1900 these demeaning perspectives toward the Chinese and other Asians ascended in power and popularity in Britain.  Sascha Auerbach noted that a “rapid evolution” occurred in British views toward the Chinese from “exotic curiosity at the turn of the century to a dire threat to society in the interwar period…”[12]  Tracing the history of “Yellow Peril” racism, Christopher Frayling saw the rise of this general attitude as rooted in four aspects of “threat”: a military threat, an economic threat, an immigration threat, and a racial threat defined as “social degeneration… spread through partnerships and intermarriage.”[13]

It is not controversial to assert that the England of Tolkien’s youth served as source-material for the Shire.  In 1955 he explained to his publishers that the Shire was “more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee.”[14]  We can assume that this “period” (circa 1897) was intended to reflect his early memories of England, as he mentioned in a 1965 interview: “The Shire is very like the kind of world in which I first became aware of things… at the age when imagination is opening out…”[15]

On the heels of the opening out of his imagination, the English racial narrative of Chinese miscegenation grew into a matter of widespread public fascination.  We must guess as to how and when Tolkien first became aware of the status of Chinese immigrants in Britain.  There weren’t many Chinese living in the Birmingham area at circa 1900 – I can find online only one mention of a Chinese laundry in the city, “Sing Hing Lee at 5 Stoney Lane, Sparkbrook,” known to have been in business by 1908.  If it was located there at 1900, it is possible that for most of September Tolkien walked by this laundry on his way to school.[16]  But we can presume with more certainty that he became aware of the Chinese in Britain during the decade or so that followed.

And decades later when Tolkien sat down to write “The Scouring of the Shire” he had already decided his orcs would embody race.  And in 1948 he wrote a tale that resonated quite obviously with early 20th century Sinophobic British racial culture.  This context deserves attention when we consider the logic of his miscegenated “squinteyed” ruffian “Mongol-types” who invade and threaten his Diamond Jubilee Shire.  We are supposed to sympathize with the horror of hobbit Pippin when he feels “staggered” at the sight of “half-orcs in the Shire…”

As far as I can tell, Tolkien’s Mongol-type orc-men have not generated much concern in Tolkien fandom.  This void of unease is surely due in part to the deep affection felt among Tolkien fans for Middle-earth.  But it is also clear that the vast literature of Tolkien studies has given rise to a settled scholarly consensus on matters pertaining to race and Tolkien, and this consensus encourages us to see him as a committed proponent of anti-racism.  This may explain the odd conclusions reached by three of the most prominent scholars in Tolkien studies regarding the term “squint-eyed.”

Pondering the initial use of “squint-eyed” in The Fellowship of the Ring, Christopher Tolkien wrote in 2005 that he was “not sure” what his father “meant to convey by the ‘squint-eyed Southerner’ at Bree[.]”[17]  Responding to the suggestion that this description might refer to “narrow eyes” or “half-closed” eyes, Christopher mentioned a “muscular disorder that causes the eye to look obliquely[.]”  Following this suggestion, Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull added the weight of their scholarship, affirming that the term “squint” in England “denotes a disorder of the eye.”  This bizarre explanation for Tolkien’s use of “squint-eyed” neglected to even mention the infamous June 1958 letter in which he insisted that orcs were “Mongol-types” with “slant eyes.”  We can dismiss the physical disability argument; when Tolkien deployed the term “squint-eyed,” he meant to reference the Mongolic racial category.

By the time Tolkien entered Oxford, the idea of slanted eyes as a racial signifier had become universal in racial thinking in Britain.  In an 1885 publication John Beddoe made mention of “the oblique or Chinese eye” as a marker of the “Mongoloid race” in England.[18]  A 1908 book by Walter Johnson published at Oxford repeated this established association in British thinking between the Chinese and eye-shape, mentioning “the oblique or Chinese eye, with its almond-shaped opening and thick upper eyelid[.]”[19]

Reframing this idea as “squint-eyed,” Tolkien borrowed from an idiomatic term of contempt, modifying the English term “squinny-eyed.”  In Skeat and Britten’s 1879 glossary we find the term “squinny” defined as “a contemptible fellow.”[20]  Joseph Wright’s 1905 dictionary provided a detailed discussion of the dialectical usage of “squinny” and “squinny-eyed.”[21]  Here squinny appeared as “a contemptible fellow” and “squinny-eyed” referred to “a person whose eyes are habitually half-closed” as illustrated by an 1885 quote: “We saw the queer Chineese… With little squinney eyes.”

In short, Tolkien insisted that he had a “degraded” version of “Mongol-types” in mind when he designed his orcs, and this is supported by textual analysis of The Lord of the Rings.  Referencing British racial terminology in his construction of orcs, he explicitly mentioned eye-shape.  Tolkien’s racial slant-eyed “Mongol-types” align with the racial legacy of John Beddoe’s “oblique or Chinese eye” and Wright’s “queer Chineese” with their “little squinney eyes.”  The term “squint-eyed” is properly read in this context.

These are not matters that are debatable in any meaningful sense.  But there are important questions to ponder.  Why did Tolkien see fit to enliven the legacy of the English racial culture that colored his youth?  How do we choose to respond to that?  Here in the early 21st century, a hundred years after Tolkien began devising his orcs / goblins, our far-flung communities exist closer than ever.  Nowadays forms of ethnic and racial bigotry are deemed common topics to consider as a matter of conscientious public discourse.  For those who think it useful to have in hand a detailed body of analysis on Tolkien and race, in my 2016 edition of Tolkien in Pawneeland I have traced Tolkien’s evolving constructions of his orcs, his literary uses of race, his comments on race, and the relevant social contexts.

