Middle Earth is one of the most interesting fantasy worlds ever created. It’s creator, J. R. R. Tolkien meticulously crafted a world full of elves, dwarves, hobbits and wizards at a time when people weren’t writing fantasy as a genre. In fact, when he first published The Lord of the Rings, critics scoffed at the idea of a “fairytale for adults.” It just simply wasn’t done because adults didn’t read such things. They were wrong, and The Lord of the Rings and the book that preceded it, The Hobbit, are still some of the best loved fantasy stories even today. I am certainly one of those fans whose Tolkien love goes deep and will last eternally.
That’s why when I see accusations of sexism, racism and even homophobia and antisemitism, I just can’t help but grumble. That’s because literally none of this is true. The people making these claims seem to know nothing about Tolkien. Who he was, what he did, the source material he drew from. This is baffling because usually, it’s Caucasian people making these claims and it’s also people that I…expect more knowledge from. Because all they’re doing is making accusations that are not backed up by any facts. Facts that they either don’t have or don’t want to look up because it would hurt their argument that Tolkien is these things that they claim he is.
What I’m hoping to do is to unpack some of these accusations or at least take a critical look at them and try to debunk some of these myths about Tolkien.
Tolkien Is Sexist
*sighs* Okay, here we go. This is one of those things that I just don’t understand. Because, if you look at other works like Game of Thrones which doesn’t treat women well at all, the argument can’t really be made that Tolkien is sexist. What I think happened, though is that people look at The Hobbit and realize that there are no women in it. Today, that’s kind of an issue. But here’s the thing. First, the audience for the book needs to be considered. The Hobbit was written as a bedtime story for his children. It would be a story for a young adult or middle grade audience. Which means it doesn’t necessarily need women.
Tolkien certainly realized that. It’s a story about thirteen dwarves and a hobbit who go off on an adventure to retake a mountain from a dragon. There was no reason for Tolkien to arbitrarily throw a woman in there. She would have literally served no purpose in an adventure that’s all about dudes retaking a mountain from a dragon. Just look at how well it worked out for Peter Jackson when he added Tauriel the elf. It was not good. It would have been one thing if she’d just been there as a warrior. Sadly, she wasn’t. She became the woman in a love triangle between her, Legolas and Kili the dwarf which never would have happened in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. EVER. It was so unnecessary that it ruined the movies for a lot of movie goers. I didn’t mind it. I liked Kili; I just found her annoying because she had no purpose and it was ridiculous.
Now to move on to the women of The Lord of the Rings. I simply don’t understand how anyone could think Tolkien’s treatment of these women as sexist. Sure, there are not many women. But it’s not really the number of women that are in a work, but how the author treats them. By which I mean how the characters within the story treat women in the story. Let’s take the character Galadriel to begin with. She’s the leader of her people and is shown an amazing amount of respect by all elves.
While she is married to Celeborn and they appear to co-rule in Lothlorien, she’s the one that the elves and the allies of the elves turn to the most. She also bears one of the elven rings of power. People look to her for wisdom and knowledge of the future and she seems to be the only one who can use the Mirror and gaze into the future. She’s also the grandmother of Arwen who’s also an important elf woman in this story, but we’ll get to her in a second. Galadriel is one of the most important people in her race. Even after she travels into the West she plays an important role. When Legolas finally decides to travel into the West, he brings Gimli the dwarf with him. Before they can enter, they ask Galadriel for permission to enter and she permits it (I actually think she’s rather fond of Gimli because she was able to win him over).
She was inspired by characters like The Lady of the Lake who played a pivotal role in the story of King Arthur. She helps Arthur to start his journey, and then receives the sword Excalibur after Arthur’s death when his story is over. Therefore, she oversees the beginning and the end, probably already having seen the outcome. She is also inspired by goddesses such as Frigga and Athena who were known for their wisdom and their ability to see and to understand events before and after they unfolded. There are probably also allusions to powerful women rulers such as Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Isabella I of Spain, not to mention Catherine The Great.
