Names: Nurn (Sindarin: “sad”); Harad, (Sindarin: “south), Haradwaith (Sindarin: “south-people”); Khand (Harad tongue: unknown meaning); Rhûn (Sindarin: “east”); Umbar (unknown pre-Númenórean language)
Descriptions: Nurn is the Sindarin name for the southern region of Mordor; it is greener than the north, and contains Lake Núrnen, where Sauron’s slaves toil. Khand is a largely unexplored region southeast of Mordor. Harad names a greater land than the two former regions; initially home to Númenóreans, by the time of the War of the Ring it is an ally of Sauron. Rhûn, meanwhile, barely appears on maps. The Red Book of Westmarch doesn’t tell us much about that place. Umbar, the City of the Corsairs, homes miscegenated descendants of Númenor.
Tolkien’s legendarium is incomplete by both necessity and intent. On historical grounds,
it is incomplete because Tolkien labored on it for the latter 50 and change years of his life; he simply did not live long enough to harmonize all his disparate writings on the subject. (Christopher Tolkien’s The History of Middle-earth wisely refrains from attempting such a feat; instead he presents his father’s drafts in their state at the time of his death). In the diegesis of Tolkien’s work, the myths of Arda are written as a reconstruction of earlier texts. The Lord of the Rings’ prologue imparts that the subsequent book is a patchwork text assembled from the Red Book of Westmarch, a tome of historical records and stories compiled by the Hobbits. Throughout the book there are reminders that the work is reconstructed, lending The Lord of the Rings some metafictional qualities (like fellow conservatives T. S. Eliot and H. P. Lovecraft, Tolkien seemed to have no problem pioneering literary Modernism), with the prose sometimes acknowledging authorial gaps in knowledge of the story. Characters’ names are unknown, Eastern lands are often known only by their Sindarin names, and entire plot threads happen offstage (although that latter fact is largely caused by Tolkien’s aversion to figuring out the plots to his books before writing them). The world of Arda is incomplete; maps only show parts of Middle-earth, and anything beyond the scope of Elves and Hobbits is mere whisperings in the text.
Diegetically, the scattershot nature of information on the Southeast of Middle-earth is a feature of the in-universe authors’ perspectives. The Hobbits never travel to Harad or Nurn or Rhûn or Khand or Umbar, and so their stories do not encompass those lands. Similarly, The Silmarillion is a collection of myths about the Elves and Western Men, and the history of the East is only presented when it interacts with the West. To frame literary criticism in purely diegetic terms, of course, would be a massacre of the medium. The notion that Tolkien might have borne the prejudices and perspectives of a white Englishman born in the 1890s has often been dismissed by his most rabid trad fans. They haven’t proposed an alternative to this, whether by suggesting that Tolkien may have had the worldview and values of a 12th century Saracen man, or a 19th century Polish Jew, or an Igbo transgender woman in the 21st century. Since Tolkien said some correctly harsh things about the Third Reich in 1938, and thus could not have held bigoted views of any kind (what these trad fans would make of Jim Crow-era United States’ opposition to Nazi Germany has been largely unremarked upon). In this historiography, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, a veteran of the Somme who participated in a profoundly transformative time for philology and English literature at Oxford University and founded the modern fantasy genre, existed outside of history and was a complete aberration in his time. Somewhere in Valinor, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield are plotting a mass murder.
Still, we should talk about Tolkien’s personal views on racism and the nuances thereof, because they’re important to understanding his work. It’s true that Tolkien was a mortal enemy of the Nazis. During negotiations with German publisher Rütten and Loening for a German translation of The Hobbit, an infuriated Tolkien received questions about whether he possessed Aryan heritage. An educated man who keenly understood the Nazis’ evil and pseudo-historical “pernicious and unscientific race doctrine,” Tolkien wrote back (in an unsent draft, alas) a cranky philologist’s admonition that no, he was “not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian”, and that “none of [his] ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, [sic] or any related dialects.” Tolkien went on to praise Jews, boasting about his “many Jewish friends” in an admittedly rather Karen-ish fashion, expressing his “regret that [he] appears to have no ancestors of that gifted people”, and ultimately putting a German Hobbit on hold (no German translation of the book appeared until 1957, 12 years after the Battle of Berlin and roughly two years after The Return of the King‘s publication). This is not Tolkien’s only protest against white supremacist dogma: he excoriated racism elsewhere, writing in his 1959 Valedictory Address to the University of Oxford
“There are of course other lands under the Southern Cross. I was born in one; though I do not claim to be the most learned of those who have come hither from the far end of the Dark Continent. But I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.”
