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Taboo Tolkien: The Nordicist Claim on Middle-earth Refuted

I can’t possibly read all the defenses of Tolkien’s works against racism.  Too many people have been drawn into this neverending story of racist bias in The Lord of the Rings.  The accusations of racism resonate strongly with all of us, and I have even read a scholarly paper that attempts to break down the pro and con views into categories or types.  So I apologize to those of you who have raised the anti-Nordicist defense but I blame Google for making it impossible to find such arguments.

Nordicism is one of those words I only rarely stumble across.  I have no sympathies with people who think in terms of “race” and “purity” and other primitive rules of distinction.  I will have to teach myself to use words like Nordic, Nordicism, and Nordicist because these are terms that you can easily find in accusations made against Tolkien, or discussions of the accusations made against him.

You know the arguments well because they are sensationalist nonsense that attracts interest from mainstream media, that body of journalists and publications in constant search for the next story that is relevant to their editorial calendars.  If someone needs to sell a book or earn a grant they seem to pull out the old Tolkien tropes to grab some quick, short-tempered public attention.

And yet all our impassioned defenses and rationalizations of Tolkien and fiction perpetuate stereotypes and misinformation.  We do a rather poor job of setting the record straight.  One reason is that we don’t use the language of accusation to rebut it, a failing that hands over the search results to shameless ignorant hucksterism.

Here is an example: Tolkien was a Nordicist.  Many of you should recall that this ill-conceived notion was popularized by Dr. Stephen Shapiro more than a dozen years ago.  His argument was played up on dozens, perhaps hundreds of Websites and its echoes have re-appeared time and time again on forums, blogs, and probably television programs.

You can find the rebuttals that Tolkien’s supporters offered at every step along the way, but only if you dig deep.  Search for “Tolkien was a Nordicist” and your only hope of seeing anything positive will be this article, and that is a sad testimony to the inadequacy of Google’s algorithms and the search illiteracy of the scholarati who defend Tolkien against sensationalist accusations of racism.  See the Appendix I have added below for more discussion on what I mean by “search illiteracy”, as well as several points raised in criticism of this article.

What makes this worse for us is that Tolkien himself provided several quotable responses to the allegations that do not appear in the rebuttals Google deems worth showing to me.  Your search results may differ from mine, but why does it seem like no one quotes the following passages from Tolkien’s letters when rebutting the “Tolkien was a Noridicist” charge?

I have spent most of my life, since I was your age, studying Germanic matters (in the general sense that includes England and Scandinavia). There is a great deal more force (and truth) than ignorant people imagine in the ‘Germanic’ ideal. I was much attracted by it as an undergraduate (when Hitler was, I suppose, dabbling in paint, and had not heard of it), in reaction against the ‘Classics’. You have to understand the good in things, to detect the real evil. But no one ever calls on me to ‘broadcast’, or do a postscript! Yet I suppose I know better than most what is the truth about this ‘Nordic’ nonsense. Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge – which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that it in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will). Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light. Nowhere, incidentally, was it nobler than in England, nor more early sanctified and Christianized. …. (Letter No. 45, dated 9 June 1941)

The emphasis is most assuredly mine.  This passage has been used to damn Tolkien because he dared speak of  “that noble northern spirit”.  What a racist thing to say, for it denies all notable contributions from non-northern quarters, does it not?  Or does it not?  I dare say it does no such thing.  One can fairly speak of the contributions of a pawn to the game of chess without implying that the Queen and Bishops did nothing.

A better rebuttal, perhaps, can be found in the following passage, which Tolkien wrote in response to an unpublished draft of an article based on an interview he gave to Daily Telegraph Magazine in 1967:

Middle-earth …. corresponds spiritually to Nordic Europe.
Not Nordic, please! A word I personally dislike; it is associated, though of French origin, with racialist theories. Geographically Northern is usually better. But examination will show that even this is inapplicable (geographically or spiritually) to ‘Middle-earth’. This is an old word, not invented by me, as reference to a dictionary such as the Shorter Oxford will show. It meant the habitable lands of our world, set amid the surrounding Ocean. The action of the story takes place in the North-west of ‘Middle-earth’, equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean. But this is not a purely ‘Nordic’ area in any sense. If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence. The Mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy.