Arwen is another of Tolkien’s Is the love interest for Aragorn who’s representative of the classic hero. Inspired by characters such as Red Crosse from The Fairy Queene (Edmund Spencer) and Beowulf from the epic that Tolkien was so fond of, Arwen is the classic lady love who waits dutifully for the return of the man she loves. This trope isn’t necessarily sexist. It comes from classic literature and is indicative of characters like Penelope who was the faithful wife of Odysseus in The Odyssey. She waited for his return after the Trojan War for ten years, all that time being harassed by extremely aggressive suiters who all wanted her hand. Well, mostly they wanted the crown of Ithaca, but that would mean they’d have to marry the queen.
She may also be based on the Norse goddess Freya who was a goddess of war, fertility and prosperity. She was married to the god Odr who many think was another name for Odin, which would explain why he was absent so often. She would wait for him and after a while would begin to search for him if he didn’t return. She was owed half of those killed in battle and was even thought to be a Valkyrie, though it’s doubtful. Freya rode in a chariot pulled by cats and most of the dead she got were the beautiful dead and not just any warrior who fought and died in battle. Many of Tolkien’s characters are based on Norse legend as well as other historical figures.
She’s also indicative of Tolkien’s belief that events in this world are cyclical (history repeating itself) because many elves remember vividly the tragedy of Beren and Luthien and they don’t want to see that story play out again. If you don’t know the story of Beren and Luthien, Beren was a mortal man who fell in love with a beautiful elven princess he found singing and dancing in the forest one day. He called her Tinuvial which means Nightingale. Best not to get too in depth into it, but Luthien saved Beren from Sauron who was keeping him prisoner in a tower and later, when Beren died, she decided to become mortal and die when Beren died. Arwen eventually decides to make the same choice when Aragorn dies. This is not sexist. If anything, it’s romantic and shows the dedication that Arwen and Aragorn have for each other. In fact, it’s the same kind of relationship that Tolkien had with his wife, Edith. On their grave markers are the names Beren and Luthien and they’re buried side by side.
The last primary woman in Tolkien’s story is Eowyn. She’s the daughter of Eomund and the sister of Eomer (a name that you can really find in the epic of Beowulf) and she is fierce. A classic shield-maiden she’s based on powerful female characters and historical figures. Most notably Signy who was the sister of Sigmund. Together, the brother and sister bring down the wicked Siggeir who killed their family over a sword gifted to Sigmund by Odin (he pulled the sword from a tree. Obvious inspiration for The Sword In The Stone). She’s also based on the Celtic queen Bouddica who fought against the Romans when they begin to take over Britain.
She’s chosen by her uncle, Theoden, to watch over the people of Rohan both during the Battle of Helm’s Deep and when they ride off to aid Gondor. He does this because he knows that she’s capable of fighting for and protecting the people. He doesn’t do it because he’s trying to shelter her in any way. He’s sending her away to protect the people of Rohan because if neither he nor Eomer return from the battle; if things go wrong, they know that she’ll be the last line of defense against the coming hoards. If Gondor is unable to stop the armies of Sauron, it’s unlikely that Eowyn will be able to, but at least there will be someone there to stand up to the armies of Sauron. To suggest that this portrayal is somehow sexist is kind of insulting.
A final not on women in Tolkien’s works. Let’s start off with Rosie Cotton. In the films she runs the local pub and is just kind of there. In the books, she’s the daughter of farmer Cotton which means that when she marries Sam, she’s of a higher economic class than he is. Living on a farm and having family money is far more impressive than being the guy who weeds the garden for the rich people up on the hill. As for dwarf women, even Tolkien admits that there are not many of them. When a dwarf woman is born, when she comes of age, she gets to choose her own husband. She can even choose not to marry if she wants. Dwarves usually only have one child. If the woman’s husband dies before she does, it’s not likely that she’ll marry again because she doesn’t have to. Dwarf women are androgynous. That doesn’t mean they have facial hair, but it’s not ruled out either. The dwarves are a people who treasure women because there are many of them, so they get to decide their own fates.
