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.