Prefatory Note, 2022:
Last spring, after almost a decade, I rewatched the first two entries in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, films which were quite dear to me during a very rough patch in high school. I quickly realized why I still enjoy the first film, Fellowship of the Ring, while finding its sequel, The Two Towers, a slog.
Putting it simply, Jackson had a lot more to worry about with Film I. Back in 2001, the Kiwi director was an unknown commodity and the studio didn’t know what exactly they had on their hands. Fantasy had been relegated for decades to the B movie ghetto of old men shooting cartoon lightening bolts from their fingers with cutesy sidekicks and knights in tin can shining armor. If Fellowship had bombed, it would have meant that the studio would be stuck with two massive clunkers to dump on direct to video release (remember that veritable toilet of glorious schlock?) As such, Jackson front-loaded the first film with an average of one action set piece every ten minutes or so, which is the recipe for a magnificent epic action movie in the best tradition of Classical Hollywood Cinema.
But the following year, things had changed. Fellowship was the second biggest box office hit of 2001, it had earned a slew of awards (including a surprise Best Picture Oscar nomination, a rarity for genre films), and, as such, Jackson had more space to let his geek freak fly. Two Towers meanders at points into the esoterica of trilogy author JRR Tolkien’s mythos, allowing itself to get bogged down with a legendarium that is frankly a little too baroque and self-important for its own good. All these ornate names that reflect the author’s philological fetishes, his obvious debts to John Milton, Lord Dunsany, Beowulf, and Scandinavian folklore, and his distinctively aristocratic biases regarding property and labor relations, they aggregate into a narrative metastasis that is the complete opposite of successful pacing for an action movie.
These are exactly the problems with Amazon’s new prequel series The Rings of Power. The operative reality is that the scripts are all based upon the infamous Appendices of the trilogy, where Tolkien decided to dump a lot of world-building flatulence that even he was forced to admit had all the narrative momentum of a lead weight. For the readers who have just completed the narrative of Frodo’s journey and crave just one more micro-dose of Middle Earth before closing the book, it is great fun. But for the casual viewership, not high as a kite on a 1,200 page epic they have just completed reading, it all is a lot of pretentious and self-important speechifying in over-wrought baritones. “In the year 12,944 of the Second Age, Bada-Boom doth smote the grand mage Bada-Doodoo with the mighty blade Koo-Koo-Loo-Doo and thus…” What in the name of God?!
Rings of Power over-plays its hand furthermore by having the audacity to set the viewers up with four different sets of protagonists to follow over the course of an hourlong episode. In one corner you have an elven warrior maiden, in corner two is (another) elven diplomat, in corner three is a human medicine woman and her son alongside her elven lover, and in corner four are a pack of proto-hobbits nurse-maiding a mystery man who has (literally) fallen out of the sky. Huh? In equitable terms, that means 15 minutes per episode per character cohort, affording the viewership about as much development as you get from an episode of Law and Order! It’s great world-building but terrible narrative.
For all his flaws (and there were many), Tolkien at least understood that it was necessary to do the complete opposite, start off with a ground-level pastoral pastiche about hobbits and build outwards. It takes nearly a hundred pages before the reader learns that the story is in fact taking place in a massive epic realm with universe-altering portents and an antagonist of diabolical proportions.
I originally authored this column four years ago as a response to the emergence of the alt-right trolling culture on the web, seeking to explain why it was so easy for the renascent white nationalist movement to take advantage of the Rings trilogy for their disgusting purposes. As news has emerged of these same trolls now review-bombing the Amazon serial and harassing the non-white performers in the show over the perceived slight of making Tolkien “woke,” I think that consideration of these matters warrants further understanding. (Much to my amusement, I recently perused one of the recently-released volumes of Tolkein esoterica, The Nature of Middle Earth, and read “The Elvish languages did not distinguish grammatically between male (masculine) and female (feminine). Thus [the gender-neutral pronoun] se meant ‘he’ or ‘she’,” certainly a bee in the bonnet of transphobic cranks like Elon Musk.)
Whilst many might claim that Tolkien was not a racist, I by contrast have a more nuanced view, arguing that his devout pre-Vatican II Catholicism meant he had internalized plenty of antisemitism and endorsements of colonialism, not to mention the anticommunism which was a dogma long before the Bolshevik Revolution.
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The post-modernity of the alt-right, itself an ironic contradiction owing to their hatred of the so-called “Cultural Marxists” who gave us that very framework of textual analysis, is something demonstrated by their undeniable emphasis upon and references to pop culture. Any cursory glance at this political tendency’s multitude of webpages shows a collection of internet memes and in-jokes sourced back to major films and television series of the past 40 years.