Tolkien is Racist
Okay, let’s go ahead and try to unpack this accusation. I was recently cruising twitter and I found someone claiming that Tolkien was racist because he’s “based the orcs on Mongol people.” Let me go ahead and clear this up now. No, he didn’t. Tolkien was many things. An English professor, a philologist (a person who studies language and engages in the analysis of works, both written and oral) and a historian (which also ties into philology). He didn’t base the orcs on Mongol people. He based the orcs on the Mongols who, under the rule of Genghis Khan and his successors, killed millions of people.
He also based some of the wicked characters in Middle Earth on the Persians. The Battle of Helm’s Deep was Tolkien’s Battle of Thermopylae. If you’re unfamiliar with the battle of Thermopylae it was where about three hundred ten Trojan soldiers under the leadership of King Leonidas held off ten thousand Persians under the leadership of Xerxes for three days. It’s literally one of the most famous battles in Greek history and made it possible for the ultimate defeat of the Persians at Marathon when the Trojans and the Athenians were finally able to join forces. It’s magnificent and it’s been glorified, exaggerated, propagandized and there was also a really inaccurate comic book-esque film made about it. While Tolkien probably wasn’t the first to be inspired by this battle and probably won’t be the last, that is where the basis for Helm’s Deep came from.
One of the last groups that Tolkien based the enemies of Middle Earth on was the Saracens who, during the Crusades, also caused millions of deaths in the pursuit of religious conquest. As a Catholic and a historian, the Crusades would stand out as a historical period that would be interesting and worth addressing. Tolkien is basically putting in all the history from ancient Greece to the time of the Crusades. That’s, not racist, it’s just history. George R. R. Martin gives people one short epoch in history (The War of the Roses) and they give him all the cookies. Tolkien gives people a literal ton of history and he’s racist? It simply doesn’t make sense.
Tolkien is Antisemitic
*Laughs hysterically* What? What do you mean he’s antisemitic? “Well, he based the dwarves off stereotypes of Jewish people.” *sighs* Really? That’s really what you think? Okay, let’s clear this up, because it’s so far from true that it’s not even funny. Tolkien studied the old Norse (which ties back into him being a historian and a philologist). In the Eddas, the dwarfs already existed, and they were short, sneaky creatures who coveted treasure and were always picking fights. Tolkien basically took the dwarfs from the Norse Eddas, added an “ves” to the end to make them dwarves instead of dwarfs and just went from there.
Once again, people aren’t researching where Tolkien was getting his ideas and they themselves are stereotyping Jewish people by suggesting that Tolkien’s dwarves are based on stereotypes of Jewish people. By the time Tolkien got ahold of the dwarfs, they already had their reputation that was given to them by Norse people. Did they base their ideas of dwarfs on Jewish people? Who knows? The point is Tolkien didn’t.
Soon after the release of The Hobbit, Tolkien was approached by a German publisher who wanted to do a translation of his book. They asked for proof of his “Aryan descent.” Basically, he wrote back to them and told them to piss off in the most eloquent way. If you would like, you can read the letter here http://www.openculture.com/2014/04/j-r-r-tolkien-snubs-a-german-publisher.html . As you can see, Tolkien clearly wasn’t antisemitic.
Tolkien was Homophobic
This is an odd assumption to make, and most people make this assumption because Tolkien was a devout Catholic. Let’s look a little more closely at the time when Tolkien was writing and the general attitude toward homosexual people in Great Britain.
Being gay in Great Britain at the time when Tolkien was writing was illegal. We’re talking about the 1950s when Alan Turing was being jailed and chemically castrated for trying to be who he was. It was a travesty and I think there’s still a lot of guilt surrounding his death. People just didn’t talk about homosexuality because those who were homosexual had to hide it and those who weren’t simply didn’t think about it because it was not part of their lives. It was just the way things were. You can’t very well blame Tolkien for not writing something that would have probably gotten him arrested.
