marina_bonomi (marina_bonomi) wrote,

As always, it's Tolkien's fault

Browsing my friends' page I happened across this post by ysabetwordsmith linking to a different post about evil races in fantasy. The whole sparked a few thoughts of mine and here they are, in part to elaborate on what the quoted OP wrote, in part to get a few things off my chest (or off my stomach, as we say in Italy).

The OP mentions  the evil race in his/her own writing saying:

Inspired by varied African folklore, they’re definitively not Orcs–nor are they based on any existing human phenotypic differences. No “tall, broad-chested, sharp-nosed, pale-skinned, with thin mouths and blue eyes degraded and repulsive versions of the (to POC) least lovely Caucasian-types” in my stories…cuz that would be ridiculous

What I really don't get is why it would be ridiculous, I'd totally read an epic fantasy work where one or more African heroes work to discover who those repulsive pink beings snatching away people are, what they want and how is it possible to foil their nefarious plans (and that's just the most obvious plot possible). What I would find ridicolous indeed, was  if such story was written only to 'turn tropes on their heads' with no research, no world building and no characterisation, but a story where caucasians are the antagonists and seen through the eyes of somebody who has had no previous contact with them and as such tries to 'read' them through his/her own standards (be it a standard of esthetics or of what constitutes civilized behaviour)? Give me!!!

Another quote that I found interesting is this one:

There’s a line of thought that Tolkien was merely pulling from European medieval texts, who used such unflattering terms to describe the Mongols, Moors, Saracens and other “foreign” armies they encountered. Take for instance the semi-mythical Frankish Song of Roland:

And Ethiope, a cursed land indeed; The blackamoors from there are in his keep, Broad in the nose they are and flat in the ear, Fifty thousand and more in company. These canter forth with arrogance and heat, Then they cry out the pagans’ rallying-cheer;

Yeah…transcribing ethnocentric medieval descriptions of human differences into fictional sub-human monsters…still *cringe* worthy.

First of all I believe that writings must be read keeping in mind when they were written, one cannot expect 2012 CE sensibilities in a 1950 CE book. Secondly why it doesn't make sense to transcribe ethnocentric medieval descriptions in a fictional work when that work is meant to be a saga (not a novel, a saga in a literary sense) set into a lost age of European history?

I've read more than one article saying that Middle-Earth is a world 'more or less' like our Earth, fact is that Middle-Earth is and moreover is meant to be our Earth, in a long-over age before the history we know and even before the continents took the places and the shapes we are familiar with (see The History of Middle-Earth and The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien for more about this).

Many readers nowadays (and even more, many US readers) seem to have problems realizing (or possibly believing) how ethnically homogeneous (from an European point of view), most of Europe was, outside of the big cities, till just a few decades ago (for my own country till about 25 years ago). When I was growing up everyone around me was caucasian and no one gave a second thought to the matter. Moreover our definition of caucasian is rather different from the one I 'get' from my US friends, it covers anyone that isn't evidently of a different ethnicity or doesn't actively claim a different ethnicity: to us people from Portugal to Russia, from Iceland to Sicily are equally caucasian (moreover  that includes also my Berber, Jordanian and Libanese collegues, and my once-removed cousin with afro-textured hair and dark eyes isn't seen as any less caucasian than his blondish fair-eyed relatives).

i remember speacking with an 80-year old Comboni father from Yorkshire, who told me that when he was about 10 he heard there was a newly-come man in his village who built and sold wonderful  kites, he gathered his courage and the little money he had and went to this gentleman's house to ask to buy a kite, and when he opened the door the kid froze in place for a few moments before bolting. The kite-builder was of African ancestry and was the first non-caucasian the boy had set eyes upon.