But another purpose can guide us down these shadowy moral paths.  That is, to discern for ourselves what we intend in our cultural aspirations.  What do we envision when we choose the mythologies that resonate for us?  What draws our imaginations onward?  What kind of cultural journeying matters to us?  Mary Naydan has noticed what drew Tolkien onward into Middle-earth.[22]  She points to what he wrote of his original intent: “to make a body of more or less connected legend” and “it should be ‘high,’ purged of the gross…”  This purging of the “gross” would shape his legendarium to make it “redolent of… the clime and soil of the North West, meaning Britain and the hither parts of Europe: not Italy or the Aegean, still less the East…”

This “East” is a misty realm.  Whether or not Tolkien had any specific place in mind, the “East” surely stretches to China.  Tolkienists very commonly affirm that Tolkien had little or no interest in the “gross” mythologies of the world beyond Europe.  He had no interest in creating a fantasy mythology that he could gift to the world.  Now we must decide for ourselves if we agree with Tolkien that the mythological world beyond Northern Europe is indeed “gross”; we can weigh for ourselves the degree to which world mythologies can speak meaningfully to our imaginations.

Understanding that our mythmaking shapes our sense of community, we cannot set aside our responsibility to delve into JRR Tolkien’s racial usages.  We need analytical insights that can help us traverse somewhat esoteric realms.  A deep introspection on humankind and race can inspire the quality of our manifold preferences on aesthetic appeal, literary merit, ethical complexities – the nature of our human social contract.  Tolkien had a limited agenda.  He wished for his choices to resonate with the judgments of his countrymen, to gift the British with a sense of inherited destiny and remote nostalgia.

When we journey to the end of the myth, we arrive at the edge of the fading world of JRR Tolkien’s childhood.  Following Frodo and his three hobbit companions into their Diamond Jubilee Shire, we must study the secret inner meanings of Tolkien’s ill-favored squint-eyed half-orcs; we must make sense of his halfbreed Mongol-type orc-men.  He hoped his fantasy Shire would feel familiar to readers, a firelit pastoral enclave preserved by far-off legendary deeds.  Here in all our diverse versions of modernity, we might well wonder how that world aligns with the values we cherish today, where it conjoins with the future we wish to create, and what manner of high mythological narratives we will someday pass along.


For an overview of Tolkien and his Mongol-type orcs see this Tolkienland post.  Tolkien in Pawneeland is available for those who wish for a detailed account of Tolkien and race.

Limehouse in London, April 1911


[1] JRR Tolkien, Sauron Defeated, in The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part Four, Christopher Tolkien editor, Houghton Mifflin, 1992.  For the 1948 date of the writing of “The Scouring of the Shire” see p. 13; for references to orc-men see p. 82-84, 90-93.  For the more specific date of circa August-September 1948 see Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Reader’s Guide, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, p. 539.

[2] Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of JRR Tolkien, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 2000 edition [original publication 1981], Tolkien to Forrest Ackerman, undated June 1958, # 210, p. 274.

[3] Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 9, 1911, entry for “Ethnology and ethnography,” p. 851.

[4] JRR Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring, the Later Silmarillion, Part One, in The History of Middle-earth, Volume X, Christopher Tolkien editor, Houghton Mifflin, 1993, p. 415-421.  These notes were written sometime in 1959-1960.  Tolkien’s final notes on orcs came sometime after early November 1969, see p. 421-424.

[5] Anne Witchard, England’s Yellow Peril: Sinophobia and the Great War, Penguin, 2014.

[6] MP Shiel, The Yellow Danger, Grant Richards, 1898.  Anne Witchard noted that Shiel had a partner named WT Stead who reported on the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), and Shiel repackaged this material in his book (Anne Witchard, England’s Yellow Peril: Sinophobia and the Great War, Penguin, 2014).

[7] Jeffrey Richards, China and the Chinese in Popular Film, IB Taurus, 2017, [no page numbers in preview], quotes are from Chapter One.  “Chinese Vice in England. A view of Terrible Conditions at Close Range,” in The Sunday Chronicle, December 2, 1906; Richards noted that the story offered “accounts of English girls plied with opium and seduced by evil Orientals.”

[8] Christopher Frayling, The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu & the Rise of Chinaphobia, Thames & Hudson, 2014, p. 213.

[9] Anonymous article, The Seaman, National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union, volume 1 # 40, Friday, May 1, 1914, p. 6 (online record, University of Warwick, University Library, Modern Records Centre).  The cited speech by Joseph Havelock Wilson was paraphrased here by the anonymous reporter.

[10] Anonymous article, The Seaman, volume 1 # 40, Friday, May 1, 1914, p. 8 (online record, University of Warwick, University Library, Modern Records Centre).

[11] Anne Witchard, England’s Yellow Peril: Sinophobia and the Great War, Penguin, 2014.  I have discussed Tolkien’s literary uses of eugenic ideas and the eugenic movement in England (Echo-Hawk, Tolkien in Pawneeland, CreateSpace, 2016 edition, p. 246-251, 271-274).

[12] Sascha Auerbach, Race, Law, and “The Chinese Puzzle” in Imperial Britain, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p. 2.  Auerbach attributed this evolution of attitude in part to “the vociferous debate over ‘Chinese labour’ in South Africa in 1903-6” – a circumstance that could well have drawn Tolkien’s attention.

