For nearly 18 years, Tolkien has been my literary idol. His words are lyrical and intellectual and as poetic as prose can be with neither rhyme nor meter. His stories are epic and astounding, digging deep into the nature of temptation and good and evil and capturing the heart and hardships of medieval adventure, swords and sorcery. His trilogy has become the standard by which all fantasy trilogies are judged, and it’s to his level of exquisite storytelling that I have long since aspired to achieve.
And I’ve realized now that while his tales may stand the test of time, and may be the most classic of all fantasy stories, not all within his tomes should live so long.
For all those novice Tolkien readers, be warned: This post contains spoilers.
We all perhaps know the tale for its broad strokes: Frodo and his Hobbit friends deliver the Ring of Power to the Cracks of Doom, where it is cast into the fires that forged it and evil is sundered in the world. All the while great tales are told, of heroes advancing against Orcs, of the crownless becoming King, of Ents and Wizards and evil flying things.
What I didn’t remember when I first read it, around the age of 12 or 13, was the sexism and racism enshrined amid the Elves and Dwarves and Men of Middle-Earth.
On the one hand, there is much to be said about Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf setting aside their differences and forging the greatest friendship there may have ever been (and probably would’ve been an intimate relationship, had the tale been told in a different time when heteronormativity wasn’t quite so normal), but if we closely inspect all the races of Middle Earth who are heralded as heroes, they all are white.
In my youth, there was only one explanation: Everyone in Middle Earth was white.
In my adulthood, I realize that this simply is not so: The Orcs, monstrous and stupid and prone to violent in-fighting amongst themselves, are dark and vile-skinned people. I also learned that Middle Earth has a nearly one-to-one correspondence with Europe (I once read, though I recall now not where, that Tokien in part wrote the tale to be a great epic for England as the Iliad and Odyssey and Aeneid are for Greece and Rome) and so there are also correspondences for Africa and the East. And as it should so happen, the Southrons of Harad and the Easterlings of Rhun were the only people to be called swarthy and also the only free men who fought alongside Sauron.
And to make matters worse, when in the final battle Sauron’s Orcs and other agents were thrust into confusion and fled upon their master’s downfall, the Southrons and Easterlings fought on until they were utterly destroyed. Not only had their allegiance been unto evil itself; they all were cast as evil beings independent of the Dark Lord.
At least, as a child, the sexism seemed more obvious even if I witlessly overlooked (ignored?) the racism: Of the heroes, they all are men. And though I didn’t know it at the time, although there are a small number of significant female characters, the books still fail to pass the Bechdel test, the bare minimum assessment of female representation in fiction: Not once in the entire trilogy does a single woman speak to another.
But it’s medieval, and in such times that was standard, I said as a child, and think of the women that are there–think of Arwen, independent and willing to cast aside her family to pursue her true love; think of Galadriel, fierce and noble, the most beautiful woman in Middle-Earth who casts fear and wonder into the hearts of all who look upon her; and think of Eowyn, feisty princess of Rohan who disguises herself as a man to wander into battle and comes to slay the Lord of the Nazgul, a deathblow to the forces of Mordor.
Except Arwen has perhaps only two or three lines of dialog in the whole series, and her story with Aragorn isn’t given in its entirety (in summarized form) until and only if you choose to read the appendices. Let’s also not forget to mention that in choosing to give her heart to Aragorn, she must in turn abandon her immortality and her place in the lands to the west, not to mention she loses all agency when she becomes queen.
And although Galadriel is all those amazing things, she is also cold. She is burdened by great power and impacts the story not through her actions, but through her gifts. Surely, the Companions would have failed in their quest if not for all the Elven wares she had bestowed upon them, but in spite of this, she was still merely a side character all along. One might point to her role in the Council as testament to her actual prowess, but let’s be honest: the only ones upon the Council who truly make an impact in the story are Saruman and Gandalf; Galadriel is tertiary at best.
And last, but surely not least, there is Eowyn. I idolized her as a strong female character when I first read the Lord of the Rings, but the reality she isn’t strong at all–at least not to the standard of strong female characters today. When first we meet her, she has a desire for only one thing: the love of Aragorn. And when that love is not returned to her, she becomes distraught and reckless, stowing away to war not for glory and honor, but for the hope of death. She does kill the King of the Nazgul, but she does so only after Merry, the Hobbit, distracts the King with a sneak attack and gives Eowyn an opening to slay him. And then, after she has healed, she is morose and lax, forlorn for all her dreams have been broken and yet she still lives, but lo! Who is it she meets, who warms her heart and makes her desire life again? It is none other than Faramir, Steward of Gondor and Prince of Ithilien, who falls fast in love with her not for her fortitude or courage or strength, but for her beauty. And she in turn falls in love with him, and her sadness is shaken, and despite her persistent wanderlust, she becomes a housewife. The wild woman is tamed by the noble man–and those aren’t my words; they’re in the book:
‘Then must I leave my own people, man of Gondor?’ Eowyn said. ‘And would you have your proud folk say of you: “There goes a lord who tamed a wild shieldmaiden of the North! Was there no woman of the race of Numenor to choose?”‘
‘I would,’ said Faramir. And he took her in his arms and kissed her under the sunlit sky, and he cared not that they stood high upon the walls in the sight of many.