There are instances where such references are obviously co-opting a text that otherwise was relatively benign if not progressive to some extent in the original formulation. For instance, while one can certainly criticize various aspects of STAR WARS in hindsight, it was clearly trying to promote a kind of feminist politics in 1977 by having the damsel in distress, Princess Leia, being both spunky and more competent than the male heroes of the picture.
But there are other instances where the text obviously was always promoting a certain notion of reactionary politics. In this sense I would like to take on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, particularly Lord of the Rings, as well as its film adaptations, and indicate how and why these texts were not just racist but were part of the preliminary formation of ideology for the alt-right.
The first source of insight on such matters are Tolkien’s published letters. Here the following samplings paint a portrait of one who was opposed on principle to Nazi racial programs but simultaneously also had internalized many racial stereotypes that were common in that day and age.
#176 From a letter to Naomi Mitchison
8 December 1955
I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue…
It bears mentioning in this instance that the Dwarves of Middle-Earth have many characteristics derived from a racist caricature of Judaism. They are greedy, selfish, obsessed with mining for precious metals and jewels, provincial, and hostile to the Christ-like Elves. While Tolkien always claimed that he was opposed to direct analogy in fantasy, the reason for his dislike of friend C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, it is also true that his formulation of the Elves clearly had inspiration from Catholicism. The Silmarillion, the grand mythos of his world published posthumously, carries obvious inspiration from John Milton’s epics as well as Beowulf, whose story arc was informed by medieval Christianity. Indeed, besides the acclamation attached to his name for the Rings trilogy, Tolkien’s other major notice in the annals of literature is for his groundbreaking criticism of the Old English poem, an essay that continues to shape that scholarly discourse. Tolkien’s elves are not direct analogues to Jesus. Yet their immortality, their sanctity, their righteousness, and their relationship with the Shylock-impersonating dwarves does bear strong resemblance to pre-Vatican II Christology. Here are some further excerpts on Judaism from his epistles, complimentary yet also limited in full perception of the national question.
#81 To Christopher Tolkien
23-25 September 1944 (FS 51)
The Germans have just as much right to declare the Poles and Jews exterminable vermin, subhuman, as we have to select the Germans: in other words, no right, whatever they have done.
30 To Rütten & Loening Verlag[, a German publisher]
25 July 1938
I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Flindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.
In the proper text of the novels, here are just some cursory selections:
But Hobbits have never, in fact, studied magic of any kind, and their elusiveness is due solely to a professional skill that heredity and practice, and a close friendship with the earth, have rendered inimitable by bigger and clumsier races.
“…But there are few left in Middle-earth like Aragorn son of Arathorn. The race of the Kings from over the Sea is nearly at an end. It may be that this War of the Ring will be their last adventure… My dear Frodo, that is just what the Rangers are: the last remnant in the North of the great people, the Men of the West.”
Wide wonder came into Éomer’s eyes. ‘Strider is too poor a name, son of Arathorn,’ he said. ‘Wingfoot I name you. This deed of the three friends should be sung in many a hall. Forty leagues and five you have measured ere the fourth day is ended! Hardy is the race of Elendil!
‘It may be well enough for this lord of the race of Gondor, as he claims,’ he said, ‘but who has heard of a horse of the Mark being given to a Dwarf?’
‘…It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Darkness that they cannot abide the Sun; but Saruman’s Orcs can endure it, even if they hate it. I wonder what he has done? Are they Men he has ruined, or has he blended the races of Orcs and Men? That would be a black evil!’ [Emphasis added]
In each of these selections, we find clear manifestations of mid-twentieth century scientific racism. The final, which alarmingly spells out the notion of ‘race mixing’ as a great sin, would easily be at home in the mouth of a Klansman were ‘Orcs’ and ‘Men’ turned to ‘Blacks’ and ‘whites.’
This should not come as a great surprise. Tolkien was by profession and specialty a philologist and linguist, a discipline which found common cause with the newly-emerging anthropology of the late Enlightenment. While the groundbreaking Haitian anthropologist Anténor Firmin (1850-1911) published in 1885 a monograph repudiating mainstream notions of ‘race science,’ these efforts would not become mainstream until the work of Franz Boas was combined with activism in the academy, the political currents created by European colonial divestment and the anti-apartheid/anti-Jim Crow movements after the Second World War. From the start of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century unto today, there has always been an element within scientific epistemology that at least invites, if not outright promotes, the pseudo-scientific notion of phenotypical variety being equivalent to genetic superiority and inferiority.
The geography of Tolkien’s War of the Ring is not accidental, it is a battle between the good Western civilization and the evil East. As a young man, when he began writing the preliminary elements of The Silmarillion, the author was serving as a soldier at the Battle of the Somme in World War I. It merits consideration to point out the enemy in the East at that point was the Ottoman Empire, at that point aligned with the Germans, caricatured in propaganda posters as ‘Huns’.
