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Pet Sins May 2004

High kin, high folk, and the language of race

Tolkien uses the terms "high race","high kin" and "high folk" quite a lot. For example, when the human Tuor met the Noldorin Elf Voronwe in Unfinished Tales, he recognized Voronwe as one of "the high folk of the Noldor" based on "the piercing gaze of his sea-grey eyes."1 In The Silmarillion, Eol is described as "a tall Elf of a high kin of the Teleri."2

From Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings, we have the following description of the Noldorin Elves:

"...the Noldor belong to a race high and beautiful, the elder Children of the world, who are now gone. tall they were, fair-skinned and grey-eyed, and their locks were dark..."

The implication is that some races or kinship groups are higher than others. In Tolkien's work, the terms "lesser race" or "lesser men" also occur in a number of instances, which we will explore in other essays in this issue. Tolkien clearly pays much attention to the issue of race, for he details differences between various "kindreds" of Elves, diverse "races" of Men, and separate strains of Hobbits.

So what exactly makes a race "high" or "low"? Is it some innate biology (God-given trait), or is it the choices that a people collectively make? Or does Tolkien even differentiate between the two? Take for example the racial differences between the Easterlings and the Edain. The Silmarillion describes the Easterlings as dark-skinned, dark-haired and dark-eyed people. The blond Tuor is described in Unfinished Tales as "taller and swifter than any of the Easterlings". As the father of the hero Earendil the Blessed and the grandfather of Elrond and Elros, it is quite clear that he falls on Tolkien's good side. This hero demonstrates his heroism by killing Easterlings: ".. he often went abroad, and slew many of the Easterlings that he came upon. Then they set a great price upon his head." 3

Tolkien depicts the Easterlings as oppressors of Tuor's people, thus justifying the slaying. But on the flip side, it is the slaying of uniformly evil non-whites by a white hero. Tolkien has never described the reverse as justified. The Edain see the Easterlings as ugly; the child Turin, a cousin of Tuor, calls them "ugly thieves".4 The Easterlings themselves also seem to recognize the racial superiority of the Edain. Unfinished Tales tells of the forced marriage between Brodda, the evil Easterling who enslaved the Edain, and Aerin, one of his Edain captives:

"... Brodda took Aerin as a wife... for there were few women amongst his own following, and none to compare with the daughters of the Edain."5

The differences between different races of humans are explored further in another article in this issue.

Some humans are less than human

Unfinished Tales mention two groups of people - The Wainriders and the Balchoth - who were enemies of the Gondorians and the Eotheod. (Both the Gondorians and the Eotheod are descended from the "good" humans - the Edain.)

The Wainriders were mentioned in UT as invaders who enslaved the Northmen - there is no description as to their appearance. In keeping with Tolkien's descriptions of "Evil Men", the Wainriders are greedy, violent, and have an intense hatred for the "good" Men: "They were eager for conquests and booty and filled with hatred for Gondor which stood in their way." Here is a telling phrase that implies that some races of humans are on the level of beasts: ".. the Wainriders licked their wounds, and plotted their revenge". Licking of wounds implies an association with four-legged animals.

In the notes the the Chapter Cirion and Eorl, the meaning of Balchoth is given as 'a mixed word of popular speech, from Westron balc "horrible", and Sindarin hoth "horde", applied to such people as the Orcs. But on p315 of Unfinished Tales, the Balchoth are enemies of Gondor who "allied with Orcs". It can be deduced that in this context, the Balchoth are human, since they are described separately from Orcs. In the chapter on Cirion and Eorl, the lands were described as being "infested with Balchoth" - the use of such a word reduces the Balchoth to subhuman status - "infested" is more commonly used with regards to rodents, insects, and other pests. Tolkien never describes the Gondorians, Rohirrim, or any of the descendents of the "good" humans with such language.

Higher and Lower Cultures?

Just how does one judge any language to be better or more beautiful than another? On one hand, Tolkien acknowledges that how much a language is valued depends on the power differential between communities speaking different languages - in Unfinished Tales, the language of the Edain falls out of fashion among the Edain under Easterling rule because the Edain were slaves, and their speech was considered "the language of thralls". But on the other hand, he clearly believes in the natural 'superiority' of some languages over others, the best known example being the use of High Elven speech by non-Elves as a mark of graciousness and noble character.

In The Lost Road, Elendil the Numenorean makes passing reference to the "broken dialects" of the "wild men". Such descriptions amount to passing cultural judgements on entire groups that speak specific languages, and one need not go to Middle Earth to see examples of such cultural chauvinism. Similar statements are made in the real world often enough, particularly with regards to non-European languages, and often stem from subconscious ideas about the superiority and inferiority of certain races.


Almost of Tolkien's heroes in the LOTR, The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales are blood relatives, which subtly reinforces a kind of genetic exclusivity as to who is historically significant and who isn't. Frodo, Merry and Pippin are relatives, as are Galadriel, Aragorn and Arwen. Even people in largely unintersecting stories turn out to be relatives, as in the case of Morwen and Beren. Thranduil has kinship with Celeborn, and Isildur is a distant nephew of Elrond.

1. Unfinished Tales, p34
2. The Silmarillion, p159
3. Unfinished Tales, p21
4. Unfinished Tales, p74
5. ibid