Comments on my last post have become bogged down in a debate that makes it hard to think clearly about the things I’ve been discussing in this series of posts about Tolkien and racism. Specifically, I think we’ve drifted off the main thread of the arguments, and become distracted from the issue of racial essentialism in Tolkien by a nasty debate about whether Tolkien’s work was fascist. So this post is an attempt to regather my thoughts (I find the cut-and-thrust of internet debate can cause me to drift off of the main thread of a thought).
I think my interlocutors have become a bit bogged down in defending Tolkien against a misinterpretation of scientific racism, which gives it a stronger set of conditions than it actually and historically carries, so I’m going to try and clarify that. In this post I will remind my readers of the way scientific racism works, and discuss the additional properties of Nazi racism. I’m also going to try and set out a method by which an author can unintentionally make a Nazi racial model for their work through combining two quite separate narrative ideals, and I’m also going to try and set out an alternative plot for Lord of the Rings that would be almost exactly the same as the original but substantially less concerned with the inherent moral differences of races, in an attempt to show how a very similar text could be less vulnerable to scientific-racist interpretation.
Scientific racism and racial essentialism
The fundamental property of a theory of scientific racism or racial essentialism is that it ascribes moral properties to a race, and assumes they’re racially inherited. This is different to, say, racism, which ascribes moral properties to a race but assumes they’re not genetic; or scientific analysis of cultures, which assigns certain properties to a culture and assumes that you have to grow up in the culture to get them; and connects this to a race only inasmuch as a race is connected to the culture.
When scientific racism assigns a moral property to a race, that assignation isn’t absolute or invariant – it’s an average level around which the race is generally assumed to deviate, and in most models it’s not absolute. As we’ll see, the exception to this is Nazism which (pretty much) assigns immutable, eternal and unvarying evil motives to a single race (Jews). So in general a scientific racist theory will make statements like
- [Race A] is less moral than [race B]
- [Race A] is inclined to savagery and barbarism [with the implicit contrast to race B]
- [Race A] cannot rise above their base instincts, and will never aspire to the higher art or culture of [race B]
These statements tend to allow for diversity within the framework, and specifically they allow members of race B to be degenerate. In fact, the concepts of degeneracy applied to [race A] tend to be grounded in discussion of the “worst types” of [race B], and historically they’ve often been taken from descriptions of the poor and working class members of the society of [race B]. Saying [race B] is better than [race A] is not a statement that is everywhere and absolutely true; it’s sometimes (or often) the case that members of [race B] behave like [race A] or can be corrupted to so behave – this is the essence of the fear-mongering and salacious marijuana scare books of the 50s, for example.
Further, it’s important to note that a lot of scientific racism is based on an underlying fear of [race A], and especially of [race B] becoming like [race A]. For such a fear to be viable, there has to be some real life risk that [race B] will occasionally (or frequently) behave like [race A]. This is especially evident in racial essentialist arguments against cultural mixing. The fear isn’t just that the races will interbreed, but that the mere presence of large numbers of [race A] doing bad things will cause [race B] to do more of them.
As a concrete example, consider some more modern racial essentialist theories based in pop pscyhology. Under these theories black people have “poor impulse control.” This means that, for example, young black girls can’t resist the urge to have sex, and get pregnant as teenagers. This theory doesn’t preclude white teenage pregnancies, because it allows for the existence of white girls with poor impulse control (usually it sees these girls as poor or working class, often living in neighbourhoods with lots of black people). But it is used as an explanation for high black teenage pregnancy rates (and is often followed up with an argument that special funding for programs to reduce teen pregnancy in black communities are a waste of money because the problem is “biological”). This racial essentialist theory will be stated as “blacks have poor impulse control” but it doesn’t actually exclude poor impulse control in whites.
Nazism’s special additions
Nazism is unique among these theories for adding a narrative of purposeful evil and corruption to the racial model. Jews are seen as not just immoral but always and everywhere evil, as represented in the essay The Eternal Jew. This evil is racially inherited, so immutable, and the deviousness and evil of the race is seen as such that mere exclusion is insufficient – extermination is the only solution. This model does not, however, preclude the possibility of evil in the “superior” races of whites. It presents a heirarchy of corruption, in which Jews are, for example, much better able to manipulate blacks than whites, and Germans and British are much more resilient to manipulation than, say, slavs or (sub-human) Russians. In fact, this racial theory was adapted quite neatly to explain the importance of Jews in American life, and a theory of cultural isolation and racial and cultural mixing was used to explain the “special vulnerability” of Americans to Jewish manipulation.
Nazi racial theory doesn’t assume that all white people are pure though; in fact, it allowed for the possibility of genetic flaws in whites, and had eugenic programs to manage them; and it had a criminal justice policy which, though racially-oriented, also assumed that white people could do bad things. The key point here is “could.” The Nazi view of race was that white people could do good or evil according to their free will (though they were always looking for genetically eradicable causes of propensity to do certain things); but Jews could only do evil. This kind of model is essential to explaining the presence of gay Aryans, and of Aryans who voted against their racial interests (i.e. voted Social Democrat).
