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Racism in Tolkien's Works

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"For years, Tolkien scholars have waged a fight on two fronts: against an academic establishment that for the most part refused to take the author's work seriously, and against white supremacists who have tried to claim the professor as one of their own."
― David Ibata, Chicago Tribune[1]
Easterlings by John Howe.

Fans and critics of Tolkien's works have observed several ambiguously Racist and race-based elements; these go further into stereotyping or symbolism of good versus evil in the Tolkien's legendarium. As early as the first edition of the Lord of the Rings this topic was discussed, including by C.S. Lewis who wrote that people who dislike a clear demarcation of good and evil "imagine they have seen a rigid demarcation between black and white people."

Tolkien's legendarium also makes many references to topics related by extension to racialism, such as eugenics, bloodlines, and (by extension) even the superiority of heredity over other authorities.

Some of these accusations of racism may be partially explained by a wider reading of Tolkien's works or a deeper thematic analysis, and others are more difficult to dismiss. In Tolkien's extensive letters one can find both comments that can be interpreted as racism as well as defense against the accusations.

Christine Chism mentions the issue of racism in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, where she distinguishes accusations as falling into three categories: intentional racism, unconscious Eurocentric bias, and an evolution from latent racism in Tolkien's early work to a conscious rejection of racist tendencies in his late work.

In the Foreword to the revised edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien cautioned strongly against viewing it as an allegory, saying that he disliked allegory himself. Furthermore, according to his own claims, Tolkien denounced Hitler, Nazi beliefs, "race-doctrine" and apartheid and praised the Jews, calling them a "gifted people" (see below).

The global popularity of The Lord of the Rings (film series) has done much to perpetuate popular interest in, as well as criticism of, Tolkien's writing.




The mostly white Free People's of Middle-Earth doing battle with the hordes of beast-like orcs is seen by some as an indication of racism.

Of the orcs, the Uruk-Hai are described as "black"[2] and a smaller orc, a tracker, is described as "black-skinned".[3] All orcs are often described as "slant-eyed" and the Uruk-Hai at least refer to the Rohhirim as 'white skins.' In one of his letters, Tolkien described 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."(Letter 210)

While Tolkien's statement comparing Orcs to the "Mongol-types" is undoubtedly insensitive given today's standards, he does put a disclaimer, "(to Europeans,)" before "least lovely", at least recognizing Western cultural bias and also points out that they were "degraded and repulsive versions" of "Mongol-types", not actual "Mongol-types". It is worth noting that some Orcs use crooked or bent swords (Tolkien also uses the term scimitar, which are historically associated with the Middle-East).

Orcs however, are not men. Unlike the wicked men who serve the Enemy, who might have been enslaved or beguiled, orcs are portrayed as irredeemably evil, or at least having a redemption outside the scope of the narrative. The origin of orcs is not clear, but they may be products of Morgoth's sorcery, or the descendants of tortured and ruined elves. Regardless of their origins they are not presented as a natural race, indeed there is no mention of orc women, children, villages, or culture. Perhaps inspired by his Roman Catholicism, Tolkien's orcs may have more in common with demonic armies than foreign ones [1].

Light vs. Dark

Some critics have declared that there is racism in Tolkien's works through his use of the words such as "light" and "white" vs. "dark" or "black". In 2002, John Yatt in The Guardian wrote: "White men are good, 'dark' men are bad, orcs are worst of all."[4]. Other critics such as Tom Shippey and Michael D.C. Drout disagree with such clear-cut generalizations of Tolkien's "white" and "dark" men into good and bad.

The whole of Tolkien's Legendarium contains a conflict between literal light (The Trees, the Silmarils) and darkness (the literal absence of light). Morgoth's standard was "sable unblazoned" (that is, plain black). "Mordor" means "black land" in Sindarin. This ongoing clash may be interpreted as containing racial symbolism of light skinned versus dark skinned peoples, although Eol, father of Maeglin was known as the Dark Elf, and the Moriquendi were called the Elves of Darkness, although both these terms refer to remaining outside the light of the two trees, not to skin tone. The Black Númenóreans are likewise named because of the color of their allegiance to Sauron and their heraldry, not their skin tone.

But white is not associated only with Good. Saruman the White has the White Hand as his symbol. Similarly black is not only associated with evil as Gondor uses a black standard bearing the White Tree, and the Guards of the Citadel of Minas Tirith wore black chain mail. In The Peoples of Middle-earth, a Númenórean fleet is headed by a boat with black sails. One of the mariners explains to a native of Middle-earth, scared that the black sails indicate doom, that the blackness is in fact a thing of beauty, the night sky of Elbereth (who kindled the stars). Indeed, Tolkien states that one of Morgoth's (literally, the Black Enemy) victories was in associating darkness and night with fear and evil.

