As a follow-up to recent posts on race in the Lord of the Rings, I think I should have a look at the possible multicultural symbols in the books. This is both a nice counterstory to my recent criticisms of his politics, and provides useful background information on the politics of Tolkien’s fascist admirers. How can fascists appreciate Tolkien if he’s mulitcultural? By what sleight of hand do they overlook the central role of the fellowship in the story? Was the politics of racial interaction in the Lord of the Rings ahead of its time, or not?
The possibility of the Fellowship being seen as a multicultural was raised by commenter Paul as a possible alternative explanation of the racial politics of the story. I confess I hadn’t thought of it.
What is multiculturalism?
The first thing to note is that multiculturalism is not just a random word meaning “lots of different races” (though maybe semantically it should). It is a specific political philosophy adopted in Australia in 1972, and an accompanying theory of political integration for diverse races. It can be characterized as “a bunch of different racial and cultural groups living together under a single law, while retaining their own unique cultural and linguistic practices.” In Australia the law is Australian, the shared language is English, and everyone is welcome to do whatever they want in their personal lives. In fact, they’re openly and actively encouraged to, because their culture is assumed to be important to them. Multiculturalism was originally envisioned (in 1972) as “a society in which equal
opportunity is accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance” and is now presented in essentially these terms:
Australian multiculturalism recognises, accepts, respects and celebrates cultural diversity. It embraces the heritage of Indigenous Australians, early European settlement, our Australian-grown customs and those of the diverse range of migrants now coming to this country.
The freedom of all Australians to express and share their cultural values is dependent on their abiding by mutual civic obligations. All Australians are expected to have an overriding loyalty to Australia and its people, and to respect the basic structures and principles underwriting our democratic society. These are the Constitution, Parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the national language, the rule of law, acceptance and equality.
It’s important to note that before Canada adopted this policy, there was really no such thing as a concept of multiculturalism, and if Tolkien had propounded such a theory he would have been well ahead of his time (though not unique – various other peoples across time have advocated this idea, especially anarchists and libertarians).
Multiculturalism is not the same as “cultural diversity” or easy immigration policy. In fact Australia has quite a strict immigration policy, setting specific barriers to entry, though the policy is non-racist (in keeping with its multicultural practice).
Multiculturalism in the era of Tolkien
Contrary to the claims of people who love London a little too much (e.g. the crew from London Timeout), London has not been a multicultural city for long, and it certainly wasn’t in the interwar period. It definitely has always been a famously diverse city, perhaps reaching its pinnacle of diversity in the late Victorian era. But this is not the same as multiculturalism, and in fact London is generally quite intolerant of foreigners, and compared to Australia has quite a strong culture of guest workers – a kind of “come here while we need you and then fuck off home please” attitude. At the time that Tolkien was writing it was likely that London was at a low point in its diversity (I don’t know) but pretty certainly areas outside of London were not diverse at all. And we know that Tolkien’s country of origin, South Africa, has a pretty poor history of handling cultural diversity. So, Tolkien could be excused in the context of his time for writing a book in which any form of cultural mixing was seen as bad.
The Fellowship of the Ring
The central organisation of the first book is of course the Fellowship, which consists of the peoples of 4 races, joining together on a desperate quest. They overcome some fairly serious obstacles by working together, and they fall apart ultimately because a human turns on a hobbit in the interests of his nation. But is this a multicultural fellowship? From the background material on the Lord of the Rings we know that it doesn’t represent the natural social structure of any of the societies from which the Fellowship’s members hale. There are no elves or Dwarves or humans in Hobbiton, no humans in the Grey Mountains, and very little evidence of racial diversity in Gondor, the capital of the age. There is one and precisely one foreigner in Rivendell. In the scene where the Fellowship is formed (in the council chamber at Rivendell) the formation is clearly described as a unique event – as races putting aside their differences to fight a common foe. This is no natural extension of the social order of the time in the way that, say, a New Zealand rugby team represents 3 races working for the glory of the Fern, or a lesbian with Chinese parents represents Australia in international climate change talks. This is a special moment in Middle Earth history, just as the gathering of humans and elves at Mount Doom 2000 years earlier was also special.
This is not a multicultural phenomenon; it’s a political alliance. And like most political alliances, it falls apart when one of its members decides to privilege the interests of his own nation over the rest.
