An issue of Race and Class in the Works of J. R. R. Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien's great tale about the
One Ring has recently enjoyed a revival, thanks to the blockbuster movies
directed by Peter Jackson and released 2001-2003. Ever since it was published,
The Lord of the Rings has attracted faithful
followers, and since the breakthrough in popularity in the late 1960's, the
book has become part of the canon of worldwide popular culture.
of the Rings has been denounced as carrying a black-and-white fairytale
moral, with forces of Good (light, freedom, beauty) fighting Forces of Evil
(darkness, tyranny, ugliness). Many writers argue that the battle between
the forces of Good and Evil is a reflection of Tolkien's strong Christian beliefs. Others
see in the battle between Light and Darkness a reflection of the never-ending
struggle between order and chaos in Old Norse mythology. The problem of the
seeming dualistic struggle in Tolkien's works has been studied to a great
extent. My intention in this study is to show the origins and purpose of the
"other" races, primarily the incurably evil Orcs, in Tolkien's mythology,
both within a hermeneutic study of his texts, and within a wider scope including
previous mythological and literary references and sources of inspiration.
The dualistic contrasts
between light and darkness, or black and white, are frequently utilized symbols
not only in fantasy literature. The contributors to the anthology Into
Darkness Peering -- Race and colour in the Fantastic bring up a plethora
of issues not only concerning race, difference and the Other in fantasy, science
fiction and horror literature, but also the writer's struggle to overcome
the conventional pairing of good & light, right & white versus evil
& darkness, wrong & black. These binary
oppositions range from the general (good vs. evil) to the more culturally
bound (white vs. black). In the poststructuralist school of literary criticism,
one of the terms in such a pair always functions as the privileged one -- it
stands for positive, desirable values. Jacques Derrida coined the term deconstruction
for the way of reading a text with the purpose of exposing seemingly "natural"
binary oppositions. Just as some preferences of privileged terms seem reasonable
(for example, preferring truth before falsehood), other binary oppositions
have had harmful repercussions in history (for example, preferring white over
black, or preferring the masculine over the feminine). And yet, the binary
oppositions are vital tools in our language. Without them, we would have severe
difficulties in communicating abstract ideas. The world of language is in
Jacques Lacan's term symbolic --
the psychological stage we enter as we grow up and learn to communicate with
fellow humans. In this process, our identity is constructed in an ongoing
mirroring process with others. To know who "we" are, we must learn who the
"Others" are. Because society is in a constant historical and cultural change,
the mirror images of ourselves that we perceive are constantly altered, and
we need to redefine ourselves perpetually.
Lacan's thesis has been utilized in post-colonial studies to bring
light on the mechanics of the relationship between coloniser and colonised
-- both the Other of each other.
The image of the other
has been explored at length in late 20th century literary criticism.
The schools of post-colonialism and post-structuralism have exposed aspects
of literature that earlier critics have been unwilling or unmotivated to explore.
However, the main focus has rested on the so-called mainstream literature,
although certain genres such as the vampire myth or the orientalist novel
have been in the spotlight. What about fantasy literature, then? As a genre
with boundaries only defined by the human imagination, it should have been
the first scene for literary attempts to break away from conventions in fiction.
The depiction of race and colour in fantasy literature (including science
fiction and horror) is therefore of much interest for a literature critic
with post-colonialist or post-structuralist ambitions. What images does the
writer create to shape a world that is assumed to be different from ours?
In what ways do issues of race serve as narrative elements, either as points
of identification or as the contrasted "Other"?
This paper is divided
into three chapters of analysis and a concluding chapter of summary. The first
analytical chapter, The Creation of
the Orc (3.1), deals with Tolkien's creative work and the history of the
enemy images in his texts. I will look for sources of inspiration in myth
and literature, and trace the development of the Orcs from the first concept
of soulless automatons to corrupted Elves and eventually Men. In this chapter,
the concept of the Other will be touched upon as I look for the reasons behind
the narrative purposes of enemy characters such as the Orcs. Tolkien's subcreation
has been commonly compared with Norse and Celtic mythology, and critics have
usually looked for his source of inspiration in the Edda and in the Anglo-Saxon
texts that he studied. However, the image of the faceless and subhuman armies of an ultimate evil
leans on historical sources rather than mythological, I argue.
