I don’t think it’s much use denying that Tolkien’s mythology is in some ways racist: growing from Anglo-Saxon ideologies of race prevalent in the early twentieth-century world in which he grew into consciousness. I don’t think either that it is essential that we associate his characters with any one ethnicity, that anything falls if we imagine some of the characters as he does not describe them.
The Orcs are probably the most difficult case. Here is an “orc-chieftain” in the mines of Moria, in The Fellowship of the Ring: “His broad flat face was swart, his eyes were like coals, and his tongue was red; he wielded a great spear.” Tolkien is drawing on stereotypes of African tribes.
Nonetheless, I don’t think it is so easy to read the trilogy, or Tolkien’s work, as a vindication of Europe against the “savages” of the world, or as a defense of “Western Civilization” under siege from without. After all, the threats are from within the borders of the known-map of Middle Earth. Sauron is embraced by the Elves and the Men of Numenor, and his power is drawn from his influence over them, and over the world they live in; though he finds support from peoples of the East, he does not owe his success to them.
I’d like to suggest another reason that Tolkien described the Orcs as he does–not erasing their stereotypical characteristics (“broad flat face” and “great spear”), but at least providing an alternative source of the Orcs, and one which aligns with the book’s main worry that Middle-Earth was doomed from within.
As everyone knows, as the movie makes very clear, the threat represented by Saruman and by Sauron also is roughly that of industrialization. When Sam looks into the Mirror of Galadriel and sees the destruction of the Shire, he views the loss of trees with a horror that, were Sam as Catholic as Tolkien and as attuned to the selfhood of the world as the Elves, might find expression in Hopkins’ “Binsey Poplars.”
I’m teaching Tolkien’s fantasy to a group of quasi-interested seniors in high school and have been most confident in the classroom when addressing not the books themselves, but the world from which they have sprung. In the version I’m telling, they are one last, bizarre reaction to “modernity,” and Tolkien can be read alongside (we aren’t covering the entire list) William Morris’ essays (“Art under Plutocracy” especially), Medievalism and the Gothic Revival, early Marx’s statements on the alienation of man and the world (“the whole of nature” is “the inorganic body of man.”), Weber’s theory of disenchantment (touched on in “Science as Vocation”), its development in Habermas, Heidegger’s late philosophy (and early too?), Hopkins’ poetry, the Bauhaus movement, Ruskin’s Ethics of Dust (the continuity of all matter, from inanimate to animate in increasingly organized unities), the writings of George MacDonald … It’s worth not forgetting that Gandalf very much looks like a great-bearded Victorian Sage.
But they can also be read alongside the greatest British witness of the industrialization of the countryside in the form of the coal mines, D.H. Lawrence. Today in class, by chance, I gave my students excerpts from two of Lawrence’s novels, both describing the coal mines. The first is from Women in Love, a description of the Industrial Magnate, the owner of the mines:
So many wagons, bearing his initial, running all over the country. He saw them as he entered London in the train, he saw them at Dover. So far his power ramified. He looked at Beldover, at Selby, at Whatmore, at Lethley Bank, the great colliery villages which depended entirely on his mines. They were hideous and sordid, during his childhood they had been sores in his consciousness. And now he saw them with pride. Four raw new towns, and many ugly industrial hamlets were crowded under his dependence. He saw the stream of miners flowing along the causeways from the mines at the end of the afternoon, thousands of blackened, slightly distorted human beings with red mouths, all moving subjugate to his will. He pushed slowly in his motor-car through the little market-top on Friday nights in Beldover, through a solid mass of human beings that were making their purchases and doing their weekly spending. They were all subordinate to him. They were ugly and uncouth, but they were his instruments. He was the God of the machine. They made way for his motor-car automatically, slowly.
Note the description of the “stream of miners” with their “thousands of blackened, slightly distorted human beings with red mouths, all subjugate to his will.” Here, it seemed, were the Orcs–not, as in Tolkien, former Elves, but Men bent and distorted from their former shapes, dehumanized by their labor, by their alienation from the earth. Note the master, the industrialist, to whom they were “all subordinate,” his “instruments”; here was Sauron, or possibly Saruman.
In the other passage from Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the echoes are fewer and generally fainter, except in a few places where they ring out:
Wragby was a long low old house in brown stone, begun about the middle of the eighteenth century, and added on to, till it was a warren of a place without much distinction. It stood on an eminence in a rather fine old park of oak trees, but alas, one could see in the near distance the chimney of Tevershall pit, with its clouds of steam and smoke, and on the damp, hazy distance of the hill the raw straggle of Tevershall village, a village which began almost at the park gates, and trailed in utter hopeless ugliness for a long and gruesome mile: houses, rows of wretched, small, begrimed, brick houses, with black slate roofs for lids, sharp angles and wilful, blank dreariness.
Connie was accustomed to Kensington or the Scotch hills or the Sussex downs: that was her England. With the stoicism of the young she took in the utter, soulless ugliness of the coal-and-iron Midlands at a glance, and left it at what it was: unbelievable and not to be thought about. From the rather dismal rooms at Wragby she heard the rattle-rattle of the screens at the pit, the puff of the winding-engine, the clink-clink of shunting trucks, and the hoarse little whistle of the colliery locomotives. Tevershall pit-bank was burning, had been burning for years, and it would cost thousands to put it out. So it had to burn. And when the wind was that way, which was often, the house was full of the stench of this sulphurous combustion of the earth’s excrement. But even on windless days the air always smelt of something under-earth: sulphur, iron, coal, or acid. And even on the Christmas roses the smuts settled persistently, incredible, like black manna from the skies of doom.
Well, there it was: fated like the rest of things! It was rather awful, but why kick? You couldn’t kick it away. It just went on. Life, like all the rest! On the low dark ceiling of cloud at night red blotches burned and quavered, dappling and swelling and contracting, like burns that give pain. It was the furnaces. At first they fascinated Connie with a sort of horror; she felt she was living underground. Then she got used to them. And in the morning it rained.
The fire, the burning, the degradation of the earth–all the stuff of evil in Lord of the Rings. Most startling though is the convergence of imaginations–Lawrence’s and Tolkien’s–on that single word “doom.”