Skip to main content
Log in

Whiteness, medievalism, immigration: rethinking Tolkien through Stuart Hall

  • Original Article
  • Published:
postmedieval Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Similar content being viewed by others

Notes

  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).

References

  • Aarsleff, H. 1960. The Study of Language in England. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Adams, E. 2014. Historiography. In A New Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture, ed. H. Tucker, 413-429. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

  • Adams, T. 2007. The Interview: Cultural Hallmark. The Observer. 12 September. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2007/sep/23/communities.politicsphilosophyandsociety.

  • Ahmed, S. 2007. A Phenomenology of Whiteness. Feminist Theory 8(2): 149–168.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ahmed, S. 2012. Is Game of Thrones Too White? Salon.com. 1 April. https://www.salon.com/2012/04/01/is_game_of_thrones_too_white/.

  • Akomfrah, J. 2014. The Stuart Hall Project. London: British Film Institute.

    Google Scholar 

  • Banton, M. 1977. The Idea of Race. London: Tavistock.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brown, A. 1999. Political Languages of Race and the Politics of Exclusion. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

    Google Scholar 

  • Burns, G. 1978. Interview with Margaret Thatcher. World in Action. Granada Television. 27 January. 

    Google Scholar 

  • Burrow, J.W. 1967. The Uses of Philology in Victorian England. In Ideas and Institutions of Victorian Britain, ed. K. Clark, 180–204. New York: Barnes and Noble.

    Google Scholar 

  • Carby, H. 1999. Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America. New York: Verso.

    Google Scholar 

  • Carpenter, H. 1977. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cecire, M.S. 2019. Re-enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Chance, J., ed. 2003. Tolkien the Medievalist. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chance, J. 2005. Tolkien and the Other: Race and Gender in Middle Earth. In Tolkien’s Modern Middle Ages, eds. J. Chance and A.K. Siewers, 173–188. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chism, C. 2007a. Race and Ethnicity in Tolkien’s Writings. In J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, ed. M. Drout, 555–56. New York: Routledge.

  • Chism, C. 2007b. Racism, Charges of. In J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, ed. M. Drout, 558–59. New York: Routledge.

  • Craigie, W. 1913. The Icelandic Sagas. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Craigie, W. 1933. The Northern Element in English Literature. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Curry, P. 2004. Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Curry, P. 2005. Tolkien and His Critics: A Critique. In Root and Branch: Approaches towards Understanding Tolkien, ed. T. Honegger, 75–139. Zurich, Switzerland: Walking Tree.

  • Davies, J. 2019. The Middle Ages as Property: Beowulf, Translation and the Ghosts of Nationalism. postmedieval 10: 137–150.

  • Duncan, A. 2008. Senator Bilbo. Podcastle 32. 4 November. https://podcastle.org/2008/11/04/pc032-senator-bilbo/.

  • Dyer, R. 1997. White. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ellard, D.B. 2019. Anglo-Saxon(ist) Pasts, postSaxon Futures. Santa Barbara, CA: Punctum.

  • Fawaz, R. 2016. The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics. New York: New York University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fimi, D. 2009. Tolkien, Race and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave.

  • Flieger, V. 1997. A Question of Time: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Road to Faërie. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press.

  • Foster, M. 2006. America in the 1960s: Reception of Tolkien. In J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, ed. M. Drout, 14–15. New York: Routledge.

  • Frantzen, A. 1990. Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gates, H.L., Jr. 1986. Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes. In ‘Race,’ Writing, and Difference, ed. Gates, 1–20. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

  • Gehl, R. 2007. Something is Stirring in the East: Racial Identity, Confronting the ‘Other,’ and Miscegenation in Othello and The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language, ed. J. B. Croft, 251-66. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

  • Gordon, E.V. 1927. Introduction to Old Norse. Oxford, UK: Clarendon.

    Google Scholar 

  • Griffith, J. and Henderson, J. 1960. Coloured Immigrants in Britain. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Grundtvig, N. 1841. Bjovulfs Drape eller det Oldnordiske Heltedigt. Brage of Idun 4: 481–538.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hall, S. 1969. The Hippies: An American Moment. In Student Power, ed. J. Nagel, 170–202. London: Merlin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hall, S. 1971. Black Men. White Media. Savacou 9/10: 97–100.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hall, S. 1980. Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance. In Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism, ed. Marion O’Callaghan, 305–345. Paris: UNESCO.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hall, S. 1996. New Ethnicities. In Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, eds. D. Morley and K. Chen, 441–449. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hall, S. 1997. The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity. In Culture, Globalization, and the World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity, ed. A. King, 19–40. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hall, S. 2005. Whose Heritage? Un-settling ‘The heritage,' Re-Imagining the Post-Nation. In The Politics of Heritage: The Legacies of ‘Race’, eds. J. Littler and R. Naidoo, 23–55. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hall, S. with B. Schwarz. 2017a. Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Hall, S. 2017. The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Hall, S. and Vincent, H. 2011. Stuart Hall Interview – 2 June 2011. Cultural Studies 27(5): 757–777.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hall, S. and Back, L. 2009. At Home and not at Home: Stuart Hall in Conversation with Les Back. Cultural Studies 23(4): 658–687.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harpham, G. 2009. Roots, Races, and the Return to Philology. Representations 106(1): 34–62.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harris, S. 2012. Race and Ethnicity. In A Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Studies, eds. J. Stodnick and R. Trilling, 165–179. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Henriques, A. and Abushouk, L. 2018. Decolonising Oxford: The Student Movement from Stuart Hall to Skin Deep. In Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy, eds. J. Arday and H.S. Mirza, 297–309. New York: Palgrave.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Horsman, R. 1976. Origins of Racial Anglo-Saxonism in Great Britain before 1850. Journal of the History of Ideas 37(3): 387–410.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Immigration into Britain. 1955. To the Editor. The Times. 20 January.