[13] Christopher Frayling, The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu & the Rise of Chinaphobia, Thames & Hudson, 2014, p. 254.

[14] Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of JRR Tolkien, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 2000 edition [original publication 1981], Tolkien to Allen & Unwin, December 12, 1955, # 178, p. 230.  In 1896 Tolkien’s mother rented a cottage at Sarehole in the country near Birmingham; Hammond and Scull report that he recalled walking to school one day and noticing the building “illuminated with fairy-lights for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee” (Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, p. 4-5).

[15] Denys Gueroult interview with JRR Tolkien, BBC, January 20, 1965. Various versions of this interview exist; all derive from the 1965 interview.  Tolkien offered this view of his hobbits: “Hobbits are just rustic English people, made small in size because it reflects (in general) the small reach of their imagination – not the small reach of their courage or latent power.”

[16] Walter Fung, “The Birmingham Chinese Community,” China Eye, 2012.  Hammond and Scull note that in September 1900 “Ronald walks most of the way to school, which is in the centre of Birmingham four miles from home…” (Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, The JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide: Chronology, Houghton Mifflin, 2006, p. 7).

[17] Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull, The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, Houghton Mifflin, 2005, p. 153-154.

[18] John Beddoe, The Races of Britain, Trübner, 1885, p. 9.

[19] Walter Johnson, Folk-Memory or the Continuity of British Archaeology, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1908, p. 52.  The quote on the Chinese occurred in a chapter titled “Folk-Memory and Racial Continuity.”  These characteristics of eye-shape seemed to the author “to mark off the old ‘Eskimo’ or ‘Palaeolithic’ type.”

[20] Walter W. Skeat and James Britten, editors, Reprinted Glossaries and Old Farming Words, London: Trübner & Company, Part 4, Reprinted Glossaries Parts 18-22, 1879, p. 79.

[21] Joseph Wright, English Dialect Dictionary, Oxford: Henry Frowde, 1905, Volume 5 R-S, p. 710.

[22] Mary Katherine Naydan, Modernist Mythmaking: A Comparative Study of JRR Tolkien and Ezra Pound, Senior Thesis, Dickinson College, April 2015, p. 23.  For the letter considered by Naydan see Humphrey Carpenter, The Letters of JRR Tolkien, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, 2000 edition [original publication 1981], Tolkien to Milton Waldman, circa late 1951, # 131, see p. 144.


The Prairie and the Riddermark

The Prairie and the Riddermark

Revising his essay “On Fairy-stories” in 1943, JRR Tolkien reminisced about his childhood fairy tale preferences, mildly dismissing Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island and then recalling, “Red Indians were better: there were bows and arrows (I had and have a wholly unsatisfied desire to shoot well with a bow), and strange languages, and glimpses of an archaic mode of life, and, above all, forests in such stories.”

He never clarified which “Red Indian” stories so memorably fired his imagination.  We have only a short list of candidate writings that he actually mentioned in the course of his life.  Andrew Lang’s various collections of fairy tales include a handful of such stories; in 1910 Tolkien attended a performance of Peter Pan; and during his college years he studied Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha.

Various commentators have also brought up James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, a series of five novels.  In The Road to Middle-earth Tom Shippey compared the river journeys in The Last of the Mohicans and The Fellowship of the Ring, and he noted further similarities in the unfolding geographies and characters: “…as the travellers move from forest to prairie, like the American pioneers, Aragorn and Éomer for a moment preserve faint traces of ‘the Deerslayer’ and the Sioux…”  The mention of the Sioux seemed to touch on The Prairie, issued in two volumes in 1827.

The 1877 edition of The Prairie featured a long intro by Cooper’s daughter, Susan.  She said her father wrote this book in 1826 during his residence in Paris.  Summarizing the reports of the Stephen Long expedition to Pawneeland just a few years previous, she mentioned in particular a Skidi Pawnee named Pitarisaru, Man Chief.  Her father “had known personally” this Pawnee “when the chief made one of a delegation to Washington.”

Launching his novel, Cooper sent a small group of American emigrants into the Plains.  Three members of the group gathered one night on a “rise,” a grassy “swell” near their encampment.  Accosted by a party of thirty Sioux horsemen, the Americans hid in the grass as the Sioux rode past them.  But the Sioux felt suspicious and dismounted and searched, and one American jumped up and they were all taken captive, surrounded by the dismounted Sioux party.  When the Sioux pretended to be Pawnees, the “old trapper” Natty Bumppo recognized them as “burnt wood Teton” Sioux.  Stealing the livestock of the emigrant party, the “rude and violent” Sioux warriors vanished back into the grasslands.  Cooper was harsh; these Sioux were “like so many treacherous serpents stealing on their prey.”

Many chapters down the road, the Americans encounter a rather noble Skidi Pawnee.  Hard Heart is “a warrior of fine stature and admirable proportions.”  In “his countenance” we see “all the gravity, the dignity, and… the terror of his profession.”  Hard Heart’s “lineaments were strikingly noble and nearly approaching to Roman…”  He wears leggings fringed with human scalps and he bears “an ashen lance” and a shield and a “short hickory bow” and quiver.  Hard Heart becomes a prominent character in the second half of the book.  And at the end, we find Hard Heart present at the death of Natty Bumppo.  Cooper buries him in Pawneeland beneath an oak in a grave “carefully watched to the present hour by the Pawnees of the Loup…”

When Pitarisaru visited the United States with a Pawnee delegation in 1821-1822, he made quite an impression on Cooper.  In one 1827 letter Cooper wrote that he modeled Hard Heart on Pitarisaru.  And in fact, Pitarisaru was treated as a heroic celebrity as he toured the young cities of the United States.  Three portraits showed him wearing a pákstaarukawiirat, a feather headdress – this was the first appearance in the American imagination of this iconic headwear.  It is fair to say that the very heart of the racial stereotype of the noble Plains Indian was born from American fascination with Pitarisaru.