Tolkien clearly hated racist regimes in a way that wasn’t merely occidentalist or nationalist; many supporters of anti-Black laws opposed Hitler, but it can hardly be said that many white intellectuals born in South Africa were publicly condemning Apartheid in 1959. Tolkien’s Catholic faith directed him to believe in the value of all human lives and combat institutional inhibition of them. Whatever Tolkien’s personal intentions were, a continuation of the white supremacist institutions of his time were not among them. And yet he fell far, far short of anti-racism. Yes, his personal loyalties were with the subjugated people and he publicly hated tyrants. This is noble and frequently comes through in his books. But Tolkien’s opposition to institutional racism did not extend to a condemnation of systemic racism, or interrogating racist attitudes. Tolkien fundamentally endorsed racial division, the idea that all races have distinct characteristics that ‘separate’ them from others. As contemporary scholars dispute notions that ‘race’ as more than a sociopolitical construct is shaky at best and races are composed of sundry types of people, often with vastly different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, this understanding is historically wrong as well as toxic.
These comments even gives Tolkien’s condemnations of racism and antisemitism a questionable hue, as his description of Jews as “that gifted people” collapses all Jews into one homogenous race (which I’m sure would be news to Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews) and fetishizes their “skill” in ways dangerously evocative of how contemporary antisemites refer to Jews as a conniving, all-powerful race. Let’s not forget Tolkien’s various descriptions of Orcs as “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes” nor how he based them on what he viewed as “the least lovely kind of Mongol people”. Hell, Tolkien publicly compared his Dwarves to Jews, while writing Dwarves as suspicious, foul-tempered, insular, avaricious keepers of excessive wealth. Middle-earth is fundamentally racist in its conception: Tolkien’s races are explicitly modelled on real races, and members of each race have their destiny and character at least partially dictated by their ethnic bearings. Racial and ethnic stereotypes are baked into them; whatever The Lord of the Rings’ and The Silmarillion’s other moral virtues (and indeed, there are many), they’re based on a hierarchical understanding of race, where some races (Elves and Men, particularly) ascend to the top due to moral righteousness. This conception of race as dictative of moral character is racist, and, as Adam Roberts has pointed out, contrary to Tolkien’s Catholic belief in free will. Every person is able to choose God, but Tolkien’s characterizations of Orcs suggest in Arda this dogma may not be universal. There’s a reason why fascists have rallied around Tolkien’s books, even if they are illiterate fools. Yes, there are many instances of Tolkien’s characters breaking out of expected racial institutions and arrangements, but they never escape the fundamental race-based categorization at the heart of Tolkien’s secondary world.
Readers of Nowhere and Back Again have probably observed that I prefer to write about the Middle-earth myths, saving discussions of Tolkien’s biography and perspectives for when it’s vital to understanding the legendarium. In the case of southeast Middle-earth, however, we must work with what we have. Tolkien barely outlines this part of Arda, and what we know about it mostly betrays his views on racial hierarchy. The great Tolkien scholar Dimitra Fimi has unpacked this at tremendous length, and she’s shown that Middle-earth is largely drawn from medieval concepts of a hierarchical natural order, comparing Middle-earth’s moral hierarchy to “the medieval ‘Great Chain of Being’” which served as “a powerful visual metaphor that represented a divinely planned hierarchical order, ranking all forms of life according to their ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’.” Fimi further explains that, in an early document by Tolkien listing his “‘hierarchical reordering of the seven categories of beings,’”
“As with the medieval cosmic hierarchy, it is clear that Tolkien’s ranking criteria are moral and spiritual. Beings allied to the forces of good are higher up in this chain, while Morgoth’s creatures, intrinsically evil in this early version of the mythology, are at the bottom.”