Tolkien of course had experience with political alliances, in World War 1, when people from all over the Commonwealth (and Frenchies) joined together to kill Germans. And Turks. And this model is pretty congruent with the structure of the Fellowship.
The races of the Fellowship as “white”
It seems pretty likely from Tolkien’s stories that the only races in the Fellowship that can interbreed are elves and humans. There is no evidence of Dwarves breeding with anyone, and who would shag a halfling? Women with hairy feet are so 80s. This is a pretty strong qualification for “different races.” But in their analyses of Tolkien’s racial politics, Nazis tend to overlook this. I think this is because the races of the West, even though incapable of interbreeding, are established in Tolkien’s world as roughly equivalent to those of Western Europe. They share so much in cultural familiarity that their profound racial differences are overlooked. This occurs in the books and in Nazi ideology, where Nazis from all across Europe see each other as allies even though they’ve spent the last 200 years fighting. The atmosphere of old conflicts set aside in the late third age is also the atmosphere of the modern fascist movement. They look for their true enemies to the East and the South, and see Europe as a single entity under threat from enemies without. This is exactly how the people of the Fellowship see their world. This commonality is sufficient for the races of the Fellowship to be seen as a common unit. After all, they united against a common threat. Isn’t that sufficient definition by which to assert a common political interest?
Additionally, Tolkien presents a set of conservative tropes – hereditary kings, absent and virtuous women, colonialism rewarded, the downfall of races through interbreeding – to enable sympathetic readers to see a model of Europe in the peoples of the West. Even the geography bears a resemblance. So it’s no surprise that the Fellowship’s genetic incompatibility is overlooked in favour of its cultural similarity, even as its enemies’ cultural differences are ignored in favour of their racial similarity (corrupted by Morgoth, dark-skinned, foreign).
Other examples of racial mixing in Tolkien
The general model of racial mixing in Tolkien is that they don’t. There is precisely one foreigner in Rivendell, that being Bilbo; and he is only welcome because branded by a powerful magical item and so rendered culturally closer, if not racially radically different. We spend much of two books reading about Gondor, but see little or no evidence of any foreign races. There are no foreigners in Rohan. Rohan was gifted to the Rohirrim by the Gondorian king, and rather than sharing it with the Dunlendings, they drove them out (along with the Woses, whose eventual extinction is presented as a sad inevitability). This is no multicultural model, but one of races staying firmly separate. The only model of racial mixing is Arthedain and Gondor, which used to be occupied by a race of pure common men. When the Numenorians arrived they took over the land, despite being tiny in number, and formed a hereditary ruling class. This class slowly degraded with contact with the locals, but retained their hereditary power. Essentially, the only long-lasting racial mixing model in Tolkien is a caste-based system – it’s a fairly pleasant one, but it’s still a caste system. It’s rather like England after 1066, where a new power has taken over the country and maintain their own language (Dunadan) and hereditary line, but occasionally interbreed with some of the pre-existing local aristrocracy. But unlike that model, the invading power is seen as a separate race that slowly declines in time (but still lives 4 times as long as the locals after 2000 years, and retains special magical powers).
The only common racial mixing in Tolkien is between Orcs and Goblins, about whom its dubious to maintain that they’re even separate races. Sure, the evil armies are made up of (roughly) 5 races, but they aren’t drawn together as part of a multicultural society – they too are a political alliance. There is no model in Lord of the Rings for the natural interaction of races.
The model of racial mixing in Lord of the Rings is one of political alliances built out of expediency, either through mutual defense or desire for power. This is consistent with the real-world great power politics of the time, but does not reflect the politics of multiculturalism. The fellowship is not a natural outgrowth of multicultural societies, but an alliance of disparate interests thrown together out of desperation and destroyed when one of its members chooses base national interest over common defense – it is formed and collapses along the model of a treaty. The only political model based on racial mixing is a caste system in which a powerful race rules over a weaker one. Although there is a temptation to describe the Fellowship of the Ring as a multicultural model, such a comparison relies on a misreading of the politics of multiculturalism, and a false interpretation of the causes and political meaning of the alliance that the Fellowship represents.
fn1: I get this idea from A.N Lee’s The Victorians, and also from an article in London Timeout about how modern fears about Eastern Europeans very much resemble Victorian fears about the same people
fn2: Though from the perspective of the Australians involved, it was the Turks who did most of the killing