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Christine Kelley

Christine Kelley writes about science fiction and fantasy, popular music, radical politics, and revolutionary Christianity. You might know her for her semi-retired project Dreams of Orgonon, a song-by-song study of Kate Bush. Currently her main project is Nowhere and Back Again, a psychogeography of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. Expect queerness, radical solidarity, wizardry, and the death of capitalism.Support Christine on Patreon.

11 Comments

  1. Douglas Muir
    April 30, 2021 @ 9:45 am

    “Cultural appropriation isn’t something the white, pseudo-European characters do; they nurture their own traditions and cultures, taking care not to mix traditions.”

    hmm. I see where you’re going there, but let’s note that mixing with Elves is almost always shown as good; i.e., Numenor inherits a lot of Elven ways, the Numenoreans are blessed as long as they keep close to the Elves, “fairy blood” is odd but basically good, and then of course the Common Tongue is “enriched and made beautiful” by the addition of words and grammar from Elvish speech, etc. etc.

    As to borders: it’s clear that welcome — sometimes cautious or armed welcome, but welcome nonetheless — is absolutely central to Tolkein’s conception of Good. One does not simply walk into Mordor… nor into Mirkwood, nor the Lonely Mountain under Smaug. But one absolutely does walk into Rohan, Gondor, Rivendell, Lothlorien, and so forth. Armed Rohirrim or elvish warriors may soon show up to check your bona fides, but the border is absolutely open and you can stroll right in.

    There are two fascinating intermediate cases that fit the pattern: Moria and Bree. At Moria, Gandalf remembers when the Gate was always open, and it’s still open to anyone who says “friend”. But now it’s both shut and guarded by a monster, because Moria has become a place of evil. And Bree has a gate that is shut; the gatekeeper is reasonable and lets them in, but this is a clear signal that Evil is afoot.

    And then finally, at the end of the story, the first encounter the hobbits have with the corruption of the Shire by Saruman is that they encounter a closed gate at the Brandywine Bridge.

    So: manned borders and closed gates are at best a warning of trouble to come, and quite possibly a sign that Evil is active.

    Doug M.

    Reply

    • Christine Kelley
      May 1, 2021 @ 12:52 pm

      To be fair, I talked about Tolkien’s implicit critique of borders in the post.

      Reply

  2. Scurra
    April 30, 2021 @ 8:15 pm

    It’s that meditation on the corruption of power that I find most interesting here. What the wielders of the Elven Rings knew was that to use them actively was to fall. It always amuses me that people complain about Gandalf being a rubbish wizard because he never does anything; the one time he actually does show off his power, he, yes, falls…

    [In a theological discussion, it’s akin to the perennial question about why, for an allegedly omnipotent being, God doesn’t seem to want to actually do anything. I think the answer is strongly related to this, myself.]

    But yeah, it’s notable how the notion of borders and barriers has roared back into modern political discourse. Here in the UK, those of us who have been willing to embrace the idea that our home country might not be the centre of the universe have been dismissed as being “citizens of nowhere” (and, by extension, unpatriotic.) And, of course, it’s doubly ironic that it has happened at a time when a pandemic has reminded us that viruses do not respect borders.

    Reply

  3. Camestros Felapton
    May 1, 2021 @ 4:31 pm

    I’ve nothing to add other than to say how much I’m enjoying this and the literal direction it is taking

    Reply

  4. Martin Porter
    May 2, 2021 @ 3:58 pm

    Tolkien wasn’t the first writer to look at the Industrial Midlands of England, and the Industrial Working Class who lived there, and react in horror. H G Wells had already been there with his Morlocks. Tolkien, being a reactionary Little Englander, was at least consistent in his views whilst Wells was supposedly a socialist. You wonder though is his idea of a big, black gate to keep the urban proletariat out ofsight is something he thought was a good idea.

    Reply

  5. Robert McKinlay
    May 11, 2021 @ 10:21 am

    “Tolkien’s politics take an isolationist bent here; exploring other cultures is iniquitous and corrupts people…”

    Having trouble believing this of a man who knew over thirty languages (both ancient and modern) and who, to my knowledge, was never openly anti-semitic or racist but publicly opposed both.

    From a letter to his son in 1945, Tolkien says:

    “Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction … only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For ‘romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory’, and its wars are still derived from the ‘inner war’ of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels.” – Letter #71

    Given he was product of Victorian society, creating a fictional ‘lost’ Anglo-Saxon Mythology (he never forgave the Norman Invasion of 1066 for wiping them out of English culture), I think having Genghis Khan and his Horde as the default bogeyman in mind is understandable.

    Reply

    • liminal fruitbat
      May 17, 2021 @ 5:05 am

      … sure, the man who claimed that Europeans as a whole think the Mongolians include the “least lovely” people on Earth, and used anti-Asian stereotypes for his corrupted parodies of humanity, and who ascribed inherent cultural traits to Jewish people that he applied to the Dwarves wasn’t at all openly antisemitic or racist.

      Yes, Tolkien said some good things too, and there’s a case to be made that when he actually thought about the implications of what he was saying he was able to overcome his baser instincts*, but much as I love the man’s work those instincts are still there, they make themselves known, and it doesn’t serve to deny their existence.

      Certainly in terms of his languages he was quite happy for the tongues of Men at least to absorb vocabulary and grammar from the languages of people they encountered, because he actually knew how languages work.

