Aspects of Orientalism
in J. R. R. Tolkien’s
The Lord of the Rings
Was J.R.R. Tolkien an Orientalist? Though this specific question has apparently not been
addressed before in scholarship, it is a valid query. Tolkien’s primary work, the epic heroic romance
The Lord of the Rings, is replete with themes that directly pertain to discourses involving
Orientalism and postcolonial concerns, such as racism, perception of the Other, and nationalism.
The constant interaction between the various races of Middle-earth (some human; others not)
invites the reader to analyze the role of Orientalism in The Lord of the Rings. In addition, the
East/West binary construction necessitates an examination of the text in obviously Orientalist terms,
if we define Orientalism as a way of looking at other people with preconceived assumptions and
assigned notions of essential characteristics. While racism is implicit in Orientalism, not all racism
is Orientalist. Orientalist texts traditionally reflect a Western way of examining the East; however,
the Orientalist sensibility extends to any interaction between a so-called superior and a so-called
inferior. We may further define Orientalist praxis as a way of looking at the Other in an abstract,
racist manner. The Orientalist perceives the Other as static, eternal, exotic, dangerous, and inferior.
Moreover, the Orientalist tends to encounter the Other non-empirically.1
While Orientalism is identified as fundamentally racist, Tolkien writes about his somewhat
racist characters in both large ways as well as small ways that reflect a rejection of racist ideas.
Tolkien’s trilogy includes a definite dichotomy of East/West. In addition, discourse is always
present, which is not necessarily positive in nature at first, between Tolkien’s various invented
races. These two almost ubiquitous primary themes in The Lord of the Rings have a direct bearing
on an interpretation of the work as Orientalist in its perspective. Was Tolkien an Orientalist,
however, or did he only utilize Orientalist discursive practices to elaborate ideas that were decidedly
anti-Orientalist? Ultimately, Tolkien rejects Orientalism, though characters in his book sometimes
appear to be Orientalists themselves. What makes The Lord of the Rings unequivocally not a racist
text is the fact that Tolkien’s characters learn about others empirically. Many learn tolerance and
some become receptive to the transformative qualities of positive encounters with the Other.
Most authors can be easily misread or read superficially. Tolkien is no exception to this
problem, and this particular text occasionally has been labeled as atheistic, misogynistic, or too
childish, though very few children could actually understand the complex political and emotional
issues raised in the book.2 Despite Tolkien’s protest in the introduction to the work that it not be
read as allegory, sometimes the book is considered an obvious allegory for Adolf Hitler and World
War II, and The Lord of the Rings was also “forbidden in Russia for long years because of ‘the
Darkness coming from the East.’ [...] the censors regarded this as a clear reference to the
totalitarian system in the USSR” (Grushitskiy 233). A persistent criticism is that The Lord of the
1 The concepts of Orientalism are eloquently discussed at length in Orientalism by Edward Said.
2 The most vicious attack against the text appears in an article by critic Edmund Wilson, “Oo, Those Awful Orcs.”
This article is so misinformed, it is doubtful Wilson ever actually read the text. Other charges leveled against Tolkien were
addressed by him in one of his letters to his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Co.: “The only criticism that annoyed me was one
that [The Lord of the Rings] ‘contained no religion’ (and ‘no Women’, but that does not matter, and is not true anyway).
This statement, of course, has angered feminists, but has no bearing on this paper.
Winegar, “Aspects of Orientalism,” The Grey Book, volume 1 (2005), page 2
Rings is a racist text. The work is rich in seemingly simple archetypal imagery: Good/Evil,
Light/Dark, Black/White, East/West, et cetera. Many times these words are capitalized to
emphasize their archetypal imagery, as opposed to simple adjectival usage. A cursory glance at
archetypal images such as these in the book, compounded by the recent film adaptations by Peter
Jackson, has led John Yatt to claim
‘The Lord of the Rings’ is racist, [...] the races that Tolkien has put on the side of evil are
given a rag-bag of nonwhite characteristics that could have been copied straight from a
(British National Party) leaflet. Dark, slant-eyed, swarthy, broad-faced—it’s amazing he
didn’t go the whole hog and give them a natural sense of rhythm.3
Yatt has neglected to delve more deeply into the mythological constructions and archetypal
symbolisms that permeate the trilogy. Nevertheless, it is just this kind of blustery, ill-informed
commentary that might lead a newcomer to The Lord of the Rings milieu to have second thoughts
about entering Middle-earth, especially if a reader assumes that Tolkien’s writings only reflect the
prevailing postcolonial attitudes of the society in which he lived.
