The Centrality of Race in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

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In J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel The Two Towers, Faramir, the son of a powerful ruler, bemoans decline of Gondor and the culture known as “the West.” The interesting thing is the reason Faramir gives for this decline. It’s literally because the men of Gondor aren’t having enough sex, while “the Enemy” is having too much sex. As Faramir puts it: “For the Enemy increases and we decrease. We are a failing people, a springless autumn.” To be clear, Faramir is using the literal definitions of increase and decrease: “the Enemy” is described as “multiplying… in the mountains” (i.e. having sex) in The Fellowship of the Ring, while the rulers of Gondor are described as “Childless lords” who “made tombs more splendid than the houses of the living” (i.e. not having sex) in Towers.

I forgot to mention one other thing. The people of Gondor and of “the West” are White. In Towers, Denethor (the ruler of Gondor) is described as having “skin like ivory,” and the men of Gondor are described as “goodly men, pale-skinned” (not the association of the two descriptions). Meanwhile, “the Enemy” is overwhelmingly described as Black: both Orcs (fictional monsters who serve “the Enemy”) and men who serve “the Enemy” are described as having black skin (e.g. in The Return of the King an Orc is described as being “of a small breed, black-skinned, with wide and snuffling nostrils”).

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings contains several fascinating depictions of race. Unfortunately, when people (including some academics) read Tolkien’s writings, they tend to ignore the role race has in his stories. It’s a shame, because an understanding of how race works in Middle Earth could lead to an understanding of how race works in the real world. And because race is so integral to Tolkien’s writings, anyone who doesn’t understand how race works in Middle Earth can’t fully understand the complexities behind Tolkien’s ideas about gender, about government, or about morality, to name three of many themes in his writing.

In this article, I hope to explain some of the overlooked aspects of Middle Earth and, in the process, perhaps explain aspects of the real world as well.

Why study race?

In literature and art that features characters of color, there is a tendency to view those characters as irrelevant to the main story. To use The Lord of the Rings as an example: many of the people who I’ve talked to view the racism against, say, the Orcs, as something that is bad, but isn’t really important to the main story and the overarching themes of the novels. This phenomenon extends to modern politics: in the United States, people view slavery as something that was bad, but also as something that happened a long time ago and which didn’t and doesn’t play an important role in American culture.

Toni Morrison, in her book Playing in the Dark, turns this assumption on its head. Using example after example, she shows how people of color, even as they are stereotyped and pushed to the margins of art and society, play a critical role in the creation of White identity and White narratives.

In this article, I’m going to show that Toni Morrison is right. Primarily using The Lord of the Rings, I’m going to show that despite their marginalization, characters of color are essential to the construction of Tolkien’s ideas about sexuality and power. I chose these themes not only because they are crucial to Tolkien’s writing, but because they contain several inconsistencies that can only be explained by examining how these ideas are racially constructed.

How race works in Tolkien’s writing

Race is a complicated concept. Its meaning varies according to location and time period. For example, the way someone from Europe in the twentieth century thinks about race is very different from how someone from America in the twenty-first century thinks about race.

Race is a modern concept. Most historians date the invention of race to the beginning of colonization and the slave trade, although as will become evident in this article, many features of race date back earlier to medieval Europe. Race was invented by Europeans. I mention this because many people, when talking about race, make incorrect statements such as “racism will never go away, because humans have always fought each other,” as if race is normal and part of human nature (thereby absolving themselves of any responsibility for racism). Of course, that’s not true: people have been fighting each other for thousands of years, long before race was invented. (Another mistake: violence is not part of human nature, but that’s an issue for another article.)

Before I talk about how race affects the plot of The Lord of the Rings, I need to explain some of the features of Tolkien’s racial system. Most, but not all, of these concepts have present-day analogues.

Racial hierarchies

In Tolkien’s universe, race is a hierarchy. White characters on the top, Black characters are on the bottom, and there are also characters who are neither Black nor White, but “in between” the two.

