J.R.R. Tolkien misogynist and racist? The debate after the release of The Rings of Power

Does it show The Rings of Power that J.R.R. Tolkien was a misogynist and racist? The question has been repeated frequently over the past few weeks. Prime Video’s series premiere not only reinvents Middle-earth and its characters from a fresh point of view.

It also seeks to rewrite the British writer’s work. The first fiction set in Tolkien’s world tells of a historical period that the author himself did not delve into. The Second Age is an unknown even to scholars of the writer’s saga. So the production took risky decisions to carry out its ambitious project.

One of them is to include greater racial diversity in Tolkien’s world. Another is to provide an unprecedented power to his female characters often perceived as having a discreet relevance. Finally, the landscape in Middle-earth seems to have changed due to contemporary sensibility. Something unforgivable for the rigid fans of the literary version.

Tolkien versus the concerns of contemporary culture

But the controversy over the additions and reinterpretations of The Rings of Power to the Tolkien saga also leads to more uncomfortable questions. In the fictional world, it seems, all races have white skin and women are hardly counselors, fated heroines, or mysterious figures. What does that indicate was Tolkien racist, misogynistic, or, at worst, did he create an epic tailored to his prejudices?

And far more urgent still. Can a fantastic work published 70 years ago be measured and interpreted according to today’s parameters? The questions to The Rings of Power are troubling in their implications. In particular, because of what their followers’ strict reading of the series suggests about how a universe of such richness should be translated to new media.

Despite its rigorously detailed visual portrayal of Tolkien’s imagined locations, the series takes wide liberties with the central storyline. So much so, as to cause its quality as a derivative work to be troubling to fans of the literary epic.

Are racialized characters necessary in a narrative based on Norse, English, and Celtic mythology? Was it imperative to reinvent a central figure into a version more in keeping with contemporary powerful women?

The critical point of the debate hints that Tolkien would never have approved of such changes in his work. This suggests that the writer had certain positions about the skin color or sex of his characters. Is this true? Indeed, the British author’s context shows just the opposite and makes it clear that his work evolved according to his special sensibility.

Tolkien’s Middle-earth vs. The Rings of Power

Tolkien’s literary saga requires an in-depth analysis of its symbolism to be fully understood. The scholar used his great literary epic to link mythologies and beliefs. But, above all, he did so to reinvent ancient convictions about ways of storytelling, rather than to reflect the world around him. The author made it clear on numerous occasions that Middle-earth was not an allegorical look at the world he lived in.

In fact, he made this point in the foreword to the second British edition of. The Lord of the Rings. “It is neither allegorical nor topical,” he insists in the text. Further, he clarifies that he dislikes “allegory in all its manifestations”. So that none of Tolkien’s books or stories are created to send political, ideological messages or to reflect specific opinions.

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The world imagined by the writer is hierarchical, in the manner of the medieval “chain of being.” According to this principle, everything that lives and is in Middle-earth is linked to “spirit” and “matter.” Thus, the Valar, Maiar, Elves and other creatures represent the absolute good. While the orcs, trolls and other manifestations of darkness do the same with evil. Between both extremes is shown Middle-earth, a vast world, deeply populated and with its own characteristics.

Light and Shadow in Middle-earth

The Rings of Power / Tolkien
For Tolkien, the true value of his characters lies in the moral qualities they exhibit. The most luminous ones are related to spiritual value and the writer emphasizes their intangible beauty. In just a handful of fragments, he devotes time and interest to the physical appearance as a determining factor of character of the person it describes.

As he does when detailing Galadriel’s hair and relating it to the brightness of the trees of Valinor, an essential point to understand the personality of the Elf Lady. Something similar happens with the air of tragic nobility that surrounds Frodo after being wounded by She. The Spider.

Again and again, the writer uses the beautiful to extol intangible and emotional qualities. So much so, that even the degradation of that exalted look is not related to the physical but to the capacity for creation. Morgoth/Melkor, who cannot give life, perverts the existing. This explains some interpretations about the creation of orcs related to corrupted versions of elves and, later, men. Their “ugliness” comes from destruction, not from physical defect.

The Rings of Power evidence of racism in Tolkien’s work?

Under that perception, for Tolkien, the color of the skin of his characters has no influence. Much less considering that much of his work is neither allegorical nor does it reflect the real world.

For the writer, physical attractiveness was directly related to goodness, heroism and bravery. Which is to say that, except for the orcs and their depiction of “corrupt” darkness, his characters were symbols.

So much so that when Tolkien began to narrate his own mythology he related it to a purpose and the confrontation between darkness and light. Which, little or nothing has to do with appearance. Actually, for the Briton, the aim of every man, woman and creature in his world was to serve a greater good. One bound up with an eye for goodness and extraordinary feelings, rather than with any physical aspect.
The Rings of Power / Tolkien
And what about his referents? Tolkien’s work draws from mythological cycles related to white-skinned characters. But, as the author himself pointed out, his world is a careful combination of all the noble elements of older tales. For the Briton, what was valuable in his narrative were the ethical qualities of his characters. This, above and beyond any indication of their specific aspect.

Galadriel in The Rings of Power

In one of the scenes of The Rings of Power Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) announces that she is taking up arms against Morgoth and his lieutenant, Sauron. This is not a poetic image. The sequence shows her standing next to the corpse of her older brother as the character assures, i made his cause mine. She was referring to the battle of the elves of Valinor against evil, represented by their greatest and most bitter enemy.

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Later, the Elf Lady advances through Middle-earth in search of the shadow of evil. All this sheathed in shining armor and sword in hand. Does this perception contradict what is written about the character by J.R.R. Tolkien?

Galadriel is one of the most beloved figures in the writer’s mythology. One that, in addition, went through all kinds of revisions by the author. The analysis included essays, notes and stories that allowed him to endow the character with a surprising depth.

Galadriel in Tolkien’s universe

Over the decades, the author linked new information with the information he provided about the Elf in the trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Which allowed his reflection on the moral good to become more marked in Galadriel.
The Rings of Power / Tolkien
Although the Elf-Lady is never described in battles or fighting, Tolkien makes clear her weight and importance. He also emphasizes her relevance to the historical landscape of Middle-earth. For the writer, it was of considerable interest that the character should be, in addition to a privileged witness of the Ages, a point of value.

Indeed, all the women in Tolkien’s work are of enormous fortitude and representations of pure goodness. Eowyn, a reformulation of the Norse Valkyries, represents dignity and the value of loyalty. Both the Lady of Rohan and the Lothlórien share traits about their quality as emblems of the incorruptible.

Toliken was not so far from The Rings of Power

In the case of Galadriel this is even more marked. According to the book Legendarium (2000) written by Verlyn Flieger and Carl F. Hostetter, the Elf Lady is of a peculiar complexity. As a survivor of multiple tragedies, is powerful by lineage, but also in her own right. Tolkien added new dimensions to her character to create a heroine who represented a bridge between ages in a complicated world.

In the same way as race, sex is of little importance to the writer. Particularly when the whole mythology of his work proceeds from the contrast between goodness the aspiration to heroism and evil.

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From Gandalf, embodiment of the transcendental, to Aragorn, the anonymous warrior turned hero. Tolkien’s work traverses identity, the quest for the mystical goal, and even the challenge of the legendary Great Undertaking. As a storyteller, he described his characters, but he always made it clear that the true value of his work was much more abstract and intangible. Undoubtedly one of his most powerful points.