Recent scholarship on how Tolkien's Orcs influenced popular fantasy agrees upon the spread of racist clichés and stereotypes. Dieter Petzold, in "'Oo, Those Awful Orcs!': Tolkien's Villains as Protagonists in Recent Fantasy Novels," analyzes how four novels attempt but fail to present orcs as focal and sympathetic characters. In Race and Popular Fantasy Literature, Helen Young argues that the influence Tolkien's Orcs had on fantasy literature, film, and games is that of structural racism in which "race [is] the conventional framework around which difference is built " (35). She acknowledges that critical reading of Tolkien's works can "provide background and nuanced understanding" but warns that the larger genre of fantasy--especially, I would note, in the present under Trump in which racists draw on their imagined White Middle Ages to justify hate crimes--makes such nuanced readings unimportant (35).

In this presentation I consider Tolkien's goblins (in The Hobbit) and Orcs (in The Lord of the Rings) and Elves along with Katherine Addison's Goblins, Elves, and most importantly, Goblin-Elf characters, from The Goblin Emperor in the context of Young's analysis of how racialized tropes which manifested in the Classical period as concern about "monstrous races" were applied to "Jews, Mongols, and Muslims" in the Middle Ages, and then adapted further in Tolkien's legendarium and have spread throughout popular culture (88). The four tropes contrast the Whiteness of Men and Elves to the Otherness of the Orcs who are always marked as evil through "skin color...aggressiveness and irrationality; primitive, disorganized cultures; and homelands which are outside the borders of civilization" (89). I argue that Addison continues the tradition of women writers critiquing power and hierarchy through the mode of fantasy that Faye Ringel identified in "Women Fantasists: In the Shadow of the Ring," shifting from focusing on gender to race.


This presentation was given at the 2021 virtual Popular Culture Association Conference, in the Tolkien Studies area.



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