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I enjoyed reading The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and various other works by J.R.R. Tolkien as much as the next person.

However, having read them many times, I now find a few things rather disturbing:

Now, it's most likely that Tolkien was merely spinning a good yarn, and I'm overreacting. Given the emotional investment I have made by reading these stories, I have to work from that assumption.

But I'm keeping this in the back of my mind in case other evidence pops up.

Tolkien was definitely not a racist. In addition to being a devout Christian, he was very liberal and outspoken against racism (very much ahead of his time). It is notable that all of his races have aspects of both good and bad; none are truly "greater" than the other. For instance, while the Eldar (elves) are immortal, this is more of a curse - mortality is considered a gift to the men. Elves themselves are not free from corruption, having had ages of strife between them (I.E. the drama involving the Silmarils).

Additionally, while the Dúnedain from Númenor may have had a longer lifespan, or a fairer appearance, than other "races" of men; they are far from a perfect/ideal group of people. Keep in mind that, while most of the Dúnedain were extraordinary men, more than a few of them were just as corrupt as any Orc. After all, they just about destroyed themselves on a dozen occasions.

Speaking of Orcs, it should be mentioned that they are not a race. They are a species. An imaginary one at that (Orcs were wrought by Morgoth, the Dark Lord. They were made to steal, rape, murder, make war, etc.), and any resemblance to a modern day (human) race, if it exists, was purely unintentional. Orcs, and all of Morgoth's minions for that matter, were used by Tolkien to personify all that is wrong, sinful, or harmful to other human beings in the world. They are not European, African, Native American, Asian, or any other race or nationality. They are all of us.

Throughout Tolkien's work, all those carried away by pride, arrogance, or greed eventually fall (Fëanor, Saruman, Sauron, Númenoreans, Orcs...)1. This is a recurring theme that is blatantly evident. And while Gorgonzola's fear that Tolkien was a racist, or used racist themes in his works, is definitely not unsubstantiated, it's highly unlikely.

1 Viggo Mortensen: "As Tolkien said: nothing is evil in the beginning. The potential for evil is in everyone. Evil, like good, is turned to by choice."

There are certainly racial distinctions in Tolkien's work. How often do we hear the stout men of Gondor curse the Southrons or Easterlings?

But the difference is that these peoples have been corrupted by influences outside of their control. Men other then the three houses of the Edain were ensnared by the empty promises of Morgoth. The Southrons, especially the Corsairs, fell first under the sway of the Black Númenoreans (not a color, BTW) and later directly under Sauron's thumb. The Easterlings, primarily the men of Nurn and Rhûn never had a chance, so close were they to Mordor. The Edain were just lucky, or spared from treachery.

It should also be noted that the Númenoreans eventually returned to Middle-Earth as conquerors themselves. And what about Ar-Pharazôn the Golden himself, humbler of Sauron? It only took a few years for him to listen to the hostage Sauron's whispers about the Undying Lands, and so the fate of the King's Men and Númenor itself was sealed.

Finally, you could argue that the waning of the Dúnedain was due to a "mingling" of pure and unpure blood. Tolkien himself, in Appendix A to LotR, states that this waning was due specifically to the removal of the Men of the West from close proximity to Aman.

Human nature tends to naturally distrust those things that are strange and unusual (hell, it is a fine evolutionary trait as it probably enhanced our survival ages ago). Sadly, we have trouble as a species keeping this trait from manifesting as racism.

I would actually commend Tolkien for treating the topic as realistically as he did. The story setting seems so much more alive and filled with depth when you read about characters acting in a fashion that makes them seem more real.

The thing to keep in mind though are the moments when Tolkien clearly put great stock in characters overcoming their inherent prejudices. The best example that comes to mind is the friendship between Legolas and Gimli. The sense I gather when reading it is that each is made better from their acceptance and bonding to each other. This is a positive message in the midst of a divisive context.

As a side note, I'd like to point out that Morgoth did not create the dark races from scratch. The Silmarillion explains how he captured Elves, and over time, twisted and corrupted them into the race of Orcs. Presumably he created the Trolls and Dragons in a similar manner. Morgoth could not truly create anything: he'd been specifically denied the power of creation.

This also serves to explain the universal hatred of Elves for Orcs. It shows them what they can become, for the Orcs can only be what the Elves are also capable of.

