Is The Lord of the Rings Racist?

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While I love The Lord of the Rings, it’s not a great example of racial relationships. The elves, Men, hobbits and Dwarves are all a mix of good and bad, but mostly good. On the other hand, orcs embody every negative stereotype of any outcast group.

Orcs are conniving, untrustworthy, greedy, ferocious savages that kill, plunder, and rape their way across Middle Earth. (While I don’t recall rape ever described in The Lord of the Rings, I feel there are passages that heavily imply it.) They are rabid animals that must be put down. Reasoning with them is not only impossible, but counter-productive.

Applying racial literary criticism to orcs is depressing

By contrast, the other races embody positive traits. There are the Elves (all good), the Rohirriam (mostly good and honorable), the Gondorians (mostly good and honorable), and the Dwarves (all good, but proud). Every one of those races adheres to a stereotype that’s mostly positive. There are occasional outliers, traitors to the Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves, and Men, but they are rare overall. Even those outliers are occasionally redeemed.

It has long bothered me that the orcs were all evil. One can’t deny they show remarkable intelligence and problem-solving capacity, yet they only ever work for nefarious purposes.

Orcs are savages with no culture but war

While Elves, Men, Hobbits, and Dwarves all have their own lore, their own art, traditions, rituals, and customs, orcs have none of that. There’s evidence they pass stories from generation to generation, but nothing else.

There are signs of them being extremely smart, but they never do more than pillage and cause trouble unless a stronger mind commands them into unity.

The Southrons are a whole other can of racist worms

Though they feature less prominently than orcs, it’s clear the Southrons embody the eastern threat perceived by the English in Tolkien’s time. The Ottoman Empire was still in existence and the Southrons do exactly as the British feared the easterners would.

In The Children of Hurin, a Southron murders a Gondorian lord and forces his widow into marriage. Though the story isn’t nearly as graphic as George R.R. Martin would have it, we learn Southrons are gluttons, conquerors, and rapists who must also be driven out or killed like wild dogs.

This is identical to how the British viewed the eastern empires. It’s another example of racial prejudices leaking into literature.

It doesn’t stop with The Lord of the Rings

Across the fantasy genre, orcs, Southrons, or some incarnation of them keeps popping up again and again. This idea of a scapegoat for evil seems impossibly attractive, especially to fantasy writers.

Early on, I caught myself rewriting the Southrons and revised my series to fix it. I didn’t mean the story to sound prejudiced, but it happened because I’d seen it so often in fantasy literature and didn’t notice when I was writing it.

I still love The Lord of the Rings (doubt that will ever change!). At the same time, I won’t deny parts of it are problematic.

What do you think of race issues in The Lord of the Rings? Have I ruined the franchise for you (sorry)?

12 Comments

  1. I have noticed this also. It’s unfortunate, but not really surprising, given how anglo-centric it is.

    (When I was writing my first novel, one of the first things I did was to draw a map of my imaginary world, with mountains and forests and lakes and seas, with ‘home’ in the top-right corner. Then I re-read what I had already written, and realised that my map needed to be rotated 180 degrees to make sense… and thus in the end I too had the evil empire invading from the East.)

    Regarding the orcs: The books make it clear that they are unnatural creatures, i.e., natural creatures such as elves that have been twisted by dark magic into a mockery of the source material. As such, their lives are ruled by hatred and lust for destruction.
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    1. It is not surprising, but the concern has more to do with people not realizing how it has influenced modern literature now. As you saw, it often occurs without people realizing it.