Fimi then shows that “the dark skin of the ‘evil’ Men of the legendarium can also be approached by contextualising Middle-earth as a pseudo-medieval world.” As in medieval European texts,
“Any bodily traits that deviated from the white, European physique was seen as a sign of inner blemishes and European Christian writers often saw the ‘racially’ different as not that dissimilar to the mythical ‘monstrous races’ often depicted in medieval maps.”
The tradition of monsters in myth and fiction is a racially charged one; the monster in myth is often a substitute for the invading foreigner or forces of change. Contemporary imaginative fiction has preserved these tropes, to an extent that minorities traditionally associated with these tropes often see themselves represented in fictional monsters (The Hobbit films’ would-be director Guillermo del Toro constructs his 2018 film The Shape of Water around this understanding of monsters as subaltern, and one could read Marvel Comics’ The Incredible Hulk character similarly). Gollum, Balrogs, and Orcs are all racially charged; Tolkien’s secondary world is largely defined by its races and virtues, some of which are preordained by birth. While this is an aspect of his work Tolkien wrestled with morally and theologically, he never really got past the idea that race is at least somewhat indicative of personal character. A depressing perspective for a God-loving Catholic to hold, but not an uncommon one. And sometimes Tolkien’s villains aren’t monsters; sometimes his villains are just Men from the East with the same racial and ethnic coding he applies to Orcs. This is not simply woke SJW cucked revisionism as some on Twitter will inevitably grouse about; this is simply a factual statement of how Tolkien writes antagonists. While his views on race and autonomy aren’t as simplistic and eliminationist as those of his worst imitators (see Varg Vikernes), there’s still a core of race essentialism to his rich cultures and languages.
Let us begin our survey of the lesser-trodden Southeastern lands of Middle-earth in
Nurn, or southern Mordor. Nurn is greener than Gorgoroth, which is functionally a volcanic desert, as in it lays “the dark sad waters of Lake Núrnen”, where there are “great slave-worked fields” (The Return of the King, “The Land of Shadow”). It receives only a couple of mentions in the text, as the true horrors of Mordor receive less attention than its opposition to Gondor, but like Sauron and the Nazgûl’s treatment of the Orcs, it reveals that Mordor is an authoritarian nightmare that tortures and kills its citizens. Mordor’s subjugation of people appears in stark contrast to Fourth Age Gondor’s rule; the crowned King Aragorn enacts liberatory policies, such “the slaves of Mordor he released and gave to them all the lands about Lake Núrnen to be their own” (The Return of the King, “The Steward and the King”). While the West’s defeat of Mordor is an act of conquest, Gondor then leaves Mordor alone, save for sending a demolition crew to Minas Morgul’s ruins, allowing its citizens to decide their own fate. While Aragorn shows bearings of ‘the Enlightened Despot,’ and certainly bears further discussion elsewhere, this surprisingly democratic choice casts the character in a noble light, and shows that Tolkien’s cultural separatism, while deeply flawed, utterly abhors the idea of eliminating peoples and cultures.
Aragorn extends this policy to the Southeast as a whole; after winning the War of the Ring, he is conciliatory with his former enemies; “the King pardoned the Easterlings that had given themselves up, and sent them away free, and he made peace with the peoples of Harad” (The Return of the King, “The Steward and the King”). While Tolkien’s views on subaltern and non-Western populations are deeply prejudiced, he hews well away from violent policy, a tendency reflected by his opposition to both the Third Reich and Britain’s wartime bombings of civilians, telling his son Christopher that “the Germans have just as much right to declare the Poles and Jews exterminable vermin, subhuman, as we have to select the Germans: in other words, no right, whatever they have done.” Certainly a powerful belief from a World War I veteran who lost all his friends in the Somme. Yet even with Tolkien’s often beautiful and poetic rage against war, opposition to violence in Middle-earth coexists with prejudices that ultimately push it. Private bigoted views don’t form in a vacuum; they are the products of a violent environment which they promulgate.