Simultaneously, the Orcs
play an important role in Tolkien's own mythology, which should not be overlooked.
It is oversimplifying to say that they exist in The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien was
influenced by the all-permeating pattern of racism and social hierarchies
that were taken for granted in his day and age. Tolkien had his own well-developed
theory about the pre-Christian Norse mythology and the role of the evil Other
therein. The monsters are necessary in the hero's struggle, and the less human
those monsters appear, the more their symbolical value increases. The battle
against the monster is nothing short of a parable of Man's existence, Tolkien
argued in his own famous article about Beowulf and the purpose of the monsters.
I will analyze this further in the second analytical chapter, The
Other in Tolkien's Mythology.
In the third analytical
chapter the analytical scope is widened as I consider The Purpose of the
Orc in the light of historical and cultural influences. Furthermore, the
image of the inimical Other as subhuman and degenerated is an important clue
to the fact that this image is borrowed rather from the mythology of 19th
century nationalism than from ancient Norse mythology. Many critics have overlooked the
fact that Tolkien's original intent was to create a mythology for England,
and have instead concentrated on analyzing Middle-earth as a self-contained
secondary creation (using Tolkien's own terminology). The vision of great threatening armies suddenly appearing from the
East was very vivid to the Victorian eye, but was hardly part of the ancient
Norse mythology. As a child of Victorian times, Tolkien was undoubtedly influenced
by these images from an early age, especially due to his early interest in
philology and culture. This was of course not his only source of literary
inspiration. Although he claimed to be less interested in modern literature,
he certainly knew his contemporary writers as well as the classics that he
had been brought up with.
The results are summarized
in the fourth chapter, providing a Conclusion. Hoever, before we move
on, I will briefly present the concept of "the Other" as it has been used
by previous scholars and literary critics of the fantasy genre.
The Other in Fantastic Literature
For millions of readers,
Tolkien's work has provided a welcome escape to another world, a realm full
of adventure, magic and heroic deeds. There is an obvious streak of longing
in The Lord of the Rings, which echoes the reader's longing for the fellowship's
company. The characters within the novel yearn for faraway places (Sam, for
example, who wishes to see an oliphaunt, or Legolas, who is touched by the
sound of the seagulls and begins to long for the open sea). The novel depicts
an age of miracle, incarnated in the Elves and Wizards, which will soon pass
-- the Elves are leaving Middle-earth, and the Wizards will either perish in
the battles, or leave the world of the living as well. And even in that age
of wonders, the protagonists long for the olden days of greater glory. Thus
the myth contains the notion that escape is ultimately impossible, and that
each time must meet its due end.
What is the reader longing
to escape from? What has Tolkien chosen to symbolise the things that his characters
wish to escape within the myth? This, too, is contained within the novel.
The changes that the evil forces bring to Middle-earth are damaging to nature
and disrupting the peace and order in the existing societies. Evil is expressed
through characteristics that are easy to recognise and to loathe, such as
abuse of power, cruelty, greed and so on. These qualities have no connection
to any particular colour or look in real life; in the world of mythology,
however, such external symbols play a central role in conveying the message
of the story. Evil needs visual characteristics as well. As will be shown,
these visual signs of negative otherness cannot be freely invented, out of
the blue; to make the reader recognise Otherness, it is necessary to evoke
references to the reader's cultural background. A world of imagination cannot
be comprehended unless we have some recognisable clues that help us imagine
it. Elisabeth Anne Leonard, editor of Into
Darkness Peering, writes:
While the fantastic would not at first
seem to be part of and could even be considered an escape from either the
"real world" or history and tradition, such is not the case. What we do for
pleasure is very much a part of our existence, and our means of escape reveal
much about what we escape from.
To be fair, Tolkien's
work is not strictly dualistic with the super-good fighting the super-evil.
Saruman the White becomes a traitor.
