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Whiteness, medievalism, immigration: rethinking Tolkien through Stuart Hall

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This essay rethinks Tolkien’s scholarship and fiction in light of his rejection at Oxford of Stuart Hall, who approached him regarding graduate work on William Langland. I argue that Tolkien’s white medievalism contains his most deeply felt racist formations, which both shaped his fiction and informed his life in a university town populated by West Indian immigrants. After examining Tolkien’s essentialist approach to medieval study, I examine how Tolkien believed that his innate knowledge about his ancestors’ language and myths enabled him to create a national mythology, and how his fiction depicts its heroes’ inheritance of their ancestral tongue and temperament. I then consider how Tolkien’s supposed memory of an Atlantis-like disaster befalling his ancestors may have intersected with his rejection of immigrants like Hall. I conclude by discussing how, while Tolkien’s epic fantasies may be appropriated successfully for various ends, they present unique challenges for a significant component of Tolkien’s readership, medievalists.

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  1. On Tolkien’s fan base during the 1960s, when at one point in the US sales of The Lord of the Rings outstripped that of the Bible, see Ripp (2005) and Foster (2006).

  2. On the Campi Hobbit see Ignazi (2002) and Tarchi (2010).

  3. The website first appeared online in 1996.

  4. I engage further with publications on Tolkien and race in the discussion of whiteness that immediately follows the introduction.

  5. ‘It is no accident,’ as Ahmed points out, that academic power is ‘symbolically given through an item of furniture’ like Tolkien’s Merton chair; whiteness concerns a privileged orientation to space and ‘to take up space is to be given an object, which allows the body to be occupied in a certain way’ (Ahmed, 2007, 152).

  6. I am particularly grateful for the important analyses of Tolkien by Mary Rambaran-Olm and Dorothy Kim that have emerged since I first shared my findings about Tolkien and Hall in 2018 at the Celebrating Belle da Costa Greene Conference (Rambaran-Olm, 2020; Kim, 2019).

  7. Hall rehabilitates the term ‘ethnicity’ to denote the constructed, contingent and shifting nature of identity, and specifically identifies in 1980s Black British cinema a contestation ‘inside the notion of ethnicity itself,’ that splits between racist and nationalist understandings of ethnicity and a more productive idea of ethnicity based on difference (Hall, 1996, 447).

  8. This essay is indebted to Young, who, drawing on Ahmed, analyzes how Tolkien helped lay the foundation for ‘habits of whiteness’ in fantasy fiction that ‘simultaneously influence who can be present, and what is seen, thought, and done, by creating patterns of bodies and spaces alike’ (Young, 2016, 11).

  9. As Adams observes, such ‘a kindly vision of a … pre-Norman’ England, which masks over ‘the earlier obliteration of Roman Briton,’ looks back to ‘the combination of lurking genocidal thought and openly progressive, well-nigh utopian longing’ witnessed in Victorian historians including Kemble (Adams, 2014, 423).

  10. Early examples include Tolkien, 1994, 81, 85-6; 98–102.

  11. Critical whiteness studies thus clarifies how the counter-examples to the light-dark binaries in The Lord of the Rings cited by Curry and other readers do not undermine but contribute to the racist elements of Tolkien’s fiction (Curry, 2005, 87-90).

  12. Straubhaar (2004), Curry (2004), Chance (2005) and others stress Tolkien’s multiculturalism. Defenders of Tolkien who view him as ‘a man of his time’ support the ‘routine normativeness of whiteness’ by defining his historical moment in terms of whiteness, when an array of perspectives on identity actually existed, including that of Hall (Ware and Back, 2002, 5).

  13. Hall also was influenced by New Criticism in the U.S. generated by figures such as ‘Cleanth Brooks, Alan Tate, Yvor Wintors, and Lionel Trilling’ (Hall, 2017a, 222).

  14. Important recent work on the racist and nationalist ideological investments of Anglo-Saxonists includes Ellard (2019) and Davies (2019).

  15. Other nineteenth-century English medievalists resisted ‘linking Germans, Saxons, Danes and Normans as one great race,’ instead viewing the English ‘as the supremely successful group within the Germanic tradition’ (Horsman, 1976, 38).

  16. Craigie for example refers to the ‘knowledge of early Scandinavian history and legend which is so clearly manifested in the Beowulf’ (Craigie, 1933, 95).

  17. Many critics, above all, Shippey (2014), acknowledge what Young describes as the ‘tremendously important role philology and language played in the creation of Middle Earth and its inhabitants’ (Young, 2016, 21).

  18. Fimi (2009, 1-5) provides an overview of Tolkien’s unfinished cosmography.

  19. Texts like Olaus Rudbeck’s Atlantica (1702), Ignatius Donnelly’s Atlantis (1882) and Helena Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine (1888) popularized Atlantis and generated claims including speculations about a Nordic Atlantis.

  20. Tolkien understood his linguistic ability in matriarchal terms, writing that his ‘interest in languages was derived solely’ from his mother’s family (Tolkien, 1981, 377).

  21. The resistance of the white dominant culture at Oxford to decolonizing students is ongoing (Henriques and Abushouk, 2018). See also Cecire (2019) on empire, colonization and the origins of English as a discipline at Oxford and Rajendran (2019) on colonization and language.

  22. Moreover, Hall’s primary text, Piers Plowman, hardly conformed to Tolkien’s essentialist and mythic program. Far from engaging pagan Northern myths, Langland responded profoundly to his contemporary moment. Small wonder, then, that Tolkien never published on Piers, given its social and historical urgency.

  23. Tolkien’s rigid gatekeeping, in turn, may have offered the don a comforting indicator of the ‘unyielding will’ he shared with his ancestors; Ellard tracks a similar identification with ‘the Beowulfian hero’ on the part of Kemble with respect to his archeological excavations (Ellard, 2019, 167).

  24. Hall elaborates further on the white racism he encountered at Oxford in his memoir (Hall, 2017a, 118, 157-8).

  25. As Young puts it, citing the American Anthropological Association 1988 statement on race, people ‘are born with the ability to learn any language or culture’ (Young, 2016, 7).

  26. Saler describes how after WWI Tolkien increasingly became invested in a ‘more bourgeois and domestic’ Englishness, alongside his embrace of a willful heroism (2012, 168).

  27. Cf. the rationale for Hall’s unfinished dissertation on James, whose ‘works,’ Hall explains, ‘early and late, are framed around this contrast between Europe and America, between one place and another: Europe and somewhere else… that is a kind diasporic way of seeing the world, a diasporic question. James’ is a kind of diasporic imagination …’ (Hall and Back, 2009, 666).


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The author is grateful for the input provided in conversations with Suzanne Edwards, Rob Latham, Brooks Landon, Stephen Shapiro and Maria Sachiko Cecire, and also for the careful commentary on earlier drafts of this essay offered by the three anonymous readers, postmedieval editor Julie Orlemanski, and especially the author’s partner Harry Stecopoulos.

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Lavezzo, K. Whiteness, medievalism, immigration: rethinking Tolkien through Stuart Hall. Postmedieval 12, 29–51 (2021).

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