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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 50.4 (2004) 875-907



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Beyond Black and White:

Race and Postmodernism in The Lord Of The Rings Films

In terms of racial coding, the only contemporary fantasy/sci-fi blockbuster film series as immediately cringe-inducing as the new Star Wars films is The Lord of the Rings trilogy.1 In the films, goodness correlates to whiteness, both racially and as color scheme, and is associated with Europe, particularly England and the Scandinavian countries, the West, and the North. Evil is invariably black, savage, Southern (or "Southron"), and Eastern.2 All racially "white" actors, whether from New Zealand (where the film was shot), Australia, the US, Ireland, or England, are assimilable as Middle-earth heroes (although they must adopt British accents), and the "good" display a heterogeneous mix of European (mostly British and Scandinavian) cultural references. Yet despite these immediately apparent delineations, discussions of these racialized discourses have been confused, stymied, or denied. This general inability to discuss race in The Lord of the Rings stems from the texts as well as from the terms of the debate. In other words, in order to understand race in the The Lord of the Rings films (a rich and productive discussion has yet to take place on the novels), we find ourselves required to grapple with postmodernism in its many incarnations. The films, like postmodernism itself, both invoke and deny the discourses and politics of race, while sweeping other salient and concrete issues under the rug. What we need to do, in the spirit of Tolkien or not, is to [End Page 875] reclaim both freedom of interpretation (applicability) as well as some sort of ethical, moral, and/or political ground upon which to stand.

So to move beyond reading race only semiotically in The Lord of the Rings, I want to explore how the films function within and reproduce the logic and process of postmodern, neoliberal global capitalism, both drawing on and burying issues of race. As Tom Shippey suggests, one of the weaker reasons for dismissing The Lord of the Rings novels or films is that they are "not true" (327). The films are created, read, and viewed by people in the world, and they reflect the languages and signs, desires, actions, and values of our world. In other words, the fantasy is that we must understand The Lord of the Rings or any text or film merely as fantasy, particularly when what we understand as the "fantasy" of film has undergone significant changes in recent years. The films are not merely recordings or simple mimetic representations of a modernist or premodernist text (although they certainly have such elements too); the film's production, distribution, and discourses (both within and about the film) epitomize postmodernity in a number of significant aesthetic, technical, economic, epistemological, ethical, and political ways.

"Men of the West"

The films generally draw their racial and color-coding from the novels, but in the visual medium many aspects appear more striking.3 The "Men of the West" are led by "The White Wizard," Gandalf, with his white horse Shadowfax, particularly in defending the racially white people of Rohan and the "White City" of Minas Tirith. Aragorn is a "Ranger from the North" who can speak to horses in not only Elvish, but also Old English, and Rohan is of Scandinavian design ("Audio," Two Towers).4 Eowyn's lament for Theoden's son, Theodred, is drawn from Old English, and cowriter Philippa Boyens notes that they drew on "bits and pieces of Beowulf" for the Rohirrim ("Audio," Two Towers). The costume designers discuss their intent to make Galadriel the "most white," "most elegant," and "most beautiful" of all the characters ("Designing"). Hobbit culture and language is drawn from the UK, and Hobbiton at Matamata was designed to convey "homely and familiar" comfort, that is, "Englishness" ("Designing").

Conversely, "black" signifies evil, particularly the faceless Black Riders with black hoods and horses. Although Saruman the White, played by Christopher Lee, is one of the chief villains, he...

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