By Ciaran Kovach
In honour of the 124th birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien, the creative mind behind The Lord of the Rings, I will be deviating from my preferred medium of film and writing on a series of literature near and dear to my heart. While I cannot claim to be more than a casual Tolkienite, I have been a fan of Tolkien’s universe for many years now and have done a respectable amount of reading around his main stories.
What I will be addressing today is a charge laid against Tolkien’s work that it is racist. In short, the main antagonists on the Tolkienverse, Melkor and later Sauron, have utilized not only evil creatures such as Orcs, trolls, dragons and the like to fight their wars, but also human allies. The most prominent are as follows; Easterlings of Rhun, tribes of men based off of Middle Eastern cultures. The Haradrim, tribes of men based off of African cultures. Finally, the Variags, tribes of men based off of the Mongols or Huns. Many people who have read Tolkien’s books or seen Peter Jackson’s films and having witnessed a story where dark-skinned men march among the ranks of a force of pure darkness against the primarily Caucasian forces of good, came to the not unpredictable but uninformed conclusion that Tolkien was a racist.
In this article I will make the argument that a wider knowledge and appreciation of Tolkien’s work makes it clear that Tolkien was not racist in going about creating his universe.
To start, I will introduce you to very important narrative within Tolkien’s work that will inform you going forward. Tolkien does not portray any race or spiritual being as being pure good and incorruptible. Even the Elves, who at first glance may seem as such, are revealed upon closer inspection of having a tendency towards arrogance and even cruelty on occasion. Of all the races not represented as fundamentally evil in nature, Tolkien portrays humans as being the most flawed. Tolkien describes men as very much corruptible and prone to pettiness, arrogance, mistrustfulness, greed and cruelty. A description which I feel can be applied to humans of the real world as well. Tolkien does not totally condemn humans however, saying that humans, for all their flaws, are capable of great acts of kindness and valour. The dark forces in Tolkien’s world as shown as being high adept at manipulating and bringing out the worst in humanity given the opportunity.
The best example of this are Sauron’s rings of power. Of the 19 original rings of power created by Sauron, a malignant, corruptive force being bound within each one, 9 went to the great kings of men. While the dwarves and Elves were able to resist the influence of their rings, the kings of men were utterly corrupted body and soul by the power granted to them by the rings, eventually becoming the Nazgul, beings of pure evil like their new master Sauron. Sauron’s 20th ring of power, the ring that allowed Sauron to exert his influence over the others and which contained part of Sauron’s spirit, came to be in the hands of Isildur, the King of Gondor, following Sauron’s defeat as the end of the Second Age. Despite the advice of the Elves, the malignant intelligence within the ring corrupted Isildur’s mind, consuming it in greed and promises of power and causing him to refuse to destroy it and Sauron entirely.
The potential for men to overcome and go beyond corruption is best displayed by the character of Boromir, the heroic Captain of Gondor that joins the Fellowship of the Ring in their quest to destroy the One Ring. Boromir, having proven his character with his heroic battle to retake Osgiliath and recognition of his father’s unfair treatment of his brother Faramir, falls under the influence of the ring. It is implied that Boromir considered guiding the Fellowship to Gondor with the purpose of using its power to aid the beleaguered armies of Gondor. The ring exploits his frustration at Gondor’s plight and his desire to please his father, eventually causing him to attack Frodo Baggins, the Ringbearer in a fit of rage and greed. Frodo escapes Boromir and with the presence of the ring removed, Boromir is consumed with regret at his actions. Just after this event, Uruk-Hai attack the Fellowship. Boromir dies protecting Merry and Pippin against impossible odds, riddled with arrows and with a great many dead Uruks around him.
