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)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

A Minas Tirith Wedding Cake

One reason I love my fellow geeks and nerds so much is the dedication we put into things we care about. Exhibit number 18,452: a Minas Tirith wedding cake.

Flickr Jenny Wenny Minas Tirith Wedding Cake at Enchanted Forest

Photographer Jenny Wenny gives only this detail about it: “Minas Tirith wedding cake at the Enchanted Forest”; sadly no other information is available at all.

Isn’t it astounding, though? So incredibly detailed I wouldn’t want to touch it! And even though it’s a few levels short of its literary model, the adaptation works for its intended purpose perfectly. Kudos to the creator(s)!

Image by Jenny Wenny on Flickr.

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!

Behind the Name: Erebor

Erebor, also known as the Lonely Mountain, is a lost kingdom of the Dwarves in Tolkien’s Hobbit, reclaimed from the dragon Smaug by Thorin Oakenshield and his companions, including Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit, at the end of the story. Since Professor Tolkien was a linguist, and his Middle Earth was first inspired by his desire to create a world and history around his invented languages, it makes sense to ask what inspired him to name this important place Erebor.

The Hobbit itself does not make much use of Tolkien’s linguistic experiments. Most of the places named in the novel have descriptions more than names—the Misty Mountains, the Long Lake, Lake Town. Even the few places with proper names are fairly transparent in their meaning: the town that sits in a dale by the Lonely Mountain is called Dale, and Mirkwood is not too hard to understand as a murky wood. The term Erebor did not appear until The Lord of the Rings. By that point, Tolkien’s constructed languages were well developed and he provided a suitable internal etymology for Erebor as an Elvish translation of Lonely Mountain. Nevertheless, there are some clear real-world referents that we cannot ignore.

The obvious place to start is Erebos, a name from Greek Mythology for both a region of the underworld and a primordial god representing darkness. (Erebos is the original Greek spelling; it is often seen Latinized as Erebus.) To name an underground city cut out of the rock of a mountain, this makes sense as a starting point, but Erebos has an interesting etymology of its own.

Erebos derives from a Proto-Indo-European root *hregwos. (In linguistics, the asterisk indicates words that are not recorded anywhere but have been reconstructed based on related words or other forms.) The Proto-Indo-European language had several different consonants corresponding to the letter h, and the exact pronunciation of them all is a matter of debate, but before an r at the beginning of a word, this h regularly became an e in Greek. The gw sound became a b in Greek (for example, the Greek word basileus, meaning “king” comes from an earlier form gwasireu). Thus *hregwos became the ancient Greek Erebos.

In other branches of the Indo-European family, the same root took different paths. In Sanskrit, it became rájas, which means “dark sky.” In Armenian, it became erek, meaning “evening.” In Gothic, it became rikwis, “darkness.” And in Old Norse, it produced the verb røkkva, which means “to become dark.” Clearly, while Ancient Greek adapted the word to a new meaning, the original meaning had to do with darkness in the sky, not under the earth. The name of Erebor captures a suggestion not just of a place under the earth but also its fate to be assailed by the sky-darkening dragon Smaug.

There is one step further we can go, although it is a tentative one. It involves the Norse myth of Ragnarök, the doom of the gods and the destruction of the world. The word Ragnarök is a compound whose first part, ragna, means the power of the gods (congate with the English word reign). The second element is less certain. Linguists today prefer rök, meaning “fate,” but the early twentieth century when Tolkien was studying, some argued for røkkr, the noun for “twilight” derived from the verb røkkva and ultimately going back to the Proto-Indo-European *hregwos. Tolkien may well have been amused to hint at the chaotic, destructive final battle between the Norse gods in naming the site of the chaotic Battle of the Five Armies which brings Bilbo’s adventure to an end.

Image: Erebor as visualized in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, via IMDb

On, of, and about languages.

Most Famousest of The Hobbit Soundtrack Covers

Recently we rewatched The Hobbit trilogy, which made me—again—root around looking for Dwarf-ish music. This time, though, I went wider and also included cover versions of melodies from all of the six Peter Jackson movie soundtracks.

Taylor Davis is one of the fabulous violinists out there doing YouTube covers. Here is her “Misty Mountains”:

The Hobbit – Misty Mountains (Dwarven Song) Violins Cover – Taylor Davis on YouTube

Nathan Mills aka Beyond the Guitar’s version of “Misty Mountains” by classical guitar is so lovely:

THE HOBBIT: Misty Mountains – Classical Guitar Cover by BeyondTheGuitar on YouTube

Guitar at its best, hands down.

This orchestral cover medley/remix by Parademics has an impressive range of instruments—I think we spotted an electric guitar in the background in the Ring Wraiths melody towards the end:

The Hobbit | Epic Orchestral Cover by Parademics on YouTube

Albert Chang’s arrangement of “Misty Mountains” incorporates 6 violins, 6 cellos, and a cajon, and shows why underappreciating cellos is a bad idea:

The Hobbit – Misty Mountains Orchestral Cover by sleightlymusical on YouTube

So much depth comes from the deeper-voiced string instruments!

