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There have been quite some questions about racism and Middle Earth, and whether or not Tolkien or his work were racist. My question abstracts away from the notion of racism, and focuses on race itself.

I am aware that Tolkien's work is a work of fiction, and that we should be careful putting our political concepts and view of the world on literature. What we do know, is that there were indeed different races of Man. Probably the most notable distinction is the one between the people of the West and the Men of the East, at least that is how I saw it after seeing the Lord of the Rings in theaters: Men of the East had a notably different accent, were dressed very differently, and seemed culturally much more distant from other large groups such as the people of Gondor, Rohan, and even the Men of Laketown in The Hobbit. I would assume that Black Numenoreans were physically close to the Gondorians.

Cultural intent

This might be a topic of discussion but I would argue that Easterlings (Haradrim as well as the people from the Rhûn and Umbar regions), typically have black hair and brown eyes. They would also have a darker skin. I admit that this may be an unintentional, subconscious idea on my part. However, the LotR Wiki seems to agree.

[The Haradrim] were dark skinned Men and waged war on great Oliphaunts or Mûmakil.

The thing is that they do not cite a source as far as I can tell.

I am curious, because in our world skin colour is a genetic trait that is passed on generation after generation. Only after years and years of evolution did it happen to be the case that there are multiple human races with distinctive skin colours. In Middle-Earth, though, Man is created by Ilúvatar, not born out of evolution. How can we explain differently coloured people from this perspective? Do the books provide any background on different houses of Numenoreans (with different skin colour) travelling to different parts of Middle-Earth?

As a side note: this question came to me after seeing the new trailer for Middle-Earth: Shadow of War which features a black man in Gondorian (?) armour.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War™ Announcement Trailer Middle-earth: Shadow of War™ Announcement Trailer

After searching I also found that Peter Jackson's view on LotR includes black people in Gondor. From a genealogical, evolutionary perspective, how can skin colour distinction between human races be explained?


Note: I am not a native English speaker, so if I happen to word something the wrong way that is degrading or insulting to any group of people, please let me know and I will correct my mistake.


Update 3rd of December 2017 -- contains spoilers

The black man featured in the trailer for Shadow of War mentioned above is Baranor.

In the game, he reveals to Talion that he was born near Umbar, in Harad, and that his family sent him to a Gondorian family as it would ensure peace between the two factions/families. More information can be found on the ME:SoW Wiki page which mentiones that Being born in Harad before adopted by the wealthy family makes him the only Gondorian with Black racial ethnic features.

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    I feel like it's one of those things where Tolkien never explicitly stated the skin colour of any peoples, except maybe describing the Elves as "Fair". From what we know about Tolkien's world, the Easterlings are most certainly supposed to be Asian, and the Haradrim are based on the tribes of Africa. So realistically, it's reasonable to assume that their skin is darker in colour than those of men from Gondor or Rohan. Can't say for sure, but then neither can the books, so it's all up for speculation. – DisturbedNeo Feb 27 '17 at 16:10
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    @DisturbedNeo I am often surprised how detailed some of Tolkien's additional work actually is. Because a lot of people on this site are more acknowledged with his work, I thought someone may know a passage, quote, explanation from some margin of an encyclopedia or something. You never know what other people know. – Bram Vanroy Feb 27 '17 at 16:12
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    Not an answer as I can't go into detail, but I remember the book very clearly describes the Southrons as black but the film makers (whilst acknowledging that JRRT did not like 20th century ideals being applied to his work) deliberately shied away from portraying all bad guys as black and vice versa. So to avoid this, in the scene showing a legion of Southron troops entering Mordor (ch. The Black Gate Opens) the costumes are designed such as you can only see their eyes. – Darren Feb 27 '17 at 16:12
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    @BramVanroy, is your question focussing on the possibility of different skin colours or more on how they came to be? – Edlothiad Feb 27 '17 at 17:07
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    On the whole evolution issue -- isn't it strongly implied that hobbits evolved from Men? Which would show that Men, in particular, can evolve a good deal in Tolkien's universe. – robopuppy Feb 27 '17 at 17:25
42

