Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Response to "critique" of Tolkien's work p.1

I keep hearing this over and over. "Tolkien was a man of his time.", or "Tolkien was a racist and sexist."
No matter how many times I refute these points to individual people, it pops up again. Every single time it stems from two things:
1) Ignorance of the source material and the context in which it was created.
2) Overzealous attitude towards everything not deemed progressive enough. Old white men especially.

An excellent example of such a pathetic rant can be found here:

http://requireshate.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/the-tolkien-fanboy-fallacies-yes-tolkien-was-a-racist-sexist-bore-deal-with-it/

I decided to write a point by point rebuttal, as I don't think we need to "deal with it".

1) The Sam and a fallen Harad warrior scene (and the mistake of conflating what characters do and say with what the author thinks and wants to share with you)

It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.

"Now please consider that this is the one single solitary passage in the entire trilogy. They comprise of seventy-seven (77) words. What is the total word count for Lord of the Rings as a whole? In the region of 473,000 words, if the google search I did is any indication.
That’s 0.01628% of the text.Put that against the rest of the work where these faceless hordes under Sauron, who are of course not Caucasian, are portrayed as either, well, faceless hordes or misguided primitives who need the guidance of the white men to renounce their worship of Sauron, because Whitey is the Mighty, and Whitey knows best. "
One of the common mistakes similar self-proclaimed cultural critics make is equating the setting and the story of a book with what the author wishes our own world to be like. Another is to draw awkward parallels between imaginary characters and real people based on poorly choosen attributes (often due to lack of knowledge and or context). 
The critic suggests that more of the book should deal with social issues, probably explaining why racism is wrong in detail. 
A) Nobody in Middle Earth is Caucasian, because there is no Caucasus. 
B) In fact, the "good guys" (as much as I hate to call them that) are not all white. If speaking of Lord of the Rings alone, we could point to the Harfoot branch of the hobbit species, who were "of browner skin", who formed the vast majority in the Shire. Or we could talk about the WoodWose (Drúedain) and I certainly will mention them later for their impact on the story.
"In appearance, the Woses were short, stumpy-bodied men, possibly related to the Pukel-men of ancient Rohan. They had disproportionate bodies and small, sunken eyes that glowed red when they were angry or suspicious."
Let's read that again - primitive tribal people with "red glowing eyes." Clearly an example of pure aryan demigods.
Or we could talk about the Southern Gondorians - "there were short and swarthy folk among them whose sires came more from forgotten men who housed in the shadow of the hills in the Dark Years ere the coming of the kings.
C) "Whitey does not know best." If the critic knew more of Tolkien's work, it'd be obvious how wrong this conclusion is. The Aryan supermen of Númenor were actually worshipping Sauron and served under his influence long before that unfortunate soldier from Harad fell from his oliphaunt. Precisely thanks to that experience the Gondorian heirs of Númenor knew what Sauron can do and ways he can deceive men. The north and west of Middle Earth also had the more successful Istari to thank for lessening Sauron's influence. As we know, two blue wizards went to the East and despite possibly starting counter-cults, their efforts were unsuccessful. The angels of Middle Earth failed the East, South and their people.
To address the notion that the Easterlings were written to be misguided primitives only - one can point to the Easterling chieftain Bór and his sons, who rejected Morgoth and his promises. They were loyal to their elven allies and fought honorably in the battle of Unnumbered Tears.

