Diversity and Difference: Cosmopolitanism and The Lord of the Rings

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Publication: Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Author: Young, Helen
Date published: September 1, 2010
Language: English
PMID: 94214
ISSN: 08970521
Journal code: FTSR

I mean, admittedly, it's not a haven for the brothers. You know, strictly the Caucasian persuasion in the 'Dale.

-Mr. Trick, "Faith, Hope & Trick"1

MR. TRICK'S ASIDE MIGHT BE A COMMENT NOT JUST ON BUFFY THE VAMPIRE Slayer's Sunnydale but on fantasy worlds in general; they are widely thought of as almost exclusively of the "Caucasian persuasion," lacking racial diversity in characters, themes, and structures and being exclusively concerned with white, Western culture. Indeed some works, such as J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and film adaptations of it directed by Peter Jackson, have been accused of outright racism (Chism, "Race"). Charges of racism, and defenses against them, form a significant part of the scholarly literature and public discussions of representations of race in fantasy worlds (e.g., Rearick; Kirkland). A common perception is that most fantasy, like its sister genre science fiction, rarely addresses issues of racism and that minority readers are often not interested in it because it generally pays lip-service at best to such questions (Westfahl 72). Popular fantasy, however, often generates its narrative trajectory from encounters between different cultures and species. Further, its worlds are commonly populated by different, often mutually suspicious or inimical species such as elves, dwarves, humans, and goblins. Such generic features strongly suggest that an investigation of representations of racial and cultural difference might be illuminating.

Issues surrounding racial and cultural difference are highly significant for contemporary society with its increasingly mobile global population, and one broad theoretical concept which is garnering increasing attention in international social, educational, and cultural studies is "cosmopolitanism." Cosmopolitanism is broadly a set of sociological theories which are concerned with overcoming national prejudices, recognizing the mutual interdependence of global humanity, and advocating world citizenship, justice, and democracy (Fine). While the concept has only relatively recently been articulated as a whole, many of its elements have been espoused in fantasy literature for many years, an argument this article will make with reference to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. While many fantasy works rely on European cultural references and are lacking in multicultural human societies, such features are not synonymous with racism, and do not necessarily indicate a lack of concern with diversity.

A small amount of recent work reveals ways sf and fantasy can reflect changing ideologies of race and ethnicity (Chappell; Thrall; Young). A significant body of scholarly literature examines representations of race in sf, while relatively little addresses fantasy narratives, as Elisabeth Anne Leonard noted over a decade ago. Tolkien's work, though, has been a locus for discussions, and indeed debates, about race and racism in the fantasy genre since it was first published (Rearick). By exploring connections between Tolkien's work and contemporary concepts of cosmopolitanism, this article seeks to add a new dimension to this ongoing discussion. Although a degree of defense is perhaps inherent in its argument, it is not primarily concerned with taking a side but rather with demonstrating how fantasy concepts of difference and diversity resonate with those of the real world. This article argues that The Lord of the Rings is ultimately a cosmopolitan work because it provides a model of society in which common ground and a united purpose not only allow diversity, but require it.

Jane Chance argues that "Tolkien demonstrates that he dislikes most of all [...] segregation of the Other, and isolation of those who are different, whether by race, nationality, culture, class, age, or gender" (172). There are, moreover, as Sandra Straubhaar has argued, elements of multiculturalism and hybridity in The Lord of the Rings, along with racialized taxonomies of human worth - the "High" Gondorians and the "Middle" Rohirrim, for example (102-04). Tolkien, however, does not present a one -dimensional world where difference is either celebrated or derided in a simplistic way devoid of reality, but rather a complex one where diversity is essential to cultural renewal. Multiculturalism, which celebrates diversity but does not work towards recognition of mutual dependence or advocate global consciousness in the way that cosmopolitanism does, can be used to describe some aspects of this complexity; Straubhaar, for example, examines representations of hybridity in detail. This article further explores the complexities of Tolkien's world by reading The Lord of the Rings through theories of cosmopolitanism.

