Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: The Wretched of Middle-Earth – A Postcolonial Reading of World Order in The Lord of the Rings

Third Annual Symposium on Pop Culture and International Law: The Wretched of Middle-Earth – A Postcolonial Reading of World Order in The Lord of the Rings

[Alonso Gurmendi is a Lecturer in International Relations at King’s College London’s Department of War Studies and a Contributing Editor of Opinio Juris]

It is easy to approach The Lord of the Rings as a simple black and white, “good guys vs. bad guys” story. In fact, in a now (in)famous 1956 review, Edmund Wilson complained that the series was “a simple confrontation – in more or less the traditional terms of British melodrama – of the Forces of Evil with the Forces of Good, the remote and alien villain with the plucky little home-grown hero”. In essence, Wilson complained at an alleged simplistic worldview where the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad, without any complexity or moral dilemma regarding their evilness. “There is a giant female spider”, he says, “a dreadful creepy-crawly spider!” The “drama of life”, he complains, is presented as a “showdown between Good People and Goblins”.

Wilson’s review has been challenged many times since, and now most agree that Tolkien’s concept of Good and Evil was much more complex. In his classic book, The Road to Middle-Earth, for instance, Tom Shippey famously describes Tolkien’s work as an attempt to reconcile Boethius point that “evil” does not exist, but is instead is the result of free will, and a Manichaean conception that says that capital E Evil does exist and it is in constant battle with capital G Good, which must resist it. Thus, the Ring is simultaneously Manichaean (“something external to be resisted”) but, by acting through the corruption of its wearer, also Boethian (“evil is essentially internal, psychological, negative”) (p. 323-335).

Building on Shippey’s work, the very idea of the Ring of Power has become a useful tool for moral philosophers and theologists to study and explain the concept of Good and Evil. Tolkien’s complex view, however, is rarely analysed from the perspective of international politics. In a character-driven story where the reader follows heroic and noble figures like Aragorn, Gandalf and Frodo as they battle wicked Orcs and terrible Balrogs, it is difficult to think of the broader political forces at play. Gondor, Rohan, Rivendell, are more easily conceived as locations than political actors. Thus, prior attempts at applying International Relations Theory to The Lord of the Rings have focused mostly on allegory: is Elrond Kant and the Orcs Machiavelli? Is Boromir defensive neorealism and are the Ents critical theory? The characters stand in as proxies for specific theories, but the theories themselves are not used to explain the world in which the characters live.

This post distances itself from this approach. Instead, given Tolkien’s nuanced ideas on Good and Evil, this post makes the case for a postcolonial reading of Tolkien’s world order that deconstructs Wilson’s simplified reading of Middle-Earth as “the good guys vs. the bad guys”. Instead, I will present The Lord of the Rings as a world constructed with a specific gaze, incorporating racialised and orientalist tropes about the people of Middle-Earth. In detecting these tropes, I hope to offer tools to detect them as well in our own world order.

In the Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s extended Legendarium, the history of Arda (the world where the two continents of Aman and Middle-Earth are located) is usually told from the perspective of the Valar, the “Angels” sent to Arda by Eru Illúvatar (“God”), and the peoples of Middle-Earth they watch over from the Blessed Realm of Valinor.

When humans awoke in the far east of Middle-Earth, they were constantly accosted by the forces of the fallen Valar, Melkor. The tribes of Bëor, Haladin and Marach were the first to march West, fleeing his influence. Eventually, they encountered the Elves of Beleriand, in the northwest of Middle-Earth, who called them the “Edain”, from Sindarin “Second People” – the second Children of Eru. These Edain became staunch allies of the Elves in their wars against Melkor and learned much of the arts and crafts of the Valar from them. It is from these Men of the West (or “Dúnedain”) that most of the human heroes of The Lord of the Rings descend from: Aragorn, Boromir, Faramir and even, though more distantly, Eomer and Theoden. 

