By Laura Crossley.

“You’ve enjoyed the film, so now what are you going to do about the message? Tolkien didn’t just write The Lord of the Rings for fun, you know. He wrote it to inspire people, to make people understand that – faced with bad government and threats to our way of life and our identity – ordinary people like us have to do something about it.” (Anon.: 2004)

When The Return of the King was on cinema release in December 2003, it became the focal point for a recruitment drive for the British National Party (BNP).[1] Pamphlets were distributed that bore the exhortation taken from Aragorn’s stirring speech at the Black Gates, “Stand, Men of the West!” The “Men of the West” had been translated directly to mean white Britons – and they were called on to stand against immigration. For the BNP, the theme of a homeland under threat from outsiders and the defence of a beloved culture was one that resonated with their political and ideological beliefs; the people who were going to see Return were deemed to include the sort of people whom the BNP wanted in their ranks – existing BNP members were encouraged to print off the aforementioned pamphlet and distribute copies among the audience as they left screenings of the film. The document in question draws heavily on quotes from an interview in an American magazine with the actor John Rhys-Davies (Gimli in the Rings film trilogy). As Lucy Ballinger reported:

Outraged Islamic leaders in Wales demanded an immediate apology from Lord Of The Rings actor John Rhys-Davies, who claimed an increase in Europe’s Muslim population was a “demographic catastrophe” threatening “Western civilisation”. In the interview, Rhys-Davies […] interprets Tolkien’s story of good versus evil as a metaphor for modern race relations. (Ballinger 2004)

The actor was dismayed to find that his words had been adopted by the BNP (ibid.) but his comments tie-in directly to some of the contentious areas of debate in Britain in the early twenty-first century: multiculturalism and race relations.

250px-The_Lord_of_the_Rings_(film_series)_-_Elrond_2The genre of high-fantasy to which Rings – with its Hobbits, wizards, Dwarves and Elves – belongs is not one with which most viewers would associate a reflection of contemporary socio-political issues. If anything, such films may be considered as an escape from everyday reality. In her writings on fantasy, Rosemary Jackson describes Tolkien’s creation as showing that, “the only way is backwards: the chauvinistic, totalitarian effects of his vision are conveniently removed from present material conditions, by providing an ‘escape’ from them” (Jackson 1981: 156). Yet, Tolkien himself was critical of such a view of escapism and issued a caution that, “In using Escape in this way, the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter” (Tolkien 1975 [1964]: 61). Indeed, despite dismissing Tolkien’s novel, elsewhere in her study of literary fantasy, Rosemary Jackson asserts that, “Fantasy has always provided a clue to the limits of a culture, by foregrounding problems of categorizing the ‘real’ and of the situation of the self in relation to that dominant notion of ‘reality’” (Jackson 1981: 52). For viewers and readers who do find definite resonances between the fictional events of Middle-earth and the real world concerns of race, immigration and identity, Tolkien’s Middle-earth provides much more of an engagement with society than it does an escape from it.

Peter Jackson’s Rings is not an historical trilogy of films: it does not present a version of an actual history of Britain that can be seen even in the most stylised, lightweight of adventures, from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) to Pirates of the Caribbean (2003). The film trilogy does have certain qualities in common with those films: swordplay, noble heroes who have fallen on hard times, an unlikely band of allies standing against a far stronger enemy. In his 1977 work Swordsmen of the Screen, Jeffrey Richards examines how the swashbuckler genre (to which Robin Hood et al. belong) “brought to life the heroic dreams and romantic fancies that are the heart of the folk-tradition of the English-speaking world” (Richards 1977: 1). Throughout this work, Richards analyses how the swashbuckler adventures engaged with political ideologies (an area to which he returns in his more recent essay “The Politics of the Swashbuckler” [2009]), as well as both popular and founding myths. It is here that Jackson’s trilogy again finds commonality with the swashbuckler in that it engages with contemporary social and political concerns at the level of myth. When Return was released in 2003, the first review, published in New Zealand Herald,[2] identified it as being “the great film of our time” (Baillie 2003); as I have shown above, aspects of that film’s narrative were identified as tapping into the zeitgeist by the BNP, who saw it as reflecting very real – and specifically British – social concerns. Whatever reading one may attribute to the narrative – either pro- or anti-fascist – it is demonstrable that texts rooted in mythology, both pre-existing and invented, have seen a rise in popularity that coincides with a real-world social and cultural focus on British nationhood and identity.