Recent thought concerning cosmopolitanism in a globalized society offers a number of specific themes or ideas that connect fantasy literature and cosmopolitanism. Ulrich Beck's sociological approach, for example, is concerned with the future of world society and culture rather than the historical relationships of nations, as Robert Fine observes (6-7). Beck argues that a "world-risk society" is faced with threats such as global warming which cannot be managed unilaterally by individual nations and must be responded to co-operatively by the global community. In the face of such planet-wide issues, "the past loses its power to determine the present. Instead, the future - something non-existent, constructed or fictitious - takes its place as the cause of present experience and action" (Beck 137). Large-scale risk is so common as to be a defining feature of fantasy fiction, and responses to it often require the mobilization of historically disparate or even hostile groups.

Magdalena Nowicka and Maria Rovisco offer two useful definitions of cosmopolitanism: as practice and moral outlook. They argue that the former "is apparent in things that people do and say to positively engage with the otherness of the other and the oneness of the world" and that the latter "emphasizes both tolerance towards difference and the possibility of a more just world order" (2). The moral dimension also includes, as Michèle Lamont and Sada Aksartova suggest, strong commitment to universale, that is, active support and celebration, not just recognition of commonalities amidst diversity. Along these lines, The Lord of the Rings demonstrates concern with moral and practical issues surrounding inter-cultural and inter-racial encounters as cooperation and presents diversity in a way that resonates strongly with some aspects of contemporary cosmopolitan thought.

From the first publication of The Lord of the Rings (1954-55), accusations of racism were leveled at Tolkien and have not died down in the intervening years in the media or scholarly discussion and fan-forums (Rearick; Chism, "Racism"; Fimi; Reynolds and Stewart), and are also a topic of discussion surrounding the films directed by Peter Jackson (Bloomfield; Curry; Kim; Rosebury) . The charges of racism leveled at Tolkien and his work cannot be lightly dismissed, and, as Brian Rosebury points out, "some may feel that at the start of the twenty-first century, any Eurocentric modeling of peoples in conflict is unacceptable or imprudent" (557). The very existence of debates about his representations of difference is, however, positive because they foreground questions of diversity, racism, and so on not only in relation to The Lord of the Rings, but in wider society. Myriad online fan-forums and blogs contain threads discussing racism charges (Kowal; "LOTR"; "Racism"), issues of representation and the like, thereby drawing attention to such matters and having a positive effect even if an individual does find the works themselves racist. While it is unquestionably true that colors and geography (dark/light, west/east) are linked to good and evil in The Lord of the Rings, to call Tolkien, his works, or the films based on them racist is a serious oversimplification which does not take into account the diversity of the cultures and individuals that are represented.

The use of imagined worlds as locations for exploring culturally and socially difficult issues has a history stretching back at least to the Middle Ages. As Geraldine Heng argues, medieval romances were often vehicles through which cultural trauma, such as the disasters (for Western Europe) of the Crusades could be re -imagined and re -figured to produce ideological, culturally restorative narratives. It is possible, although any direct connection must be speculative, that this medieval tendency to re-locate contemporary problems to the past shaped the similar tendency in modern fantasy fiction. After all, many of the early and most influential fantasy writers were professional scholars of the medieval period; Tolkien is the best known of these although C. S. Lewis is another.

