25

In Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series, there are generally two groups of Men. The good ones are coming from the West (Dúnedain, Men of the West), and the bad ones, the Easterlings, mostly fight under Morgoth and Sauron.

Why was this so?

  • 10
    There were also the Southrons or Haradrim. Men of dark skin allied with Sauron. – user1027 Jun 14 '12 at 12:59
  • 23
    Most methods of literary analysis would demand this question be rephrased to something like "Can one read LotR as a racist allegory?" - Asking about Tolkien rather than the work is counterproductive (and difficult because he is dead.) – user1030 Jun 14 '12 at 18:27
  • 6
    @user1030: He lived fairly recently, so a good deal of first or second-hand biographical information is available. And understanding the beliefs and life of the author sheds light on authorial intent and is an important part of literary analysis. – Lèse majesté Jan 10 '14 at 2:18
  • 4
    It is unfortunate this question got so many downvotes, because it is valid and interesting. The issue of whether Tolkien's work has racist undertones is not new, I'm pretty sure it has been debated by scholars, and asking about it is not in my opinion flamebait. – Andres F. Jan 10 '14 at 3:28
  • 11
    I suspect the implication that if someone is a Westerner they are automatically racist probably caused some of the downvotes. – dlanod Jan 10 '14 at 3:58
54

Tolkien himself says the Lord of the Rings

is neither allegorical nor topical.... I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.

From the introduction to the Lord of the Rings.

You are reading too much into the Lord of the Rings. The intent is not for it to represent the real world, especially not geographically. You are also ignoring the counter-examples of bad men from places other than the East: Black Númenóreans (from the West) and the Witch-King of Angmar (from the north).

In addition the Druedain, represented by Ghan-buri-Ghan, are described as having "unlovely faces" and share many of the physical characteristics of Orcs and Easterlings (often used to argue the case for Tolkien's alleged racist views), yet this same race is key to the defeat of evil at the Pelennor Field and are undoubtedly good.

Basically Tolkien wrote of a world where a small pocket of the world was resisting a siege of evil, and it so happened that the pocket of the world was a peninsula on the west of a major continent.

In the man's own words, sent in a letter to his son who was stationed in South Africa during World War II and hence never intended for publishing nor for sight of other's eyes (Letter 29):

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.

  • 8
    I don't know why you have quotes around "degraded and repulsive Mongol types" given that isn't what Tolkien wrote, and the website you linked doesn't give that as what Tolkien wrote either. He wrote "in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types." So you've removed his admission that he made the Orcs worse representations (they're degraded and repulsive versions, not Mongol-types inherently degraded and repulsive) and also his admission and hence awareness of European bias. I choose to assume it was inadvertent and not pushing a specific POV. – dlanod Jan 10 '14 at 3:56
  • 4
    For the record I think Tolkien's phrasing (Dwarf/Jew comparison; the description of Orcs highlighted above) and story construction (evil coming from south and east in the book) can be considered culturally insensitive by today's standards. But I'm yet to see evidence of actual racism provided given his strong anti-apartheid views and in-story counterexamples of evil affecting, all regardless of skin colour (Bill Ferny, Saruman, Grima, etc). – dlanod Jan 10 '14 at 4:08
  • 4
    @dlanod Yes, sorry, the quote wasn't accurate. But I meant exactly what Tolkien said, more repulsive representations of Mongol-types "to us Europeans". WTF, Tolkien? Mongol-types aren't repulsive "to us Europeans" to being with, unless said Europeans are a tiny bit racist to begin with. Ok, so Orcs are "more degraded representations". What does "more degraded" even mean? I cannot agree that "more culturally insensitive by today's standards" can excuse Tolkien's slight racism; it just means that sort of racism was fashionable back then, and insensitive today. – Andres F. Jan 10 '14 at 11:39
  • 4
    @dlanod I'm not saying Tolkien was a horrible person. I think there are lots of examples of his characters acting or thinking in ways I find commendable (e.g. Sam's reflection quoted somewhere else in this page). But Tolkien was a bit racist in a way fashionable for his time and social class, and it shows in his work -- to claim there is no evidence of racism on his part whatsoever is being blind. Call it my POV if you will; nothing wrong with POV :) – Andres F. Jan 10 '14 at 11:43
  • 5
    "You are reading too much into" ... is how every "that's not racist/sexist/ableist/etc..." response starts. Look, racism is part of our culture, deeply. Unless people take extra effort, it will be woven into everything they say and do. Tolkien does not seem to have taken that effort. He was a product of his time. That doesn't excuse him, but it explains it. – zipquincy May 5 '15 at 16:07
48