      Reply

      • Robert McKinlay
        May 17, 2021 @ 11:01 am

        The man didn’t claim “Europeans as a whole think the Mongolians include the “least lovely” people on Earth”. For a start he puts a disclaimer, “(to Europeans,)” before “least lovely”, acknowledging Western cultural bias and highlights they were “degraded and repulsive versions” of “Mongol-types”, not actual “Mongol-types”.
        The European cultural bias predates any recent ‘yellow peril’ anti-Asian trope. It’s roots are in the 13th Century Mongol invasion which reached Poland, Germay and Austria threatening to over-run the continent. Of course Tolkien would use it as an archetype in his (European) Mythology.

        I’m unclear on the “inherent cultural traits” you claim Tolkien “applied to the Dwarves” which are “openly antisemitic or racist”. If you refer to the Dwarvish greed for gold and other riches, you need to take a closer look at Norse Mythology rather than Jewish stereotypes. Neil Gaiman’s book is a good read for that.
        Tolkien had a spat with his German publishers in 1938 over having to supply a ‘Bestätigung’ (confirmation) he was Aryan before the Hobbit would be accepted for publication and he wrote;

        “Thank you for your letter… I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware noone [sic] of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”

        As for being racist, you do know he was born in South Africa and said in his 1959 retirement speech from the University of Oxford “I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones…”

        Humphrey Carpenter’s book of Tolkien’s letters is also a good read (and a useful resource).

        Reply

      • Devin
        May 22, 2021 @ 6:11 am

        Mm, not looking to defend Tolkien’s attitudes about Asian people, but I took that least-lovely thing to be “orcs resemble the ugliest Asian people,” not “Asian people are ugly and orcs look like ’em.” There’s lots of other nasty stereotypes there, but that particular line isn’t extra bad (unless you want to object to the idea that anyone is ugly, which… fair, but also definitely several steps woker than Tolkien ever was).

        The Dwarven/Jewish thing is interesting to me. There’s a lot there, but it’s not especially straightforward. Sure, dwarves and stereotype-Jews both love gold, but even there the details of Tolkien’s dwarves cut against the stereotype: they mined that gold themselves, it is in no way the proceeds of commerce, let alone exploitation. In fact, they appear to be welcome and even beloved neighbors.* They both have “secret” languages, but of course Hebrew was never secret and I doubt if it would have occurred to Tolkien to think of it that way. I guess there’s a diasporan thing happening, but really in Middle-Earth who isn’t an exile? (Hobbits and Rohirrim, I guess, who have migrated but don’t seem to have a lost homeland as such?) The men of Gondor left their sunken homeland, the Noldor cast themselves out of Valinor, the Ents lost their collective ex-wives’ addresses.

        In fact, I think the case for the Noldor (or possibly the Sindar) as fantasy-Jewish is rather stronger. Their origin myth fits better (the Dwarves are the product of a separate creation and can by no means be read as a monodeity’s chosen people, while the Noldor are definitely Big Chosen and the Sindar can be read as born into the chosen tribe, but where they remained in Middle-Earth instead of returning to Valinor, we could draw parallels to not buying that Jesus guy’s whole story), the manner of their exile fits better (the Grey Havens being a sort of literalized next-year-in-Jerusalem) and they have that whole secret-master-moving-the-pieces-on-the-chessboard thing that the Dwarves definitely don’t.

        *Sure, the whole Smaug incident strained relations between Laketown and the Mountain, but they seem to have been allies for a long time before and after that. We are also told that Moria maintained mutally-beneficial trade relations with its neighbors. This just possibly might be intended as an oblique comment on Jewish communities, actually. Were it not for Tolkien’s stated dislike of that sort of allegory, I’d be tempted to read it as a lesson in how you’re lucky to be neighbors with the funny-sounding bearded guys. But in any case, it’s hard to cast it as anti-Semitic.

        Reply

        • liminal fruitbat
          May 24, 2021 @ 12:52 pm

          That’s an interesting interpretation of the Elves.

          Re the Dwarves, there’s an ongoing change in their characteristics over the course of Tolkien’s writings, and the worst of it (at least according to this essay https://www.thefreelibrary.com/%22Dwarves+are+not+heroes%22%3A+antisemitism+and+the+Dwarves+in+J.R.R….-a0227196960 ) is confined to The Hobbit, at the midpoint from their evil depictions in the earliest form of the legendarium and their from-LotR-onward better depictions; like I suggested above, Tolkien had a tendency to improve himself if he bothered to think things through. (But, sadly, he still retained the belief that there was some kind of racial* martialness of Jewish people; positive stereotypes are still racist.)

          As for the “least lovely” quote, I’d be inclined to go with your interpretation if Orcs resembled the ugliest corruptions of all humans; as it is, Tolkien did specify they look like the ugliest kind of Asian people only. Which was a choice, alas.

          *or, perhaps more charitably, some kind of essential cultural trait attributed to people who just happen to all be part of a specific ethnicity

          Reply

  6. Przemek
    May 25, 2021 @ 11:28 am

    This was a brilliant read. Thank you. Definitely waiting for more.

    “The region is one of the most tumultuous in Middle-earth, as the two most powerful forces on the continent vie to colonize it. Imagine the United States and Canada waging a war over Alaska, and you’ll get the picture.”

    It’s interesting to me that you used a fictional war over Alaska as an example here. In Central Europe, where I live, basically every single region has a long history of being constantly fought over and having ever-shifting borders. It’s so commonplace here that you forget there are places that aren’t like that. Everywhere’s a battleground, everywhere’s a graveyard. And when a place changes hands so many times, it often becomes impossible to tell who has the strongest claim to it, who it truly belongs to.

    From this point of view, the struggle for Northern Ithilien is quite atypical: there’s no doubt that this place rightfully belongs to Gondor and that Mordor is just occupying it. For all of Mordor’s aggression towards the rest of Middle-Earth, its borders are virtually immovable.

    Reply

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