Bilbo, “the Man” vs. Bilbo, the halfling

by John Holbo on November 24, 2007

Matthew Yglesias links to an interesting paper:

“I call on every red-blooded white man to use any means to keep the niggers away from the polls; if you don’t understand what that means you are just plain dumb.” These were the words of United States senator Theodore G. “The Man” Bilbo of Mississippi, as he addressed white supporters during his successful re-election campaign in June 1946. His inflammatory language ignited a firestorm, however, that prevented him from taking his Senate seat in January 1947 and ended the career of one of the nation’s most flamboyant politicians.

“The Man” fell because of the growing intolerance among many whites toward public racism and anti-Semitism. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, white elites outside the South—defined here as leading daily newspapers, weekly magazines, organizations, and political leaders—largely ignored Bilbo’s racist incitements. World War II, however, brought about a significant change in elite attitudes. Due to the ideological war against Nazism, America’s emergence as a superpower, and the unifying nature of the conflict, the kind of virulent public racism that was a trademark of Bilbo’s career was no longer tolerated outside of the South. Bilbo’s career, from his return to the governor’s mansion in 1928 through the Senate debate over his seating in 1947, parallels and illustrates the declining tolerance of overt racism and nativism in the United States.

Yglesias files this under ‘the past is another country.” That’s only the half of it. If you never picked it up, Starlight 3 [amazon], edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden … well, it’s only about the greatest short anthology of fantastic fiction I know. More to the point, it contains “Senator Bilbo”, by Andy Duncan:

“It regrettably has become necessary for us now, my friends, to consider seriously and to discuss openly the most pressing question facing our homeland since the War. By that I mean, of course, the race question.”

in the hour before dawn, the galleries were empty, and the floor of the Shire-moot was nearly so. Scattered about the chamber, a dozen or so of the Senator’s allies – a few more than were needed to maintain the quorum, just to be safe – lounged at their writing desks, feet up, fingers laced, pipes stuffed with the best Bywater leaf, picnic baskets within reach; veterans all. Only young Appledore from Bridge Inn was snoring and slowly folding in on himself; the chestnut curls atop his head nearly met those atop his feet. The Senator jotted down Appledore’s name without pause. He could get a lot of work done while making speeches – even a filibuster nine hours long (and counting).

“There are forces at work today, my friends, without and within our homeland, that are attempting to destroy all boundaries between our proud, noble race and all the mule-gnawing, cave-squatting, light-shunning, pit-spawned scum of the East.”

The Senator’s voice cracked on “East,” so he turned aside for a quaff from his (purely medicinal) pocket flask. His allies did not miss their cue. “Hear, hear,” they rumbled, thumping the desktops with their calloused heels. “Hear, hear.”

“This latest proposal,” the Senator continued, “this so-called immigration bill – which, as I have said, would force even our innocent daughters to suffer the reeking lusts of all the ditch-bred legions of darkness – why, this baldfooted attempt originated where, my friends?”

“Buckland!” came the dutiful cry.

“Why, with the delegation from Buckland … long known to us all as a hotbed of book-mongers, one-Earthers, elvish sympathizers, and other off-brands of the halfling race.” …

It just gets better from there.

Completing the point: there is reason to believe that Tolkien’s hobbits had names derived from the American South (don’t know about Bilbo, specifically). Guy Davenport:

The closest I have ever gotten to the secret and inner Tolkien was in a casual conversation on a snowy day in Shelbyville, Kentucky. I forget how in the world we came to talk about Tolkien at all, but I began plying questions as soon as I knew that I was talking to a man who had been at Oxford as a classmate of Ronald Tolkien’s. He was a history teacher, Allen Barnett. He had never read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, he was astonished and pleased to know that his friend of so many years ago had made a name for himself as a writer.

“Imagine that! You know, he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky. He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that.”

And out the window I could see tobacco barns. The charming anachronism of the hobbits’ pipes suddenly made sense in a new way.

I know, I know: Kentucky not Mississippi. Still. Interesting stuff.

In other news, for some weird reason you can buy the first Spiderman movie [amazon] for only $3.99. I consider that a good deal.

UPDATE: Andy Duncan, the author, shows up in comments with a bibliographical note: “Since Starlight 3, “Senator Bilbo” has been reprinted in Year’s Best Fantasy 2, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (Eos, 2002) and in Seekers of Dreams: Masterpieces of Fantasy, edited by Douglas A. Anderson (Cold Spring Press, 2005). It also will be in The Mammoth Book of Extreme Fantasy, edited by Mike Ashley (Robinson, 2008).”

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Cheryl’s Mewsings » Blog Archive » Searching for Mr. Baggins
11.24.07 at 6:27 pm



Jacob T. Levy 11.24.07 at 4:38 pm

OK, spoil it for us. Is the threat from the East postwar immigration of orcs, or goblins, or the Ten Lost Tribes of Gollums, or what?


