Tolkien, Fantasy, and Race

Wizards of the Coast recently announced that they will be changing how the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game system handles race. These changes include, among others, reimagining the traditionally evil Drow and Orcs as complex and nuanced cultures, revising how a player’s choice of race affects their character’s stats, and removing racially insensitive text from reissues of old content. You can read the company’s statement about these changes here.

Some of these changes are more obviously necessary than others. It’s not hard for most of us to see how having a race of dark-skinned Elves who are almost universally evil in your game is a poor design choice that needs to be rectified, but it’s less obvious to a lot of people why the game should be changed so that your Elf isn’t necessarily clever and dexterous or your Dwarf stout and tough. To understand why rules like these are problematic, it helps to look at how ideas about portraying non-human beings in fantasy have been shaped. Fantasy is as complex and varied as any other genre of literature and no single person is responsible for the development of its tropes and principles, but when we think about race in fantasy, there is one crucial place to start: Tolkien.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium profoundly shaped fantasy literature in the twentieth century and the other media drawing from it, such as role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Tolkien’s versions of Elves and Dwarves, as well as his invention of Hobbits (made lawyer-friendly as “Halflings”), formed the basis for D&D’s early options for players who wanted an alternative to humans. Much of the popular fantasy archetypes for what non-human races are like (ethereal, wise, bow-wielding Elves; stubborn, pugnacious, axe-hefting Dwarves) were either created or codified by Tolkien.

Tolkien’s relationship to race is complicated. On one hand, he was vocally opposed to the antisemitism common in his time and to the Nazis’ attempts to claim his beloved Germanic mythology as a prop to their racist regime. His Middle Earth tales can be read as a counter-argument to white supremacist ideology, as the “lesser” folk of Middle Earth, like the Hobbits and the Wild Men, prove more resistant to the lies of evil than the “higher” races of Men. At the same time, there is no denying that Tolkien’s fiction is suffused with familiar racial assumptions, filled with white characters and portraying dark-skinned people only as strange or threatening others.

But it is Tolkien’s work as a scholar that is most important for understanding his effect on the depiction of race in fantasy. Tolkien’s academic training as an Oxford student in the early twentieth century was grounded in the traditions of the nineteenth century, which defined nations as coherent, natural entities existing across time and marked by inherent characteristics. This academic worldview was linked to the Romantic and nationalist movements at work in Europe in that century, as well as the ongoing imperialist projects of Britain, France, and other nations of Europe. At its core was the belief that culture and biology are equivalent, that people have fundamental national traits inherited from their ancestors which define their culture, character, even moral worth.

Every academic discipline concerned with the human past was engaged in some way with this project. Historians traced the ancestry of their own and other peoples as far back as written sources would allow, at which point archaeologists stepped in to carry the line further back. Scholars of literature and art looked to both nationally famous artists and rural folk traditions to delineate the defining characteristics of a culture. Scholars in different nations concocted their own versions of national culture and interpreted both ancient and recent history in terms of discreet nations wrangling with one another: while English writers explained their early history as the victory of the serious, diligent Anglo-Saxon over the moody, whimsical Celt, French historians conceived of the French Revolution as a primordial Gallic peasantry overthrowing the Germanic overlords who had dominated them since the fifth century CE. Even forgeries and hoaxes followed the same principle, like the collection of Gaelic poetry attributed to the bard Ossian or the fake primordial Englishman buried with a battered cricket bat at Piltdown. While the work of such historians, folklorists, artists, pranksters and others was in itself fairly benign, it was part of a larger politics that justified the exploitation and oppression of some ethnic groups for the benefit of others based on specious claims about national characters and destinies.

Tolkien’s subject, philology, was no exception. Scholars believed that language could be a key to those parts of the past that neither history nor archaeology could reach, perhaps even the most important parts, for what can be more fundamental to our identity than the words we use to describe our world? Linguistic research, starting in the eighteenth century with the realization that the ancient Indian language Sanskrit came from the same source as Greek and Latin, had demonstrated that it was possible to discover regular principles that governed shifts in sound as languages evolved and split into new languages. Applying these principles to the earliest documented fragments of existing languages made it possible to reconstruct, with a high degree of certainty, elements of vocabulary and grammar belonging to languages that had never been written down.

Tolkien, and other philologists of his generation, believed that it was possible to go a step further and apply the same principles to myths, legends, even history. Working backwards from the earliest recorded elements of a culture—its oldest literature and art, archaeological remains, and whatever fragments of ancient knowledge survived in folk tradition—they hoped to reconstruct the primordial beliefs, practices, and character of that culture. Tolkien carried this same spirit into his literary work and with his Middle Earth stories tried to reimagine a history that might have lain behind the scattered remnants of Germanic mythology that come down to us through English, Norse, German, and Icelandic sources.

The result of this labor was a fictional world that incorporates numerous traces of ancient tradition—Smaug, from The Hobbit, has shades of Fafnir from the Volsunga Saga, while the arrival of Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf at Edoras in The Lord of the Rings recreates the Geatish heroes’ arrival at Heorot in Beowulf—but put together in a distinctly nineteenth-century way. The various races of Men in Tolkien’s work reflect contemporary belief in inherent national cultures to the extent that the Dunedain of the north retained their culture for many long generations cut off from Gondor in the south. Other peoples of Tolkien’s world are culturally defined by their ancestry, stretching over thousands of years.

Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves are a similar combination of ancient Nordic lore and nineteenth-century nationalistic culture-construction. Tolkien took stories about Elves and Dwarves from different times, cultures, and genres, extracted the elements he believed were characteristic, and fused them together to create the kind of singular, coherent cultures that scholars of his day believed could be found among real peoples. The idea of Elves as archers comes from a Scottish tradition of referring to prehistoric arrow points as “Elf-shot.” The intermarriage of Elves and humans comes from Icelandic sagas. The bewildering power of an encounter with Elves derives from medieval German folklore. Tolkien believed that these various fragments were the remains of what had once been a clear, consistent belief in Elves as beings with defined characteristics, much as words in Sanskrit, Greek, and Old Norse were the remains of an older language, and that by putting them together he could reconstruct the nature of Elves in same way philologists reconstructed lost languages. The same applies to Tolkien’s Dwarves.

Tolkien’s assumptions about lost cultural knowledge only make sense in the context of the scholarship he worked in. Modern research has found that the image of Elves in northern European mythology is widely varied. Writers in different times and cultures had vastly different ideas about what Elves were, ranging from benevolent ancestor spirits to malicious swamp creatures that would steal your baby and eat it. There is no evidence that the original Elf Tolkien thought he could reconstruct was ever anything but a mirage. Indeed, it is not just that Elves did not have consistent characteristics in northern mythology, early northern writers don’t even seem to have viewed “Elf” as a stable category that could be defined. Many texts use the term fluidly for many different sorts of supernatural creature, overlapping with Dwarves, demons, angels, and others in ways that do not allow for any clear definition.

It is primarily to Tolkien that we owe the idea, not just that Elves, Dwarves, and other fantastical creatures have consistent characteristics, but that they exist as discreet groups that can be defined. This conception of fantasy folks is a product of a particular cultural and scholarly worldview, one that is increasingly out of date. Aloof archer Elves and beefy brawling Dwarves running around your game world may seem perfectly harmless, but the archetypes that define these as the standard types of Elves and Dwarves are rooted in a history of imperialism and racism.

It is time to leave behind this artifact of the nineteenth century and embrace a world in which Dwarves can be slender bookworms and Elves can be boisterous bruisers, or anything else you want them to be.

Post edited for grammar

Image: Elf and Dwarf cosplay, photograph by Tomasz Stasiuk via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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