This is a compilation of an email discussion among class participants about Tolkien's races. Salutations and closings have been eliminated, but otherwise the discussion is unedited.

Mark Liberman: [presentation in class on 1/8/2002 about "races" in Tolkien's work]
Shahnaz Radjy: Hello!

I just wanted to write to you because I was very interested by your introduction to the course Bio Language and Culture on Tuesday, partly because I am a fan of Tolkien and related literature. You said that Tolkien's world relfected what was thought of race in his time, and that an example of this was the fact that races were either black or white. For example, there were no average-height people with short beards living in the geographical area between human and dwarven civilization. Although this is more a point of personal opinion than actual fact, could it be that Tolkien's world doesn't so much reflect what was thought of race in his time, but rather the different facets of human nature? The elves represent longevity and grace, harmony with nature. They are what humans (ideally) aspire to be, a step above all other races. Dwarves represent the rougher craftsman in humans, a "species" living in the mountains, close to their raw material, with very temperamental characters. This could be seen as somewhat of a stereotype of the ironsmith (character wise).. Hobbits are similar to elves, but don't share quite the same harmony with nature, which explains why they do not have the magic elves do... The comparisons could be continued.

I apologize if this is irrelevant, I just wanted to run this idea by you as a reaction to your intro...  

Mark Liberman: Your comments are very much to the point, and certainly need no apology.

You've pointed out one of the other resonances of Tolkien's fantasy: his "races" are not only very distinct and separate from one another, they are also graded on a sort of evolutionary or social scale. The Elves are immortal, elegant in dress and manners, wise, even-tempered, graceful -- an image of Victorian evolutionary aspirations for humanity, and also of Victorian idealizations of aristocratic virtue. Elvish magic seems to mean that elves don't have to work -- there are no elvish farmers or weavers mentioned in the stories -- and so the race as a whole can act like a sort of landed aristocracy. The Dwarves are definitely "in trade" -- they are acquisitive, rough-mannered, secretive, shortish, hairy, sweaty, hard-working, and interested in engineering processes -- definitely not candidates for Eton.

Contemporary American culture has lost most of the earlier European aristocratic disdain for commerce, manufacture and trade, so for us, Tolkien's fantasy-stereotypes primarily connect with a folk-theory of individual personality characteristics, as you suggest. This interpretation works very well, in the way that literature can always be recycled or reused in the service of different metaphorical structures. But in their original time and place, Tolkien's "races" were a kind of inspired amalgam of social class stereotypes (where the concrete group characteristics came from) with essentialist assumptions about the biological basis of significant human differences. The particular social class stereotypes that inspired Tolkien are mostly gone, but essentialism lives on.

Alan Mann: This is a very nice reply to your lecture, Mark. It is nice to have students in the course that take the time to write back with good and insightful comments. And a lot of what is said by both of you is of interest and perhaps ought to be mentioned tomorrow.
Mark Liberman: I agree. Shahnaz, how do you feel about having our exchange shown to other students, say by being added to the course web site? Your comments (and anything else you might like to add) could be retained under your name, or made anonymous if you would be more comfortable with that.

Let me add one thing more to the content of the discussion.

I did NOT mean that Tolkien was a racist, nor that the view of the "races" in his works is scientifically impossible (much less artistically invalid). There could very well be a world in which there are as many distinct species of intelligent, language-using hominids as there are distinct species of songbirds in our world. In that situation, I would expect to see a bundling and correlation of biology, language and culture across these hominid species that is at least as strong as the one that Tolkien depicts for the "races" of Middle Earth.

I only meant that Tolkien's fantasy, though grounded in his own experience as a philologist, was projected through his writing into a picture that happens not to be true of the actual human situations that he was inspired by.

Shahnaz Radjy: I am fine with you adding the exchange to the website (via blackboard? not that it matters actually, whichever way is fine by me!), be it anonymous or with my name linked to it - if you think one of the two options is more likely to encourage further discussion, then you can just go with that one.

I didn't interpret your intro/follow up comments as making Tolkien out to be a racist - I think his world is too fantastic to be called racist, as one of the messages it gives out is that a little of everything is needed for a world to function, and keeping/restoring that balance is what most of his adventures are about! There are races that are closer to "perfection" than others, but upon inspection they all have strong points and weaknesses, and ultimately cannot function alone. In "The Fellowship of the Rings", for example, a hobbit is the one who ends up holding the fate of the world in his hands - the elves, the race closest to perfection, could not do what Frodo sets out to do...

What you said about Tolkien's world being a projection of Victorians' mentalities (elves is what they aspire to be, dwarves are like mine workers, hobbits more like farmers, etc) is something I had not thought of, but now that I have, I agree. I just find it amazing how many layers of interpretation can be gotten from Tolkien's works, and that without the need for overanalysis or picking to pieces of the novels (which is one thing I sometimes find English literature analysis does, quite unfortunately). The man was good!

See you in class!