Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Tolkien’s Jewish Question

Although perennially opposed to directly explicit allegory, Tolkien himself states in letter 176 “I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews.” The Jews are a group that may seem at first left out of Tolkien’s reluctantly allegorical and religiously influenced work. The Christian connections are explicit, as the world can easily be interpreted in a Christian liturgical context; such context gives the story all the more meaning, but does it not leave out then entire groups from Tolkien’s fantasy? Tolkien’s extended allegories it seems also have elements of Nordic and Jewish theology, leaving room for further engagement on multiple religious tracks.
There are several features of the Dwarves that enhance their “Jewishness,” but the first that I will discuss, perhaps the most evident, are the negative stereotypes. The Lord of the Rings is itself already in a pseudo-medieval context, so this lends a good frame for viewing treatment of various races. What common ground do Elven stereotypes of Dwarves have in common with Medieval European stereotypes of Jews? Tolkien based his Dwarves on the traditional mythological Germanic Dwarves, as recounted in Old Norse Sagas (particularly those of Snorri). These characters physically were shorter than other races, had larger and hooked noses, and their curly hair was often red (a common trope to indicate the Jewishness of a character). Furthermore, Dwarves, especially Tolkien’s Dwarves, are greedy and proud creatures who care primarily about gold and its acquisition, as well as stashing it. The Dwarves, like the Jews, are noted craftsman, workers of stone and metal.
Politically, the Dwarves are highly insular, worrying little of matters outside their own nations. Although they do sometimes take sides, they are very hard to sway often accused by the Elves of being stubborn as the rock they so adore. Historically, the Jews were political wildcards as well; European states often did not know what sides Jews would take in conflicts, if any, and it was hard for them to involve themselves politically in much outside their own “nations.” In Tolkien’s world this neutrality is especially evident regarding the rings; Sauron is unable to subjugate the Dwarf ringbearers, and these incredibly powerful objects have little effect on them, merely increasing their avarice and desire for wealth.
The Dwarf communities also exist in parallel with European Jewish ones; Dwarves, like Jews, tend to live in smaller communities near or around communities of Elves or Men. Although the Dwarves and Jews adopted the languages of the countries within which they lived, they retained their own private language for use within their own communities. Tolkien’s Dwarves speak heavily Semitic-influenced language, Khazad, which heavily follows Hebrew phonology. Here there actually lies an important distinction between the Jews and the Dwarves, and that is that Khazad is a highly conservative language, essentially unchanged since its origins, whereas the Jews in Europe generally spoke Yiddish, an incredibly dynamic and fusion language. Yiddish exists in many dialects and varieties, taking on local vocabulary and characteristics from the countries in which the various Jewish communities lived, with some varieties more Slavic or more Germanic, although they all retained a large Hebrew influence. Why does Tolkien draw this distinction? For one, Tolkien may have just wanted a clear difference between Dwarves and Jews, to avoid too much overlap. Perhaps he did this to reflect population trends- Dwarf populations have massively decreased in Middle Earth, and they are almost dying out, whereas Jewish communities continued to grow in Europe until Zionism and the Holocaust.
Zionism brings up another great comparison between Jews and Dwarves: the search for a homeland. Both groups live in diaspora and in the shadow or larger, foreign communities, so we often see the desire to found a homeland. The first example of this is in The Hobbit, where Thorin seeks to lead a pilgrimage of sorts to reclaim the Lonely Mountain, a “lost homeland” of the dwarves. Moria is yet another example, with an even more Zion-like status. Moria was founded by Durin in the Years of the Trees, which essentially serve as Middle Earth’s biblical age. However, Khazad-dûm was eventually lost to the dwarves, and the various Dwarf/Orc wars over it could possibly be interpreted as analogous to the crusades. It’s hard, however, to think of an analogue for Durin’s Bane, the Balrog, and perhaps there isn’t one. An attempt to construct one might be done by looking at Gandalf in this situation; I would postulate that Gandalf is the British Empire, who destroys the current power occupying the area, and makes the land safe for the Dwarves/Jews to return. This would imply that Durin’s Bane is the Ottoman Empire, however this does not function historically very well, as the Ottomans (and Muslim empires in general) were in fact kinder and more hospitable to the Jews than many European powers, allowing them to peacefully coexist as dhimmi (People of the Book). Maybe Durin’s Bane is something nobody expects, like the Spanish Inquisition?
As a final point in closing, I think is worthy of note is how the Dwarves are driven from their lands- and that is generally by fire. Dragons drive them from Erebor and the Grey Mountains, and a fiery Balrog drives them from Moria. The Dwarves’ history of being genocided mirrors the Jews, in fact, the Holocaust is literally Greek for “death by fire.” True, The Hobbit, detailing Smaug’s genocide of the Dwarves at Erebor, was written prior to the Holocaust, the other events are all detailed in The Lords of the Rings and The Simarillion, which of course were written many years after the Holocaust.