Granted, England in the early 20th Century was steeped in an Orientalist perception of the
world which is most evident in Great Britain’s relationship with India. However, Tolkien was deeply
offended by suggestions of racist attitudes, as is evident in his letters.4 Born in South Africa in 1892,
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien spent much of his adult life as a professor at Oxford University,
England, from 1925 until his retirement in 1959. Tolkien was attracted to philology at an early age,
and learned many languages, from the classics, Greek and Latin, to the more obscure, less popular
Old Norse, Old English, and Old Icelandic. It is perhaps possible to trace any Orientalist ideas in
Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology here because of his study of Indo-European languages, for this
would have led him to examine the work of Sir William Jones, which is seminal to the study of
comparative philology as well as to Orientalism. Two critics, Robert Giddings and Elizabeth Holland,
mention Sir William Jones, “the orientalist and jurist,” when making a connection between Tolkien’s
work and the Indo-European legacy (149). Considering that Edward Said calls Jones a “pioneer in
the field” of linguistics, Tolkien probably studied the work of Jones (8). Whether Tolkien adopted
Orientalist ideas from reading older philological works is hard to determine, but most likely, Tolkien
absorbed the philology while he rejected the racism.
Since he was a philologist by profession and at heart, Tolkien took great pains inventing
various languages to fit his created characters. Many have obvious similarities to languages that
are known to us. One group of Men, the Rohirrim, speaks a language identical to Old English. Of
his Elvish dialects, Quenya has elements of Finnish and Old Icelandic, and Sindarin has elements
of Welsh. Middle-earth is filled with languages as diverse as its many peoples, but there is a
“Common Speech” called, oddly enough, “Westron.”5 Since Hobbits adopted this speech, it is safe
to assume that Westron is actually English, since “The Westron or Common Speech has been
entirely translated into English equivalents.”6 It is convenient that almost all the characters are able
to speak Westron, and it becomes a sort of “universal translator” for the citizens of Middle-earth.
While it might seem a bit Orientalist to impose one language on all the peoples in the book, again,
that assumption would be a superficial misreading. The Common Speech is a convenience, but
Tolkien fully expects all his characters to revel in the use of their native languages, and spoken
dialogue and poetry are sometimes printed in individual languages in various sections of the book.
For Tolkien, language is obviously a desirable connection between people. The character of
Aragorn expresses the sadness of losing touch with others when he says of the Rohirrim, “their
3 John Yatt, “Wraiths and Race,” Guardian Unlimited 2 Dec. 2002: <http://film.guardian.co.uk/lordoftherings/news>.
4 Specifically, letters 29, 30, 61, 81, and 294.
5 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring 13, hereafter abbreviated as Fellowship
6 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King 391, hereafter abbreviated as Return.
Winegar, “Aspects of Orientalism,” The Grey Book, volume 1 (2005), page 3
speech is sundered from their northern kin.”7 In Tolkien’s world, as in ours, language evolves;
people change. Sometimes they lose valuable qualities because of these changes. The only
language that Tolkien criticizes in The Lord of the Rings, however, is that of Sauron and Mordor,
the Black Speech.8 This language is supposed to represent evil; thus, it is rarely spoken or written
in the book. It is supposed to sound harsh to most ears:
Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
This speech was translated into Elvish script and carved onto the One Ring. Here it is in the
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the Darkness bind them. (Fellowship 276)
On the actual Ring, this tyrannical sentiment was carved in lovely calligraphic Elvish letters that
have a decidedly Oriental look (Fellowship 59). Tolkien has chosen an Oriental style of script for
his Elvish lettering—this fact also supports an Orientalist reading of The Lord of the Rings, for
Tolkien’s Elves are described as rather exotic, eternal, and thus, susceptible to Orientalist views.