Yes

The Southrons were described as both Swarthy and Brown

Sam, eager to see more, went now and joined the guards. He scrambled a little way up into one of the larger of the bay-trees. For a moment he caught a glimpse of swarthy men in red running down the slope some way off with green-clad warriors leaping after them, hewing them down as they fled. Arrows were thick in the air. Then suddenly straight over the rim of their sheltering bank, a man fell, crashing through the slender trees, nearly on top of them. He came to rest in the fern a few feet away, face downward, green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck below a golden collar. His scarlet robes were tattered, his corslet of overlapping brazen plates was rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched with blood. His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword.

The Two Towers - Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit

Those from Far-Harad were described as Black

and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues.

The Return of The King - The Battle of Pelennor Field

Whereas Gondorians, Númenóreans, Rohirrim, Elves etc are often described with characteristics of Caucasians.

For example, blonde hair on the Rohirrim:

'Yes,' said Legolas, 'there are one hundred and five. Yellow is their hair,

The Two Towers - The Riders of Rohan

The Men that rode them matched them well: tall and long-limbed; their hair, flaxen-pale, flowed under their light helms, and streamed in long braids behind them;

The Two Towers - The Riders of Rohan

Aragorn's pale face:

Frodo found that Strider was now looking at him, as if he had heard or guessed all that had been said. Presently, with a wave of his hand and a nod, he invited Frodo to come over and sit by him. As Frodo drew near be threw back his hood, showing a shaggy head of dark hair flecked with grey, and in a pale stern face a pair of keen grey eyes.

The Fellowship of the Ring - At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

Or Boromir's fair face:

And seated a little apart was a tall man with a fair and noble face, dark-haired and grey-eyed, proud and stern of glance.

The Fellowship of the Ring - The Council of Elrond

The term Black Númenóreans, I always understood to be the fact they had fallen into worshipping the Dark through the worship of Sauron, as opposed to their skin colour.


As to how there could be such diversity amongst men. They appear to have been diverse from or close to their beginning as Easterlings fought on the side of Morgoth. They would either have had time to evolve different races, or were created as such.

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    +1. I agree with the answer. One alternative for the Far Harad being described as black men is that black is being used as a synonym for evil, i.e. evil men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues. – Accio_Answer Feb 27 '17 at 18:40
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    @Accio_Answer I agree with that, given that "Black Speech" and "Black Sleep" (and possibly "Black Gate") are used to refer to evil, rather than color. So calling men "Black Númenóreans" could be synonymously expressed as "Evil Númenóreans" the same way and theoretically you could have a pale-skinned Black Númenórean. – Thunderforge Feb 27 '17 at 20:20
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    @Thunderforge - looks like when a reference to evil, they often capitalize, whereas Far Harad is not, making it a more standard use of language, so possibly, still, color. – PoloHoleSet Feb 27 '17 at 21:19
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    Cearon O'Flyn - shouldn't Aragorn be described as having "A shaggy head of dark hair FLECKED with gray", not necked? – M. A. Golding Feb 27 '17 at 22:08
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    And surely "a pale stem face" should be "a pale stern face"? – duskwuff Feb 28 '17 at 17:18
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As I've discussed elsewhere on this site, there's no indication that Middle-earth's creation myth is incompatible with evolutionary theory; so the most likely explanation is this:

  1. In The Beginning, Ilúvatar created Men
  2. Sometime later, Men woke up and dispersed across the lands. This, at least, we know to be the case, as told in the published Silmarillion:

    West, North, and South the children of Men spread and wandered, and their joy was the joy of the morning before the dew is dry, when every leaf is green.

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 12: "Of Men"

  3. Over the next few hundred, or thousand, years, they evolved to suit their environments. It's perhaps worth noting here that the first chronological reference to the Haradrim (who were not gifted with the long lives of the Númenóreans) comes at around the year 2000 of the Second Age, about 2600 years after Men first awoke.

