- No Triumph without Loss: Problems of Intercultural Marriage in Tolkien’s Works
The Lord of the Rings has often been praised for what Jonathan Evans calls its “cultural, racial, or ethnic depth” (194). Middle-earth is rich with diversity, inhabited by various peoples from Men and Hob-bits to Elves and Ents. Each of these groups is further subdivided into different cultures, each replete with its own language or dialect, history, cultural practices, and ethnic interests. This feature of Tolkien’s work has garnered much critical attention, as scholars have explored everything from how Tolkien draws on medieval sources and folklore to create these peoples to how they function in the symbolism and spiritual themes of the legendarium. Among scholars analyzing the applicability of Tolkien’s races to those of the real world, however, the conversation has become deadlocked, polarized over one of the most common criticisms of The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien’s supposed racism.
His accusers have ranged from “critics who argue that LotR is a book about whites rising against a tide of black-skinned foes,” as Robert Gehl puts it, to Gehl himself, whose nuanced discussion of the fear of miscegenation represented by Gollum still ultimately comes back to the point that Tolkien’s treatment of race is highly problematic (264). Numerous scholars, such as Sandra Straubhaar, Patrick Curry, Jane Chance, Anderson Rearick, and Shaun Hughes have come to Tolkien’s defense, pointing to the many positive examples of intercultural interaction in the legendarium. Though they offer many helpful insights into Tolkien’s works, they too come repeatedly to a single conclusion, that Tolkien, far from being racist, promotes intercultural interaction and friendship. Chance even places this drive for multiculturalism at the heart of The Lord of the Rings, claiming that “returning the Ring to its origin means refusal of power as domination by the One—by sameness, homogeneity—and therefore acceptance of respect for difference and diversity” (33). However, the destruction of the Ring is an act of renunciation, a “triumph” due to which “many fair things will fade and be forgotten” (FR, II, ii, 282). Tolkien’s works are histories of loss, accounts of the sorrows that ravage a fallen world in the inevitable passing of time. He does not make an exception to this theme to create a singular happy ending in which difference and diversity gain an unproblematic victory, the “carefree multiculturalism” espoused by [End Page 69] many critics (Gehl 264). Instead, racial and cultural interactions in Tolkien’s works repeatedly demonstrate problems and losses that accompany diversity in the real world and the imperfections of even the best efforts to find solutions. Critics have almost totally ignored the fact that these concerns about diversity, rather than either its promotion or disparagement, are the focus of Tolkien’s portrayal of multicultural interactions.
This paper explores Tolkien’s critique of multiculturalism, in the sense of cultural intermixing, by looking at the single issue of inter-cultural marriage, which covers a wide range of unions, from those between Elves and Men to those between members of the different microcultures of the Shire. Although this spectrum includes more relationships than would typically fall under the real-world umbrella of interracial marriage, Tolkien frequently blurs boundaries between race and culture and often addresses difference rather than race per se, making intercultural relationships a better focus for discussion.
Tolkien’s intermarriages hold a central importance in his works, as shown in the story of Túrin, which represents an example of the dangers of rejecting these relationships and the acceptance of difference that they represent. As we can see in this story, although Tolkien critiques intermarriage, he does not reject it, and indeed it remains essential for dispelling prejudice and creating peace. Nevertheless, numerous problems with intermarriage arise throughout Tolkien’s works, including the threat of outside prejudice and concerns over assimilation and its alternatives, concerns that go beyond racism and into inherent stresses on personal identity.
Tolkien introduces concern over intercultural relationships on the second page of The Lord of the Rings, as the Hobbiton hobbits discuss Frodo’s ‘multicultural’ ancestry: “Baggins is his name, but he’s more...