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 11.24.07 at 4:59 pm

Of course, “Holbo” sounds suspiciously like a hobbit name too, come to think of it.


foolishmortal 11.24.07 at 5:01 pm

Tolkien a racist? Never! Kentucky was a source for Tolkien because it was a remnant of an agrarian England. Tolkien was a conservative, even a reactionary, but never a racist, as a cursory examination of The Fellowship will reveal. Tolkien’s work was backward-looking: Middle Earth was in decline, the Age of Men was approaching. The British of the 1800s as seen by the 30s mind were pretty clearly represented by the Shire: content to mind their own business, but when adventure called, wildly successful, and at the end ravaged by industrialism. Tolkien saw all of this as passing, and wrote retrospectively rather than con temporarily. The Age of Men had, in WWI, showed itself.


foolishmortal 11.24.07 at 5:03 pm


protected static 11.24.07 at 5:19 pm

foolishmortal: I have to disagree with you about Tolkien & race. Any Men who side with Sauron, for instance, are all swarthy & shifty-eyed, or have black or yellow skin. There isn’t any *overt* racism in LotR – but there are small pockets of casual racism. I don’t think Tolkien was consciously racist. I do think he fell back upon racial tropes fairly easily when creating images of the enemies of the West.

You’re spot on about Kentucky, though – much of Appalachia preserves names, traditions & folkways that were wiped out by Victorian era reforms in England.


foolishmortal 11.24.07 at 5:27 pm

5 is correct (Southrons, e.g.). The point is that Tolkien wasn’t concerned with race; he was concerned with civilization and myth.


John Emerson 11.24.07 at 5:28 pm

England’s rich ancient traditions of poverty, ignorance, and disease survive only in a few backwaters of the former colonies, so that traditionalists have to go overseas to experience them.


Kieran Healy 11.24.07 at 5:29 pm

Of course, “Holbo” sounds suspiciously like a hobbit name too, come to think of it.

Hence the irony of “Holbonic.”


John Emerson 11.24.07 at 5:32 pm

Holbo, like Kotsko, is a Slovak. Zizka is the Slovenian.


Drake 11.24.07 at 5:33 pm

You know, if we had elected Bilbo 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.


John Emerson 11.24.07 at 5:44 pm

Wait, no, Zizka is the Czech, Zizek is the Slovenian.

Tesla is the Serb. Kucinich is the Croat. Alexander is the Macedonian. St. Jerome is the Bosnian. Herzegovinans are either Croats or Bosnians. Dalmatians are dogs.


Jeet Heer 11.24.07 at 6:10 pm

About Tolkien, he was a reactionary and a fascist sympathizer (he had a soft spot for Franco) but not a National Socialist. In the late 1930s, a German publisher wanted to do a translation of The Hobbit. They asked Tolkien if he was an Arayan. He curtly replied that the term Arayan is meaningless and that he would be proud if he had Jewish blood.

About the cultural impact of Senator Bilbo, we shouldn’t forget Pete Seeger’s popular front classic, “Listen, Mr. Bilbo” (from 1946). The song goes like this:


Listen, Mr. Bilbo, listen to me
I’ll give you a lesson in history.
Listen and I’ll show you that the foreigners you hate
Are the very same people made America great.

In 1492 just to see what he could see,
Columbus, an Italian, looked out across the sea.
He said, Isabella babe, the world is round,
And the U.S.A.’s just a-waiting to be found.

In 1609 on a bright summer’s day,
The Half Moon set anchor in old New York Bay.
Henry Hudson, a Dutchman, took a good look around;
He said, “Boys, this is gonna be a helluva town.”

When the King of England started pushing Yankees around,
We had a little trouble up in Boston town.
There was a brave Negro, Crispus Attucks was the man;
Was the first one to fall when the fighting began.

Colin Kelly was a pilot flying down low;
Levine pushed the button that let the bomb go.
They sunk the Haruna to the bottom of the sea;
It was foreigners like those kept America free.

Now Bilbo, you’re taking one heck of a chance;
Your good friends, the Duponts, came over from France.
Another thing, I’m sure, will be news to you,
The first Mister Bilbo was a foreigner, too.

Well, you don’t like Negroes, you don’t like Jews;
If there is anyone you do like, it sure is news.
You don’t like Poles, Italians, Catholics, too;
Is it any wonder, Bilbo, that we don’t like you!

Words and Music by Bob and Adrienne Claiborne
(c) 1946 Bob Miller Publishing

This song first appeared in the March 1946 issue of “People’s Songs.”


John 11.24.07 at 6:33 pm

5, in fact, is not completely true. Although they don’t appear in the main story very much, the Black Númenoreans are tall Aryan types, just like the Dúnedain of Arnor and Gondor, and they serve Sauron.

But I think that it is generally correct – Tolkien was a man of his times, and his times included a great deal of casual racism which he probably didn’t even consciously realize he was transmitting.


Andy Duncan 11.24.07 at 7:15 pm

To answer Jacob T. Levy (Comment #1): The threat, to the senator, is pretty much any immigrant race other than halflings, but the orcs primarily.

Bibliographical note: Since Starlight 3, “Senator Bilbo” has been reprinted in Year’s Best Fantasy 2, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (Eos, 2002) and in Seekers of Dreams: Masterpieces of Fantasy, edited by Douglas A. Anderson (Cold Spring Press, 2005). It also will be in The Mammoth Book of Extreme Fantasy, edited by Mike Ashley (Robinson, 2008).