What removes Tolkien from the Orientalist standpoint is the fact that he has gifted the Elves with
a beautiful written language; nothing inferior is implied. Furthermore, the Black Speech is not
detested because it is from the East. It is loathsome because it represents individuals who rule by
oppression and tyranny, symbolized by the brutality of its language. In Tolkien’s Middle-earth
history, originally this evil power emerged from the Northern regions; so again, we can see that
Tolkien seems to use Orientalist themes, but the actual text reflects a more balanced sensibility.
If we cannot establish Tolkien’s languages as unequivocally Orientalist, we might feel more
confident that Tolkien displays Orientalist tendencies in his description of the geography of Middle-
earth. Tolkien’s invented land bears a striking resemblance to the continents of Europe and Asia.
However, Tolkien was definitely an Englishman, and the Shire is an idealized England. The primary
evil power of the novel is positioned in the East; the heroic characters of the novel are generally
positioned in the West.9 If we turn to Tolkien’s letters, we can obtain answers as to “where” Middle-
earth really is. The Shire is England: “Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about
the latitude of Oxford.” In the same letter, Tolkien locates Middle-earth’s major city, Minas Tirith,
“600 miles south, [...] about the latitude of Florence.”10 King Aragorn is destined to return to this
The Eastern regions of Middle-earth are sketchy, and Tolkien does not seem overly
concerned with their details. This implies that only the West is central to Tolkien’s vision, and thus,
also supports an Orientalist reading of The Lord of the Rings. Most directional names in the trilogy
are capitalized when they are used in an archetypal manner. Since this is an adventure story
involving a quest journey, however, most of the time directions are not capitalized. Naming the
direction of a particular region is problematic; as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak says, “[it] reveals the
catachrestical nature of absolute directional naming of parts of the globe. It can only exist as an
absolute descriptive if Europe is presupposed as the centre” (211). Tolkien’s themes were definitely
centered on Europe. In a letter to W. H. Auden, he explains why:
7 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers 112, hereafter abbreviated as Two Towers.
8 Mordor is the East—note the similarity to the word “murder.”
9 Giddings and Holland make a valiant effort to place Middle-earth more geographically East, with the Shire (the
first setting for the book, from which Hobbits come) representing Asia Minor in Christ’s time, but ultimately their argument
fails (250 ff.). This reading certainly lends itself to an Orientalist interpretation of the text, but it is fundamentally misguided.
10 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 376, hereafter abbreviated as Letters.
11 One could read this city as a metaphor for Rome, since Tolkien was a devout Catholic, but that hypothesis could
form the basis of another paper.
Winegar, “Aspects of Orientalism,” The Grey Book, volume 1 (2005), page 4
[...] a man of the North-west of the Old World will set his heart and the action of his tale in
an imaginary world of that air, and that situation: with the Shoreless Sea of his innumerable
ancestors to the West, and the endless lands (out of which enemies mostly come) to the
East. (Letters 212)
This does not mean Tolkien personally hated the East, or thought it inferior, but it does demonstrate
how a writer will effectively “write what he knows.” It is easy, however, to see how
Tolkien can be seen as an Orientalist, if we merely glance at some of his letters or at Middle-earth
as it is physically depicted in the texts.
As we turn to the text of The Lord of the Rings, we read in the prologue about Hobbit history.
Hobbits are an invented race that stands for the rural English people. Their original home is
unknown, but long ago they all decided to move West. The returning king Aragorn has traveled
East, “even into the far countries of Rhûn and Harad where the stars are strange” (Fellowship 261).
This might imply that the East is so different that even its constellations are foreign, but Aragorn
seems to be making more of a cultural statement, not only a scientific one, as he wistfully describes
his lonely life as a Northern Ranger. Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves seek refuge in the West as the
threat of the East grows (Fellowship 52). As the main Hobbit protagonist, Frodo, contemplates the
evil Ring of Power, he felt that “Fear seemed to stretch out a vast hand, like a dark cloud rising in
the East and looming up to engulf him” (Fellowship 60).
