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"Dwarves are not heroes": antisemitism and the Dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien's writing.

squire
Valinor


Feb 20 2013, 4:11pm

Post #1 of 16 (1079 views)
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"Dwarves are not heroes": antisemitism and the Dwarves in J.R.R. Tolkien's writing. Can't Post

I stumbled on a link to this fine 2010 article from Mythlore, now posted on FreeLibrary. In it, Rebecca Brackmann argues that 1) Tolkien's elaboration of his mythology's "Dwarves" in The Hobbit contain many more traces of the conventional antisemitism of the time than most critics seem to have noticed; and 2) Tolkien himself realized this, possibly spurred by news of the Holocaust during the second world war, and spent considerable energy revising the fundamental characterization of the Dwarves in both The Lord of the Rings and in his later emendations to The Silmarillion and The Hobbit in the post-war years.

Brackmann's final point is that Tolkien could not let go of the deeper racialism that underlies his entire mythology, merely by revising the Dwarves to be more admirable than laughable or contemptible. It is a mistake to associate antisemitism only with hostile prejudice. She asserts that antisemitism exists when one believes that Jews are a distinct race with unchangeable characteristics, whether one admires them or loathes them. That, more than the specifics of language or gold-lust or cowardly behavior, is what ties Tolkien's Dwarves, created as a special race separate from the Children of Iluvatar, to contemporary European thinking about Jews in Tolkien's era.

The article is long but pretty well written and argued -- see what you think, if this subject interests you.



squire online:
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elevorn
Lorien


Feb 20 2013, 5:56pm

Post #2 of 16 (793 views)
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It is an interesting read... [In reply to] Can't Post

It certainly presupposes the authors view that Tolkine directly wrote the dwarves to be "like" jews. At the same time, why should we not pull out other people groups, The Haradrim, the Swarthy men, and even the better known examples of caucasians found in Tolkien's world.

The argument is well written and failry well argued from several points of view. However for me it ignored completely the authorial purpose of the dwarves. The one time the narrator is reffered to in the article, the phrase is merely used to prove a point. The character of the narrator is ignored, the voice of the narrator is ignored and simply textualized. One can certainly argue that Tolkien may have had a deep seated issue. But more than this essay would be needed to truly explore such a notion. Especially with the authors own admissions and statements on the subject. The Hobbit is a children's story, yet that seems to be ignored in this article. The voice, and purpose and use of language are all moved around to suit the author's purpose of proving a point. The point of semitic languages certainly holds weight, yet when one examines the number of races and peoples who use such a language structure the argument loses some merrit. More to that Tolkien was using his philology in order to move language forward in his mythology. Possibly at some point these languages became the languages of europe in Tolkiens imagination.

Just my thoughts. good find!



"clever hobbits to climb so high!"
Check out my writing www.jdstudios.wordpress.com


demnation
Rohan


Feb 20 2013, 7:04pm

Post #3 of 16 (775 views)
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Fascinating. Thank You. [In reply to] Can't Post

One thing I can agree on: That if we are to take Tolkien seriously ( and I assume many of us do), then we have to be willing to look at and engage in aspects of his work that may be problematic or even offensive. Something that has bothered me about Tolkien scholarship is the feeling that most would rather avoid these types of issues. This is not really exclusive to Tolkien, of course. I was shocked at how little criticism I could find on Shakespeare in relation to race, gender, class etc. So, I applaud Brackmann and her willingness to approach Tolkien from this perspective.

That being said, I vehemently disagree with her broad definition of antisemitism. In fact, it angers me. I don't know if hers is the generally accepted definition, but in my experience, the "anti" in antisemitism is synonymous with "hatred" and Tolkien certainly didn't express hatred of Jews. Ignorance, perhaps, but not hatred. Another problem ( a problem of most criticism, really) is the focus ultimately feels too narrow. Recognizing that Tolkien realized he made a mistake and tried to rectify it in later works is great, but what about, as elevorn said above, swarthy men, "least-lovely mongol- types" and other unfortunate implications. What about the flip side? Could it reasonably be said that Legolas' and Gimlis relationship is a condemnation of presuppositions based on race? Sam's realization that the Harad man may not be really evil at heart.? The fact that some of the men of Gondor are described as swarthy? The only people who throw around racial epithets are the Orcs?