That the peoples of Middle-Earth can only be understood from the perspective and histories of one specific centre of power, such as the Valar and the kingdoms they influenced, is a feature ripe for postcolonial critique. In his classic “Provincializing Europe”, Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that historization as an academic exercise is constructed from a mythical idea of Europe (or, in this case, Valinor) as the original site of modernity built into the core of social science itself. History and historization thus become a discourse where Europe/Valinor is treated as the ultimate aspiration for every other people; or in Chakrabarty’s words, “a way of saying ‘not yet’ to somebody else” (p. 8). In proposing a provincialisation of Europe, he asks us to explore how this way of thinking “may be renewed from and for the margins” (p. 16).   

How can we, therefore, provincialise Valinor to renew The Lord of the Rings “from and for” the margins of Middle Earth and what can this teach us about our own world? Tolkien’s work, including his extended Legendarium, offers some clues. Most importantly, we know from Tolkien himself that these “marginal” communities were not all the same and not all evil, but rather, the result of politics – the politics of our heroes’ own communities and kingdoms, in fact.

Take, for example, a famous passage from The Two Towers, when the Rangers of Gondor are battling human forces marching to join Sauron’s armies, in Mordor. A dead man falls from a tree in front of Sam, downed by Gondorian arrows. As a hobbit unconcerned with the great politics of Middle-Earth, Sam is free from the Valinor-centric gaze of his companions. While the Rangers complain about them, saying that “the Enemy has been among them”, Sam instead looks at the deceased man in front of him and wonders “what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace”.

This is, arguably, very much the case. Both the Easterling and Haradrim – Middle-Earth’s “marginal” communities of “wicked Men” – lived relatively peaceful lives, far away from the great battles of the First Age of Middle-Earth. Their peaceful life ended with the ultimate defeat of Melkor and the Valar’s decision to leave Middle-Earth, allowing Melkor’s first lieutenant, the Maiar (a sort of “low-level Angel”), Sauron, to escape to the east, from where he would begin to spread his influence, particularly over Rhûn and Harad, where these communities lived. In other words, the greatest victory for the Valar, Elves and Edain (the “good guys”) is the worst tragedy for the Easterlings and Haradrim. No Valar would ever cross the Sundering Seas to save them from Sauron and no great Alliance of Elves and Men would be formed to free them. On the contrary, they would be presumed a lost cause and simply dismissed as “wicked men” who “chose Sauron”.

Similarly, after the defeat of Melkor, the Valar rewarded the Dúnedain with an Island Kingdom off the shores of Valinor called Númenor. The only condition was that the new Númenóreans would never sail too far West, as entry into Valinor was forbidden to mortals. Númenor soon became a powerful global player. When the Elven Kingdoms were about to be defeated by Sauron, they assembled a mighty fleet in their aid, ultimately defeating Sauron, who fled to refuge in Mordor.

Upon realising just how powerful they had become, and forbidden from sailing West, the Númenóreans set out to spread their influence in the southern shores of Middle Earth, where the Haradrim lived. The famous Appendix A, at the end of The Return of the King, describes this process as follows: “[a]t first the Númenóreans had come to Middle Earth as teachers and friends of lesser Men afflicted by Sauron; but now their havens became fortresses, holding wide coastlands in subjection”. This meant that, just like the Easterlings after the defeat of Melkor, once Sauron was chased into Mordor, the Haradrim of the south were forced to make a choice between being colonised by the Númenorians or agreeing to tributary status with Sauron. Seeking to keep their own autonomy, most chose the latter. And because of this, they are called “wicked”.

This is what Meera Sabaratnam calls “epistemologies of ignorance and innocence”. These are ways of thinking that obscure “the ways in which forms of imperial violence and relations of racialised hierarchy underpin the salient dynamics of modern international politics”. Through this “pattern of abstraction and erasure from the historical record”, she continues, the dominant International Relations theories and key textbooks “instead construct a world in which a selected set of ‘states’ and their behaviour can be mapped as anonymously rational, reasonable, natural or socialised responses to general conditions or stimuli in a way that appears fundamentally indifferent to questions of race”. This thus excuses the West/Valinor from the consequences of their own choices and policies, liberating our ideas about the world from the central role that “racialised imperial forms of violence, entitlement, and belonging” have played in shaping the modern international order. In reality, Sabaratnam argues:

“Racism is a historically specific structure of modern global power which generates hierarchies of the human and affirms White supremacy. This has far-reaching material and epistemological consequences in the present, one of which is the production and naturalisation of White-racialised subject positions in academic discourse”.