Tolkien was definitely anything but a racist; he was actually unusually enlightened for his time, and an even casual reading of his letters establishes this beyond any doubt:

the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine

(Letter 29)

that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler

(Letter 45)

The treatment of colour nearly always horrifies anyone going out from Britain, & not only in South Africa.

(Letter 61)

confused ideas of race or nation

(Letter 81)

I know nothing about British or American imperialism in the Far East that does not fill me with regret and disgust

(Letter 100)

Apologies if this seems to be belabouring the point, but it's very important to make it as clear as possible.


His use of East and South as domains of evil was purely a matter of geographic necessity; this is first touched on in Letter 211, discussing the Blue Wizards:

I think they went as emissaries to distant regions, East and South, far out of Númenórean range

And explicitly in Letter 229:

The placing of Mordor in the east was due to simple narrative and geographical necessity, within my 'mythology'. The original stronghold of Evil was (as traditionally) in the North; but as that had been destroyed, and was indeed under the sea, there had to be a new stronghold, far removed from the Valar, the Elves, and the sea-power of Númenor.

So the setup of the world is that the West is subject to the notice and influence of the likes of the Valar and the Numenoreans, so of course Sauron is going to set up his stronghold, and the primary sites of his influence, in the East. From there it's obvious - the Men that he's going to find easiest to corrupt will be those where his own power is strongest (and subject to the least amount of interference).

It's also interesting (and instructive) to go back and look at the tales of the First Age. Here we see that both Elves and Men originally awoke in the East, and that there were also tribes of faithful Easterlings.

Finally, there's Sam's thoughts when he sees the dead Southron (because it's not just about East and West) which reveal Tolkien's true opinion of these matters, and are worth quoting in full:

He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of 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...

So no, there's no prejudice and definitely no racism at work here.

  • 6
    Great finishing quote, Jimmy. Has long been my favorite bit of Sam's inner ruminations. – gef05 Jan 10 '14 at 3:34
  • 3
    Sam's quote is indeed one of my favorite parts of LOTR. However, there are degrees of racism. Like I said in another comment, having Orcs resemble "more degraded and repulsive Mongol-types" betrays some racism. A hint of racism was probably the norm for the social class and age when Tolkien lived. There is no need to whitewash Tolkien; he was a product of his time. I can like his work and learn to live with its flaws. – Andres F. Jan 10 '14 at 3:36
  • 7
    That line sprang to my mind too, but like some of Éowyn's best lines, it seemed to me like the enlightened 20th-century author commenting on the more dismal parts of the Medieval worldview. LOTR is deeply rooted in European folklore like the Song of Roland (wherein the handsome French knights ride around slaughtering those sinister swarthy Moors left and right-- hurrah!) and to completely eliminate the xenophobia Tolkien would have had to completely uproot the whole story. That's the price you pay for a literary tradition. Good-hearted Sam can rise above it, and we can't really ask for more. – Beta Jan 10 '14 at 5:50
  • 2
    @Beta Yes, that makes sense. Some sort of xenophobia seems natural in this kind of tale. Maybe Sam was, after all, reminding us of the author's opinion on the issue of race. – Andres F. Jan 10 '14 at 12:35
  • 2
    @AndresF. Isn't the "more" in that quote your invention? And isn't that the thing that makes it reprehensible? – sgf Jul 26 '17 at 22:40
6

I read couple of articles about Tolkien - 2nd World War connection (for example: http://valarguild.org/varda/Tolkien/encyc/articles/t/Tolkien/TolkienandWW2.htm)

However, I don't think that we should try to find a connection there. Well, it is quite understandable, that he was affected but I doubt that he wrote his novels as an analogy. I think that we should not read his books and think how this or that fact is connected to our world. Tolkien created his own world with its own history and we should open our mind to his realm and not trying to connect these two together.