Jon Meltzer 11.24.07 at 7:30 pm

In a letter to a 1930s German publisher wishing to reprint “the Hobbit”, Tolkien responded to being asked whether or not he was “pure Aryan” by saying that he was not fortunate enough to have any known Jewish ancestry, though he wished he did.

In “The Two Towers” Sam sees a dead Southron soldier and wonders about his life, his family, and what deceit made him fight for Sauron.

The appendices mention Gondor almost being destroyed by a racist civil war over “purity” of the royal line. The “mixed-breed” is the good guy and the winner.

About Orcs – Tolkien did realize that he had a problem there, and one of the reasons why he never finished the “Silmarillion” was that he couldn’t find a solution. Could Iluvatar (God) have created a race evil by nature? If, instead, Morgoth created them, then that’s Manichaeanism. If they’re really corrupted Elves or Men, then they have free will. And so on.


noen 11.24.07 at 8:42 pm

Since Tolkien was a philologist I suspect that his interest in Southern names just came naturally to him. Irish and Scottish folk emigrated to the South and as a result they share many cultural similarities. Maybe he saw that connection in family names?


JRVJ 11.25.07 at 12:22 am

I always thought that Tolkien was writing a mythology for the proto-British isles, to the point that other than some very early Silmarillion stories relating to the origin of the elves in unknown Eastern lands, Tolkien’s ouvre happens in the Northwest of Middle Earth.

In the Tolkien mythology, Numenor’s the only thing to the west of Gondor/Arnor/the Havens and other lands of the Northwest, and Numenor goes under.

Inevitably, enemies of the Numenorians and Rohirrim had to come from the South or West of Middle Earth, which in some ways forced Tolkien’s hand about who was to populate those lands.

BTW – I wouldn’t go as far as saying Southrons and other allies of Sauron were black or yellow skinned – frankly, I always thought of them as Northern AFrican (i.e., Berber/Tourageish) or Middle Eastern (i.e., Arab/Semitic).

That also makes sense within the framework of Tolkien’s stories, because blacks and (particularly) yellow skinned types are very far away from the events of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd age of the world….


harold 11.25.07 at 1:18 am

I don’t think Tolkien was a racist. He was a conservative and a devout Catholic. He especially deserves credit for sticking up for the Jews when the anti-semitism of so many, including some leftists, unfortunately, went unremarked and was just part of the general atmosphere.

The Nazi movement and the revelations after WW2 would forcd people to take a stand. But until the end of the war casual racism was just part of the general atmosphere, as witness the way Japanese were depicted and the epithets used about them.

On the other hand, the movies of Lord of the Rings can be interpreted as tending to a form of racism, in their depictions of the villains as misshapen and dark, while the good guys are symmetrical and Fascistically handsome and fair.

The real problem with the movie is not really racism, however, so much as a leaden lack of imagination. It is unable to conceive of, much less depict, suggestive, spiritual beauty that rises above comic book stereotypes much less any kind of wit or unexpected insights. It wooden literalness leaves nothing to the viewers’ imagination and doesn’t expand their horizons in any way whatsoever. I have to say that this superficiality is ultimately derived directly from Tolkien himself, IMO. He is basically a boring author with no ambitions to rise above hackneyed cliches. And why not? He wrote only to please his boyhood self. Marina Warner has a good essay on the Manicheanism of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

I know many people have really adored Tolkien & Lewis since childhood, and I hope I haven’t offended them.


lemuel pitkin 11.25.07 at 1:40 am

Tolkien was a huge racist. I say this as someone who was read the Lord of the Rings books as bedtime stories as a child, and who reread tehm, along witht Silmarillion, the Lost Tales, and anything else I could get my hands on, repeatedly as an adolescent. But come on.

Everybody in his boks is an instance of a racial type. Elves? Wise and beautiful. Orcs? Crude and violent. Dwarves? Greedy but loyal. And so on. As others have noted the various races of men are on the side of good exactly insofar as they are blond and blue-eyed; the bad ones are swarthy as swarthy comes.

Of course Tolkien doesn’t announce that he’s a racist. Of course he doesn’t say the black bad guys are bad because they’re black. But that standard there’s never been any racism in the world, ever.


John Emerson 11.25.07 at 2:15 am

I basically agree with Lemuel. A lot of genre fiction reinforces stereotypes, including his. (Of course, so does a lot of literary fiction.)

“Racist” seems to be used now entirely as a dismissive judgment, rather than descriptively. It’s a good thing that racism is taboo, but sometimes it makes it hard to talk about anything that happened before about 1965.