Auden has asserted that for me ‘the North is a sacred direction’. That is not true. The North-west of Europe, where I (and most of my ancestors) have lived, has my affection, as a man’s home should. I love its atmosphere, and know more of its histories and languages than I do of other pans; but it is not ‘sacred’, nor does it exhaust my affections. I have, for instance, a particular love for the Latin language, and among its descendants for Spanish. That it is untrue for my story, a mere reading of the synopses should show. The North was the seat of the fortresses of the Devil. The progress of the tale ends in what is far more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome than anything that would be devised by a ‘Nordic’. (Letter 294, dated 8 February 1967)

Tolkien was at great pains to be inclusive of non-Northern cultures here but much Tolkien scholarship strives to paint his fiction with the broad stroke of Northernism.  The myth of Tolkien’s northern mythology is pervasive in Tolkien literary scholarship.  He is frequently accused by his own defenders of creating a “mythology for England” in The Lord of the Rings, although he himself only used that to describe his earlier work, The Book of Lost Tales.

Is that perhaps why defenses against charges of Nordicism in Tolkien’s work omit such a critical comment from the man?  He wanted nothing to do with the 19th century ideas of racial purity, and his vision of a “noble northern spirit” is far more inclusive than the Anglo-Saxon trope that serves as a foundation for the most rudimentary of Tolkien scholarship.

We cannot rise to his defense without invoking the horrors of 1066 and the destitution that invasion inflicted upon the English language; and yet much of Tolkien’s fiction was inspired by Middle English and Victorian ideas.  Never mind his allusions to Homer, Troy, Greek mythology, and the Byzantines.  Numenor itself is only allowed a certain grudging comparison to ancient Egypt because Tolkien seems to have made such a comparison himself (technically he was speaking of Arnor and Gondor, but the identification of Arnor with northern Europe and Gondor with Italy is so strong that scholarship rarely admits to the author’s Egyptianist roots).

In that same letter (No. 294) Tolkien goes on to say:

His taste for Nordic languages stems from the fact that he had German ancestors who migrated to England two centuries ago.

This is the reverse of the truth. Not Nordic: this is not a linguistic term. Germanic is the received term for what appears to be meant. But my taste for Germanic languages has no traceable connexion with the history of my surname. After 150 years (now 200) my father and his immediate kin were extremely ‘British’. Neither among them nor others of the name whom I have since met have I found any who showed any linguistic interests, or any knowledge of even modern German. My interest in languages was derived solely from my mother, a Suffield (a family coming from Evesham in Worcestershire). She knew German, and gave me my first lessons in it. She was also interested in etymology, and aroused my interest in this; and also in alphabets and handwriting. My father died in South Africa in 1896. She died in 1904. Two years before her death I had with her sole tuition gained a scholarship to King Edward VI School in Birmingham.

I don’t think he could have more thoroughly retreated from Germanicism (or Nordicism) in this gentle correction to his interviewers.  He was British (not even English) and even the Anglo-Saxon elements of the Tolkien myth do not appear here.

Someone will inevitably take exception to my points above.  I have challenged the beauty of the Legendarium (under the pretense of explaining my disappointment with the defenses offered against the accusations of Nordicism).  But Christopher Tolkien himself demarcated the intentions behind his father’s “mythology for England” as separate and distinct from the later mythology (the unique world that became the setting for The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion).

The Cottage of Lost Play
The story of Eriol the mariner was central to my father’s original conception of the mythology. In those days, as he recounted long after in a letter to his friend Milton Waldman, the primary intention of his work was to satisfy his desire for a specifically and recognizably English literature of ‘faerie’.

It was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff.

In his earliest writings the mythology was anchored in the ancient legendary history of England; and more than that, it was peculiarly associated with certain places in England.  (The Book of Lost Tales, Part One)

May we agree that the world of “the mythology” changed, and return to the point of how we fail to address Tolkien’s supposed Nordicism?

I debated whether I should quote some of these misinformed attacks, but a part of me wants to bury them irretrievably far from the sunlight, for I’d rather never see this nonsense again.  But then that is hardly fair to anyone who wants to explore the transformation of Tolkien’s “noble northern spirit” into a trope for white supremacy, Nazism, and the myth of the Nordic race.

Shapiro’s arguments are well-known and one need not look far to find contemporary news articles explaining his point of view.  The occasional better-informed Tolkien scholar is quoted but their quotes are often reduced to mere sound bites which deprive the audience of a much fuller, richer explanation of the cleverness of Tolkien’s fiction.

In 2009 one blogger wrote:

It’s my thesis that, independent of Tolkien’s actual political views, his books are a model of interwar racial theory, which holds that whites are superior to blacks, that when whites interbreed with blacks they civilise them but dilute the ‘good qualities’ of whites, and that in general race determines psychological as well as physical traits, and racial mixing is bad. This doesn’t change the significance of Tolkien’s work, but it has ramifications for the political position of the genre it spawned.