If I would try to answer your question, I would say that: No, I don't think that there is such a connection. You can find in his book what you want, as anyone of us, but it doesn't mean that the author meant that. For me, unless Tolkien himself or his family will make such a comment, there is no connection.

5

Actually most of the characters who are explicitly evil or corrupt come from or are associated with the west.

Indeed there is a recurrent theme that moral virtue is much more about character and individual decisions than background, most notably in comparison between Saruman (who is even called 'Saruman The White') and Gandalf. Similarly The father and son, Denethor and Boromir end up being corrupted by the ring and betraying their allies while Faramir remains virtuous.

The hill tribes who ally with Saruman against the Rohirrim are also from the west and Wormtongue is actually one of the Rohirrim, or at least able to pass for one.

Even Isildur, Aragorn's direct ancestor, is shown as being deeply flawed.

In fact the Harradrim and Easterlings don't really figure that much in the story apart from being allies of Sauron and even then the overall impression is that they just happen to have the misfortune to live in areas which have been conquered by him. Indeed Familiar expresses regret at having to fight them, he has line commenting on a dead enemy soldier 'I wonder what lies and threats led him here'.

There is also the fact that, as others have mentioned, Tolkien's work was largely inspired by the northwest European literary tradition where 'the West' is largely unknown and mysterious by the simple fact of being filled with the North Atlantic Ocean so it was essentially like space as far as they were concerned.

Even at the very end of the book in The Scouring of the Shire it is made clear that even Hobbits can be corrupt and malicious.

In fact overall I would say that the overall message from the narrative is that merit does not depend on race class or status.

There is also the fact that, while a superficial reading shows all of the heroes being attractive white men the real heroes of the story are short yokels with big hairy feet and it is fundamental moral qualities which makes the heroes attractive, even Aragorn is initially introduced as a dishevelled and sinister figure while the overtly charismatic and powerful figures are all flawed.

5

Caveat: I haven't studied Tolkien's life - I've just read the (main) books - LoTR, the Hobbit, the Silmarillion. I've also not read academic treatments by literary critics / sociologists etc. of Tolkien's work; I'm only judging by the text.


Indeed, in my impression of Tolkien's writing, they exhibit racial and geographic/regional biases (*) . Specifically, as you go West, individuals are better and nobler on the average, more likely to be Elf or Elf-related, less likely to be Orcs; closer to the gods or to godliness - with the culmination being Valinor.

Elves who awakened did well the more they went West; they are lesser if they stayed behind, or if they returned, like the Noldor. Those who went first, and made it all the way, and didn't go back - they're the fairest, the noblest, the closest to the gods - the Vanyar.

Men's origins are unclear (well, to me anyway), but they first achieve agency, merit, morality, historical purpose as they flee westwards and submit themselves to the Elves, both in terms of government and of culture - the Edain houses of Beor, Haldad and Marach. The rest of humanity remains a far-off jumbled basket of deplorables - most of the time - always considered to be under the sway or control of Melkor or Mairon, directly or indirectly. On Numenor, again - men who take after the Elves and look to the West are morally superior; the baser, greedy, immoral go Eastward, fraternizing with the rest of mankind. Big mistake - that leads to their downfall. In the Third Age - the men of import are those descendants of the three Edain clans, sticking to the North-West of Middle-Earth; and the rest of humanity? What have they done over ~6,000 years? Not much of consequence apparently, other than training Elephants and some interesting jewelry maybe.

