Lord of the Colonial Baggage

Gandalf doesn’t like what I’m about to say.

This post came about mostly as a passive-aggressive response to an argument I had on the internet. This is the benefit of having your own platform. If someone is wrong on the internet, I can put my thoughts out there in a way that means I don’t have to confront them about anything. And now someone is wrong on the internet, so I’m doing that. And because my thoughts are important and matter, I’m going to share them.

The issue is whether or not Lord of the Rings is racist. And the answer is, yes, it totally is. So let’s lay it out. I’m actually going to ignore the whole “free men of the west” thing and I’m going to ignore the easterlings. Instead, I’m just going to focus on one thing: the orcs. I feel like not enough people are talking about the orcs.

The orcs, as they are shown in the series, are literally a race of cannabilistic brown-skinned subhuman barbarians. They are without exception shown as bad beings, varying from sneaky and brutal and evil to hulking and brutal and evil. Their society is impoverished, artistically, materially and intellectually, and the only thing they ever seem to have any aptitude for is killing and torture. This is pretty much exactly what colonial europeans thought of the indigenous people in the lands they were occupying. So you know, that’s kind of… not great probably.

“But wait! But wait!” The strawman version of my imaginary opponent says. “It’s not racist! You’re forgetting that the orcs are actually descended from the elves who were taken by Morgoth and twisted into horrible monsters for his own purposes so it’s not their fault that they’re cannibalistic and barbarian and intellectually impoverished.”

Yes, this may be a straw-man version of an argument, but it isn’t all that far from real counterarguments I’ve seen real flesh-men (i.e. as opposed to straw-men) make.

To be honest, I’m not really sure how to respond to it, because I’m not sure how it refutes my point. It doesn’t change the basic nature of the way the orcs are depicted. It’s not like Tolkien discovered the world of Middle Earth in his closet, fully formed. It was all made up and Tolkien, could have, if he had wanted to, portrayed the orcs in a different light. Any different light. But he didn’t.

“But come on, bro,” my straw-man says (I don’t know why my straw-man is a bro, just go with it). “This isn’t real life, this is fiction. Orcs are orcs, not people. In fact, if you think the orcs are meant to be Africans, maybe you’re the racist one.”

Sigh. No. So, for the record, I’m not trying to be holier than anyone. As much as it hurts to admit it, I’m pretty sure I carry around a whole bag of implicit and explicit bias that comes from growing up not having to think about these kinds of issues. I mean, I had a brief period in my early 20s when I was actually kind of a super jerk. But, I’m pretty sure that pointing out racism doesn’t make you a racist. Right? Secondly, these may be fictional works, but the way they are described makes it easy to draw parallels to the real world, like I did. Saying that they are made up doesn’t change that.

And look, you can say that Tolkien was drawing from his experience from fighting in The Great War and that the orcs are meant to be Germans and nothing else and that he had complicated views on the whole thing that was colonialism. You can say that Tolkien was super not racist because of this other stuff he said and did.

But that doesn’t change the fact that books are there and the ideas they express are there. And when those ideas happen to be about how certain races of people irredeemably behave in certain ways and that means you don’t have to feel bad about killing them that’s, like, not cool.