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Features, Legendarium, Opinion

Of Course Hobbits Have to be White

12.06.10 | Kunochan | 4 Comments

I was advised by several friends not to write this post, which tells you something about the state of racial discourse in America today. But here we go…

Of course Hobbits have to be white.

I’m not going to go into my own anti-racism credentials, or even my own racial background. I could be a card-carrying member of the NAACP or a died-in-the- wool Klansman; my assertion would still be correct. Hobbits are Caucasian. Short, portly, fairly brown-skinned Caucasians, but Caucasians nonetheless.

Last week a casting agent for The Hobbit was fired because she turned away an actor of Pakistani descent for having too dark a skin tone. This actor cried racism and created a stink. The casting agent’s statement, widely quoted, was:

We are looking for light skinned people. I’m not trying to be… whatever. It’s just the brief. You’ve got to look like the Hobbit.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is specifically intended to be Europe in a far distant age of the past. Not like Europe, or analogous to Europe – our Europe. Its Men are the ancestors of today’s Germanic peoples, especially the Anglo-Saxons. That was Tolkien’s brief – to create an Anglo-Saxon mythology to replace the true one that is largely lost.

In The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, all the “good” Men are of Nordic stock and live in the Northwest, while all the “bad” Men come from the South and East. Tolkien was slightly more nuanced than this makes it sound; in The Silmarillion, the good Men of the West are corrupted by Sauron, and not all the Easterlings and Southrons are corrupted. In Tolkien’s world, evil comes from supernatural sources, not race; the Easterlings and Southrons are simply unfortunate to have never had the Maiar or the Elves to teach them to defy evil. Tolkien even expresses pity toward the enslaved “dark” Men, as opposed to the evil creatures of Sauron, Orcs and Trolls, who deserve no pity.

Is this perfect? Of course not. It’s one of David Brin’s main criticisms of the Legendarium, and although a huge fan of Tolkien, I have to agree with Dr. Brin – Tolkien does recreate a medieval sort of worldview that pits ethnic group against ethnic group. But of course he does, that’s kind of story it is. Is Dr. Brin right that what society needs today is more stories about ethnic inclusiveness and human understanding? Yes.

Is that an argument against LOTR as one of the great works of English literature? No. Does it lessen our enjoyment of Tolkien’s tales? No.

Tolkien specifically designed his Hobbits to represent the people of the West Midlands region of England in the 19th Century (which is why Bilbo has a clock on his mantelpiece but Aragorn doesn’t). The Shire was his “perfected” version of agrarian life in this region, before Industrialization.  I’m sure if you visit the West Midlands today, you will find people of many different racial and ethnic backgrounds, many of whom consider themselves British. But go back a century or two, and the situation will be quite different.

You may argue that a fantasy tale can include anything it wants; flying furry dragon-dogs, hunchbacked nose men or Pakistani Halflings. But any fantasy tale has to be internally consistent; and any Tolkien film has to consistent with the Professor’s body of work and the intentions of the author, at least if Tolkien’s fans are going to sign off on it. And just as a film about medieval or ancient Europe is going to have very little for non-white actors to do, so will The Hobbit.

Hollywood has a grim history of giving “ethnic” roles to white actors, from Charlie Chan to Kung Fu to The Last Airbender today. (I can’t speak to how things are usually done down in Wellywood.) But let’s look for the racism where it really exists, and not go after historical and fantasy films that seek to recreate an ethnically divided past, not prolong an ethnically divided present.

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