---> Now, to explain why conflating what characters do in Tolkien's work with what he thinks is right, does not work.
Tolkien does not preach to us about race issues. He tends to preach a little on other things, but his real views on the issue of race and differences between people are scattered in bits and pieces, one has to pick them up and put together. First mistake (as mentioned before) is to divide characters into good and bad guys based on race. Tolkien does not do that at all. There are men of "great lineage" who are utter asshats, there are elves who are mass murderers and worse. There are men among the "evil" races who do not succumb to evil and keep fighting for good even if it means their doom. Heck, there are several fallen "angels" who choose to do evil by themselves.
Another mistake is to think Tolkien agrees with everything he has the "good" characters do. My two favourite examples are the Númenoreans and the Rohirrim. The Númenoreans are ancestors to the Gondorians, the "white good guys" who fight against the evil Sauron. Yet they practiced slavery, ruthlessly conquered "inferior" lands and nations in Middle Earth and colonized its shores. Many of their kings were evil madmen. And then there was that time when they simply chose to give a huge chunk of land to the Rohirrim as thanks for helping them out in battle, driving the indigenous population out.
Tolkien very carefully and subtly refers to these mad conquests and kings preferring to consult stars in the sky to being decent rules and taking care of the living. He does so in a few places and it's obvious he doesn't view this as the golden age of Gondor, he's not nostalgic for the "colonial era".
Speaking of the Rohirrim, I said I'd get back to the Drúedain. The Rohirrim, aryan, tall and blonde, in LOTR they're inarguably the good guys, used to hunt the woodwoses for sport. Before the battle of Pellenor fields the woses appear before king Théoden and offer to help the Rohan army (!). The king is suprised they're actually thinking speaking creatures and agrees to make a stop to the wose hunting.
A similar thing happens after the battle of Helm's Deep in the previous book - one of the Rohan soldiers makes quite racist remarks about the Dunlending language. (it supposedly sounds like birds crowing and animals howling) The Rohirrim have quite the history of being huge dicks to the Dunnish, driving them into the hills, taking their land and  generally considering them lesser men. After the battle, the Dunlanders are spared and are surprised to find that men of Rohan don't burn prisoners alive as they were told by Saruman. (ehm...the White wizard who's a major dick himself at this point)

In summary, characters who are otherwise good, or are often grouped up as "the good guys", do pretty awful things in Tolkien's writing. Out of ignorance, from tradition, etc. It's heavily implied that Tolkien himself does not condone their actions, for every such example there is a hint of disapproval from the author.
To simplify Tolkien's characters and races as "the taller and fairer you are, the better" is simply false and only shows you don't know what you're Tolkien about. 

It's actually quite clear when Tolkien writes in ideas he wants us to share with him. It's all about compassion, understanding, overcoming of differences. For details, I recommend this paper by Anderson Rearick III:
http://www.lib.washington.edu/subject/History/BI/honors251c/tol.pdf

2) The Jews and the Mongol Orcs. 

A) "The dwarves of course are quite obviously – wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic."

of course, the critic then follows with: "“The dwarves of course are quite obviously Jews,” eh?" and "Collolary: BUT TOLKIEN ONLY MEANT THEIR LANGUAGE!1!! This requires the aforementioned mental gymnastics. One does not say “wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of Jews?” when you mean to say “I constructed their language to sound Semitic.” I promise, o neckbeard of little literacy."

Or, you know, the way their several tribes have been scattered and how they sometimes adopted the language of people they lived among...
Nope, the critical interpretation is such so that it obviously offends as a Jewish stereotype:
"There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much."
If you consider that the elves in Tolkien's writing are equally skilled craftsmen of precious metals and gems, similarly greedy, tricky and treacherous on ocassion and some of them are not, you'll come to the conclusion the elves were Jews also.

B) "he describes orcs like so:
they are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types."
to which the critic responds:
"Here’s a newsflash, assholes: even in that time saying something like that in public wouldn’t have gotten you kudos."
He used a visual analogy. Here the critic once again assumes that parallels are the ultimate reason behind writing and that Tolkien pretty much says Asians are all born evil. *sigh*