Tolkien's presentation of difference does not spring principally from his use of color imagery, nor from association of good with the west and evil with the east, or, indeed from his delineations of good and evil at all, but rather from how he presents different species and their interactions. He advocates alliances between racially and culturally different human groups, but also between diverse species which are faced with a common threat. Different species - elves, humans, and dwarves - have quite different origins in Arda which problematizes any attempt to simply read their differences as symbolic of human diversity. In The Lord of the Rings, however, genuine intrinsic differences are generally either subsumed into culture or presented as different types of the same traits, such as courage. Tolkien himself rejected strictly allegorical readings of his work - for example, as allegories of either World War, and suggested instead the idea of "applicability," whereby readers could make their own connections and find their own resonances within it (Shippey, J. R. R. 163-64). As noted above, some, perhaps many, readers find racist sentiments in The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien's ideas about the applicability of his work allow space for these readings to be legitimate. The text itself, however, constructs difference and diversity in ways that not only justify but encourage a cosmopolitan reading. Inter-group and inter-species cooperation gives The Lord of the Rings a strong flavor of diversity and makes its engagements with difference applicable to real-world concepts and experiences. Middleearth can be read as cosmopolitan because the success of the alliance against evil - which will be the focus of the discussion below - depends on its diversity as much as it does its unity; racial and cultural differences complement each other, and the traits and abilities of each group contribute to eventual victory over evil. Finding common ground through a mutual purpose while accepting and even valuing difference are key features of this alliance.

The need to join together with a common purpose to resist a common foe is articulated at various points throughout The Lord of the Rings, such as when the story first reaches the city of Minas Tirith, the capital of the realm of Gondor which has been in the forefront of the struggle against Sauron. On being offered the services of a single hobbit, Pippin, Minas Tirith's ruler the Steward Denethor says: "I accept your service. For you are not daunted by words; and you have courteous speech, strange though the sound of it may be to us in the South. And we shall have need of all folk of courtesy, be they great or small, in the days to come" (V/l).2 The reference to accents foregrounds cultural difference and simultaneously dismisses it as a hindrance. Tolkien's use of language and speech as a marker of difference extends throughout The Lord of the Rings, a point I will return to below in my discussion of the Council of Elrond. A similar sentiment is expressed by Gandalf a short time later when Denethor has emphasized his concern for Gondor, his own realm: "But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come" (V/l). He does not dismiss the fate of Gondor, but rather points out that the things that are common to it and other places, that is, universale, are more important than any one place or people; in doing so he expresses a global rather than a local or national consciousness. Again, not long after, Pippin meets another defender of Minas Tirith who remarks that "strange accents do not mar fair speech" (V/l), once more drawing attention to difference and commonalities at the same time. There is no desire to correct Pippin's accent nor lack of ability to understand it; rather, it is acknowledged and accepted as different without being inferior or a point of divisiveness.

The importance of diversity within the unity of the struggle against Sauron is reinforced when the forces aligned against him parley with his herald immediately before the final battle: "There was Gandalf as chief herald, and Aragorn with the sons of Elrond, and Eomer of Rohan, and Imrahil; and Legolas and Gimli and Peregrin were bidden to go also, so that all the enemies of Mordor should have a witness" (V/10). As a group they are contrasted with the sole messenger of Sauron: "the monocultural domination of [...] Sauron is counterposed by the diversity of those who join together against all odds to resist him" (Chism, "Racism" 555). This echoes the singularity of the purpose behind the forces of evil: it is one will, one being, Sauron, and his "one ring to rule them all" opposed to the purposes of many. There is mutual acceptance and recognition of common ground within the alliance of different species and ethnic groups, as well as knowledge of their need to unite.

Tolkien's world is one where diversity is not only valued, but essential, if evil is to be defeated. The narrative of The Lord of the Rings demonstrates a significant degree of cosmopolitanism because the diverse species must overcome their cultural and individual differences, and histories of mistrust and hostility, to successfully combat and destroy the evil lord Sauron. The company of "Nine Walkers" is a microcosm of this broader situation. The company comprises an elf, Legolas; a dwarf, Gimli; two humans, Aragorn and Boromir; four hobbits, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin; and a wizard, Gandalf. Wizards constitute a separate species in Tolkien's work, unlike many other fantasies where they are simply humans with magical powers.3 Each individual has his own strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of his species, and each makes his own individual contribution to the ultimate success of their quest.

