September 5th, 2020


"Characters of Color" in Tolkien

Today I finally made the time to take dawn_felagund and Maria Alberto's survey on Tolkien fandom participation. You should take it too! It's long but the questions strike me as very reflective and nuanced, and I hope the survey results are useful to them. But I'd like to talk about this really interesting concept that popped up in a few of their questions: characters of color. Not to criticize the survey because I think it's useful shorthand and I understand what they're getting at (I assume), but just because I'm struggling to think through what that would mean in Tolkien's world. Who are the characters of color?

To start: I have no problem with people wishing Jackson had cast Polynesian hobbits or imagining African-American and other black actors as Lord of the Rings characters (Idris Elba as Aragorn? *grabby-hands*). But I also think this is fans bringing something extra into the world. I think Tolkien was writing a mythology for north-west Europe, so it just wasn't reflecting cultures we modern, global citizens would identify as giving us people "of color." If there are e.g. proto-Africans or pro-Malaysians, Tolkien's not really writing baout those characters.

Now, there's obviously minorities within the contexts of certain cultures, but that seems different from what we mean by people of color in the "real" world. Thanks to imperialism and colonization and all that, there's a tragic history of pointing to European culture and saying this is what it means to be civilized, with various non-European people (and peoples) pushing back from that. Lothiriel and Morwen Steelsheen marrying into the Rohirric royalty, or Arwen and Eowyn making their way in Gondor, they're certainly in the minority relevant to the dominant culture, but I'm not sure there's this universal "this-culture-is-the-default" assumption and all the harm that comes from that at play. Faramir obviously thinks Rohirrim are men of the twilight; but the Rohirrim of Fengel's time were probably just as suspicious of their new king who had gone and married one of those hoity-toity, overly pampered women of the south.

I suppose you could make a case that (say) Haradrim or Easterlings or even orcs were meant to be characters of color, but that seems to come down more to authorial bias than deep-seated racism. And even when they had a different color skin, you don't have the same history of slavery and using those biological differences to justify these great sociological injustices. I mean, assume for the moment that Gondorians represent the pinnacle of western-European Anglo-Saxon-ish "civilized" people, and the men of Harad and the Easterlings and that sort are... less white? Like Southern/eastern European, Arabic, Egyptian, that kind of thing? Even if you accept that analogy, the people of Gondor may think the Southrons are less civilized, and they may be less white, but those two beliefs don't seem connected the way they are in our real world.

So I'm curious. Do you think there's such a thing as a character of color in Tolkien's world? And if so who are they?

(no subject)

I've been rereading "A Long-expected Party," and I was struck by how often it talks about how well-loved Bilbo was by less important hobbits. First, there's this description of his life after The Hobbit (emphasis mine):

as Mr. Baggins was generous with his money, most people were willing to forgive him his oddities and his good fortune. He remained on visiting terms with his relatives (except, of course, the Sackville-Bagginses), and he had many devoted admirers among the hobbits of poor and unimportant families. But he had no close friends until some of his younger cousins began to grow up.

The Gaffer certainly thinks well of his old employer, who showed him a bit of professional respect and social courtesy. And he points to how generous he is: "Bilbo is free with his money, and there seems no lack of it; but I know of no tunnel-making." and later "There’s some not far away that wouldn’t offer a pint of beer to a friend, if they lived in a hole with golden walls. But they do things proper at Bag End." Bilbo says he wanted to give away lots of gifts to make it easier to give away the Ring, but there's really no need to go this overboard, bringing in instruments from Dale and basically buying every bit of food up in the whole neighborhood and beyond.

What strikes me as funny about this is Bilbo's famously not a big entertainer; he hated the thought of entertaining the dwarves, and he didn't invite Gandalf in when he fist darkened his garden back in the Hobbit. He strikes me as quiet, even introverted, and you get a sense of noblesse oblige for lack of a better word: he's throwing a big shindig not just for his family (who he doesn't seem particularly close to) but for the whole community and breaking the bank to do it; when his whole reaction to the whole thing is someone who would rather be enjoying a quiet pipe (at least when he's not taking a jab at his self-important guests), and who quite aside from the business with the Ring seemed a bit glad to slip away.

If you need a clearer statement of that, remember that (frankly hilarious) list of all the specific gifts left with tags and clever insults to various relatives? What comes next is to me more telling: "Every one of the various parting gifts had labels, written out personally by Bilbo, and several had some point, or some joke. But, of course, most of the things were given where they would be wanted and welcome. The poorer hobbits, and especially those of Bagshot Row, did very well. Old Gaffer Gamgee got two sacks of potatoes, a new spade, a woollen waistcoat, and a bottle of ointment for creaking joints.

And it's not just with his money, which granted Bilbo doesn't seem to have any scarcity of. I've always loved him fo the care he took with Sam's education:

But my lad Sam will know more about that. He’s in and out of Bag End. Crazy about stories of the old days he is, and he listens to all Mr. Bilbo’s tales. Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters – meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it.

‘Elves and Dragons’ I says to him. ‘Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you,’ I says to him. And I might say it to others,’ he added with a look at the stranger and the miller.

It's such a non sequitur to bring up at this point at all, that Sam knows the old stories and learned them from Bilbo. It's also unusual enough that the Gaffer thinks it's misguided, and actually a pretty big trespass against hobbit norms that a young gardener would have this kind of relationship with a member of the gentry. Can you image Lord Crawley in Downton Abbey, say, finding out one of his servants was illiterate but loved stories about King Arthur and teaching him to read so he could learn Le Morte D'Arthur or some such? I know hobbit society is less regimented but it's not so different that Sam's and Bilbo's relationship isn't ... striking.

I love the old hobbit, and I love all the ways Tolkien goes out of his way to emphasize these ways he's not just disconnected from those around him, how he's actually quite astute and sensitive to those around him who aren't putting on airs. It's not quite Robin Hood (and yes, I am bothered by some of the implications of that big wealth gap too), but it's really sweet nonetheless.