TGGP 11.25.07 at 2:21 am

Lawrence Auster wrote an unintentionally hilarious explanation of why humans and hobbits could not be friends (the difference in size would just be insurmountable). It was a .doc file that I can’t find anymore.


kishnevi 11.25.07 at 2:38 am

I disagree with comment 20. Tolkien’s orcs and dwarves are all solidly based on traditional European folklore–the elves less so, receiving T.’s most imaginative reworking of folk material. Even the hobbits have several forerunners in European traditions. The Southrons who are described in apparently racist terms are flagged several times in the narrative as apparently being mixed breeds, part Orc and part human, and their ugliness and malice are meant to be part of the goblin inheritance. The Orcs themselves seem to have been meant as corruptions of Elves by Mogroth; the swarthy Southrons are swarthy because they are from the South, which I don’t think is exactly a racist observation. The Riders of Rohan are meant to recall Anglo Saxon culture, but I don’t recall any detailed description of any other humans that would specifically link them to the blond haired blue eyed stereotype. (From what I can recall, for instance, there is nothing in the text of the books that would specifically make Boromir or Faramir Nordic looking; and any Nordic looks which may be attributed to Aragorn (and I don’t actually recall any details that would definitely make him look Nordic) could reasonably be attributed to his elvish ancestry–who are, with the Rohirrim, the only racial group specifically given an “Aryan” appearance, which itself is line with European folklore, and not necessarily one of the things T. re-invented for his Elves.

So to if you read any racism in LOTR, it’s best to blame it on its original source in European folklore.


John Holbo 11.25.07 at 3:06 am

I’m not sure Tolkien is ‘racist’. I think his books are merely ‘race-ish’.


Kieran Healy 11.25.07 at 3:16 am

I’m not sure Tolkien is ‘racist’. I think his books are merely ‘race-ish’.

By the by, I thought it was striking how easily the fighting keyboard nerds drew on his books for rousingly jingoistic pro-war anti-islamic stuff. Arise, men of the west, and all that.


Bruce Moomaw 11.25.07 at 3:20 am

Anyone who tries to find ANY kind of coherent political viewpoint in Tolkien is on a fool’s errand — his expressed views seem to have oscillated crazily between monarchism and/or authoritarianism on the one hand, and libertarian anarchism on the other, with the only consistent theme being his regret that politics was necessary at all. We’re talking about a guy whose 1930s letters simultaneously furiously denounce Lewis for being anti-Franco (after all, Franco was pro-Catholic and so HAD to be a good guy) — and denounce the mistreatment of South African blacks and the Nazis’ anti-Semitism.

Similarly, his nostalgia (if that’s the word for it) for an imaginary world in which Goodness and Badness are racially determinate was interlaced with an awareness that in the real world things were not that way and have never been that way. Consider his poem about Charles Williams in which he describes Byzantium as “a hive… rotting within while outwardly alive”, or his late letter stating flatly that Aragorn’s descendants would end up being “as bad as Denethor or worse”.

And, really, it seems to me that this is the whole secret of LOTR’s strange but (for a lot of us) extremely potent appeal — despite Tolkien’s insistence that it was no allegory, I DO think it’s an allegory (perhaps subconscious) of the inevitable replacement of the mental world of childhood (with its view of people as firmly and deterministically Good or Bad, Black or White) with the mental world of adulthood (in which all of us are really Gray). The mental world of childhood does have to be abandoned in the end, or it turns morally poisonous — but there’s no pretending that it isn’t an immensely sad loss in many ways. LOTR is a prose version of Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality”. View the pre-Fourth Ages of Middle-Earth as the child’s view of the world, the Fourth Age as the adult’s view of it, and the Three Rings as a means used to ARTIFICIALLY prolong the childish nature of Middle-Earth — thus preserving great beauties, but ultimately deriving their power from the One Ring, the embodiment of selfishness and deadly mental seductiveness. (Tolkien, in fact, explicitly mentioned this view of the Three Rings in another late letter.) And so, ultimately, the pre-Fourth Age — in which the Orcs and Sauron’s other monsters are DETERMINISTICALLY and unchangeably evil while the Elves are just as naturally and innately Better than mortal Men, and in which people (the Nazgul, the other victims of the One Ring, even Saruman through the influence of the Palantir) can be COMPELLED to be evil by magic but are neverthless described as genuinely evil — has to die and be replaced by the modern, gray world of human free will and mental autonomy. But how much less beautiful the latter is in many ways!

By the way, I’ve only recently read Tolkien’s famous essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” — in which, it turns out, he describes that poem as reflectng just the same sort of uneasy transitional view of evil, since it was written by a medieval Christian writer looking back on the age of heroic pre-Christian paganism. Beowulf’s monsters are to some extent seen as “evil” simply because they’re dangerous to humans — that is, they’re simply PHYSICALLY evil — but the poem also describes them to some extent as being deliberately, SPIRITUALLY evil by choice. But ultimately you can’t have it both ways, either in Beowulf’s world or in LOTR’s world — both of which end up passing away elegiacally at the ends of the two books.


John Emerson 11.25.07 at 3:32 am

I really doubt Tolkien’s claim that Beowulf was deeply Christian. There’s a very small amount of explicit Christianity in Beowulf, mostly reducible to monotheism and the rejection of paganism (which is identified with Biblical monsters). Nothing about the trinity, the incarnation, the crucifixion, redemption, etc.

The argument seems to rely on making Beowulf himself into a Christ-figure, which would work in the case of Melville or Joyce, but medieval allegories etc. always seem to spell out symbolism very explicitly, even tediously, so readers or hearers are sure to get the point. There’s nothing in the text to show that Beowulf wasn’t just a generic pagan, which is what he actually would have been.