These contributions are generally directly linked to the inherent traits of each species. Hobbits, for example, are not warriors, and their contributions are for the most part not in direct combat. When they are forced to it, however, the "slow-kindled courage" of their kind makes them more formidable foes than their size would suggest - for example, Merry helps to slay the chief Ringwraith, the captain of Sauron's forces (V/6). Gimli, the cave-dwelling dwarf, helps to lead them through the ore-infested mines of Moria; Legolas's elven bow-craft and far-sighted eyes help him shoot down an airborne Ringwraith; and the endurance and fighting skills of Aragorn and Boromir are essential at a number of points along their journey.

Attribution of common traits to a species, or indeed a race in the cases of the various human peoples such as Dunlanders, Gondorians, and Rohirrim, is one element of The Lord of the Rings which opens the way for a racist reading. Such traits, however, are not static as many of the major characters of the tale take on attributes of other species. For example, Pippin and Merry become man-like after forming strong bonds with the Gondorians and Rohirrim respectively, a change which can be seen in, for example, the martial leadership role they play during the Scouring of the Shire. Their physical transformations, including growing taller, are in part the result of drinking Entish draughts, a further indication that the character of a species can be changed by exposure to outside influences. Transformations of this kind suggest a reading of the text where difference is significantly cultural rather than racialized.

The company is assembled at the Council of Elrond, which many of them have attended as representatives - or parts of the delegation - of their peoples. They bring with them tales of danger from a common source; all have been visited by the servants of Sauron in search of his long-lost ring. There is little action and much talk during the council, and it is through the dialogue that Tolkien creates a strong sense of cultural difference for the different peoples represented there; as Tom Shippey argues, there is no mistaking a dwarf for an elf (J. R. R. 68-76). By representing diversity through language, which is learned, rather than racialized physical features, which are not, Tolkien not only displays his own philological roots but creates an image of difference as a creation of culture. The differences in speech patterns, word usage, grammar, and so on emphasize the diversity of the gathering and thus add a sense of cosmopolitanism to the eventual consensus about what should be done and by whom. Unity, not only of purpose but of practice, is forged without cultural differences being lost. The importance of this unity is demonstrated throughout the narrative because although Sauron's ring is ultimately destroyed by Frodo and Sam, two hobbits, and the major battles that are described are almost exclusively fought by humans, it is clear that without the support of other groups and species, the struggle against Sauron would have been lost.

In the case of the dwarves, Gimli's people of the Lonely Mountain, the quest would have failed before it began. They know the whereabouts of the Shire, the home of the hobbits where Sauron's ring is at the start of the narrative, but refuse to divulge knowledge of its whereabouts to Sauron's servants despite the offer of the return of lost heirlooms of their race. Likewise, the elves make a crucial contribution: the elves of Lothlorien, however, allow the company to enter their sanctuary despite the dangers that they bring with them and the presence of a dwarf, as discussed below. The forces of good are represented almost entirely by humans in the major battles that are described,4 and the hobbits individually contribute more than any others. Without any of these contributions, the quest would have failed and the war been lost.

There is a long history of enmity and isolationism between some species, most notably the elves and dwarves as mentioned above. Detailed reasons for this mistrust are not given in The Lord of the Rings, but its bitterness is evident when the company reaches Lothlorien, an elven stronghold: "? dwarf!' said Haldir. 'That is not well. We have not had dealings with the Dwarves since the Dark Days. They are not permitted in our land. I cannot allow him to pass'" (II/6). Gimli is permitted to enter the realm because of his connections to Legolas, an elf, and Aragorn, who is known to the elves of Lothlorien already. Haldir, the border guard who allows him to enter against the laws of the land, comments: "Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him" (II/6), clearly articulating the negativity of prejudice. Galadriel and Celeborn, the rulers of the realm, rescind their law a short time later and order that the whole company be welcomed. To borrow Beck's words, "the past loses its power to determine the present. Instead, the future [...] takes its place as the cause of present experience and action" (137). The episode demonstrates that Tolkien misliked social and cultural isolation not only when imposed on others externally, as Chance notes (172), but also when it is self-imposed. The change in the strongly isolationist policy of the Galadhrim stems from the importance of the company's quest, and demonstrates that they recognize the over-riding importance of universals. Theirs is a model of change that involves both morality and practicality, themselves key elements of cosmopolitanism as discussed above.