"Considering that Tolkien himself was a European, what does his acknowledgment of “to Europeans” mean exactly? A tacit admission that he found “Mongol-types” repulsive?"
Now that's a clear misreading. "repulsive" is tied to "versions", not Mongols. If I skip over the fact standards of beauty certainly differ in various parts of the world (and Mongols are a good example of a beauty standard quite a lot different to "white European" one), Tolkien merely hints that orcs looked a bit like really really ugly Mongolians. It's not racist to have a preference for a specific set of facial traits. 
Tolkien's orcs are not simple Mongols in disguise. For Tolkien, nothing was more important than language. Black speech is often cited as being "like Turkish", presumably to make the Mongolian connection stronger. (Mongols and Turks actually don't share a genetic relationship) That's the opinion of one linguist, because the language is agglutinative. Many languages were and are just that, not only Turkish. (Klingon is one. ;))
Here are Tolkien's won thoughts on constructing black speech:
"The Black Speech was not intentionally modeled on any style, but was meant to be self consistent, very different from Elvish, yet organized and expressive, as would be expected of a device of Sauron before his complete corruption. It was evidently an agglutinative language. [...] I have tried to play fair linguistically, and it is meant to have a meaning not be a mere casual group of nasty noises, though an accurate transcription would even nowadays only be printable in the higher and artistically more advanced form of literature. According to my taste such things are best left to Orcs, ancient and modern."
Furthermore, orcish culture is nothing like Mongolian culture. In fact, despite popular belief, Tolkien never drew direct parallels between Earthly cultures and those in Middle Earth. The Rohirrim are not Anglo Saxons, the Gondorians are not Eastern Romans etc. For more discussion on this topic, I'd suggest reading Michael Martinez's essays.

3) Tolkien doth protest too much

"Yelling as shrilly as possible that you are not a sexist, or a racist or a homophobe, does not necessarily mean you aren’t one. "

Possibly the silliest of all the points raised in this rant. Tolkien supposedly alienated a world super power currently on the brink of war and gave up publication of his books in Germany, just to appear not-racist. To impress....ehm, who again? If (as many  comments suggest) everyone at the time was a bit anti-semitic or a bit racist, why on earth would Tolkien try to pathetically reject his real views in various letters and in important pats of his books? Doesn't make any sense.

"Tolkien was, in a lot of ways, a proto-neckbeard. He thought he was a pretty progressive guy who would never ever think a single racist thought, but there is a reason neo-Nazis adored (and likely continue to adore) his books; there’s a reason the British National Party did (and for all I know, still do) make Lord of the Rings required reading. It’s not an isolated incident–multiple white supremacist groups honestly thought his works endorsed their principles."

Backwards implication. Because his work was misinterpreted and thus popular among nacionalists, he shared their views. Ehm, nope, doesn't work that way.
Also  note the omnipresent "neckbeard" used as an insult. Body shaming is wrong! Except if you're a white man with a beard, you slimy creep. (ok, if you haven't guessed already, this particular critic is a bit of a man hater)
Summary:
"While I doubt Tolkien consciously believed all Jews should be eradicated, his treatment of his Semitic analogue in his own fiction is telling. Likely he never thought “women’s only place is on the pedestal,” yet that’s where his female characters generally end up. In short, authorial intent doesn’t matter. The neckbeards of today likewise think of themselves as progressive, liberal, and open to gay marriage–but spend your time in the company of any neckbeard and you quickly realize they are some of the most regressive people you’ll find outside of an Aryan Nation meeting. After a while bleating that you can’t possibly be racist or sexist or prejudiced in any way becomes protesting way too bloody much."
Once again, it doesn't matter what ideas the author puts in his work consciously or what personal opinions we pull from his personal correspondence. It's which offensive misinterpretation the critics distill from it that matters.

4) The crime of omission

"Tolkien was writing an Anglo-Saxon mythology, of course everyone is white! 
This is valid only if you believe there have never been any POCs whatsoever in Europe or specifically England. It requires a staggering amount of ignorance, but then people who defend Tolkien rabidly tend to be burdened with staggering amounts of ignorance. This, incidentally, is what Tolkien actually said:I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own, not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish, but nothing English, save impoverished chapbook stuff.
So “English” to Tolkien was… what? All white, all the time?"

A) Not everyone is white as we established. B) Yes, the English were "white". The idea is that because POC (people of color) lived in Britain since the Roman occupation in fairly limited numbers (difficult to establish exactly), they should be included into works of fiction attempting to be "English". All for greater diversity and so on. Again, this is a very silly point, built on a faulty premise, not worth going further into.

