Today I discovered an interesting interview with one Stephen Shapiro, University of Warwick, which was conducted in 2003 by the German Tolkien fanclub (at least I assume that’s what it is). At that time it would appear he had been working on a research theme similar to that which I’ve gathered here and here, about whether Tolkien is racist, racialist, or vulnerable to interpretation as such. The interview contains support for the claims I’ve made before about how Tolkien can be read, and contains some interesting information I hadn’t previously found about the way in which Tolkien is used by the far right in Europe[1]. The interview came out in 2003 and is, I think, a bit unfair on Peter Jackson – I think Shapiro has a very uncharitable reading of the poster advertising The Two Towers.  I’m no film critic so I can’t say anything about the claim that

In visual terms, there are also uncanny references to both Leni Riefenstahl and DW Griffiths’s Birth of a Nation, the film that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan.

If so, that’s a bit disappointing, but it’s also maybe not unexpected – Leni Riefenstahl is supposed to have done revolutionary stuff, isn’t she?

Shapiro also suggests that Jackson’s film could have been tolerably done in a more multi-racial fashion, and says

For Jackson’s part, he gives viewers too little credit, since many contemporary fans in the “fantasy and role-playing community” of games like Dungeons and Dragons and Everquest often encourage players to avoid racial stereotypes in their games, Jackson makes no concession to ethnic heterogeneity and often seems not to have considered if a non-white viewer would feel that her or his dignity had been degraded by the film’s representations.

I don’t know if I agree with this – D&D et al are games which, while they superficially “avoid racial stereotypes,” tend to also err strongly on the side of making the protagonist white[2]. Also, these games strongly encourage racialism, and I’m not sure that racialism is compatible with “avoid racial stereotypes.”

Shapiro also states that he is aware of someone else (internet link now dead) who claims to have proof that Tolkien subscribed for 20 years to an extremely right-wing, racist magazine called the League for Empire Loyalists. I don’t think this claim can be tested from the comfort of my armchair, so I’d like to add that I know someone whose dog has eaten someone’s homework, and on that homework it was clearly written that Tolkien was a member of NAMBLA.

There is s sizable section of this interview which backs up my earlier evidence about how Tolkien is used by the far right. For example, the Heathen Front (some kind of long-since collapsed British organisation of right wing “volkists”) admired him as “racialist”, and he was also extremely popular on the far right in Italy. One far right movement even ran paramilitary youth groups called “camp Hobbits”, and infiltrated the Italian Tolkien Society in the 80s. The modern Italian far right developed from a rump movement that survived Mussolini, but it developed along very different lines – it eschewed the modernist futurism of pre-war fascism and instead developed a philosophy based on sacred fascism, in which a traditional and a modern world view are in constant conflict, with the traditional worldview slowly decaying but then reasserting itself. This decay is associated with a decline due to racial mixing and loss of religious strength. This ideology of the “sacred Right” is consistent with the themes in Tolkien’s work, and is a very common view across much modern extreme right thought – David Duke espouses it, it’s crawled all across the pages of Stormfront and the other far right websites[4], and the people who are closest associated with it also seem very likely to be Tolkien admirers. The links between the spiritual fathers of modern Italian fascism and Tolkien are well described in this essay, which also points out that modern fascism is now so diverse that it is difficult to ascribe it a single guiding philosophy or even to define it clearly as “fascism” anymore.