  • Ignazi, P. 2002. Extreme Right Parties in Western Europe. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • James, M. 2019. Our Myths, Our Selves. 7th Annual J. R. R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature. Pembroke College, Oxford University. 26 February. Video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jV2bysurBds&t=18s.

  • Julien, I. and K. Mercer. 1996. De Margin and De-Centre. In Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, ed. K. Chen and D. Morley. London: Routledge.

  • Kemble, J.M. 1849. The Saxons in England. London: Longman.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kim, D. 2019. The Question of Race in Beowulf. JSTOR Daily. 25 September. https://daily.jstor.org/the-question-of-race-in-beowulf/.

  • Kuchta, T. 1998. The Dyer Straights of Whiteness. Postmodern Culture 9(1) http://www.pomoculture.org/2013/09/19/the-dyer-straits-of-whiteness/.

  • Lee, S. (stuart.lee@it.ox.ac.uk) and J. Reid (julian.reid@ccc.ox.ac.uk), 6 Dec. 2018. RE: Merton College Fellows 1960s. Email to Kathy Lavezzo.

  • Lewis, C.S. 2013. Image and Imagination: Essays and Reviews. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mercer, K. 2017. Introduction. In S. Hall, The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, ed. K. Mercer, 1–30. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Miller, L. 2011. If Tolkien were Black. Salon.com. 9 November. https://www.salon.com/2011/11/09/if_tolkien_were_black/.

  • Norako, L. 2018. ‘And the walls became the world all around’: An introduction. postmedieval 9(1): 3–14.

  • Omi, M. and Winant, H. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rajendran, S. 2019. Undoing ‘the vernacular’: Dismantling Structures of Raciolinguistic Supremacy. Literature Compass 16. https://doi.org/10.1111/lic3.12544.

  • Rambaran-Olm, M. 2020. ‘Houston, we have a problem:’ Erasing Black Scholars in Old English Literature. Medium. 3 March. https://medium.com/the-sundial-acmrs/houston-we-have-a-problem-erasing-black-scholars-in-old-english-821121495dc.

  • Rambaran-Olm, M., M. Leake and M. Goodrich. 2020. Medieval Studies: The Stakes of the Field. postmedieval 11(3): 56–370.

  • Rask, E. 1830. A Grammar of the Anglo-Saxon Tongue, trans. B. Thorpe. Copenhagen: Moller.

  • Reid, R. 2017. Race in Tolkien Studies: A Bibliographic Essay. In Tolkien and Alterity, ed. C. Vaccaro and Y. Kisor, 33–74. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Ripp, J. 2005. Middle America Meets Middle Earth: American Discussion and Readership of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, 1965–1969. Book History 8: 245–286.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Saler, M. 2012. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schulenburg, C. 2016. Nerd Nation: La breve y maravillosa vide de Oscar Wao and Life in Tolkien’s Universe. Modern Language Notes 131: 503–516.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schwarz, B. (b.schwarz@qmul.ac.uk), 8 Oct. 2019. RE: Stuart Hall at Merton. Email to Kathy Lavezzo.

  • Shippey, T. and Haarder, A. 1998. ‘Beowulf’: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shippey, T. 2014. The Road to Middle Earth: How J. R. R. Tolkien created a New Mythology. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

  • Stimpson, C.R. 1969. J. R. R. Tolkien. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Stormfront Forum. 2004–2019. High Fantasy and The Lord of the Rings. https://www.stormfront.org/forum/f63/.

  • Straubhaar, S.B. 2004. Myth, Late Roman History, and Multiculturalism in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. In Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader, ed. J. Chance, 101–117. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

  • Sundem, G. 2009. The Geeks’ Guide to World Domination. New York: Three Rivers.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. 1934. Chaucer as a philologist: The Reeve’s Tale. Transactions of the Philological Society 33(1): 1–70.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. 1973. The Return of the King. New York: Ballantine.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. 1981. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. H. Carpenter. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. 1984. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. 1992. The Notion Club Papers. In Sauron Defeated, ed. C. Tolkien, 161–307. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. 1994. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Balantine.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. 2009. The Elder Edda. In The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, ed. C. Tolkien, 11–56. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tolkien, J.R.R. 2020. The Lost Road. In The Lost Road and Other Writings, ed. C. Tolkien, 29–84. New York: Del Ray.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tarchi, M. 2010. La rivoluzione impossibile. Dai Campi Hobbit alla nuova Destra. Florence: Vallecchi.

    Google Scholar 

  • Utley, T. 1968. Enoch Powell: The Man and his Thinking. London: Kimber.

    Google Scholar 

  • Young, H. 2014. Review of The Body in Tolkien’s Legendarium. ed. Christopher Vaccaro, Journal of Tolkien Research 1(1): 5. http://scholar.valpo.edu/journaloftolkienre-search/vol1/iss1/5/.

  • Young, H. 2016. Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ware, V. and Back, L. 2002. Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics and Culture. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kathy Lavezzo.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Lavezzo, K. Whiteness, medievalism, immigration: rethinking Tolkien through Stuart Hall. Postmedieval 12, 29–51 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41280-021-00207-x

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41280-021-00207-x

Navigation