Somewhat ironically, there just seems to be too much presupposing of Tolkien's intent behind what he wrote and said. Still, a well researched article ( more than can be said for most criticism of Tolkien!) but I feel that discussing Tolkien and antisemitism is done best when all racial aspects of his work can be included in the discussion.

Use Well the Days


CuriousG
Valinor


Feb 20 2013, 10:00pm

Post #4 of 16 (763 views)
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Flimsy to me [In reply to] Can't Post

I agree with many of your points, but I found the reasoning in the article to be flimsy. Even as a Tolkien fan trying to be objective about this, I didn't see the Dwarf-Jew connection. Your points about other racial implications are worth discussing, but this one doesn't go anywhere for me.

Where to begin? Semitic languages include Arabic. I don't spend time around people speaking Hebrew, but I've tutored a number of Moroccans in English, and their Arabic seems far more guttural to me than the occasional snippets of Hebrew I hear on the news. So, if Tolkien was basing "Khazad-dum" on a Semitic tongue, I'd guess he was going for Arabic over Hebrew.

But choice of language doesn't determine everything. He admired the Finnish and Welsh languages, yet his beloved hobbits are culturally like ordinary English, and his admired Rohirrim seem Germanic, not Finnish or Welsh. So why don't Finns and Welsh show up prominently in his books?

What I found rather offensive was Brackmann's assumption that depicting a group as greedy means they must be diguised Jews. Are Jews the only cultural/racial group that's greedy? Hardly. Are Jews the only group that plays a large role in commerce and wealth acquisition? Then explain the global diaspora of Lebanese, Indian, and Chinese merchants far from their native countries. Are they closet Jews? Thingol and Caranthir were greedy--were they Jewish Elves?

I think if an author is antisemitic, they're going to put in more than a penchant for financial gain into a race's traits. Antisemites say that Jews killed Jesus, that they ignore the true message from God, that they're dirty, they're physically inferior, they're treacherous. Do the Dwarves exhibit any of these traits? (Being short doesn't count; hobbits are shorter, and Dwarves are very strong.) And I don't believe Dwarves are whiny (except Bombur).

I guess you can interpret things anyway you want, but I don't see Thorin's dramatic entry into the Battle of Five Armies as an attempt to save his treasure. Far from it. He was joining the fight against the enemy. Period. And it was heroic. And his last words were not, "I won't buy retail, ever."

Other flimsy tidbits:
"Jews in medieval art were commonly portrayed with beards." Yes, and so was Jesus. Cirdan had a beard too, that sailor-Jew.

Are Jews typically portrayed as a short race? No. If anything, they're usually stereotyped as intellectuals, which makes them more Elvish, not Dwarvish.

The argument that Dwarves were created 1st and inferior. Yes, they came first, but Hebrews came first and had a LONG history before Jesus came along. These first-created Dwarves had to be put on ice until the Elves could be born, so they came along second.

All in all, the argument seems silly to me. Maybe others can take it more seriously. Instead, I will argue facetiously that Dwarves are secretly portrayed as homosexuals. They have no women that we ever see, right? That's because Dwarf men only have relations with other Dwarf men. The beards? Gay men are obsessed with appearing as masculine as possible, and beards are an easy way to do it. They love gold, right? Of course, gay men love to decorate, don't they, and gold makes a home so pretty. They're short, aren't they? Yes, because gay men feel inadequate as men, and so do short men, so of course. I mean no offense to homosexuals by using these stereotypes, I'm just trying to show how unfounded these comparative arguments can become.


arithmancer
Grey Havens

Feb 20 2013, 11:31pm

Post #5 of 16 (762 views)
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Cherrypicking, and Dwarves as a diaspora people [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
The Hobbit is a children's story, yet that seems to be ignored in this article. The voice, and purpose and use of language are all moved around to suit the author's purpose of proving a point.


