Tolkien and Mixed Race

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In a paragraph in my dissertation, I explain a (supposedly) pre-theoretical approach to mixed race that made sense to me when I was a kid. It seemed to me that a helpful way to explain what I would have thought (and what many Americans seem to me to think) is sort of parallel to the way Tolkien speaks of half-elves in his fictional world. In the process, I realized how Tolkien speaks of this is much more complicated than I'd though, and I couldn't in good conscience leave it the way I had initially stated it, so it led to a long clarificatory footnote that I thought a number of the readers of this blog might appreciate for its geekiness.

Here is the sentence in the text of my dissertation that led to this:

I confess that this is how I thought of these matters in my unreflective, supposedly-pretheoretical analysis of things in high school. I would have taken a Barack Obama to be half-black in the same way that I took Elrond in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings to be half-elf, his daughter Arwen to be three-quarters elf, and her children with Aragorn to be three-eighths elf.

I realized there was a complicating factor, though. Aragorn had an elvish ancestor as well, and I wanted to check to see how far back it was. In the process, I was reminded that Elrond himself wasn't the product of a full elf and a full human, and it led to a much longer and much geekier footnote than I ever expected to be putting into my dissertation, but it's hard to be fair to Tolkien without acknowledging this, and it turns out to illustrate a different phenomenon in how racial classification works in some places outside the U.S. Here is the footnote as it stands now:

Tolkien buffs may quibble here, and they would be right to, for two reasons. (1) Aragorn was the sixteenth in the line of Elros, Elrond's brother, and thus he himself has elvish ancestry, even if minuscule (I believe one over two the thirty-second power). (2) Elrond and Elros themselves weren't exactly half-elves to begin with. Their father was actually half-elf, and their mother was one-fourth human, one-eighth Maia (a kind of lesser angelic-like divinity), and five-eighths elf. That would make Elrond and Elros nine-sixteenths elf, three-eighths human, and one-sixteenth Maia. Arwen's son twenty-five sixty-fourths elf, by these measurements, not the three-eighths that would result if Elrond were literally half elf. But we get the language of half-elves for a number of Tolkien characters with mixed ancestry, regardless of actual percentages. What this suggests is that the culture of Tolkien's world seems to treat someone as half-elf for having any level of mixed ancestry, eschewing a one-drop rule in either direction but insisting on little expression of nuance or gradation among those labeled half-elves. This would presumably operate something like the label 'brown' in some Latin American and Caribbean countries, applying to anyone of mixed heritage regardless of the particular number of ancestors of each race.

This doesn't (at this point) make it into my dissertation, but compare Rowling's terminology in the Harry Potter books. There are two systems of classification, the one that is dominant until Voldemort's rise to power (and presumably again afterward) and the one operating during his reign of terror. In the method of classification that we learn throughout most of the series, someone with a magical parent and a Muggle parent is a half-blood. Harry's mother, Severus Snape, and Voldemort himself are half-bloods. Someone with no magical parentage but who has magic is called a Muggle-born. But in the generation after a half-blood, if the other parent is magical, there is no discussion of being a half-blood. Harry himself is never called a half-blood by anyone in the mainstream of wizarding society. There's no one-drop rule in either direction, but there's a sufficient-drop rule apparently, because once you get to three-fourths magical parentage you're no longer consider partial, and even if you have no magical parentage you're treated as magical in one sense. It's what you can do and not your parentage that makes the difference in terms of the law.

But then there's Voldemort's regime. Muggle-borns are Mudbloods by the pureblood mindset even before Voldemort's return to power, but once he takes control of things they simply become Muggles. They're assumed to have stolen their wands, because they're not magical. Half-bloods (other than Voldemort and Snape) are sometimes called Mudbloods, and Harry (who had a full magical parent and a Muggle-born magical parent) is considered a half-blood, because his mother was a Muggle.

There's something more like the one-drop rule operating here, although not quite. But neither of these systems of classification works out quite like Tolkien's. And keep in mind that elves in Tolkien don't think of humans as corrupting or impure. A half-elf can choose to be mortal or to be an elf in ways that don't involve just legal status. It affects whether they become mortal. Arwen, with much more elf ancestry than human, still could chose to become mortal. There's nothing parallel to that in Rowling's classifications. Perhaps if we had enough evidence for how half-orcs were classified (there are only a couple suggestions in Tolkien that there are such things but no clear cases where it's more than just simple one-human, one-orc parentage). If he treated three-fourths orcs as half-orcs in a case where the human is mixed with something seen as corrupting, we'd have a good test case for whether his principle would expand to other cases of mixing. But I know of nothing in his fictional world that gets any more complex than simple one-one mixing except when it comes to elves (and the one Maia in the line of Elrond).

