Friday, December 14, 2012

Lord of the Rings and Anti-Semitism in the Church

by Carlee Beatty
I don’t want any Tolkienites to hate me for writing this article, so let me start off by saying that I love Lord of the Rings. Also, I don’t think that Tolkien was anti-Semitic, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a trace of anti-Semitism in his work.

Now that I have the disclaimer out of the way, let’s get down to business. I know that Tolkien himself compared the dwarves in the Lord of the Rings series to the Jewish people, but as I generally try not to fall prey to intentional fallacy, I would argue that isn’t the case. I would argue that there is only one Jewish character in Lord of the Rings, and that is Gollum.

Growing up reading and watching Lord of the Rings, I never made this connection until I was in college. I was in an upper level honors comic book class (yes, this is a thing), and we were discussing Michael Chabon’s book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, when the professor asked if anyone knew what a golem was. After that slight pause that always occurs when a professor asks a question, someone timidly responded, “Isn’t he a character from Lord of the Rings?” 

As the professor went on to explain what a golem was, I started to formulate a theory that maybe Gollum and golem sound similar for a reason. My classmate and I weren’t the only ones to make this connection either, as the first thing on the Wikipedia page for Gollum says, “This article is about the fictional character. For the animated being, see Golem.”

After I had the initial thought, I did a bit of research to try to see if maybe Gollum acts as the golem of Lord of the Rings. For those of you who don’t know what a golem is, it’s a mythical being from Jewish folklore. According to lore, a holy man of God can create a golem from mud (or another inanimate substance), write a Hebrew inscription on the golem, and then it comes to life as a speechless being that follows the commands of the one who created it.

How does Gollum compare to a golem in that department? Rather than being turned from an inanimate being into a live one, Gollum started out as an already living being. Aside from that, the transformation process is fairly similar. The One Ring (with its magical inscription) breathes new life into Smeagol and transforms him into Gollum. While Gollum doesn’t lose his capacity for speech, it’s obvious that the transformation has at least deteriorated his ability to speak, and Gollum becomes a slave to the Ring, obeying its commands. 

The main difference is that the Ring isn’t a holy man, but rather comes from Sauron, who clearly stands in for the devil in Tolkien’s Christian parable. This all leads me to believe that Gollum clearly is a golem, and therefore Jewish character. The fact that the devil stands in for the Jewish recipe for a holy man also leads me towards the anti-Semitic nature of his character as well.

Beyond the golem comparison, there are a few other reasons that I see Gollum as a manifestation of anti-Semitism. When you look at Middle Earth as a retelling of the Christian story, it’s readily apparent who some of the various characters and races stand in for in biblical terms. Gandalf clearly represents Jesus, what with his return from the dead, the eternal elves represent angels, and men clearly represent… well… men.  The hobbits represent Christians. After all, they are a small group underestimated by men who end up being the ones to bear the temptation of evil, but in the end destroy the evil and save the world. 

Using these representations, it’s easy for me to see Gollum as a Jew. After all, Smeagol (which is a “ch” away from sounding Yiddish) was distantly related to the hobbits of the Shire before his transformation, as the Jews were our religious predecessors before Christ.

Also to be taken into account is Gollum’s love for the Ring. His obsession with this little piece of gold reads like a classic anti-Semitic stereotype. Following along these lines, Gollum also has the stereotypical Jewish traits of greed, sneakiness, and betrayal. Even the end of the series lends credibility to this idea. Now, if you haven’t seen Return of the King yet shame on you, but spoilers ahoy, so skip to the next paragraph. Gollum/Smeagol—as being around the hobbits/Christians has reminded him of his pre-corruption self and he has been tempted to turn back into a hobbit—ultimately cannot resist the temptation of the power of the Ring, and still clutching his golden prize, falls straight into Mount Doom/Hell to be destroyed.

All of this considered, I feel safe in my claim that Gollum can be read as an anti-Semitic representation of a Jew. This isn’t new in fiction, and there have been lists compiled of such characters before.

My main reason for discussing Tolkien in particular is because Lord of the Rings is so clearly a Christian story in nature, and the presence of anti-Semitism in Lord of the Rings represents, to me, the Christian gravitation towards anti-Semitism. Like I said, I don’t even think that Tolkien was an anti-Semite. I just think that anti-Semitism has become such a part of the Christian culture that it pops up even when we don’t mean or want it to.
Anti-Semitism in the church is nothing new. Christians of history have persecuted and all around hated on the Jews pretty much since after Jesus died. I just don’t understand why. Yes, I know the argument is that they killed Jesus, but Jesus was a Jew himself, and not all of the Jewish people killed Jesus. The Christian anti-Semites apparently forget that all of Jesus’s followers were Jews, as were all his disciples and every author of the Bible. 

I’ve always struggled to understand this blind hatred. I don’t know how we can look at the people who believe in our own ancestral religion with so much hate and distrust. Do they believe the same things that we do now? No. But we do share the entire Old Testament with them, and we follow most of the same basic rules. I tend to think of the Jewish people as my religious cousins. Sure, they may not be the Christian brothers and sisters that I was raised with and share all of my history and beliefs, but they did branch from the same family as me with similar traditions and history. 