Although the lines between good and evil are usually clearly drawn, the species that feature most significantly are not one -dimensional; there is no simple dichotomy in terms of their characteristics, even though there is for their purposes. There are some species that are invariably on the side of evil, or are at the least broadly malevolent: ores are the most prominent. The invariable evil of ores has been a point of concern in scholarly and popular discussions (Rearick; "LOTR"), and their nature and existence was also troubling to Tolkien himself, albeit for slightly different reasons. He struggled to account for their origins within the cosmology of Arda. He concluded that "it was by the malice of Melkor that the Ores arose, [...] being bred to be wholly subservient to his will, and filled with unappeasable hatred of Elves and Men" ("Ores" 416). Ores cannot be considered in the same way as the other species of Middle-earth since they were specifically created for malicious purposes and are, when they appear in The Lord of the Rings, under the domination of Sauron's malevolent will. Ores in the text, despite their few redeeming features such as loyalty to each other as discussed below, do not have the freedom of will and agency of other species.

Although ores are always part of the forces of evil, at times they do display positive qualities such as courage: "We are the Uruk-hai: we do not stop the fight for night or day, for fair weather or for storm. We come to kill, by sun or moon. What of the dawn?" (III/7). They are also loyal to their own: '"I left a fool,' snarled Grisknákh. 'But there were some stout fellows with him that are too good to lose. I knew you'd lead them into a mess. I've come to help them'" (III/3). While they are not pure evil, their lack of agency which results from their subservience to stronger, evil wills - Sauron's and Saruman's - means that they signify an aspect of humanity which cannot be incorporated into a cosmopolitan vision of the world because it is inimical to it. They are part of a totalitarian movement which seeks to erase rather than celebrate diversity.

Tolkien did allow that even ores were considered "within the Law," meaning that while they should be fought with all available resources, "they must not be dealt with in their own terms of cruelty and treachery." Indeed, "if any Ores surrendered and asked for mercy, they must be granted it" ("Ores" 419). The Lord of the Rings, of course, contains no episodes where this occurs, and while the stricture might seem to have more to do with the morality of elves, humans, and the rest, it is based on the belief that ores were "not in their origin evil" ("Ores" 419). This might be read in moral, or even Christian, terms of redemption, but might equally be read as providing at least theoretical space for ores to be part of the cosmopolitan community should genuine commonalities be found.

Moreover, good species - elves, dwarves, hobbits, and humans - are not always good. There are individuals who act wrongly and whole groups who behave badly, or who have done so in the past even if they do not act badly within the books' time -frame. One example is the historical enmity between elves and dwarves; another instance threatens when Galadriel the Elven Queen demonstrates her own potential to turn away from good:

"In place of a Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!"

[...] She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. (II/7)

She resists the temptation before her and chooses to "remain Galadriel," but the possibility is nonetheless real. In this rejection of power, Galadriel perhaps gains some redemption for her role in the departure of the Noldor from Valinor and the wars over the Silmarils. Although these events are referred to only obliquely in The Lord of the Rings, they certainly demonstrate that the goodness of elves is by no means a given.

Further, the motivations of the humans on the side of Sauron are questioned. Frodo and Sam witness a battle between Sauron's forces and soldiers of Gondor who are temporarily sheltering them. One of the enemy soldiers is killed in front of their hiding place: "It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered 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" (IV/4). The moment is interrupted by the rampages of a wounded war-elephant, but despite its brevity is significant because it demonstrates that there is no intrinsic, irrevocable dichotomy between the sides. There is no middle ground between the opponents in the war, but there is still room for ambiguity.