I agree, and I think it casts doubt on her analysis of later (post-WW2) publications and how they may have consciously "corrected" the problems she points out. Because the end of "The Hobbit" arguably has a change in tone, and arguably depicts Dwarves as heroic (in contradiction to the thread title quote!). She states Thorin's heroism is undermined by a description of him a which mentions "gold", but I find her argument unconvincing for two reasons. First, I cannot imagine gold is never mentioned on other battling Tolkien warrior heroes. And second, she ignores what seems to me a lot more evidence that we are to view Thorin, finally, as heroic in the book, These include the use of the word "great" to describe Thorin in the very line she cites, Bilbo's parting speech to Thorin, and the gifts Bard and the Elvenking bring to Thorin's burial. There are also the deaths of Fili and Kili, also Dwarf characters, who are described as dying to protect their wounded leader (thus, their actions are explicitly given a heroic motive by the text). To me, these all seem to include Thorin/Dwarves in what she describes as "the heroic culture of the other characters".

Because there may have been a shift within "The Hobbit" itself, it could be argued that it is due to factors other than some sort of recognition or desire by Tolkien to "fix" a perceived antisemitism problem. There is a shift in tone towards the end of "The Hobbit", and the story becomes in the end a battle between forces of Good and Evil. It is within this context that (arguably) Dwarf characters are already depicted as heroic, and so perhaps this is also why they (and all other "Good" characters) continue to be so depicted in LotR, while in the early going of "The Hobbit" the Dwarves were comical characters having suspense-filled misadventures.


In Reply To
The point of semitic languages certainly holds weight, yet when one examines the number of races and peoples who use such a language structure the argument loses some merrit.


The author, in the Tolkien quote she gives at the start, presents (without full explanation) a second reason to link the Dwarves to Jews. Tolkien apparently said in a letter/interview she cites: "I do think of the 'Dwarves' like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations". What I take this to mean is that, both in "The Hobbit" and elsewhere in the legendarium (prominently, the history of Moria), the Dwarves are driven from their homelands. Thus, like the Jews they are a diaspora people.

This is an interesting topic! Thank you for posting it, squire.


(This post was edited by arithmancer on Feb 20 2013, 11:35pm)


IdrilofGondolin
Rohan

Feb 21 2013, 1:59am

Post #6 of 16 (758 views)
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People Should Know what [In reply to] Can't Post

they are talking about before they write articles like this. Check this out. It is edifying.
http://torahmusings.com/2013/01/tolkien-and-the-jews/

For particular interest is this FTA:

The publishers of the German translation of The Hobbit wanted Tolkien to affirm he was “of Aryan origin” before they would issue the work in 1938. Tolkien wrote an agitated reply to his British publishers complaining of the “lunatic laws” of the Third Reich, saying (Letters, pp. 37-38):

Personally I should be inclined to refuse to give any Bestätigung [confirmation] (although it happens that I can), and let a German translation go hang. In any case I should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print. I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.

In the draft of the letter to the German publisher, he declared:

I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Flindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people….

I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.


CuriousG
Valinor


Feb 21 2013, 2:13am

Post #7 of 16 (702 views)
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Informative article and post also--thanks.// [In reply to] Can't Post

 


arithmancer
Grey Havens

Feb 21 2013, 2:44am

Post #8 of 16 (727 views)
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The author's thesis is not that Tolkien was a Jew-hater. [In reply to] Can't Post

She is aware of Tolkien's reactions to the German publisher's inquiries as to his background; in fact, she cites the same one about "arisch"/Aryan people that you do in the essay. She also cites additional favorable comments by Tolkien about Jews from other sources.


CuriousG
Valinor


Feb 21 2013, 4:21am

Post #9 of 16 (739 views)
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I think her final paragraph doesn't let him off the hook [In reply to] Can't Post


