What everyone gets wrong about the Tolkien race discussion

What everyone gets wrong about the Tolkien race discussion

Going to try something a little different for this blog and talk a little bit directly about J.R.R. Tolkien and his works. Generally this blog is focused on travel, specifically adventure travel that is often partially (and sometimes directly) inspired by Tolkien’s writings or adaptations of them. But with all the controversy about the new Amazon Prime Rings Of Power series (much of it in bad faith), I wanted to weigh in about the issue of Tolkien and race, which is something I’ve thought about since I realized the dwarves in the Hobbit seemed somewhat… familiar…

Much of the debate on Tolkien and race centers on three basic points of discussion.

The first, is the offense that people take at some of the word choices he uses to describe the appearance and behaviors of the various species, races, and ethnic groups. Personally I can see why people might take issue with the words he used, although you have to think of it in the context of the time. I’m not going to sit here though and try to convince someone not to be offended by a word choice, trust me I get it. As a Jewish person, I cringe at some of the language used around his descriptions of the dwarves, especially in The Hobbit. I can see why people would not care for his descriptions of the Haradrim or others. I just don’t think it’s fair to hold him to 21st century (and really the second decade of the 21st century) standard, as 100 years ago, these were… the words people used. Read up on his responses to requests from the German government circa 1936 when they were deciding on whether to approve translating The Hobbit into German.

The second discussion, often centers on skin color in which white supremacists have tried to point out that all “the good guys” are white, and all “the bad guys” are not. This is ludicrous and disgusting for many reasons (see below Samwise Gangee’s ponderings on the nature of supposedly “evil” darker-skinned Haradrim, or the behavior of supposedly “good” light skinned Noldor like Faenor and his horrendous offspring). First of all, if you think the elves, and other light-skinned characters are universally “good” – well, why don’t you tell me you haven’t really read much Tolkien without telling me you haven’t read much Tolkien (hello Eol, Faenor, Maeglin, etc etc etc). So I’m not really going to waste time on this nonsense, because it is anyway totally undone by the third discussion, specifically what was Tolkien’s views on “racial mixing”.

Much of this third debate focuses on the Elf/Human pairings as an example for (look at how they always have good results for Middle Earth/Arda), or against (look at how rare they are) his attitudes on racial intermarriage. I’m going to spend some time on this because I do think it is instructive. But I also think that it’s missing the more important and relevant point on Tolkien’s views on race relations.

Often debated ad nauseam are pairings between Beren and Luthien, Aragorn and Arwen, Tuor and Idril, Earendil and Elwing, Thingol and Melian, and some lesser known pairings.

So let’s talk for a moment about three, or really two and half case studies.

I don’t want to spend too much time on Beren and Luthien since that discussion has been done to death, other than point out that it would be extremely strange for Tolkien to model characters after himself and his wife if he didn’t think their pairing was Actually Good. Furthermore, their pairing led to the line of kings, even more mingling between humans and elves, and their offspring included individuals who were instrumental in the saving of Middle Earth. Very unlikely a racial purist would have his greatest heroes come from decidedly “impure” bloodlines!

So that’s the half case. For the first of the two full case studies, let’s talk about Thingol – and specifically his attitude toward Beren and Luthien’s union and what that says about what the author is telling us through that story.

Thingol (who is also a bit of a misogynist/mansplainer, in that he’s married to Melian, a literal angelic being, and yet constantly ignores her advice to his extreme detriment!) is extremely against the pairing of his daughter to a man. He’s so against it that he sends Beren on what he assumes is a literal suicide mission – to bring him a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown!

Is Thingol the protagonist here? What does Tolkien end up doing with him? Well, Thingol gets into a fracas with another race he thinks he is superior to, the dwarves. Despite being surrounded and severely outnumbered by members of what he refers to as an “uncouth race” he refuses to give them the Nauglmir, calling them “stunted folk” to their faces. This drives them nuts and they murder him immediately, within his own halls. Melian is stricken with grief and disappears, taking with her the protection she gives Doriath (Thingol’s kingdom), dooming it to destruction. Whoops!

So it’s not JUST that Thingol causes the destruction of Doriath by being foolish, it is actually several specific acts of bigotry that directly lead to that outcome. Quick sidenote: every time Thingol DOESN’T listen to his wife – she ends up being right and he (and his kingdom) end up suffering for it. Pretty liberal for stories written 100 years ago!

