Tolkien’s Dwarves and alleged anti-semitism

Incredible as it may seem, this really isn’t supposed to be a blog devoted to Tolkien apologia. But, as the on-going look at McGarry and Ravipinto indicates, I really can’t take unfounded criticism of my favourite author lying down. Consider it the “someone is wrong on the internet!” effect – and, well, it provides plenty of juicy material for a geek like me to write about.

Today, my defence of everyone’s favourite Oxford Don takes a break from McGarry and Ravipinto, and looks at another critical article, this time by Rebecca Brackmann:

“Dwarves are not heroes:” anti-semitism and the Dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing

Yes, Brackmann really is accusing Tolkien’s Dwarves of perpetuating negative stereotypes about Jews. In particular, her thesis is that the Dwarves made a transition from being Norse (and evil) in the early versions of The Silmarillion to being Jewish-analogues (and silly and greedy) in The Hobbit, to being more respectfully-treated Jewish-analogues in The Lord of the Rings.

250px-alarie_-_a_bunch_of_dwarves

Tolkien’s evolving view of Dwarves – from the malign Mîm to the heroic Gimli – has been noted by Christopher Tolkien and others. The Jewish connection comes from one of Tolkien Senior’s letters, and a subsequent BBC interview:

“I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations and [t]he Dwarves of course are quite obviously–couldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic […]” (Letter 176: 1955)

The problem arises when one tries to fit this with the depiction of Dwarves in The Hobbit, who are certainly portrayed as gold-hungry – is Tolkien buying into some nasty stereotypes?

In short, no. The connection Tolkien draws between his Dwarves and the Jewish people is how they relate to those around them – having lost their homeland, they have preserved their own unique traditions and language in exile. Recall that Tolkien represents the Rohirrim as speaking Old English (they don’t, but the relationship between the real Rohirric language and Westron is similar to the relationship between Old English and Modern English, so Tolkien uses Old English as a stand-in for translation purposes). Having the Dwarves speak a Semitic-flavoured language among themselves speaks to their “native and alien” relationship to the outside world. The question of greed does not come into it, for as we shall see, the Jewish analogy should not be pushed too far (and that, ultimately, is the problem with Brackmann’s thesis – she plays down the fundamentally Norse nature of Tolkien’s Dwarves in favour of the Jewish analogy, then sees Norse attributes as being representative of stereotypical Jewish ones).

Turning now to Brackmann’s own analysis, she concedes that early Tolkien Dwarves are influenced heavily by Norse folklore, but claims that Tolkien subsequently giving them a separate creation story in The Silmarillion vis-a-vis Elves and Men is indicative of Jewish analogies (the Chosen Children of Ilúvatar, Elves and Men, supposedly displace the Dwarves). She states:

So even though The Hobbit neither has examples of the Dwarvish language in it, nor mentions the Dwarves’ creation by Aule, the Silmarillion does and it suggests that Tolkien was already thinking of the Dwarves as “like the Jews” when The Hobbit was written.

The fundamental problem with this is that at the time of The Hobbit – when Dwarves are supposed to have become Jews – the Dwarven creation story did not exist

From The Book of Lost Tales (1919):

“The Nauglath [Dwarves] are a strange race and none know surely whence they be; and they serve not Melko nor Manwë and reck not for Elf or Man, and some say that they have not heard of Ilúvatar, or hearing disbelieve.”

From The Annals of Beleriand (early 1930s):

“For it is not known whence the Dwarves came, save that they are not of Elf-kin or mortal kind or of Morgoth’s breed.”

This is not a question of “Christian” Elves and Men displacing “Jewish” Dwarves: Dwarves are just Different. A mid-1930s revision to the Annals finally attributes Aulë the Vala as their maker, but, again, there is no sense of displacement, or even of Ilúvatar’s involvement in approving their creation:

“But it is said by some of the wise in Valinor, as I have since learned, that Aulë made the Dwarves long ago, desiring the coming of the Elves and of Men, for he wished to have learners to whom he could teach his crafts of hand, and he could not wait upon the designs of Ilúvatar.”

