Lord of the Rings was a movie in which the bad guys were depicted as subhuman monstrosities with dark skin and fuckung DREADLOCKS and people still unironically praise it as a fantasy classic and will scramble to justify it
I fucking hate nerds

And as implicitly racist as the films often are, they never even approach the level of racism present in the books.

In modern fantasy, the visual cues which define an “orc” are green skin, tusks, and sometimes pointed ears.  That image, however, was an invention of Warhammer Fantasy and Dungeons and Dragons.  Some descriptions of orcs from Tolkien’s writings include:

…his broad face was swart, his eyes were like coals, and his tongue was red.

There were four goblin-soldiers of greater stature, swart, slant-eyed, with thick legs and large hands.

In the twilight he saw a large black orc, probably Ugluk, standing facing Grishnakh, a short, crook-legged creature, very broad and with arms that hung almost to the ground.

In case the reader is having difficulty figuring out the thrust of those descriptions, here is a description of the orcs which Tolkien wrote in a letter:

…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.

So there you have it.  Tolkien intentionally designed the orcs as racist caricatures.  His orcs also carry scimitars, and their language sounds vaguely Turkic; their home, Mordor, is located to the southeast of all the other places seen in The Lord of the Rings (which together equate to Europe), but to the north of Harad (the Africa equivalent) and to the west of the East (which Tolkien couldn’t be bothered to name properly, but I think you can figure out for yourself what it equates to)—in other words, Mordor occupies the geographical position of the real-life Middle East.

Oh, and the orcs call the people of Rohan and Gondor “whiteskins” at least once.

A prominent but rarely acknowledged theme of The Lord of the Rings is the gradual destruction of (supposed) old English values.  This is seen in the destruction of the forests by Saruman’s industrialization, the departure of the Elves (who, as wiser writers than I have pointed out, are essentially the idealized Aryans imagined by Nazis and Anglophiles), and, of course, in the orcs.  Ultimately, the orcs don’t represent any specific real-life ethnicity.  Rather, they embody the literal invasion or “invasion” by immigration of dark-skinned foreigners feared by white supremacist conspiracy theorists of every era (exactly what group is accused of doing the invading varies from decade to decade—right now, targeting Hispanics and Muslims is popular, but at one time Asians were the usual target).

The orcs aren’t alone in this, though.  The books include several races of humans fighting alongside the orcs.  These are the Dunlendings (deformed ”wild men”), the Haradrim (brown-skinned North-African-ish peoples who ride around on giant elephants), the Easterlings and the Corsairs (of uncertain real-life basis, but both described as dark-skinned).  Together, they are referred to by Aragorn as the Swarthy Men. They are the only non-white people to appear in the books; all of them are evil; and among them there is not even a single named character.  Meanwhile, every single good human is white, and with only a handful of exceptions such as Grima Wormtongue, every white human is good.  It seems that, in Tolkien’s mind, whiteness and goodness were nearly the same thing.  It is worth noting also that the Dundlendings are stated to have been driven from their own lands by the sympathetic, white human races.

Thankfully, the movies cast most of the Haradrim, Easterlings, and Dunlendings as white, in one of the few instances in which casting characters of color as white actually made an adaptation less racist.

Oddly, even those who speak negatively of The Lord of the Rings rarely mention most of the above.  I don’t know why.  Maybe the fandom has succeeded in keeping it under wraps, somehow.  Or maybe the number of people who have opinions about The Lord of the Rings is simply far greater than the number of people who have read the books.  Well, certainly nobody will be convinced to read them by what I’ve written above.  Maybe that’s for the best.

Even more oddly, I personally would still call The Lord of the Rings a fantasy classic, despite what I’ve written above.  There’s still a lot of other things about it that I like.  And rather than rejecting the very concept of an orc, no matter how removed from the original descriptions, as irredeemably racist, I tend to sympathize with orcs, and I play them whenever possible in games such as Dungeons and Dragons.  Perhaps this makes me a hypocrite, maybe even a little bit repellent.  Then again, nobody doubts that Dracula is a horror classic, beautifully crafted and tremendously influential, even though it is also deeply mired in Victorian misogyny (and there is far less denial going on about that than about Tolkien’s racism).  So I will content myself with doing the same with The Lord of the Rings—admiring the admirable aspects of Tolkien’s writing and condemning the condemnable.  But of course, nobody should have to say that they admire parts of a work in order for their criticism to be considered valid.  If someone dislikes the entirety of The Lord of the Rings because of the racism contained therein, I certainly would not blame them.


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