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The Lord of the Rings rooted in racism: Academic

Shyam Bhatia in London | January 08, 2003 14:49 IST

An American academic, who teaches at the Warwick University in the United Kingdom, has described J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy as an 'epic rooted in racism'.

Dr Stephen Shapiro, an expert in cultural studies, race and slavery, said the author used his novels to present bigotry through a fantasy world.

Following the release in UK of the film The Two Towers, the second in the series, Dr Shapiro told rediff.com that the books represent anxieties about immigration in mid-1950s Britain.

He said: "Put simply, Tolkien's good guys are white and the bad guys are black, slant-eyed, unattractive, inarticulate and a psychologically undeveloped horde."

In the trilogy, a small group, the fellowship, is pitted against a foreign horde and this reflects long-standing Anglo-European anxieties about being overwhelmed by non-Europeans, he said.

This is consistent with Tolkien's Nordicist convictions. He thinks the Northern races had a culture and it was carried in the blood, Dr Shapiro said.

While Tolkien describes the Hobbits and Elves as amazingly white, ethnically pure clans, their antagonists, the Orcs, are a motley dark-skinned mass, akin to tribal Africans or aborigines. The recent films amplify a 'fear of a black planet' and exaggerate this difference by insisting on stark white-black colour codes, Dr Shapiro said.

He added: "Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings because he wanted to recreate a mythology for the English, which had been destroyed by foreign invasion. He felt the Normans had destroyed organic English culture. There is the notion that foreigners destroy culture and there was also a fantasy that there was a solid homogeneous English culture there to begin with, which was not the case because there were Celts and Vikings and a host of other groups.

"We have a pure village ideal, which is being threatened by new technologies and groups coming in. I think the film has picked up on this by colour coding the characters in very stark ways.

"For instance, the fellowship is portrayed as uber-Aryan, very white and there is the notion that they are a vanishing group under the advent of the other, evil ethnic groups.

"The Orcs are a black mass that doesn't speak the languages and are desecrating the cathedrals.

"For today's film fans, this older racial anxiety fuses with a current fear and hatred of Islam that supports a crusading war in the Middle East. The mass appeal of The Lord of the Rings, and the recent movies may well rest on racist codes."

Dr Shapiro said that the trilogy, which began in the 1930s and published in the 1950s, was written at the onset of de-colonisation, when the first immigrants from the Caribbean and Indian subcontinent came to Britain. The Midlands, Tolkien's model for the Shire, was becoming a multicultural region.

A spokesman for Harper Collins, publisher of the trilogy, accused Dr Shapiro of mixing up his dates: "The copyright for The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in the series, was 1954. Tolkien would have finished writing the book quite a bit before the mid-50s and certainly the idea would have come a number of years before, given the sheer size of the book. So I think the timing is out.

"A number of academics have commented on Tolkien's work and this is the first time anybody has ever seen these issues in it. Of course, if you look hard enough at many great epics, you can extrapolate what you like, particularly if you have academic kudos behind you.

"A number of people have said that they think The Lord of the Rings could be an allegory for the Second World War, or indeed the first, as Tolkien fought in it, but it was never a view that he agreed with. His great abiding passion and interest came from the Icelandic sagas and mythology, and this was his version of one of those sagas."

Richard Crawshaw, a trustee for the Tolkien Society, said: "There was definitely no racial intent in his work. He detested racism."

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