Not satisfied with that damning assessment, the blogger went on to say:

Tolkien’s novels seem to contain a kernel of this racial theory, in that the most superior race ennobles the Edain, who then ennoble the mixed men they encounter, but are in turn brought low by interbreeding with them. It’s clear that the most noble races are white and the least noble (Orcs and Haradrim) are swarthy or black – there is a colour spectrum here. This pattern follows the pattern of the more racist incarnations of Aryan theory extant when he wrote – particularly those of Abbe Dubois, which were translated in 1897, and the archaeologists who uncovered “evidence” of western influence in the Indus in the early 20th century. It also follows some other theories floating about then about the influence of Nordic culture on the “inferior” slavic and Eastern races, the development of which can be read about in any good (or bad!) text about the antecedents of Nazi racial theory. While these theories are discredited today, they were not at all unpopular or disputed at the time that Tolkien wrote.

The blog post in question was the latest in a chain of articles responding to each other, extending back to 2003 or earlier.  And this particular post has received comments up until October of this year.  The views expressed in the post are hardly revolutionary but they are widespread.  We see these kinds of discussions on hard-core white supremacist sites but this particular blogger is just a gamer.

As an example of a hard-core Nazist point of view, there is one blog that has this to say about “The Scouring of the Shire” (which the writer felt should have been included in the movie): “The closest historical analogy to ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ comes from Germany, where various Freikorps groups — militias of demobilized veterans — put down Judeo-Bolshevik Putsches in Prussia and Bavaria.”  And this is a pretty tame example of just how Tolkien’s fiction has been co-opted by people whose point of view he detested.

In December 2014 Damien Walter wrote for The Guardian:

Tolkien’s myths are profoundly conservative. Both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings turn on the “return of the king” to his rightful throne. In both cases this “victory” means the reassertion of a feudal social structure which had been disrupted by “evil”. Both books are one-sided recollections made the Baggins family, members of the landed gentry, in the Red Book of Westmarch – an unreliable historical source if ever there was one. A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.

It’s not so clear-cut that Tolkien was a conservative.  People debate whether his “techno-skepticism” was conservative or liberal.  The Hippies loved his Hobbits, so he must have been a liberal.  But the Shire had hardly any government so he must have been a Libertarian.  Conservative, liberal, these political analogues all seem to miss the point that he was constructing a simpler fictional world set in an imaginary past.  He was leaving room for later sophistication.  Well, that is how I see it.

One can easily find passages in various books on Tolkien arguing for his opposing liberal and conservative points of view.  I think I know why it took him 14 years to write The Lord of the Rings.  He had to pause for a Parliamentary debate on every plot point, thoroughly exploring the neopolitical implications of allowing Boromir to use a French word to describe minimalist government.

It’s no wonder we make so little effort to address the Nordicists in their own words as Tolkien did.  We can’t agree on our own terms.  Tolkien the anti-technologist glorified the Noldor, whom he described as “technologists” among the Eldar; he created the Ents to speak on behalf of all defenseless trees and yet they stood by silently as the racist Numenoreans worked to slaughter entire forests during the Second Age.

One cannot even hypothesize that the Ents came after the denuding of Numenor’s forests; all that secondary history came long after Treebeard bid his teary farewells to Galadriel and the surviving members of the Fellowship.  One could sooner find the Ent-wives than a rationalization for suggesting that Tolkien forgot about the Ents when he wrote about Aldarion’s quest for wood.

Tolkien himself was of two minds about everything so perhaps the oversimplifications that creep into elite and common scholarship are explained by the difficulty in extracting his true purpose, which could not possibly have been to develop an entertaining (if overly long) story spanning generations.  He must have had a much more nefarious goal in mind, or perhaps he merely wanted to engage in some light philological banter with an amused and informed audience above the heads of those annoying readers who demanded to know more about Hobbits.

But I digress.  This is about Nordicism and Tolkien’s lack of adequate defense against the allegations that he was a Nordicist.  We seem incapable of using the words of the accusers and on the Internet as documented by Google that is an error in strategy that leaves the enemy in control of the contested field.

Good (or well-received) Tolkien scholarship may dwell gleefully in the delightful fields of Anglo-Saxon mystery for the next 100 years but to be effective the good defense of Tolkien against claims of Nordicism must trudge across the muddy plains of racist idiom and trope.  Only there will we meet the enemy.  Only then can we hope to defeat him amid his own terms.

Maybe we cannot keep Tolkien’s work out of the hands of people whose ideas he opposed but we can surely raise up a few articles using the right terminology to make it easier for people who are curious about these matters to see that Tolkien himself would not have agreed with those who invoke his name in the cause of bigotry.  Tolkien seems to have understood the threat to his legacy better than most, for he left us a few appropriate words to use against these foolish ideas.  We might as well use them to better effect than we have thus far.

