Essay by Roger Echo-Hawk
Tolkien fandom must surely be one of the largest and most diverse fan groups in the world. People who do not share religious ties, ethnic identities, politics, or languages can still share their appreciation of Middle-earth, and this diversity has helped to foster a culturally inclusive tone in Tolkiendom. A minor segment of this fandom, however, has always preferred a more exclusive agenda. Recent world events have suddenly cast the edge of the spotlight on this subculture.
Planning a fantasy battle at Helm’s Deep, JRR Tolkien invented a new captain to serve as a heroic savior of Anglo-Saxonish Rohan. Wrestling with a name for this hero, Tolkien at last settled on Erkenbrand. It is apparent that he repurposed the second part of this new name from the original name for Aragorn’s sword, Branding, which, as Christopher Tolkien reminds us, came from Old English brand, meaning sword. Tolkien described Aragorn’s weapon in the early drafting of the Helm’s Deep chapter as “a white flame” – a sword that “flashed like white fire.”
Erkenbrand is also the adopted name of a recently launched Dutch white nationalist “alt-right” organization. This pro-race activist organization has sought to establish common cause with their American intellectual cousins. And the result is that Erkenbrand has heartened American proponents of white nationalism. This kind of cultural appropriation of Tolkien’s legacy is not new. As one 1998 article shows, Tolkien’s fantasy writings have long held appeal among pro-race white separatists.
These white pride organizations sense pro-white racial messaging in The Lord of the Rings, but they seem to represent a small minority in Tolkien fandom, and they have wielded very little evident influence on the general culture of Tolkiendom. Little support for a pro-race view of Tolkien has come forward in scholarship. In fact, over the last several decades a steady trickle of writings on Tolkien and race has given rise to a settled scholarly consensus which rejects the notion that Tolkien held racist attitudes. The implication is that he would frown on white pride interpretations of his novels.
This consensus suffers from serious shortcomings. Relying on a handful of statements that denounce Nazi anti-Semitism and the Nazi handling of Nordic mythmaking, Tolkienists too often ignore, minimize, or dismiss Tolkien’s actual record of literary racial usages. My 2016 edition of Tolkien in Pawneeland features extended essays that explore the evolving manifestations of the real world traditions of race in Middle-earth. It is clear that Tolkien intentionally deployed problematic racial imagery in The Lord of the Rings. Pointing out shortcomings in the Tolkienist consensus, we can nevertheless conclude that it reflects a general distaste for the segregationist aspirations of white pride nationalism.
But given the convoluted and muddled nature of race in both concept and practice, awkward moments are to be expected. In late 2015, in the course of denouncing criticism of Tolkien as a putative Nordicist, Michael Martinez recommended a 2003 article written by a man who that same year reportedly told an interviewer that “his group supported neo-Confederate groups in the United States.” It is obvious that Martinez hoped to exonerate Tolkien from charges of harboring fascist tendencies – the implied message was that white pride ideologues should not see Middle-earth as a racially sympathetic realm. During the year that followed, however, a new pro-race white nationalist group donned Middle-earth imagery.
A burning sword rests at the center of Erkenbrand’s official sigil. This can be read as a likely Tolkienian reference to brand, sword – Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull noted in a 2005 publication that the name Erkenbrand is a likely fusion of two Old English terms that mean “precious” and “fire-brand” or “sword.”
The fact that some white pride nationalists invoke Tolkien should bestow a sense of import on the scholarly project of examining Tolkien’s statements on race, his literary usages, and relevant social contexts. When we consider the ways that race gets produced in the world and the choices made by culture-makers like JRR Tolkien, we also make space to affirm humanistic values that can challenge pro-race nationalism and promote the unraveling of racism in the world.
Reviewing Henry Gee’s The Accidental Species, biological anthropologist Jonathan Marks has made an important point about the moral momentum of scholarship in recent decades: “Gee’s historical survey of paleoanthropology is accurate, but hardly avails itself of the work that historians of the field have been grappling with of late. For example, one can readily lionize Raymond Dart and Robert Broom as proper champions of Australopithecus, as Gee does, but only at the expense of ignoring Dart’s writings about race (Derricourt 2010) and Broom’s writings about angels (Richmond 2009).”
While I don’t feel much interest in scouring the lives of culture-makers to spotlight things we might despise, I do appreciate insights that add necessary depth and perspective to valued iconic cultural productions. To the degree that Tolkien’s morality aims at affirming the logic of our social values, it is useful to inquire into the moral nature of Tolkien’s uses of race in his novels. In early 1956 Tolkien set forth his thinking about how questions of moral character shaped The Lord of the Rings. Noting the existence of “conflicts about important things or ideas” he argued for “the extreme importance of being on the right side…” And faced with conflicts between “right and wrong, or good and evil,” he felt that “the right will remain an inalienable possession of the right side…”
We must each determine for ourselves the “right side” of the social production of race and racism. Judging from the many well-populated facebook Tolkien pages, the vast majority of fans feel attracted to Middle-earth for reasons that have nothing to do with bonding through racial pride. But when we find some fans extracting multicultural values from the books, and we find others extracting messages of racial separatism, we must somehow sort out what is happening.
To apply a moral lens to matters of race and racism in Middle-earth, it would be helpful to have access to relevant critical inquiry. In promoting the study of Tolkien’s uses of the real world traditions of race, we necessarily focus on the status of race in the world. What choices did Tolkien make in his era? What racial meanings did he inscribe in Middle-earth? Do we see the ideology of race as a social construction to embrace and uphold, or do we see it as something to question and reject?
Tolkien’s fascination with glowing fiery weaponry most directly pertains to storytelling in which people make the heroic choice to battle potent evil in the world. When we wrestle with the facts of Tolkien’s use of racial social narratives, we are defining our own choices, our own preferences, what we deem “heroic” and the right side of history. We are reminding each other that it does matter what kind of meanings we attach to treasured mythological and cultural icons.