The third case study is actually one that isn’t discussed as much, that of Turin and Finduilas, as there was no happily ever after for them. I think this is a big mistake and is actually the ultimate Tolkien cautionary tale about resisting the call to bridge the races.

An image from The Silmarillion as illustrated by Ted Naismith
As Turin forsakes the opportunity to bridge the races “Glaurung laughed once more for he had accomplished the errand of his Master” Morgoth. Hard and fast rule in Tolkien is if you’re making Morgoth or his minions happy – you’re doing it wrong.

“But they never got together,” you might say. And I would say back to you “precisely.”

Turin, the most tragic of all of Tolkien’s characters (and arguably one of the most tragic in all fiction) has already suffered greatly and caused great suffering by the time he meets Finduilas, an elf-maiden who grows smitten with him. Without getting into all the details of the story, Turin is given a choice to go and save her or listen to the words of Glaurung the first dragon, one of the most evil servants of Morgoth not named Sauron.

In fact he is even warned by Gwindor the elf – who himself wants to be with Finduilas but knows he can’t because he’s dying (and because she’s… just not that into him) – that she is only thing that stands between him and his “doom” (in this case doom is a synonym for fate) which Turin has been running from his entire life. Well, Turin chooses poorly and instead of saving Finduilas and living happily ever after with his elf-maiden, he abandons her to her death, based on the terrible advice from Glaurung, a purely evil being.

And what consequence does Tolkien create for Turin failing to unite the races? Well, he ends up marrying his sister instead (long story…) and when they discover this fact she kills herself (and their unborn child) as does he, after settling the score with Glaurung. So… pretty bad outcome!

And crucially, it is Gwindor – a “good” character – who wants him to cross the racial lines, while Glaurung – a decidedly “bad” character – who wants to prevent this union.

When Turin’s father, Hurin, is shown by Morgoth what his son has done his sorrow causes him to inadvertently reveal the location of Gondolin, setting off a chain reaction that destroys that kingdom, AND he ends up sparking the events that led to the destruction of Doriath and Thingol that I previously mentioned above. Whoops!

By contrast, Turin’s cousin Tuor DOES go through with marrying an elf, and through their union produces Earendil the Mariner, Tolkien’s most perfect hero, who saves the day in the War of Wrath after the Valar themselves fail to defeat Morgoth’s hordes, and who literally turns into a star (or technically a planet). Earendil ALSO ends up marrying an elf by the way, and their union produces none other than Elrond who is one of the chief “good” characters through the rest of Tolkien’s legendarium.

But don’t just take it from me, as Tolkien himself states (in his Letter 153) that “[t]he entering into Men of the Elven-strain is indeed represented as part of a Divine Plan for the ennoblement of the Human Race, from the beginning destined to replace the Elves.” So… yeah, pretty good thing for the races to get together, as it is literally God’s plan!

Here’s where the big swerve (aka “what everyone gets wrong”) comes in. All this is well-worn, much discussed and debated, and the white supremacists (as well as those who accuse Tolkien of racism) will say “ok, but that’s because the elves and humans in Tolkien’s stories are all white.”

Well… maybe… but this is missing a pretty critical point here, which is that elves are NOT humans! They are not really a different RACE as much as they’re a different SPECIES. Aragorn and Arwen are less Captain Kirk kissing Uhura, and more Captain Kirk kissing that green alien woman from the rebooted series!

This is far more revolutionary than crossing racial lines within humanity itself.

To more accurately gauge what Tolkien thought about race relations, it’s probably best to look at how the different elven, human, and dwarven races interacted within each species. Since we really only have two books written from the perspectives of elves (The Silmarillion) or hobbits (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), we really can’t put much stock in the depiction of humans or dwarves. Really the only commentary on whether the dark-skinned humans who serve Sauron in the Red Book of Westmarch (aka the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings) are truly evil, is when Sam Gamgee encounters the skirmish between Gondorians and Easterlings:

“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would rather have stayed there in peace.”

Pretty clear what Tolkien, a man horrified by his own first-hand experience in war, was trying to tell us about the nature of Sauron’s human servants – and crucially – about the nature of people who just dehumanized them based on their being “different” and on the wrong side of the war.

