Lord of the Rings





Nobody’s going to deny that, as it’s conventionally depicted, Middle-Earth – the setting of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings – is awfully monochrome. In art, basically everybody is drawn as white, and all major depictions in film have used white actors.

When this state of affairs is questioned, the defences typically revolve around “accuracy”, which can mean one of two things: fidelity to the source material, and the internal consistency of the setting. Being concerned primarily with languages and mythology, Tolkien left few clear descriptions of what the peoples of Middle-Earth actually look like, so in this case, arguments in favour of the status quo more often rest on setting consistency.

Of course, we need hold ourselves neither to fidelity nor to consistency – the author’s dead, and we can do what we want. However, what if I told you that there’s a reasonable argument to be made from that very standpoint of setting consistency that Aragorn – the one character you’d most expect to be depicted as a white dude – really ought to be portrayed as Middle Eastern and/or North African?

First, consider the framing device of Tolkien’s work. The central conceit of The Lord of the Rings – one retroactively extended to The Hobbit, and thereafter to later works – is that Tolkien himself is not the story’s author, but a mere translator of writings left behind by Bilbo, Frodo and other major characters. Similarly, Middle-Earth itself is positioned not as a fictional realm, but as the actual prehistory of our own world. As such, the languages and mythologies that Tolkien created were intended not merely to resemble their modern counterparts, but to stand as plausible ancestors for them.

Now, Aragorn is the king of a tribe or nation of people called the Dúnedain. Let’s take a closer look at them in the context of that prehistoric connection.

If the Dúnedain were meant to be the forebears of Western Europeans, we’d expect their language, Adûnaic, to exhibit signs of Germanic (or possibly Italic) derivation – but that’s not what we actually see. Instead, both the phonology and the general word-structure of Adûnaic seem to be of primarily Semitic derivation, i.e., the predominant language family throughout the Middle East and much of North Africa. Indeed, while relatively little Adûnaic vocabulary is present in Tolkien’s extant writings, some of the words we do know seem to be borrowed directly from classical Hebrew – a curious choice if the “men of the West” were intended to represent the ancestors of the Germanic peoples.

Additionally, the Dúnedain are descended from the survivors of the lost island of Númenor, which Tolkien had intended as an explicit analogue of Atlantis. Alone, this doesn’t give us much to go on – unless one happens to know that, in the legendarium from which Tolkien drew his inspirations, the Kingdoms of Egypt were alleged to be remnant colonies of Atlantis. This connection is explicitly reflected in the strong Egyptian influence upon Tolkien’s descriptions of Númenorean funereal customs. We thus have both linguistic and cultural/mythological ties linking the survivors of Númenor to North Africa.

Now, I’m not going to claim that Tolkien actually envisioned the Dúnedain as North African; he was almost certainly picturing white folks. However, when modern fans argue that Aragorn and his kin must be depicted as white as a matter of setting consistency, rather than one of mere authorial preference, strong arguments can be made that this need not be the case; i.e., that depicting the Dúnedain in a manner that would be racialised as Middle Eastern and/or North African by modern standards is, in fact, entirely consistent with the source material, ethnolinguistically speaking. Furthermore, whether they agreed with these arguments or not, any serious Tolkien scholar would at least be aware of them.

In other words, if some dude claims that obviously everyone in Tolkien is white and acts like the very notion of depicting them otherwise is some outlandish novelty, you’ve got yourself a fake geek boy.

(As an aside, if we turn our consideration to the Easterlings, the human allies of Sauron who have traditionally been depicted in art as Middle Eastern on no stronger evidence than the fact that they’re baddies from the East, a similar process of analysis suggests that they’d more reasonably be racialised as Slavic in modern terms. Taken together with the preceding discussion, an argument can be made that not only is the conventional racialisation of Tolkien’s human nations in contemporary art unsupported by the source material, we may well have it precisely backwards!)


This is really just another framing of the same argument, with the same outcome.

Which is, the only reason for every character in LotR to be white is that the author, adapter, filmmaker, or artist wants them to be.

You all might be interested to know that the stanch defenders of “LotR HAS TO BE WHITE PPL BECAUSE” have reached the “but the author’s text is sacred” stage of the Discourse Festivities in the notes on this post:


I don’t think anyone needs the rest of that.

But you see how we just chase it around and around in a circle forever? The “historical accuracy” argument, the “internal consistency” argument, the “protect the artist’s sacred INTENTIONS” argument, they’re all meant to be flung out one after the other as stumbling blocks preventing any change from an oppressive, racist, exclusionary status quo.

It comes back to this once again:

The very serious function of racism is
distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.
It keeps you explaining
over and over again why you are here. Somebody says you don’t have any
language so you spend 20 years proving you do. Somebody says you don’t
have any culture so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There
will always be one more thing.

Complete your work without worry. Do not
be confused. Don’t waste your energy fighting the fever, you must only
fight the disease. And I urge you to be careful, for there is a deadly
prison. The prison that is erected when one spends their life fighting
phantoms, concentrating on myths, and explaining over and over to the
conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your culture, your habits. And
you don’t have to do it anymore.