From this, it is plain that the East represents at best an interesting element of exoticism and
at worst an almost palpable malevolence; hence, an Orientalist reading of Tolkien’s text makes
sense. However, Tolkien’s East is not inherently evil; it has become evil because Sauron, the actual
Lord of the Rings, has established his imperialist dominion over this region. Therefore, Tolkien
demonstrates he is not against the East per se, but he is against totalitarianism as it is represented
by the East in his Middle-earth setting. The Lord of the Rings is told from a singular Hobbit
perspective, not the perspective of a citizen of the East, and in that sense, we might concur with
the Orientalist, or racial reading. But Tolkien’s East could easily be West, or it could be a tale of
North and South; regardless of geographical locales, the story transcends these boundaries and
can be seen as a text of resistance to tyranny.
In addition to Orientalist readings of Tolkien’s invented geographies, many of the characters in The
Lord of the Rings express their concerns in Orientalist terms—all have some sort of interaction with
racism and dealings with the Other. Yet, while the characters easily display elements of
Orientalism, it is Tolkien who makes an effort to change their ideas.
While their stature is almost half that of most humans, Hobbits are the big heroes of The Lord
of the Rings. Hobbits can be divided into three distinctly different genetic types: one is of fairer skin
and hair, tall and slim; one stockier, with a larger bone structure; the final group was smaller and
“browner of skin” (Fellowship 12). This description alone refutes racist readings of the text, because
the color of a Hobbit’s skin is problematic. They are rustic in both positive and negative senses of
the word. Hobbits tend to be little Orientalists, for “they liked to have books filled with things that
they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions” (Fellowship 17). They are not
imperialists, by any means, but their knowledge of other peoples in Middle-earth is, for the most
part, hypothetical. They fear strangers and prefer to think about races such as the Elves in an
abstract manner. They do not tend to travel, and those few who get out of the Shire are looked
upon suspiciously. A few incidental quotes will demonstrate their provincial qualities:
[...] It beats me why any Baggins of Hobbiton should go looking for a wife away there in
Buckland, where folks are so queer.
[...] And no wonder they’re queer, [...] if they live on the wrong side of the Brandywine River,
and right agin the Old Forest. That’s a dark bad place, if half the tales be true.
Winegar, “Aspects of Orientalism,” The Grey Book, volume 1 (2005), page 5
[...] Not that the Brandybucks of Buckland live in the Old Forest; but they’re a queer breed,
seemingly. They fool about with boats on the big river—and that isn’t natural. (Fellowship
Not all Hobbits are so parochial, however. Frodo Baggins
[...] began to feel restless, and the old paths seemed too well-trodden. He looked at maps,
and wondered what lay beyond their edges: maps made in the Shire showed mostly white
spaces beyond its borders. He took to wandering further afield and more often by himself;
and Merry and his other friends watched him anxiously. Often he was seen walking and
talking with the strange wayfarers that began at this time to appear in the Shire. (Fellowship
Frodo has the advantage of being in a rather upper class, a bachelor, and nephew to Bilbo Baggins,
one of those suspect Hobbits who once traveled. This gives Frodo an outlook perhaps more
cosmopolitan than a typical Hobbit’s. On the quest, three other Hobbits accompany Frodo. Two are
younger, Merry and Pippin, both of whom are considered “Other” by some Hobbits of the Shire, for
their ancestral families are “different.” After various mind-opening adventures, Merry and Pippin
learn a great deal about other races. In the Appendices, we learn that they serve as ambassadors
to the king after the primary story has ended (Return 378). Though they continued to live most of
their lives in the Shire, each was laid to rest near King Aragorn in Gondor, not in the Shire. They
surpassed their Orientalist fears and prejudices and broadened their horizons.
The other Hobbit accompanying Frodo on his quest is Samwise Gamgee, who is considered
by many to be the true hero of the trilogy. A modest gardener by trade, he is described as Frodo’s
servant in the beginning. Sam starts his wanderings with a narrow, Orientalist view of any part of
the world outside his own village, for “He had a natural mistrust of the inhabitants of other parts of
the Shire” (Fellowship 102). Since he mistrusted his close neighbors, one can imagine his mistrust
of other races living farther away. However, Sam is also fascinated by Elves and stories about other
places, but he is content to hear about strangers non-empirically in a typically Orientalist manner.