    The first chronological reference to "coloured" Men comes from about two years after the Dagor Bragollach, around 450 years after men awoke:

    It is told that at this time the Swarthy Men came first into Beleriand. Some were already secretly under the dominion of Morgoth, and came at his call; but not all, for the rumour of Beleriand, of its lands and waters, of its wars and riches, went now far and wide, and the wandering feet of Men were ever set westward in those days. These Men were short and broad, long and strong in the arm; their skins were swart or sallow, and their hair was dark as were their eyes.

    The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 18: "Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin"

    I don't know enough about evolutionary biology to tell you whether or not that's a realistic timeframe for "racial" differences to emerge, but I suspect Tolkien's response would be similar to the one he gave when asked about how one subset of a single species (Elves and Men being, biologically speaking, the same) can be immortal while another is not:

    I should actually answer: I do not care. This is a biological dictum in my imaginary world. It is only (as yet) an incompletely imagined world, a rudimentary 'secondary'; but if it pleased the Creator to give it (in a corrected form) Reality on any plane, then you would just have to enter it and begin studying its different biology, that is all.

    The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien 153: To Peter Hastings (draft). September 1954

That said, it's entirely possible for Ilúvatar to have deliberately created Men with "racial" differences. However, considering that "racial" characteristics seem to be mainly split along geographic (or clan) lines, I find this a less-than-satisfying explanation.

Ultimately, as far as I know, Tolkien himself never clarified; since his stories are almost entirely focused on a particular geographic region of his imagined world, and few writings explore other regions, I suspect he didn't find the subject terribly interesting.

  • @PatrickTrentin I failed biology in high school, so what the hell do I know, but I know we've observed evolutionary pressures on simpler creatures over short timescales; does that make this feasible for humans, even in an imagined world? I don't know, but it at least gives me pause before declaring "it's magic" over "it's biology...but not as we know it" – Jason Baker Feb 27 '17 at 23:15
  • @PatrickTrentin: The mutation that resulted in blonde hair in humans has been dated to about 11,000 years ago. A few thousand years alright. – DevSolar Feb 28 '17 at 13:49
  • @PatrickTrentin: Confusing users here. I just pointed out a tiny bit of info under Jason's answer, pointing out that evolution can, indeed, happen in "a few thousand years", in response to your first comment. No more, no less. – DevSolar Feb 28 '17 at 14:23
15

Yes

In short, the Haradrim and Southrons were described as dark skinned and more asian looking with darker skin. Further, Ghan Bûri Ghan's people were also described as darker skinned. Whereas the Gondorian and Arnorian (including Nûmenoreans) were more fair and "European" looking.

The Haradrim were described as "Swarthy" with brown hands

For a moment he caught a glimpse of swarthy men in red running down the slope some way off with green-clad warriors leaping after them, hewing them down as they fled.

[...]

His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - Chapter 4, Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit

Furthermore, Bill Ferny who has Dunlending ancestry is also described as "Swarthy"

But there was one swarthy Bree-lander
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - Chapter 9, At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

Different skin colours

In the same way that humans have different skin colours the Men of Middle-earth developed different skin tones based on location. Seeing as Men originally woke in the Far East of Middle Earth1, and many Men stayed, and others moved South, over the thousands of years it is likely they developed darker skin tones. The three houses that compose of the Edain that moved West are the few that are described as more "Fair" or more "White skinned".

Tolkien (through Christopher) mentions the movement of Men after the "War of Palisor" leading to the darkening of their skin. (This however is not necessarily canon but an earlier draft of Tolkien's Tales)

“Many kindreds of Men were driven to the eastern deserts and the southern forests, whence came dark and savage peoples.”
The Book of Lost Tales Part 1: Chapter X Gilfanon's Tale, The Travail of the Noldoli and the Coming of Mankind

Seeing as the Awakening of Men occurred in the First year of the First Age, which occurred 7059 years before the beginning of the War of the Ring, there's a very good chance that evolution had caused changed in the skin colour of the different races of Men.