You don’t have to dwell on changing the
minds of racists.

They thrive on the failures of those
unlike them. They are in prisons of their own construction. 

But you must
know the truth. That you are free.”

(From Toni Morrison’s speech at Portland State, 1975) [audio] [transcript]

Holy crap

Works for me

The idea that one fantasy fiction can be deemed more realistic—essentially, more non-fictional—than the other, deserves contemplation. With science fiction, at least, we have the categories of hard and soft, depending on the sort of technology at the heart of the story. Consider, for example, elements in Martin’s Game of Thrones which Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings lacks. A Game of Thrones begins with a slaughter, followed by a beheading scene. The Lord of the Rings begins with plans for a birthday party, followed by the birthday party itself. Beheading, in fact, constitutes the single most gruesome detail of Tolkien’s many scenes of war, when the forces of Sauron use a catapult to throw the heads of Gondorian soldiers over the walls of Minas Tirith. In A Game of Thrones, atrocity is unflinching; even dead children are shown in all their red ruin. […]

There can be no doubt that Martin and Tolkien provide different experiences. The more modern publication delves much deeper into the personal psychology of its characters, while the other provides much more historical depth. To claim, however, that one imaginary world is more realistic than the other is to beg a standard that simply cannot assert itself. As Northrop Frye considered in his Anatomy of Criticism, as inhabitants of the real world, everything we imagine ourselves to understand—whether fiction or nonfiction—must have some basis in our own experience. Something entirely apart from that experience would be incomprehensible to us—untranslatable, as it were.

In deciding matters of realism, then, we must ask ourselves how deeply our experience goes with the criteria we invoke, and from there decide whether our decision is valid. Some may realize, for example, that they have attended more birthday parties than beheadings in their lifetime.

With Game of Thrones, as with a great many current television programs and films whose realism is measured by their grittiness, the spotlights are constantly on the shadows. It should come as no surprise that cockroaches scatter. To claim, however, that their matters of murder, deceit, rape, and worse somehow impart greater credibility to a fantasy world than do their existing moral counterparts—this makes Game of Thrones not just theater, but a thermometer.

Harley J. Sims, asking “Is Game of Thrones ‘Realistic’ Fantasy?” (via joannalannister)

I get really, really tired of the claims that GoT is “more realistic” or “more like the real Middle Ages.”  GoT is only more realistic to us, as people in 2014, because its lens and worldview is our own.  It shows us a medieval-esque world that is as brutal and nasty as we feel our own is.  Tolkien was showing a brutal and desperate world, too — but through the lens of surviving WWI and dealing with WWII and trying to find some meaning in the rise of mechanised, dreadful warfare.  But his lens is a century removed from ours, quite nearly.  GRRM is a contemporary.  So his medieval fantasy feels like something we understand because it reflects a vision of the medieval that we resonate with.  And that is what makes it so troubling — not that it’s grim and brutal and incredibly, over the top violent, but that this is what we feel is necessary to make anything set in the past, even a past through a mirror darkly, real.  That’s what it has to be to make it resonate.  And that’s what it has to be to make modern American audiences feel things were worse then than they are now.  Compared with Tolkien’s world, on the heels of the Shoah and the two deadliest wars in modern history, that says a terrifying lot about how we perceive our real world.

(via hobbitballerina)

——- This is a line of thought I’ve never even considered before. You definitely do hear that George R.R. Martin’s writing is so much more “realistic” than Tolkien’s – heck, even I’ve had those thoughts myself from time to time (even though I don’t fully agree, but that’s another story). But the fact is, it’s probably true that what we decide “realism” is, what lens we see fiction through, is contextual to our time, our society, our experience. 

But I actually think there’s more to it than that. I don’t think it’s just the content of stories that matter in determining their realism: it’s their execution, too. JRR and GRR have very different writing styles (even if their names are distractingly similar). Tolkien’s is much more narrative, spacious and plentiful and unhurried. I definitely know people who have never been able to get into Lord of the Rings because his style was too florid and longwinded for them. There’s something old-fashioned to it that you don’t really see in Martin’s writing, with its clipped descriptions, action-driven continuity, and characterization conveyed largely through dialogue. The pace of A Song of Ice and Fire is often as jagged and brutal as its people. Tolkien’s writing is operatic; George R.R. Martin’s is metal. 

I feel like this probably contributes to the feeling of modernity and realism in the work. The writing is very much of our time; I feel it resonates with us as much because of its syntax as its brutality. It’s not so much what the characters do as how it’s depicted, that gives us that sense of “realness”. Just think of the LotR movies – there’s definitely parts of those that feel Game-of-Thrones-y, right? All grit and death and lies? In a way, it’s like all Peter Jackson had to do to update the tone of those scenes was to spotlight the action, tease it out from the saga-esque presentation of the original. A lot was added, but I think it can be argued that most of it was already implied. Middle-Earth and Westeros are maybe not as dissimilar as you think. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t want to live in either of them.

What do you think? Is “realism” in fantasy fiction as much a product of writing style as it is of actual story content?