Much to his dismay, Sam later witnesses a fierce battle between two groups of Men. One
group is allied to Gondor, or the West, “goodly men, pale-skinned, dark of hair, with grey eyes and
faces sad and proud” (Two Towers 267). Another group, called “Southrons,” is allied to Sauron and
the East, “swarthy men in red” (Two Towers 269). Sam is shocked at the sudden battle, and more
surprised when a Southron is killed by an arrow near him. The man lies “face downward,” with an
arrow below “a golden collar. His scarlet robes were tattered, his corslet of overlapping brazen
plates was rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched with blood. His
brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword” (Two Towers 269). This man is obviously not
a fair-skinned English type, and here is the perfect opportunity for Tolkien to demonize this enemy,
especially since his actual face is not visible to the provincial Sam (whose hands are also described
as brown in other parts of the trilogy). Instead, Tolkien treats the dead Man and the living Hobbit
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 not really rather have stayed there in
peace [...]. (Two Towers 269)
Sam is relieved not to see the face of the enemy not because of racism, or a desire to dehumanize
a foe. Sam sees beyond the skin color and the uniform; he makes an emotional connection with this
unknown Man. The enemy’s face is even more manifest to Sam, for he intuits the life that existed
before this senseless death and he mourns for this fallen Man.
Tolkien’s Elves are tall and elegant, and though they seem otherworldly, they are absolutely
bound to Middle-earth until their departure to the West. In addition, they are exotic, mysterious, and
Winegar, “Aspects of Orientalism,” The Grey Book, volume 1 (2005), page 6
immortal. As Frodo perceives the Elvish land of Lothlorien, we can sense the Orientalist quality
permeating the description of this “vanished world:”
[Lothlorien was] ancient as if [it] had endured for ever. He saw no colour but those he knew,
gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that
moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. [...] Frodo felt
that he was in a timeless land that did not fade or change or fall into forgetfulness.
This passage echoes Said’s discussion of Orientalist descriptions when he writes, “Something
patently foreign and distant acquires [...] a status more rather than less familiar” (58). Frodo is
experiencing this ultra-familiarity as he encounters this exotic, eternal land. Giddings and Holland
compare Lothlorien to the “idyllic Tibetan landscape [...] Shangri-La” of the novel Lost Horizon by
James Hilton (74). The innate quality of this Eastern Elvish Land is summed up by Aragorn, when
speaking of the land and the Lady who rules it: “There is in her and in this land no evil, unless a
man bring it hither himself” (Fellowship 373). Surely, this statement represents how badly an
Orientalist with a racist agenda can change the perception of an Eastern locale, in fiction and in
other works that appropriate the East as subject, especially when inaccurate, non-empirical rumors
have fueled the reports.
Thus, it appears that the Elves represent more of the imaginative aspects of Orientalism, as
opposed to the fierce, but faceless, abstracted enemy from the East. Tolkien, however, is hard to
pin down here. The Elves perhaps represent the fancifully attractive elements of Orientalism, the
eternity, and exoticism. They are not inferior and not necessarily a people to be feared. If anything,
Tolkien appears to admire this race he invented, but only to a specific point. By implying that the
state of eternity ultimately, and undesirably, becomes a state of stagnation, Tolkien is making a
commentary against Orientalist perceptions. His concern for his Elves is that a race which is
perceived as changeless and eternal is doomed to oblivion. With the advancement of the race of
Men in The Lord of the Rings, the Elves become subject to a kind of gentle genocide, whereby they
sadly, but willingly, leave Middle-earth forever. Tolkien mourns this loss of culture, but he also
implies it is the Orientalist perception of any culture as static that has forced this loss.
Another ancient race appears in The Lord of the Rings. Three wizards are named, though only
two are major characters. They are like Men, but also similar to Elves in that they seem (from a
Hobbit’s point of view) eternal, exotic, and perhaps, best known in an abstract manner. Gandalf the
Grey is the heroic wizard who displays few Orientalist qualities. Sometimes readers might feel that
certain characters (even sometimes a few characters) represent the voice of that author. In this
case, one could make an argument that Gandalf often sounds like the Tolkien we might imagine.