Scott Sutherland’s tuba version is really solemn and somber:

Misty Mountains Cold – The Hobbit (Euphonium and Tuba Cover) by Scott Sutherland Music on YouTube

I have an impression that the tuba family is typically considered a bit silly, at least in the mainstream culture, but it shouldn’t.

The following Lord of the Rings medley also has an incredible cello part:

Lord of The Rings – The Hobbit (Piano/Cello Cover) – ThePianoGuys on YouTube

By ThePianoGuys aka Jon Schmidt, Steven Sharp Nelson, and Al van der Beek, with van der Beek’s arrangement.

Jasmine Thompson’s cover of “I See Fire” from The Desolation of Smaug is as good if not better than the original:

“I See Fire” Ed Sheeran The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – cover by Jasmine Thompson on YouTube

Guitar for Thompson’s cover is by Seye Adelekan.

This gender-flipped version of “Into the West” from The Return of the King is awesome:

Into the West (Cover) – Josh Sahunta & Nicholas Yee on YouTube

Josh Sahunta singing and playing the piano, with Nicholas Yee on the cello.

Finally, being a Finn, I would be remiss not to include this instrumental metal version of the Lord of the Rings theme by Doug Anderson:

Lord of the Rings Theme – Epic Metal Rendition by Doug Anderson on YouTube

Do you have a favorite cover from either The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings? Please share!

An occasional feature on music and sound-related notions.

Trailers for the Tolkien Biopic

It’s three weeks to the release of Tolkien, the new biopic directed by my fellow Finn, Dome Karukoski.

IMDB Tolkien Biopic

Two trailers are out at this point:

TOLKIEN | Official Trailer | FOX Searchlight on YouTube

TOLKIEN | Trailer 2 | FOX Searchlight on YouTube

Looking very shiny! At just under 2 hours and chock-full of great actors—Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Genevieve O’Reilly (Mon Mothma in Star Wars!), Colm Meaney, Pam Ferris and Derek Jacobi, among others—it sounds promising.

Image: Lily Collins as Edith Bratt and Nicholas Hoult as J.R.R. Tolkien, via IMDB.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Spring 2019: Tolkien Exhibition at The Morgan in NYC

The Morgan Library and Museum is going to have a Tolkien exhibition.

Morgan Library The Hobbit Tolkien Exhibition 2019

From the exhibit description:

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth celebrates the man and his creation. The exhibition will be the most extensive public display of original Tolkien material for several generations. Drawn from the collections of the Tolkien Archive at the Bodleian Library (Oxford), Marquette University Libraries (Milwaukee), the Morgan, and private lenders, the exhibition will include family photographs and memorabilia, Tolkien’s original illustrations, maps, draft manuscripts, and designs related to The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.”

They’ve also made an introductory video:

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth by The Morgan Library & Museum on YouTube

Related program includes a lecture, gallery talks, workshops, and family programming, among others. The exihibit is open January 25 through May 12, 2019. More information at The Morgan website.

Found via Locus.

Image cropped from the cover illustration for The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, via The Morgan

In Defense of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy

There’s a lot wrong with Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, make no mistake. It is an overstuffed, poorly structured jumble of unnecessary action sequences, juvenile humor, and tedious subplots, all ending in an interminable final battle that makes neither narrative nor tactical sense. Still, not all the problems are of Jackson’s making, and there are some things it does right that deserve notice.

Many of the structural weaknesses in the plot come from Tolkien’s original. The Hobbit was a children’s book about Bilbo Baggins and a band of Dwarves having a series of random encounters on their way to a spectacularly poorly planned heist. The characters are for the most part so flat as to be interchangeable and the plot is little more than an excuse to trundle from one retold Nordic folktale to another. I loved the book as a child and I still have a great fondness for it, but it does not have the depth or cohesion of The Lord of the Rings. Jackson’s writing team put in heroic efforts to make thirteen distinct characters out of Tolkien’s lyrical list of Dwarf names and to fill in much of the background story that makes sense of Bilbo’s disjointed adventures. (To be fair, this fleshing-out work is also the source of many of the movies’ problems. On one hand, developing the Dwarves’ characters too often just provided more opportunities for out-of-place slapstick. On the other hand, filling in the gaps in Tolkien’s plot led to inventing new characters, which Jackson’s team too often fell in love with and allowed to take over the story.)

Despite these problems, some of the best moments in the trilogy are iconic scenes from Tolkien’s original that were put on screen with very few changes. Scenes like Bilbo’s riddling contest with Gollum in the depths of the Misty Mountains, Gandalf’s wily approach to Beorn, and Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug are rendered with a fidelity that shows a real love and respect for Tolkien’s creation. They are a delight to watch, even if they can’t make up for the rest of the films around them.

