By JohnCarl McGrady, editor in chief
I’ve wanted to write an editorial analyzing Tolkien and race for a long time. I am somewhat obsessed with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, to be honest. For a while, I actually owned a 110,000 person online community of Lord of the Rings enthusiasts, which was unfortunately shut down when Google Plus ended service. I’ve spent well over 100 hours reading, writing, and debating the intersection of Tolkien and race.
However, it’s never felt relevant to the moment. Recently, though, Dungeons and Dragons, the tabletop roleplaying game so many people love, has faced backlash over its supposedly racist characterization of Orcs. Acknowledging that these concerns were, at least to a point, valid, the development team has announced that the next major update to the game will address race dynamics and try to limit some of the ethnic stereotypes and negative cultural implications in the game’s lore. This in turn incited a second wave of backlash, as a different set of people argued that there was nothing racist at all about the game, and changing it undermined decades of lore. Meanwhile, racial justice protests erupted across the country as people united against racist institutions and systemic discrimination. Suddenly, the topic is relevant.
I get to put all of that time and research to use! This is going to be far too long for a single editorial, so I’ll split it into two. This one will address historical racism in fantasy and the second will address how adaptations of works with racist elements should handle those elements, and diversity, as well as separating the creator from the creation.
The Orcs in Dungeon and Dragons are an example of what is referred to as an “evil race,” a race of creatures in a fictional world that is inherently evil. Unlike humans, where some are good and some are bad, individuals in an evil race are always evil.
Having an evil race is not inherently racist. A lot of stories have evil races in a way that is entirely sensitive, like Dragons in Lord of the Rings or Demons in…almost everything Demons are in. What separates Dragons and Demons from Orcs and Goblins is that Orcs and Goblins are intentionally drawing inspiration from real-world races and imitating them, whereas Dragons and Demons are not, in any way.
Of course, I can’t just make this assertion and move on. In fact, a totally rational response to that claim is to feel that I’m racist for suggesting it. Surely, if I think Orcs mirror a real-world race, I’m the problem. Well, not quite.
Every single fantasy you read that includes Orcs—or Orks—is basing them on Tolkien’s Orcs, and Tolkien’s Orcs are racist caricatures. While I could dive into a lengthy explanation of why this, that’s not necessary, because Tolkien literally said it with his own words. In one of his letters, Tolkien said that Orcs were “degraded and repulsive versions of those least lovely Mongol-types.” I mean, that’s about as straightforward as it gets.
There’s other examples of this as well. J.K Rowling’s Goblin’s draw on traditionally anti-semitic tropes, and are caricatures of the Jewish people, for example. It should go without saying that analogizing a real-world race of people to an evil race in a fantasy work is racist and shouldn’t be done, but that’s only the most extreme example of a much more prevalent trend.
For example, not all races in fantasy worlds that are created to represent real-world ethnicities are evil. Tolkien’s Dwarves are supposed to be Jewish people, for example. Again, this isn’t up for debate; Tolkien literally said so, comparing their language to yiddish and saying that some of their traits were based on semitic traits. Now, Tolkien wasn’t trying to portray the Jewish people in a negative light. The Dwarves are a “good” race, and almost none of them serve the dark lords in his mythology, but it’s still problematic to base a fantasy race on a real-world one. No one today would base their Dwarves on the Jewish people, at least not intentionally, assuming they wanted to be published.
However, the racism doesn’t end at fantasy races that are parallels for real-world races. In Middle Earth, most of the humans who side with the Dark Lord Sauron are non-white, and most of the humans who side against him are white. This is described in plain, clear terms several times. His servants are non-white, his enemies are white.
The Lens of History
While some would argue against me, I don’t actually believe Tolkien intended these instances of racism. He was an outspoken anti-racist in his day, writing letters about how awful racism is and condemning the Nazis vociferously. Further, the narrative explicitly condemns racism with its in-world allegories, showing how racism between Dwarves and Elves, and against Hobbits, is wrong and not based in logical fact. The entire analogy between Dwarves and Jewish people was meant, at the time, to show Jewish people in a positive light. The narrative also condemns the Rohirrim for hunting and killing the Woses, a race of people who are probably non-white, and definitely not the same race as the Rohirrim hunting them. Obviously that quote about Orcs is racist, which brings the rest into question, but I would argue that alone, standing on its own, Lord of the Rings isn’t that problematic. Sauron’s servants are non-white and his enemies are white, but this doesn’t amount to Tolkien saying racism is good.