Interestingly, Tolkien’s own experience with war was between two decidedly “white” nations. Yet in his book, his story’s own emotional core (Sam) finds his sympathy for the non-white Harad warrior. So if this is reflective of his own sympathies for fallen enemy combatants (which by every indication it is), it’s very interesting that the fallen combatant here does not look like him.

But again, this was a book written from the perspective of a hobbit, not a human. And while hobbits per Tolkien, are “kindred” to humans, they still are very much an outsider race. Hobbits are also described as being pretty parochial, and a little bit backwards and quite distrusting of outsiders. However, our heroes (Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, and the rest) are always the exception to the rule, and while Tolkien definitely depicts hobbits in a positive light, these aspects of their culture are not why.

And everything in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit is really written from the perspective of two or three hobbits (again, some of the oddest representatives of the race), and is not intended to be the definitive word in hobbit culture.

Elves on the other other hand, in Tolkien’s world, wrote an entire history book that includes their opinions on other races. Crucially – The Silmarillion is depicted as the accepted reality of the elves, this is what they generally believe in as a culture. And Tolkien’s elves are what white supremacists would refer to as “uber-mensches” – super-human, with near-immortality, immunity from disease, and all kinds of powers/strengths humans do not have.

And what the elves believe about other races is… rather problematic. The dwarves are referred to as “the stunted folk” as noted above by Thingol, and others. Elves also refer to humans as “Secondborn” because they arrived in Middle Earth later (ok), “Guests” because their ultimate fate is not in this world and thus are only here temporarily (uh, not as good?), the “Sickly” because of our proclivity to die of disease (oof), and “The self-cursed” because we die at all (ouch). Note that it doesn’t matter what your skin color is – elves don’t think more or less of you if you’re white or black or something else. If you can get cancer you are “Sickly”.

What’s interesting though is that while elves, when their features are described, generally have “light” or “pale” skin, they do have a variety of different eye and hair colors. You can be blonde like Galadriel, or dark haired like Elrond. That never seems to play a role though in elven culture and politics. Having blonde hair and blue eyes doesn’t make you a more desirable elf (sorry Aryans) than dark hair and grey eyes. Elves don’t really seem to care much for physical appearances at all.

In fact elves are generally subdivided into two separate branches – those who went to Valinor when called by the Valar and witnessed the light of the Two Trees first-hand, and those that stayed behind in Middle Earth. Those that went are considered “high elves” (the Eldar) and typically are stronger, more noble, and more civilized than those “wild elves” (the Avari) that remained. Note there is no difference in skin color between these two sub-divisions. When Avari are referred to as “dark elves” it is because they live in dark forests and never witnessed the light of the Valar, not because they are physically dark.

And even within the “Eldar” – aka the “light elves” – there are different tribes. This is most similar to the various “races” or ethnic groups modern humans have. These tribes all share the same physical qualities, and with the exception of generally being described as light or pale skinned, have a wide variation in hair color or eye color.

These variations are the closest thing Tolkien has to having different “races” in the sense we think of them today.

Imagine everyone you ever knew was light skinned and had black hair. If you came across someone with blonde hair, it would be about as shocking as the first time a European saw an African, or a hobbit saw a man of Harad (or vice versa).

To be clear – these ethnic groups were not just a matter of having separate names. One of these races, the Noldor, and another, the Sindar, are often at odds with one another, and sometimes in direct warfare with each other. The leader of the Sindar for nearly the entirety of the Silmarillion, the afore-mentioned Thingol, even outlaws the language of the Noldor throughout his realm. In one terrible event, Faenor, the one-time leader of the Noldor, massacres large numbers of another clan called the Teleri, takes their ships and then burns them after using them. It’s not pretty!

Ted Naismith's image: The Kinslaying at Alqualondë
Killing members of your species, even if different tribes is bad!

And yet…

There is very little evidence of any distinct racism between these various clans. Unlike human/elf pairings, which tend to be very rare (and of course that’s the case, since any relationship between a 2,000 year old and a 30 year old is literally doomed from the start), Tolkien says in the Silmarillion that in “many parts of the land the Noldor and Sindar became welded into one people.” No other way for that to happen than widely accepted intermarriage between races.

