The Least Lovely Folk March Into Real Myth

In his 2013 book, Tolkien in Pawneeland, Roger Echo-Hawk broke new ground in Tolkien studies. Pointing to JRR Tolkien’s typical process of weaving together diverse mythological elements, Echo-Hawk argued that Tolkien drew inspiration from Skidi Pawnee traditional literature in the course of creating his Middle-earth legendarium. A year later, a leading Tolkien scholar published a paper suggesting that Tolkien borrowed from the traditions of another part of North America.

Roger Echo-Hawk, September 16, 2014 (photo by Linda Echo-Hawk)

Roger Echo-Hawk, September 16, 2014 (photo by Linda Echo-Hawk)

In his new paper, “Ya Hoi! Tolkien’s Mongol-type Orcs,” Echo-Hawk shows how Tolkien took inspiration from yet another region of the globe that has never been explored in Tolkien scholarship. He will present this new research at the upcoming Grey Havens symposium, Real Myth and Mithril. This is the abstract for his paper:

In the world of Tolkien fandom and scholarship, an extensive discourse exists on the role played by race in Middle-earth. Tolkien infused color with symbolic meaning, often imbuing “white” and “black” and “sallow” with defining moral qualities. Responding to the moral messaging of this aesthetic choice, many readers have wondered whether this messaging reflects an intended racial orientation. In terms of traditional racial taxonomies, the primary consensus is that Tolkien did not intend for his color usages to reflect race, and he was not racist – that is, except for his “Mongol-type” orcs. In this paper I will consider how Tolkien made use of race to colorize his orcs. I outline his early creation of orcs as monstrous soldiery of evil and as fairytale monsters, and then I review in detail how Tolkien summoned a new kind of orc into Middle-earth in the writing of The Lord of the Rings. Drawing from the traditions of British racial typology to colorize his orcs with “Mongol-type” characteristics, Tolkien used racially demeaning imagery to construct a fantasy folk, inventing racialized soldiery of evil for his feigned history. Understanding this history is helpful in understanding how real world racialism shaped Middle-earth.

For more on Echo-Hawk’s paper, visit Pawneeland: The Least Lovely Folk of Middle-earth

In the Grey Havens Hall of Fire

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As a cold autumn snowfall descended upon the Blue Mountains, Grey Havens gathered for another Hall of Fire. This time we met at the new home of one of our members, a friendly housewarming. We started off with our Hall of Fire tradition – each of us reading a verse from Bilbo’s Hall of Fire poem about Eärendil the mariner. In the deepening night we shared favorite passages and favorite poems by favorite authors. These photos by Roger Echo-Hawk captured very warm scenes from a very cold Saturday night…

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Here Elisha uses a hand-held palantír to read a verse from Bilbo’s poem. Charles introduced us to Kent Haruf, Plainsong; and Ivan brought his pet “Jabberwocky” to gyre among all us slithy toves.

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That night everyone got a chance to become real when Katy read from Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit. Later she selected a reading from JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.

Reodwyn cast a dark glamour upon the evening with her story “The Man Who Wanted to Escape the Gift”; later she wove for us the spell of a Tove Jansson tale, “The Last Dragon in the World.”

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Kate lightened the evening with several of her favorite selections from Douglas Adams, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

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Taking a break from knitting her next masterpiece, Katy shared several poems from The Ulster Cycle.

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Some of us happened to notice that Elisha galloped into the Hall of Fire upon a magic horse.

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Dyhrddrdh picked several of her favorite stories for us from Scottish Ghosts and Middle-earth Quests.

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Donna read two of her own magical accounts from a sequence called “Perfect Moments in Time.”

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Charlie sleuthed his way into Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

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We launched into the Hall of Fire by singing Linda’s Tom Bombadil song, and she left us with a cliffhanger from Walter Williams, Days of Atonement.

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Elisha drew us deep into the dark moonlight with Erin Morgenstern, Night Circus; later she flitted from flower to flower with Laurie King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

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Kelly read a moving story by a Grey Havens YA author, “The Nerdy Balrog”; and later she read from Mary Russell, The Sparrow.

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At midnight these two Pink Flamingos shapeshifted into Swanships!