Charles Bird King, “Petalesharro,” 1822

One afternoon long ago I sat down with one of my uncles, a member of the Knife Chief family.  According to their family oral traditions, Pitarisaru had as many as five siblings, and the numerous members of that family today are descended from one brother of Pitarisaru.  My research showed that this family ancestor died in 1888, just a few years before the birth of JRR Tolkien.

I don’t know whether Tolkien read Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales.  Some commentators seem to assume that he did, and there may be good evidence somewhere.  But I haven’t seen it.  My research does affirm the fact that Tolkien made use of Skidi Pawnee oral tradition.  He drew from a 1904 collection called Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee.  In my book, Tolkien in Pawneeland, I show in detail how this was a long-term interest, evident in scattered writings.  If a connection to Cooper could be established, it would help to explain Tolkien’s lifelong use of Skidi Pawnee tradition.

Tolkien most likely encountered the 1904 Skidi collection through his interest in mythology and the publications of the British folklore community.  But if he read Cooper’s novels, this could have motivated him to seek out the Pawnee stories.  When Tolkien sat down to write the chapter that eventually became “The Riders of Rohan,” a faint recollection of The Prairie could easily have seeped into the tale.  It is worth noting that he wrote this chapter just a year or so before reminiscing about his love of “Red Indian” stories in 1943.

The arguable connections are interesting but thin.  In Tolkien’s first draft, his three adventurers sit “upon a green bank” as a party of mounted Rohiroth ride past.  When Trotter rises from the grass, the Riders surround him and his two companions.  This does evoke The Prairie and the three Americans hidden on a grassy elevation as the Sioux gallop past.  Tolkien’s final version has the three companions descending to the foot of their green hill as the Rohirrim approach.  It is difficult to determine whether Tolkien intended any deliberate homage to Cooper in this moment.  It is certainly possible.

The 1877 edition of The Prairie was published in England by Riverside Press at Cambridge, and as I mention above, Susan Fenimore Cooper included an introduction summarizing the Long expedition papers on the Pawnees.  She made mention of the Sioux doing battle with “the Kite Indians of the Black Mountains…”  Tolkien’s notes for “The Riders of Rohan” (The Treason of Isengard, p. 389; also see 177, 282, 311) made mention of just such a mountain range: “They see Black Mountains, 100 miles south.”  In the final draft of the chapter these mountains were replaced by the White Mountains.

Tom Shippey’s assertion that Aragorn and Éomer reflect “faint traces of ‘the Deerslayer’ and the Sioux” has been widely noted in Tolkien scholarship.  This is an odd suggestion, given Cooper’s extremely negative portrayal of the Sioux in The Prairie.  Shippey meant to suggest that Tolkien set in Éomer a dash of what he considered to be primitive savagery – “nomad ferocity” as he called it.  Éomer can certainly be seen as a warrior-noble of the grasslands.  But to the extent that we may hear any “faint traces” of racial Indian imagery in Éomer, it would seem most appropriate to look for a silhouette of heroic Hard Heart shimmering around a similarly heroic Éomer.

The weaving together of diverse elements marks Tolkien’s preferred artistic method – as in this possible integration of Anglo-Saxon cultural features with subtle details drawn from Cooper’s Pawnee prairies.  Whatever we might make of the few overlapping elements, the limited range of comparative elements in this case makes it difficult to form conclusive opinions about what Tolkien had in mind as he crafted Rohan and Éomer.

Cooper’s Hard Heart and Tolkien’s Éomer do stand forth as comparable mythic figures – mostly because they both gallop out of the grasslands of world-famous epic novels.  The existence of a few modest narrative parallels indicates that closer comparative scrutiny of Cooper / Tolkien might well yield more shared elements and better definition.  For now, the most that can be said is that we can indeed hear a few distant echoes between the fantasy grasslands of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and the fictional prairies of Cooper’s Pawneeland.

David Anderson (Skidi), “His Heart Weeps,” 2012, a portrait of Pitarisaru on the Colorado grasslands

Mîm and the Moon Medicine

Mîm and the Moon Medicine

Sitting down one day in Britain long ago, JRR Tolkien decided he would stage a minor battle in the First Age of Middle-earth.  This skirmish would occur on a rocky eminence he named Amon Rûdh, Bald Hill.  This hill would also host the new home of his first dwarf, Mîm the Dwarf – a long-languished character from The Book of Lost Tales.  Pondering the various roles Tolkien chose for Mîm, we glimpse mysterious and unexpected truths about the making of Middle-earth – about both the original version of that world, and about Tolkien’s final unfinished visit there.

Mîm the Dwarf first appeared in Tolkien’s legendarium sometime between 1917 and mid-1919.  A brief mention and one swift scene in “Turambar and the Foalókë” brought the dwarf into “the caves of Rodothlim” where he is “an old misshapen dwarf who sat ever on the pile of gold singing black songs of enchantment to himself.”  Tolkien decided that Mîm would take custody of the treasury of Glorund the dragon, recently slain by the magic talking sword of Túrin, son of Úrin.

