Posted by andreas from p3EE3C350.dip.t-dialin.net (18.104.22.168) on Monday, December 09, 2002 at 8:32AM :
THE GUARDIAN (UK)
Wraiths and race
What with the dark skin, broad faces and dreadlocks, it's a wonder Tolkien didn't give his baddies a natural sense of rhythm, says John Yatt, examining Middle Earth's suspect racial undertones
Monday December 2, 2002
It was the same with The Phantom Menace - I had no choice. When part of your childhood is playing down the road on a big screen with surround sound and popcorn, there's no escape. But as the wonder of discovering that there was more to New Zealand than sheep wore off, something began to worry me.
Maybe it was the way that all the baddies were dressed in black, or maybe it was the way that the fighting uruk-hai had dreadlocks, but I began to suspect that there was something rotten in the state of Middle Earth.
Perhaps Dubya's war on terror is making me a bit uneasy, or maybe it's just good old-fashioned Guardian-reading imperial guilt, but there was something about watching a bunch of pale faces setting off into the east to hack some guys with dark faces into little bits that made me feel a little queasy.
When I got home I dug out my copy of The Lord of the Rings from a box somewhere - okay, so I pulled it straight off the shelf - and found there was worse to come. The Two Towers is the story of the battle between Isengard and Rohan. In the good corner, the riders of Rohan, aka the "Whiteskins": "Yellow is their hair, and bright are their spears. Their leader is very tall." In the evil corner, the orcs of Isengard: "A grim, dark band... swart, slant-eyed" and the "dark" wild men of the hills. So the good guys are white and the bad guys are, erm... black.
This genetic determinism drives the plot in the most brutal manner. White men are good, "dark" men are bad, orcs are worst of all. While 10,000 orcs are massacred with a kind of Dungeons and Dragons version of biological warfare, the wild men left standing at the end of the battle are packed off back to their homes with nothing more than slapped wrists.
We also get a sneak preview of the army that's going to be representing the forces of darkness in part three. Guess what: "Dark faces... black eyes and long black hair, and gold rings in their ears... very cruel wicked men they look". They come from the east and the south. They wield scimitars and ride elephants.
Perhaps I'd better come right out and say it. The Lord of the Rings is racist. It is soaked in the logic that race determines behaviour. Orcs are bred to be bad, they have no choice. The evil wizard Saruman even tells us that they are screwed-up elves. Elves made bad by a kind of devilish genetic modification programme. They deserve no mercy.
To cap it all, the races that Tolkien has put on the side of evil are then given a rag-bag of non-white characteristics that could have been copied straight from a BNP leaflet. Dark, slant-eyed, swarthy, broad-faced - it's amazing he doesn't go the whole hog and give them a natural sense of rhythm.
Scratch the surface of Tolkien's world and you'll find a curiously 20th-century myth. Begun in the 1930s, published in the 1950s, it's shot through with the preoccupations and prejudices of its time. This is no clash of noble adversaries like the Iliad, no story of our common humanity like the Epic of Gilgamesh. It's a fake, a forgery, a dodgy copy. Strip away the archaic turns of phrase and you find a set of basic assumptions that are frankly unacceptable in 21st-century Britain.
But it's the same with The Attack of the Clones - I've got no choice. Maybe the fizzy pop will go to my head, maybe the Pearl and Dean music will be able to work its magic, but I'm worried that the popcorn is going to taste a bit wrong - I'm worried that childhood isn't going to be quite so much fun the second time around.
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