Sunday, June 27, 2010

Tolkien, Race and Archetypes

Swords and Dorkery has an interesting post about J. R. R. Tolkien basing the dwarves of Lord of the Rings on Semetic culture, including the writing, language and architecture. Which, of course, raises issues about the whole big-nosed, squat money-hoarding thing.

Just in case anyone's getting up-in-arms about this; look. There are racist ideas in Tolkien's writings. The Swarthy Men? Come on. I love his books, but they are very much about protecting the comfortable, the normal, the familiar from the strange and other. It's not David-Duke-racism, but rather a classic English intentions-were-good racism - this is evidenced by how, once defeated, the "swarthy men" and other non-white-humans are given their land back and allowed to go home.* Unlike Sauron, they weren't "evil." They just didn't know any better, bless their hearts.

The bottom line is that Tolkien was a very, very English writer who put ink to page in a very English era. I'm not defending him. What I'm saying is; no one should be surprised.

And of course, the essential racism embedded in the fantasy archetypes created by Tolkien, Howard and others made their way into D&D. I've read a lot of bloggers, including a lot of very intelligent ones, shrug this off. It's not that they deny it's there; they just don't think it matters. "Dark Elves" are not really correlative to real-world Black people. The classic "flavor" of dwarves owes a lot to stereotypes about Jewish people, but that doesn't mean dwarves are Jews and you are mocking Jews by playing one.

This is all true.** Playing a dwarf as a hook-nosed beard-stroking little man that is comically obsessed with obtaining and protecting treasure doesn't make you racist, and isn't even a racist action (doing so while purposefully thinking about and trying to project the stereotypical medieval Jew would be).

But this is also true: A Jewish person, or anyone else, watching you play would have every right to assume it was a racist action on your part, conscious or not. It would be perfectly understandable for them to be uncomfortable with it even after the above rationalization, because you cannot handwave off the origins of the archetype. And I wouldn't blame them for not taking any further interest in the hobby.

It's easy for the majority of us - white, male, gentile, straight, whole of body and largely sound of mind - to decide the cliches and archetypes aren't offensive because they aren't real: It's just a game, trying to evoke the mood of the genres that birthed it, and orcs, goblins and the rest aren't fill-ins for Black people or other minorities.

You can make that decision for yourself, but you can't for anyone else. And you shouldn't be surprised if they come to a different conclusion than you.

What's all this mean? Toss out the game? Never include other races again? Of course not. I'm just recommending an awareness of how some of the tropes came about, and that DMs and players be more selective in which they use. Be more creative about the classic stuff. Hell, I'm not entirely sure why we call them "races" to begin with when they're really species. To say "race" is to bring to bear the terrible weight of that word.***

The classic concepts are popular for a reason - we all know them. It's easy to fall back on. And D&D is a gateway RPG for a reason - the base material is a very primal and familiar world most of us already recognize. Removing some of those familiar elements may be difficult. But if it means less people shy away from the table, I think it's worth it.

*Well, except for the aboriginal people whom the brave, noble Anglo-Saxon Rohirrim stole their land from. I think they got eaten by trees or something.

** Usually, nowadays. I'll talk in the future about some outright blatant racism in the history of the game, including villain races depicted with goddamn ZULU WEAPONS AND ARMOR that could have been traced out of a National Geographic.

*** I actually just cut half this post out, because it's all about why there can be races of elves, or races of dwarves, but elves and dwarves are not races because what are they a race of? I think it deserves a separate post.

Photo: From that movie about the things.


  1. I agree. I would also say, however modern standards of such things view part of Tolkien's portrayal of dwarves in an unfortunately life, it seems that his linking of them with Jewish people was actually in terms of more positive traits in his mind--at least based on what I've read.

    Presumably, elves at least are in the same species as humans, since interbreeding with fertile offspring is possible--so maybe a subspecies? Dwarves may or may not be.

  2. I agree, Trey. Like I said, it's a benign racism, like claiming black people are better at sports because of "fast-twitch muscle tissue."

    Actually, the definition of species, like most things in science, has exceptions. There are inter-species hybrids that can reproduce. Still, I found the idea that half-elves and half-orcs are sterile (as mules or ligers) so interesting that it's now the rule in my campaign.

    I do allow for the idea of half-dragons, tieflings and the like. In those cases... well, magic. Magic cares not for your DNA.