This version of Mîm can readily be identified as an incarnation of a dwarf named Mime, adapted by Richard Wagner for a role in his epic opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung.  Tolkien became a fan of Norse and Germanic storytelling early in life, studying the same mythological sources consulted by Wagner.  It is remotely possible that he came up with “Mîm” on his own, but in choosing that name, he more likely tipped his hat to Wagner and Mime.  Tolkien’s interest in Wagner at that point is unclear, but he was probably drawn to Mime because the various medieval accounts of dwarfs and smiths hinted at ancient tales told long ago around Germanic fireplaces across northern Europe.

In the wake of World War Two Tolkien decided he did not appreciate being thrust into the same literary light as Wagner.  In a February 1961 letter Tolkien denied that Wagnerian influences had any hand in shaping The Lord of the Rings.  An ever-growing analytical literature has since emerged to question that assertion.  The Mîm / Mime connection has also been noted on occasion, adding to the argument that Tolkien’s engagement with Wagner’s legacy dates back to the early materialization of his Middle-earth legendarium.  But the 1961 letter underscores Tolkien’s frame of mind during the years after publication of The Lord of the Rings.  That is, he had no wish for others to make too much of likenesses between his mythmaking and Wagner’s.

Arthur Rackham, “Siegfried and Mime” 1911

This may help to explain Tolkien’s decision to reshape the tale of Mîm sometime in the years around 1961.  Tolkien must have known of Wagner’s appeal in Nazi Germany, as well as the criticism Wagner received after World War Two for his attitudes toward Jews.  In Leon Stein’s The Racial Thinking of Richard Wagner (1950), for example, we find consideration of the Nibelung dwarf characters as representing “on the authority of Wagner himself, the Jews who having robbed the world of its gold, are determined to dominate it.”

With the issuing in 2007 of the final incarnation of Mîm – in The Children of Húrin – we can see how Tolkien’s new configurations distanced Mîm from Mime.  Now he is not just a dwarf; he is a “Petty-dwarf.”  We find him residing in a secret underground mansion inside a hill new to Middle-earth, Amon Rûdh.  There he has two sons.  They are beset by Túrin’s band of outlaws, and Mîm eventually betrays them to Orcs, “emissaries of Morgoth,” who attack the men.  This Mîm differs noticeably from the original Nibelung-like Mîm.

For the setting of this new tale, we can guess that Tolkien’s imagination could have been sparked by the several thousand ancient hill forts that dot Britain’s hilltops – one researcher has noted the faint silhouette of a hill fort in The Lord of the Rings; another has outlined Tolkien’s experience with the barrows at Berkshire Downs.  I am unaware of any research that examines Amon Rûdh for any arguable echoes of an actual site in Britain.  But if Tolkien had in mind hill forts, Amon Rûdh doesn’t much resemble such places – it is at best a fantasy version of a hill fort.

Tolkien could have adapted the term “Rûdh” from Irish dye traditions.  In Eugene O’Curry’s On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish (1873) we find an interesting note: “In order to dye the same ‘rimed’ wool of a splendid crimson red, they cultivated a plant in ancient Erinn which they called Rudh and Roidh; but as the plant is not now known in the country, I cannot designate it by any more intelligible name.”  Tolkien’s rûdh was intended to mean “bald” but on the bare summit of the hill we find in bloom “the red seregon that mantled the stone.”  This flower can be found nowhere else in Middle-earth; it seems to have been invented for Amon Rûdh.

With this possibility in mind, we might look for some further connection to ancient Ireland.   In an 1842 publication of the Dublin Archaeological Society, for example, we find reference to “Clanna Rudhraighe” as associated with “Eamhain Macha, the name of their ancient palace…”  This publication concerns the Battle of Magh Rath, and in a paper published in 1856, JW Hanna postulated that this battle occurred near Crown Rath, where we find “a mass of solid rock” and the “debris of a ‘King’s House.’”  To make use of such materials, Tolkien would have had to mine assorted texts – none of which seem to have contained a convenient clustering of elements that then reappeared at Amon Rûdh.  Tolkien did in fact weave together diverse materials to create his Middle-earth legendarium, but it is not ideal to suggest that he selectively extracted widely scattered obscure details to produce a given narrative setting.

There is an identifiable candidate for the raw material that could have given rise to the Petty-dwarf mansion at Amon Rûdh.  During the late 1920s Tolkien prepared a short contribution to a report on an archaeological site at Lydney, Gloucestershire.  This was a Roman temple complex with an adjacent hill fort overlooking the River Severn, and it had an ancient name: Dwarf’s Hill.  The two hills are very different, but decades later Tolkien could have taken inspiration to build his own version of a Dwarf’s Hill.

These various postulated contexts are interesting, but there is more to consider.  In 2013 and this year I issued Tolkien in Pawneeland, a book showing that from circa 1914 to 1942 Tolkien made occasional use of a 1904 collection of Pawnee stories.  I describe in detail clusters of parallel textual elements shared between specific narratives in George Dorsey’s Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee and specific texts authored by Tolkien.  This technique of comparative textual analysis is a typical procedure in Tolkien studies, and following this analysis, my major findings touch on shared elements that are substantial and unusual.  I think it is clear that Tolkien did consult this Pawnee publication.  More recently, reading The Children of Húrin, I realized there were indications that in the course of reconstituting Mîm the Dwarf, Tolkien drew on another story in that Pawnee collection.  This particular visit to Pawneeland may have been motivated by a wish to use exotic source-material to counter a comparison to Wagner, shifting Mîm away from Mime.