At the time of composing Lord of the Rings, the events of the Spanish Civil War were polarizing Catholics around the globe. Tolkien admired Franco’s uprising owing to claims that Communists were engaging in anti-clerical violence. In those days, the Communist East was the scourge of the Church and, as a childhood convert to the faith and ward of a priest after the death of his mother, the author would have been drawn to more conservative elements within the hierarchy. Besides support for anti-colonial struggle and opposition to racism, the Communist movement, with the still-functioning (though at times dysfunctional) Comintern, was promoting an internationalism and solidarity across borders, made manifest most militantly in the International Brigades. Shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the propaganda machine in western Europe rather seamlessly changed the enemy subject from the Germans and Turks into the dreaded Red. Clearly the notion that, decades after the first assault on holy Western civilization, the dark power in the East was rising again, trying to yet again besiege all mankind, describes both the Catholic propaganda narrative of the Spanish war as well as the setup for the quest of Frodo Baggins.
This of course provides a fascinating and curious juxtaposition with the supreme antagonist of the book, Sauron. His ‘One Ring to Rule Them All’, emanating from the solitary citadel of Barad-dûr, continually plays on themes and motifs of singularity, unitarianism, a small-c catholicism. Obviously one can argue that these themes also underwrite Ayn Rand’s definitely anti-Communist project. Yet the clear and present emphasis on a barely-masked theory of racial science combined with these themes seems indicative of a literal demonization of Communism.
Further indications of this can be seen in the undeniable class relations within the hobbit society. Frodo Baggins, the Ringbearer, descends from a semi-aristocratic family of landowners. His dedicated companion, Samwise Gamgee, is a working class gardener whose vocation is following in the footsteps of his father, Gaffer, who previously was servant of Frodo’s Uncle Bilbo. The erstwhile cousins of Frodo, Merry and Pippin, are likewise provincial landowning bumpkins. The unfailing loyalty of Sam unto his Mr. Frodo, while mocked by some as homoerotic, in fact is demonstrative of a mentality regarding the aristocracy that Tolkien apparently found desirable. These expressions of affection between the two that are peppered throughout the later sections of the story, when the duo split off from the wider Fellowship, are ideological and political ideas about how Tolkien felt class relations should be reconciled. Within the human society, the just ordering things is a patriarchal feudalism where women are accorded their place and expected to accede to those demands upon them.
If Sauron is ‘Eastern despotic Communism’ (now after these many years, it may be forgotten that such descriptors were utilized by both the Christian as well as mainstream conservative press outlets) and his One Ring provides that power to the one who wears it, consider now the case of Gollum, the pitiful creature that lost the Ring to Bilbo Baggins. He is a pathetic cave-dwelling ghoul that feeds on raw fish and goblin children who wander too far away from home. During the trilogy, he stalks Frodo, seeking to regain the Ring, with a motivation and emphasis reminiscent of drug addiction or a kind of lustful, obsessive fetish. If there is a singular adjective for Gollum, it is degeneracy. In Republican Spain, the Popular Front government, which was composed of Socialists, Communists, Liberals, and even some Anarchists, legalized abortion care for women. Frederico Garcia Lorca, the queer poet, director, and playwright, was able to make a living by working in state-sponsored cultural programs, such as performances of modernist plays at outdoor theaters in the countryside. Propagandistic notions of infanticide, aberrant sexuality, and atheist Communism on the verge of instituting a red terror seem to carry a tone equivalent to the stance against the encroachment of Sauron that the Fellowship of the Ring desires to stop.
The author, incidentally, responds to such a query via one of his letters from 1961, commenting on an Introduction to a foreign edition of his books:
[From the Introduction in question:] “Here [in Mordor] rules the personification of satanic might Sauron (read perhaps in the same partial fashion Stalin).”
There is no ‘perhaps’ about it. I utterly repudiate any such ‘reading’, which angers me. The situation was conceived long before the Russian revolution. Such allegory is entirely foreign to my thought. 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.
Perhaps Tolkien was being honest. In the sense that he opposed allegory, he would have been diligent. However, there also occurs the phenomena of a certain set of racist tropes always and without fail ending up as a discourse that includes anti-Communism. This is because Communism, as an ethic and principle of social relations, is premised upon unapologetic internationalism. In that Communism proposed that all men are equals in nature and physical make-up, that phenotypical feature does not demarcate genetic variation beyond superficial elements of no real consequence, so then Tolkien’s query about whether Saruman had ‘blended the races of Orcs and Men? That would be a black evil!’ becomes anti-Communist. It is not an anti-Communism that focuses upon the personalities of Bolshevism but rather a paranoia about the ethics and social dynamics of a Communist society and in particular one that does not see inter-ethnic coupling as “a black evil.”