That’s pretty much it, until The Lord of the Rings. There are some bits (read ‘guesses’) on what happens to dead Dwarves, but even here Tolkien is less concerned with displacement, and more about where, exactly, Dwarven spirits fit into his cosmology. By the time the Dwarven origin story was sorted, we are past The Lord of the Rings, and into the time period where Brackmann believes Tolkien treated his Jewish Dwarves respectfully. The window for Tolkienian anti-semitism appears to be shrinking.

Brackmann now turns to The Hobbit:

And it is in The Hobbit that we see Tolkien most explicitly drawing on antisemitic tropes and using them to convey the ambiguous relationship of the Dwarves to the other heroic characters in the text.

The Hobbit is ground zero for Tolkienian anti-semitism, apparently. What does Brackmann have to offer as evidence?

Tolkien’s Dwarves in The Hobbit are distinguished by a physiological trait often stereotypically assigned to the Jews. The first mention of the Dwarves in The Hobbit refers to them as “the bearded Dwarves” (1.2). This phrase has the ring of an epithet, which would indicate that their beards are racially characteristic; Jews in medieval art were commonly portrayed with beards. 

dwarves

The Hobbit refers to Dwarves as bearded to distinguish them from the non-bearded hobbits. It also goes without saying that not only were Tolkien’s Dwarves bearded from the very beginning of his mythos (well before Brackmann thinks they apparently became Jews), but the source material for Tolkien’s Dwarves – Northern myth and Germanic folklore – invariably casts Dwarves as bearded. Brackmann’s reasoning is weak.

Secondly:

Their physiognomy’s identification with Jewishness is reinforced by what the Silmarillion shows us of their creation and their language.

Neither of which existed when The Hobbit was written.

In this novel, the Dwarves’ psychological attributes also draw on antisemitic stereotypes, especially the common depiction in early twentieth-century writing (and that of previous centuries) of Jews as whiny, cowardly, and greedy.

These allegations might be summarised as “all dogs have four legs; my cat has four legs; therefore, my cat is a dog.” Whiny and cowardly protagonists are a dime a dozen in all forms of literature – especially considering that most of the Dwarves in The Hobbit (apart from Thorin) are treated as comic relief. The idea later expressed by Brackmann that the Dwarves (unlike Bilbo) are omitted from heroic deeds is misplaced, since the entire book consciously undermines the conventional view of heroism. Bilbo is hired as a burglar, bungles for a bit, runs across the Ring, and subsequently uses invisibility, resourcefulness, and his functioning moral compass to resolve difficulties. He never adopts the martial code of those around him, only kills some giant spiders in self-defence, and even gets knocked out early on in The Battle of Five Armies, in marked contrast to everyone else. Bilbo’s the oddity here, not Thorin.

I need to address the greed point separately, because it constitutes the meat of the article’s argument. Suffice to say, there is no particular reason for thinking that Dwarven greed is a comment on Jews – one finds greedy Dwarves in the Northern myths and folklore Tolkien was using as his source material. In fact, Brackmann herself cites an early passage from The Book of Lost Tales, which claims that the Dwarves:

“love gold and silver more dearly than aught else on Earth”

Apparently, greedy Dwarves is not anti-semitic in 1919, but it is in the late 1930s. Rather than Tolkien apparently switching from Norse to Jewish influences, it is more simple to assume his Dwarves remained rooted in Northern myth throughout. Moreover, if greed counts as Jewishness in Tolkien, what on earth do we make of Fëanorian Elves? Or Thingol? Or Thranduil? Or the Master of Lake Town? Greed is a universal sin in Tolkien’s work. Claiming that greed also constitutes an integral part of Dwarven identity (as Brackmann does) not only overlooks the Norse traditions Tolkien was working with, but that Thorin’s gold sickness does not affect every other Dwarf who encounters wealth. Bombur, Fíli, and Kíli explicitly disapprove of Thorin’s abrasive dealings with the Men of Lake Town, while more than one Dwarf feels guilty about the way Thorin treats Bilbo over the Arkenstone.

