Lord of the Rings and structural Orientalism

On first reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, at the age of nine, I loved it unquestioningly and, once finished, immediately began reading it again. Later, in high school English, I wrote about it as an epic synthesis of myth, overwhelmingly sourced from the peoples who were later themselves synthesised into Englishness: Saxons, Danish, Scandinavians, Normans, and so on. I also became uncomfortable with the largely simple good-versus-evil binary of the text, and the axiomic irredemability of Tolkien’s Orkish “race”.

There is much to evoke deep discomfort about Lord of the Rings. Many writers have found the racialised depictions of Orcs, Haradrim and Easterlings disturbing, especially their juxtaposition with the idealised, hyper-white beauty of Tolkien’s elves.

Yet little has been written about the structure of the Lord of the Rings. It is fairly well known that Tolkien re-worked many myths in the compiling of his “legendarium”; most notably, that of Turin Turambar from the Norse Sigurd and the Finnish Kulervo. Yet Tolkien did not restrict his borrowing and reworking to English and Norse myth.

The death of Boromir and the Song of Roland: Sounding the Horn

The Song of Roland, the oldest surviving work of French literature, records Charlemagne’s victory over Muslim rulers in Spain; the song itself alters the historical betrayal of Charlemagne by his Basque allies into betrayal by one man and the death of Roland at the hand of “Saracens”.

Transfigured by Tolkien, the betrayal is instead that of Sauruman, whose army of Orcs comes upon Boromir and the two hobbits. Like Roland, Boromir bears a great horn; like Roland, he is massively outnumbered and is overcome; like Roland, his allies do not reach him in time, and find only dead bodies.

Curiously, the name of Roland’s horn, Oliphant, is transfigured again by Tolkien into the name of the gigantic elephants of the far South; Boromir’s horn is simply the Horn of Gondor (Gondor’s real world namesake, Gondar, was part of Christendom’s historic southern bastion in Ethiopia); its sounding leads to Aragorn on his first steps not East with Frodo, but West, along the path that will lead to him claiming his rightful crown.

El Cid and Gandalf: the White Riders

A rider, clad all in white and riding a white horse, returned from the dead to lead the “forces of good” to victory. Not simply the story of Gandalf, but part of the legend of El Cid, who in many tales was embalmed and tied to his horse after his death to lead his charging knights to victory against the Moors. Like Gandalf and his sword, Glamdring, El Cid also had a famous, named sword, Tizona. Like Gandalf, who selected his white horse Shadowfax from the stables of King Theoden, El Cid obtained his horse as a gift: in many versions, he chose his horse from the stables of his godfather, or was given it by a king.

What is more, film representations of both legends have striking similarities.

El Cid (1961)


Note the orientalised “Moor” at 1:11 and the “barbarous” skull-bedecked tower he stands in, the sounding of the giant gong at 1:16, the preponderance of black-cloaked “Moors”, and the barbarous-looking siege towers at 4:13.

For those who don’t want to sit through all of that, here is El Cid appearing, after death, haloed by white, and causing the “Moors” to flee in panic (6:11): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqFWBNB2xfI#t=06m11s

Here is Gandalf’s charge of the Orcs at Helm’s Deep, from the 2002 film:


The iconography of the “White Rider” has been embraced by European fascist groups; “White Rider” is also a 1987 album by Skrewdriver, the most prominent white power band in the world.

The Corsairs of Umbar and the Battle of Lepanto

From the victory at Helms Deep, the heroes move on to confront the traitor Sauruman and then to aid Gondor. Aragorn, driven by need, takes “the Paths of the Dead” where he holds a dead, ghostly people to their oath to Gondor. He then leads this undead army to a city in the south of Gondor, Pelargir, where the “Corsairs of Umbar” are attacking.

Who are these Corsairs? Corsair as a term originally applied to the pirates of the Barbary coast, who later fell under the dominion of the Ottoman empire. Cervantes, who wrote Don Quixote, was among those enslaved by them. The Ottoman navy was defeated in 1571 at the battle of Lepanto, which assumed mythic resonance; Cervantes was also present at Lepanto, and there was badly wounded.

The Siege: Minas Tirith and Vienna

If the archetypal battle against “Corsairs” was Lepanto, the archetypal European siege was that of Vienna. Besieged by the Ottoman empire in 1529 and again in 1683, its relief marked the ascendance of European dominance of the world. Attacked from the South and East from a city historically friendly – Byzantium fell in 1453 and became the capital of the Ottoman empire – the territorial parallels with Minas Tirith under attack from its former sister-city Minas Morgul are obvious, and the battle has the same enormous significance for Gondor as the relief of Vienna was considered, by contemporaneous European writers, to have for Europe.

