This coming Saturday is Hobbit Day, as both Bilbo and Frodo Bagginses were born on September 22nd (of course, in different years). This has us thinking about how Tolkien’s fantasy races have influenced writers and storytellers for decades, for better or for worse. (Probably both.)
Of course, Tolkien didn’t invent elves, orcs, dwarves, and hobbits. He was drawing on centuries of European mythology and folklore, from England, Scandinavia, and beyond. He also, consciously or not, drew on the understandings of his time—about race, colonialism, and culture. The result, seen from 2018, is… complicated.
On the one hand, while Tolkien called his different kinds of people “races,” they’re much more like species or subspecies. As Paul B. Sturtevant at The Public Medievalist points out, “Tolkien conflates race, culture, and ability. Hobbits, he says, are a race, and based upon a combination their hereditary traits and cultural practices, are better at being stealthy than other races.” In interpretations and extrapolations of Tolkein’s work, we’ve seen this coding play out even in the accents characters speak in.
But even if you put word choice aside —”race” versus “species” or something—it’s hard to ignore the racial coding in Tolkien’s world. Fantasy author Saladin Ahmed writes:
There is some irreducible ugliness in his masterpiece that really can’t be convincingly redeemed. The men of the global East and global South (“black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues”) are monstrous and evil, naturally and culturally inclined to bow to Sauron, and to make war on the good men of the North and West. The bestial visages of orcs bear a striking resemblance to racist caricatures of African and Asian facial features. Above all, to be dark-skinned in Middle Earth is to be part of a savage horde – whether orcish or human – rather than to be a true individual.
And with Tolkein’s powerful influence on Western fantasy, these tropes and shorthands wove their way through an entire genre. This shows up maybe most powerfully in Dungeons & Dragons, which has been a dominant framework for fantasy storytelling since the 1970s. D&D basically invented dark elves, now known as “drow.” Sturtevant gives a quick primer:
While other elves live in the forests, they live in a blighted world underground. While other elves live according to typical royal structures, dark elves are explicitly matriarchal and have a social structure modelled off of organized crime families. While other elves live in harmony with nature and are inherently good, dark elves are sadistic, worship spiders, and are inherently evil. And while other elves are fair-skinned, dark elves are black.
Starting in 1988, R.A. Salvatore’s novels set in the D&D universe explored and deepened dark elf characterization through the now legendary Drizzt Do’Urden. Drizzt is a complicated example, on the one hand showing that a dark elf can be noble—but on the other hand, he does so by being “not like other dark elves.”
Tolkien’s influence is neither monolithic nor simple. (It should go without saying that he was a brilliant writer and contributed a lot of good to his readers’ worlds.) In recent years, some fantasy franchises have worked to rehabilitate the view of races previously perceived as “evil.” Comics writer and author G. Willow Wilson sees this as especially powerful in the aftermath of 9/11: “The Other in the east is no longer so strange: we befriend them on Facebook and watch their revolutions unfold on Twitter. Most of us have come to understand that world politics are rarely as simple or as satisfying as good versus evil.” In this article, “The Orc Renaissance,” Wilson highlights examples like World of Warcraft and Skyrim, where Orcs have become complex characters, rather than flat enemies.
And then there are stories that eschew Tolkien altogether. In her Earthsea series, Ursula K. LeGuin made a point of specifying that her hero, the wizard Ged, was dark-skinned. And today, writers like Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin are working, as Sturtevant puts it, “to undo the racist structures built into the foundations of the genre, not by changing them from within… but by simply creating new fantasy worlds without the racist baggage of the past.”
Happy listening and reading!
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