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Pet Sins May 2004

Race in Tolkien's universe - an introduction

In this issue, we examine race and gender as expressed in some of Tolkien's works - the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales. [We will not attempt to undertake an examination of The Histories of Middle Earth, although references may be made to HME when appropriate]

Tolkien's stories are based on the interactions between 'races'. Elves, Men, Hobbits and Dwarfs unite in the battle against Orcs and Evil Men. On the surface, The Fellowship of the Ring can be read as a illustration of the possibility of good interracial relations. The love between Aragorn, the human, and Arwen, the Elven princess, drives Aragorn's quest to defeat evil and regain his throne. The friendship that develops between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf (members of hostile races) extends beyond this world into the Undying Lands. In fact, as told in The Return of the King, the bond that binds the interracial fellowship is one of the factors that allow the Dwarf and the Hobbits entry to the Undying Lands, a place where only Elves can enter, the other factor being the gods made an exception for these mortal friends because of their heroic efforts in fighting evil.

So all's well between the races in Tolkien's universe. But is it so? Aside from detailed depictions of the 4 main races - Humans, Hobbits, Dwarfs and Elves - the books are rich with descriptions of different Elven kindreds, different human races, different Hobbit strains and different Dwarven races. It is quite clear that there are distinctions not just between each main race, but also within them, and the language of superiority which ranks some kinds of people over others does come into play again and again.

The essays presented here are not intended to deprecate Tolkien's genius or deny the power and wonder of the stories he told. It is said that more than 100 million people have read LOTR. According to amazon.com's editorial review, "it has been estimated that one-tenth of all paperbacks sold can trace their ancestry to J.R.R. Tolkien." Despite being described by many readers as "boring", LOTR was voted "Most Important Book of the 20th Century" in a UK National Poll. It is precisely because of LOTR's undeniable global influence that there is a need to honestly examine the novel's messages on race and gender.

At times, readers, lost in the power of literature, unwittingly open themselves up to the less than egalitarian ideas expressed in some books. People of color and women, especially, need to be on the lookout for the subtle racism and sexism that exists in some classics, so as to avoid internalizing prejudice and self-hatred. Those of us who are not women or people of color should also question what we read, instead of blindly accepting the status quo.

[The edition of Lord of The Rings used as reference for this webzine issue is the Paperback Edition published by Houghton Mifflin. The edition of The Silmarillion used as a reference for this web zine issue is the Paperback Edition published by Ballatine Books.]