Curator’s note: This post was in response to an anonymous ask (question) on tumblr.
Hi there! I’ve been following you for several months and I really enjoy your posts. However, there’s one topic about which I feel a bit uncomfortable: the potentially non-white Tolkien characters. As far as I know (and as a casual fan I may be wrong), the professor wanted to create an Anglo-Saxon myth. I really doubt he had in his mind an Asian Fingon or a black Luthien when writing about them. Is it a good idea to disregard the author’s envisioning for the sake of racial awareness?
So Tolkien wanted to create an Anglo-Saxon myth.
I think it’s really interesting to ask ourselves what that means.
Does it mean “a story set in England?”
Obviously not; Middle-earth is a precursor to our Earth, but the Silmarillion is explicitly set on a continent that has since sunk beneath the waves. The Elves as a people originate from an inland sea some 2,000 miles east of the Atlantic – if we’re determined to map Middle-earth to our Earth, that’d be the Caspian Sea. The Men just come from ‘the East’ – Tolkien didn’t say how far East. (There are three races of Elves – does it really seem likely that they are meant to correspond to ‘blonde white people’, ‘silver-haired white people’ and ‘black-haired white people’, when black hair is actually not particularly common to white people? far more likely, Elven racial categories are different than our own, and picking any human to play an Elf is casting the Elf ‘wrongly’, racially.)
So, okay, ‘Anglo-Saxon myth” doesn’t mean ‘takes place in England’. How about “draws on English mythology?” Nope, that can’t be it either. Most of the content of Children of Húrin is a retelling of a myth arc in the Kalevala, a Finnish myth. The Dwarves are named from Norse mythology. Tolkien said Gondor had Byzantine influences. Clearly he was willing to draw on cultural traditions and historical influences from well outside Britain.
Maybe he meant something like “possessing an essentially British character”? If so, the fandom has definitely failed to preserve the specifically British character of Tolkien’s work. The movies were filmed in New Zealand! What a travesty! Peter Jackson isn’t a Brit! Viggo Mortensen isn’t a Brit!
For some reason, people who are concerned with Tolkien’s intent to create an Anglo-Saxon mythology are always a lot less concerned about this than they are about race. And I think that’s something worth analyzing. If a Black person born and raised in Great Britain seems to you to be less worthy a representative of an essential British Character than a Danish American actor or a New Zealand movie director, then I feel like the objection isn’t really about Britishness, it’s about race. Unless you feel like whiteness is an essential element of Britishness (and in that case I’ll disagree with you) then there’s no reason non-white characters are threatening to the Britishness of Tolkien’s work.
And more than that, when Tolkien took the Finnish Kalevala and retold its story in Middle-earth, was he disregarding the envisioning of the Finnish saga authors? I don’t think so. It’s not disregarding the intent of an author to reshape his story for a new world and new time. Tolkien, who knew more about myths and their history than anyone, knew this very well. “Creating a myth” means “creating something that can be changed and reinterpreted and retold”. And so I think that anyone telling Tolkien’s story with characters of color is being exactly as disrespectful to the original as Tolkien was being disrespectful to his source myths – which is to say, not at all. No truly meaningful story is weakened by retelling and reinterpretation.
You asked “Is it a good idea to disregard the author’s envisioning for the sake of racial awareness?”. I’d ask “is whiteness the most important part of the author’s envisioning, as you understand it? is it impossible to understand a myth in terms of its British influences while doubting that whiteness is an essential part of that? why are we so damn sure that a race of nonhuman beings who awoke in the Middle-east are definitely assuredly meant to be white anyway? and would Tolkien have really thought it was disrespecting a myth to retell it in a different setting?”
Because I don’t think so.
On Tolkien and Anglo-Saxon Myth, ©lintamande, originally posted on 29 March 2015