Bruce Moomaw 11.25.07 at 4:43 am

Tolkien didn’t say that “Beowulf” was “deeply Christian” — that was my point. He said that there were some Christian elements inserted into it, existing rather uncomfortably alongside the purely “pagan” aspects of the poem (specifically, the primitivistic idea that a monster is just someone or something, either a beast or a member of an enemy tribe, that wants to eat you or bash your brains out — with the Judeo-Christian concept of a “morally monstrous” person only coming along later).


John Emerson 11.25.07 at 4:52 am

Maybe we read different things, but the thing I read by Tolkien exaggerated the Christianity, I thought. To me “Beowulf” seems like a pagan poem with weak Christianity inserted or slapped on.

I think that the difficulty with agreeing that it was mostly a pagan poem comes from the belief that (non-Greek, non-Roman) pagans were howling savages. (Paganism tends to be defined by its enemies in war). So the things we like and admire in Beowulf are probably the positive traits of the northern pagans, but tend to be credited to Christian influence.


foolishmortal 11.25.07 at 6:20 am

Beowulf” seems like a pagan poem with weak Christianity inserted or slapped on.

This is correct, and is true of LOTR as well. And, FWIW, 26 is spot on, except for his conclusions.

Tolkien was racist in that he saw races deciding to either fight together or fight against each other. Races in LOTR ,with the exception of humans,were nationalist. So, the Southrons excepted, Tolkien’s racism is really a nationalism. I’m willing to excuse the Southrons’ dark color as a mark of exoticism rather than a marker of some animosity toward the dark-skinned as the lines describing light-skinned bad people for outnumber those describing the Southrons. Tolkien wasn’t a racist: he was a nationalist.


harold 11.25.07 at 7:29 am

23. writes: “The Southrons who are described in apparently racist terms are flagged several times in the narrative as apparently being mixed breeds, part Orc and part human, and their ugliness and malice are meant to be part of the goblin inheritance.”

Well, nationalism can have several aspects. There is liberal nationalism, which accords people the right to celebrate their ethnic heritages, languages, music, and traditions and to honor their ancestors — and also to decide freely for themselves what traditions to keep and what to discard and what customs to borrow and adapt from other groups.

And then there is the authoritarian nationalism, rooted in Aristotelian notions about reproduction, which condemns mixing traditions as akin to “mongrelization” , which was thought to lead inevitably to degeneracy. (Thus you have the traditional “half-breed” villain in the old Westerns.)

In Aristotelian biology, which held sway as “scientific” dogma for 2 thousand years, and was endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church, the role of the single egg and sperm (let alone genes) in reproduction was unknown. It was based on a hierarchy of fluids — “blood,” which once contaminated could never be cleansed, it was thought. Semen from the father was thought to be a form of pure, superior blood that, when mixed with the blood of the mother, gave it form and produced a foetus.

Tolkein was just passing on received ideas. They are also found in Faulkner, by the way, who also depicted his mixed-race characters as degenerates.


M. Bouffant 11.25.07 at 8:45 am

Just to note: I read the four volume series by Christopher Tolkien, J. R. R.’s son, on the wriing of LotR & The Hobbit (I’m pretty sure it’s longer than the actual books) and the original name for Bilbo Baggins was “Bingo” Baggins. One can only wonder if it all would have gone over so well had “Bingo” been retained.


bryan 11.25.07 at 9:47 am

the question as to whether or not Tolkien was racist is sort of a complicated one, we assume he must have been racist, given the age he lived in and his general conservatism. However if we look at the few statements about race outside of his books he does not seem to have been at all racist.
As to whether or not the books are racist: for a work of literature to be racist I suppose it must work towards bolstering some racist ideas, and I agree that racist ideas can be drawn out of the books by critical explication but they don’t seem to be especially clearly delineated in there. For that reason I have to agree they are race-ish not racist.

I suppose that any book based on the mythologies of any country or continent (excepting perhaps aboriginal myth or unless the author consciously tries to make the book anti-racist) will be susceptible to description as being racist in the same way Tolkien’s work is, that through critical explication we can uncover the racism.


JP Stormcrow 11.25.07 at 3:21 pm

This transposition of Middle Earth onto Europe by UCLA geology professor Peter Bird (via the strange maps blog) is worth a look. Not something to read too much into, but an interesting exercise nonetheless – especially for the map nerds among us.


JP Stormcrow 11.25.07 at 3:26 pm

OT – but I also like Prof Bird’s assertion that Science is the ultimate MMORPG.


John Holbo 11.25.07 at 3:52 pm

Ralph Luker emails to inform me about some investigations. Re: Tolkien’s hobbit names, it would seem there is no prospect of a greater than partial Kentuckian inspiration. See here, for example. There was a 2005 conference paper entitled “Hobbit Names Aren’t From Kentucky”. It’s author left a comment to the aforelinked Elfin Ethicist post: “Barnett’s stories may have contributed a teaspoon to Tolkien’s inspiration (but no more than that), but he picked his hobbit names from their occurrence in England, not Kentucky (regardless of the English origin of many Kentucky names). And the surnames he used for hobbits are, in U.S. distribution, neither particularly characteristic of nor distinctive to Kentucky.”


lemuel pitkin 11.25.07 at 3:53 pm

26 is very convincing. Obviously it’s wrong to say that Tolkien was simply a racist. (The movies were worse in this regard, I think.) The racial types and black-white view of good and evil have a deeper role in the books. Still I feel obliged to defend the Tolkien=racist position when I read something like

the Southrons who are described in apparently racist terms are flagged several times in the narrative as apparently being mixed breeds, part Orc and part human, and their ugliness and malice are meant to be part of the goblin inheritance.