5) OH THE SEXISM AND CLASSISM!

I should start with saying there is rarely a way to please this type of critic. If a woman fights, she's just aping men. If she's strong in another way, she's being put in her place and not kickass enough. We'll see enough of both.

"Luthien - performs heroics for a man (Beren), dies for a man; overcomes Morgoth by dancing and singing, which is peculiarly gendered and sexual (hurr hurr! The only way a woman may defeat a man…). When she passes away, the world mourns her not because she is powerful and heroic: it mourns her because she was the most beautiful woman. She’s so much on a pedestal that it becomes extra special creeptastic when you realize that she’s meant to be Tolkien’s tribute to his wife."
It's interesting how anything man releated is automatically perceived as wrong and insufficient. I suppose Lúthien should've gone off into the wild and ruled over a woodland realm of her own, wandered the land partying or doing something totes independent and rebellious. No, she's motivated by love and that's wrong. She also uses dancing and singing as magic, which is apparently gendered (despite dance and song being the primary type of magic in most prehistoric and early historic societies, for both men and women. 20th century goggles, lady.)
Putting your wife on a pedestal is also wrong, apparently. Ah well, love is evil and creeptastic. I wonder if she knows Tolkien's wife used to dance for him.

"Eowyn – performs heroics because she crushed on a man (Aragorn), almost dies defending a man (Theoden), speaks to other women about once (in the House of Healing), gives up the sword for a man (Faramir) who treats her like a child."
Éowyn performs heroics because she wants to, her "crush" on Aragorn has little to do with it. (it's more an admiration of leadership and warrior skills, not necessarily a physical or romantic attraction. She wants to be more like him.) She defends her adoptive father. (who is reduced to "a man", family means nothing apparently.) She gives up the sword, because Faramir convinces her it's the better way in life. Not because he treats her like a child on purpose (oh you silly woman you, what do you know? get back in the kitchen.), but because he's the pacifist of the story, the philosopher and very clearly part of Tolkien himself. She's also just been through a horrible battle where her father and many kinsmen died and where she was magically wounded with a cold death spell. Gee, I wonder why she doesn't want to be a warrior anymore. Could it be that her shared experience with this nice man who preaches peace and understanding might've changed her mind? 
Way to misread and misunderstand the text.

"Arwen – she has how many speaking lines in the books? Prizes that exist to be won by a man don’t need to talk, okay? Oh hey, she wove Aragorn a banner! Awesome."
That stupid banner means SHE approves of Aragorn. A woman is validating a man's worth to become a king and an heir to his people. She's not a prize to be won, he's on trial to determine if he's worthy enough to seal the love that's already there between them. She's hardly "given" to him in the end, rather he's judged good enough for her.
A "prize to be won" is a favourite trope and very often hurled at Tolkien's female characters by the way, but rarely does it truly stick.

"Nienor – where do I even fucking start. She has her memory erased by a dragon, runs through the forest naked, is rescued and falls in love with her brother, and commits suicide after discovering her pregnancy is first-class incest. The narrative then focuses on her brother’s manpain. Finduilas, from the same story, fulfills a similar role–falling in love with Turin, and then dying, all to contribute to said manpain and make Turin super extra sad because abloo bloo bloo emo wangst bullshit."

*shrugs* I don't like these characters. But there's nothing sexist about them. They're tragic, sure. Their deaths help bring a tragic end to Túrin's story, sure. They're not super progressive female characters you'd want to show as role models to your daughter, but they're not sexist either. Amusingly, struggle and tragedy of a male character are not important, in fact they're infantile drivel not worthy of anyone's attention. Understood.

"There are a lot more rapes in Middle-earth. Like, lots and lots. And women who commit suicide. The men are, of course, never subjected to any sexual threat because NO HOMO, NO HOMO."
I doubt Tolkien set out to write rape fiction because he hated women so much. I also doubt he actively hated gays. I'm not aware of any documented Tolkien quotes on the subject of homosexuality. Despite being Catholic, he seems to have been quite fond of Mary Renault. 
I suspect the omission of gay characters and or gay sex might be a result of the format and style he chose for his books (ie. "lost heroic epic for England" based on Germanic sagas etc.).