Here’s a quote from Faramir in The Two Towers where this idea is explained quite explicitly:

For so we reckon Men in our lore, calling them the High, or Men of the West, which were Númenoreans; and the Middle Peoples, Men of the Twilight, such as are the Rohirrim and their kin that dwell still far in the North; and the Wild, the Men of Darkness.

In Tolkien’s world, the whitest characters are the Elves. We know this because characters frequently credit the Elves as the source of their whiteness. For example, Frodo’s white skin is described in Return as “fair of hue… pale but beautiful with an elvish beauty,” i.e. whiteness is beautiful because it is elvish. Another example is how the men of Gondor (who are the whitest humans, according to Faramir), are high up in the hierarchy because they speak elvish: in Towers Frodo is able to identify men from Gondor because “it was the Elven-tongue that they spoke, or one but little different.”

We also know this because the Elves are frequently described as being overwhelmingly white. For example, here’s a description of the Elf Glorfindle from Fellowship:

In the dusk its headstall flickered and flashed, as if it were studded with gems like living stars. The rider’s cloak streamed behind him, and his hood was thrown back; his golden hair flowed shimmering in the wind of his speed. To Frodo it appeared that a white light was shining through the form and raiment of the rider, as if through a thin veil.

The Orcs play a similar role at the opposite (i.e. Black) end of the spectrum. The Orcs are frequently described as having black skin. For example, in Fellowship, Orcs are described as “swarming black figures,” and an individual Orc is described as having “A huge arm and shoulder, with a dark skin of greenish scales, was thrust through the widening gap. Then a great, flat, toeless foot was forced through below.”

Like the Elves, Orcs are credited by other characters as the source of blackness. For example, the leader of a group of men with brown skin (i.e. their position on the racial hierarchy is between the Orcs and the Elves) is described as “a great squint-eyed brute like a huge Orc.” The fact that Tolkien compares the leader of a group of “in between” men to an Orc shows that Orcs are the gold standard to which blackness is measured in The Lord of the Rings. Another example: a different group of men from the south are described as “Almost as bad as Orcs” in Towers.

Finally, there is the fact that Tolkien himself, in a letter, describes the orcs as “degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” (This letter can be found in the book The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien). The meaning of this seems clear to me: Orcs represent the “least lovely” position on the racial hierarchy in The Lord of the Rings.

Everyone else lies somewhere between these two extremes. For example, Faramir refers to the Rohirrim as the “middle people” in Towers, i.e. implying that they are not as white as the Elves, but they are whiter than “the men of darkness”: the Easterlings (also known as the Men of Rhûn) and the Southrons (also known as the Men of Harad). Note that the Easterlings and the Southrons are Black: in Towers men from “Far Harad” are described as “black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues,” and a “Southron” is described as having a “brown hand” which “still clutched the hilt of a broken sword.”

I’m not sure how popular the idea of a racial hierarchy is today, but in the days of scientific racism, such racial hierarchies were quite common. Here’s an example from the late 19th century.

A drawing by H. Strickland Constable from 1899 depicting how the Irish are in the middle of the racial hierarchy. Image from Wikimedia Commons. A drawing by H. Strickland Constable from 1899 depicting how the Irish are in the middle of the racial hierarchy.

Understanding the language of race

It’s difficult to talk about race in literature, because the English language language can be very confusing when it comes to race. For example, Tolkien frequently uses archaic language and obscure metaphors to talk about race. It’s easy for readers to miss these references.

To aid the reader, I’m going to explain some of the racial language used by Tolkien. Some of this language may be familiar or even obvious to the reader. However, some of it won’t be, such as Tolkien’s references to medieval anti-semitism.

Although most of the racial language I discuss below is specific to The Lord of the Rings, the idea of explaining racial language before explaining the racial dynamics of art comes from Richard Dyer’s book White.

Skin color

Skin color is probably the most obvious way race is communicated in today’s society. It plays a similar role in The Lord of the Rings: having white skin is a good thing, and a clear sign that someone is White. For example, in descriptions of White men in Towers pale skin is associated with being “goodly”:

They took off their masks now and again to cool them, as the day-heat grew, and Frodo saw that they were goodly men, pale-skinned, dark of hair, with grey eyes and faces sad and proud.