Evil Men

One potentially racist element in Middle-Earth is that the majority of the men who serve Sauron are the dark-skinned peoples of the Easterlings and Southrons. They come from the South and East of Middle-Earth, corresponding with Asia and Africa in the loose connection between Middle-Earth geography and that of the real world. The Easterlings are aligned with Morgoth or Sauron with the single exception of Bór. They are described as being of fairly dark skin complexion, swarthy and exceedingly cruel. The Southrons (or Haradrim) are described black-skinned, cruel and evil, and are apparently at least inspired by Indian cultures with traits such as fighting on Mumakil-back.

In some cases, people having the slightest blood relation to enemies, like Freca and Wulf, who are related to the Dunlendings, are presented as evil themselves, as if evilness is hereditary. Some of these are also called "swarthy" (dark). Usually, those whose appearance was 'unpleasant' (Maeglin, Bill Ferny) and disliked by the main protagonists, turn out to be traitors. Bill Ferny is said to be swarthy, and this can be traced to his Dunlending ancestry.

While the Easterling and the Haradrim are dark-skinned people in the service of the Enemy, the Woses are primitive, small, and alien compared to other peoples (their chief Ghan-buri-Ghan only wears a grass skirt) yet they are valuable allies (in The Return of the King). While Tolkien does not mention their skin colour, they were considered monsters by the Rohirrim who hunted them as animals, which the narrative explicitly condemns. However in the First Age they were counted as Edain, or noble Men, and were allies of the Elves.

However, not all enemies are non-white. Noteworthy examples are Saruman, Gríma, Gollum, and at least two of the Nazgûl. Also Lotho Sackville-Baggins and the ruffians are white-skinned characters who ravage and take over the Shire. Indeed, while during the timeframe of Lord of the Rings those enslaved and serving Sauron are darker skinned people from the South and East, during the history of Middle-Earth many of the white races of man and even some Elves were fooled and coerced by the Enemy.

Racism in Middle-earth

Tolkien portrays racism within the "heroic" races as unabashedly negative. Elves and Dwarves distrust each other. Some Elves hunted the Petty-dwarves as animals, as did the Rohirrim to the Woses. The friendship between Legolas and Gimli is portrayed as unusual but commendable, and several scenes illustrate them learning to understand and respect each other's cultural differences. When Gimli takes a strand of Galadriel's hair, he is described as having "look[ed] into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding."

It is notable that there is apparently racism within the ranks of Orcs as the Uruk-hai held themselves as superior to the common Orcs, whom they called snaga (slave).

The point-of-view characters of the book -- the hobbits -- are themselves of a race that is frequently described as being overlooked, under-estimated, and lightly regarded by the other races of Middle-earth, yet they often demonstrate far greater courage and nobility than the races who denigrate them. They are not without prejudice, however, and Gandalf is shown reprimanding Frodo for his comments on Barliman Butterbur.

The Númenóreans of Gondor fell to infighting because of a supposed need for racial purity, especially concerning the ancestry of their king (the Kin-strife), and grew weaker as a result. In this affair, the villain was the pure-blooded Númenórean Castamir while the hero was the half-Númenórean Eldacar.

Dwarves as Jews

Tolkien himself compared Dwarves to Jews:

""The dwarves of course are quite obviously - wouldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.""
― J.R.R. Tolkien[5]

One may interpret this comment in many ways. It should be noted that he only made an explicit connection between the dwarf-language Khuzdul to Semitic languages. In another letter, he makes the same comparison, but this time it is explicitly about both peoples being dispossessed of their lands, forced to wander the world, and adopt the languages of other lands: both were "at once natives and aliens in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue…" (Letter 176)

Throughout the books, Tolkien paints a mostly positive picture of the dwarves (Gimli of course is brave and honourable, and it is stated in one of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings that "few Dwarves ever served the enemy willingly", contrary to the tales of Men) and elsewhere he made explicitly positive statements about the Jewish people.

However, one of the weaknesses of the Dwarves was their greed for gold and other riches, amplified by the Seven Rings. Some see a connection between this and the stereotype of the Jewish usurer. It is also possible to draw a connection between the bearded Dwarves and the beards of Orthodox Jews.

  • Tolkien has divine beings blessing or gifting peoples or persons and their descendants, having thus the concept of the chosen people who differ from others — in Tolkien's case, the Dunedain (literally "Men of the West") of Numenor. It should be also noted that according to Theosophy, Ariosophy and Nazism[6], the Aryan race is supposedly descended from Atlantis.[7]


Tolkien's defenders assert that many criticisms of racism and elitism leveled at The Lord of the Rings and other writings are oversimplifications and generalizations, and do not take account of everything the author may have written concerning these matters.