  2. Nice article but the problem you’ve found is the same one I’ve discovered in numerous old works from writers such as Joseph Conrad through to Jane Eyre and a lot of it comes from the simple fact that human society has evolved. The era Tolkien came from was one in which the British Empire was seen as a noble thing, despite the fact that a quarter of the world’s population lived entirely to subsidise a tiny little island. In this empire the white English man was seen as the perfect embodiment of humanity, English women were created solely to serve the English man and the rest of humanity (regardless of colour) was neatly arrayed in descending ranks of importance.
    Tolkien fought in the First World War and lost his four closest friends on the Western Front. The experience deeply affected him but even so he was still constrained by the limits of English society. Women were very much second class citizens, despite finally winning the vote after World War One. There were some in his eyes who were brave, possibly the Pankhurst mother who switched sides from opposing the war to supporting it. There were women who worked close to the front lines nursing soldiers back to health and others who made shells etc. Peter Jackson’s film adaptations very much show a modern reinterpretation.
    The issue of coloured folk was contentious because at the end of the war much of the world was still under the sway of the British empire and indeed the empire increased its reach with the capture of German colonies. The war did bankrupt Britain though. Some of them did live in Britain but they were still kept to the outskirts of society and assigned menial duties. This would continue right up until the next war in some form or another.
    Tolkien’s original premise for the Hobbit was his fascination with Welsh place names, which are totally unrelated to English names. Welsh along with Gaelic, Cornish and Breton being the last descendants of the old Celtic tongue that was the original language(s) spoken in Britain. He invented the world of Middle Earth and created his own language in an attempt to escape the world around him, which was rapidly changing with the rise of Hitler, Mussolini and much closer to home, Oswald Mosley and his British Fascist movement. The stories came about after he created these fictional names to explain how that name came to be, an interesting if awkward way of creating a world.
    The Orcs would most likely have been Huns or Germans in his mind because that was the mantra repeated throughout Britain. The German was represented as being a rapacious monster who raped women and murdered children. The Southrons would have represented what was commonly called Darkest Africa, mysterious and frightening to the average Englishman.
    In summary, while we might be tempted to impose our values on older texts, a better way is to just accept that things were different back then. We have the benefits of a humanism that was directly derived from Christian ministers and reformers who drove the slave abolition, labour, and union movements. Not sure if all that answers your question but I’m just throwing all that out there.
    Cheers,
    Alastair

    1. Except the precedents set down in these old works are still seen in modern works. It is only within the past two decades or so that darker characters and Middle Eastern-based societies in Fantasy stopped being villains or sidekicks at best. It’s something that needs to be addressed. I could have gone much more into the historic and anthropological setting of Britain, but chose not to because that’s not the point.

      The point is the repercussions.

  3. Yeah, it’s long bothered me that all the good folks are different “races” of white in LOTR, and the dark-skinned folks are more or less evil / chaos at work in the world, interested only in destruction. That’s one reason why I’m on the bandwagon of true diversity being so important in literature–because if we internalize these messages (which we all do), then that affects how human we consider those unlike ourselves, and just how willing we might be to act with compassion or strive to understand complex issues. Frankly, I deeply dislike how simple the dichotomy is between good and evil in LOTR and so much fantasy. It takes away all the complexity from the narrative, and makes it really easy for us to believe it when demagogues tell us that a particular group is evil and must be stopped at all costs. Of course they’re “evil”–we’ve grown up being fed this drivel, instead of learning to question our assumptions and striving to understand whatever we conceive of as the “other,” we accept such statements at face value. Because all our narratives reinforce them. Gah!

    And… I’m going to get off my soapbox now. Thank you for this post – it’s a fantastic conversation starter.
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    1. LOL. Soapbox away (if that is a verb). Like most people, I thought the idea of casual racism was stupid (high school me was very sheltered) until people like you started confronting me with it. No, I do agree that diversity, especially racial diversity, is important in all media. The phenomenon of “othering” is a human trait across all ethnicities, nationalities, and races and we have to consciously fight it.

  4. I was actually noticing this for the first time while watching the films in the past few months. It’s interesting, because seeing this doesn’t ruin the series for me at all. Yes it makes me sad that Tolkien was racist, and I definitely think it’s something that needs to be acknowledged. But I think if Tolkien had his racism pointed out to him he would have written things differently.

    1. I definitely don’t think it was intentional, I agree. I’m also still an avid fan of the franchise, too. I do feel it’s important to note when things are problematic, though. Totally agree with that, too. We can’t just ignore it!

  5. I totally agree. Unfortunately there’s a LOT of problems with the older epic fantasy classics…and this is just one aspect. I never felt like the orcs were based on a people group in our world though at least? (That would be hugely problematic, but then I haven’t read all of LOTR or Tolkien’s other works so IDK how he portrays it.) But I find it dull when there’s pure good vs pure evil in books. It’s never like that in real life! I way prefer villainous forces who are complex and also think they’re working for good, even if they’re really really not.

    But also I mean like everyone “good” in LOTR is very very white. So that is a huge problem right there too.
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    1. Exactly! A bit of complexity to make the brain work and the set off the contemplation. I would say the Southrons are very obviously based on the Ottoman Empire, but yeah, the orcs are kind of ambiguous.

      *sigh* And yes, LOTR is euro-centric as hell. Let’s just admit that and accept there’s no changing that one, no matter how we spin it.

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