Skin is complicated by the fact that it can have meanings other than race. For example, having pale skin can be a sign of ill-health or death: in Towers the dead men of the marshes are described as having “pale faces, deep deep under the dark water.” When talking about references to skin color, it’s important to note the context such references are used in.

Facial features

Some facial features–such as blue eyes and blond hair–are used to identify a character as White. To quote Dyer in his book White: “[t]his is most obviously carried in the notion that two specific variants, blond hair and blue eyes, are uniquely white, to the degree that a non-white person with such features is considered, usually literally, to be remarkable.” For evidence of this, look no further than the Nazis, who idealized a “Nordic race” of Whites with blond hair and blue eyes.

Similarly, the phrase “squint-eyed” and its variations have racial connotations. To quote Dyer: the “pointy noses and round eyes” of whites play a key role in defining whiteness. Today, many Asians get surgery to make their eyes more western.

The words swarthy and fair

Tolkien uses the word Swarthy a lot. The word Swarthy is an archaic word for Black.

Fair means a lot of things. One of its meanings is white, i.e. “fair skin.” Its meaning depends on its context.

The colors red, yellow, and black

Orcs, and characters close to Orcs on Tolkien’s racial hierarchy, are frequently associated with the colors red, yellow, and black. For example, the Haradrim are described in Towers as follows:

They are fierce. They have black eyes, and long black hair, and gold rings in their ears; yes, lots of beautiful gold. And some have red paint on their cheeks, and red cloaks; and their flags are red, and the tips of their spears; and they have round shields, yellow and black with big spikes. Not nice; very cruel wicked Men they look. Almost as bad as Orcs, and much bigger. Sméagol thinks they have come out of the South beyond the Great River’s end.

Here are some other examples. The eye of Sauron is described in Fellowship as “rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothingness.” In Towers an Orc is described stooping “over Pippin bringing his yellow fangs close to his face.” And again in Towers, “black men” from “Far Harad” are described as having “white eyes and red tongues.”

This isn’t coincidental. In Margaret Sinex’s fantastic paper titled “Monsterized Saracens, Tolkien’s Haradrim, and Other Medieval ‘Fantasy Products’” (appearing in the 2010 Volume 7 edition of the Tolkien Studies journal), she notes how these colors were used by medieval Europeans to depict Jews.

To quote from Debra Strickland’s book Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art:

Both yellow and red are colors that feature consistently in pejorative images of Jews, and both colors had contemporary associations with criminals and other social undesirables including Jews themselves once they were forced to wear the yellow badge of infamy in certain regions.

Here’s an example of this from the Lorenzkirche (Church of St. Lawrence) in Germany. In this stained glass picture, several Jews are shown worshiping the golden calf (i.e. being idolatrous). Notice how one of the ways the figures are identified as Jewish is through their yellow hats and clothing. (For a more detailed analysis of this scene, consult Sinex’s paper or Strickland’s book).

Stained glass from the Lorenzkirche depicting Jews worshiping the golden calf. Photograph by George P. Landow.

Race and symbolism

Race is often conveyed in terms of symbolism. For example, here is a fascinating passage from Fellowship that depicts this:

I [Gandalf] looked then and saw that his [Saruman’s] robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

“I liked white better,” I said.

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

In this passage, Gandalf and Saruman are literally talking about the color of Saruman’s robes rather than Saruman’s skin. But I find it amazing that at the exact moment Gandalf realizes that Saruman is evil, Gandalf also notices that Saruman’s robes aren’t white but made of multiple colors. Given the fact that Whiteness is associated with good, I think this passage should also be interpreted figuratively. So while this passage literally says that Sarumon’s robes are no longer white (i.e. the color), at the same it says that Sarumon has symbolically become Black (i.e. the race).