Even the less authentic scenes are often elevated by the quality of the performances. Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee reprise their roles as Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman with intelligence and gravitas. Andy Serkis gets to present a less desperate, more playful version of Gollum while Orlando Bloom performs a younger Legolas who is, as Tolkien said of the Mirkwood Elves, “more dangerous and less wise” than the character we remember from The Lord of the Rings. The newcomers to the series give it their best, too. Martin Freeman shows us how Bilbo finds his courage and taste for adventure without ever losing his Hobbitish love of home and comfort. The Dwarf actors, for all that they mostly get used for broad comedy, give their characters an individuality and personality that Tolkien never did. Benedict Cumberbatch is smoothly menacing as the voice of Smaug. Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast does a bit too much slapstick, but he also gives us a wild fresh take on wizardry that sits at the other end of the spectrum from Saruman’s aloof grandeur.

The sets, props, costuming, and other art direction live up to the high standards set by Weta in the first trilogy. From the ancient depths of Erebor to the workaday fishing village of Lake Town, from the rugged traveling gear of the Dwarves to the cold glamour of the Elvish king Thranduil, there isn’t a place, character, or object on screen that doesn’t show the art department’s commitment to creating a world that feels real and lived-in. Over it all, Howard Shore’s music is as rich and operatic as ever.

But the best thing about the Hobbit trilogy, though, the thing that redeems the whole troubled production and its many missteps, is not the films themselves but the discs full of extras that come with the extended editions. Most studios are content to slap in a few deleted scenes, a handful of trailers for unrelated movies, and maybe a couple five-minute promo interviews with the big-name stars talking about how awesome the movie is (seriously, movie studios, you don’t need to market your movie to the people who have already bought the DVD), but not Jackson & Co. Each of the Hobbit films comes with hours upon hours of in-depth documentaries on every aspect of the production, from concept art to final edits. These documentaries do more than go behind the scenes in the usual self-promoting Hollywood way. They also show us the false starts, the mistakes, the ideas that went nowhere and the things that went seriously wrong. You get a fuller appreciation of the good things in the movies when you see how hard it was to get some of them on screen.

The extra features are also well designed for usability. Everything is subtitled, which is great for those of us who don’t always hear well. The menus are easy to use and it’s obvious which item you’re choosing, unlike some discs which make you do a lot of tedious scrolling back and forth and use only a slight difference in color to tell you what button you’re about to hit. Every section tells you how long it is, so you can plan your watching accordingly. The Hobbit extras are the gold standard of how to do bonus features and I wish that more studios and franchises would take as much care both in what they offer for extra material and the functionality of their products.

The Hobbit trilogy is not great cinema. The whole does not measure up to the sum of its parts, but some of those parts are in themselves fascinating and beautiful. They make it worth going there and back again.

Image: Promotional still from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

The Hobbit’s 80th Anniversary

On this day in September, many years ago, there finally was The Hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty book, though, filled with beetle-holes and a musty smell, but a Hobbit book, and that means comfort…

Tolkien Gateway Bilbo Comes to Huts of Raft-elves

In other words: J.R.R. Tolkien’s most famousest of novels The Hobbit was first published September 21, 1937, by Allen & Unwin.

Happy 80th Birthday!

Alas, 80 years is far too short a time to live among such excellent and admirable readers—we therefore wish you many more!

Image: Bilbo comes to the Huts of the Raft-elves via Tolkien Gateway (1937; color drawing; J.R.R. Tolkien)

Lord of the Rings Fridge Poem

Years and years ago we got one of those poetry magnet sets in Finnish. Judging from the words included, it was a “love and romance”-themed set. We had fun playing with it for a while, but there’s only so many poems you can make about “forbidden lips” and “tender roses” before you get bored. So, what to do? How about scrounging through the words you’ve got and coming up with a Lord of the Rings poem instead?

A weak man understands trembling

The ring whispers

An eternal red eye flashes

Must walk towards it

Fiery pain

Night

Precious

The great white woman gives a candle

Noble hope

A brave friend

Close

A high clear moment

My good garden

 

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

Making A Proper 1420

Here’s a look at how we made yesterday’s A Proper 1420.

The menu

  • Boiled chicken dinner
  • Poppy seed-cakes

erikchef1There’s few ways of cooking more traditional than boiling. You can put vegetables and meat all in one big pot and boil until cooked through. Everything comes out piping hot and full of flavor. It’s simple and satisfying.

Dinner12

Our dinner this month is based on an old staple of New England cookery, the boiled dinner of corned beef or ham and root vegetables. I’ve substituted chicken for the meat and used what seemed like suitably Hobbitish vegetables: onions, potatoes, carrots, and cabbage.

We can be certain that Hobbits have chickens, since there’s no end of eggs in Bilbo’s kitchen. (H1) Pippin also complains about Gandalf guarding the palantir “like a hen on an egg.” (3.11) Potatoes, carrots, and onions are all on Sam’s wish list for a good stew (4.4) and the Gaffer scolds his son for dreaming of elves and dragons instead of cabbages and potatoes. (1.1) These ingredients all seem pretty solidly attested.

“Seed-cake” can mean any of a variety of cakes flavored with seeds, but I picked an old poppy seed-cake recipe that sounded like something Bilbo would enjoy. (H1) Poppies have long been cultivated in western Europe and elsewhere for their seeds and oil; they seem like they would be at home in the Shire.

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