It’s easy to draw on a few apparent characteristics and jump to a conclusion; but Tolkien goes beyond that, his comparison of the Dwarves and Jews is far-reaching, relating them not just in their stereotypes, but their politics, anthropology, language, and history. Those who might attribute shared negative traits (avarice specifically) to anti-Semitism would do well to read a letter Tolkien wrote in response to a German publisher’s inquiry into his lineage: “But if 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.” We would all be well reminded that Tolkien showed vice in not just the Dwarves, but in all races: Man, Elf, Hobbit, and Maiar alike.

SB Chhabra


  1. It's interesting--I made this same observation when I was reading.

    I think the logical question that arises then is "Where do we go from here?" Tolkien wouldn't make the dwarves seem so explicitly based on Jews without some kind of goal. I think it then begs the question whether other races in the books can be taken to represent certain religious or ethnic groups. If they can’t, then what is it about Jews that makes it so Tolkien wants to represent us in the series when no other group is shown in the same way? Does he want to be Jewish? If so, it wouldn’t seem like the dwarves are the likeliest choice of race—I don’t think most people would argue that Tolkien presents the dwarves in the style that he wants to present his relation to the story.

    --Micah Sperling

  2. I find the comparisons (and stereotypes) you bring out to be very interesting and I think it would be interesting to examine the influence of Tolkien’s perception of Jewish culture in his creation of the Dwarves. However, I think we need to exercise caution in establishing Tolkien’s writings about the Dwarves so explicitly as a political and historical allegory of the Jewish people, particularly given Tolkien’s vocal and negative response to those reading his work as plain allegory.

    In The Silmarillion, a work that Tolkien (from his letters) wanted to publish even more than The Lord of the Rings, the Dwarves are creations of Aule, the smith of the gods. The Dwarves share many of his passions, mining and works of great craft and skill, which as you point out seems to be related to the view of Jews as “noted craftsman, workers of stone and of metal.” Yet, in the Silmarillion, the Dwarves are explicitly separated from the Children of Iluvatar: “But when the time comes I will awaken them, and they shall be to thee as children; and often strife shall arise between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice” (44). If we extend the allegory, then it would seem that the Dwarves would be the children of the One, in Middle-earth, yet they are not. How can we extend the allegory to cover this separated relationship between Iluvatar and the Dwarves / God and the Jews?

    In other practices, the Dwarves and the Jews are further differentiated, such as the myth surrounding Durin the Deathless and his reincarnation as a leader. For the Dwarves of Moria, “He was indeed held by the Dwarves to be the Deathless that returned” (LotR, 1071). Once again, how can we integrate this belief in reincarnation into our allegory?

    Finally, I think there are issues drawing parallels between the wars of the Dwarves and Jewish history. It seems problematic to cast the Dwarf/Orc wars as the crusades. The Orcs, as corrupted individuals ultimately serving a supreme dark lord that was directly opposed to God’s creation are extremely dissimilar from soldiers fighting under direction from the Catholic Church. Tolkien could have found the crusades to be morally reprehensible, but I doubt that he would go as far as to call the soldiers in that war Orcs.

    Perhaps the reason we cannot find the allegorical significance of Durin’s Bane is that, as Tolkien has repeatedly written, there isn’t any. I think it would be interesting to look at many of the things you brought up in the context of Tolkien’s explicit or implicit comparison of his Dwarves to the Jewish people. However, a direct allegory where we can establish the Dwarves as a mask for talking about Jews seems contrary to Tolkien’s stated thoughts about his writings.

    -- Justyn Harriman

  3. I would add as a piece of the puzzle: in the Notion Club Papers, Adunaic (the Numenorean language) was described as having a "faintly Semitic flavor" as compared with the more Latin-flavored Elvish, which suggests that Men have some relationship to Jews as well as the Dwarves. I think things are more complicated than simply mapping one of the peoples of Middle-earth onto a particular group in our present age. RLFB

  4. Thanks for the post, S.B. I’d hesitate to make such a point-by-point allegorical interpretation of the Dwarves as Jews—though I think there’s clearly a lot there. Some of the particulars I’d mention is that while Muslim countries (particularly the Ottoman Empire) were more hospitable to Jews than many Christian lands, the term dhimmî does not mean “People of the Book” (Koranic ahl al-kitâb), it means “protected person,” or “person in custody.” It’s basically a second-class citizenship with certain duties exempted and extra taxes applied. It was often in practice quite preferable to the rights of aliens or religious minorities in the West, but it was decidedly not a equal coexistence (though it was generally, though not always, peaceable).

