I first read the Lord of the Rings series when I was a teenager in high school. I still remember the days of reading it alternatingly with my sister, both of us competing for reading time and being the first to finish it. I grew up in a country that loves its myths but Lord of the Rings was my first introduction to a modern story-telling of a grand epic.
With the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien has created a magnificent world with multiple races, countries, kings and dark lords - and even its own languages. When you read it you are convinced that yes, perhaps such a world did exist, or may exist. Tolkien borrowed from numerous European myths and epics and created this fantastic world that kick-started the modern genre of fantasy. The plot uses a familiar “good vs evil” trope with the good triumphing the end. And I still have a soft corner for the Orcs and Sauron.
It was only years after my initial introduction to the books and movies that I started seeing the problems in the Lord of the Rings franchise. I believe that Tolkien exhibits an inherent bias towards Western Europe and its culture. In this post I want to share the different ways bias can be seen through this series of books that I love.
Take a look at a map of Middle Earth. Shire, where the story starts and where the hobbits live, is depicted like countryside England. If Middle Earth were Europe, Shire looks like it would be in England.
All the bad guys live in the East. Mordor, Rhun, Khand and Harad are all in the Eastern corners of Middle Earth. This ties in well with the cultural differences between the West and the East in the modern world - that of Western Europe and everything East of it.
If you have read the Silmarillion, Valinor is on a continent even west of the Middle Earth and that is where all the Gods live.
Names are very powerful in modern fantasy stories. Many popular fantasy stories talk endlessly about the power of secret names and learning how to utter them to invoke the power within. Names can have unforeseen consequences in real life. Here is a thought experiment: if all the bad guys in a story have Mexican names, would you not think that something is amiss?
The names that Tolkien uses for characters and locations attributed to the bad guys are overwhelmingly non-Western European. Here are a few names of Orcs: Azog, Shagrat and Grishnakh. Azog sounds Eastern European and the other two sound Middle Eastern/Indian. What names do Orcs give places? Lugburz and Gundabad. Lugburz sounds Eastern European and Gundabad sounds Persian/Indian. Incidentally, Lugburz is the name for Barad Dur in the Black Speech.
The names of the countries in the far eastern part of Middle Earth are Rhun, Khand and Harad. They are depicted as part of the enemy, allied with Sauron. Khand and Harad again sound Middle Eastern/Indian. Khand is a suffix used in Indian place names that means “land”
Dwarven character names & place names:
The Dwarves are the exception to the naming scheme. The Dwarven place names also sound Middle Eastern/Indian/Eastern European - Khazad Dum and Nogrod. For the most part Dwarves are “good” people, unlike Orcs.
The lack of women characters in Lord of the Rings is well known. Although there exist a few women characters the only strong one in the core series is Eowyn. Arwen is mentioned just a couple of times in the books and her importance in the movies has been greatly enhanced, perhaps to make her more alluring. I would say that the books have so few women characters that the movies greatly amplified Arwen’s role in the story. Galadriel is shown as a powerful Elf queen, but like Elrond, her time in the world of men is up and she plays a minor role.
Eowyn’s character is one of my favorites, especially when she kills the Lord of the Nazgul fulfilling Glorfindel’s prophecy. Eowyn wants to take the sword and fight, but she is not allowed to fight because she is a woman. So she goes to war in disguise. She takes Merry along with her to battle because Merry was not permitted to go as well. Eowyn and Merry kill the Lord of the Nazgul together, fulfilling the prophecy since neither Eowyn nor Merry were men.
Color and Race
This is perhaps part of a bigger discussion than Lord of the Rings - but black is often used to depict the bad guys. What do people in Mordor speak? The Black tongue, a corrupted form of Elvish. Who were the Nazgul? Black Númenóreans. How are the orcs depicted? Dark and ugly. And of course, it is always the dark lord that is bad, never a fair lord.
Although Tolkien does talk quite a bit about the corruption of men, elves and dwarves, the orcs are always a placeholder for the “enemy” and just that. Rarely do we learn about what orcs ponder about, why they do certain things, why they follow Sauron and so on. And if you have seen the movies, orcs are shown to be the ugliest race of creatures in the world. I am not alone - there has been a fanfiction work that tells the story of the Lord of the Rings from the point of view of Orcs.
The good vs evil trope has worked amazingly well in many parts of the world. It is used by religion, myths, politicians, and rabble-rousers. It is exceedingly easy to dehumanize the “other” - most of us participate in this process knowingly and unknowingly. The problem with that is you lose nuance and can fall into a simple trap of mis-trusting anyone who is “different” from your culture.
Tolkien was heavily influenced by fighting in World War I where he saw the chaos and destruction that men could inflict on one another. He also saw the rise of industrialization and how it changed the landscape of quiet English towns. Some say that the true enemy in Lord of the Rings was industrialization and technology. The big, fancy war machines are all invented and operated by Sauron and his stooges. I can understand where this is coming from - many of the weapons we are familiar with like tanks, warplanes and submarines were used for the first time in World War I. It is possible that in Tolkien’s mind, Orcs were simply a placeholder for the things that brought pain to the world.
I am not saying that you should not read the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s books are an excellent work of literature and have brought boundless joy to my life. But in this age and world, we ought to know the hidden pitfalls in Tolkien’s work. We are lucky to live in a time when fantasy written in English is exploding in diversity: you can now find Black(NK Jemisin), South Asian(Samit Basu), East Asian(Cixin Liu), Eastern European(Andrzej Sapkowski) and Nigerian(Nnedi Okorafor) authors in fantasy. The future is promising. Let us not forget where we are coming from.