The profound influence of racism in the formation of world order is both true on Earth and in Middle-Earth. In fact, these two peoples, the Easterlings and the Haradrim, are quite tellingly described both as racialised and as those humans who never ran into the Valar or the Elves in their migratory patterns. Moreover, their exclusion from the Valinor-centric world order makes them unworthy of having any kind of protagonic role, let alone being characters with a name and backstory. As Middle-Earth’s Other, they are racialised into the category of “swarthy” (and therefore “wicked”) Men. The Easterlings of Rhûn, for example, are described by Tolkien as “short and broad, long and strong in the arm; their skins were swart or sallow, and their hair was dark as were their eyes”. Similarly, the Haradrim of the South are described by Gollum as having dark faces, black eyes, long black hair and gold rings in their ears. They are perhaps most recognisable for their domestication of the gigantic “oliphaunts”, elephant-like creatures from the far jungles of Middle-Earth. It really does not take much effort to understand who the Easterling and Haradrim are meant to represent in Middle-Earth (proof of that being how they were portrayed in Peter Jackson’s trilogy! – see here and here, respectively).

Both Earth and Middle-Earth, therefore, inhabit worlds ordered around the concept that Western ideas (or those who had contact with the Valar) are civilised and non-Western ones (those who did not) are not. This was patently clear during the formative years of our current world structure in the 19th century and the so-called Standard of Civilisation, but it is a structure that continues even today. As Mignolo points out, there is a specific “geopolitics of knowledge”, where the knowledge and epistemology produced in the Global North as a result of the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment are granted more weight than those produced in the Global South. And as Quijano points out, the relationship between the two is premised on the idea that the colonial structures between North and South have survived decolonisation and endure as the ordering principle of “coloniality”. This epistemic Eurocentrism, therefore, is not just a “focus on the West”, but “an occlusion of the imperial conditions which have shaped the modern international system”.

Many a postcolonial theory have proposed ways to shift these geopolitics of knowledge in order to create a different kind of world order. Latin American decolonial scholars like Mignolo and Quijano, for instance, argue that postcolonial communities must “delink” from Western epistemology to produce a different episteme, no longer dominated by coloniality. However, the idea of a complete delinking from modernity can itself be problematic, as it risks assuming both that there is no aspect of the modern world that owes anything to non-Western communities and that everything that is produced outside of a Western episteme is necessarily better. This is not the case. Non-Western epistemologies can be both modern and problematic. As Priyamvada Gopal argues, “[m]odernity certainly emerges out of the colonial project and colonialism is needed to produce what we call modernity in a material and discursive sense, but modernity also ends up becoming a very messy, contradictory formation in which I don’t think the colonized and the enslaved are simply victims”.

Thus, for scholars like Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, true decolonisation will take a form she describes as “ch’ixi”: “the Aymara idea of something that is and is not at the same time. It is the logic of the included third. A ch’ixi color gray is white but is not white at the same time; it is both white and its opposite, black”. A ch’ixi and decolonial society, therefore, “expresses the parallel coexistence of multiple cultural differences that do not extinguish but instead antagonize and complement each other”. A co-constructive new modernity, if you will, both Western and non-Western alike.

The process for arriving at this ch’ixi world is not exactly a roadmap, but it implies looking at the world from the perspective of the other, at all points of the discussion. In order to produce a ch’ixi world, both on Earth and Middle-Earth, we need to start seeing our world orders from the perspective of the Other, not just as victim, but as co-constructor as well.