— The Return of the King, page 944
So all I admired of Eowyn was in fact only an illusion.
As a white male, I don’t know what to do when I’m confronted by inequity (and overt sexism and racism) in popular, even classical media like this. On the one hand, I love the Lord of the Rings, and I know it has not only inspired me, but countless others. But on the other hand, is it right to continue to idolize a story as biased as this? And worse, a story whose biases are so easily missed if read unaware? No doubt my own beliefs of women and people of color were influenced when I read this story, and later when I watched the movies it was made into, and because the bigotry is so soft and subtle it wasn’t until now–nearly 18 years later–that I finally noticed it.
It leads me to a question I have often wondered, not only in cases of racism but in cases of politicians or other figures being swept up in scandals surrounding blackface or sexual assault (which I am not equating, but stating as salient facts): Can a piece of art be held separate from its implicit biases? Can a work of fiction be appraised separately from the biases of its author? And can the achievements and creations of people be judged separately from the actions and misdeeds that have (or haven’t) caused their public ruin?
I don’t have answers to any of these questions, and I’m not sure if it’s within my power or privilege to even answer them. I’d like to think I can appreciate the Lord of the Rings for its lyrical language and epic adventure while recognizing and condemning its portrayal of women and people of color. And I think I can still watch the Cosby Show and appreciate its humor and portrayal of strong family ties despite the vile behavior of the man behind it. And I’d like to think Governor Northam of Virginia is still capable of being governor despite his past choices; people are not irredeemable, and though it’s true he must learn a lot and grow considerably to make up for his past decisions, to say that to even try isn’t worthwhile makes me feel hopeless–not only for the growth of others, but also for the growth of myself, to overcome the biases I hold that I don’t even know yet.
Of course, I also don’t think it’s fair to equate any of these things with the others, because they’re all distinctly nuanced in their own ways, but in my mind they seem inherently related, forcing me to consider similar questions that may not be answerable.
I said before that I have held the Lord of the Rings as a standard that I aspire to, and perhaps for some technical reasons I still do, but now as I have finished rereading it, I want to challenge myself not to meet the Lord of the Rings, but to exceed it: My stories may never achieve the recognition of Tolkien’s, but they are mine to create and mine to shape. There are many races in the lands I have imagined, and while it is not right for me to adapt cultures that aren’t mine into their own fictional counterparts (which I don’t think I do), it is within my power to create cultures within my own fantasy realm that are neither colorless nor colorblind, but instead portray people of all races as good or bad for their deeds and merits, not because of their physical or cultural differences.
The same can be said of their sex and gender as well.
As I think of the composition of the main adventurers in my story, there are two white males, a black male, and woman of color (who in some circles would probably pass as white) on the side of the heroes. On the side of the villains, there are two men of color, a woman of color, and a white woman. Initially it’s not looking so great: men outweigh women, and there are more people of color as villains than as heroes. In part, this is intentional: Skin color is inherited from the gods each race is descended from, and the Gods of Darkness and the Deep have been outcast by the other races because of their ancestry. However, the villains are not inherently evil; they may stand as antagonists and be allied with “the dark” forces, but by action and merit, they are not evil. They have been dealt an unfair hand and a disadvantaged, limited path in life, and the story alternatives between scenes of the heroes and scenes of their foes. My hope is to make both seem human, with both strengths and flaws, so that when the final battle comes, no matter which side finds victory, the reader will feel happiness and sadness for both.
Of course, not all the antagonists perish in the war (in fact, most of the human characters survive), and in the end, this is only in the first age: The main arc of the third age begins when the protagonists’ descendant and the antagonists’ descendant fall in love.
And that sounds so much less exciting than the story seems in my imagination.
My stories are a long way from reaching a wider audience, and as it nears the time of (what I hope to be eventual) publication, I will seek out feedback to ensure my portrayals of women and characters of color are fair and appropriate. I might not be able to avoid writing my own biases into my stories, but I am capable of helping revise them out of the stories once I’m aware of them. I want my stories to live as long as Tolkien’s, and I want them to be remembered not only for their content, but for their character as well.
But I digress. This post was about Tolkien, and I think I’ve said of him all I can.