Of Hobbits and The Golem

Was J.R.R. Tolkien an Anti-Semite or Philo-Semite?

The Gollum of Middle Earth: Might Tolkien’s character be a nod to the mythical creature of Jewish legend?
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The Gollum of Middle Earth: Might Tolkien’s character be a nod to the mythical creature of Jewish legend?

By Seth Rogovoy

Published December 24, 2012, issue of December 28, 2012.
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Sometimes, a bearded, money-grubbing dwarf is just a bearded, money-grubbing dwarf and not an evil, anti-Semitic stand-in for Jews.

Undoubtedly some will view “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” — the first in a trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit,” directed by Peter Jackson — and find in Tolkien’s mythical creatures not-so-subtly stereotypical representations of Jews.

In particular, the clannish behavior and financial habits of the dwarves (as opposed to the elves, the Men and the hobbits), which are a gold-obsessed race that have been exiled from their homeland and among their own kind speak a unique language while learning the vernacular of their territory, will suggest to those looking for a correspondence a portrayal of Jews based on medieval stereotypes.

But Tolkien is one of the more unlikely figures in modern literary history on which to pin a badge of Jew-hater. In fact, Tolkien was something of a Judeophile. A philologist by training, he was familiar with Hebrew, and while he did indeed acknowledge basing his dwarves’ speech on Semitic languages, this was hardly the act of an anti-Semite. “I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue,” he once wrote.

Although Tolkien refuted attempts to interpret “The Hobbit” and his “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy as allegory, it’s been remarked time and again that in no small way, Tolkien’s opus was to some extent a corrective rewrite of the Wagner Ring trilogy, particularly the composer’s overtly anti-Semitic representation of Jews as evil dwarves.

Both stories, of course, are quests for a magical ring. Both are populated with characters based on Norse mythology. Tolkien loved the old myths, and he was disgusted by Wagner’s perversion of them in the service of creating a modern racial mythology.


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