This passage is also notable for the fact that it depicts a character becoming black. In Tolkien’s universe, Black characters are corruptions of White characters. For example, Tolkien frequently describes the Orcs as corrupt versions of another species, although it’s not quite clear what species they are corrupt versions of.

Race v. species (or ethnicity)

Many people, when talking about race in Tolkien’s work, tend to confuse the concept of race with the concept of what I suppose could be described as species. For example, I know someone who claimed that The Lord of the Rings doesn’t depict racism, because of the numerous instances of friendships across species (e.g. the friendship between Legolas [an Elf] and Gimly [a Dwarf]). The key feature to note in these cases of inter-species friendships is that the characters are almost always White. For example, although Gimly and Legolas are different species, and although Elves are depicted as being whiter than Dwarves, both characters are White (they have white skin, they are described as being white, etc. etc.), and thus share the same race.

How race affects the story of The Lord of the Rings

Now that we understand how race works in Tolkien’s universe, it’s time to get to the interesting stuff: understanding how race impacts the story of The Lord of the Rings.

The politics of race and imperialism

Race is both political and psychological. In this section of the article, I’m going to look at the political effects race has in The Lord of the Rings.

Politics before and during the War of the Ring

Race has a very clear role in the political structures in Middle Earth, in that all of the White governments are explicitly organized around the subjugation of Black characters. Boromir, the son of the steward of Gondor, describes Gondor’s raison d’être in Fellowship as ensuring that “the wild folk of the East are still restrained, and the terror of Morgul kept at bay;” only through these policies “are peace and freedom maintained in the lands behind us, bulwark of the West.” There should be no confusion: by “the wild folk of the East,” Boromir is referring to Black characters, such as the Easterlings, who also happen to be in the service of Sauron. Therefore, it is clear that Gondor’s main political purpose is to restrain these Black characters.

It is also made clear that all white political structures, and not just the Kingdom of Gondor, benefit directly or indirectly from the subjugation of Black characters. For example, in Fellowship, “the long peace of the Shire” is attributed not to the peaceful and nonviolent nature of the hobbits who live there, but to “the labours of… the guardians… [who] made possible the long peace,” the guardians being “the last remnant in the North of the great people, the Men of the West,” i.e. White. In political terms, although not all White governments are directly involved in the subjugation of Black characters, they all indirectly benefit from it.

The war between Sauron and the “Free Peoples of the World” tends to be depicted as a war between good and evil. This analysis is too simplistic. A more accurate interpretation is that this war is between Black and White characters. This is best expressed by Sam’s father in Return, who, when the hobbits return, characterizes their adventure as “chasing Black Men up mountains.” However, this can also be seen simply by looking at who is fighting who in the war of the ring. Those who serve Sauron (e.g. orcs, Southrons, Easterlings) are mostly Black, but those who oppose Sauron (e.g. hobbits, Elves, the Men of Gondor, and the governments allied with Gondor) are White. It’s hard to argue that this is a coincidence.

Further evidence for this is the fact that Sauron is repeatedly associated with the color black. For example, Gandalf in Fellowship claims that Sauron will “cover all the lands in a second darkness.” Given that the color black has racial associations, and given the racial division between supporters of Sauron (who are mostly Black) and those who oppose Sauron (who are mostly White), the statement should be interpreted as claiming that under Sauron’s rule, white characters will be displaced by Black characters. A victory by Sauron must be opposed, as such a victory would be an intolerable reversal of the political status quo for White supremacist governments like Gondor.

Politics after the War of the Ring

As you may know, the good characters (they’re White) win the war and defeat Sauron. Two things happen next.

The first is that Gondor creates a new imperialistic government that has political control over Black characters. It’s true that Gondor makes peace with the Black humans who fight on behalf of Sauron: Aragon (the king of Gondor) is described in Return as having “pardoned the Easterlings,” made “peace with the peoples of Harad,” and given “the slaves of Mordor… all the lands about Lake Núrnen to be their own.” However, Gondor retains a level of control in the politics of those peoples. We can see this in the very quote that I analyzed above: although Gondor makes peace with the Black governments, this is done on Gondor’s terms: Gondor is the entity that “pardons” and “makes peace” with “the slaves of Mordor.” This implies that Gondor will still retain control over those Black governments.