Nazism also has a narrative of corruption, with the Jew whispering in the ear of the white man to corrupt him from good. Such a narrative doesn’t preclude people choosing to do evil acts by themselves, but the big movements of the time were all seen in the light of Jewish corruption: Bolshevism was Russians being corrupted by the international Jewish plot of Marxism; British views of Germans were the fault of the Jewish media; and Germany’s defeat in world war 1 was the fault of Jews corrupting Germans at home through fear and hunger.
Tolkien and racial essentialism
Tolkien’s work fits perfectly into a racial essentialist model, presenting tiers of morality in the races. Elves, Dwarves, Halflings and humans have the power to do good or evil by their own free will; Orcs and Southrons do not, with Orcs being always and everywhere evil and Southrons somewhere in between. Amongst humans, levels of goodness are genetic, with the Rohirrim and Gondorians at the top, then the men they interbred with, and then the Dunlendings, and then Southrons etc. (all the servants of Sauron). These traits are clearly presented as racially inherited – even halflings’ resistance to the siren song of power is racial.
Note here that “level of goodness” is defined as a propensity to do good; a race doesn’t have to be presented as everywhere and always good in order to fit a racial essentialist model. It simply has to be more moral than other races.
Tolkien’s model has the further unfortunate property of mapping these genetically-inherited racial differences to a geographical and morphological scheme that fits our real world, making the races very easily interpreted in real-life terms.
Tolkien and Nazi racial theory
In addition to presenting a race as immutably evil, just as Nazis do, Tolkien’s work includes an additional narrative of corruption, which brings it closer to Nazi racial theory. The evil races are corrupted by a pair of evil Gods, and the most evil movements in human and elvish history are related to corruption and deception by these evil Gods. From a Nazi racial theory perspective, this is Morgoth as Marx and Sauron as Lenin. They deceive and corrupt other races to following an evil creed, but unlike the real-world versions, they don’t rely on races being created inferior; they corrupt them with their magic so that those races become their permanent servants. The inclusion of this additional magical element to a fantasy text doesn’t rescue the racial theory from the interpretation it deserves; and the use of supernatural figures to do the corrupting, rather than representatives of the evil races, is simply a device of the genre. These points don’t fundamentally change the narrative, which is one of corruption of basically good peoples by the representatives of an evil race. In this case the representatives are magical, not political activists; but the effect is the same. The single difference is that these representatives pre-date the races they control, and created the (genetically-inherited) corruption in those races, rather than arising from it. This is not a hugely important element of the narrative structure of the Nazi racial theory represented in the text, though it suggests a way in which a Nazi racial theory can be constructed by accident.
Creating and recreating racial stories
In this section we will consider narrative structure and intent, but by inferring possible intents we shouldn’t assume that we’re commenting on the author’s actual intent or character. It’s generally assumed, I think, that because Tolkien put a great deal of thought and work into his world then any representation of racial essentialism must also have been intended. I don’t think this is necessarily the case. All Tolkien had to do to put a racial essentialist context in his books was to a) want to put non-human races in and b) recreate the social and cultural theories of his time uncritically. Having spent years developing the languages, geography and histories of his world, it’s entirely possible that he didn’t put any specific effort into thinking about the underlying racial cosmology; he just assembled it unthinkingly from the standard model of his day. Just as today many sci-fi authors unthinkingly write the democratic and liberal structure of their own culture into their novels, so he may have reproduced the racial theory of his time.
I think this seems hard to believe to some people because of the detail of his effort, but I’ve been reflecting on gender and fantasy recently and I don’t think it’s so unusual. Ursula le Guin put a great deal of thought into the race of her protagonist in A Wizard of Earthsea, she outlined the geography of the world and the peoples therein, and she is generally respected for creating a detailed and internally consistent magic system that formed the core of the narrative of the stories; but when she sat down to write the book she unthinkingly reproduced the gender conventions of the genre even though she’s a feminist. By contrast, Tolkien seems to have been a bit of a radical in women’s issues and I think this shows in the text – I think he consciously chose to eschew the gender politics of the genre he was writing in (which at that time was not fantasy). In order to eschew the conventions of a genre or a social order, you have to make a decision. Reproducing them merely means writing within the genre without effort. If le Guin could do this with one of her central political ideals (feminism) I don’t see any reason to believe that Tolkien wouldn’t have done it with a political ideology that may or may not have been his central concern (I don’t think it was). The result is a powerfully racially essentialist narrative.
