Can we make Tolkien “woke”?

The Pacific Standard has a piece, How can we untangle white supremacy from medieval studies, which is an equal part nuggets of fact and equal part tripe.

Setting aside much which I found disagreeable in the piece, I was intrigued by the references to J. R. R. Tolkien’s work and their relationship to the race-theories prevalent at the time he was constructing his cosmos. It always struck me as rather obvious that Tolkien was a man of his time, and as a conservative British Roman Catholic, he would bring some fashionable Occidental sensibility to his world-building. Tolkien’s life spanned the late period of the British Empire, and his passion and legacy were to create a mythology for the English peoples. It would be reasonable his views on race, ethnicity, and religion would be in keeping within the mainstream for the first half of the 20th century.

If you read The Silmarillion it’s clear that the cosmogony of Middle Earth, Arda more broadly, was monotheistic. Though Tolkien asserted at some point that his work was fundamentally Catholic, that seems too specific (though Eru Ilúvatar does seem particularly Christian as opposed to more generally monotheistic).

It is notable that paganism is not explored in detail in the works, though there are allusions to pagan practice and beliefs. In Fellowship of the Ring Denethor, the crazed Steward of Gondor, declares “No long, slow sleep of death embalmed. We shall burn like the heathen kings of old!” Though Tolkien’s work is not explicitly as allegorical of Christianity as C. S. Lewis’, there was still a Christian sensibility about his universe and the outlooks of his protagonists. The Hobbits were modeled on English gentry and carried themselves with the propriety one expected of doughty burghers.

The pagan beliefs of men not exposed to the civilizing influences of the elves were attributable to worshipping the demonic powers of the dark lord Morgoth and his servant Sauron. This reflects the views of pre-modern Christians, where pagans did not worship fictions, but real demons who presented themselves as false gods.

The racial aspect is more what raises the hackles of the commentator in the piece above, and seems out of place today. Though I was never offended personally, it is impossible to not notice it if you dive deep into Tolkien’s legendarium. The three tribes of the Edain, “elf friends” of the First Age, seem to be modeled on Northern Europeans. The only exception may be the House of Haleth, though I suspect here as he was British Tolkien drew upon the folklore of the dark Welsh. These three Edain peoples were loyal to the elves and turned away from Morgoth and his servant Sauron. In contrast, the hearts of men who were not Edain were weak and susceptible to the allure of the dark lord and his minion.

Two broad classes of these people, the Easterlings, and the men of Harad, seem to represent all of the peoples of Asia, the Near East, and Africa. Described in turns as sallow, swarthy, brown and black, their racial identity is clear. It is not white. It also seems Tolkien’s British background comes to the fore again insofar as from what I can tell the only nation outside of the circle of the West in Middle Earth with an attention to linguistic detail, Khand, seems to be modeled on Northern India.* India, after all, would loom large in the imagination of British people of that period, in myth if not reality.

To term J. R. R. Tolkien a “white supremacist” or promoting an ideology of that sort seems to me in the class of true, but trivial. Almost everyone during the period that Tolkien was a mature man was a white supremacist as we’d understand it (including American presidents such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt). More interesting to me is the idea that Tolkien has cast an aura over high fantasy literature, and straight-jacked it into a Northern framework, which is implicitly or explicitly white supremacist.

It is hard to deny the influence in the general sense. The authors Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss have both talked about the distorting influence of Tolkien and his legendarium on the fantasy genre. The “Tolkien copy-cat” phenomenon to some extent defines high fantasy, or at least it did until the past decade or so when many authors have tried to imitate George R. R. Martin’s style (Terry Brooks’ success was in large part due to his conscious imitation and remixing of Tolkien).

Arguably part of the legacy then is the implicit racial order that is outlined in The Lord of the Rings. But let’s be clear here: the audience for fantasy literature in the United States and England is going to be mostly white, and white people seem to identify with other white people in fiction whether literary or visual. I’m not justifying, as a non-white person who has read fiction and watched film and television where the protagonists were mostly white for most of my life, I can tell you it’s not that hard to identify with a character of a different race. After all, everyone is a human.

But sometimes you want something different. A few years ago I read Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. The author is a moderately prominent political commentator on Twitter, and his views are standard postcolonial Leftist from what I can tell. This is a guy who’s against hegemony. So one of my criticisms of Throne of the Crescent Moon is that it substitutes a Eurocentric white hegemony for a Near Eastern quasi-Islamic hegemony. That is, the world of Throne of the Crescent Moon seems highly derivate of the Abbasid Caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, and reflects the cultural self-confidence of the period for Muslims. It’s certainly not one where oppression is in scarcity.

This isn’t necessarily a bug, but Ahmed basically traded swords for scimitars, and deracinated Christianity for quasi-Islam, and called it good. And perhaps it was good. I didn’t have a problem with it fundamentally. And if your problem with “white supremacy” is the “white” part then that is solved. The only issue though is that there was clearly a supremacy left within the story.

There are other ways to go a different direction from Tolkien. Consider Ricardo Pinto’s The Chosen, the first of a series. This is actually a very original piece of work in relation to the world-building, without clear analogs to the universe we live in. For lack of a better descriptor, Pinto has created a world of bronze age brutality. But The Chosen also has a strong romantic element, and it is distinctive in that it culminated in a gay relationship. In interviews, Pinto has been explicit that his vision was to create a fantasy which reflected gay themes, and he certainly achieved that.

But going back to the issue I highlighted above, the world of The Chosen is also explicitly racially hierarchical, with the herrenvolk being tall, lean and very pale skinned, and ruling tyrannically and brutally over the dark races. Additionally, there is also an aspect of “mighty whitey” as the series progresses. I wouldn’t reduce Pinto’s novels to this caricature, but there is certainly something in them that Ernst Rohm would find appealing.