Another piece of evidence for this is how Aragorn is able to promise Treebeard in Return that “Lands will lie open to you eastward that have long been closed”–the East is one of the locations that have been associated with Black characters in Tolkien’s work. Aragorn’s statement implies that if “lands lie open” to Treebeard–who was an ally of Gondor–then they also lie open for the Kingdom of Gondor. Overall, the victory over Sauron is a positive event for the white government of Gondor: not only is the catastrophic rule of Sauron averted, but Gondor is able to maintain their political supremacy and continue to dominate the Black governments.

The second thing that happens after the war with Sauron is that the Kingdom of Gondor unifies all of the White governments–the hobbits, the Dwarves, and the Rohirrim–into a single White political structure devoid of any Black characters. This idea comes from Judy Ford’s excellent paper titled “The White City: The Lord of the Rings as an Early Medieval Myth of the Restoration of the Roman Empire” (published in the 2002 volume 2 edition of Tolkien Studies). One example: after the war, two white kingdoms (Gondor and Rohan) are united through the marriage between Faramir (a very important figure in Gondor) and Éowyn (princess of Rohan). This marriage is described by Éomer (king of Rohan) in Return as having the effect of causing “the friendship of the Mark and of Gondor [to be] bound with a new bond.” Another example: after the war, the Kingdom of Gondor expands to include the North, as evidenced by this conversation between Gandalf and Saruman in Return:

“Then all the more reason to have left sooner,” said Saruman; “for I desire neither of him. Indeed if you wish for an answer to your first question, I am seeking a way out of his realm.”

“Then once more you are going the wrong way,” said Gandalf, “and I see no hope in your journey. But will you scorn our help? For we offer it to you.”

The idea of a unified White kingdom still exists in today’s politics.

Double standards in Middle Earth politics

This analysis points to a paradox in Tolkien’s writing. Clearly, the White government of Gondor isn’t a democracy: it’s ruled by a benevolent king, controls large swaths of territory, and may exert imperial control over some Black governments. However, one of the justifications for the war against Sauron is that Sauron supposedly planned to enslave the White characters. As Galdalf put it in Fellowship,“And hobbits as miserable slaves would please [Sauron] far more than hobbits happy and free.” If the White characters in the Lord of the Rings are against such restrictions on their freedom, why do they immediately form a Monarchy after the war of the ring?

Obviously, Aragon (the king of Gondor) is a much more benevolent ruler than Sauron was, at least towards White characters. But I think part of the reason for this paradox stems from the fact that Sauron’s government is portrayed as Black. It’s not that the White characters are against restrictive governments, but rather that they are against Black governments. The thought of a Black ruler (Sauron) enslaving White characters is clearly intolerable to most White characters in Tolkien’s novels.

Psychology, race, gender, and politics

Having examined the effect race has on the political system of The Lord of the Rings, I now plan to look at the psychological, or emotional, effects race has on Tolkien’s writing.

Race and population

As I alluded to in the beginning of this article, at the beginning of the war of the ring, Gondor is seen as a declining power. Part of this is political: Gondor is ill-equipped to fight a war with Sauron. But this decline is also described as a sexual decline. As Faramir (a powerful figure in Gondor) puts it in the Towers: “For the Enemy increases and we decrease. We are a failing people, a springless autumn.”

Because this passage from Towers is so important to this article, I’m going to quote it in full below:

“What hope have we?” said Faramir. “It is long since we had any hope. The sword of Elendil, if it returns indeed, may rekindle it, but I do not think that it will do more than put off the evil day, unless other help unlooked-for also comes, from Elves or Men. For the Enemy increases and we decrease. We are a failing people, a springless autumn.”

“Death was ever present, because the Númenoreans still, as they had in their old kingdom, and so lost it, hungered after endless life unchanging. Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars. And the last king of the line of Anárion had no heir.”

