Give stories the benefit of the doubt

The “Lord of the Rings” orc controversy reveals a disturbing trend in our attitudes toward stories.

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Brian Brooks, Freelance Writer

Speaking to the “Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy” podcasters, science fiction writer Andrew Duncan reflected on a short story he had written in 2001 in which he told a sympathetic tale using J. R. R. Tolkien’s “orc” characters. It seems that the story was inspired by a subliminal racism he sensed in the Middle Earth tales.  According to Duncan, “it’s hard to miss the repeated notion in Tolkien that some races are just worse than others, or that some peoples are just worse than others. And this seems to me—in the long term, if you embrace this too much—it has dire consequences for yourself and for society.”  

This assertion places Tolkien’s famed trilogy in a group of things considered “problematic” in the 21st century, a list which now includes: milk, hoop earrings, Disney movies, correct grammar, learning Spanish and, most recently, “VeggieTales.” I like milk and I like “VeggieTales,” but something particularly irked me about this indictment of the “Lord of the Rings” as racist.  Having been an avid Tolkien fan since middle school, I knew in my gut that the famed trilogy was not the way Duncan described it.


For one thing, Tolkien himself was vocally anti-racist. When a Nazi-affiliated publisher attempted to publish his works in Germany, he asked whether the author was of “Aryan” descent.  Tolkien, a noted cultural anthropologist, first dismantled the fictitious “Aryan” label, then gave this brilliant reply: “But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people… I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name [“Tolkien” was of Germanic origin] will no longer be a source of pride.”  

The second reason Duncan’s words ring hollow for me may strike my readers as being painfully obvious—orcs are not real. It may come as a surprise, not only to Duncan, but to fan fiction writers around the world, that the mythical “race” of orcs does not exist—that the bloodlust ubiquitous to their species and their innately demonic natures were not meant to reflect any racial group of human beings. Orcs are literary, not sentient beings.

When I was growing up, the Harry Potter series was utterly forbidden in my house. The Christian community around the turn of the millenium generally saw any work of art or literature that wrote imaginatively about magic or the supernatural as occultic, and, having received a conservative Christian upbringing, Rowling’s best-selling series was not included in my family library.

Now, over two decades from its original publication, most Christians look back with mild embarrassment at the dust storm they kicked up over a children’s book. To my knowledge, no one was inspired by the whimsical (and very fictional) world of Hogwarts to become a witch.  Instead, Rowling’s later work used the superficial intrigue of wizardry to tell a deeper pseudo-Christian story about love and redemption. Indeed, Rowling’s declaration that she “believes in God, not magic,” is a delightful parallel to Tolkien’s real-world denunciation of racism and his apparent belief that his readers were smart enough to distinguish fiction from bigotry.

When we enter into a story, we suspend some portion of our belief. We are meant to view orcs not as nuanced, misunderstood characters, but as symbols of unadulterated evil. Humans are smart enough not to impose racial categories onto the rigid, stock characters of monsters and villains. Tolkien’s corpus has a lot of wisdom to share with us. In the vast panoply of Middle Earth-related writings, Tolkien touches on a smorgasbord of themes—21st century race relations are not one of those themes.


It seems Duncan is most offended by the effect that Tolkien’s insinuations may have. The cynicism that expects impressionable readers to come to hysterically inappropriate conclusions is nothing new. It is both a time-honored and insulting tradition which sees stories as weapons of subversion. Instead of allowing the complexities of literature to wash over them, readers who latch onto the most simplistic aspects of a story, interprets it without mercy and finally blow their interpretation out of proportion do more than simply irritate us—they damage literature and stunt the human imagination.

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