The secret Jewish history of ‘Lord of the Rings’
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on forward.com Jul. 26, 2019.
In 1938, with the world tipping toward war, a German publisher approached an unassuming Oxford philologist for permission to translate his debut novel. The author agreed, but as the negotiations neared their end, the publisher requested a proof of a non-literary kind: Evidence that the writer was Aryan.
On July 25, the writer drafted two replies, one delicate, one angry. We don’t know which he sent, but the more acrimonious read in part:
“[I]f I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany… if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride… I trust you will find this reply satisfactory, and remain yours faithfully, J. R. R. Tolkien.”
16 years and four days after this correspondence, which concerned his book, “The Hobbit,” Tolkien published “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first volume of his iconic trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings,” on July 29, 1954.
In the years since its publication in England, the books have gone on to inspire everything from British Invasion rock bands to Oscar-winning blockbusters. In addition to this legacy, Tolkien, who died in 1973, leaves behind a sympathetic history with Jews.
Tolkien, a devout Catholic who engaged in vigorous theological discussion with C.S. Lewis, a Christian apologist with a Jewish wife, did more than simply rebuff a publisher who overreached. He rejected an invitation to visit Germany in 1938 and was vocally opposed to the Nazi regime, writing in a 1941 letter to his son Michael, “I have in this war a burning private grudge… against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler.” As a professor of Anglo Saxon studies, he loathed the Führer for “ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making forever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.”
The author’s books, intended as a kind of English national myth, have a surprising Jewish element in one of their more central races. In a rare instance of admitting allegory, Tolkien told the BBC in 1971 that his Dwarves serve as a stand-in for the chosen people.
“The Dwarves of course are quite obviously, wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews?” Tolkien said in a radio interview. “Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic.”
(While having a “race” of stocky, hirsute men devoted to us may not put us in the most flattering light, we should note that Tolkien also decried Nazi racial policies as “wholly pernicious and unscientific.”)
Though Tolkien said he “didn’t intend” to make the Dwarves Jewish initially, the evidence proves otherwise. As a linguist, the author took great care in creating the languages of Middle Earth and, as Tolkien scholar John Rateliff wrote in his book “The History of the Hobbit,” he deliberately modeled Khuzdûl, the Dwarvish dialect, after Hebrew phonology.
You won’t hear Khuzdûl spoken much, however — Dwarves mainly opt to use the common language of other peoples.
“I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews,” Tolkien wrote in a 1955 letter to the novelist Naomi Mitchinson, “at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue.”
The reason for this unique “native and alien” status is the Dwarves’s displacement. Sometime before the events of “The Hobbit,” the dragon Smaug descended on their mountain kingdom, Erebor, forcing them into exile.
The Dwarves are known to sing plaintive songs of their homeland, but, like many Jews when Tolkien began his first writings set in Middle Earth, in the early 1930s, Dwarves are well-assimilated and largely content to live among their adoptive communities, where they are valued for their craftsmanship. Still, Dwarves are joined in their longing for their most prized artifact, the “Arkenstone” gem, back in Erebor — it doesn’t take a rabbinical student to guess at the potential etymology of that particular jewel.
Superficial Dwarvish qualities are not explicitly Jewish, drawing mainly from Nordic myth, and their written language more closely resembles runes than Hebrew script. But some scholars speculate that even similarities to the Dwarves of the Nordic sagas can be read as defiant philo-Semitism.
Tolkien was not the first to apply a Jewish gloss to Dwarves. Decades earlier, Richard Wagner’s operatic treatment of the monstrous Dwarf Alberich in his epic “Ring Cycle,” was read as an antisemitic caricature for his insatiable greed and what Theodor Adorno identified as “distorted” musical themes and “muttering” speech. As the Times of Israel reported on the occasion of the release of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the Dwarves in Tolkien’s own tale of a magic ring flip the script on Wagner’s smear.
Tolkien’s Dwarves are more noble. And though Tolkien himself initially described members of the race as “not heroes,” they often acted heroically. In “The Hobbit,” a motley crew of Dwarves launch a successful campaign to reclaim Erebor and fight bravely in a war of five armies. In the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Gimli is a proud, axe-carrying member of the Fellowship. Gimli’s best bud in that roving band is an exceedingly Aryan-looking Elf named Legolas. Tolkien said their relationship was meant as a statement opposing “Gentile anti-Semitism and Jewish exclusiveness” and supposedly based their dynamic on his friendship with a Jewish colleague.(Tolkien would also object to my use of the term “Aryan” to describe Legolas, noting that its association with Northern European peoples, as forwarded by the Nazis, is erroneous.)
Given Tolkien’s history, we have ready answers to some more troubling aspects of the Dwarves’ characterization. They are brash, messy and, at least in “The Hobbit,” single-minded about the recovery of their gold. Viewed within preexisting fantasy logic, however, lost treasure can be accepted as a tangible effect of lost culture accrued over centuries. Tolkien’s beloved Poetic Edda created these tropes, but he himself transformed Dwarves into protagonists. Certainly there would be something problematic in his initial equating of treasure and Jews, but Wagner laid the groundwork there as well. And, for what it’s worth, Tolkien’s also guilty of presenting English country-dwellers as short, lazy, hairy-footed homebodies with eating disorders.
Beyond Dwarves, some rather gross corners of the internet are at pains to present the ring-obsessed Gollum and the slithering, oleaginous advisor to the King of Rohan, Gríma Wormtongue, as crypto-Jews. A minute spent on Google indicates that the bulk of those proposing these interpretations are anti-Semites who bring their own prejudice to bear in their analysis. It’s doubtful that Tolkien would entertain such reads — though, if he were around today, he might well clap back on those theories on Twitter. In fact, were he alive, he’d have to take the suggestion personally.
65 years after “The Fellowship of the Ring” changed the Fantasy genre forever and 81 after his angry letter to a German publisher, Tolkien can claim a Jewish relation: Nicholas Tolkien, who is Kosher, Shomer Shabbos and a writer like his great-grandfather.