Claiming that people are inantely evil because of their coorupt mixed ancestry isn’t an alternative to racism, it just is racism.


JanieM 11.25.07 at 4:30 pm

For the record: Aragorn (in the chapter called “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”) and Boromir (“The Council of Elrond”) are both described as dark-haired and grey-eyed, not blond and blue-eyed. I can’t find the quote at the moment, but I’m pretty sure Aragorn is described somewhere else as “dark,” period. Not dark as in “African,” but certainly nothing like “Nordic,” at least in my imagining (which is the result of reading LOTR approximately once a year since I was 15, which was a very long time ago).

Bruce Moomaw: I really liked your analysis in #26.


harold 11.25.07 at 4:37 pm

33. writes: “I suppose that any book based on the mythologies of any country or continent (excepting perhaps aboriginal myth or unless the author consciously tries to make the book anti-racist) will be susceptible to description as being racist in the same way Tolkien’s work is, that through critical explication we can uncover the racism.”

Not necessarily at all. It might be chauvinistic, in the sense of asserting that one’s own culture is better than the others, but it could also, and typically often did, express admiration for other cultures rather than contempt. For example, in the Homeric cycle, the black African Prince, Memnon, son of the Dawn, was described as the handsomest man in the world.

Racism is the product of specific ideologies and pseudo scientific points of view regarding heredity, as I tried to explain above (in 31).


Jackmormon 11.25.07 at 6:13 pm

Bingo Baggins! He would have run off with the dwarves out of love for some wildly inappropriate young woman, and Jeeves would engineered the whole dragon encounter to convince him that bachelordom was much preferable?


wood turtle 11.26.07 at 12:15 am

I basically agree with #25, except maybe not exactly “anti-Islamic.”


Bruce Moomaw 11.26.07 at 12:29 am

Well, since P.H. Cannon has written three stories in which Bertie Wooster meets the Cthulhu Mythos, I suppose intermixing Wodehouse and Tolkien isn’t that much of a stretch.

As for Tolkien’s “racism”: the Southrons aren’t Orc/Men hybrids, and neither they nor the Easterlings nor the Dunlendings nor any other “real” Men — whatever culture they may come from — are portrayed as innately, unchangeably evil, and the good guys make peace with them and pardon all their POWs the moment the opportunity presents itself. The only Orc/Man hybrids in the book are bred by Saruman, and they ARE porrayed as unchangeably evil — but not because they’re “half-breeds”, but simply because they’re part Orc.

As for the determinate evil of the Orcs (and Sauron’s other monsters): Tolkien was indeed uneasy about that subject his entire life. Note that his apparent (if fuzzily described) resolution of it in LOTR is that they weren’t really autonomous beings, but just detached fragments of the souls of Sauron (and, before him, his boss Morgoth) — so that when Sauron finally buys the farm completely (as opposed to his earlier incomplete falls, in which the Ring preserved the majority of his soul), all of them, “Orc or Troll or beast spell-enslaved”, instantly turn into harmless, mindless lunatics. Before then, they could occasionally behave as though they might be real, autonomous beings — they could make wisecracks about the Boss behind his back, or toy with the idea of running off on their own — but whenever the real crunch came they always slavishly obeyed the Boss. They weren’t really people, but semi-detached finger puppets of Sauron and Morgoth, and so they didn’t need to be treated as people.

And, again, the only possible way to view the pre-Fourth Age world is as a world in which free moral choice simply didn’t exist anywhere as universally as it does in the “adult”, Fourth Age world. The Elves, in LOTR at least, are unquestionly portrayed as more naturally, reflexively noble and generous than Elves or Men or Hobbits — their only sign of moral weakness is their habit of occasionally making snotty remarks about Dwarves. Goodness comes more naturally to them. (One of the shocking things about “The Silmarillion” was the extent to which the Elves there were portrayed as barely more moral than mortal Men — and, in some cases, as flatly evil.) Similarly, consider Shelob, a Beowulfian monster if ever there was one — is she a “monster” just because she’s hungry and therefore dangerous, or is she genuinely cruel and sadistic and thus evil? Tolkien suggests the latter. This ambiguity of Free Will vs. Determinism runs all through the book — including the power of the One Ring and the Nine Rings, which can literally force people to be evil against their initial will. (It’s no accident that, in the 1960s, some hippies regarded the Ring as a metaphor for drug addiction.)