Unfortunately for Tolkien, he also put in a narrative of corruption and downfall, probably based on his Catholic principles (though again he may not have thought about this). I think it’s very easy to write two separate themes – one of corruption, and one of racial essentialism – in a text and produce by accident a Nazi racial theory. That’s pretty much what the Nazis did – they combined pre-existing religious ideas about corruption and downfall with a particularly strong racial theory of evil, and the result was an exterminationist racial theory. They did this deliberately, but I think you could do it by accident and get a quite similar politics. If you unthinkingly reproduce racial theories of the interwar era and consciously put in a narrative of corruption, you’ll probably get Nazi theory.
Another way of looking at this is to consider a modern version. Suppose you write a fantasy book in which one race – from amongst whom you select the protagonists – go to war to save another race from an evil magical ruler who has enslaved them. Now, without thinking about it at all, simply make the society the good guys come from be a democratic liberal society – that’s what you know and politics isn’t your central concern, so you just write it that way. Then, because you’re really concerned with censorship, or because you want to make the evil magical ruler an allegory for the Wizard of Oz, or because you want to make a feminist comment on beauty culture, or for some other similar reason, suppose that you write into your story that the evil magical ruler has banned all images of himself. Without meaning to, you’ve produced a fantasy text which is a perfect image of modern liberal interventionism, with the bad guy a model of the Prophet. It’s US vs. Iraq all over. Having done this, I don’t think you can complain if your novel is trumpeted by the Hitchens and Abramovitch’s of the world as the next Orwell.
An alternative racially neutral text
Now I’m going to present a slight modification of the original story which would make it less racially essentialist, though I don’t claim this version would be better – I’m doing this just as an example. First, suppose that Tolkien had written the Orcs as humans, whose savagery was caused by a curse invoked on them by Sauron. This curse is tied up in the one ring, which has been lost. The one ring maintains all its other properties, too. So long as this ring exists, any descendant of the original nation cursed by Sauron is reduced to barbaric savagery – i.e. behaves like an Orc, but is human in form. The books proceed in exactly the same way, except that at the end when the ring is destroyed it undoes the curse, and the cursed humans resume normal human traits. This provides an explanation for the sudden victory at the Black Gate, it allows us to understand what happens at the end of the story, just as does the original, but it removes the genetically inherited trait from the Orcs. Even if the enslaved humans at the end of the story remain evil, their children will have free will. In such a story the inherited evil is a transient curse, rather than a genetic property. I think this version probably still is open to criticism, but it’s also much more defensible because an inter-generational curse that can be lifted by killing the magical source is (within the genre) completely different to an inherent trait that is genetically transferred and renders a race of “mongoloid” people evil by birth.
A final note on racial theory and free will
It’s important to understand that in all of its incarnations racial theory isn’t just a piece of pointless propaganda or a catechism to be invoked in foxholes. It’s a model of how society does and/or should work, and as such it has to take account of the real properties of the people it describes. This is why the Nazis had to write a special pamphlet explaining why the Japanese are superior to other Asians, and this is why racial theories in all their hideous variety have to accept that the “good” races aren’t purely good. This is usually done by ascribing to the “good” races more control over their baser instincts, and the free will to choose between evil and good, between delayed impulses and immediate drive, and between their personal desires and their racial survival. But such free will has to include the possibility of being a traitor to one’s race; being an impulsive criminal; or being evil. All racial theory arguments – even in their purest form under the Nazis – rely on acceptance of variation between individuals within a race, and build a structure based on averages and tendencies. The singular exception to this is the representation by the Nazis of Jews as especially and unavoidably evil; and this is a trait that the Nazis’ imaginary Jew shares with Tolkien’s imaginary Orcs. If the parallel stopped there then it would be meaningless, but the additional tale of corruption in the novel, and the geographical and morphological similarities to Europe, make it ideal Nazi propaganda, which is what we see in action today.
One doesn’t have to accept the similarity between Tolkien’s model and modern Nazi theory to accept that the races in the Lord of the Rings are based on a racially essentialist model. It’s important to note that Nazi racial theory gives no explanation for the genesis of Jewish evil (or black/slavic/Russian inferiority) – there is neither a natural selection nor a religious depiction of this. This means that the order of corruption in the Lord of the Rings – Morgoth corrupts the orcs, rather than being a political leader of that corrupted race – is not an important determinant of whether this book’s racial model is essentially Nazi. There is only one racial model in history which assigns one race to be pure evil, on a genetic basis, and sets them against a race capable of moral judgment and attainment of superior moral qualities. That model is Nazism, and Nazi racial theory has a lot in common with the racial theory of the Lord of the Rings.
This commonality, however, should not distract from the broader, and more insidious problem of scientific racism. Racial essentialism survived the Nazis, and has been reborn multiple times – most recently in the contentious IQ debates in the US. Tolkien’s works accept racial essentialism in full, and make it an essential part of the story; and there is nothing in the novels that contests this.