Let’s look at Harad, the great Southern land on Mordor’s border. It’s one of the largest regions in Middle-earth, and yet we don’t know that much about it. The rare glimpses we get of its people, the Haradrim (or Southrons), take place either on the battlefield or en route to battle. The Haradrim, at times called the “Swarthy Men,” are described by Gollum as having “Dark faces,” “black eyes, and long black hair,” with “golden rings in their ears” and “red paint on their cheeks,” wearing “red cloaks, and their flags are red,” and thus “very cruel wicked Men they look” (The Two Towers, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”). One can grant the text some wiggle room in giving Gollum this dialogue, thereby placing some distance between this description and the truth. The problem is that the text vindicates this description of the Haradrim; they are “very cruel wicked Men” whose looks apparently match their cruelty. In short, these people are evil because they’re Black. No, it really is that simple. Tolkien plays the physical appearance of the Haradrim as horror more than once, in such lines as
Gothmog the lieutenant of Morgul had flung them into the fray; Easterlings with axes, and Variags of Khand, Southrons in scarlet, and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues.
Tolkien has passages like this on top of the fact that the Haradrim are a dark-skinned people from a hot desert land far away; in fact, they’re almost certainly Tolkien’s representation of Aethiopians. Don’t believe me? Let’s ask Professor Ronnie-boy about the matter. In a genuinely riveting essay serialized in 1932 and 1934 called “Sigelwara Land”, Tolkien unpacks the etymology of the Anglo-Saxon word Sigelhearwan, a name for Aethiopians. As philology it’s a properly engaging work, provided the reader goes in for that subject — the way Tolkien examines the evidence and builds his case is genuinely great academic writing. Refreshingly, he doesn’t settle on an edifying answer either. Tolkien notes that the journey is what’s satisfactory, and that Sigelhearwan “may be taken as a symbol of the intricate blending of the Latin and Northern which makes the study of Old English peculiarly interesting and controversial” and “that large part of English language and lore which has now vanished beyond recall, swa hit no wære.” The “intricate blending of the Latin and Northern” may very well be taken as a stand-in for Tolkien’s worldview however, as the opening paragraph reads like a 20th century man taking on the cultural prejudices of one who lived a millennium earlier:
The Ethiopians began their career as amumones ‘without reproach.’ They were visited by the gods of Olympus, and were generous with hecatombs. But they changed sadly, and they appear in Old English in a most unpleasant light. Their country was too like hell to escape the comparison, and the blackness of the inhabitants became more than skin-deep. A diabolic folk, yet worthy perhaps of a note, if not a visit.
I mean. Fuck. “The blackness of the inhabitants became more than skin-deep” speaks for itself, and we could probably end this blog post here. The fact Tolkien was writing from the perspectives of characters with medieval ethics doesn’t prevent him from sharing those ethics; at no point does he repudiate his characters’ views of the Orcs or Haradrim. Rather, he affirms them, by having them be no more than what his characters see in them. The case for Tolkien’s anti-racism is hardly helped by lines like
Ethiopia was hot and its people black. That Hell was similar in both respects would occur to many.
Uncritically parroting the legends of long ago does not exempt us from tacitly (or overtly) endorsing the historical and cultural attitudes that come with them. Tolkien was
a medievalist at heart, and the world he preferred was one where Black people were viewed as infernal monsters best left in their own countries. That Tolkien’s original names for Harad were Harwan and Sunharrowland, which Christopher Tolkien noted were derived from Sigelwara, and that The Lord of the Rings’ descriptions of the Haradrim match “Sigelwara Land’s” descriptions of Aethiopians says more about Tolkien’s prejudices than any reader of good conscience can ignore.