This is the child’s view of Good and Evil, and its abandonment is a necessary part of growing up — but, as Wordsworth and Tolkien agreed, with that growing up there also passes “a glory from the Earth”. Thus the extraordinarily powerful emotional melancholy of the book, without which it would be trivial trash. And thus it remains a genuine — if strange — piece of literature despite the fact that (completely unlike C.S. Lewis’ works) it’s totally useless as an actual guide to the nature of morality and moral behavior. I absolutely loved LOTR as 13-year-old, but I never assumed for a second that it had anything important to tell me about morality — whereas, when I started reading Lewis’ books for adults at age 15 (I didn’t read his Narnia books until I was 27!), it was instantly apparent to me that he DID have genuinely important (and fascinating) things to say about the nature of good and evil.


Bruce Moomaw 11.26.07 at 12:36 am

Another typo (*sigh*): the second sentence in the 4th paragraph should read “The Elves, in LOTR at least, are unquestionly portrayed as more naturally, reflexively noble and generous than DWARVES or Men or Hobbits — their only sign of moral weakness is their habit of occasionally making snotty remarks about Dwarves.”


adam 11.26.07 at 7:26 am

@Harold #31

“Well, nationalism can have several aspects. There is liberal nationalism, which accords people the right to celebrate their ethnic heritages, languages, music, and traditions and to honor their ancestors—and also to decide freely for themselves what traditions to keep and what to discard and what customs to borrow and adapt from other groups.”

I would argue that you are expanding the notion of national identity based on common civic institutions well beyond its traditional scope. What you discribe is an empire, not a nation. The counterpart civic nationalism would be ethnonationalism, national identity based on shared kinship (real or imagined), not authoritarianism.


David Moles 11.26.07 at 10:46 am

Tolkien was about as racist as you’d expect someone of his age and class and upbringing and interests to be. (I’m sure Aragorn would tell you that the Southrons were some of the finest light cavalry in the world, when led by white officers.) A little to the left of H.P. Lovecraft, say, and a fair bit — at any rate on race — to the left of Senator Bilbo. That doesn’t mean there’s no racism in his books, just that there’s little enough that it’s completely swamped by the classism.


ajay 11.26.07 at 12:02 pm

Harold at 31:Tolkein was just passing on received ideas. They are also found in Faulkner, by the way, who also depicted his mixed-race characters as degenerates.

Harold, you should read Lord of the Rings. You’d find it interesting.
There are actually some mixed-race characters in it who are portrayed positively – a fact of which you seem unaware. Or did you think that Elrond and Arwen are actually despised degenerates? All that stuff about incredible wisdom and beauty was maybe sarcastic?


James Wimberley 11.26.07 at 3:32 pm

Tolkien’s anti-Nazism seems not to be in dispute. Can anyone confirm the story that it came from his response to Nazi misappropriation of Teutonic mythology? As a conservative British Catholic, he would I suppose have normally been predisposed to sympathy with Nazi claims about matters on which he knew little, like Versailles or the Sudetenland; but on the one subject where he was a real expert, he knew they were lying. This apparently enabled him to see through the rest.


David Moles 11.26.07 at 3:51 pm

Ajay @46: I’m sure Faulkner’s half-elves were also portrayed more sympathetically than his half-Negroes.


Nick 11.26.07 at 5:42 pm


I think Tolkien was playing on old NW European imagery when he described most of the elves and dunedain as fair skinned with dark hair. Consider the medieval Irish Story of Dierdre, where Dierdre describes the man she desires:

‘I saw a face in my dream,’ said Déirdre, ‘that was of brighter countenance than the king’s face or Cailcin’s, and it was in it that I saw the three colours that pained me, namely the whiteness of the snow on his skin, the blackness of the raven on his hair, and the redness of the blood upon his countenance,

Anyone who claims that the good guys in Lord of the Rings are all blond haired and blue eyed hasn’t read the book.


Tracy W 11.26.07 at 6:21 pm

On the other hand, the movies of Lord of the Rings can be interpreted as tending to a form of racism, in their depictions of the villains as misshapen and dark,

But the movies depict a range of skin colours amongst the villains.

Saruman is white.
Sauron is a red eye that’s on fire.
The orcs are pale-skinned, and inclined to dress in dark colours.
The Ringwraiths dress in black but are shown underneath their robes as a skeletal white.
The Uruk-hai are dark-skinned.
The monster at the gates is pale.
The balrog is black, and on fire. (arguably these two are not so much evil as just having a rather agressive method of defending their territory).
The Southrons look Asian, from what we can see of their eyes.
Gollum is a sort of greyish colour, but in the flashback is depicted as white.
Denethor is white.

It seems a reasonably racially-mixed group of villains in the movies. If anything, I would say it’s creating a negative image of Goths (all those pale skins and black clothes).


harold 11.26.07 at 6:35 pm

42. “The only Orc/Man hybrids in the book are bred by Saruman, and they ARE porrayed as unchangeably evil—but not because they’re “half-breeds”, but simply because they’re part Orc.”

The evil Orc “blood” trumps the good. This is Aristotelain biology (i.e., the foundation of certain kinds of racism).

But Tolkien was a sincere Christian and a good linguist. For Christians all people are equal, if only after death. As good a linguist and scholar he would know that all that stuff about Aryans being a racial instead of a language group was hooey.

