Tolkien and Empire

It must be Wednesday – I run across a misconceived comment on Tolkien, this time by a historian who sees his work as being a product of the Empire:

But when it comes to modern speculative fiction, in particular fantasy, I’d say that J.R.R. Tolkien is the fountainhead. There is a before and an after Tolkien. And Tolkien was a man very much of his time. He was born in South Africa, which at the time was a colony in the British Empire and with much of the racist society structure that later would become Apartheid already in place. He was educated in the British School system during the height of the Empire. He then went on to become a professor of philology, which is the history of languages. And when it comes to racially charged theories affecting academic research, philology is right there at the epicenter. So, here we have a white, British man, born in a colony of the British Empire, who the goes on to become a professor of philology. And this worldview of Tolkien’s comes through in his writings. And since Tolkien is such a monumental figure within fantasy fiction, his worldview has spread throughout the genre and has generated tropes. So here too, the British Empire affects us. And we need to be aware of that so we can start moving away from the most problematic aspects of Tolkien’s legacy, get rid of those tropes.

This is gloriously misleading. Yes, Tolkien’s own worldview is a difficult fit for 2017. That does not make him a particularly good fit for 1937 or 1887. Yes, Tolkien was born in South Africa. That does not make him Cecil Rhodes.


I cannot speak about the role of racially charged theories in influencing philology – it is not my area of expertise – but I can speak about the implicit notion that Tolkien was just another white British man with an identikit view of the world to the rest of his generation. Leaving aside the fact that the Britain of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a place of incredible ideological diversity (would Kern be making the same claims about William Morris?), Tolkien was a bit “outside” his time in two areas.

Firstly, his religion (Roman Catholicism) put him at odds with English social conventions, in a way that evoked sentiments of persecution. His mother had suffered social shunning for her conversion, a fact that shaped Tolkien for the rest of his life:

“When I think of my mother’s death, worn out with persecution, poverty, and largely consequent disease, in the effort to hand on to us small boys the Faith, and remember the tiny bedroom she shared with us in rented rooms in a postman’s cottage at Rednal, where she died alone, too ill for viaticum, I find it very hard and bitter, when my children stray away (from the Church).” (Letter 267 – January 1965).

He also took a scathing view of the Church of England, which was (and is) the Established faith of the country:

“A pathetic and shadowy medley of half-remembered traditions and mutilated beliefs.” (Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, p.73.).

It is almost as if Tolkien’s devout faith informs his worldview, rather than merely being born in a particular place at a particular time…

The second area where Tolkien was not a man of his time is in terms of politics. Conservative scepticism of anthropocentric projects meant he did not buy into the dreams of eighteenth and nineteenth century ideologies. Rather than championing the worldview of the British Empire, as Kern suggests, Tolkien was intensely hostile to it:

“I love England (not Great Britain and certainly not the British Commonwealth (grr!))” (Letter 53 – December 1943).

“I know nothing about British or American imperialism in the Far East that does not fill me with regret and disgust.” (Letter 100 – May 1945).

Moreover, he has nothing nice to say about apartheid (making Kern look especially silly):

“I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones.” (Valedictory Address, 1959).

As for what you say or hint of ‘local’ conditions: I knew of them. I don’t think they have much changed (even for the worse). I used to hear them discussed by my mother; and have ever since taken a special interest in that part of the world. The treatment of colour nearly always horrifies anyone going out from Britain, & not only in South Africa. Unfortunately, not many retain that generous sentiment for long.” (Letter 61 – April 1944).

And on race:

“I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.” (Letter 29 – July 1938).

There was a solemn article in the local paper seriously advocating systematic exterminating of the entire German nation as the only proper course after military victory: because, if you please, they are rattlesnakes, and don’t know the difference between good and evil! (What of the writer?) 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.” (September 1944).

This is not to suggest that Tolkien was some sort of cuddly progressive. Far from it – his distaste for post-Enlightenment ideas applies just as much to classical liberalism and socialism, founded as they are on secular rationalism. In fact, given Tolkien’s identification with Anglo-Saxon language, we are talking about someone who regarded the Norman Conquest of 1066 as a disaster. But rather than Tolkien simply parroting the ideology of the Empire, and spreading it down through the genre, we are actually talking an incredibly idiosyncratic individual. He is simply too complex to pigeonhole as “just another white imperial male” –  and not just because of the unflattering depiction of Númenor’s decline and Fall.


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