Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part XIV

Continuing with McGarry and Ravipinto, we come to the heart of misguided Tolkien analysis. Sexuality, et cetera, is but a minor skirmish alongside the battle over racial depictions in Tolkien’s work.

I have touched on this before, with reference to the Dwarves and alleged anti-semitism: McGarry and Ravipinto are by no means the first to make this particular thesis. Nor will they be the last – for more details, see Racism in Tolkien’s Work. But one can merely fight what is in front of you, so I will limit myself to considering the claims of our two article authors.

Why do such characters seem to accept this blatant inequality? The simplest explanation is that, within the context of the story, Aragorn, like all descendants of Númenor, is simply made of better stuff (Shippey, 2000). These folk are superior to their allies the Rohirrim, and most certainly to the Easterlings and the Haradrim, who openly serve Sauron. Faramir describes this hierarchy to Frodo and Sam:

“For so we reckon Men in our lore, calling them the High, or Men of the West, which were Númenoreans; and the Middle Peoples, Men of the Twilight, such as are the Rohirrim and their kin that dwell still far in the North, and the Wild, the Men of Darkness.” (Tolkien, 1954b, p. 323)

This hierarchy is not something Faramir feels in the least self-conscious about, which is unsurprising since he, like all men of Gondor, is one of the “Men of the West.” This description of “Men of Darkness” is particularly striking because the Haradrim are described as brown and swarthy; in other words, not even white, as are the Rohirrim and Númenoreans.


McGarry and Ravipinto overlook the first eight words of their quote. Faramir is explicitly citing the teaching of the Gondorians themselves – “so we reckon Men in our lore.” That the Númenoreans would traditionally consider themselves superior is hardly surprising, given their dark and sordid imperial history – it is much easier to justify conquest if you claim it is for your victim’s own good. I would also cite one of Tolkien’s later essays on this very topic:

The Men of Darkness was a general term applied to those who were hostile to the Kingdoms, and who were (or appeared in Gondor to be) moved by something more than human greed for conquest and plunder, a fanatical hatred of the High Men and their allies as enemies of their gods. The term took no account of differences of race or culture or language. With regard to the Middle Men Faramir spoke mainly of the Rohirrim, the only people of this sort well-known in Gondor in his time, and attributed to them actual direct descent from the Folk of Hador in the First Age. This was a general belief in Gondor at that time, and was held to explain (to the comfort of Númenorean pride) the surrender of so large a part of the Kingdom to the people of Eorl. (The History of Middle-earth XII: The Peoples of Middle-earth: Of Dwarves and Men, p.312.).

From this essay, we can infer that these terms were primarily political, rather than racial. If all that matters is support or opposition to Gondor, then the presumably white-skinned Black Númenoreans would be the Darkest of the Men of Darkness, while the brown-skinned Drúedain would not (in fact, the Drúedain actually went to Númenor too, only to eventually return to Middle-earth when they foresaw the shape of things to come). Note also the self-serving lie about the origin of the Rohirrim: the lore that Faramir cites is really Gondorian propaganda.

Faramir’s own opinion, incidentally, is that there is very little actual difference between Gondor and Rohan – that his own people “can scarce claim any longer the title High”. Moreover, it is clear that Faramir is thinking in terms of cultural values, rather than race – he does not once frame this discussion in the context of blood and ethnicity, but rather focuses on the Rohirrim’s traditionally martial nature, as opposed to what he considers civilised traits (valuing skills and knowledge outside warfare). It is also worth remembering that he ends up marrying Éowyn – if he is indeed subscribing to a racial hierarchy with himself at the top, it is strange that he has no problem with inter-marrying with “lesser” peoples.

Along those lines, inter-marriage between ethnicities (or even species) is universally a good thing in Tolkien: Beren and Lúthien, Tuor and Idril, et cetera. Most relevant to the present discussion is the Gondorian Civil War known as the Kin-strife: a Gondorian King marries a Northern woman, sparking rebellion among those who prefer blood purity. Suffice to say, those opposing the marriage are not presented in a good light (Castamir the Usurper is a murderous tyrant), whereas it is clear from context that we are supposed to cheer for “mixed-blood” Eldacar when he retakes the throne. Given that the pureblood extremists (to borrow the expression from J.K. Rowling) then end up in Umbar, we can safely conclude that ethnicity or not, they are the true Men of Darkness.

Returning to McGarry and Ravipinto:

It is interesting to note that this sort of racial stratification is not restricted only to humans. The elves were divided into the Eldar, who had answered the call of the Valar, and the Avari, who had not. The Eldar themselves are further subdivided: the Vanyar, who responded most swiftly to the summons of the gods, and who were the least numerous; the Noldor, who came second; and the Teleri, who tarried most along the way. Human beings were similarly subdivided, between the House of Beor, the House of Halath, and the House of Hadar. Hobbits were also stratified, split into the Fallohides, the Harfoots, and the Stoors. The Fallohides most resembled the elves in appearance and the most important hobbit families— Baggins, Took, and Brandybuck—were all of this sub-race. Naturally, the Vanyar are the fairest of the elves—the most blond-haired and blue-eyed—just as the Fallohides were the fairest of the hobbits and the House of Hador were the fairest of the humans. Clearly, the “best” of each race is that which most possesses an Aryan look, a troubling observation.

Oh dear. Where to begin…

Are the Vanyar (who incidentally only have their hair colour, not their eye colour specified) the best Elves? Depends on one’s frame of reference – yes, they are the biggest suck-ups to the Valar, but until the War of Wrath they do nothing to oppose Morgoth. The greatest non-divine act of sub-creation, the Silmarils, comes courtesy of the most talented figure in Arda, Fëanor son of Finwë, who is a dark haired and grey-eyed Noldo. Similarly, the most beautiful and heroic figure in Tolkien’s work is not a Vanya, but actually the half-Maia half-Sinda Lúthien Tinúviel, the character who topples Morgoth from his throne and moves Mandos to pity. Lúthien too is dark haired and grey-eyed – like Tolkien’s wife, Edith, incidentally – while Beren himself comes from the (predominantly dark-haired) House of Bëor, not the House of Hador.


Speaking of the House of Hador – one of their most prominent members is Túrin son of Húrin, who is dark-haired, since he takes after his mother’s family (the House of Bëor). Túrin is obviously a problematic anti-hero character, cursed from early life, but no-one can doubt his heroic deeds – he slays Glaurung, Father of Dragons. He is also explicitly the most handsome man in Tolkien’s work, acquiring the name Adanedhel (‘Man-Elf’) in Nargothrond and getting the attention of an Elvish woman, even if the romantic crush is one-sided. It is almost like Tolkien’s idea of beauty involves dark hair and grey eyes, rather than blond hair and blue eyes (though curiously, the most handsome male Elf seems to be the red-headed Maedhros, whose mother-name Maitimo means “well-formed one”).

In rounding off this discussion, I will also point out an interesting contradiction in McGarry and Ravipinto’s reasoning: if the Númenoreans are supposed to be a superior ethnicity, and the best ethnicities in Tolkien are supposed to be blond and blue eyed, why on earth are all the Númenoreans we meet dark-haired?

Essay continued.



One thought on “Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part XIV

  1. Pingback: Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Compendium | A Phuulish Fellow

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