Then again, there were a lot of close relationships between men in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There was Thorin and Bilbo who became good friends before Thorin’s death, Thorin and Dwalin and maybe Thorin and Balin. There was also Sam and Frodo, Merry and Pippin (they were also cousins but whatever, right?) Aragorn and Legolas, Aragorn and Boromir, and most famously, Legolas and Gimli. Legolas and Gimli were so close, in fact, that they spent the rest of their lives together and then Legolas took Gimli with him when he finally decided to sail into the west to Valinor.
These relationships are not technically homosexual, but they do represent the close relationships that Tolkien himself had with other men, especially during war time. His stories were about camaraderie and standing up to fight against evil when it comes. You share both your victories and your tragedies with these comrades and stand by their sides in the best and the worst of times.
Sam and Frodo’s story is most representative of this. Sam went through everything with Frodo and at no point felt he had even the right to leave Frodo’s side. Even when Frodo was taken by the orcs, Sam did everything he could to get Frodo back. He decided to see it through to the very end with Frodo and then to die with him after the ring was destroyed. He traveled with Frodo to the Grey Havens and shed tears when he discovered that Frodo was leaving. He also knew though that the events of the journey had hurt Frodo deeply and that he would never be who he was before they set out on that journey. He let Frodo go and then, when his life was at an end, Sam boarded the ship at the Grey Havens himself as the last ring-bearer and crossed over the sea to Valinor.
This was also very much Tolkien’s experience in war. He lost friends that he loved and was undeniably changed by his experiences during World War I. Just as so many others were. Over a million men’s lives (most of them very young) were lost during World War I. Tolkien himself was lucky to make it home. I think that’s why telling this story about the horrors of war and what it does to the people who fight it was so important to him. Because he was so lucky when so many others were not. He got to go on and have a life when so many others didn’t. He was there to tell their story. And while it might be in a fantasy setting, it’s still a story of war and what you experience and lose and leave behind and gain and suffer when you go to fight.
In The End
In the end, it’s annoying to see people talking about one of my favorite authors like this because they don’t seem to understand his work or who he was. Also, there are just a lot of bad takes on when he lived and wrote in general. Recently, I saw someone saying that he was sexist because he didn’t seem to approve of feminism, stating, “there were a lot of feminist and progressive people at that time.” In the 1950s? Are you sure? No, there really weren’t. There was a growing progressive movement and people were becoming more progressive, but there weren’t “a lot of people who were feminist.” In the 1950s feminism certainly wasn’t the massive movement that it became in the 1960s and 70s.
The thing where people say, “well, you can’t just say he was a man of his time and excuse the way people were at that time.” Yes, you can. You can’t push modern norms and feelings and social movements on people in the past because those things weren’t part of those people’s lives. And, I’d just like to say that shaking your fist in anger and yelling at old dead guys because they’re not as progressive as people are today is really, really ineffective and is basically a waste of your time and everyone else’s. It’s like yelling at a wall because it’s too hard or something. Please, for the love of God, stop whining about dead authors who wrote something that you just want to nit pick because “today that’s problematic.” Who cares?!
As the father of the modern fantasy novel, I’d say that Tolkien did well. He wrote his story for his time and it was revolutionary. He wrote a fantasy novel when no one was writing fantasy. He brought legends and mythical creatures to life. He gave us an epic. A literal historical epic set in a fantasy world, and it was beautiful. Meanwhile, today people put authors like George R. R. Martin on a pedestal and he treats women terribly. His books are just a big pile of problematic.
I find a lot of modern takes on literature annoying. It seems that more and more, people are applying their shallow modern-day perspective to classic works. I call this surface analysis because it only scratches the surface and it’s so shallow that it basically amounts to someone just calling something racist (or sexist, or homophobic) and then just tossing it aside. This is detrimental to both the work and the people who are exposed to this surface analysis. Doing surface analysis doesn’t help or educate anyone. When we engage in surface analysis, we throw many great works and authors, poets and other creators under the bus. We need to go back to the days when people analyze and read works from the perspective of their time, not ours. Also, research needs to be conducted before any claims are made that an author is racist, sexist and so on. We need to be better stewards of literature and art which means knowing what we’re talking about and where things come from and what they truly mean.