Wights and Wraiths

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Improvising cinematic ingredients for The Hobbit, Peter Jackson and his colleagues invented a new cemetery, the “High Fells of Rhudaur.” First encountering mention of these new tombs in An Unexpected Journey, I decided that Jackson had arbitrarily pasted his own landscape over the world of Middle-earth. The release of The Desolation of Smaug seemed to affirm that Jackson had summoned his High Fells into Middle-earth to accommodate another revision of Tolkien’s legendarium – a fundamental rewriting of the truths of Ringwraiths.

It seemed to me that Jackson had divested Tolkien’s ancient Ringwraith lords of their intended moral point: the slow twisting of terrible mortal ambitions into a shadowy future, the frightful lingering of cruelty and pride. Jackson had abandoned this narrative logic, choosing instead to insert his own undead wraiths into Middle-earth from some hipster zombie film. Such fundamental tampering hardly seemed necessary.

And yet… well, recently it dawned on me that there is another way to understand Peter Jackson’s recalibration of Tolkien’s undying wraiths into undead zombies. Long ago when I first read The Hobbit, one day I found there an evil character lurking unseen at the edge of the tale. Tolkien called him “the Necromancer.” I had already read The Lord of the Rings, and I knew Ringwraiths and I knew Sauron. So what did Tolkien intend with this word, Necromancer?

I looked it up. Dark magic pertaining to the dead… so Sauron the Necromancer surely had something to do with the dead. But this seemed a story that Tolkien never actually told: the tale of Sauron’s black magic at Dol Guldur. As Tolkien portrayed the matter in the Council of Elrond, Gandalf said he had visited the fastness, and the White Council had driven out Sauron. The Appendices of The Lord of the Rings added only that Dol Guldur was a place of imprisonment, a favorite keep for Sauron and his servants.

Peter Jackson probably knew that when Tolkien first invented his Ringwraiths, he toyed with the idea of making them mounted barrow-wights. Barrow-wights first enter Tolkien’s writings as fairytale monsters with no evident place in his Middle-earth legendarium. But as Christopher Tolkien made clear in The Return of the Shadow (1988), his father decided in 1938 to situate barrow-wights in Middle-earth during the same period that Ringwraiths first materialized. In an early planning note Tolkien wrote, “Barrow-wights related to Black-riders.” And he wondered, “Are Black-riders actually horsed Barrow-wights?”

A connection between barrow-wights and the Necromancer in The Hobbit can be glimpsed in Tolkien’s lecture notes on Beowulf, prepared sometime during the 1930s (JRR Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 2014, p. 163-164). Pondering an Old English term, orcnéas, he associated the word with “necromancy” and “that terrible northern imagination to which I have ventured to give the name ‘barrow-wights.’” He went on to further underscore this association, describing barrow-wights as “undead” and as “dreadful creatures that inhabit tombs and mounds” who “are not living: they have left humanity, but they are ‘undead.’”

He then offered an example from Norse tradition: “Glamr in the story of Grettir the Strong is a well-known example.” In the tale told of Grettir the Strong, after Glamr died he was buried under a pile of stones, and he soon reappeared, horribly resuscitated – an undead zombie. Tolkien’s barrow-wights were thus rooted in an undead tradition. It is arguable that they simply “left humanity” and slowly became “undead.” But as “not living” creatures of old tombs, it seems more likely that Tolkien intended them to be humans who had died and had then become enlivened by dark magic. GreyHavensMirth3c

The invention of Tolkien’s Necromancer and his barrow-wights occurred close in time during the early 1930s, and these Beowulf notes clarify the connection between them via Norse tradition. But in 1938 Tolkien ultimately decided against bestowing this heritage of tradition upon his new Ringwraiths. They soon enough left the fold of the undead and became undying living men haunting the gloomy shadows of Middle-earth. Still, their invention is indelibly entwined with Tolkien’s original vision, invisibly rooted in necromancy.

Confronted with an unexplained Necromancer in The Hobbit, Peter Jackson had to make sense of the term. It is reasonable for him to make an effort to link Sauron the Necromancer to the undead in some logical fashion. He chose to do so through the Ringwraiths. Some may understandably disagree with Jackson’s choice, his logic. But when I consider how I ought to feel about Peter Jackson’s High Fells of Rhudaur, I can’t help but sense Tolkien’s Middle-earth lingering somewhere inside those tombs, a faded ghostly presence. If we look, we can indeed glimpse a fleeting undead zombie history in Tolkien’s Ringwraiths – a history long-abandoned but not forgotten.