Boromir, technically one of the good characters, tries to take the One Ring
from Frodo, thus putting the whole expedition in peril. Sam spares a thought
for a dead enemy soldier of the dark-skinned Haradrim, thus briefly realising
the universality of human suffering. However, Elisabeth Anne Leonard points
out that "it is a moment easily lost amid images of Gandalf in white on Shadowfax
and the dark shapes of the Nazgūl; dark-skinned Orcs are part of Tolkien's
legacy". Tolkien has created an image of evil that is also an image
of the feared Other; an image that can take many shapes, and usually disguises
another human being.
For early 20th
century intellectuals, both writers and academic scholars, the notion of the
uncultured masses forcing their standards and base ideals on a new democratic
society was a scarecrow of the near future. Even the most progressive of the
intelligentsia despaired at the thought of the degeneration of taste and education
that would follow such a takeover of values. It was bad enough for an idealistic
modernist to realize that the so-called masses rarely measured up to his or
her image of the average man; consider the continuous cultural collisions
that a late Romantic, Catholic and conservative Oxford professor had to go
through every single day. If the self-image is of a distinguished individual,
the contrast to the Other -- a polar opposite -- must be the greater. The opposite
of an individual is the faceless mob. Not only is this faceless mob associated to other ethnic groups
encountered abroad under influence of colonialism, it is also an Other by
social class. An Other might furthermore be someone who crosses borders between
"safe" categories, such as human-animal, male-female, or good-evil. The subhuman
is neither fully human nor a complete animal, and because it cannot be cathegorised
as either, the sum becomes less than the parts; it is a grotesque.
One main point of interest
in my analysis of the Other in The Lord
of the Rings is how this depiction of the Other is accomplished by Tolkien.
There are a few basic qualities that can be deemed as "other". The process
of othering in fantasy literature
often takes "the easy way out" by deploying tropes that we already know from
the "real world". The barbaric but luxurious Calormenes in C. S. Lewis's Narnia
books are the spitting image of the Saracens of Victorian historical novels.
If the reader is a white English child in the 1950's, the dark-skinned, heathen
Calormene, who treats animals badly and sells children as slaves, could be
assumed to excite the imagination of the child as a complete Other. In Tolkien's world, the other is
similarly created by utilising tropes and formulas well known from European
history. I have chosen three categories above others as examples
of how othering is accomplished in Tolkien's writing.
Gender. This is only partially applicable to The Lord of the Rings, since the narrative
is male-dominated. However, as we shall see, there is a distinction between
"good" masculinity and "bad" masculinity.
Race. The emphasizing of the most visually noticeable characteristics
of a human being, the skin colour and other physical features, are an age-old
tool of Othering. The Devil has been depicted or described as red, white or
black, depending on which culture's mythology he has appeared in. Many cultures
have nourished the assumption that inner qualities are reflected in physical
features. Therefore, beauty has not surprisingly become a sign of goodness,
and ugliness the logical opposite. Combine these two -- the racial other and
the physically unappealing -- and the negative Other begins to take shape.The
physically imperfect is in effect spiritually imperfect as well. Many story
villains have been crippled or maimed in some way, to mark their lack of morales
or ethics (for example some famous pirates such as Captain Hook from J. M.
Barrie's Peter Pan and Long John
Silver from R. L. Stevenson's Treasure
Island). It is important to remember
that the modern definition of the word "race" refers exclusively to the biological
differences that might be found in different human populations, and has become
largerly obsolete. However, during the 19th and the earlier half
of the 20th century, race was also used to explain cultural difference
-- what we today might call "ethnicity".
Language/Culture. As a sign of difference where no
physical Othering can be made, language is a way of establishing borders --
or levelling them. It separates classes in society, and the dominant ethnic
group from another. But if someone makes the right language his own, he also
gets access to the privileges that come with the mastery of a particular language.
It is not as rigid a signifier as gender or race. For example, in George Bernard
Shaw's play Pygmalion the heroine
Eliza manages to learn peferct upper-class English, thus shedding her native
dialect and entering a "world of social harmony based on proper phonetics",
that is "'filling up the deepest gulf that separates class from class and
soul from soul'", in the words of her mentor Henry Higgins.
I will apply these examples of Othering to the example
of the enemy creatures called Orcs in The
Lord of the Rings.