It puzzles me when people cite LOTR as the standard of “simple” or “predictable” or “black and white” fantasy. Because in my copy, the hero fails. Frodo chooses the Ring, and it’s only Gollum’s own desperation for it that inadvertently saves the day. The fate of the world, this whole blood-soaked war, all the millennia-old machinations of elves and gods, comes down to two addicts squabbling over their Precious, and that is precisely and powerfully Tolkien’s point.
And then the hero goes home, and finds home a smoking desolation, his neighbors turned on one another, that secondary villain no one finished off having destroyed Frodo’s last oasis not even out of evil so much as spite, and then that villain dies pointlessly, and then his killer dies pointlessly. The hero is left not with a cathartic homecoming, the story come full circle in another party; he is left to pick up the pieces of what was and what shall never be again.
And it’s not enough. The hero cannot heal, and so departs for the fabled western shores in what remains a blunt and bracing metaphor for death (especially given his aged companions). When Sam tells his family, “Well, I’m back” at the very end, it is an earned triumph, but the very fact that someone making it back qualifies as a triumph tells you what kind of story this is: one that is too honest to allow its characters to claim a clean victory over entropy, let alone evil.
“I can’t recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass. I’m naked in the dark. There’s nothing–no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I can see him with my waking eyes.”
So where’s this silly shallow hippie fever-dream I’ve heard so much about? It sounds like a much lesser story than the one that actually exists.
UK-based designer “Rio” from Literary Emporium (previously featured here) specializes in creating handmade jewelry, stationery and gifts inspired by classical literature. With a degree in English and a lover of literature and beautiful books, the artist was compel to create homages for her favorite novels and quotes.
Her first literary creation began as single postcard featuring a famous quote from Wuthering Heights. Now “Rio” offers her expertise and bookworm passion into designing exclusive gifts, which book lovers will not be able to resist. Adorned with a symbolic necklace designated to each book (i.e., the owl in Harry Potter, the cage in Jane Eyre, the dashing bow tie in The Great Gatsby and more), each piece is attached to a postcard with a relevant excerpt. You can find her entire collection of bibliophile gifts in her Etsy shop.
Nobody’s going to deny that, as it’s conventionally depicted, Middle-Earth - the setting of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings - is awfully monochrome. In art, basically everybody is drawn as white, and all major depictions in film have used white actors.
When this state of affairs is questioned, the defences typically revolve around “accuracy”, which can mean one of two things: fidelity to the source material, and the internal consistency of the setting. Being concerned primarily with languages and mythology, Tolkien left few clear descriptions of what the peoples of Middle-Earth actually look like, so in this case, arguments in favour of the status quo more often rest on setting consistency.
Of course, we need hold ourselves neither to fidelity nor to consistency - the author’s dead, and we can do what we want. However, what if I told you that there’s a reasonable argument to be made from that very standpoint of setting consistency that Aragorn - the one character you’d most expect to be depicted as a white dude - really ought to be portrayed as Middle Eastern and/or North African?
First, consider the framing device of Tolkien’s work. The central conceit of The Lord of the Rings - one retroactively extended to The Hobbit, and thereafter to later works - is that Tolkien himself is not the story’s author, but a mere translator of writings left behind by Bilbo, Frodo and other major characters. Similarly, Middle-Earth itself is positioned not as a fictional realm, but as the actual prehistory of our own world. As such, the languages and mythologies that Tolkien created were intended not merely to resemble their modern counterparts, but to stand as plausible ancestors for them.
Now, Aragorn is the king of a tribe or nation of people called the Dúnedain. Let’s take a closer look at them in the context of that prehistoric connection.
If the Dúnedain were meant to be the forebears of Western Europeans, we’d expect their language, Adûnaic, to exhibit signs of Germanic (or possibly Italic) derivation - but that’s not what we actually see. Instead, both the phonology and the general word-structure of Adûnaic seem to be of primarily Semitic derivation, i.e., the predominant language family throughout the Middle East and much of North Africa. Indeed, while relatively little Adûnaic vocabulary is present in Tolkien’s extant writings, some of the words we do know seem to be borrowed directly from classical Hebrew - a curious choice if the “men of the West” were intended to represent the ancestors of the Germanic peoples.
Additionally, the Dúnedain are descended from the survivors of the lost island of Númenor, which Tolkien had intended as an explicit analogue of Atlantis. Alone, this doesn’t give us much to go on - unless one happens to know that, in the legendarium from which Tolkien drew his inspirations, the Kingdoms of Egypt were alleged to be remnant colonies of Atlantis. This connection is explicitly reflected in the strong Egyptian influence upon Tolkien’s descriptions of Númenorean funereal customs. We thus have both linguistic and cultural/mythological ties linking the survivors of Númenor to North Africa.
Now, I’m not going to claim that Tolkien actually envisioned the Dúnedain as North African; he was almost certainly picturing white folks. However, when modern fans argue that Aragorn and his kin must be depicted as white as a matter of setting consistency, rather than one of mere authorial preference, strong arguments can be made that this need not be the case; i.e., that depicting the Dúnedain in a manner that would be racialised as Middle Eastern and/or North African by modern standards is, in fact, entirely consistent with the source material, ethnolinguistically speaking. Furthermore, whether they agreed with these arguments or not, any serious Tolkien scholar would at least be aware of them.
In other words, if some dude claims that obviously everyone in Tolkien is white and acts like the very notion of depicting them otherwise is some outlandish novelty, you’ve got yourself a fake geek boy.
(As an aside, if we turn our consideration to the Easterlings, the human allies of Sauron who have traditionally been depicted in art as Middle Eastern on no stronger evidence than the fact that they’re baddies from the East, a similar process of analysis suggests that they’d more reasonably be racialised as Slavic in modern terms. Taken together with the preceding discussion, an argument can be made that not only is the conventional racialisation of Tolkien’s human nations in contemporary art unsupported by the source material, we may well have it precisely backwards!)