In late 2018, Andy Duncan, a sci-fi writer whose works include An Agent of Utopia and On 20468 Petercook, discussed his concern regarding what he felt to be racist remarks found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s telling of The Lord of the Rings. While being interviewed on a Wired podcast, he had this to say about the acclaimed author and his portrayal of some of his villains:
“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.”
The point Duncan stresses was not actually the intent of the author’s wording or character depiction. Tolkien isn’t being racist. The repeated notion that any reader can see, however, is that Tolkien honestly does call the villains of his story “black” or “dark” on countless occasions. Submerse yourself into the brief excerpt below, taken from The Two Towers, the novel which begins to provide an in-depth, up-close representation of the Orcs and the Uruk-hai:
“In the twilight he saw a large black Orc, probably Uglúk, standing facing Grishnákh, a short crook-legged creature, very broad and with long arms that hung almost to the ground. Round them were many smaller goblins.”
Here is a use of terminology the sense of which may be likened to its relative forms such as “black heart,” “Black Knight,” “black riders,” and even “Dark Lord.” When boiled down, any and all the above phrases are about as racist as referring to black tea as black tea. It can and should be agreed upon that both black and dark function as modifiers, as descriptions. However, with a text as rich in symbolism and metaphors as Tolkien’s certainly is, neither of these terms ought to always be taken at face value.
When Tolkien employs these words, he is not making a commentary on the biological characteristics of the enemies of his benevolent forces. The skin of these degenerated, inhuman creatures is inconsequential. Members of a number of races fight under the banners of Sauron and Saruman; the color of their skin is insignificant in linking them to any allegiance. Tolkien himself suggests this in a passage played out in The Fellowship of the Ring as Frodo says to Strider:
“You have frightened me several times tonight, but never in the way the servants of the Enemy would, or so I imagine. I think one of his spies would — well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.”
Thus, whether ugly and rugged or dressed in the finest white garments in all the land, it is one’s heart and not their outward appearance that belies their truest intentions. It merely behooves Tolkien to describe the Orcs the way he does: unkempt, unsymmetrical, and uncouth. When he labels them “black” or “dark,” he is giving character to their purpose, to their very being. This is most noticeably the case in the unflattering descriptions of the Dark Lord. The Orcs, as servants of the Dark Lord, are indeed invested in a dark purpose.
Tolkien, being of an informed and staunchly Catholic worldview, sees light as the bearer of truth with darkness, its opposite, as the enemy of truth. A vast darkness shrouds Mordor, and the Dark Lord Sauron seeks to deceive all whom he can. To make his point poignantly clear, the English author, therefore, douses his villains with darkness, warping their personalities with this trait physically as well as metaphorically. To get a taste of this, all one has to do is read how Tolkien describes the very implements, tools, and medicine of the black armies:
“He stooped over Pippin, bringing his yellow fangs close to his face. He had a black knife with a long jagged blade in his hand. ‘Lie quiet, or I’ll tickle you with this,’ he hissed.”
And later in the same sequence of events in which Merry and Pippin are at the mercy of the Orcs and Uruk-hai:
“Seizing him roughly Uglúk pulled him into a sitting position, and tore the bandage off his head. Then he smeared the wound with some dark stuff out of a small wooden box. Merry cried out and struggled wildly.”
Every element and aspect associated with the evil army (an inhuman and unholy army by the way) of the Dark Lord is characteristically black, dark, sullied, hidden.
The Lord of the Rings is a dark story as the title character himself is the Dark Lord, and the struggle noted within the tale is ultimately one between the consuming black hole in Mordor, the great Eye, and the light, or goodness, which is to be found in the pure of heart.
As with most epic stories which seek to delve into truth in a fictional setting, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings comes to a climax with light being the victor living to shine another day and forevermore. Good triumphs, and the people of Middle-earth are reminded that every shadow is inferior in position to the ever-rising sun. It is as the inspired Gospel writer John put it, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”