Finally and most critically, it’s important to note that none of this is real. The outcomes of all of these stories were written and determined by the author, and therefore offer a glimpse into what he considered “good” or “bad” behavior vis-a-vis tolerance vs racism. Tolkien, despite the frame narrative of “finding” and “translating” these books, controlled every aspect of the storyline and decided on what the outcome would be for everyone involved. Are the racists in Tolkien’s world rewarded or punished? What is the outcome for being distrustful and closed off from your neighbors? Are Tolkien’s heroes tolerant or closed minded?

Well look no further than the example of Thingol for an example of what happens when you believe in your race’s own superiority, or supremacy. Thingol outlaws the language of the Noldor, looks down on dwarves and humans as lesser, and essentially tries to have his daughter’s human suitor killed by sending him on a suicide mission.

What does that get him?

His (along with other Sindar leaders’) issues with the Noldor (and vice versa) earn him their distrust, to the point that the tribes repeatedly fail to fully unite against Morgoth, leading to failure in battle and ultimate ruin. His demand that Beren bring him a Silmaril, leads to the deaths of several elf heroes including that of Finrod, ruler of another elven kingdom and critical ally of Thingol (Finrod’s successor is… not as successful). Thingol meets his end at the hands of the very “stunted folk” he insulted, but not before many of his allies are destroyed and the lands around his kingdom are ruined.

And by the way Beren ends up with his daughter Luthien anyway and both are rewarded for their struggles by the Valar and Eru Illuvatar, Tolkien’s stand-in for God.

Thingol, by the way, isn’t even a particularly evil character! He’s generally depicted as being on the “good” team… He’s just done in by his primary character flaw, which is his own belief in his own supremacy over “lesser” beings and races! It is literally the thing that causes the ultimate destruction of the entire elvish experiment in Beleriand. And perhaps most ironically, he HIMSELF crossed racial lines by marrying his wife, who is a Maiar, basically the equivalent of an angel. He’s just too self-absorbed/racist to realize what a hypocrite he is!

Tolkien, on the other hand, realizes it precisely and makes it clear to the reader that his union, as well as his daughter’s union are both good, and critical to the advancement of the human species.

Furthermore Thingol isn’t the only major Tolkien character done in by his superiority complex, not by a long shot.

Faenor, who is the proto-uber-mensch (utterly perfect in everything he does), after committing atrocity after atrocity because he believed no one outside his family should have access to the treasures he created, ends up dying unceremoniously, during a suicidal charge that he undertook alone, without the benefit of any allies. Since he… you know… killed pretty much everyone that tried to help him. You can make a pretty strong case that Faenor, after his fall from grace, became so destructive and damaging that he was really only outdone by Sauron and Morgoth themselves. Is it a coincidence that he did NOT go outside his clan/race/species in his choice of mate? And that his bloodline, which is comprised of seven totally “pure” Noldor elves sows chaos, destruction, and death for thousands of years until each of them self-destructs much like their father did?

I don’t think so.

Nor is this lesson limited to elves. The great human nation of Numenor eventually becomes an empire, subjugating many nations all over Middle Earth, believing in their own superiority. In the end, they become so enamored with themselves, convincing themselves of their uber-menschness so fully and completely that they think they can wage war upon the Valar, indeed on death itself. Well, they fail so spectacularly that not only is their kingdom utterly destroyed BUT THE EARTH ITSELF is changed from flat to round as a result.

In The Hobbit, by failing to unite early, due to their distrust of one another, the free peoples of humans, elves, and dwarves allow themselves to be surrounded by goblins at the Lonely Mountain. The main driver of this distrust is Thorin, the king of Erebor, who refuses to share any of his treasure with the other races. What happens in the end? He is mortally wounded in the battle. Named characters that were more tolerant/trusting of the other races mostly survive.

Another classic example is Saruman, the other major wizard and leader of the White Council. Arguably he’s Gandalf’s boss. And he’s quite brilliant and extremely talented. Like Thorin, Faenor, and Thingol, he also sees himself as an uber-mensch, superior to everyone else. He especially looks down on hobbits, seeing them as lesser beings, not worthy of respect. After his defeat during the events of the Two Towers, he takes revenge on the hobbits by taking over the Shire and ruining it. The mere fact that this wizard who at one point saw himself as a rival to Sauron, and sought to dominate all of Middle Earth was reduced to occupying the pacifist Shire in the first place is an incredibly humiliating downfall. But even in that he fails, after he is stabbed to death by his own assistant, his spirit dissipating into nothingness.