Further, cultural renewal results in a significant part from intercultural exchange. Gondor is static and failing:

Yet it was in truth falling year by year into decay; and already it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there. In every street they passed some great house or court over whose doors and arched gates were carved many fair letters of strange and ancient shapes [...] yet now they were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window. (V/l)

This is not just because it bears the brunt of the defensive war against Sauron, but because it has not changed; it remains in a state of stasis waiting for its king to return. Denethor's acceptance of Pippin's service might be read as indicative of this stasis, as the hobbit is simply assimilated into the existing structure of society. The essence of his difference is cultural, symbolized by his speech, but is over-written when he becomes part of the city guard, is dressed in their uniform, and enters their disciplined life. Minas Tirith is multicultural in the sense that it can accept difference, but it is not cosmopolitan because it does not sustain that difference and is not stimulated to look outside itself. The image of a lifeless culture is reinforced by contrasts with Rohan, as Shippey points out (Road; J. R. R.). The golden age that is introduced at the end of The Lord of the Rings results not just from victory. Tolkien, having lived through the post-World War II years in Britain (which are invoked if not directly referenced in the "Scouring of the Shire" chapter of The Return of the King) would have known that such a simple cause-and-effect relationship did not exist. Rather, cultural renewal in Gondor occurs because of increased contact with other cultures, whether it is closer ties with the Rohirrim, dwarven craftsmen who come to repair the damages of the war, or the Elven havens on the Anduin. A cosmopolitan society is, as the end of The Lord of the Rings, a vital and vibrant one which celebrates diversity and commonalities simultaneously.

The cosmopolitanism of Middle-earth is driven by a moral imperative in that opposing the totalitarian evil of Sauron is presented as good. It is also a practical strategy, as without unity and mutual support, any resistance is ultimately futile. Beck's notion of a risk society shaping the present according to a desired future rather than a hoarded past resonates strongly: past enmities which threaten trust must be put aside; for example, the years of suspicion between elves and dwarves.

Tolkien's medievalism almost certainly provided him with some of the material that is commonly criticized because of its apparent racial stereotyping, just as it gave him so much else (see, for example, Chance; Shippey, Road and J. R. R.). Medieval concepts of race were at times complex, but racial purity was valued, even sought in the histories of the time. Moreover, the romances that Tolkien knew so well were written during and after the time of the Crusades and commonly featured Saracens - Islamic peoples of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain - as the enemy. Although not invariably so, Saracens were widely represented as racially as well as religiously different from the western European audiences of the works, and in such literature, darkness, whether of the skin or anything else, was associated with evil (read as non-Christianity in those texts). This was so much so that in one romance, The King of Tars, a convert's skin color changed from black to white when he was baptized. Tolkien's use of dark and light imagery is not limited to the skin color of humans and ores, but is itself colored by the conventions of medieval literature.

Several other points of close similarity exist between Western medieval representations of the Saracen foe in romances - the medieval version of fantasy fiction. The "unfathomable size" of Saracen armies is a generic feature of the Middle English romances that Tolkien drew on (Cordery 92). Christian knights are conventionally depicted as heroic because of the size of the armies ranged against them; Richard Coeur de Don, the nationalist English romance of the Crusading king, states that the reinforcements of Saracen armies are endless. Such overwhelming numbers are evident in the armies of Sauron:

Dust rose smothering the air, as from nearby there marched up an army of Easterlings that had waited for the signal in the shadows of Ered Lithui beyond the further Tower. Down from the hills on either side of the Morannon poured Ores innumerable. The men of the West were trapped, and soon, all about the grey mounds where they stood, forces ten times and more than ten times their match would ring them in a sea of enemies. (V/ 10)

Another point is that Saracen giants were so common in such literature as to be archetypal (Metlitzki 161). Some, such as Colbrond and Amoraunt from Guy of Warwick, are defeated in extended single combat by the knightly protagonist; others, for example, in Of Arthour and of Merlin are the leaders of armies rather than individual champions: "King Taurus was xiiii fet long / An vnrede geaunt and a strong [King Taurus was fourteen feet tall / A savage and strong giant]" (8481 -82). 5 This second type is dispatched relatively easily in the course of battle - as King Taurus is at the hand of Sir Gawain the nephew of King Arthur. The chieftains of Sauron's armies are likewise outsized. For example, the Lord of the Nazgûl, slain by Eowyn and Merry is "tall and threatening, towering" (V/6) and is similar to the archetypal giant champion of medieval romance. Of the second kind is the leader of Saruman's ruffians at the Battle of Bywater, "a great squint-eyed brute like a huge ore," who is dispatched by Merry (VI/8) .