“But the stewards were wiser and more fortunate. Wiser, for they recruited the strength of our people from the sturdy folk of the sea-coast, and from the hardy mountaineers of Ered Nimrais. And they made a truce with the proud peoples of the North, who often had assailed us, men of fierce valour, but our kin from afar off, unlike the wild Easterlings or the cruel Haradrim.”

How should this passage be interpreted? The easy way to interpret this is as a matter of population. The political system in The Lord of the Rings is built upon the suppression of Black characters, so if there are significantly more Black characters than White characters, then that’s a serious political problem. This fear has a real world counterpart: for example, Benjamin Franklin (one of the founding fathers of America) once said that “the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably [sic] very small,” and therefore opposed bringing more Africans to America (presumably as slaves).

Further evidence of this interpretation is the fact that Faramir’s fear–the fear of being out-numbered by Black characters–is one the crucial factors that lead to the war of the rings in the first place. One of the things Gandalf claims in Fellowship that Sauron will do if we wins the war of the ring is “cover all the lands in a second darkness.” Given the fear of the white characters that they will be out-reproduced, I would argue that the passage should be read as Gandalf claiming that Sauron will cover all the lands with Black characters.

Finally, when Sauron is defeated, the white characters celebrate his defeat by marrying other White characters and having white children, which is perhaps the most effective way to solve their perceived demographic crisis. In the Shire, the year after Sauron was defeated was described in Return as being “famous for its weddings,” and the children that resulted from those weddings “were fair to see and strong, and most of them had a rich golden hair that had before been rare among hobbits.” Remember: blondness, as well as the word “fair”, is coded language for Whiteness. I would argue that this passage should be read as White hobbits celebrating the defeat of Black characters through having White children.

Race and sexuality

While this interpretation has its strengths, it has a crucial flaw. Faramir isn’t just concerned with the fact that there are more Black characters than White characters but the fact that Black characters are “increasing,” i.e. having sex. In the case of Gondor, the problem is even more explicit: Gondor’s rulers are “childless” and more interested in “ask[ing] questions of the stars” than having sex. Therefore, an analysis of race and sexuality can’t focus merely on population: it also needs to discuss sexuality.

Although Faramir criticizes sexual abstinence in his monologue, sexual abstinence is something that’s paradoxically admired in The Lord of the Rings. The key example of this is how descriptions of beauty are always divorced of sexual connotations. For example, while Galadriel and Celeborn are described in Fellowship as “grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold, and the hair of the Lord Celeborn was of silver long and bright; but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory,” nowhere in this description of their beauty is there a reference to sexuality. This implies that while the characters are clearly beautiful, they are not intended to be thought of sexually. This description also highlights the characters’ whiteness, and I think that’s significant: according to Tolkien, to be white is to be beautiful but to not be sexualized. This analysis can be repeated on any quote describing the beauty of a character in The Lord of the Rings.

In contrast, Tolkien’s descriptions of Black sex describe it as perverted and inhuman. For example, in Fellowship one of the signs that foreshadows the upcoming war of the ring is that “Orcs were multiplying again in the mountains.” This description not only robs Orcs of their humanity – multiply is perhaps the driest and most technical word that can refer to sex – but it also associates Orc sex with war and violence. Black sex is clearly something to be afraid of in Middle Earth.

Just to add a bit of additional evidence: in the Peter Jackson film adaptation of Fellowship, there’s a fascinating scene depicting the birth of several Orcs (I included a screenshot below). But the Orcs aren’t emerging from a womb: they’re crawling out of slimy mud. The films go out of their way to depict Orc (i.e. Black) sexuality as repulsive. Although it’s not from the books (the focus of this article), I thought that the image was worth including.

Orc birth from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings adaptation.

