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)?