Needless to say, I don't support the idea of racism connected to this. The story is fantasy, it's about black and white; good and evil. Sauron's minions are the Bad Guys. The protagonists are the Good Guys. You can't have an epic struggle of good vs. evil with Aragorn setting down Andúril every couple of seconds to have moral discussions about the Orcs he's killing.

"You know, maybe they just can't help themselves... and jeez, I wish we could stop all this fighting and just get along..." /barf

In a letter to a potential film producer, Tolkien explains orcs as "degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types."

- J.R.R. Tolkien quoted in an article on salon.com.

The Lord of the Rings, by popular vote, is one of the best novels of the 20th century. It is not a great work of literature. It is a great story, an amazing myth, a boy’s own adventure tale, an epic history and a cracking good read. Even if better fantasy novels are written, they will be within the genre that Tolkien popularised. To make something as original, you would have to create your own genre just about from scratch.

In Middle-earth good is good and evil is evil and most of the time it’s not hard to tell what side people are on. Heroes are noble, kind and caring to everyone except evil. Gandalf, a being of vastly more power and knowledge than the hobbits, may become annoyed with them on stressful occasions but is never contemptuous or dismissive. He is kindly and always acknowledges their importance.

The villains are nasty to everyone including their fellow villains. Mordor would be more effective if the orcs didn't squabble amongst each other, but that's not their nature. They wouldn't be completely evil if they helped one another except under threat of punishment.

All orcs are evil, without exception. Genetically, they must be an evil race. Tolkien did not invent his myths, he worked from European sources, and as shown in his own words, that includes the myth of inferior races.

Tolkien is classist. Listen to that mp3 (also from salon.com) of him reading from The Two Towers, and compare the accents of Sam and Frodo. Frodo sounds like he went to Cambridge, and his servant Sam sounds like an escapee from Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen sketch ('an you think you had it tuff … we had to take t' Wun Ring all the way to t' Cracks o' Doom). Within the races the emphasis is on bloodline and heritage as a marker of innate nobility and worth.

The Lord of the Rings can be read as a classist parable - Elves are noble, men are middle class, the hobbits are hardworking farmers and honest villagers, and the orcs are the industrial underclass, the Morlocks.

But The Lord of the Rings is not an enquiry into morals, it is not didactic: it is an adventure story. Even having the heroes feel sorrow at the fact that orcs cannot change their nature would detract from that.

Just about the only moral one can draw from The Lord of the Rings is wouldn't it be great if it were easy to tell what was right and what was wrong? Wouldn't it be great if we could be absolutely sure who was evil?

But we can't and much of the time, wrong is relative and evil is done with good intentions, and it is intermingled with good.

A political outlook in the real world that is limited to good and evil, right and wrong is at best simplistic and at worst dangerous. It makes for a great novel, but please do not confuse it with reality.

Watching the LOTR movies, particularly the scenes of hill-men and orcs invading Rohan, I became of a possible reading of that part of the story: it is a history, told as a myth from the winner's point of view, where the winners are noble and their enemy foul. It is a story, like almost all of human history, of ethnic conflict over land.


Rook disagrees with the classist reading: Clearly, Aragorn is more "noble" than Legolas, as is Frodo moreso than Boromir. There is also the issue of class hierarchies within...

Yes, but the races of middle-earth do stereotype rather easily, don't you think? As for the issues of class hierarchies within, at the end of the book it is Sam who is primed to become mayor of The Shire, while Frodo sails away to the Grey Havens. Sam is therefore the epitome of hobbithood, whist Frodo is an unusual one.

Eco says: might want to address the passage in RotK where Tolkien describes men with "black skin and red tongues" in the battle before Minas Tirith...

unperson has further commentary that I don't quite have an opinion on, so I pass it on to you as is: I'm not sure I see a lot of support for the idea of LOTR as a classist tale. While certainly class structures are seen as important, fun is continually poked at the class structure and focus on heredity of the hobbits. It could well be argued that Sam, who is probably one of the lowest in class, is the most noble, selfless, and courageous character in the book, though he is not the protagonist.

I do think that class and heredity are important in that world as they are important in ours (and many times so in days past); however, I think that is a societal norm displayed, not a value judgment. Both in LOTR and in the hobbit, there seem to be many instances in which the ideas of meaningful differences between the "races" (e.g. dwarves and elves) are undermined.

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