In “The Moon Medicine,” told sometime before 1904 by a Skidi Pawnee priest named Roaming Scout, a war expedition traveled to a “high hill” called Pawnee Rock.  As Roaming Scout described it: “There was only one path up to it, and the other side was rough and rugged; on the north there was a steep bank and a creek running by.”  Tolkien’s Amon Rûdh rose above “a broken land” and its “steep grey head was bare.”  Only Mîm and his sons knew the single path up the “steep slopes” to “a bare flattened top”; and on the north side was “a shelf,” and “sheer cliffs” dropped away east and west.  But on the north side lay a path to a place “fed by a spring[.]”  Both sets of descriptions focus on a stony hill accessible from one side only, with an associated water source.

Tolkien has one character ask about the bleak sight of the looming hill, “Do men hide on a hill-top?”  The answer is yes; in each story a wandering party of warriors ultimately takes refuge on a prominent stony hill.  The Pawnee expedition becomes trapped, seeking refuge at the summit of their hill, and Túrin’s company of outlaws also finds a safe haven – both Pawnee Rock and Amon Rûdh prove quite suitable for companies of men.

Scouts figure in both narratives.  In the Pawnee story there are “scouts” who “lay upon the high hills” and observe the coming of enemies.  And they are observed by enemy scouts who “went back and reported” that the Pawnees had been found.  In Tolkien’s story Morgoth sends “his most skilled scouts” to lurk about, spying on Amon Rûdh.

Both Roaming Scout and Tolkien report on similar furtive negotiations.  In the Pawnee story two men descend from the hilltop to negotiate in secret with the enemy; in Tolkien’s story Mîm and his son descend from Amon Rûdh to make a secret deal with “the servants of Morgoth.”

In the Pawnee story a key development occurs when the leader of the expedition receives magical help from Spider Woman – help that enables their escape from Pawnee Rock.  When Mîm is asked about how the men “shall go out” and “how shall we return” he makes an interesting observation: “Do you fear that you have followed a spider to the heart of his web?”  He next offers to serve as a guide to the men, just as Spider Woman provides guidance to the Pawnees on how to safely escape their rocky haven.

Spider Woman helps the Pawnee company by pointing out to the leader “a great rock that is loose” – this great rock plays an important role in the story.  In Middle-earth, when Túrin’s trapped outlaws do battle with Orcs, a few retreat “to the centre of the summit, where there was a standing stone” and there they make their last stand.  The Pawnee standing stone proves very useful, but Tolkien’s British version feels unfinished as a narrative element, a merely sketched-in idea.

In the aftermath of the Orc battle, Mîm “ran to the brink of the cliff and disappeared: he fled down a steep and difficult goat’s path…”  And in the Pawnee story, “a little fellow who was errand man for them rose up and ran down the hill.”  The fates of these variously “Petty” and “little” fellows differ, but both cases proceed down similar paths.  As acts of desperation, a dwarf and a little fellow both run down their separate paths from similar hilltops.

Many major differences exist between the two stories, but the range of shared features is notable.  Given the existence of these parallels, what are we to make of them?  To begin, Tolkien did not retell the Pawnee story; he did not cut and paste sentences; he had no evident intention to cultivate in his audience any sense of appreciation for Pawnee tales.  For that matter, as far as I know, he never mentioned any kind of literary inspiration for his evolving tale of Mîm the Dwarf – even Wagner failed to get any kind of nod from Tolkien.

In the chronicles of human history there have surely been many battles on many remote hilltops.  Tolkien had no need to visit far-off Pawneeland for his hilltop massacre.  He had no need to visit any historical battleground in order to create the fighting that occurred on Amon Rûdh.  And yet the strange fact remains.  Tolkien’s depiction of Amon Rûdh features elements that look borrowed from a Pawnee story.  These elements are mutually clustered – meaning that in Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee they can be found in one story over the space of about four pages; these details reappear together in two sequential chapters in The Children of Húrin.

It is possible that some or all of these shared traits are pure coincidence.  In this kind of textual analysis, coincidence can never be completely ruled out.  But its explanatory authority diminishes as the list of parallels grows; the interpretive power of coincidence withers when shared materials are unusual.  We can evaluate the likenesses and contrasts of the compared traits; we can judge whether the comparisons are fairly drawn or stretched beyond reason.  In this case, we must ponder a diverse list of traits: stony hills in remote lands with access up one side only; wandering warriors who occupy that hill; scouts sending in reports; enemies surrounding the hill; references to spiders who act to guide men; two people conducting secret talks; great stones upon the hilltops; and smallish people running down the hill in distress.

Some of these points of convergence do not seem particularly unique – like the roaming warriors occupying a hilltop, enemies surrounding that hill, and the mention of scouts.  As war stories, we might reasonably expect to see certain kinds of overlap.  The accumulation of weak parallels may draw notice, but the challenge is to explain the spectrum of more unique conjunctions.  These include the comparable nature of the two stony almost inaccessible hills, the deployment of spider imagery, the two-member teams of clandestine negotiators, the standing stones, and the small individuals running off their hills in concert.

These diverse coexisting circumstances do not feel like elements that one would commonly expect to see repeated in war stories.  We might well find them all randomly scattered among war stories worldwide, but what should really draw our interest are instances where a group of shared features appear in a more concentrated context, as with “The Moon Medicine.”  It is plainly evident that this is a meaningful clustering of unusual features, quite remarkable for two stories that are not supposed to have any connection.