Further elaboration on this theme, in an antithetical fashion, is presented in the case of Norman Spinrad’s postmodern science fiction novel The Iron Dream. In 1973, the late Ursula K. Le Guin wrote an essay examining the volume for the scholarly journal Science Fiction Studies:
Adolf Hitler’s Hugo-winning novel of 1954, Lord of the Swastika, presented by Norman Spinrad as The Iron Dream (Avon 1972), is an extraordinary book. Perhaps it deserves the 1973 Hugo, as well.
On the back cover Michael Moorcock compares the book with “the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Sir Oswald Mosley…. It is the very quintessence of sword and sorcery.” None of the authors mentioned is relevant, except Mosley, but the reference to sword and sorcery is exact… There are no women at all, no dirty words, no sex of any kind: the book is a flawless example of clean obscenity. It will pass any censor, except the one that sits within the soul.
Spinrad realized that the genre promotes not just conservatism but outright reaction. From the days of H.P. Lovecraft’s terror at a multicultural Red Hook, New Jersey to the politics of Robert Heinlein to today, where the overlap between the alt-right and fan convention subcultures has generated openly vicious moments of racism, homophobia, sexism, and misogyny, science fiction and fantasy have the tendency to promote every type of chauvinism unless exacting and conscious care is taken by the author. Spinrad writes:
Much science fiction, indeed much of the best science fiction, openly addresses questions of social morality, but unfortunately the majority of science fiction novels published are action-entertainment formula stuff in which the major moral conflict is simply between the good guys (us) and the bad guys (them), itself a paradigm that does not exactly promote peace and understanding. There is something deeply disturbing in the congruence between the commercial pulp action-adventure formula and the Übermensch in jackboots.
What is science fiction and fantasy exactly? As a genre and tradition, it has its origins within the epoch of the Second International and the Socialist movement. While genre antecedents can be found as early as the 10th century, its contemporary formulation dates back, in the accounts of many, to either Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or the post-1860s writings of Jules Verne, with H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs indicated as the latest entrants in the pantheon of founders. These stories began as romances that were directly confronting and grappling with the contradictions brought to human civilization by the Industrial Revolution. As those contradictions heightened to the point of political formation, with labor organizing becoming the basis of early socialist politics, explicitly political thinkers would use the genre to express their ideals. For instance, Edward Bellamy composed a futuristic utopian novel, Looking Backward, which is considered one of the first of that sub-genre, in order to expound his program of nationalizing the means of production. The Time Machine by Wells has an obvious class component derived from Marxism.
Perhaps the flaw within the genre that welcomes this reactionary potential is the outstanding shortcoming that caused the collapse of the Socialist movement into the bloodbath of World War I, namely its blindspot about imperialism and racism. The pre-war Socialist movement contained within it individual personalities, such as Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, Stalin, and others, who struggled against the march towards war. However, when the moment of truth arose, the respective national parties that had vowed to stave off the war instead voted approval for the slaughter, a decision that had at its core an undeniable racism towards the various colonized populations in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. More than a century later, we still continue to grapple with the repercussions of those decisions. Could contemporary science fiction and fantasy likewise manifest this struggle with that legacy?
It has been clear for years to Tolkien aficionados and scholars that the author was grappling with the horrors of the war he witnessed at the Somme. Scenes of submerged dead soldiers in the Dead Marshes during The Two Towers replicate images of bodies the author saw in France’s trenches. When the books were adapted to film shortly after the attacks of 9-11, it was noted by many with great horror that all the soldiers fighting for Sauron had Asian or African features. The dread Uruk-Hai of the first picture wear dreadlocks. The Haradrim, a nationality that rides Hannibal-like into battle on powerful elephants, seems to have been cast from a Pakistani or perhaps Syrian talent office. The bulk of the second picture replicates much of the structure of the 1964 film ZULU, a cinematic apologia for British imperialism in South Africa.
Today, as the imperial sieges of the Middle East continue to shape our own domestic political discourse, the HBO series GAME OF THRONES, itself adamantly inspired by Tolkien, carries within it struggles about statecraft and war that includes, according to. Simultaneously, there are aspects, at least in the television version, which harken to orientalist representations of the mysterious eastern Other, particularly the Dothraki and their leader Khal Drogo. The sequence in the first season of spousal rape following an arranged marriage between Drogo and the teenaged Daenerys Targaryen seems to replicate the most bacchanal and disturbing pornographic terrors of the imperial epoch. These representations of gender and masculinity, for the untrained eye, are the cultural ingredients that brought us the nightmares of Dylan Roof, the alt-right, Richard Spencer, and ultimately Charlottesville.
It is in the verdant imagination of the writer and the reader that these contradictions are staged and hopefully can be eventually solved. In the works of Black writers like Samuel R. Delaney and Octavia Butler, we find suggestions of these solutions, just as in the short story The Comet by W.E.B. Du Bois we found other suggestions. Perhaps these materials merit further examination by Tolkien fans so to elaborate upon such solutions?