We know that towards the end of the First Age, Morgoth "rewarded" the Easterlings that fought for him by giving them Hithlum, they are again being described "Swarthy", which suggests that within 472 years of the Awakening of Men they had already to get significant skin changes.

But Morgoth sent thither Men who were under his dominion, swarthy Easterlings; and he shut them in that land and forbade them to leave it.
The Children of Hurin: Chapter 3, The Words of Húrin and Morgoth

This may suggest that the Men awoke already possessing different races, as some sources state it may take up to 1 million years for evolution to take place. As current humans started moving out of Africa into Europe 70000-40000 years ago, it's unlikely that Tolkien's Men could evolve that quickly.

However, in Morgoth's Ring the Awakening of Men is discussed that it's date is unknown, possibly being many thousands of years earlier.

Thus if the Awakening of Men is placed even very late in the period of the Great March of the Eldar it will be set back by more than 3500 Years of the Sun.
Morgoth's Ring: Part Five, Myths Transformed


1

Map of the East

  • But the question goes on to ask how this is biologically possible. "Because Ilúvatar" is the get out I suppose, but assuming all men were created by Ilúvatar as the same colour (whatever colour that is), did humanity have time to evolve into different races? – Darren Feb 27 '17 at 16:21
  • That's coming once I've found the examples of the different races – Edlothiad Feb 27 '17 at 16:23
2

The Three Houses of the Edain are described thus- Beor's people had dark hair, grey or blue eyes and pale skin. the house of Hador were 'golden haired and fair' with blue eyes. The forest people of Haleth were a mix of the two and generally of smaller stature. The People of Ulwarth, Ulfast and Bor who drifted into Beleriand hundreds of years later were swarthy and dark of eye [quite possibly the Dunlendings were a branch of this people who didn't cross into Beleriand.The people of Beor most resembled the Noldorin Eldar- hence why Turin [his mother, Morwen, was of the House of Beor] was often mistaken for one at first.

Most elves were dark haired, except for the house of Finarfin [because of the blood from Indis of the Vanyar, his wife, in Valinor, whose people, except for the War of Wrath which defeated Morgoth. never left the Undying Lands.

The Sindar could be pale haired [they were related to the Teleri of Valinor, being a branch of the Teleri which didn't cross to Aman- Galadriel was said to have gold hair tinted with the starlike silver of her Telerin mother]. Other groups of men were variously darker- the Wainriders and people from east of the Sea Of Rhun would seem to have Hunnic or Mongolian aspects [these are mainly cultural as there are no real descriptions of them physically].

The Haradrim [a collective name for the people south of the river Harnen means 'South People' are brown skinned and black haired, probably approximating arab/Nth Africans 'Haradrim is a general term- no indication of individual tribes or cultures is mentioned] and there is even a mention of 'troll men with black skin and red tongues'from 'Far Harad'who are bantu or negroid. The variags of Khand are described as bearded and wielding great axes; there is a kind of 'Kievan Rus' feel to them ['variags' is actually a version of 'Varanger', the Norse guard/assault units employed by the Byzantine Emperor of the eastern Roman empire].

The Numenoreans were a mix of the Three houses of the Edain. The Men of the North, like the Bardings of Laketown and the Rohirrim were considered to be related to the Edain but had not crossed the Blue mountains in the first age.They often referred to by the Numenoreans as 'Middle Men'- not affiliated to the Easterlings dominated by Sauron but not exposed to the 'high' culture of the Eldar.

Also handy to remember that the references to 'alien' races are from the perspective of the people of NW middle earth- the gaps in knowledge are deliberate, as the story is supposed to have been translated from ancient books written by them [and Bilbo and Frodo] about their world. Its part of the ambience for lack of a better word, of the story- seeking precise detail about some of the things is precisely what professor Tolkien wanted to avoid. The Haradrim are the vague 'South People' because the Gondorians have no idea of their tribes or separate cultures. They are just 'those South people'.....

  • Would it be possible to add some quotes to back this up? It looks great, but it would be even better with quotes! – Mithrandir May 13 '17 at 18:24

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