How Tolkien Contributes to White Supremacy

Miles Boucher
9 min readJul 21, 2020
Photo by Jeff Finley on Unsplash

Tolkien’s Life/History:

J.R.R. Tolkien or “The Professor” to his most stalwart fans, was a linguist, an educator, a literary genius, deeply religious, and undoubtedly a patriot.

When I discuss how Tolkien contributes to white supremacy, I am not directly challenging the man, but his writings. Tolkien’s personal views have often been summarized in an unsent letter given to his publishers in response to an inquiry by then German publishers into his ancestry:

“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.” -Tolkien, 1938

Clearly Tolkien was not a white supremacist, at least not in the way the National Socialist Movement of mid-century Germany would approve. Critics and fans have grappled with the question of whether the man was racist or had fascist leanings. Allow me to take a more moderate view:

Tolkien was raised, worked, and thrived during a time of intense racism. He must have been influenced by the very culture that he found personally repugnant. This appears in his writings without ill intent, but must be considered for the good of society.

So it is not to the Professor that I address my concerns, but his Legendarium: the body of work that he left behind and has influenced countless authors and audiences after him.

As of this writing, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, & Tolkien’s various other writings including but not limited to the history of Middle-Earth, his Silmarillion, have accounted for over 150 million copies sold world wide. The movies based on the books have grossed billions of dollars and reached world wide audiences and acclaim.

It would be an understatement to call it one of the most significant contributions to fantasy of all time. Its literary and cultural impact has already echoed for decades and may well resonate for centuries along with works like Beowulf, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, & Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

So what does Tolkien have to do with white supremacy? Well, before that, we should probably begin with an understanding of what white supremacy is.

Photo by EMILE SÉGUIN 🇨🇦 on Unsplash

White Supremacy:

White supremacy can manifest in several ways, through culture, political ideology, societal or judicial constraints, but at its heart, it is a sincere belief in the superiority of white peoples over and above other ethnic groups or people of color.

“At its heart, it is a sincere belief in the superiority of white peoples over and above other ethnic groups or people of color.”

Depending on the group or type of ideology, who or what qualifies as “white” can be vastly different, but these are some of the core ideas and conclusions of white supremacy:

  1. Racial superiority
  2. A mythical ancestral purity
  3. The eradication of impurity

Racial Superiority

The belief that one race or ethnic group is superior to all others.

This belief leads to things like hate crimes, systemic oppression, public policy, and wars because if you are sincere in your belief, it only makes sense to enact it through action, whether political or personal.

Ancestral Purity

The troubles of society are blamed on other groups. White society must inherently be superior, and therefore any incongruity must be a result of outside intervention. A plot by other groups to subvert or otherwise thwart white domination.

Often, this manifests in a desire to return to a mythical past, where a single ethnic group was individual and pure, unmolested by interlopers, immigrants, or indoctrination to new standards of living.

Eradication

Finally, the solution: Extermination of all extraneous elements, groups, or peoples. If the goal is racial purity, the most logical solution is one of war and societal stratification. These types of elements have led to some of the worst atrocities in history including:

  • Apartheid
  • Jim Crow Laws
  • Atlantic slave trade
  • The Holocaust
  • The genocide of the Indigenous in the Americas

Tolkien’s Writings:

The world of Tolkien’s Legendarium lends itself disturbingly well to these 3 core values of white supremacy. Primarily through his treatment of the different races:

Races in Tolkien tend to be very monolithic save for mankind and particular individuals (Gimli/Legolas).

These races are:

  • The Valar (gods) & Maiar (angels/spirits)
  • Elves
  • Ents
  • Man
  • Dwarves
  • & Orcs

The Valar are a pantheon of deities in Tolkien’s work.

The Valar create other forms of life, including Ents (tree-folk) and the varying races of people.

For now, let us ignore the cosmogony of Tolkien and focus on its peoples and see how they fair:

Elves:

Elves are considered to be the oldest, wisest, most powerful, and fairest of all the races. They are immortal, immune to poison, aging, and dying save through violence or despair (suicide).

They are the epitome of everything to strive for: the first to create language, hence their name for themselves: Queni (those who speak). They are immortal and so never die. They adore music and food, the making and growing of things. They are in a Platonic sense, ideal living creatures. They exist perfectly in accord with nature, with morals, and barring intervention seemingly with each other.

And they are always described as “fair”.

It is important to note the long literary history of the word “fair”, especially with regards to British literature. The word fair derives from Old English meaning “agreeable”, as in “fair weather”, but has also come to mean “just” as in “fair play”. However, it may also mean “light” as in complexion “fair skinned” as opposed to “browne” or “foul” (meaning dark/black).

“So foul and fair a day I have not seen” -Macbeth

Did you know that in the entirety of Tolkien’s Legendarium, no elf is referred to as having pointed ears?

Their physical descriptions include black/blond/silver hair, grey eyes, tall of stature, thin of body, strong of spirit, and fair of feature.

Mankind:

Another creation of the Valar, the first men are the Edain who live with the elves. They become the Numenoreans and intermarry with the elves to become the Dunedain.

Dunedain:

Dunedain are descendants of half-elves and have prolonged life.

The House of Elros were particularly long lived because of Elros’s ancestry (half-elven: ~500 years), age, ancestry, their ancient history, and cross breeding with the elves led to ennobling of their kind.