While one final battle is fought by Aragon in defence of Gondor, at the gates of Mordor, it takes little space in the text, and is not resolved through human action but in a sense through grace, as Gollum grabs the One Ring and plummets into Mount Doom, destroying Sauron and his empire.

The Orientalised Other

Structurally, then, we can see how Lord of the Rings, in particular the sections concerning Gondor, mirrors the perceived historical conflict between “Christendom” and “Islam”. While such a model had limited historical validity even then – it seems foolish to conflate the relatively tolerant Al-Andalus of before around 1150 with the later slave-taking, sometimes European-captained Barbary pirates; it seems as foolish to conflate the diverse, squabbling European powers which fought them – such models certainly do not function in a helpful or predictive manner now.

In his book, Orientalism, Edward Said describes the process of construction of a model of the Orient as “other” by Western scholars, in particular the ideological production of Islam as unchanging, monolithic, and antithetical to “Western values”.

While Tolkien himself explicitly argued against political or allegorical readings of his work – he intended it as a linguistic project – it is clear that many of the myths which he drew upon are certainly political and unconsciously centre conflict against a dark, evil, inhuman “other”.

Criticism of Tolkien in this vein is certainly nothing new. Michael Moorcock, in his excellent essay, stated “I don’t think these books are ‘fascist’, but they don’t exactly argue with… white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what’s best for us.”

The “natural order” and Aragon’s right to rule

Aragon demonstrates his power and right to rule by being able to hold the ghosts of the Dead Men of Dunharrow to their oath to Gondor. Here Aragorn first demonstrates his sovereignty, his right to rule as part of the natural order; it is his blood claim to the crown of Gondor that the undead sense and defer to, and thus he exerts his claim over nature, that is, over the fact of death itself.

While Aragon’s myth is that of Arthur, the king returned to save the land from disaster, it is worth examining precisely who he is saving it from – a constructed “other” that only Sam ever wonders about, and at that powerlessly and wistfully:

“He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”

And with that he ceases wondering, and so do we.

Hierarchy is woven through the fabric of Lord of the Rings, in a fundamental, existential sense. Aragorn deserves to rule; Samwise is happy in his place as servant; Orcs are inhuman and deserve death; Easterlings and Corsairs must be driven back and subjugated. All have their place in a “natural” order. It is only when we reconsider that natural order and consider the world less in terms of hierarchy than of systems, that the “other” becomes humanised, that eternal conflict can end.

Patterns in myth and mythical patterns

There is much that I still find profoundly moving about Lord of the Rings. Yearning for a deep and unknowable past is, after all, an inescapable characteristic of advancing capitalism which is forever more deeply invading the structures of everyday life. Yet it also tells of time flowing inevitably onwards, and that the past is inevitably left behind. I must now admit that much of my own uncritical enjoyment of Lord of the Rings has flowed from my own white privilege.

If the unsatisfactory paradigm of “Islam” and “Christendom” as competing power blocs ever had validity, it was from a time when the power of each was roughly equal. This is certainly no longer the case now. The First World War that so affected Tolkien led to the creation of Iraq, and when ongoing Western hegemony dictated that it be invaded in 2003 this led to around a million excess deaths. US-led war with Iran now seems plausible, despite the immense power disparity. All the while, economic inequality grows, and global warming goes unchecked. It would seem timely to change our paradigms, our patterns of thought, and so our myths.

“For the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.”

3 responses to “Lord of the Rings and structural Orientalism

  1. fuck you, that's my name

    typical liberal bullshit revisionism with circumstantial statements. btw, at least the orcs had the guts to stand and fight, while those barbarians fled like ants. a sincere fuck you!

    • No, not typical ‘Liberal bullshit revisionism’, just a sharp eye. I love Tolkien, but he was a man of his time – which was not the 20th Century, but the 10th. Tolkien himself stated repeatedly that Middle Earth was not some alternate dimension, nor planet – it was Europe “… at a different stage of imagination”. What Lord of the Rings omits speaks volumes, and as this entry shows, the parallels between Medieval European literature and Tolkien’s work are clear. The medieval Christian view of Islam did not temper itself with ‘Cultural Relativity’. Mohammed was seen in no uncertain terms as unfavorable, ranging from a twisted, distorted Prophet of a heathenly faux-Abrahamic faith, to the Antichrist. As Frodo tells Sam “”The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make.” Take a look at a map of Middle Earth. Look at Mordor. Then, have a gander at the Anatolian Peninsula. As the article states, note how Byzantium – a faded city of a once-glorious Kingdom, just like Minas Tirith – sits as a bulwark between Europe to the west, and Asia to the East.

      Anyways, great article! : )

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