  • The symbolism of light as good and dark as evil is an prehistoric dichotomy present in a great many cultures, Western and otherwise. It is also a part of Christianity (John 8:12 Jesus Christ said, "I am the Light of the World, Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."). Variations such as the Manicheeist heresy and further the ancient religion of Persia - Zoroastrianism.
  • Tolkien was English, and wanted to make a mythology for England. Therefore he wrote The Lord of the Rings according to his people's point of view. He could not make his protagonists, say, Incan or Japanese, or even put the setting anywhere else than (an alternative) North-western Europe, in spirit if not in actuality.
  • Tolkien only made precise geographic correspondences of Third Age Middle-earth locations to those in the real world. For example, Hobbiton was at the latitude of Oxford. The Shire was based upon, but was not actually rural England, since "the lands have changed" since then. Tolkien made no precise correspondences regarding the peoples concerned. Though the Hobbits were based upon rural English folk, they were not literally ancient Englishmen. He never said that Harad was Africa, nor the Eastlands Asia, nor their inhabitants ancestors of Africans or Asians. The Silmarillion presents tales of a time when the Earth's lands were different from that in the Third Age.
  • Tolkien does not actually mention the physical features of the Easterlings in The Lord of the Rings; however the Easterlings of The Silmarillion are described as either sallow or swarthy. There is no certainty that the Easterlings of the First Age are the same people as those of the Third Age.
  • Kings, princes, heirs and noblemen as protagonists is not necessarily an advocation of blood nobility, since it is a theme and concept common in myths and fairy-tales. Also, Samwise Gamgee represents the common man, and sees insights that more "noble" characters apparently do not, such as the true situation of the human enemies. Note that in a letter (#131), Tolkien states that Sam is the chief hero of the whole book.

Lord of the Rings and Fascism

In Italy, Lord of the Rings is considered fascist by some groups and Italian fascist organisations are allegedly using the book for recruiting.[8] According to Italian website Caltanet, Alleanza Nazionale a right-oriented Italian political party had taken a picture from Fellowship of the Ring movie to promote a speech by his leader, Gianfranco Fini.[9]

Tolkien's works have also been embraced by self-admitted racists such as the British National Party.[10]

Relevant Passages from the text

"It is not unlikely that they [Orcs] invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them""
The Hobbit, "Over-Hill and Under-Hill"
"It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace."
The Two Towers, "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit"

Tolkien on Racism

"I must say that the enclosed letter from Rutten & Loening is a bit stiff. Do I suffer this impertinence because of the possession of a German name, or do their lunatic laws require a certificate of arisch origin from all persons of all countries? ... Personally I should be inclined to refuse to give any Bestatigung (although it happens that I can), and let a German translation go hang. In any case I should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print. I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine."
Letter 29 — Tolkien's German publishers had asked whether he was of Aryan origin
"Thank you for your letter... I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware noone (sic) of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people."
Letter 30 (Tolkien's unsent response to his German publishers; a more neutral version was ultimately sent)
"There was a solemn article in the local paper seriously advocating systematic exterminating of the entire German nation as the only proper course after military victory: because, if you please, they are rattlesnakes, and don't know the difference between good and evil! (What of the writer?) The Germans have just as much right to declare the Poles and Jews exterminable vermin, subhuman, as we have to select the Germans: in other words, no right, whatever they have done."
― J.R.R. Tolkien — September 23, 1944
"I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White."
― From a valedictory address to the University of Oxford in 1959
"As for what you say or hint of ‘local’ conditions: I knew of them. I don't think they have much changed (even for the worse). I used to hear them discussed by my mother; and have ever since taken a special interest in that part of the world. The treatment of colour nearly always horrifies anyone going out from Britain, & not only in South Africa. Unfort[unately], not many retain that generous sentiment for long."
Letter 61 — Written to Christopher Tolkien who was stationed in South Africa during World War II
"Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that it in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will). Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light."
Letter 45

External links


  2. The Lord of the Rings book two chapter 5: "some are large and evil: black Uruks of Mordor" and appendix A: "In the last years of Denethor I the race of uruks, black orcs of great strength, first appeared out of Mordor"
  3. The Lord of the Rings book six chapter 2 "it was of a small breed, black-skinned, with wide and snuffling nostrils: evidently a tracker of some kind."
  4. The Guardian (2 December 2002)
  7. Alfred Rosenberg, The Myth of the Twentieth Century
  10. The Sunday Times - The BNP has declared Lord of the Rings essential reading. They’re not the only extremists to get the wrong idea