Throughout his writings, Tolkien has offered glimpses of how a non-Valinor-centric Lord of the Rings would look like. These are rare tales told from the perspective of the Haradrim and Easterling Other, instead of the Edain and the Elves. The first of these was published posthumously in the last volume of The History of Middle Earth. In this short and unfinished story, we get a glimpse of Middle-Earth from the perspective of a Haradrim man called Tal-Elmar. This man lives in the land of Agar, south of the Anduin River. While his people are described as “broad, swarthy, short, tough, harsh-tongued, heavy-handed, and quick to violence”, he is instead uncommonly tall, “white-skinned” and kind to his father. He finds it difficult to fit in in his community, for “Tal-Elmar had a strange belief (whence it came was a wonder) that the old should be treated kindly and with courtesy”.

While the description of Tal-Elmar is deeply racialised and problematic (Tal-Elmar, the only white person in his village, is also the only good person), the story takes an interesting twist, not found in any other of Tolkien’s Legendarium. One day, Tal-Elmar sees three Númenórean ships approaching Agar and his father, Hazad, explains to him the history of their colonisation, from a Haradrim point of view. He explains that the people of Agar dread this “High Men of the Sea” as Death – “[f]or Death they worship and slay men cruelly in honour of the Dark”. Hazad explains to Tal-Elmar how the lands to the north and the south of Agar have already been colonised by these strangers, “[b]ut hither they have not come since my father’s days, and then only to raid and catch men and depart”.

The Númenóreans, Hazad continues, would arrive in Agar filled with goods to trade, “feigning friendship, and pity for our need, and they will dwell a while, and spy out the land and the numbers of the folk and then go”. Then, he says, they’d sometimes return in greater numbers and “bear away evil booty, captives packed like beasts, the fairest women and children, or young men unblemished, and that is their end”.

The story was left without an ending, and thus we will never know what fate awaited Tal-Elmar. It remains, however, the only tale in all of Tolkien’s work not framed from the perspective of the Elves, the Edain or the Dwarves.

We can use this model to similarly refocus the history of the Easterling. In Tolkien’s Valar-centric world order, it is usually said that, during the Third Age, after Sauron’s first defeat, the Valar sent to Middle-Earth five Istari (commonly referred to as Wizards): Saruman the White, Gandalf the Grey, Radagast the Brown and the two Blue Wizards, Alatar and Pallando. In Unfinished Tales, Tolkien states that their mission was to “contest the growth of the Shadow, and to move Elves and Men to beware of their peril”.  

In this original chronology, we are told that both Saruman and the Blue Wizards travelled to the East in fulfilment of this mission. But while Saruman returned, Alatar and Pallando never did. It is hinted that they lost their way, perishing or, even worse, being ensnared by Sauron himself, lost in the darkness of the wicked lands of Rhûn. But later texts uncovered by Tolkien’s son, specifically The Peoples of Middle Earth, tell a different, much more encouraging story. According to this newer chronology, the Blue Wizards arrived much earlier than Saruman, Gandalf and Radagast, in the Second Age. Here, Tolkien calls the Blue Wizards Morinehtar and Romestamo, meaning Darkness-slayer and East-helper, respectively, and says that their task was “to circumvent Sauron: to bring help to the few tribes of Men that had rebelled from Melkor-worship, to stir up rebellion… and after his first fall to search out his hiding (in which they failed) and to cause dissension and disarray among the Dark East”.

This brief change has massive consequences for our understanding of a non-Valar centric reading of Middle-Earth. It means that there is a story of resistance against impossible odds in the East of Middle-Earth as well, not just the Northwest. Such stories simply never made it to us because of the Valinor-centric gaze. Perhaps it is here, in the East, where the fate of Middle-Eart was truly decided, unbeknownst to all the heroes of The Lord of the Rings. If Middle-Earth is to decolonise, therefore, it will need to re-historicize its history, this time acknowledging both the mistakes of the Valar, the Elves and the Edain as well as the contributions of the Haradrim and the Easterling.

The same applies to Earth. 

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