Wednesday, May 5, 2010

One Epic to Rule Them All, Part Trois

'Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!'

'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am,
Éomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.'

So much WIN! I love that part. There was a prophecy that the Witch-king of the Nazgûl ("Ringwraiths") could not be slain by any man. So he was killed by a woman and a hobbit (Merry). It is a true Crowning Moment of Awesome.

So anyway, here I am, almost a week late for the conclusion of the Lord of the Rings read-along, which began in January with The Hobbit and which I didn't even know about it until my initial post for The Fellowship of the Ring. My timing was pure coincidence. I hadn't planned on reading the other two books so soon but was encouraged to do so by the news that other bloggers were reading them too. I found that I loved The Two Towers even more and was equally wowed by The Return of the King. With the trilogy complete, I would like to extend my thanks to Theresa of Shelf Love for introducing me to the read-along.

The Return of the King continued with several of the themes established in the previous volumes: nostalgia, environmentalism, metafiction (an epic about epics), good v. evil, and dark v. light. I would like to talk about that last one.

My issue is not that Tolkien's entire cast is white - after all, LOTR was inspired by European mythology. It would be rather odd to open a novel about a world based on feudal Japan or ancient China and find that most of the characters are non-Asian. And I don't know the history of the dark-light dichotomy frequently used in Western discourses on good/evil, so I couldn't tell you if it's found in other cultures or if it predated extensive European contact with other peoples. But I feel compelled to discuss something that bothered me about LOTR, much as I otherwise enjoyed it.

As I noted briefly at the end of my last post on The Two Towers, Sauron's human allies are described as 'dark,' 'swarthy,' and 'black.' One, viewed up close by Sam in TTT, has 'black plaits of hair' and a 'brown hand.' According to Merry, the evil Men he and Pippin saw in the Ent's battle with Saruman were mostly 'dark-haired' and several even had 'goblin-faces, sallow, leering, squint-eyed.' Actually, he concludes, they resembled orcs. Now compare that to Faramir's glowing description of their allies the Rohirrim as 'tall men and women, valiant both alike, golden-haired, bright-eyed, and strong; they remind us of the youth of Men, as they were in the Elder days.' He goes on to explain that the Rohirrim may be related to one of the Three Houses of Men to which also belonged the legendary Númenóreans, who are also considered the High Men or Men of the West. In the middle are the Men of the Twilight, and on the bottom there are the Wild Men, or the Men of Darkness.

Orcs are also 'black.' In one of his letters, Tolkien further characterized orcs as ". . . squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types." The "Racism in Tolkien's Works" article on the Tolkien Gateway website, while admitting the insensitivity of his words, tries to argue that Tolkien's disclaimer of "to Europeans" is an acknowledgment of his own cultural bias, while "degraded and repulsive versions" means that he is not referring to actual "Mongol-types." I'm not buying it. You can't take a blatantly racist statement and then try to explain it away by nitpicking certain phrases. The fact still remains that Tolkien sees his agents of evil as having physical characteristics associated in the real world with people of color, even referring explicitly to Asians (using a now-archaic term).

(Peter Jackson, meanwhile, made sure that the armor and symbols utilized by the human villains in the movies bore no resemblance to those of any real-life culture.)

Tolkien vehemently denied any racism and I don't think LOTR's racially problematic aspects were something he did on purpose, just as I don't think Stephenie Meyer intended for Twilight to be quite that sexist. Sometimes our prejudices and misguided beliefs just manifest themselves unconsciously. I personally was able to look beyond LOTR's trouble spots and enjoy the story, or maybe that's just white privilege talking? To this day, fantasy as a whole remains pretty whitewashed and the problem of "dark v. light" has not gone away. According to Tami, an African-American fan of contemporary urban fantasy, the speculative nature of the genre freely invites a re-imagination and restructuring of society, yet most authors simply end up reproducing the hierarchies and biases of the real world. She goes on:
. . . [T]he aforementioned series feint at subverting mainstream beauty standards--heroines may be ginger-haired, rather than blonde, short rather than statuesque, and much is made of their supposed physical "imperfections" (Rachel Morgan's curly hair and freckles, Merry Gentry's large breasts). But important female characters are generally white (or white identified in the case of Anita Blake), slim and young. And paragraphs are spent on the description and worship of their pale skin and its beauty. (The villains in Hamilton's Merry Gentry series delight at threatening to mar the heroine's pure, white skin.) Whiteness becomes fetish. Darkness is often equated with menace.
The Lord of the Rings, of course, is a tradition-bound tale set in a land based on medieval England and inspired by the legends of bygone eras. It is not, for example, True Blood, in which we are asked to imagine, based on real-life civil rights movements, what would happen if vampires were to "come out of the coffin." LOTR, like other works of high fantasy, can be thought of as an "old story." It recalls the grand myths of the past and relies on timeworn tropes such as the heroic journey, larger-than-life feats of strength and daring, fantastic creatures, and the threat of evil outsiders intruding and invading the homeland.

