The world heralded a new literary icon in 1937 when J. R. R. Tolkien published The Hobbit, a popular classic in children’s literature that survives until today. Within its pages lie the rich parable of Erebor, whose dramatic destruction left a proud Dwarven people homeless. A noble quest to take it back from the clutches of the gold hoarding dragon, Smaug, gave birth to the defining image of stoicism, heroism, greed, stubbornness and craftsmanship that we have of dwarves today. But was this a racist allegory?
We must be careful of how we draw racist allegations against the celebrity writer. Too often, literature debasers misinterpret allegories as having racist undertones and appropriate it for their own conveniences. Such groups include white supremacists, who stand by Tolkien as a father to their group, and extreme leftists who believe they possess a moral righteousness in interrogating everything that, for them, appears to be racist.
With The Hobbit painting such uncanny parallels to the events that transpired in the 1930s and 1940s – the mass emigration of Jews from Germany following Hitler’s National Socialism and the Zionist quest for a Jewish state – it is unsurprising that many think these events and stereotypes were associated with the book historically and politically.
However, racism, according to American psychologist Clayton Alderfer, encompasses a wide array of behaviours ranging from subtle jokes to even murder. Despite illuminating dwarves as Jews in such a lurid fashion, Tolkien, beyond the most fundamental sense of the term, could not have been racist.
Under the veil of a supposed association between Zionism and The Hobbit lies his incandescent love for German civilisation unshackled by the ideas of race or religion. A Zionist homecoming was not the main takeaway from The Hobbit, as assumed by Matt Lebovic in a December 2013 editorial for The Israel Times. Through Tolkien, dwarves have become symbolic to the Jews in craftsmanship, greed, a “quest” for a homeland, love of drink and the profiling of their language. However, Tolkien had also adapted the imagery of his version of dwarves to be the complete reversal of Richard Wagner’s caricature – Alberich the antagonistic dwarf – in the “Ring Cycle”, a four-part opera that German philosopher Theodor Adorno purportedly associated with anti-Semitism in the late 1800s.
It was no revelation that Tolkien’s fondness for Jews was passed onto his books; his development of Khuzdul, a fictional language for the dwarves that took inspiration from Hebrew and Semitic sources, and a churlish dislike for Hitler’s repression of the ‘noble northern spirit’ were manifestations of his candour. His many letters to publishers (where Rütten & Loening infamously questioned Tolkien’s Aryan heritage; to which he proudly replied that he not only identified as an Englishman, but also had great admiration for his own German name ‘Tolkien’), family friends, universities , scholars, and his children were expressions of his enthusiasm for Germanic philology, history, mythology, politics, literature and culture. The point made here was that Tolkien breathed in every aspect of German society – even Jews – that inspired him to finish what we know today as The Hobbit.
Debasers who lack the research and are confused about the ideas of race will inevitably cast accusations at Tolkien again, but it is a flaw of human nature we cannot hope to correct, and a tiresome endeavour if we try to do so. A delicate balance between understanding racism’s real values and interrogating ostensible ideas of the same term must be strived by society as a whole, lest we feel comfortable reliving this argument and strutting down a never-ending, winding road doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
Wayne Ang is an intern at the NUS Middle East Institute and a final year student at SIM-UOL majoring in International Relations.