12 Comments

Your geeky levels are so high that I feel an urge to bow in respect. I applaud.

As it stands the "racial" distinction within the Elfin family is along the three branches (Noldor, Nelyar, Teleri)and though all the elves here are Noldor we don't see a big of a deal beyond the Simarillion about that distinction (onus?) though there seems a big distinction between before Trees and Post-trees (with the obvious Glorifindel being much more powerful than say Legolas).

Which would make me think about the worlds or sphere of operation. Valar are completely of the world of Illuvitar and they condescend for a moment but back off; Elfs are completely part of the world of Faerie, condescend, but the best of the lot back off; Humans are completely of the world of mortals and they aspire--though the worst of the lot aspire for what they shouldn't. These things that cross the bounderies (Maia, half-elves, Numenoreans) are more things that point back to the originating sourc (even if wickedly so) and even if there is an irony that it is Men as Mortals that wind up being exceedingly supernatural.

When a half-elf takes the mantle of mortality, they're doing something that none of the elves or possibly even the Valar understand (in the sense of mechanics). They've left their sphere of operation and have entered the sphere of operation of mortals and a different sort of immortality. There seems to be a reason why you can be welcomed into Rivendell, need to be allowed into Lothlorien, and can only go West via invitation but men can go Wherever It Is That Men Go merely by dying.

When Aragorn operates it is not as The Half-Elven (like Elrond) but son the Son of Numenor. When Denethor operates it is almost as of Numenor but shifted. When Boromir operates it is only with the shadow that was cast by Numenor of old: all its strength and pride, little of its wisdom. But then we meet Faramir.

Blah blah. Anyway, that's just a long way of saying that I'm not even sure that Tolkien uses elf racially as much as sphere of operation. Social race I guess if we can define Faerie as a culture.

There is Sindarin ancestry in there somewhere too, so if you wanted to divide the elves into races Arwen has ancestry from both. I wasn't thinking on that level, though. I was just thinking of the ones that Tolkien actually calls races, and he doesn't call those races of elves as far as I can tell. The races are elves, dwarves, humans (which he calls men), Ents, orcs, trolls, Maiar, Valar, and so on. I know of nowhere where he subdivides any of those into groups he calls races. He speaks of darker-skinned men from the South who were subjugated by Sauron, but he doesn't use any race-language that I remember in distinguishing them from the Gondoreans, say.

I'm not at all sure that the mathematical analysis of racial fractions makes sense in this context.
The half-elven can partake of the nature of elves or of the nature of men, and they can choose.
This seems to be the nature of the half-elven: to act as essentially elven until and unless they
choose to be mortal, after which they have the nature of men. Arwen is no less half-elven than
Elrond, until she chooses mortality.

Once a half-elven has chosen mortality, THEN the degree of elvish descent makes a difference.

Interesting question: suppose Arwen had chosen to wed Aragorn, bear his children, and then seek the West rather than choosing mortality? Would her children be half-elven with the choice to be elvish or mortal, or would they be human? I expect the latter: the choice of the half-elven isn't a matter of biology, but a gift of the Valar.

Arwen is part Teleri - to the extent that Thingol counts as Teleri (he's certainly not Noldorin) - and as you say part Sindarin, since Celeborn is Sindarin.

It seems to be correct that Elves can mate with mortals and remain immortal, while their offspring are simply mortal: Prince Imrahil has Elvish blood, as Legolas recognizes, but he's not "Halfelven".

I don't know if Tolkien refers to different races of men, but he frequently refers to different "breeds" of orcs, of which there seems to be a large number. There's the basic difference between "uruks" and "snagas", fighting-orcs and slave-orcs, but there are also regional breeds. However, both Sauron and Saruman clearly had extensive eugenics (dysgenics?) operations, and it can make sense to talk about breeds rather than races of orcs the way that we talk about dog-breeds.

The offspring of elves mating with mortals are not simply mortal. They've given a choice. It seems to me that they default to immortal unless they choose to be mortal, given how Arwen's choice is described. The children of elves who choose to be mortal are simply mortal. Perhaps that's what you meant. The Dunedain are not given such a choice, and Imrahil is Dunedan. He's in the same category as Aragorn, Denethor, Boromir, and Faramir.

