I’ve been rereading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings lately. I’m going to set aside all my other thoughts and feelings about the series and about Tolkien as a writer to talk about something that’s been bugging me.
First it started as this little tickle in the back of my mind, whenever Tolkien mentioned the West or the East. Cardinal directions play a huge role in Tolkien’s legendarium, along with geography in general. If you’ll indulge my elision of many of the subtleties in Tolkien’s plot, it suffices to say that the further West one goes, the more one ventures into peoples Tolkien characterizes as familiar, idyllic, and—even further west—a kind of heaven or paradisaical hinterland. On the other hand, every mention of the East is accompanied with shades of evil or mystery.
I had trouble getting into this world view because I grew up in the southeastern United States, and I subconsciously imprinted Tolkien’s geography on top of the US, the place I grew up in and learned about in school. I especially wanted to think of westness as a kind of frontier land, projecting my feelings from popular culture in the US. Adventure in the US is more often than not a journey from east to west.
That doesn’t accord with Middle-earth at all, and once it bugged me enough to provoke conscious examination on my part, it struck me as likely that Tolkien was projecting a Eurocentric tradition onto his own geography. The Shire, far flung up in the northwest of Middle-earth, embodies the English countryside—in terms of names, customs, and in a rough geographical reckoning.
It’s not hard to imagine then projecting the inhospitable desert lands in the south of Gondor and in Mordor onto regions with a similar geographic relationship to Europe—namely, the Arab regions of the Middle East and Africa. Beyond Tolkien’s eastern horizons lay cultures he didn’t understand, unfathomable distances, and alien climates. The same holds true for the inhabitants of Middle earth. For example, in The Two Towers, Gollum describes what’s south of Mordor:
And further still there are more lands, they say, but the Yellow Face is very hot there, and there are seldom any clouds, and the men are fierce and have dark faces. We do not want to see that land.
A Eurocentric description of Saharan Africa is not a difficult stretch from that description, especially considering Gollum is speaking to the hobbits while they are situated directly outside of Mordor.
There are, of course, other similar references that have been noticed by other critics. Tolkien’s descriptions of Easterlings and more notably still the Haradrim (who are likely referenced by Gollum above) have obvious racial tinges that reflect a Eurocentric world. Later on in The Two Towers, Faramir encounters a group of Haradrim, and the leader is described a brown-skinned man leading soldiers with scimitars.
In placing these regions, I personally drew some conclusions about Tolkien’s European compass, as he projected it onto his legendarium. I guess this leads me to ask a few questions about the series and myself. First, I could ask myself, was Tolkien himself racist?
Well, probably so. It’s easy to search the web for critiques of racism in the series, while on the other hand, it’s equally easy to find a lot of sources (drawing from letters or other places in his writing) which apologize for Tolkien or even lionize him rather uncritically. It’s clear that most consider his views on race rather progressive. On the other hand, I read his series and find his geography undeniably influenced by a European perspective, and I personally find that aspect of his creative works problematic.
This leads, though, to a second question, one that’s probably a lot more relevant. Does this Eurocentrism detract from my enjoyment of his works? Well, when Tolkien writes something that draws my attention away from the narrative to a problem in the telling, I find it, at best, distracting on a superficial level. I can regard his work as being in a high fantasy context, but even high fantasy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I can’t ignore the problem or apologize for it.
On the contrary, I think I’d derive a lot less enjoyment and edification from The Lord of the Rings—or, really, any work of art—if I didn’t hold it in a critical light and explore its flaws. Finding racism in Tolkien’s writing doesn’t negate its artful qualities, ones worth experiencing. Rather than weighing the qualities of his art (or, again, any other) against a single value judgment, in my mind, it’s likely more useful to bring a holistic examination of Tolkien’s writing to the conversation.
So I don’t bring this up to shed light on anything particularly novel about Tolkien. I’m not the first to point out racism in The Lord of the Rings. Instead, I bring it up to participate in that conversation—a conversation which serves a necessary role as a conscience and without which the community of art and literature doesn’t really work. Unless we seek out art with an eye to unearth both the flawed and scintillating facets of the piece, we leave part of it in the ground.