If so, then it makes sense for Gandalf not to represent Orientalist practices. Gandalf is known for
traveling extensively, and therefore, he has acquired empirical knowledge of other people.
However, he says, “to the East I go not” (Two Towers 279). Why not? For Gandalf, avoiding the
East is an excellent and practical way to avoid capture by the evil Sauron. But if Gandalf sometimes
represents Tolkien, this small phrase demonstrates only a lack of interest in the East, not a
perception that the East is inherently inferior or evil.12
The other wizard Saruman, however, is another matter. Gandalf (or Tolkien) is extremely
critical of this blatant Orientalist. Voluntarily confined to his black tower in Isengard, Saruman the
White has spent hundreds of years in deep study, and he has now decided to wield imperialist
power over Middle-earth. He feels every creature of Middle-earth is inferior to him. He has acquired
his knowledge from books, not from experience. Saruman perceives all the races of Middle-earth
as inferior and unchanging; therefore, he feels justified in ruling harshly over them. It is Saruman
12 Tolkien himself never did travel to the East; Venice, Italy was about as far east as he ever
Winegar, “Aspects of Orientalism,” The Grey Book, volume 1 (2005), page 7
who brings new technology to Middle-earth. With the character of Saruman, Tolkien condemns the
wholesale destruction of forests. Saruman also apparently practices genetic manipulation of the
main enemy race of The Lord of the Rings, the Orcs, in order to breed a super army. This, of
course, is our modern view of Tolkien’s ambiguous hinting in the text. Tolkien would not have
known about cloning technology, but his text is prescient regarding the moral implications. Tolkien’s
portrayal of Saruman as an Orientalist imperialist academic is scathing, and Saruman is clearly one
of the most evil characters in the book who believes he is superior to all others..
Many instances of racism, imperialism, and the use of Black/White imagery foster superficial
readings of The Lord of the Rings as a racist text. Postcolonial discourse and Orientalism are
especially manifest in the interactions of Men in the novel. For example, the character of Boromir
is ostensibly a prince from Gondor, the land to which the future king, Aragorn, will return. He is
extremely proud, and his rhetoric is uncannily similar to some Orientalist rhetoric:
Mordor has allied itself with the Easterlings and the cruel Haradrim; [...] By our valour the
wild folk of the East are still restrained, and the terror of Morgul
kept at bay; and thus alone are peace and freedom maintained in the lands behind us,
bulwark of the West. (Fellowship 258)
Boromir seems to feel privileged to carry on with the White Man’s Burden, or noblesse oblige. Not
necessarily an imperialist, Boromir feels it is his duty to prevent the Eastern hordes from invading
the West. He is not wrong in this case, for Sauron is planning to send his troops West; we must
remember, however, that the Easterlings and the Haradrim are not portrayed as inherently evil, as
we saw in the episode between Sam and the fallen warrior. They are perceived as the enemy by
the Men of the West, but the Easterlings and the Haradrim are completely under the will of a
tyrannical power, Sauron.
A group of Men called the Rohirrim, or the Riders of Rohan, also exhibit Orientalist tendencies
toward their neighbors, the Drúedain, or Woodwoses. The Rohirrim regard the Drúedain as inferior
beings, best known in an abstract, non-empirical manner. The interaction here fits an Orientalist
approach to personal interaction with other races; to reiterate Orientalist dogma proposed by Said,
the Other is by necessity perceived as static and eternal, and is to be feared.13 This interaction
comprises a small episode in The Lord of the Rings, but it is enough to draw the attention of an