Beyond the environmental message (most old epics and romances such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight depict nature as dangerous and untamed), LOTR is really not a modern book. Tolkien said very clearly that he did not intend for it to be allegorical. As such, while writing LOTR I don't think he ever had to consider the new issues of race, identity, representation, and feminism that were coming to the forefront of his own era. I am not saying that LOTR is innocent or naive or superficial. It is a powerful achievement that deals with the universal themes of friendship, loyalty, courage, death, and heroism. But it also looks back to a more "glorious" past, before, as Elrond put in Fellowship, 'in the wearing of the swift years of Middle-earth the line of Meneldil son of Anárion failed, and the Tree withered, and the blood of the Númenóreans became mingled with that of lesser men.' In short, LOTR really doesn't engage those new questions that arose in the twentieth century. Tolkien simply does not seem to have had any reason to challenge his own assumptions on race (and gender - female characters don't have much of a role, other than Éowyn, Galadriel, and maybe Shelob). And that shows in his books, unfortunately.

Did that make any sense? This whole thing is a complicated matter and I think a better-read Tolkien fan could probably quash me here. What's your opinion? Am I pulling stuff out of the air or am I making a good argument? Discuss!

Lastly, this month's host, Maree of just add books, had some mid-month questions for us. Of course I'm only just getting to them now:

If this is your first time reading LOTR, how are you finding it? Are you falling in love with Middle Earth?

Yes, this is my first time. I had long disdained the genre of fantasy, finding it silly and cliché-ridden. I mean, I like Gothic literature and God knows most of that borders on self-parody, but I never, ever saw myself willingly reading a book about elves, dwarves, wizards, and magic. But then came the LOTR movies, which I absolutely loved. It took me a couple of years, but I eventually decided to pick up The Fellowship of the Ring and see how compared to the film version (which I saw three times while it was still in theaters). Truly amazing. Of course, LOTR paved the way for Todd Newton's The Ninth Avatar, which I reviewed recently for Trapdoor Books. That was my second fantasy read.

How do you feel, when you close the end of the last part; after Sam's words on the last page? Are you sad it's over, nostalgic? Looking for your next read already?

Sam's words were perfect. 'Well, I'm back.' It was fitting that The Return of the King does not have a stereotypical fairy-tale ending. Certainly, everyone is quite happy, but as I noted in my post on The Two Towers, the trilogy as a whole has a very elegiac tone. There's a sense that something is ending and something unknown is beginning. The Elves are departing, the Ents mourn the loss of the Entwives, and there are recollections of an earlier, grander time. In fact, I think it was Sam who best represents the character of Middle-earth. He is a humble hobbit sent from his rustic home in the Shire into the great unknown on a dangerous and seemingly hopeless mission. He is a rural gardener forced to face down the legions of a Dark Lord. And yet, through it all, Sam accepts his responsibility out of friendship and loyalty to Frodo, keeping hope alive by musing about the great tale that will immortalize their deed. Sam, to me, represents innocence. Not in a childlike way, but as a kindly little hobbit who values the simple things in life and will fight to the end to see goodness, happiness, and love preserved for the coming generations. The ending of TROK is bittersweet. The good guys win, but Frodo is irrevocably damaged by his experiences and must leave with the Elves.

What's your favourite scene in ROTK?

Éowyn! (See above.)

Also, click
here for some Arwen awesomeness that, sadly, was not in the book.

Update: I really hate to bring up Twilight again, but I just found this great two-part post covering similar issues in Stephenie Meyer's portrayal of vampires and werewolves. Here is Part 1 and Part 2.

Other LOTR read-along participants:

Beth Fish Reads


Caitlin said...

Excellent review!

I read these books the first time when I was about 12 or 13 and I remember how cool I thought it was that were female characters in this book who were so heroic!

It's not a perfect book, but neither is Huckleberry Finn and yet I wouldn't trade reading it for anything. I think it's hard to decide how much of what we read into things has to do with the author and how much is filtered through our own set of prejudices and expectations. I definitely think that intent is hard to pin down. Good to think about it all, though, eh? Aren't books just loaded with awesomeness?!

Jessica said...

That was a good balanced post I thought - also enjoyed your twilight post. I guess in order to answer the points raised I think perhaps more knowledge of old norse legends would be needed? I dont know, I dont know enough on the subject, good post.

E. L. Fay said...

Caitlin: Yes, LOTR contains a great deal of awesomeness. Regarding Huck Finn, though, I think Mark Twain was actually progressive for his time when it came to race. There are a lot of pretty loathsome white characters, for example, but no unlikeable black characters. And Jim is certainly a far superior father to Huck than that loser Pap was.

Jessica: Thanks, but that Twilight post isn't mine. It was written by one "gaimangirl" on an Amazon thread discussing whether or not the series is anti-feminist.

I think to further explore this subject of LOTR and racism we would have to look into some cultural/historical criticism on the use of light-dark imagery in Western fiction, philosophy, and rhetoric, and then research how that may influence the Western perception of other peoples. A very large undertaking, obviously.

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