Quote
What we have, finally, in Tolkien is a 20th century author confronted by the ways that his writing, perhaps not even entirely consciously, had drawn on antisemitic beliefs, and attempting to work through the issue in his subsequent books. The Dwarves in The Hobbit are not the same as they are the Lord of the Rings, and critics who have avoided a full assessment of Tolkien's use of antisemitic tropes in The Hobbit have missed some pointed alterations in the Dwarvish characters between the earlier book and the later writings. This doesn't erase what he had already written--simply trying to change negative traits to positive ones still subscribes to claims for racial identity--and I think readers and critics do need to acknowledge that he could be (and was) influenced by such aspects of English culture as antisemitism. To observe this is not necessarily to adopt the mode of "gotcha" criticism, as Glen Love refers to it in an essay on ecocriticism, "dragging past writers to the dock" for lack of modern sensibilities (11). Rather, it is to observe that such ways of thinking, "or the writer's diversion from [them] [..] may be worth examining" (Love 11). Instead of insisting that Tolkien is worthy of literary study but resisting analyses that present problems for the reader, critics should allow themselves (and be allowed by their own readers) to examine his books with the same approaches that they use for other texts, noticing changes, gaps, alterations, and biases in Tolkien's texts. After all, in the case of the Dwarves in The Hobbit, he seems to have been perfectly willing to perform such examinations himself.



SirDennisC
Half-elven


Feb 21 2013, 5:20am

Post #10 of 16 (740 views)
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A risky line to take [In reply to] Can't Post

but I agree with your overall assessment. I haven't really given the issue much thought, though I do have some observations to share...

Was Tolkien a man of his time? Probably. Anti-Semitism was much more widespread in the thirties than many care to admit to. Much of it was the result of certain spurious scientific ideas that gained traction in those days; as well as, as you say regarding some religious groups, misapplication or misunderstanding of the tenets of faith.

It is a bit of stink to single out a person of that time who was careless enough to write for a living, and therefore leave artefacts that more than anything, seem to prove the insidiousness of cultural contamination on the intellect. Such artefacts though, exist as ugly traces more so than they do as evidence of malicious intent.

In my estimation, Tolkien was not promoting racial hatred. The relevant bit for me is that he recognised that certain connections he made were flawed and then sought to restore himself, even at a time when few felt the need to do same.


(This post was edited by SirDennisC on Feb 21 2013, 5:27am)


arithmancer
Grey Havens

Feb 21 2013, 5:29am

Post #11 of 16 (708 views)
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Not sure what you mean... [In reply to] Can't Post

...by "doesn't let him off the hook".

It seems clear to me that her rather specific and technical use of the word "antisemitism" is not synonymous with hatred of Jews. And in her conclusion, which you cite, she even grants that Tolkien when writing "The Hobbit" may have been less-than-fully-conscious of the way in which his writing drew on this antisemitism.


sador
Half-elven


Feb 21 2013, 11:51am

Post #12 of 16 (690 views)
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Fascinating - thank you! [In reply to] Can't Post

Yes, Brackmann is correct in stating that race is "true" in Tolkien. And even in our world, while racism has been thoroughly discredited, this does not necessarily equate disproved.

Regarding her condemning of Thorin - I think she tries quite to hard; and if we set out from the Dwarves in the Book of Lost Tales (I'm surprised she didn't mention Mim appearing there), I would rather see Thorin's character as the pivot which transforms the dwarves from the "child of Melko" (as Gwendelin calls the king of Nogrod) to the adopted children of Iluvatar. I have long made the case that Tolkien does not quite play fair with Thorin (which R.B. might actually agree with), but that at the end he created a character greater than the failings he endowed him with, and Thorin's fall led in a way to the redemption of his people (something similar to Boromir and the Men of Ond).

I am actually surprised at her failure to mention the tradition regarding Gimli's ultimate passing over the Sea - something I "cordially dislike" myself, with its hint of Rebecca in Ivanhoe who is only redeemable by converting. But R.B.'s great point was that Tolkien relied on racial stereotypes of Jews, rather than religious ones. . I am not sure of this myself - the distinction does not always exist (and is indeed obscured by her preamble); even the example of the Inquisition's distrust of the Marranos is limited to a specific time and place, and does not quite imply racism in the biological sense.
Seen in a religious context - I can only say that Tolkien's late mention of a tradition which accords the Dwarves a part in the Second Music is very interesting, coming from a devout Catholic, when seen against the doctrine of Extra_Ecclesiam_nulla_salus. Far better than Gimli's fate.