So it seems we get varieties of orc and elf. I believe Tolkien calls the elf groupings clans, but I'm not sure. Neither set of groups is called races. The different Men (e.g. the Lakemen, Rohirrim, Easterlings, Southrons, Beornings) are never, to my recollection, called races either. He seems to reserve that term for what we would probably think of as different species (elves, dwarves, humans, trolls, ents, orcs).

My dissertation supervisor suggested an alternative theory of half-elf-hood in Tolkien's world. She thinks the linguistic data might just reflect a sufficient-drop approach to half-elf-hood, where some recent-enough elf ancestry is enough to put someone in the category of half-elf, but only if there are enough recent ancestors (and Aragorn doesn’t have enough). That sounds as plausible to me as my own theory. I'd have to look more closely at the primary sources and probably take into account a wider selection of texts than I'm aware of to arrive at a firmer conclusion favoring one over the other.

Your recent post reminded me that after this post, I had quickly gone through Tolkien's Lord of the Rings looking for how he differentiates race. It was interesting. Tolkien might technically have two races: The Immortal Race and the Mortal Race.

But then he has The Races which you mentioned above (Orcs, Ents, Troll, Men, Elves).

But then he uses "race" to distinguish even within the races. Maybe family? Maybe social structure?

So you'll see Legolas in Fellowship talking about a race of Elves that was foreign to him and his own. Or you'll have Aragorn (and others) referring to the Race of the West, or the Race of Numenor. Surely they are men, but they are a different kind of men. The "black race of Numenor" aren't black because of color but because they came East and mingled with "lesser races". That wouldn't be orcs, but other men. Or Durin's Race (in contrast to the Race of Dwarves that come from one of the other fathers--a distinction he makes in the Hobbit and repeats elsewhere) and the race of Dale (verses other races of men--also in the Hobbit)

And the Easterlings, I found, were called another race. Here is from RoTK:

This was no assault upon the Dark Lord by the men of Gondor, risen like avenging ghosts from the graves of valour long passed away. These were Men of other race, out of the wide Eastlands, gathering to the summons of their Overlord; armies that had encamped before his Gate by night and now marched in to swell his mounting power.

And then in the closing appendices to RoTK we see reference to new races based on mixed races: the Uruks

the last years of Denethor I the race of uruks, black orcs of great strength, first appeared out of Mordor, and in 2475 they swept across Ithilien and took Osgiliath. Boromir son of Denethor (after whom Boromir of the Nine Walkers was later named) defeated them and regained Ithilien....

When I made the document, I hadn't worked through the Simarillion

And this is interesting too:

Aragorn went first to Faramir, and then to the Lady Éowyn, and last to Merry. When he had looked on the faces of the sick and seen their hurts he sighed. "Here I must put forth all such power and skill as is given to me," he said. "Would that Elrond were here, for he is the eldest of all our race, and has the greater power." (302.7)

So it seems much of Tolkien's use of the term seems to be able to refer to any group that shares common descent and relatively isolated breeding. That is how it was more classically used, and we should expect Tolkien to write in more classical ways, so it's not surprising. I don't remember all of that, though, so it's interesting to get a fuller sense of what he's doing.

That last quote really is interesting. Which race does he consider both himself and Elrond to be part of? It's clear in the context that he's saying exactly that?

I was just wondering: Except for secondary sources, I have not read much of Tolkiens works except for The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and the beginning of the Silmarillion. However, it seems strange that, as you say, there is no "one drop rule" but rather an ambiguous line drawn somewhere, in regards to the Half-elven.

My question/observation is this: It seems that only the half-elven that chose an elven life have descendents that also are able to choose their ultimate racial fate. Is this not also true for half-elven that chose to be mortal/men? Were the children of Elros (including the Kings of Numenor, Arnor, and the Chieftains of the Dunadain, and, of course Aragorn/King Elessar) allowed to choose their fate? They fit all the prerequisites of the Half-Elven allowed to choose their fate, except for the fact that they descend from half-elves that chose a mortal existence.

If anyone has any insight on this, please reply. Just a curiosity.

The line isn't ambiguous. (Technically, I think what you probably meant is that it's vague, but it isn't really that either.) It's quite clear, at least for most cases. If there's any recent mixing, the offspring seems to be a half-elf.

My sense is that the ones who could choose to be elves but who choose not to be elves have lost the element that allows their children to be elves. So Arwen's children would not have the option of choosing to be elves. Immortality didn't get preserved to the children of those who chose to forsake their immortality, so there's no remaining option for them to choose it back. Their parents didn't pass it on to them.

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