Here’s the really interesting part of this analysis. Black sex isn’t just terrifying sex: for much of the story it’s the only sex that Tolkien portrays. Remember: Faramir’s problem is that “the Enemy [Black characters] increases and we [White characters] decrease,” i.e. that Black characters are the only ones having sex. This means that when Tolkien portrays sexuality, he only portrays Black sexuality, which is terrifying to White characters. This ties in to the fact that White descriptions of beauty celebrate abstinence: in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, abstinence is celebrated and safe (which is why it is White), while sexuality is dangerous and feared (which is why it is Black).

Clearly, attitudes about sexuality are complicated in The Lord of the Rings. On one hand, sexuality is threatening and sexual abstinence is celebrated. But on the other hand, as Faramir notes, without sexuality no one will survive.

This isn’t just applicable to The Lord of the Rings. Richard Dyer, in his book White, demonstrates using countless numbers of examples that this type of thinking about race and sexuality is commonplace in Western culture.

Why is sexuality so threatening? Part of this has to do with the fact that sex has been highly stigmatized in western culture. Look no further than the idea that sex before marriage is shameful, or the abstinence-only sexual education in the United States. Thus, it makes sense that sexual desire is relegated to the feared, looked down upon characters (the Black characters). And it makes sense that sexual abstinence is attributed to admired characters (White characters).

Another explanation is that there is a long tradition of White fear of Black characters having sex with White women. In the American south, one of the most common justifications for lynching Black men was that they had raped a White woman (needless to say, these charges were usually fictional). This lives on in modern politics. Tolkien doesn’t talk about this directly (as far as I can tell), but he does make plenty of metaphoric references to this idea.

For example, Galadriel (an Elf frequently depicted as White and beautiful) is described in Fellowship as “lift[ing] up her white arms, and spread[ing] out her hands towards the East in a gesture of rejection and denial” at Sauron, who “gropes ever to see me [Galadriel] and my thought.” This passage could be read as a mental battle, but the word grope has sexual connotations as well. This passage should also be read as saying that Sauron (who is the ruler of the Black characters) desires Galadriel sexually, but Galadriel is able to resist him.

Both of these ideas about sexuality can be observed during the romance between Faramir and Éowyn (two White characters) in Return. One of the most interesting things about this romance is that their first physical contact occurs immediately after Éowyn thinks about Blackness:

“Then you think that the Darkness is coming?” said Éowyn. “Darkness Unescapable?” And suddenly she drew close to him.

“No,” said Faramir, looking into her face. “It was but a picture in the mind. I do not know what is happening. The reason of my waking mind tells me that great evil has befallen and we stand at the end of days. But my heart says nay; and all my limbs are light, and a hope and joy are come to me that no reason can deny. Éowyn, Éowyn, White Lady of Rohan, in this hour I do not believe that any darkness will endure!” And he stooped and kissed her brow.

Is this association simply because blackness is so strongly associated with sexuality that Éowyn requires the thought of blackness to “dr[aw] close to” Faramir? And when Faramir claims that “I do not believe that any darkness will endure,” does he do so to protect her from the perceived threat of Black rape? Either way, Tolkien depicts blackness as the catalyst that allows their relationship to turn into a physical one.

Again, this kind of thinking about race is not unique to Tolkien. Toni Morrison, in her book Playing in the Dark, notes how common it is in White literature for White characters to use Black characters when constructing their sexual identities.

I want to end this section by noting that Black characters, although unnamed, are crucial to the identities of White characters. In effect, Black characters are used and then discarded by White characters in constructing their own identities. Examples like this speak to the folly of analyzing White literature while ignoring the crucial role marginalized Black characters play in the story.

Race, sexuality, and the theme of decline in The Lord of the Rings

This analysis of the link between race and sexuality lends new meaning to the following quote by Gandalf in Return, and to the idea that The Lord of the Rings depicts a universe perpetually in decline:

And Gandalf said: “This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be. The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved. For though much has been saved, much must now pass away; and the power of the Three Rings also is ended. And all the lands that you see, and those that lie round about them, shall be dwellings of Men. For the time comes of the Dominion of Men, and the Elder Kindred shall fade or depart.”