They are bettered having an ancient and unbroken lineage, having intermarried with elves and are the basis of mankind’s redemption arc in Tolkien’s work. The new era of human salvation comes at the hands of their descendants.

Easterlings/Southrons:

These are men of the East and South who fight alongside Sauron in the War of the Ring. Often compared critically with Asia & Africa respectively, they are described as swarthy (dark), or dark skinned.

In Two Towers, IV.3. Gollum (Smeagol) describes them in detail:

“Dark faces. We have not seen Men like these before, no, Smeagol has not. They are fierce. They have black eyes, and long black hair, and gold rings in their ears; yes, lots of beautiful gold…Not nice; very cruel wicked Men they look. Almost as bad as Orcs, and much bigger.”

Those out of the East (the Haradrim) are clearly modeled after South Asian peoples fighting from the back of “oliphaunts.”

Often condemned for their frightening appearance, these wicked Men have been known in the Legendarium to support the evil factions with no heroes or notable exceptions to speak of.

So these men look like Orcs, well what does Tolkien think of Orcs?

Orcs:

Orcs are a corruption of the elves! Melkor (the original Dark Lord of Tolkien’s cosmogony) stole elves from the Queni (first people) and somehow created the orcs in twisted experiments as evidenced in the Silmarillion.

They are a battered and beleaguered race, worthy of pity, but are oppressed by Melkor and Sauron to do their bidding. But, that was ancient history in the First & Second Age. What of the Third Age?

Orcs were evil, cruel, wicked, hateful, blackhearted, and hated everybody and everything, particularly the orderly and prosperous” (Hobbit Ch. IV)

Not a great impression.

What does Tolkien have to say for his literary creations?

Physically…they are (or were) 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.

They were invented by Tolkien to represent enemy foot soldiers. The true enemy is always Sauron and his influence over the world through agents of power: The Nazgul (commanders), Saruman (general), & the orcish hordes (foot soldiers).

Tolkien is often writing of his experiences during World War I where he served, so many of the tactics and military campaigns are influenced by his own experience with combat. He needed to invent a type of creature to help facilitate these massive exchanges between good and evil and so appropriated the hobgoblin out of fairy tales.

If you read The Hobbit, much of their classic image is preserved as swarthy, green-skinned, clever and tricky, prone to violence or thwarting of other’s good work. However, with the advent of The Lord of the Rings, their development veered wildly toward the violence of war.

“The orcs are simple hero-bait, to be slaughtered ad infinitum, piled in heaps and burnt. They are given a lower status than rats.”

--Review, 1981

This element of fantasy was almost entirely invented by Tolkien from whole cloth and yet it is one of the most pervasive fantasy tropes to continue to today.

The Orc now falls into similar categories of ancient literary traditions as monsters, the Cylops, the Giant, etc. and with ever-growing ubiquity alongside vampires, zombies, and dragons.

Legacy:

Tolkien’s success is undeniable and rightly earned. His conception of a fantasy universe stems directly from a beautiful literary history including Beowulf, one of the first fantasy epics, The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Faerie Queene, & The Worm Ouroboros. Its scope is breathtaking and many pursue to emulate it.

But, that is inherently the problem.

His flirtation with an ethnically superior Elvish nation, his glorification of a romantic human history, made better through commingling with elvish ancestry, the idea of nobility and degeneracy being tied to blood and family all contribute to white supremacist ideology.

Race in Tolkien will always be an embittered discussion. And here’s why: People are always going to ascribe blame to historical actors for the good and the bad in history when the truth is a lot simpler:

We didn’t have the best understanding of race in the 1930s. We just didn’t

Racism was rampant at the time, fascism was on the rise and the stories and ideas of that time reflect it. There is a reason Tolkien was popular both in America, Britain, & Germany at the time period. It wasn’t because he was a crypto-fascist, but his narrative was both compelling AND they could see their values represented.

I adore The Hobbit. I think it is a brilliant tale of a creature of small stature, fighting their way through a violent world through wits and skill, hurting, but never killing, anyone in the entire story. I think that is the biggest takeaway from Tolkien’s Legendarium.

And that is undoubtedly tied to his Christianity, which informed his entire writing career: the meekest among you shall inherit the earth. I think it is a beautiful sentiment.

However, I also believe in the responsibility of authors and stories to be carefully read and criticized. For it was also the Bible that was used to justify Antebellum slave ownership (Haynes, Stephen, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery).

Stories have power to influence people. We must be careful what we choose to keep alive.

Every year fantasy series use these racist trope-laden ideas to continue to perpetuate an idea from the time of Hitler Youth:

  • Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition
  • The Shannara Trilogy
  • Elder Scrolls (1–6)
  • Warcraft
  • Everquest
  • Ultima
  • Shadow of the Demon Lord

Again, and I feel this is important, I love and adore nearly all of these franchises. I don’t believe that any of their creators are intentionally racist when they use these tropes. But, if you unquestioningly perpetuate racist ideas, you are unwittingly doing the work of oppressors.

Now, the question is, what can be done about it?

I believe that is the subject of another post.

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Miles Boucher

Writer committed to liberation and equality through art and activism. The work begins when the performance ends.