Saturday, January 7, 2012

Tolkien the racist

In the wake of the anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien's 120th birthday, we had the usual debate over Tolkien's racism.  Of course, racism is the sin of our age.  If you can link something to racist ideologies, that's it.  Which is why we tend to see Hitler as only evil, while Stalin or Lenin or Mao were, well, bad guys and all, but...

Of course it could be argued that some of the ways Tolkien saw the world were products of his time in history, and those as defined today could amount to racism.  Whether that makes The Lord of the Rings or any other such book a 'racist' work will probably say more about the person's definition of racism, and how one views modern morals vs. the morals held by other before us.

Most of it, of course, centers around the idea of Orcs being intrinsically evil creatures, unable to come to redemption, and the men of the South - dark skinned and swarthy - being shown as servants of the Enemy.  Personally I don't think Tolkien a racist, nor do I see racism in the works.  I see a man writing a mythology where that is how it would have looked to those writing the mythology.  Did some of it echo that European scientific racism of the 19th and early 20th centuries?  Perhaps.  I wouldn't slam someone who saw that.  But it can also be overplayed, as racism in our culture often is.  The most ludicrous charge being that the Scourging of the Shire was an anti-semitic chapter.  If I wanted to see it that way, I couldn't.  And that shows the flip side of the charge of racism.  If racism is evil, the charge should be made on an absolute 'without a doubt' basis.  Not one that almost insists I have to believe it without evidence in the first place, then go and look for it.  Because charging racism without solid evidence is, in my opinion, as bad as denying it when it's obviously there.

Oh, and for what it's worth, looking to someone like Philip Pullman for a critique of Tolkien is like looking to Rush Limbaugh for a critique of President Obama.  Pullman, like many new atheists, doesn't hide the fact that he hates - HATES - all religion with the white hot fury of a thousand suns.  So it shouldn't be shocking that a work so infused with religious philosophy and reflection as Lord of the Rings, would not find a fan in Pullman.      

Anyway, the debates can be found here, here, and here

Also, just as an add on, it's common in some circles of Tolkien fandom to almost apologize for liking the work.  Many take on his prose and poetry.  I, for one, love his prose.  It is what it is.  He's writing in a way that suggests a work written before the modern age, but more accessible than a work written before the modern age would be.  He writes a story, but the way he wants to write it.  A combination of Thomas Kinkade and Pablo Picasso.  That's one of the most endearing qualities in the work, at least for me.

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