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Jewish Journal

A ‘Ring’ of Bias Not Likely

by Craig A. Bird

December 13, 2001 | 7:00 pm

I imagine the fish out of water is the only fish to have an inkling of water. -- J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien, the "discoverer" of Middle Earth and the source of the imminent-blockbuster movie "The Fellowship of the Ring," (which opens in theaters Dec. 19) was a lot of things. Many of them contradictory.

The erudite professor of philology and expert in Norse languages wrote books about dragons and trolls and elves and wizards. The devout Roman Catholic purged any mention of Christianity from the 500,000 pages of his epic, "The Lord of the Rings," series.

The unrepentant monarchist ("Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways or race horses; and who has the power to sack his vizier if he does not like the cut of his trousers") became an icon of the 1960s counterculture, and his literary themes enlisted to encourage drug use and free love.

The fiercely loyal Englishman who wasn't sure the Americans were any better than the Soviets is more popular -- and intellectually respected --in the United States than in his own country. (But arguably even more wildly popular in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics!)

But as Peter Jackson's cinematic trilogy based on The Lord of the Rings unfurls over the next two years (the release of "The Fellowship of the Ring" will be followed by "The Two Towers" in 2002 and "The Return of the King" in 2003) and adds significantly to the tens of millions of his existing fans, some will ask: Was J.R.R. Tolkien anti-Semitic?

Since there are no religious designations or distinctions of any kind, not just Christianity, in "The Lord of the Rings," the answer must come from other sources. Most troubling for many is Tolkien's love for, and use of, the Norse pagan myths -- the same ones the Nazis (and many present day white supremacists) turned to for inspiration.

Also the Roman Catholic Church of his era (he was born in 1892), which he loved so fiercely, was known to harbor many with anti-Jewish sentiments.

Then, in a 1971 BBC radio interview two years before he died, he was asked if the different races in The Lord of the Rings represent specific character-istics, "the elves wisdom, the dwarves craftsman-ship, men husbandry and battle, and so forth?"

"I didn't intend it, but when you've got these people on your hands you've got to make them different, haven't you?" he replied. "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. The Hobbits are just rustic English people."

That well may be his only recorded comment linking Jews with "Lord of the Rings." The stereotype is there if one wants to use it. The dwarves' primary weakness, as revealed in the saga -- to their own detriment as well as harm to the quest of the Fellowship -- is a lust for gaining, protecting and hoarding jewels and gold and silver.

It is obvious that each of the races of Middle Earth are a combination of strength and weaknesses, each contributes negatively and positively. In fact it is the race of "men" who are the most given to evil.

The racial distrust and bigotry of Legolas, the elf, toward dwarves is matched prejudice-by-prejudice by the feelings of Gimli, the dwarf, toward elves. Yet, it is these two who struggle toward and eventually reach a position of mutual respect and deepening friendship that models how different cultures and races should be able to get along.

Andrew O'Hair, writing in Solon magazine last summer, agrees Tolkien "is the product of his background and era, like most of our inescapable prejudices." But he insists, "At the level of conscious intention he was not a racist or anti-Semite."

Michael Martinez, a major authority on Tolkien on the Web at Suite101.com, turns the idea that he's guilty because he was a man of his times, inside out by noting that Tolkien's "time" included "living through two world wars and the 1960s," when the scholar would have been attuned to the discussion and dissection of the shallowness of anti-Semitism.

One would think [Tolkien], who expressed so much disapproval of his fellow white Englishmen, would have expressed any phobia about Jews somewhere, Martinez says. "Instead, in his letters, we are treated to discussions of how the Orcs in the British army behave."

The best response comes from Tolkien himself. After Hitler came to power, but prior to World War II, the German government officially requested, through Tolkien's publisher, that he establish his racial purity so they could authorize a translation of The Hobbit (the prequel of "The Lord of the Rings").

The Oxford don, struggling financially to support his family, could have used the income from Third Reich sales. Instead, though Tolkien is a Germanic name, he took the opportunity to remind the Nazis of the ludicrous pretension of racial purity.

"Thank you for your letter.... I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend," he wrote. "I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are inquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people...."

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