race, sex, and God in The Lord of the Rings

I recently finished reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to my 11-year-old daughter, three decades after reading those books to myself and then largely forgetting them. We enjoyed them. The story was a little too violent for her, and there was not quite enough psychological depth or development for me, but it was great on plot and large-scale imagination.

The main argument against Tolkien is an alleged lack of psychological complexity and nuance. After reading the trilogy to his daughter, Edmund Wilson wrote: “there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child. … There is never much development in the episodes; you simply go on getting more of the same thing. Dr. Tolkien has little skill at narrative and no instinct for literary form. The characters talk a story-book language that might have come out of Howard Pyle, and as personalities they do not impose themselves. At the end of this long romance, I had still no conception of the wizard Gandalph, who is a cardinal figure, had never been able to visualize him at all. … How is it that these long-winded volumes of what looks to this reviewer like balderdash have elicited such tributes as those above? The answer is, I believe, that certain people – especially, perhaps, in Britain – have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash. They would not accept adult trash, but, confronted with the pre-teen-age article, they revert to the mental phase which delighted in Elsie Dinsmore and Little Lord Fauntleroy and which seems to have made of Billy Bunter, in England, almost a national figure.”

Most of this is unfair in detail. (I can visualize Gandalph quite clearly.) Wilson’s deeper aesthetic is also subject to debate. I am reminded of the quarrel between H.G. Wells and Henry James. James claimed that the only true source of excellent fiction was “the sincere and shifting experience of the individual practitioner.” In other words, you should write about what you know, and the merit of your work is the perceptiveness and depth of your observations. But that implies a narrow scope, a small canvass. Art can also explore vast differences in real (or possible) worlds. Wells had a point when he described James as “a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den.” Wells, Tolkien, and other fantasy writers are interested in getting well outside of the cage in which they think bourgeois realists like James (and Wilson) have fenced themselves. I am open to both sides, myself.

While we read Tolkien, I was quietly thinking about three themes that are relatively subtle:

1. Race: In our world, there is only one hominid species, and all the so-called races are completely equal morally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically. In the Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien, however, there are several hominid peoples: “men,” dwarves, elves, hobbits, orcs, wraiths, ents, and perhaps others. They are not equal. In particular, orcs are worse than all the others: intellectually and morally inferior. If you lived in Middle Earth, you would want to see all the orcs exiled, confined to reservations of some kind, or cured of their defining orcness.

It’s a fictional world and therefore not literally a racist commentary on ours. J.R.R. Tolkien apparently held egalitarian attitudes toward Jews and Africans. But what does it mean to invent a world in which there are inferior races? And what should we think about the specific portrayal of the orcs? It seems to me that each of the peoples of Middle Earth evokes a culture from our earth: Hobbits are Englishmen out of nursery rhymes and folk tales; elves are Celts; dwarves are Germanic or Nordic; and orcs … I think the orcs are Turkish. They carry scimitars, and their language sounds like a parody of Turkish. They are physically dark, in contrast to the fair elves, and submissive to their despots. These are European stereotypes of Turks, which, in turn, may carry a whiff of the ancient Greeks’ views of Persians.

2. Sex: One way in which Tolkien is a children’s author is the sexlessness of the story. All the characters are male except for some very remote and idealized ladies. Sam is deeply embarrassed by the thought he might marry Rosie–like a 13-year-old. The one truly passionate connection is between Sam and Frodo. I have no problem whatsoever with same-sex attraction, but I wonder whether Tolkien thought of the connection as romantic.

3. God: Apparently, Tolkien (a devout Catholic) once wrote, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”

As a learned believer, a professional medievalist, and a student of allegorical Christian literature, Tolkien was entitled to that reading of his own work. But I find it surprising. In a Catholic story, I would expect evidence of a single, benign creator; providence as a determining force for good; posthumous judgment of individuals; and a divine sacrifice that saves the world. Perhaps the ring is found by Bilbo for Providential reasons, but that is a very subtle and implicit explanation, if it’s true at all. Frodo sacrifices, but he is not a Jesus-figure. He sacrifices much less than his life and he is only a mortal hobbit to start with. Nobody has a relationship with anything like a personal God. The ethic of the Lord of the Rings seems mildly ascetic and spiritual, but more pagan than Catholic. Perhaps Tolkien thought that by deliberately suppressing all the explicit points of Catholic faith, he could make the story pervasively and fundamentally Christian. But he may have succeeded instead in creating a world that fits other religious views even better.