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27 November 2018

“Lord of the Rings is racist about orcs” is not an important new front in the Culture War

The battle of the Times editorial pages.

By Ed Jefferson

Call the police, a nerd has said something about Lord of the Rings on a podcast. Excellent news for everyone who thinks “political correctness has gone mad” can be considered a hot take in 2018, a group that apparently includes several national newspapers.

During an interview with a Wired podcast, sci-fi author Andy Duncan was asked about a 2001 short story, Senator Bilbo, which riffed on elements of Tolkien’s work that he felt could be construed as racist: “It’s hard to miss the repeated notion in Tolkien that some races are just worse than others,” he said, “or that some peoples are just worse than others.”

What he’s getting at is: the conclusion of Lord of the Rings takes on a darker tone if you treat the orcs as people and start examining their motivations.

For Tolkien’s purposes, orcs are treated as irredeemably evil – so they can be happily exterminated by our heroes with no pause for ethical debate. Duncan’s story is set in a version of Middle-earth where this turns out not to be true; where most of the supposed differences between races don’t exist; and those that believe all orcs are bad are simply backward, prejudiced idiots. Ahhhhhh, do you see?

Duncan isn’t the first person to use this kind of gimmick. In 1999 Russian Tolkien non-fan Kirill Eskov published an entire novel with the premise that Lord of the Rings was propaganda written by the winners of the war, and that if anything the orcs were the good guys all along. In both cases one would suspect that the key motivation was “I think this would be an interesting conceit”, rather than “I must defend orcs against the bad racist”, but then again, it takes different strokes to move the world.

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Was Tolkien a racist? There are certainly elements of his work that are eyebrow-raising to the modern reader. For example: when some of the men from the Isle of Númenór turn out to be rotters, maybe don’t call them Black Númenóreans, JRR. And maybe it’s a bit weird that almost all the people from bits that are blatantly meant to be Africa and Asia are besties with the Dark Lord; even if you’re going to start yelling that you would never do an analogy, a habit to which Tolkien was frequently prone.

On the balance of probability, and with the caveats that a) I never met the man and b) I’m a white bloke from West Sussex, I would suggest that Tolkien’s creations were not intended as a racist project. A 1938 letter to his German publisher makes it clear that he was appalled by the Nazis, and strongly disapproved of apartheid in South Africa. He was dead by the time various fascist and neo-nazi groups (including the BNP) decided his books were actually about white supremacy, but you’d have to suspect he wouldn’t have been overjoyed.

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This doesn’t mean that it’s not good and right to interrogate his stuff – or any stuff – and to point out and discuss its more problematic aspects. Tolkien started writing it more than 81 years ago: it really isn’t that shocking that some of it might read strangely to modern eyes.

But to present someone explaining where they got the idea for a short story, the best part of two decades ago, as some new front in “the culture war” is both mind-numbingly stupid and utterly transparent. No need to read the article: just slam that link onto Facebook and complain about how They are trying to stop you from reading books now! Bonus: because it’s about a fantasy novel you can call anyone who tries to offer any actual knowledge of the subject a boring nerd! Even though actually it’s very cool and normal to have read all 12 volumes of Christopher Tolkien’s The History of Middle-earth.

Well, if that’s where we are now, let me blow your mind: I reckon if they were making the first episode of the old Doctor Who nowadays, they probably wouldn’t have Doctor Who talk about the “savage mind” of the “Red Indian”. Like and subscribe!

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