Doodle: Was J. R. R. Tolkien an Anti-Semite?
Towards the close of The Watchmen, a newspaper editor suggests to his senior that they should run a story about Ronald Reagan running for president in ‘88. The senior replies, “We don’t dignify absurdities with coverage.” But that’s a little how I felt, scribbling down this doodle after reading Melissa Brinks’ hatchet job on J. R. R. Tolkien; like I was dignifying absurdities.
Brinks’ glorified listicle of recycled criticisms trades more in progressive finger-wagging than anything resembling journalism or propositional proofs. As I started the doodle I was planning on organising her article by the distinct and more sweeping claims—you know, that Tolkien was a misogynist, a racist, and probably a closeted nationalist, even a Nazi—but as I got going I wrote enough down on just one of Brinks’ headings: “Tolkien’s Dwarves Are an Unsubtle and Unflattering Analogue to Jewish People.” Apparently, his work has made significant contributions to anti-Semitism by furthering “harmful stereotypes about Jewish people that are still prevalent today.”
Sadly there’s no denying that anti-Semitism lurks in many places—and lunges violently in others. One need only read or listen to people’s reactions to the Israeli-Palestine conflict for a choice sampling of that. But was Tolkien an anti-Semite and is his work anti-Semitic? That’s the question of this doodle, which I’ll answer by engaging with Brinks’ article.
A “Well-Documented” Criticism
Brinks writes, “Tolkien’s deliberate association between dwarves and Jewish people is well-documented.” This consensus around Tolkien’s anti-Semitism was news to me, so I followed the hyperlink in her article backing it up, where I found the transcript of a conversation between Tolkien and Denys Gueroult from 1964. While hardly a rich, incontrovertible vein of documentation, Jewish people are mentioned.
However, Brinks’ mishandling of that dialogue is so poor I’m tempted to say it was deliberate. But we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and rather say she probably didn’t even read it. Firstly, she refers to an “admittance” on the part of Tolkien, after quoting these words from the interview: “the dwarves of course are quite obviously, couldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of [Jewish people]?” Only, if you actually read the transcript, you’ll know that Gueroult interrupts Tolkien before he can complete the sentence: “the dwarves are of course quite obviously…” Gueroult, not Tolkien, then says: “wouldn’t you say that in many ways they [the dwarves] remind you of the Jews?”
All that Tolkien admits, answering Gueroult’s question is this: “Their [again, the dwarves’] words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.” Their words—or language.
A Veritable Lagoon of Logical Fallacies
The above argument for Tolkien’s anti-Semitism is an excellent example of the old saying, grasping at straws—or straw-manning. Furthermore, it’s a near perfect demonstration of how not to use and engage with quotations from other sources. I said Brinks mishandles the transcript, when in reality she misrepresents Tolkien and his words. Finally, since we’re talking about logical fallacies, Brinks falls foul of another: the bandwagon. Her initial appeal is based on the validity of it being “well-documented” (i.e. popularly believed). Ironically, it isn’t.
Brinks’ Harmful Stereotype of Dwarves
If you’ll allow for one last point. Brinks writes: “While some dwarves are portrayed as good people, their preoccupation with gold and their incessant greed…are inarguably offensive.” Again, not really. This statement depends on the (above) claim that there is a strong analogue between Jewish people and dwarves in Tolkien’s work and world, which there isn’t.
Furthermore, it reveals an embarrassingly reductionistic reading of the dwarves in Tolkien’s writings. They’re a fiercely proud people, masters of various crafts, and near fearless in battle. Perhaps if Brinks didn’t trade in stereotypes of dwarves she could have made a more compelling case.