One writer has claimed Lord of the Rings is prejudiced against Orcs and warned that embracing Tolkein’s idea has ‘dire consequences for society’.
Andrew Duncan, author of The Pottawatomie Giant, The Big Rock Candy Mountain among others, has spent years writing fantasy which offers wider commentary on modern global issues.
In fact, his most notable work, the parody novel titled Senator Bilbo was inspired when Duncan noticed segregationist former Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo – best known for his racist and demagogic rhetoric – shares a name with J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbit hero Bilbo Baggins.
Duncan has spent a lot of time thinking about Tolkein, but the Nebula award-winning writer told WIRED, in Episode 336 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, he struggles to ignore the racist undertones in the Lord of the Rings books.
It’s hard to miss the repeated notion in Tolkien that some races are just worse than others, or that some peoples are just worse than others.
And this seems to me – in the long term, if you embrace this too much – it has dire consequences for yourself and for society.
It’s worth noting the origins of the Orc race is explicitly outlined in Tolkein’s written work, but largely ignored in the Hollywood movie adaptations by Peter Jackson.
As explained on The One Wiki To Rule Them All, it is believed the first Dark Lord Melkor enslaved some Elves at Cuiviénen and cruelly tortured them, turning them into Orcs, long before Oromë first discovered the race of elvish creatures.
Burt there’s no doubt, once the Elves turn to Orcs and thus to evil, their appearance markedly changes – and Tolkein’s writing does rely on some visual stereotypes now uncomfortable to modern readers with anti-racist sensibilities.
The Uruk-Hai are described as ‘black’ and tracker Orcs are described as ‘black-skinned’. All Orcs are often described as ‘slant-eyed’.
In one of his letters, Tolkien described Orcs as ‘squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.’
Tolkein, however, was keen to point out Orcs are not a natural race, so incomparable to the standards by which we measure mankind – but this in itself has proved to compound some fans’ fears about the aesthetic portrayal of ‘pure evil’ as something ‘other’ or ‘dark’ in Tolkein’s work.
Christine Chism mentions the issue of racism in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, where she distinguishes accusations as falling into three categories: intentional racism, unconscious Eurocentric bias, and an evolution from latent racism in Tolkien’s early work to a conscious rejection of racist tendencies in his late work.
Some might argue there is good and bad in all species and races who play into the narrative of the Lord of the Rings – even firm favourites like Gandalf have to avoid the One Ring, fearing his own capacity to wield it for evil.
But in an overwhelming white production, that Eurocentric bias Chism speaks of rears its ugly head quite clearly. (Sorry Gandalf.)
Of course, creative writing is always shifting the goalposts and reflecting societal issues and feeling.
Indeed, Senator Bilbo (2001) and its references to border walls and a ‘Shire First’ policy long predate President Donald Trump’s immigration policies – and make it seem more relevant than ever.
Duncan says the story deals with themes that are, unfortunately, timeless, adding:
In many ways President Trump is unique, but in many ways we have seen his like before. We have seen the forces that he has tapped into on the ascendency before.
As Tolkien well knew, the war is never quite over, and it has a tendency to show up right there in your own hometown when you’re least expecting it.
Duncan believes that these reactionary waves come in constant cycles, so it’s important for the response to be cyclical as well.
There are high hopes for a more diverse LOTR TV adaption, which will be coming to small screens near you courtesy of Amazon Studios.
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