With the susceptibility of humans to corruption as well as righteousness within Tolkien’s world now established for you, I will talk specifically on the human factions and cultures that align with the forces of darkness. Rhun, Khand and Harad are notable in their geographical position as they are within the area that Melkor and his heir Sauron were most influential. Given what has been previously established, it can’t come as a surprise that the men of these lands would align with the darkness. The simple presence of pure evil corrupting their minds and souls over countless generations, combined with the threat of attack by Mordor’s Orc hordes and the manipulative cunning of Sauron (someone who could fool even the wisest Elves) made it so that only the very bravest and most righteous would consider defiance. To the men of the east, very much disconnected with the greater, more benevolent spirit familiar to the peoples of the west, Melkor and Sauron would have been gods upon the earth in their eyes, resulting in fearful worship of these wrathful gods. Even if the fantasy elements such as the mind warping influence of evil were removed, it is easy to imagine the Easterlings, Haradrim and Variags aligning with Sauron out of political common sense. Defiance against the local hegemon is rarely a good idea.
The tribes of men aligned with Mordor do have their own stories of overcoming their flawed nature and being righteous in action. In the First Age of the Sun, 2 Easterling families stand out, those of Ulfang the Black and that of Bor. Ulfang and his sons betrayed the Elves to Melkor at the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, slaughtering them from behind. During this same war, even in the face their own people switching sides, a Easterling by the name of Bor and his 3 sons remained true to the Elves and all went on to heroically die in battle. It should also be remembered that Tolkien wrote that following the final destruction of Sauron at the end of the Third Age, his hold over his human allies was broken and saw the creation of everlasting peaceful coexistence between them and the new Re-United Kingdom. This is in contrast to Sauron’s other servants, who fled to the darkest corners of Middle Earth, retaining their malice, cruelty and hatred of righteousness, if not their great former power.
My fundamental argument from my reading of Tolkien that the dark-skinned men of Middle Earth’s allegiance to Melkor and Sauron was as a result of the fundamental nature of men, combined with the overwhelming, corrupting influence of darkness they were exposed to by happenstance. I do not feel that Tolkien consciously attempted to represent them as fundamentally deviant or weak compared to lighter-skinned men in any way.
To continue my argument on why Lord of the Rings is not racist, I will specifically address the claim that ‘all the evil humans are dark-skinned’. This statement is totally uninformed. In the Second Age of the Sun there existed the great Kingdom of Numenor and the Numenorean people were Caucasian. Numenor was lost after being corrupted from within by Sauron, their armies destroyed by the Elves and the very land itself being destroyed by the sea. Some Numenoreans survived with nine ships of good-hearted Numenoreans sailing to Middle Earth and founding the Kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor. However, Numenoreans loyal to Sauron also fled it’s destruction and settled in Umbar in the lands of Harad. These ‘Black Numenoreans’ would go on to be Sauron’s most loyal human servants with many of them going to live permanently within the lands of Mordor. It is believed that every single one of them died during the final downfall of Sauron, loyal to the end.
During the Third Age Sauron found another Caucasian human ally in the form of the Dunlendings. The Dunlendings were a tribal people who’s land bordered on that of Rohan. During the War of the Ring, Sauron’s servant Saruman the White, a powerful being possessing great abilities of persuasion brought them under his banner through promises of revenge against the people of Rohan, who had wronged them in the past. They even went as far as allowing Saruman to breed some of them with Uruk-Hai through sorcery to create Half-Orc abominations. The disastrous loss of life they suffered at the Battle of the Hornburg led to them ultimately making peace with Rohan, promising to never rise against them again.
To conclude, I do understand that from the perspective of someone with a casual interest in Tolkien’s most famous works or Peter Jackson’s films, the representation of darker-skinned people can be viewed as racist. However, as a person who has a wider knowledge of Tolkien’s work, I do not believe Tolkien maliciously or subconsciously injected any form of racism into his work. In my mind, Tolkien paints an superb picture of human nature in his work. A picture in which mankind is presented as a people capable of both great righteousness and great malice and where the colour of your skin means nothing when facing the world in which you live.