New! A conversation with Helen Young about medieval studies, colonialism, fantasy, and white supremacy.
ME: Was Tolkien explicitly a racist, or more just a “man of his time?”
HY: Tolkien is often quoted as having condemned “that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler” in a 1941 letter to his son Michael. But the reason he gives for that condemnation in the same letter is: “ruining, perverting, misapplying , and making forever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to preserve in its true light.” The very idea of a “noble northern spirit” is fundamentally a racist one because it’s predicated on the idea that the people of northern Europe were inherently different and better than anyone else.
[Tolkien’s] statements against anti-semitism and Hitler give “cover.” It’s the idea that only something overtly abusive or violent is racist. People think that one can’t be racist except deliberately, consciously, intentionally. Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth are structurally racist, but because Tolkien doesn’t appear to have been personally an extremist, that racism is denied, ignored, and dismissed.
ME: And that has an impact on the whole genre of fantasy.
HY: Ultimately, the structural racism of Middle Earth got built into the conventions of High Fantasy; 19th-century race theory still circulates in contemporary popular culture as a result.