hard heads soft hearts
Saturday, January 04, 2003
Jonah Goldberg writes about The Lord Of The Rings in his column today. He addresses two questions: 1) Is the Lord Of the Rings racist? 2) Is it pro-war propaganda? Goldberg's answers are hell no, and hell no. For racism, his argument is basically that though the Orcs were dark-skinned, they aren't meant to be considered human. They are obviously, ineradicably, sub-human creatures. For the charge of war-mongering, he says Tolkien made the Orc's subhuman, and the ensuing war indisputably just, to sharpen the point of how people can rationalize not doing the right thing.
What Goldberg demonstrates is how even an intelligent and insightful person can go wrong, wasting hundreds of words in irrelevancies, if they choose to ignore inconvenient evidence. If you you wanted to show LOTR was racist, you wouldn't pick the orcs as evidence, you would pick the "Cruel Men of Harad-Rim", or the Southrons with their Oliphaunts, all of whom Tolkien chooses to portray as fighting for Sauron. If not racist, LOTR is at the very least highly ethnocentric.
Which I think, gets to the point. The correct response to charges of racism is not to foolishly deny that racism exists, but to simply say "Yes, the LOTR is mildly racist. But so what? It's also a great work of art which has the power to inspire and entertain people of all races." In assessing the racism of LOTR, it's important to know what Tolkien was trying to do: He was trying, in part, to create a mythology for the English people, something comparable to the rich Scandanavian mythologies which Tolkien admired. And, as Joseph Campbell has noted, all mythologies are ethnocentric: the names for the in-group will be synonomous with "human", while the out-groups will have names like "funny face" or "broken ears". The fact that LOTR exalts the English and demeans other peoples is hardly surprising: it was written by an Englishman, and meant primarily for other Englishpeople. The correct advice to people who are offended by the racism in LOTR is to put aside what you dislike, and appreciate what's worth appreciating. And if you just can't ignore the racism, then write your own damn story.
Of course, this advice has broader applicability: For example, a conservative Christian can disapprove of the bohemian morality in the musical Rent, and still recognize that it is an inspiring, moving work of true artistic merit.
As for the charge of war-mongering, this is easily disproved by something Tolkien wrote in 1965, in the forward of the American edition of LOTR, when he was asserting that the LOTR was *not* meant as an allegory of World War II:
This is a rather shocking statement of ambivalence, or if you like, "moral relativism". The line about "both sides holding hobbits in hatred and contempt" should put paid, I think, to both admirers and detractors who think of Tolkien as an ardent Cold Warrior, and who think of LOTR as clearly intended to exhort the Free Men of the West to face their Evil Empires with confidence and moral clarity.