Tolkien, whether consciously and deliberately or not, was drawing on the literature that he most admired in his representations of the differences between good and evil in The Lord of the Rings. To say he inherited the usage is not to excuse, but to contextualize it. Western literature and culture has continued to reproduce the dichotomies of Self and Other and West and East. The racialized religious conflict that imbued Western medieval literature provides a background and set of influences for Tolkien's work that is certainly potentially very troubling to a contemporary audience, and one that cannot be simply dismissed. To merely state, however, that he used racially based stereotypes and imagery that have racist tones to them is not to examine the full sweep of his engagements with diversity.

Tolkien's work was, as noted above, foundational to the genre of fantasy fiction, and much later writing is more or less derivative of it. Many derivative works do not attain the level of complexity of the original and do not always present diversity in the same way. The diverse, questing band found for example in David Eddings's Mallorean series is, however, a very common trope that has its origins in the company of Nine Walkers. Other motifs less positive to the modern eye, such as depictions of an enemy as "dark," have also been taken up - for example by Raymond E. Feist with his moredhel or dark elves - to such an extent that as Leonard points out the connection made between dark/black and evil generally goes both unnoticed and unquestioned (2). Whether or not the races or cultures from which its members come support their endeavors on a wider scale, the trope of the mixed band of adventurers points to a positive model of diversity on a personal scale. The Lord of the Rings laid foundations for engagements with difference and for cosmopolitan ideologies to be explored in fantasy fiction through its representation of moral and practical dimensions of diversity.

Tolkien's world resembles our own in part because of its flaws - racial stereotyping among them - but also like ours has redeeming features to counterbalance these. The alliance against Sauron resonates with contemporary ideas of cosmopolitanism: it fosters a global consciousness, values and even requires diversity and difference, and negotiates age-old enmities in the pursuit of the common purpose of combating a mutual threat. The rhetoric of global threats - climate change and terrorism in particular - presents them in ways which are comparable to the threat posed to the people of Middleearth by Sauron. Long-held assumptions about and large-scale delineations of difference, such as West and East, and Third and First World, are unsustainable when unilateral action can have little or no result; a major polluter such as the USA or China cannot take productive action on climate change unless other nations also do so. The Council of Elrond can easily be read as a successful United Nations Helsinki conference on climate change.

As mentioned above, Tolkien vehemently denied that his work should be read as an allegorical representation of real-world situations, particularly those of World War II. His preferred model of applicability allows readers to find meaning for themselves in his works. The diversity of readings of The Lord of the Rings demonstrates the success of this approach; it can be and has been read as applicable to both World Wars, the environmental movement, and as both racist and anti-racist. Theories of cosmopolitanism provide a positive framework through which The Lord of the Rings may be read as a vision of a modern racially and culturally diverse world.


1. Quoted in Kirkland.

2. Because there are multiple editions with different pagination of The Lord of the Rings, I cite references by the original six books into which Tolkien divided his work, followed by the chapter number, as Shippey does (J. R. R. 51).

3. See Unfinished Tales, page 388 and following, for Tolkien's explanation of the origins of the wizards or "Istari."

4. In the books. The presence of elves at the battle of Helm's Deep in the film The Two Towers is a significant departure from Tolkien's text.

5. The translation is my own.

Works Cited

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Author affiliation:

HELEN YOUNG holds a bachelor of arts/creative arts from the University of Wollongong, and a PhD in medieval English from the University of Sydney. She currently teaches in communications at the University of Western Sydney.

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