In this case, given the range of congruent elements, the idea of coincidence is a difficult proposition to argue.  It is indeed fair to conclude that a Pawnee source connection is more than just possible; deliberate borrowing offers a better explanation than a model of independent unrelated invention.  This view is strengthened by another factor.  In Tolkien in Pawneeland I explore other examples of similarly parallel constructions – that is, we find various components abstracted from a single Pawnee narrative and dropped into a single Tolkien story or poem.  These borrowings happened between circa 1914 and circa 1942.

Tolkien’s periodic interest in Pawnee mythological tradition is clear enough.  In the present example, the evidence discourages the likelihood of incidental similarity.  In the other circumstances I describe in my book, we find much stronger cases with even more detail, unique and convincing.  Pondering this history, I favor a definitive conclusion.  We can feel seriously doubtful about what happened only if we simply can’t accept what happened.

Mîm the Dwarf started off as an arguable incarnation of Mime, a dwarf character in Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung.  Later in life, resenting comparisons to Wagner, Tolkien decided to surround Mîm with a different narrative setting.  To launch this project, he may have given thought to Dwarf’s Hill at Lydney.  The name for his hill could have come from some Irish text mentioning a dye tradition about rudh, a forgotten red flower.  For additional help he turned to a very obscure Pawnee tradition.  The borrowed details can be readily identified as elements from George Dorsey’s Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, a book that enjoyed a brief heyday in Britain during Tolkien’s youth, but which was long forgotten by the 1960s.

Tolkien’s handling of these matters came to a close in a leaf-mould of randomly piled papers.  He never completed the legend of Mîm the Dwarf.  It is a curious tale.  As JRR Tolkien’s first and last dwarf, Mîm traversed the making of Middle-earth – and his journey took him through the heart of Pawneeland.  We can only wonder what Tolkien would have done further with Mîm, had he completed the story.  Peering into the pages of The Children of Húrin, we only see a half-glimpsed hooded shape wandering in a forever unfinished dusk.

My related Pawneeland essay: “The Moon Magic

My related essay at The Wandering Company: “The Spider’s Springs


JRR Tolkien and Race

JRR Tolkien and Race

In August 1938 a mysterious stranger stopped in at the Prancing Pony at Bree.  A few months later Tolkien sat down to ponder this visitor.  He experimented with making the man “dark-eyed,” but he soon crossed that out and inserted “squint-eyed southerner.”  This marked the appearance of something new in Middle-earth.  Tolkien had made a decision to transform his evil orcs into something “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.”  They would become unlovely creatures derived from British racial tradition.

Admirers of the tales of JRR Tolkien have long felt justified in dismissing those who see problematic signaling on race in The Lord of the Rings.  Scholars have countered charges of bigotry with a 1938 letter in which Tolkien rejected “the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.”  And Tolkien fandom often underscores the uplifting moral tones of the novel – we are assured by scholars and fans alike that Tolkien was not racist.

But since the issue of race comes up with such regularity, it seems useful to ask a few questions.  What did the culture of race look like in Tolkien’s social world?  Does that culture show up in Middle-earth?  What were Tolkien’s personal attitudes on race?  Do those attitudes show up in his mythmaking?  These questions deserve to matter.  The spirit of community flows best, in my view, from open dialogue about the things that divide us and unite us.

The production of the real world traditions of race in Tolkien’s legendarium is the topic of five new essays in the second edition of my book, Tolkien in Pawneeland.  These essays together provide a level of detail that is unusual for this topic in Tolkiendom.  There is a slowly growing literature on race, and some of it hints at Tolkien’s social environment.  But since the general consensus treats the issue as a settled matter, there isn’t much depth on the culture of racial belief and practice in Tolkien’s world.

The logic of race mattered to Tolkien.  At first, race played a low-key role in the construction of Middle-earth, helping to sculpt details of social geography rather than giving rise to major narrative landscapes.  For several decades Tolkien had no interest in making racial culture a major fetish of his mythmaking.  But he was not opposed to race as an idea.

On the eve of World War Two this changed.  He now launched into projects designed to reproduce various essences of racial ideology in Middle-earth.  Subtle colorations of racial dynamics entered his Balrogs; the legacies of race helped to shape his Ringwraiths; and he painted race with bold flourishes into his monstrous orcs.

Whether or not my inquiries into race and Tolkien prove controversial, these particular points do not seem debatable in any substantive way.  The real challenge is to make sense of what this means for us today.  To seek to understand Tolkien is to take aim at understanding better what we make of race in our lives.  Such introspective realizations will help us to ponder the future of race in the world.

I have devoted much space in Tolkien in Pawneeland to the orcs of Middle-earth.  They first appeared in The Book of Lost Tales as fantasy soldiers in service to evil Melko.  By early 1939 Tolkien had launched into a new project to colorize these creatures with racial imagery, and in 1942 his new fully racialized orcs sprang onto the pages of The Lord of the Rings.  He envisioned his new orcs as slant-eyed creatures, as “degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.”


Various efforts have been mounted to protect Tolkien from his racialized orcs.  It is widely asserted among medievalists, for example, that his literary usages of race were merely meant to innocently mimic faux-medieval cultural texturing.  The absence of in-depth studies on the context of Tolkien’s position in 20th century British racial culture has encouraged many to believe that there is nothing to study and such research would be pointless.  Respectful affection for Tolkien’s worldbuilding and scholarship also helps to deflect meaningful consideration of his racial usages.