It’s easy for me to picture Christians and Jews sitting down for Easter/Passover brunch and laughing at the things great-great-grandpa Moses did, and talking about how each of our parents make us celebrate the holiday at home. So, as the holiday season approaches and Christians panic because someone said “Happy holidays,” or, heaven forbid “Happy Hanukkah” to them, please, chill out, and remember that most of us started out at the same place, and ease up on the hate.

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  1. I don't think that Tolkien intended for the stories of Middle-Earth to be read as allegory, but instead as a type of mythology. Also, Smeagol/Gollum never resisted the influence of the One Ring. He immediately coveted it, murdering his brother Deagol to acquire the ring moments after its discovery. It was Frodo who carried the ring to the Mount Doom but was ultimately unable to resist the urge to wield the ring as an instrument of power.

  2. As for what Tolkien did or didn't intend, click the link on "intentional fallacy." Authorial intention doesn't really mean anything.

    Also, for clarification, when I talk about Smeagol/Gollum not being able to resist the tempation of the ring at the end of Return of the King, I was merely talking about his struggling against the power of the ring since the time that he met Sam and Frodo. This is shown in the books and movies in all of those scenes where Gollum argues with Smeagol about whether or not they should help Sam and Frodo. In the end, Gollum wins over Smeagol, and at Mount Doom, Gollum resurfaces, biting Frodo's finger (with the Ring on it) off, and falls into Mount Doom with the Ring to be detroyed.

    As far as Frodo goes, you're right, in the end he also succombed to the temptation of the Ring. But his friend Sam was there to help and save him, and so there we have the lesson that a single Christian cannot overcome temptation alone, but needs the back-up of fellow Christians and the church.

  3. I also don't think that it's meant to be an allegory, but I the best analogy I've heard describes the Ring as representing sin and its corrupting power. We how it affects people who do wrong with good intentions (Boromir), how it affects the even the wisest leaders (Saruman), and what it does to those who give in to it completely (Gollum). We see that despite its great temptation, it can be resisted by the greatest (Galadriel, Gandalf) and weakest (Frodo) of people. With this reading I think it's harder to argue that Gollum represents Judaism.

    I also think it's a bit unfair to use the fact that Gollum obsesses over the Ring as evidence to your argument. Everyone obsesses over the Ring; it's kind of what the whole story is about.

    An interesting theory, but I think saying there are "themes of antisemitism" in Tolkien's work is a stretch.

  4. I will again say that nothing is "meant" to be read any particular way. There are many completely valid ways of reading Lord of the Rings. Reading it as an allegory is my preferred method, because there is so much evidence in the books pointing that direction, but I won't discard anyone elses way of reading it as wrong either.

    Your reading is interesting, and yes, it would be harder to see Gollum as Judaism there, but not impossible. I could rewrite the article with that reading in mind, and it would essentially still come out as I wrote it, with minor changes.

    A good point about everyone being obsessed with the Ring. Yes, that is the point of the series. Luckily, that was a very small portion of my argument, taking up only two sentences out of many paragraphs. Of course, everyone is effected by the Ring, but you cannot deny that no one is as effected by it as Smeagol. Nobody else commits murder within a minute of seeing the Ring, especially not of their own brother. So, I'll say that my point still stands there, if dulled a little by everyone else's obsession with it.

    I didn't say that there were "themes of anti-Semitism." I said "traces," and perhaps unintentional traces at that. It's not nearly as big or obvious as the many themes in Lord of the Rings, but the trace is there, as it is in a lot of Christian texts and beliefs.

  5. I think you focused too heavily on the Christian influence. Tolkien drew influence in language and mythology from various other sources like Norse.

  6. I would respectfully disagree with the idea that authorial intent is meaningless. For example, John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim's Progress as allegory. To read it as something other, while potentially interesting, is objectively incorrect. I am at work and can't do the intensive google legwork necessary to verify, but I'm almost certain that I read a letter from Tolkien to C.S. Lewis in which Tolkien explicitly states that his books are not allegory. If that makes me wrong, then I guess that's what I will have to be.

  7. Why is an author's opinion on his own work objectively correct? I say that this article was written as the single best piece of prose ever to be written. That was my intention in writing it. So surely it is, right?

  8. The authorial intent is important, but why do we assume his conscious intent is able to overcome his subconscious feelings?

    I do think Tolkien intends this as a morality story and does not intend Gollum to be a Jewish figure.

    At the same time, it seems that Gollum is at least taking certain cues from a negative stereotype.

    The author's opinion is valid and instructive, but I don't think it ends the conversation once the author has allowed his work to go out into the wider world for interpretation.

  9. Ms. Beatty. A friend of mine well versed in SF and fantasy once told me he had heard or read somewhere that Tolkien knowingly coined the harmless-sounding name "Gollum" from the predominantly Jewish surname "Goldblum" by simply removing the two middle consonants "db". However, I have never been able to find any supporting evidence of that. Any idea if there is any truth to this claim?
    Fran├žois Gravel, Montreal (Quebec) Canada