This can’t be said for all creators who made content with racist elements. For example, H.P Lovecraft was a Nazi. Literally, I’m not exaggerating. But it can be said for a lot of them, especially those who were just making content in a different age, with different standards, and that has to inform the way we view their work. The problem isn’t the individual work.
The problem is the culture the work was created in. The Lord of the Rings does not exist in a vacuum. Over and over again, the protagonists and heroes of fantasy books are white, and their enemies are non-white. This trend has definitely decreased in recent years,especially the villains being non-white, as the heroes of fantasy novels are still predominantly white, but it is undeniable none-the-less. None of these works of media alone is the problem. It is the collective whole that is the problem.
When taken as a collective, stories where non-white people are barbaric and uncivilised—even the Woses are described as such in Lord of the Rings—and white people are the heroes who need to defeat them and enforce the rules of civilization and the culture of the white people on them is extremely problematic. It enforces narratives of prejudice, racism and colonialism that are dangerous and downright bigoted. This is why the argument that it would not be decried if the white and non-white roles were flipped falls flat. No, it wouldn’t be, because the individual work is not the problem. Lord of the Rings is not the problem. It is the collective whole, the trend, that is problematic. If the white and non-white roles were flipped in every single example, then that would be problematic, and that would be decried.
The Thermian Argument
One of the most common arguments against the idea that these works are racist is that the racist elements are justified in text. This is known as the Thermian Argument, named after a group of creatures from Star Trek who have no concept of fiction and thus treat every work of fiction as if it is a historical text, which is essentially what the Thermian Argument does. I’ll admit here I’m borrowing a little from media critic Dan Olson, who I believe was the one to coin this term. It argues that since there is a narrative reason for the Orcs to be evil as a race, as they are all corrupted Elves, making the Orcs be evil as a race is not problematic. However, that is giving an in text answer for an out of text problem. In the fictional world, it does make sense, but the problem is when you analyze how the fictional world interacts with the real one. In real life, non-white people aren’t corrupted white people. As we have already established, having evil races is not inherently racist, it’s the way certain particular evil races interact with and draw from real-world cultures that is the problem.
The Thermian Argument could also be applied to non-white characters siding with evil. For example, in the Lord of the Rings, this is because they are corrupted by Sauron. Again, though, this isn’t the point. No one is arguing Aragorn is a racist for hating groups of people that have sided with Sauron and are trying to end freedom and joy.
Also, the Thermian argument can be used to justify literally anything. The most extreme example is Goblin Slayer, an anime about a knight who hunts goblins. Each episode shows the goblins raping many women in explicit and repeated detail. The Thermian Argument says that that’s just how goblins act in-world, so it makes sense. But the problem is showing women raped over and over by creatures that represent an ethnic stereotype is bad not in the anime but in our world. I doubt many people think that the YA book Save the Pearls, about a group of white people doing blackface and killing all of the black people is completely unproblematic and justified, but the Thermian Argument applies equally well to it. In universe, they have to do blackface to survive persecution, and in universe, they are oppressed and genocided by the black people they kill. Fiction interacts with real life, and it’s silly to treat it like it doesn’t.
Admittance is Not Erasure
When people address the racism in Lord of the Rings—or other fantasy works—and talk about how to read the book through a 21st century lens and interpret it in today’s society, that should not be cause for anger. A lot of people react to the factual statement “the Lord of the Rings has some racist elements and perpetuated some harmful stereotypes,” as if it implies the value judgement “and therefore it is bad,” when in reality it implies the value judgement “and it is important to realize this if you want to fully understand the book.”
I love Lord of the Rings. It is one of my absolute favourite books. I also love a lot of other media with racist elements, like Dungeons and Dragons. Many people who point out what I have pointed out feel the same way. No one is saying you should burn your Tolkien books. You should obviously not do that. I am not saying Tokien was bad. I am not saying Tolkien’s books are bad. All I am saying is that, if you want to really understand a book, and really understand the historical racism in the modern world, you have to understand how the book relates to the real world. It is important to understand that Tolkien’s books include racist elements. This does not make them bad books, it just shows the culture they were written in.
As conservatives love to say, this isn’t about your feelings about how good the books are, it’s about facts.