What I find questionable about Brackmann's thesis is her assertion that both the rudiments of Khuzdul and the endowing of dwarves with "qualities" associated by antisemitism with Jews stem from the 1930s. All names associated with Dwarves are either Old Norse or Elvish - I put little stock on Tolkien's remark about the names being "an editorial concession" as reflecting his own intent to use their "true" names (especially as he himself came up with a better explanation later). And are the dwarves of BoLT so clearly dissociated from Jews? This was not my impression; I don't think any of the nasty details Brackmann mentions was original, not even when refering to dwarves - typical unsavoury characters in traditional Germanic folktales.
Could Tolkien not have been late in identifying this, later trying to remedy his story as R.B. described? Or did he ignore the implication, as dwarves were only peripherial (before Thorin) to his mythology? Or did he take fancy up to the 1930s to fairy-tales as such, being less concerned with contemporary use of their their archetypes? Or was he really an antisemite before reforming? James Joyce is considered the creator of the great positive 20th century portrait of a jew (although poersonally, I find Leoplold Bloom as least as reprehensible as any of Tolkien's dwarves save Mim); but he admitted that the xenophobic bigot Cyclops was an unflattering portrait of the opinions he himself held in his youth.

All in all, very interesting. I remember once noticing this essay, and making a mental note to read it sometime - but I might not have if not for your prompting. Thank you!


sador
Half-elven


Feb 21 2013, 11:58am

Post #13 of 16 (712 views)
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Now that's a blog I never expected to see cited here! [In reply to] Can't Post

In fact, I didn't know Rabbi Student (or to be more exact, Rabbi Saks) has read Tolkien. Mental note taken.


Voronwë_the_Faithful
Valinor

Feb 21 2013, 2:48pm

Post #14 of 16 (711 views)
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I read that when it first came out [In reply to] Can't Post

I disagreed with it then, and I disagree with it now. I think it is a classic case of someone starting out with a particularly point of view, and then setting out to "prove" that point of view, ignoring anything that contradicts it. It reminds me more of the hundreds of legal briefs that I have read than of an objective scholarly paper.

'But very bright were the stars upon the margin of the world, when at times the clouds about the West were drawn aside.'

The Hall of Fire


CuriousG
Valinor


Feb 21 2013, 6:43pm

Post #15 of 16 (685 views)
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Love that line [In reply to] Can't Post


Quote
It is a bit of stink to single out a person of that time who was careless enough to write for a living,

It left me chuckling. Oh, those careless buffoons of yore who were foolish enough to put things in writing. No crafty politician would do so now, leaving a blank slate for later generations, and really, authors, who needs 'em? Smile

Jokes aside, I agree with you about imposing our current paradigm on the past. To go farther back in time, there was a Roman author who talked about the humane treatment of slaves, such as not killing them when they become sick and old but providing for them even when they're no longer of any use to their owner. That sounds humane within its own context, though to a modern reader like me, I wish he'd said the whole concept of slavery was wrong and should be abolished. He would fall into the category of being careless enough to write down what his peers of the time thought was normal, and it isn't fair to expect every author to be a radical visionary seeking to heal all the evils of their time.

Tolkien's treatment of "Swarthy Men" veers toward racism, and I can see the discomfort there. I just don't see any Dwarf-Jew connection.


Beren0nehanded
Bree


Feb 22 2013, 2:33pm

Post #16 of 16 (676 views)
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Thank for this! [In reply to] Can't Post


In Reply To
they are talking about before they write articles like this. Check this out. It is edifying.
http://torahmusings.com/2013/01/tolkien-and-the-jews/

For particular interest is this FTA:

The publishers of the German translation of The Hobbit wanted Tolkien to affirm he was “of Aryan origin” before they would issue the work in 1938. Tolkien wrote an agitated reply to his British publishers complaining of the “lunatic laws” of the Third Reich, saying (Letters, pp. 37-38):

Personally I should be inclined to refuse to give any Bestätigung [confirmation] (although it happens that I can), and let a German translation go hang. In any case I should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print. I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.

In the draft of the letter to the German publisher, he declared:

I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Flindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people….

I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.



His would be response to the German publisher is pure gold, so good! Ah this had me laughing!

Don't be hasty.

(This post was edited by Beren0nehanded on Feb 22 2013, 2:33pm)

 
 

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