As for classism, the main character and ultimate hero of the books - Frodo - is not a noble. He's well off, certainly, but not a prince or a duke. In the wider context of Middle Earth, he means nothing, governs exactly one hobbit hole and has a bit of gold to spare. Sam is cited as the token lower classman, the rube used for laughs. 
That's just wrong on many levels. Sam and Frodo's relationship is very clearly not just a relationship of a master and a servant. They're friends and comrades through adversity. Even more importantly, Sam's down to earth "common" ways prove to be extremely useful and even essential to the Ring's destruction. (after all, Sam is rightfully one of the ringbearers)

She failed to even mention Melian and Galadriel, who both possessed great magic and political power, did awesome stuff and ruled over woodland kingdoms. Or queen Berúthiel, who would've been a good case for the hate crusade as she was quite evil and a cat lady at that. Still, she did stuff on her own. ;)
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In conclusion, the critic writes:
"Ultimately the core of the trouble is that fanboys don’t want to believe that Tolkien’s body of work is anything other than an “epic work of creative genius,” that anyone saying otherwise must either have an agenda, have no taste, or in some way defective. They refuse to consider the thought that Middle-earth fiction has contributed nothing of worth to culture at large, outside of enforcing the straight-white-male hegemony of the genre… which, naturally, they are all too happy to keep up and praise as excellent and worthy. Much of the politics in it will resonate strongly with those believing in the nobility of the bromance, the boys’ own adventure, the exclusion of women outside the sphere of a reward at the end of a quest, someone who keeps the house tidy (or weaves them banners, as it were)."

It's difficult to argue otherwise, since you DO have an agenda. (and clearly have no taste ;)) Claiming Tolkien contributed nothing of worth is simply ignorant. This entire paragraph is extremely bitter, I understand where she's coming from, but that doesn't make it any less wrong or hateful. What's wrong with "bromance"? A friendship between men these days is mocked and berated. What's wrong with boys having their own adventures?
Tolkien certainly didn't write what he did with the intention of shutting the door of the fantasy genre in front of women's faces. He wrote what he knew well, he wrote what influenced him in his life. Many others tried to copy him for all the wrong reasons and fantasy did end up white male dominated, yes. But it's not the case anymore, as you know I'm sure. The times they're a'changin'. 

I understand where the hate for Tolkien comes from, but it's based on ignorance and starting your analysis from the conclusion.
Tolkien was no doubt a fairly progressive person (not due to being a man of his time, exactly despite being a man in his time) and I don't have to deal with your nonsense, thank you very much.

3 comments:

  1. On the whole Nienor storyline - Does this author of this criticism just not realize that a writer might write characters you're not *supposed* to like?

    The whole thing sounds like an almost blow for blow retelling of the story of Kullervo from the Kalevala, and guess what - neither he, nor his family are all that pleasant people. It's a tragedy - of course it will end badly.

    Keep in mind, I am not that big of a fan of Tolkein either, but I hardly spend my time telling people who do like him how stupid they are. (As far as criticism of Tolkein goes, I'd probably much prefer Michael Moorcock's essay "Epic Pooh".)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Context of the work, literary roots, or tradition. None of these matter to internet social justice warriors. They seem to wish for all works of fiction to be absolutely inclusive, absolutely safe and absolutely inoffensive in every aspect. There's a scale of course, some merely wish for more representation of their chosen marginalized group, others (like this one) are completely nuts and would happily castrate every single literary genre committing even the smallest of offences in their law of crazy.

      The "Work contains X, therefore the author thinks Y." is a very popular template for "critique", sadly. It's especially frustrating that people who claim to fight for human rights waste their time and ours spewing this hateful, illogical and ignorant garbage.

      Delete
    2. And this is, of course, not getting into concept like transgressive or offensive art, as in - art that's specifically designed to push taboos, social and moral norms. Such a thing must give some people heart attacks.

      Delete