I think that had Tolkien’s work been popular in the ’30s it would probably not have been popular with the Italian fascists, who were much more into futurism and total war than they were into romantic recreation of bucolic rural utopias. It might have influenced those who wanted religious re-development under the regimes, but these people were never popular with their leaders[5].  Had it been associated with Fascism then I doubt it would be very popular now, either, so it’s all round good luck for us that he published just a tad late. But I think in the post-war age there are clear parallels between the mythology and cultural history of the Lord of the Rings and the tale of cultural decline and racial mixing which the modern far Right want to tell. It’s not a coincidence, because like his fellow fantasy authors (and pretty much all of the white world) in the pre-war era, Tolkien believed in the Aryan mythology, the now-discredited model of Aryan archaeology, eugenics and the dangers of racial mixing; and he was, apparently, on the right-wing of British literary activity. Because he wrote such a detailed, lyrical and evocative world based around these ideals, he has become the literary standard for those elements of the modern far right who subscribe to the same mythology. I think he would probably see a lot of things in the modern far Right of which he would approve, but I think he would also see a lot (particularly in Berlusconi’s Italy) that horrifies him, and I think it highly unlikely that he would ever have supported the goals or politics of any fascist organisations in the 20th or 21st centuries. But his writing supports their ideals and he has been used shamelessly to reinvigorate their cultural background in the last 20 years[6]. Given the influence of Tolkien on role-playing and the fantasy world today, I think it’s fair to say that role-playing has a cultural heritage in these fascist ideals, and the closer one hews to the work of the pre-war canon that was steeped in them, the closer this heritage is to one’s game.

I don’t wish to draw too many conclusions about what this says about people like me who enjoy playing in these worlds. Some choices:

  1. It’s actually really easy to sterilise artistic work of nasty meaning if you like the work itself
  2. Good literary work can transcend even very powerful politically objectionable ideals (Nabokov, anyone?)
  3. The reader’s intentions and goals are much more important in the interpretation of the work than even the most blatant political intent on the part of the author[7]
  4. I’m an outrageous fascist who’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes

I do think, though, that there must be some extent to which this racialisation in standard fantasy and role-playing has to make it seem exclusionary to non-white readers. Even if 1) were true, some proportion of non-white readers who would otherwise enjoy the work must be put off by their obvious placement on the wrong side of the story in the pre-war canon (and by extension, much of the post-war canon). I wonder how many role-players in the creation of their own worlds unconsciously move away from the outright racialism in the early work, or subvert it in some way. I know I have done by, for example, making Orcs noble (I did this long before I knew about this critique of Tolkien) or by making Elves fascist (in my 4th Age Middle Earth Campaign)[8]. But it’s really hard to preserve D&D in any original sense without keeping the racialism, and I think this must be a turn-off for some people, and I would guess particularly for non-white readers who are perhaps more aware of the consequences of racialism than a lot of white readers are.

fn1: For those who don’t want to wade through all the other crap I’ve written on this, I should point out that although I think the association of LoTR with the far right is evidence that it is easy to read as racist, I don’t take it as evidence that Tolkien was racist and I don’t care if he was[3]

fn2: There is a whole literature and 15 years of internet debate over whether making your protagonists white is a sign that you, your story, your game, or your movie, is racist. I think that it’s better if, where race is an explicit motif, the races in question are inclusive. I don’t think in early D&D they are. I don’t take this to mean Gygax (or anyone else) was racist

fn3: In the sense that, I think it’s bad to be racist, and I think it’s bad if a book sets out to tell a racist story, but it doesn’t change my appreciation of all the other appreciable elements of the book. And I think it’s interesting to investigate the politics of a book and of its writer, but that doesn’t mean I think every book should be PC, etc. blah blah, insert other ritualistic disclaimers about not being a killjoy here.

fn4: As ever, I’m not going to link to these sites, because they’re evil and I don’t want them coming here!

fn5: Am I the only person who thinks it highly suspicious that “hyperborea” and “hyborea” sound very, very similar? I might have to investigate Howard, who wrote “The ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth.”

fn6: It’s worth bearing in mind that after a movement engages in the level of monumental fail that the fascist movement fell to, they need some serious help reinvigorating, and a completely new ideological direction. It’s a miracle really that they’ve managed to survive in any way, shape or form and I’m sure any kind of long-term survival depends on their finding a new ideological basis.

fn7: Again, I’m not saying here that fascism was Tolkien’s intent. It’s worth noting that Orwell is consistently misused too, and loved by people on the right, even though he’s obviously a ferociously left-wing writer

fn8: This is really piss-poor subversion, because it doesn’t change the inherent racial essentialism of the framework, just reverses who gets what trait. Is this better? I would argue not… it’s just fun. I think Stephen Donaldson may be a good example of a popular canonical fantasy writer who screwed with the racial essentialism in the most obvious way – by writing a recognisable fantasy world mostly devoid of racial structures.