Humphrey Carpenter’s 1977 authorized biography brought forth the distaste of Tolkien’s mother toward South African Boer “attitudes” and Tolkien’s revulsion toward Nazi Germany.  Carpenter also pondered the circumstance that inspired Tolkien to describe his orc-making as modeling “Mongol-types” – this came with his input on a film proposal in 1958.  But this authorized biography omitted mention of Mongol-type orcs.  Likewise, during the late 1990s and early 2000s several commentaries touched on Tolkien and race but also neglected to mention the infamous 1958 comment about orcs as degraded Mongol-types.

In a wonderfully detailed 2006 compendium Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond published an authoritative analysis that affirmed the consensus view of Tolkien’s racial orcs.  Concluding that Tolkien intended to produce fantasy monsters in his orcs, they put forward some very awkward speculation: “If he were writing today, at a time of greater appreciation (or at least discussion) of diversity and racial sensitivity, he might well have chosen a more fantastic description which could not be related to any actual people.”  One could just as readily speculate otherwise.  But Scull and Hammond seem to prefer that we should look upon Tolkien’s racialized orcs with a forgiving eye, and we should not indulge too much worry about them.

In 2007 Michael Drout edited a massive collection of essays that included various contributions touching on race.  In one essay Tom Shippey dismissed the charge that Tolkien can be “accused of ‘racism’” partly on the grounds that Tolkien never used the word “in the modern sense used by official beauracracies (Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, etc).”  Shippey somehow overlooked Tolkien’s infamous comment about his orcs as “Mongol-types.”  It is also surprising that in this same volume three entries on “Race and Ethnicity in Tolkien’s Works,” “Race in Tolkien Films,” and “Racism, Charges of” all somehow overlooked mention of Tolkien’s Mongol-type orcs.

The project to officially excuse Tolkien’s notorious use of race became established as a tenet of the Tolkien community with the 2010 publication of Dimitra Fimi’s award-winning Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits.  Fimi prepared a surprisingly superficial consideration of Tolkien’s racialized orcs.  She outlined and then mysteriously set aside the anti-racism message of one 1935 book in order to conclude that racism “as a construct deserving of ideological questioning is a later construct and accusing Tolkien of racism would decontextualize his writings from their historical period…”

But the historical context is not ambiguous.  Tolkien chose to make use of a racial stereotype.  Through the course of World War Two he connected his Middle-earth fantasy orcs to a real world racial Asian stereotype – and he focused on odious qualities of that racial imagery to transform his orcs from fantasy soldiery of evil into degenerate racialized soldiery of evil.  This exploitation of a racist Asian stereotype is difficult to reconcile with the 1938 letter in which Tolkien denounced “the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.”

In his professional life, when it came to the racial treatment of Jews and the racialist programs of Nazi Germany, Tolkien’s thinking was guided by plenty of sensitivity for applicable moral standards of his day – standards articulated by peers who rejected racism and challenged race itself.  He chose to disregard those same standards in order to borrow openly from a demeaning racial stereotype.

Even while pardoning Tolkien from blame as a man of his times, Dimitra Fimi noted that it was “after World War II that a greater awareness of racial offensiveness was expressed in Britain…”  But clear evidence of academic anti-racism in Britain and the United States can be traced through the entire period of the writing of The Lord of the Rings – and the book appeared in print well after the end of World War Two.  Fimi acknowledged that Tolkien was likely to have been aware of a book by Julian Huxley and Alfred Haddon, We Europeans: A Survey of ‘Racial’ Problems.  This was a major 1935 publication that helped to shape academic thinking about race.  My research amplifies the evidence pointing to Tolkien’s awareness of this book.

It is also notable that while Dimitra Fimi excused Tolkien’s racial usages in her 2010 book, just a few years later in 2015 she sounded a slightly different note about Tolkien’s attitudes during his college years.  This appeared in a collection of short essays by thirty-three professors who teach Tolkien.  There I found two other contributors who brought up their methods for teaching on the topic of race – neither made mention of Mongol-type orcs.  Up to now, resources for teaching on the topic of Tolkien and race have been sparse; the extant literature has been definitively slanted toward minimizing the issues that matter.


For those who would teach critical thinking about Tolkien’s legacy as a writer, it should be useful to have at hand in-depth critical analyses of the kind I have prepared in the second edition of Tolkien in Pawneeland.  True enough, since the essays on race in my book shed light on Tolkien’s attitudes, some readers may choose to treat this as an opportunity to judge whether he can be fairly labeled as a racist.

In my view, examination of Tolkien’s world and his choices gives us a necessary awareness of our own choices and challenges.  He glimpsed the problem with race and even espoused anti-race idealism – he then went on to manufacture his monsters from the ingredients of racial imagery.  It is difficult to understand how those monsters align with anti-race idealism.

Examining what Tolkien did in the world, perhaps we can better judge for ourselves what we ought to do next.  When we admire various qualities of Middle-earth, and when we bond with others through our appreciation of Tolkien the writer, we must add that his handling of race does matter.  This is important in a world in which racial divisions have more opportunity than ever to surge into the public square.

The idea of community must always serve to integrate people with diverse worldviews and backgrounds.  To accomplish that purpose, we must have options for truly meaningful dialogue on the meanings of race.  For this reason, a great purpose is served by making sure that the dehumanizing machinery of race gets confronted in the literature that matters to us.  Whatever the history of race has given us, whatever JRR Tolkien passed along to us in his writings, we need to know what happened.  We need the kind of analytical insights that are now available in Tolkien in Pawneeland.