To paraphrase Gandalf, the Kingdom of Gondor (i.e. Whiteness) will be preserved. But its very preservation will be its undoing. As Legolas (an Elf) notes in Return: “seldom do [men, who are less White than Elves] fail of their seed… and that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us [elves].” Men will be able to have sex and have descendants and survive. But in the process they will become less White: this Whiteness is what “must now pass away.”

This strategy of compromised preservation is one that Gondor has pursued before. During Faramir’s speech, he mentions that the kingdom of Gondor “recruited the strength of our people from the sturdy folk of the sea-coast, and from the hardy mountaineers of Ered Nimrais. And they made a truce with the proud peoples of the North, who often had assailed us, men of fierce valour, but our kin from afar off, unlike the wild Easterlings or the cruel Haradrim” in order to combat the fact that Gondor’s (White) population was declining. These people are “kin” of the people of Gondor, meaning that they are White (“unlike the wild Easterlings or the cruel Haradrim”), but they aren’t as White as the people of Gondor (they are only “kin from afar off”). Essentially, Faramir is saying that in order for Gondor to survive, Gondor became less White (in Faramir’s speech, Faramir is referring to a time before the events of The Lord of the Rings took place). This past compromise mirrors the political situation of Gondor at the end of The Lord of the Rings.

I briefly want to end with a discussion about the purpose of the three rings of the Elves. In Fellowship, Gandalf claims that the purpose of the three elven rings is to create “understanding, making, and healing, to preserve all things unstained.” It’s heavily implied that the power of the rings is what allows the Elves to maintain their power despite that they aren’t having sex. In Return Gandalf associates the fact that “the power of the Three Rings also is ended” with the fact that “the time comes of the Dominion of Men, and the Elder Kindred shall fade or depart.” I don’t think this is a coincidence: I think that one of the powers of the three rings is that they preserve the Elves even though they haven’t been producing offspring. Now that the rings are gone, the Elves have to fade away and make way for the (blacker) men.

Conclusion: the tragedy of Tolkien

I have focused most of my attention on the White characters in Tolkien’s writing. In most cases, I am talking about the White characters’ perceptions of Black characters rather than the Black characters’ perceptions of themselves.

There’s a reason for that. Unfortunately, the Black characters in The Lord of the Rings are so comically stereotyped that there isn’t really anything authentic about them. For example, here’s a description of an Orc in Towers:

Pippin and Merry sat up. Their guards, Isengarders, had gone with Uglúk. But if the hobbits had any thought of escape, it was soon dashed. A long hairy arm took each of them by the neck and drew them close together. Dimly they were aware of Grishnákh’s great head and hideous face between them; his foul breath was on their cheeks. He began to paw them and feel them. Pippin shuddered as hard cold fingers groped down his back.

Orcs and other characters of color are treated in horrific ways. Their lives are trivialized in order to deprive them of their humanity. For example, in Towers Legolas and Gimly literally turn the killing of Orcs into a game for their enjoyment:

Their onset was fierce and sudden, and the Orcs gave way before them. Ere long they were hemmed in in the narrows of the gorge, and all were slain or driven shrieking into the chasm of the Deep to fall before the guardians of the hidden caves.

“Twenty-one!” cried Gimli. He hewed a two-handed stroke and laid the last Orc before his feet. “Now my count passes Master Legolas again.”

Tolkien is White, so he is able to accurately represent White male ideas about race. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for his representations of Black characters. All of the Black characters in his writing are designed solely to fulfill the fantasies of his White characters, whether by allowing governments like Gondor to unify White characters using White nationalism and the fear of Black characters, by allowing sexuality to be constructed as something terrifying, or through some mechanism not discussed in this article.

Fundamentally, racism is about promoting Whites at the expense of others. I hope that I’ve been able to illustrate this in my article. Remember, the cost of Tolkien’s depictions of good and evil, the cost of his depiction of politics, and the cost of his depiction of sexuality is that his readers never get an unbiased depiction of the Black characters in his story. More than anything else, this lack of empathy is the true tragedy and failure of Tolkien’s writing.

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