I did read Lord of the Rings when I was 18 years old and I was very disappointed because my friends had hyped it so much. I found it rather dull, I’m afraid (but not racist or ideologically offensive in any way). It just seemed to be lacking in characterization, and the prose style was very flat-footed. I was very much a bookworm and had already read countless Victorian and Gothic novels
as well as modern lit. and found them more satisfying. The movie, and the way it was hyped by warmongers in the run-up to the Iraq war, is another story. It was very troubling.

As far as Tolkien’s politics, I wholly sympathize with the nostalgia for an earlier, agricultural as opposed to industrial, way of life. Or at least many aspects of it (not the plumbing, drudgery, disease, lack of sanitation, and repeated possibility of “Malthusian collapse” of course).

I don’t think children all see the world in black and white and good and evil unless brainwashed into it. They are capable of drawing finer distinctions and can be encouraged to do so.

I find the comparison of Tolkien and Wordsworth unconvincing. Wordsworth said we should make science the inspiration for modern poetry. He also abhorred the gross sensationalism which he saw as having taken over mass entertainment (and which the movie of LOTR seems to exemplify). In the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1808?) he states that poetry helps people to make fine distinctions and that this one of its justifications.


harold 11.26.07 at 8:10 pm

I should have said “lack of plumbing” of course!


harold 11.26.07 at 8:44 pm

“gross excitements”, I think Wordsworth called what we would call sensationalism and horror in entertainment.

He called on poetry and science to counteract that. I wouldn’t want to put a crimp on anyone’s enjoyments — of Tolkien, say, or video games, but I do hope (with Wordsworth) that maybe someday in the future people will be able to discover pleasure in other things as well.


mpowell 11.26.07 at 9:47 pm

I think discussions like this are kind of weird. Sure Tolkien was racist in that he viewed orcs as being inherently evil. Okay. In middle-earth it seems like that is a correct view. Is that racist? Or does that mean in such a world racism is a correct and moral view? I guess the act of constructing such a world has certain implications and suggestions about your beliefs about this world. But only if you really believe that the ‘evil guys’: orcs and southrons, etc, are consistently intended to represent people in this world (africans, middle-easterners, asians or whatever). I can see someone making this argument, but its not tremendously convincing, in my opinion.


harold 11.27.07 at 12:54 am

Tolkien was not racist.

The movie, in its depiction of “the other,” struck many people as racist” in its implications.


XY 11.27.07 at 1:28 am

I think we are looking at the wrong parts of Tolkien’s universe here, at skin color and physiognomy rather than what we know was his biggest passion, philology.

Let’s see: Hobbit names were old and English rural. The language of Rohan was in Tolkien’s own admission a mock-Old English, and this is obvious to the reader.

It gets more interesting with the Numenoreans. Numenorean names (I know nothing of the grammar which Tolkien fashioned), with the ph’s and their k’s and spare diacritics, evokes a kind of medieval Greek, with the ks not latinized into Cs. This fits with the general depiction of Gondor’s and Numenor’s urban architecture, in which I think he takes pains to evoke a kind of Byzantine feel, not the polis of classical Greece but a Mediterranean Venetian/Byzantine kind of urbanism. Far from Germanic.

Sindarin is vaguely Germanic, but I can’t say exactly how. Quenya looks most like Finnish — so we can say the Elves seem vaguely Nordic, but not rigidly.

It’s with Mordor that I think he makes the most interesting choices. We see in Mordor’s names a very clear debt to the ways in which words of Persian and Turkish origin have circulated in the Orientalist canon through the 19th and early 20th centuries. The same kinds of transliterations, the same diacritics (the kh, the circumflex), the same general phonetic features as 19th and early 20th century transcriptions of Ottoman and Persian names. Barad-Dur sounds more Persian than Persian; the Orcs could be speaking a caricatured Central Asian Turkic; names from the lands of Sauron’s allies farther afield (“Near Harad”) evoke nothing more than the kind of Arabian Nights oriental fantasy which Englishmen of Tolkien’s era imbibed from childrens stories and so on. And of course the locations of these regions in Middle Earth is equally clear.

Anyway, I thought that was interesting. I don’t think Tolkien is racist, but rather, as many have said, “concerned with civilization and myth”, and it’s very transparent what the opposing civilization was.


ajay 11.27.07 at 4:55 pm

Shorter xy: I know virtually nothing about the details of the various languages which Tolkien, one of the finest philologists of his time, invented, but I feel quite justified in using what little I know to condemn him as a bigot who hated everyone south-east of Vienna.
(I have also confused the depiction of Gondor in the film with the description in the book.)


EWI 11.27.07 at 10:05 pm

The appendices mention Gondor almost being destroyed by a racist civil war over “purity” of the royal line. The “mixed-breed” is the good guy and the winner.

If I recall my Tolkien, the “mixed-breed” was actually the _villain_ in that tale, as “mixed-breed” men (where it isn’t Dúnedain & Rohirrim!) tended to be in his stories.


Tim May 11.28.07 at 10:18 pm


Barad-Dur sounds more Persian than Persian

But Barad-dûr is the Sindarin name. In the Black Speech of Mordor, the Dark Tower is Lugbúrz.

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