This also has to do with racism. The Southrons are swarthy; the Easterlings are apparently more variegated, but at least some may be modelled after the Balochi people. At any rate, we're not talking about light-skinned, blond-haired peoples, that's for sure. And as you move up the ladder of superiority and godliness, we get to the Vanyar again - light-skinned and blond (or you can just add the value judgment and say they were "fair" of skin and hair). I'm not saying the racial picture is entirely consistent, or that there aren't exceptions to the rule (Luthien and Arwen aren't blond), but still, this all resonates pretty strongly in my opinion.

* - and one could also consider critically the place of women in his writings, or how it contrasts hereditary feudalism with industrial capitalism etc. Lots of fun.

  • 2
    This is the most insightful answer here, pity this community only takes seriously authorial intent and not the literary work itself. If someone is taking time analysing it, its cleaar that it is full on views on blood purity, racial theories and the elves patronising the other races . i.e. the tone of the council meeting in rivendell eerily reminds me of the one in the documents of the British Foreign Office about the colonies. Full of white elf/man's mission of a superior culture giving advic – Ekaterin Nile Jul 20 '17 at 15:44
  • 2
    @Nahiri: I would bet this was the author's intent on many levels, quotes to the contrary notwithstanding. But - if I started this argument people would cry bloody murder. Anyway, I'd say it's not about intent vs the text, it's about the psychological willingness to have a morally-ambivalent approach to a literary work, or to a person: Both good and bad, to be admired and denounced, the object of passion and disdain or disgust, at once. – einpoklum Jul 20 '17 at 15:45
  • 2
    exactly. Prof. Tolkien was a brilliant author, but we'll have to face racist content reading 'dated' literature. There is no need to close our eyes to the bad and see only the pretty. – Ekaterin Nile Jul 20 '17 at 15:54
2

LOTR is was based in part on Tolkien's love for Norse mythology and culture. And I believe that in Norse mythology the North (where the cold winds came from) and the East were considered bad, unlucky, sinister etc. directions. Thus the somewhat negative vibe that the North and East have in LOTR.

The fact that Europe had often been invaded by nomadic horsemen from the East in historic times also had a lot to do with the negative impression of the North and the East in LOTR and other Tolkien works.

Also in some European mythologies the afterlife is lived in a blessed realm to the west, which is where the expression "to go west", meaning die, comes from.

Of course as Tolkien developed the fictional history of Middle-earth there were also a few examples of invasions by evil men from the South and the West.

When I was 13 and first read the Hobbit I considered the fact that things seemed to get worse and worse the farther North and East one went, and that evil beings seemed to come from the North and the east and force good peoples to retreat South and West, was just he opposite of what I was used to.

Because in Western movies and TV shows the East was civilized and law abiding, and the West was full of danger and anarchy, hostile Indian tribes on the warpath, and gangs of evil outlaws, and the South (or the Accursed Direction) was the direction of the Accursed Region of evil traitors and rebels.

-1

Actually, 'the West' as a concept is given as a far more generic thing; it is the group of Free Peoples (Elves, Men, Hobbits and Dwarves, although mainly the first two). There is also a form of throwback in terms of the word 'Dunedain' from the fact that they are descended from the Edain, more precisely the Numenoreans. So they are formed from the men whose ancestors once inhabited Aman - the Western continent and fought along with the Host of Valinor (aka Host of the West) in the war of Wrath.

However, it is true that the Easterlings, men of Rhun, are meant to resemble Asians, and there is some prejudice when Tolkien chose evil men to resemble Asians. Furthermore, the inhabitants of Harad, Black Numenoreans, are also inspired by Africans.

So there is a bit of racism involved.

(a last note on real-life races transposed into Middle-Earth; the men of Forochel are meant to stem from the Scandinavian, especially Finnish people.)

  • 2
    Can you provide any sources to support your answer? – Edlothiad Mar 28 '17 at 12:48
  • 1
    The ancestors of the Numenoreans never inhabited Aman (it's a big plot point that they are not allowed to). Likewise, the Black Numenoreans are not the indigenous people of Harad - they are a couple hundred of exiles, and not black (their name refers to their allegiance, not skin colour). And, as mentioned in other answered, neither the men of Harad nor those from Rhun are intrinsically "evil". – Annatar Jul 27 '17 at 9:55

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.