anthropologist, Virginia Luling, who writes,
13 Dogmas are paraphrased from Edward Said, Orientalism 300-01.
Winegar, “Aspects of Orientalism,” The Grey Book, volume 1 (2005), page 8
[...] they are very much the stereotype of the “savage.” Indeed their appellation
“woodwoses” derives from the sort of folkloric traditions from which that stereotype partly
derives; for Europeans when they crossed the oceans saw what their traditions predisposed
them to see, the embodiments of their own fantasies of “wild men”. They are gnarled and
strange in appearance, almost naked, communicate by beating drums, are “woodcrafty
beyond compare: [...] and hunt with poisoned arrows. One may add that they are constantly
hunted and persecuted by other sorts of men, [...]. The only thing they are not is black,
which would be incongruous in supposed ancient inhabitants at this latitude. (55)
Here, apparently, we have patent Orientalist/racist tendencies in the novel. If we were to support
an imperialist outcome to this encounter, the Drúedain would need to be subjugated and their
conversation would seem unintelligible. Again, however, Tolkien rejects the typical Orientalist
The Rohirrim need the Drúedain’s guidance through a particularly tricky area. First, the
Rohirrim are surprised that the Drúedain’s leader, Ghân-buri-Ghân, speaks the Common Speech,
“though in a halting fashion, and uncouth words were mingled with it” (Return 106). Ghân starts to
explain his expertise, and one Rider asks, “How do you know that?” Instead of reducing this
“savage” to idiocy or fawning behavior, as an Orientalist writer might have done, Tolkien
characterizes his supposedly inferior savage as rebuking the Rider: “The old man’s flat face and
dark eyes showed nothing, but his voice was sullen with displeasure. ‘Wild Men are wild, free, but
not children’” (Return 106). The Rider is worried and impatient, but Ghân again rebukes him: “Let
Ghân-buri-Ghân finish! [...] More than one road he knows. He will lead you by road where no pits
are, not [Orcs] walk, only Wild Men and beasts. [...] Road is forgotten, but not by Wild Men” (Return
106). They make an agreement, and the king of the Rohirrim says, “If you are faithful, [...] then we
will give you rich reward, and you shall have the friendship of the Mark for ever” (Return 107). Being
a practical, intelligent sort of man, Ghân seizes the opportunity to protect his people from the
persecution they have suffered:
Dead men are not friends to living men, and give them no gifts, [...] But if you live after the
Darkness, then leave Wild Men alone in the woods and do not hunt them like beasts any
more. Ghân-buri-Ghân will not lead you into trap. He will go himself with father of horse-
men, and if he leads you wrong, you will kill him. (Return 107)
Lest the reader forget this episode of racial interaction and education, King Aragorn and his
entourage pass by this area later. He proclaims: “The Forest of Drúadan he gives to Ghân-buri-
Ghân and to his folk, to be their own for ever; and hereafter let no man enter it without their leave!”
(Return 254). These “savage” people are given autonomy; healing has begun.
As stated earlier, The Lord of the Rings is open to many interpretations, and various right-wing
extremist groups have apparently adopted the text as crucial reading:
In 1977, Italian fascists ran a Hobbit Camp for their young supporters. The neo-Nazi British
National Party has declared “Lord of the Rings” essential reading. Charles John Juba,
national director of Aryan nations, says his organization welcomes the latest “Ring” movie
because it is “entertaining to the average Aryan citizen.”14
We can see how these groups might appropriate some of these Orientalist, racist, imperialist
themes, for superficially, the text appears to support these themes. This interpretation is completely
contingent on the Light/Dark binary. As Keith Fraser writes, “Tolkien was writing an Anglo-Saxon
mythology, and therefore it is hardly surprising if the ‘good guys’ in his imaginary age are Anglo-
Saxon in appearance and their enemies dark-skinned invaders from eastern or southern lands”15
Tolkien’s use of Light/Dark imagery is not so simple, however. Various individuals radiate with light,
14 Leanne Potts, “The Works of J. R. R. Tolkien: Rooted in Racism?,” Albuquerque Journal 26 Jan. 2003.
15 Potts E6.
Winegar, “Aspects of Orientalism,” The Grey Book, volume 1 (2005), page 9
but “[Tolkien] also complicates [this imagery] deliberately— Aragorn’s standard is mostly black;
Saruman’s is white, [...]” (Chism 90). This is a tricky issue, but it goes deeper than skin color. We
cannot only base our knowledge on particular colors as specific signifiers as Homi Bhabha does
when he claims that “in children’s fictions, [...] white heroes and black demons are proffered as
points of ideological and psychical identification” (46). This statement takes an exceptionally narrow
view of a world that can only be seen as black or white. Batman and Zorro are heroes though they
are dressed completely in black— their skin color becomes irrelevant. Certain archetypal images
move us as human beings, and I do not believe that seeing Orcs, for example, with pink hair and
light green suits of armor would really convey to any viewer or reader the appropriate sense of
terror Tolkien was seeking in his descriptions (except as a severe fashion faux pas...).