I will not argue that Tolkien was genocidal or personally hated Black people, or that he didn’t have moments of principled anti-racism. There’s no evidence that Tolkien advocated ethnic cleansing, and indeed much counter-evidence. But Tolkien’s views on Sub-Saharan Africa were unfavorable and bigoted, and readers must contend with this fact, even if a number of his contemporaries and imitators were worse. Still, the fact that the War of the Ring ends with Aragorn making peace with his former enemies rather than subjugating their countries (for the most part) speaks volumes to some genuine pacifist tendencies on his part. Certainly it’s a far cry from his colleague C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, whose Orientalist people the Calormenes are wholly depraved and capricious heathens, and from whom individuals can only be redeemed if they surrender their culture and their faith. Contrast this with The Two Towers, where a mildly shell-shocked Sam witnesses a skirmish between Ithilien rangers and Haradrim and watches a Harad body tumble down in front of him:
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—all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind.
In the film Sam’s internal monologue, while retained for this scene, is given to Faramir, a switch that serves to make him a man of peace serving as a captain of war. The change is telling of both Tolkien and the films; for the most part, their heroes are not warriors, or at the very least not motivated by bloodshed. When they witness or inflict it they walk away with emotional and mental scars. Then again, the movies complicate the books’ flaws, dealing with the Haradrim’s anti-Blackness by… making them Saracens. The trope of conflating the global East into a monoculture of ‘shifty Orientals’ never perishes.
The films do some real damage in this regard, drawing from various non-occidental cultures for their villains. In their defense, Middle-earth on the whole is an anachronistic patchwork of attitudes, cultures, and fashions. For God’s sake, the Haradrim are pseudo-Aethiopians who ride giant elephants like pseudo-Hellenist warlords. The semiotics would convolute any group of characters. The next region in our tour of the lands beyond Mordor, Umbar, falls victim to the films’ conflation of non-Western cultures into shady non-whiteness. Umbar, a land of Corsairs possibly derived from Ottoman corsairs, are another group of shady Easterners, whose most notable representative is Peter Jackson in black armor and dreadlocks (who is accidentally shot by Legolas after Gimli, tapping Legolas’ bow with his axe, turns a warning arrow into a comical murder). The book version of Umbar is more unfortunate, having its people be the depraved products of miscegenation whose Númenórean blood was lost long ago, as “the blood of the kingly house and other houses of the Dúnedain became more mingled with that of lesser Men” (The Return of the King, Appendix A, “Gondor and the Heirs of Anárion”). Umbar begins as an occupied region with indigenous populations before being settled by Numenroeans. Conflict between Umbar and Gondor takes place over centuries, until Aragorn eventually subdues it. Perhaps Middle-earth’s heroes do participate in colonialism; perhaps authoritarian racial categorizations inevitably bring it about.
Tolkien says little of Khand, to the southeast of Mordor, where the Variags who assist the Haradrim live. Rhûn, meanwhile, just to our northeast, is all the far eastern lands of Middle-earth, whose inhabitants we know better than the land itself. The inland Sea of Rhûn is the eastern border of recorded Middle-earth, and curiously, it’s where Men of the First Age originally hail from before many of them seek the light of the West. Rhûn, the eastmost lands, is where everyone starts, Man and Dwarf alike (unpacked some in The Shaping of Middle-earth). Many of its inhabitants, though, are called the Easterlings, a real historical term, applied to various people from different regions (it’s curious that Tolkien conflates Eastern Men into one ethnicity when he can tell us all about three different kinds of Hobbits). Like the Haradrim, they’re dark-skinned people sometimes called “Swarthy Men,” and, well, at this point you probably don’t need me to tell you that’s racist. Once again, the films complicate matters, making the Easterlings an aesthetic mix of Sassanid Persians, Mongol horsemen, Ottoman Turks, and Japanese Samurai. The West may fade, but Orientalism does not.
We know little of the far Eastern lands of Middle-earth, and our journey through them has ended. Thus ends the first book of Nowhere and Back Again, a compendium of scant records and biased sources. The Southeast is behind us, the Northeast is ahead. Soon we shall survey Rhovanion, the most charted and recorded region of the East, where the drama of The Hobbit and later stages of The Fellowship of the Ring take place. At this time, we must bid farewell to the Orcs, the Haradrim, the Easterlings, the Corsairs, and all inhabitants of southeastern Middle-earth. Farewell to the forgotten. May this book be their testament to posterity, and may the East have its day.