Mid-way through her essay, Brackmann finally addresses the argument that the things she is identifying as Jewish stereotypes are really attributes taken from Northern folklore:

However, even if the Dwarves’ desire for precious metals came from the Germanic sources, it does not negate the effect of also making this same race linguistically Semitic, whiny, characteristically bearded, and superseded. In fact, if Tolkien began with folkloric Dwarves who loved gold, and then decided to also give them a Semitic language and other attributes that antisemitic beliefs attached to Jews (whom he himself stated that the Dwarves resembled), it pretty much proves the point. The way The Hobbit shows all these traits “going together” and uses them to justify the exclusion of Dwarves from the mainstream culture of the text resembles real-life antisemitic beliefs.

As we have seen, the Semitic language came with The Lord of the Rings, when Tolkien was engaging in his linguistic analogies of culture. That the Dwarves in The Hobbit are bearded and whiny proves absolutely nothing (they’re bearded everywhere else too), and the “superseding” relies on an origin story that did not even exist when The Hobbit was written.

But let’s run with this notion of Jewish stereotypes. What do we make of the very first chapter, where Bombur orders a pork pie? For an allegedly Jewish character, he’s decidedly non-kosher. Nor is it just Bombur: Thorin (treated by Brackmann as condensed Dwarvishness in a metaphorical bottle) wants ham for breakfast. Neither culinary incident is addressed in the article at all. Fíli is described as having a long nose (a feature often caricatured as Jewish) when Bilbo frees him from the spider web, but other Dwarves explicitly have less impressive nasal endowments, so that means nothing. No-one in Middle-earth, Dwarven or otherwise, engages in circumcision. And so on: there is a throw-away line about Dwarves having money to “lend or spend”, but otherwise the stereotypical motif of the moneylender is absent – Tolkien’s Dwarves acquire wealth through trade, mining, and manufacturing, not through interest on loans (compare J.K. Rowing’s goblins…).

It is also noteworthy that for a work allegedly dripping in anti-semitic tropes, the matter never comes up in Tolkien’s famous communication with German publishers about translating The Hobbit. Since this was 1938, the Germans wanted to know whether Tolkien was of “Aryan” extraction; Tolkien wanted them to bugger off, since his ethnicity had nothing to do with anything, and moreover he didn’t want to be seen as condoning racism. While I don’t like to rely on Tolkien’s stated intent to clear his works (Death of the Author and all that), I still think the episode is worth citing, because if there’s one lot of people to wax enthusiastic about finding anti-semitism in stuff, it’d probably be the Nazis.

In rounding off this commentary on Brackmann, I should give her deserved credit for her analysis of Gimli and the Glittering Caves: the contrast between the Dwarves of The Hobbit and the Dwarf of The Lord of the Rings is certainly food for thought, and shows Tolkien further developing his ideas about his created people. It is just a crying shame that such interesting commentary should be buried within some decidedly silly accusations, as if the writer started with a conclusion (based off a misinterpretation of Tolkien’s quoted letter) and then retrospectively shoe-horned everything to fit that conclusion. Anti-semitism is not a useful lens through which to view Tolkien’s work.

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2 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Dwarves and alleged anti-semitism

  1. These have been wonderful reading so far. The ‘Tolkien is antisemitic, racist, sexist’ arguments are some of the more tedious ones around. Not least because we’re dealing with an author long dead who wouldn’t be cognizant of contemporary social values, anyway, but also one who most of those complaints feel reaching or, at best, superficial. I think this installment does a good job highlighting that superficiality and selectivity. I look forward to the next one!

    (Also: The Silmarillion is still the best, and most impressive, fantasy book I’ve read yet. Every time I see it referenced or quoted, I’m reminded of its wonderful mythic feeling and deep history. One of the great joys of a Tolkien article is seeing his works quoted and feeling subtle beauty he wrote with!)

    Like

  2. Pingback: Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part XIV | A Phuulish Fellow

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