I’m not even going to discuss Tolkien’s chief antagonists in detail – Morgoth and Sauron – since they are so over-the-top evil. But yes, they too have incredible superiority complexes and sort the races into hierarchies of threats based on their racial characteristics. In fact Sauron is directly done in by the fact that he fails to consider the possibility that a lowly hobbit could ever have the Ring, and therefore assumes that Aragorn (based on his noble bloodline) must have it and throws his army at him instead of guarding his borders! Morgoth (who also sorts the races based on their physical characteristics) becomes so obsessed with his hatred of the elves that he pours all his energy and effort into destroying them that he spends all of his nearly infinite power doing so, making himself vulnerable to his eventual defeat.

Finally we have the hobbits themselves. While Tolkien obviously loves his hobbits (as do we all), their culture does have a fatal flaw – they’re generally uninterested in the goings on of the other races, and prefer to be isolationist and insular. You might even say that at the time of both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, they maintain a “Shire First” policy. And they end up suffering greatly for it, as they are victimized by Saruman, failing to realize the threat he poses to them, as they are caught up with their own internal squabbles after Frodo departs on his quest.

On the flip side of this, when the races are united, whether with each other, or even just internally, good things happen.

In the first age, Earendil, a product of a union of THREE races (and a descendent of the Beren/Luthien union), saves the day when even the Valar themselves are on the ropes against Morgoth. In many ways, all of the events of the Silmarillion (including numerous inter-species unions) build up to the production of Earendil himself. There is simply no way Tolkien would have the ultimate savior of Middle Earth being the product of these unions if he didn’t approve of them.

An image of Earendil the Mariner from the illustrated version of The Silmarillion by Ted Naismith
You can make a strong case that literally every event in the Silmarillion is building up to set the stage for Earendil the Mariner to save the day during the War of Wrath.

In the second age, it is an alliance of humans and elves that together defeats Sauron, albeit temporarily. Crucially, ALL the major elven clans of Middle Earth unite, even those that spent most of the first age distrusting (and often fighting with) each other. They are also joined by dwarves, who emerge from their isolationism to participate in the united effort. In fact, Sauron himself is wounded by the combined effort of Elendil, king of the humans and Gil-Galad, High King of the Noldor elves. The human and elf kings together damage him enough so that Isildur, the son of Elendil is able to cut the Ring from his finger and defeat him. On their own, it would have been impossible, but together they stand a chance.

And in the third age, in addition to the Fellowship itself being comprised of representatives from all three major races of Middle Earth, they are joined by the Ents to defeat Saruman.

Getting down to the actual ethnic/racial level (as opposed to the species level) when the human kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor attempt to face down threats on their own, they fail. But when they join together, they are able to repel the attack on Minas Tirith and then buy time for Frodo to complete the quest by launching a combined attack on the Black Gate.

In conclusion – it should be pretty clear by now what’s going on here. Simply looking at elf/human/other pairings, although pretty definitive on their own, only scratch at the surface of what Tolkien was saying about his thoughts on racial and ethnic supremacy.

When characters and nations believe in their own superiority and fail to unite, they fail. When they work together (and bonus if it’s an inter-species alliance) they succeed. Romantic pairings between different tribes (per our most reliable source within the elven race, at least) are common, even among ethnic groups that would look as different to one another as different races of humans look to each other. And while inter-species romantic pairings are generally rare, they are celebrated and only lead to positive outcomes for the people involved as well as for Middle-Earth generally. Conversely, attempts to prevent these pairings lead to disaster both for the people trying to prevent them as well as for civilization in general.

Folks, it should be pretty clear by now. These events were all created by the author. The consequences of the actions taken by the characters were created by the author. They did not materialize out of thin air, they are reflective of the message he was trying to send… and in the early 20th century no less, when these kinds of messages were simply unheard of, and the winds of genocide were blowing through Europe.

Tolkien was a revolutionary who believed that racial harmony was the ultimate goal for humanity, even if it wasn’t ready for it during the misery of his time. Anyone trying to portray him otherwise is no better than Saruman or Thingol themselves – twisted and ultimately undone by their own tortured rationalizations.


Pretty much everything here is primary source material from Tolkien’s works. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out the Prancing Pony Podcast, which has been extremely influential on me in how I think about Tolkien.

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