Appendix: The Scholars on Tolkien and Racism and Critics on this Essay

Initial reaction to this article on Facebook was not entirely positive.  I felt compelled to explain myself further and promised to revise this essay.  But it’s not so easy to rewrite the above without risking some harm to the original intent, which was to produce an article that would rank highly in search results for queries about Tolkien and Nordicism.

There are many adequate responses in the search results to queries about Tolkien and racism, but there was only one not-so-adequate response to the body of Nordicism queries I explored.  The Nordicists have walked all over Tolkien with their ideas and that dominance in an obscure topic threatens to influence as-yet undecided people who are searching for more information.

You cannot quote everything Tolkien wrote on any given topic and so essayists choose their citations carefully.  Nordicists conveniently omit Tolkien’s rejection of the entire concept when they present their arguments for how he supposedly idealizes it through his literature.

The scholarly community has addressed many aspects of race and racism in Tolkien’s fiction through the years.  But I didn’t mention even one such scholar, book, or article above (much to the disappointment of some).  The problem for me, however, was that the vocabulary of the scholarly response to questions of racism in Tolkien’s fiction does not address the Nordicist point of view very well.  Worse, where the scholars tackle the point directly they are left out of the conversation by Google.

David Kerr’s “Racism & Tolkien” article (Tolkien and Politics, 2003, by Anthony Cooney, David Kerr, & Patrick Antony Harrington, Third Way Movement Ltd.) cites Tolkien’s denouncement of Nordicism but you’ll only find that by searching Google Books, which most people do not.  And this book hardly fits into what I would consider to be mainstream Tolkien criticism.

Patrick Curry brought up the Nordic point in Defending Middle-earth (Mariner Books, 2004).  But like Tolkien and Politics Google deems the Books citations of Defending Middle-earth less than valuable enough to show in the first search results for queries about Tolkien and Nordicism.

In Tolkien and the Great War (Mariner Books, 2005) John Garth seems to use the word “nordic” only once and “nordicism” not at all.  In Web search it is hard to be found for content you don’t have, unless someone points a lot of links at your content using the right anchor text, but Google is on to that trick.  You should be careful how you elevate the right content into the right queries.

Several people expressed disappointment that I did not mention Dimitra Fimi’s book Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).  I intended no slight but the publisher has inhibited Google’s ability to show the book in its index.  There is no technical hope of Dimitra’s work appearing in these kinds of search results; and the average person looking for information on Tolkien through a search engine is not going to buy all these books.

We live in an age where scholarship is struggling to find its way on the Information Superhighway.  40 years ago I frequently used the earlier Internet: public and educational libraries.  If you wanted to know something obscure you made a trip to the library, scoured the card catalog, and maybe asked a librarian for help.  They usually knew of a reference book that would guide you to good information.  I even learned to use the inter-library loan system before dropping out of high school in the 9th grade.

All of that means nothing in this multi-year spanning, random blog-based ideological struggle for the soul of Tolkien’s fiction.  People with very hardened ideas are using Tolkien to support their views and they want to persuade others to support those views.  While this is hardly a battle for the soul of humanity it’s an area in which I have some experience.  When I discovered that the Nordicists’ claims on Tolkien were specialized, alive, and growing year by year I felt that the best vehicle for joining the discussion was the Tolkien Society blog.

I just wanted to inject Tolkien’s own voice into the search results, not a list of books whose contents were immediately unavailable to people who are looking for information on the Internet.  The Internet is the first choice for the majority of casual research.  It’s not anywhere close to as reliable and dependable as the local library but that does not matter to the searchers.

Finally, someone observed that I managed to run off the track in a couple of places.  I do include tangents in many articles.  I love tangential informational points and opinions when they are presented to me, so I include them in my own writing.  The points I raised above about Anglo-Saxonism in Tolkien literary criticism are poorly presented.  I wanted to say a lot of things but instead chose to allude to them (in a comfortable style that was easy for me to articulate).  The fact that we can point to so many northern influences on Tolkien’s fiction makes it easy to construct Nordicist arguments.  I felt a deep dive into those possibilities would make this article extraordinarily long.

We can sometimes rebut the Nordicist point of view by illustrating Tolkien’s multiple mythological influences.  Last year John Garth wrote an article for The Guardian titled “Tolkien’s death of Smaug: American inspiration revealed” in which he discusses Longfellow’s influence on Middle-earth.  It’s a fascinating read and yet does not participate in the discussion of racism, Nordicism, and Tolkien; nonetheless the article certainly introduces a new counter-point to those who frame Tolkien’s fiction as an allegory for racial purity and Nordicism.

About the Author: Michael Martinez