    Also, in a Crusade analogy, the Dwarves’ self-understanding is much more similar to that of the Crusaders’ than the other way around. The Crusaders generally believed they were engaged in retaking holy land that had been seized by unholy armies from the east and south who, at best, were practicing a corrupted, debased form of religion (Islam was largely considered a heresy at the time, not a separate religion).

  5. That being said, I wonder if there isn't a deeper, more complicated political question that we have to imagine confronting in the corpus of Tolkien's work. When he needs to create good and bad, and invent personalities for both of those sides, he is drawing from the world he knows at some point or another. Discursively, even the idea of White as pure and Black as its negation is something that Tolkien uses extensively, but has serious political repercussions outside of that context.

    I've found this question to be particularly interesting when discussing the Dunlendings. There are specific attributes that we might consider more "primitive" assigned to the Wild Men than might be to the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor. Whether or not Tolkien meant for this to be significant is less relevant than how we interact with it. Even the choice of naming Humans "Men" and not "People is suggestive of particular trends.

    I guess I don't want to push any particular comparison far without considering the issue further, but I definitely would buy the argument that there is some cultural appropriations that occur within Middle Earth, and that these appropriations are probably reflective of the hierarchies they entail in the Primary World.

  6. Re: Catholic Themes in The Hobbit book/movie?


    As to the identity of the various fantasy races in LOTR, I'm quoting Tolkien as below:

    1) The Hobbits

    "I am in fact a Hobbit, in all but size." JRR Tolkien
    "The Hobbits are just rustic English people, made small in size because it reflects the generally small reach of their imagination." JRR Tolkien

    Conclusion: The Hobbits are British

    2) The Dwarves

    "The dwarves of course are quite obviously - wouldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic." JRR Tolkien

    Conclusion: The Dwarves are Jewish

    3) The Elves

    The elven languages are constructed after Welsh and Finnish.

    Conclusion: The Elves are likely to be Northern Europeans

    4) Concerning the Orcs: (What he said was quite disturbing!)

    (The Orcs are) ""sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types"

    Mongol types include Mongols and Turks:

    Conclusion: Orcs are Mongol-type people, mostly likely the Muslim Turks due to their geographical location and history of their battles with the Europeans.

    The following is my own interpretation based on Tolkien's quotes above and the storyline of The Hobbit:

    The Hobbit can be understood as a Biblical allegory in which Thorin and the Dwarves (=Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt) go to Mount Erebor (= Mount Sinai) to find the Arkenstone (= Ark of the Covenant).

    As a modern allegory:
    Bilbo = The British
    Thorin & the Dwarves = The Jews/Israelis
    Gandalf = Pope & Roman Catholic Church
    Beorn = The Russians
    Thranduil & the Wood Elves = The Europeans
    Smaug = Palestinians
    Bard & Men of the Long Lake, Esgaorth = Jordanians
    Eagles = The Americans
    Goblins, Orcs & Wargs = Muslim/Arab countries
    Erebor = Palestine
    Arkenstone = Jerusalem & the Temple Mount

    1) Thorin and the Dwarves stayed with Beorn (= The Jews stayed in Russia).
    2) Thorin and the Dwarves entered the Kindom of the Wood Elves and were caught and put into the dungeons (= The Jews stayed in Europe and were caught and put into prison. I think this is a reference to the Nazis.)

    3) Thorin and the Dwarves escaped from the Kingdom of the Wood Elves and arrived at Erebor to face Smaug the dragon. (= The Jews fled the Holocaust in Europe and returned to Palestine to face the Palestinians.)
    4) Bilbo took the Arkenstone and gave it to Thranduil and Bard. (= The British gave Jerusalem and the Temple Mount to the Europeans and the Jordanians to be made an international city.)

    5) Bilbo was expelled from Erebor. (= The British left Palestine).
    6) The Battle of the Five Armies ensues (= Start of Arab-Israeli conflict).

    The Hobbit was published in 1937, while the Arab-Israeli War only started in 1948.
    However, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had already started in the 1930s during the time the book was written.
    In the Battle of the Five Armies, Beorn and Bard fought on the side of the Dwarves of Erebor, but in the real Arab Israeli War of 1948, the Russians and Jordanians were on the side of the Arab/Muslim countries.