Less famously, but more explicitly, than Ursula K Le Guin in Tombs of Atuan, Judith Tarr engaged in racial inversion (at least from a white perspective) in her series of Avaryan novels. The protagonists were dark of complexion. The lands of the great enemy were inhabited by a paler people, with genuinely white-skinned people being very exotic creatures on the very margins of the known world. In Tarr’s human geography the cold northern areas are occupied by the darkest skinned peoples, while to the south there were nations whose appearance was of a paler brown. This shakes us from comprehending this universe as similar to ours because this goes against what we see in our world. And like Pinto’s work, there is a strong homoerotic element throughout the whole series, and unabashed depictions of homosexual sex (though the characters are not necessarily gay in this case).

And yet in the overall skeins, the same quasi-medieval superstructure still exists as a distinct scaffold. The author scrambles our expectations and rearranges and reorders the normative frameworks in Tolkien’s high fantasy, but the broad themes of self-discovery of the aristocratic young prince whose inheritance awaits, or the conflicts between empires and civilizations ebbing away through a marital alliance, reemerges from the fog of novel landscapes. After all the modification and inversion we find something distinctly feudal that remains before us.

My point is that the regressive and reactionary nature of high fantasy is literally baked into the nature of the genre. Unlike science fiction fantasy does not explore an unlimited space of the possible. The marginally science fictional aspects of R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series are attenuated, and you have to look closely to see them for what they are. If Bakker’s work had been suffused by spaceships then they’d transform into something different fundamentally, and the possibilities would open up. Science fiction plays with physics, biology, chemistry, as well as anthropology, economics, and history. In contrast, high fantasy as we understand it is delimited by a vision of anthropology, history, and linguistics. As such the canvas of the stories is necessarily narrower. High fantasy is by definition a genre which looks before the industrial revolution, and so takes as a starting point the norms and expectations of agrarian societies.

For the vast majority of human history, our existence has been defined by agrarian societies. I say here history, because the vast majority of our species’ existence is nevertheless pre-agrarian. The mythologies of San Bushmen, Mbuti Pygmies, and Australian Aboriginals, are all very different from the polytheisms of antiquity, with their kings in heaven and conquered gods in trapped in Tartarus. Hunter-gatherer society is and was more egalitarian. There were likely no great autocratic lords, even if there were greatest hunters or the eldest and most powerful wise women.

When it comes to agrarian society complex structure, hierarchy, and attention to lineage and a level of inter-group brutality were typical. These are the nostalgic worlds that high fantasy draws inspiration from, and by their nature, they will be difficult to reflect a liberal and egalitarian ethos in an all-pervasive sense. It is not difficult to identify with a protagonist who is decent and who reflects our sensibilities, but often they are swimming against the cultural tide.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I think the idea of a “minimally counter-intuitive narrative” is useful here. Fantasy is “out of this world,” but it also has to exhibit some verisimilitude. Ricardo Pinto’s The Chosen is a bit atypical because it is not heteronormative in its focal protagonists, but many of the other expectations of high fantasy, the barbaric brutality, and injustice, remain in place. Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series depicted an alternative quasi-Christianity where men and women had greater equality, and in the world as a whole, but aside from that and the fact that the Vikings were a separate species and elves’ existed, the whole series drew very heavily on 10th century Europe. One can modify many of the elements of a world and narrative to make it fantastical, but one also needs to not push it too far.

Imagining ourselves as a viewpoint character living in the past of our secondary world can help us to understand what is, and isn’t, plausible. Dragons? Plausible. Our pre-modern viewpoint character doesn’t think that dragons are impossible creatures. Quasi-human creatures? Again, plausible. Remove all inequality and guarantee affluence? In a Malthusian world, this is simply not conceivable. Abundance existed, but only for elites, or in the afterlife. Mitigation and amelioration of injustice and inequality were plausible, and in many religious-ethical systems preferred and meritorious, but there was no expectation or conception that injustice could be totally eliminated. Matthew 26:11.

Additionally, not only does one have to be attuned to pre-modern perspectives on verisimilitude, one needs to recall that a messy and imperfect world is actually fertile ground for narrative tension. One of the problems with Star Trek as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry was that in the liberal utopia of the future all the dramatic tension had to come from external sources.

Which gets us back to the original question: did Tolkien’s world-building virtuosity contingently rig the game for white supremacy in modern high fantasy? I don’t think so. High fantasy seems to draw upon pre-modern mythology. That mythology by its nature is from agrarian societies, which precede the modern world. These societies were hierarchical. This hierarchy is quite offensive fundamentally to modern liberal sensibilities, broadly construed.  They are supremacist, albeit along the dimension of class.

In the English speaking world, the audience is mostly white, and the protagonists in fantasy and science fiction also tend to be white. This is not realistic, and it’s not racist per se, but it’s a general trend across our society and not limited to high fantasy (the New York City of Seinfeld and Friends was overwhelmingly white). Combine white protagonists with a hierarchical world…I think it’s hard to avoid being labeled a white supremacist appealing genre in the present year.

The ultimate problem here is that the current postcolonial fixation with white supremacy elides the reality that the problem is not whiteness, but supremacy. The Baltic pagans treated like beasts of burden by their German Christian conquerors were arguably even whiter physiognomically than the German Christian. Still they were treated oppressively, to the point of genocide in the case of the Old Prussians.

Let me end by quoting Agent Smith from the Matrix:

“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed that we lacked the programming language to describe your “perfect world”. But I believe that, as a species human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. So the perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.”

* If you don’t believe me take a look at the map of Khand, the names of the cities are a melange of Indian and Iranian influences.