One particular chapter in The Lord of the Rings lends itself to further erroneous fascist
interpretations. When the Hobbits return home, they discover that Saruman has set up a cruel
dictatorship in the Shire. In no way does Tolkien claim this is a good situation, except in the sense
that the Hobbits are forced to face reality, confront the hostile invaders, and defend their homeland.
This incident forces the Hobbits to grow up a bit more, and it teaches them not to take their
secluded Shire for granted. This chapter, entitled “The Scouring of the Shire,” sometimes strikes
readers as somewhat incongruous to the text as a whole. However, it is a necessary outcome and
it facilitates Tolkien’s idea that maintaining a peaceful, provincial lifestyle is worthwhile, but it
requires work, not complacence. The Shire has opened both physical and psychological boundaries
because of the traveling Hobbits. A dictatorship must not exist in the Shire. Tolkien writes that
The Shire [...] had hardly any ‘government’. Families for the most part managed their
own affairs. Growing food and eating it occupied most of their time. In other matters they
were, as a rule, generous and not greedy, but contented and moderate, so that estates,
farms, workshops, and small trades tended to remain unchanged for generations.
If anything, the Shire sounds like a rather idealistic and idyllic commune, which would partly explain
the appeal of the trilogy to readers, especially in the sixties. It is mystifying to hear how
particular right-wing groups could consider running Hobbit Camps, for the Shire/Hobbit philosophy
is diametrically opposed to any type of totalitarian government, as demonstrated in the quote above.
We can see that Tolkien often uses Orientalist/racist discourses to describe the geography
of Middle-earth and the interactions of its various races. However, he then criticizes these notions
and rejects them, supporting the argument that The Lord of the Rings cannot be seen fundamen-
tally as a racist text. In this way, The Lord of the Rings “ [...] does not celebrate racism; rather it
celebrates a delight in the cultural exchange made possible by the kinds of mixed unions and
alliances [Tolkien] celebrated in his narratives” (Straubhaar 116). At its core, the trilogy is about
healing and understanding the relationships between widely disparate peoples. The potentially
Orientalist themes are handled in a manner that encourages us to embrace Otherness, not distance
ourselves from it. His characters sometimes relate to other characters in stereotypical ways, and
sometimes the characters themselves are stereotypical. These same characters sometimes voice
their opinions in racist terms, but ultimately Tolkien concludes his vast epic with positive qualities
that strive to produce acceptance. Being a postcolonial man of the 20th century, Tolkien addresses
certain issues from a Western viewpoint—but not a racist or Orientalist viewpoint. The Lord of the
Rings is tinged with sadness, but also happy moments. By the end of the novel, a deep friendship
develops between former rivals from different races (Elves and Dwarves), trade and work
agreements between races help rebuild Middle-earth (Elves, Dwarves, and Men), joyful interracial
marriages take place (such as that between the Man Aragorn and the Elf Arwen), and a more
cosmopolitan outlook emerges for Middle-earth’s citizens. It is hard to imagine these happy events
taking place while retaining an Orientalist perspective on the world.
Winegar, “Aspects of Orientalism,” The Grey Book, volume 1 (2005), page 10
Bhabha, Homi. “The Other Question.” Mongia, Contemporary 37-54.
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War II.” Tolkien the Medievalist. Ed. Jane Chance. London: Routledge, 2003. 63-92.
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Junction Books, 1981.
Grushetskiy, Vladimir. “How Russians See Tolkien.” Reynolds and GoodKnight, Proceedings 221-
Luling, Virginia. “An Anthropologist in Middle-earth.” Reynolds and GoodKnight, Proceedings 53-57.
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Conference. Altadena, CA: Mythopoeic Press, 1995.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.
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earth.” Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader. Ed. Jane Chance. Lexington, KY: UP
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Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.
---. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Eds. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
---. The Return of the King, Being the third part of The Lord of the Rings. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton
---. The Two Towers, Being the second part of The Lord of the Rings. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton
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Yatt, John. “Wraiths and Race.” Guardian Unlimited 2 Dec. 2002: