The Lord of the Rings: Racial Destiny

I’m reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time since I was a child and I’m writing blog posts about the book when I feel like it.

The prologue for The Lord of the Rings plays a little bit of catch-up. The world of the novel (and Tolkien’s universe more broadly) is so god damn complicated that the writer needs to perform a huge info dump before the book starts so you can actually figure out what the hell is going on.

The first section of the prologue is “Concerning Hobbits,” a completely unnecessary history of hobbits, where they came from, what they did one time, and the wars they did not fight in before taking over land that they did not win in a war.

What struck me when I was reading this section was the sense of “racial destiny” (I think this is a phrase that I first heard from Sparky Clarkson and thought about when I read Austin Walker’s piece on Shadow of Mordor). That is to say that the different races (or species, it is very unclear) in Middle Earth have some inherent differences between one another that are not cultural but rather ontological.

Tolkien writes of the hobbits:

They possessed from the first the art of disappearing swiftly and silently, when large folk whom they do not wish to meet come blundering by; and this art they have developed until to Men it may seem magical. But Hobbits have never, in fact, studied magic of any kind, and their elusiveness is due solely to a professional skill that heredity and practice, and a close friendship with the earth, have rendered inimitable by bigger and clumsier races. [10]

How do we reconcile “heredity” with “practice” in that selection? And what about the “friendship with the earth”? It’s worth remembering that Bilbo Baggins is chosen to go along with all those dwarves in The Hobbit because hobbits are a crafty, sneaky people; it’s also worth remembering that we’re told over and over again that hobbits hate doing anything that isn’t eating, sleeping, and generally chilling out with some pipe weed.

With that in mind, “practice” seems like an absurd addition to that section. There’s no practice involved. Rather, hobbits have a destiny co-constituted with “elusiveness;” the hobbits are racially destined to have certain skills that other, “clumsier races” cannot hope to have.

How could one change that destiny? Weirdly, in this prologue we are presented with some kind of strange Lamarckian evolution. There are subgroups of hobbits. One of the subgroups, the Fallohide hobbits, have spent a lot of time with elves, and so are fair-haired and good at singing. There are shorter, more brown-skinned hobbits called Harfoots, and they’ve been spending a lot of time with dwarves. For Tolkien, there’s a transitive property of species qualities–if you and I hang out long enough, my children might have hair like yours.

When I was reading this the other night I couldn’t get over it and I had to write something to get it out. More posts about The Lord of the Rings will probably follow in the future. It is going to take the next fifty years of my life to read this.

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6 Responses to The Lord of the Rings: Racial Destiny

  1. Reading that snippet, which surely I read at some point (as I mostly finished LoTR as a young teenager) I now understand the races write-ups in 90% of all pen and paper fantasy RPGs. Even down to the Lamarkian evolution.

    • kunzelman says:

      I’ve recently been playing DnD 5th Edition and it is uncanny how the “lithe hobbit” vs “stout hobbit” typology has become etched in the fantasy firmament.

  2. DJ Ian says:

    Legit can’t wait to read these.

  3. I think when these creatures “spend time with” one another, this also includes procreation. In Tolkein’s universe, there seems to be an ability to cross-breed between species – or races – or whatever he’s calling them which I’ve always been confused about.

    • kunzelman says:

      I also thought that, but there’s really nothing to say that either way. There seems to be a clear “species difference” that happens and yet…not really? For being such a robust nonsense mythology thing it sure does have some weird gaps.

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