I remember my time as the only caucasian in my neighborhood, in Taipei, comments on my nose, hair- and eye-color were a given (particularly before everyone realized I knew the language), and I remember a kid of about three that, when he saw me, started screaming and crying. He was scared to death and I well understod why: 'white' skin, long nose, pale eyes and light hair, I do look like a Chinese demon. When a population is very homogeneous, people from a different ethnic background stand out, and usually the elements that are most different are those that become the defining characters of that group and-or get translated in myth. 
Is it dangerous? Yes. It is always bad? I don't think so. Sometimes it can be the only believable, realistic gaze, depending on the specifics of the world or community one is writing about.

Once again Professor Tolkien is often called a racist because of this line: "Out of Far Harad black men like half-troll with white eyes and red tongues"

Honestly I don't know what kind of image Tolkien had in his mind writing this, I can only say what image I see when I read it and it is something like this. To me 'black' when referred to mythical creatures has always meant black, not 'human-shade brown'.

'Uber-fair skinned elves'? Elves are part of the North-European mythology and are explicitly linked to light, they are always described as fair-skinned, I don't expect (actually I don't want) elves of different ethnicity, other cultures have their own nature spirits, elves are a European myth.

'Gandalf the White'? Yes, that's part of his 'transfiguration' and a clear (if maybe not conscious) reference to the other Transfiguration (and His garments became glistering, exceeding white, so as no fuller on earth can whiten them), our culture has a long-standing association of white with purity and light (and that's the reason why candidates bear that name, in ancient Rome candidates wore the toga candida the bleached toga that symbolized their purity of intentions), I don't believe any writer should be considered guilty for writing within his/her own cultural symbolism (even more if you are writing a work you mean as 'an epic for' your country intended as a long lost book), moreover here again white means white, not skin-pink.

But I forgot, professor Tolkien was strongly and explicitly Catholic, and that's no good either.

In Tolkien’s universe, these weak-minded men of the South and East were just hood-winked and bamboozled by the Dark Lord (He who Sits on His Dark Throne), cut off from the almost “Christ-like” light of Maiar colonial missionaries.

Well, we have the gall of believing that the devil is a real entity (not just an astraction or a symbol) and that he takes a rather keen interest in the world, and having been 'the brightest of angels' he is rather more cunning and smart than any mortal, so, when writing of the embodiement of evil from that perspective, there's no need to be 'weak-minded' to be bamboozled,

In fact there are plenty of the 'wise and honorable white guys of Gondor' who don't fare any better (I'm really sick and tired of hearing that Tolkien's characters are either wholly good or wholly evil):

Denethor is one of the best, full of good intentions, but he gets tempted through his pride (convinced he'll be able to master the Palantir) and through that he is led to desperation (in the theological meaning) and his suicide.

Boromir gives in to the ring's temptation, only to come to his senses later and try to atone protecting Merry and Pippin, ultimately dying for them.

In 'The return of the King' we learn that the Pukel-men (wich we saw at the beginning as savages) were 'hunted like beasts' by the Rohirrim (which we saw as good guys) and yet it's the Pukel-men that lead the allied armies (including the Rohirrim) through their paths so that they come in time.

And, folks, Frodo fails  he goes through all that, some of his friends die to help him on his way and right at the end he claims the ring for himself. If not for Gollum Frodo would have become the next lord of Mordor.

And given that Tolkien was an old classist reactionary (another staple comment), Sam is a ring-bearer too, and the only one to relinquish the ring completely of his own will, because he is truly humble (which doesn't mean thinking poorly of oneself, it means doing what needs to be done without taking oneself in consideration) and he can shake the temptation of power the ring provides with a laugh or a song, it has no hold on him.

And of course the professor himself is responsible for all those people that, knowingly and consciously, decided to 'repeat the formula' ripping elements from his books and regurgitating them in some kind of different shape to appeal to readers clamoring for more, more often than not grabbing just the outer layer of things with no understanding and, even worse, no love.

I guess I'll still see the same objections and comments going around tomorrow or next year, at least I do feel better now.

Tags: books, fantasy, literature, tolkien

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