A Question of Identity

“[I]s there such a thing as ‘the English character’? Can one talk about nations as though they were individuals? And supposing that one can, is there any genuine continuity between the England of today and the England of the past?” (Orwell 1968: 5)

The success of creating a cohesive national identity rests, in part, on the extent to which individuals, as a collective, invest this constructed identity with reality. Cultural identity is partly shaped by the way in which that identity is represented; from the beginning of the twentieth century, the moving image has become one of the most accessible forms of both art and media for the spectator, replacing radio and printed materials. The Internet and mobile phone technology have opened up even more opportunities for visual communications across the globe, but in terms of mass consumption across generations, I believe that film and television remain the primary media by which culture represents itself to itself. That national identity is reflected in cinema output is certainly not a new idea, as Jeffrey Richards discusses:

“One of the sources from which national character is learned is the mass media. Cinema and latterly television, as the pre-eminent mass entertainment media of the twentieth century, have functioned as propagators of the national image, both in reflecting widely held views and constructing, extending, interrogating and perpetuating dominant cultural myths. It is instructive, therefore, to look at films for evidence of the promotion of images of both the national character and national identity.” (Richards 1997: 25-26)

Society, its constituent parts and how it operates, is reflected in the dominant image of that society. What television and cinema also provide is tangible evidence of how the nation views itself and how its self-representation has altered.

Our identity, therefore, is partly shaped by how we are represented to ourselves – quite literally through the vision or image we are shown, as Everett states:

“[T]he unprecedented degree to which the modern world has chosen to privilege sight, not only in conceiving of it as our primary access to ourselves and the world around us, but also in conflating sight with cognition, so that seeing and understanding have become synonymous in Western culture.” (Everett 2000: 5)

The visual has always played a significant role in culture throughout history. However, in the twentieth and twenty-first century, our globalised multimedia culture has become increasingly image-dominant. Cinema and television have displaced books and radio as the prime means of mass communication. This awareness of the function of the visual – especially of the moving image – has been acknowledged since the time of film’s infancy. In the years following the Russian Revolution, film played a key role in propaganda and in the construction of the new Soviet republic in the minds of the Russian people; and even though it was Stalin who was the most preoccupied with cinema, it is to Lenin that the famous statement is attributed – namely, that the cinema is the most important of all the arts (Kenez 2001: 5). If our relationship with our immediate surroundings is mediated through the representations thereof, then our relationship with the past and our notion of pastness is, even more so, negotiated and constructed by the visual representations of history.

20729_fullWhile cultural identity is shaped by representation, it is also informed by cultural memory. However, there is a reciprocal relationship at work: cultural memory may be employed in representation, but cultural memory is constructed through representation. The way in which we remember an event – both personal, but especially public – is constituted by the way in which it is shown to us. Similarly, as the means by which we remember who we are, identity is constituted by the past; therefore, only by knowing who we were can we know who we are. The history of Britain is complex and multilayered, but two recurring factors are the successive waves of immigrants settling in the Isles, and the consequent reconfiguration of nationhood that occurred in order to include the new additions. Peter Jackson’s Rings presents Middle-earth in a state of such flux: different races unify in order to create a new alliance from which the future of Middle-earth as a nation state will unfold. Admittedly, their alliance is prompted by making a unified stand against unwanted invaders but these invaders – the Easterlings, Haradrim and Uruk-hai – are bent on colonisation and destruction. They are not immigrants seeking peaceful integration. The history of Middle-earth serves as a mythic representation of British history and offers not actual history, but a nostalgic engagement with how we may wish history had been.

Middle-earth and the Myth of Britain

When J.R.R. Tolkien began writing Rings, it was in answer to a dilemma he had identified – the fact of England lacking a mythology of its own.[3] He wrote what has been described as a mythology for England (Chance 2001: 3). This aspect is enhanced in Jackson’s adaptation and expanded to provide a mythic history, not just of England but of Britain, through the aesthetic rooting of the races of Middle-earth in recognisable real world cultures, which contributed to the basic ethnicity of early Britons. The distant history of Britain is no longer within living memory: yet, through the mediation of film and television we collectively remember images of Roman legions and Celtic warriors. The highly detailed visual world created in Rings taps into these images of the past: The Rohirrim, Gondorians and Elves can be seen respectively as the Saxon, Roman and Celtic peoples who form the foundation of the early British nation. The appropriation of the aesthetics of real world cultures brings the historical past into dialogue with the mythic past, and both discourses are mediated through the eye of the modern-day filmmaker. The past, therefore, is a perennial presence in constant mediation with the present; and this mediation increasingly blurs the boundaries between memory and history.

Lord-of-the-rings-rohan-78In the DVD featurette J.R.R. Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle-earth (2004), the Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey discusses Tolkien’s wish fulfilment fantasy of the Rohirrim being an Anglo Saxon culture that had cavalry, an idea that is amplified through the visuals of Jackson’s film version. This is not an actual memory, but a memory of a past that might have been, mediated through myth. It is, to use Alison Landsberg’s formulation, a “prosthetic memory” (2003: 146): memory that is not natural or owned by an individual or specific, exclusive group, but memory that is created by mediated representations of past events. In this formulation she postulates that prosthetic memories which are shared by large groups of people across ethnic and racial lines, and disseminated through media such as film and the Internet, “open up the possibility for collective horizons of experience and pave the way for unexpected political alliances” (ibid.: 149). The representation of a mythic past for Britain in Rings is a highly mediated and idealised vision; but with its engagement with notions of alliance and multiculturalism it has the potential for providing a unifying memory of identity politics for its audience. It is at this point where visions of a mediated past and projections for the future in contemporary British identity intersect in Jackson’s Rings. The films, then, offer a version of a cultural history that did not exist but, in its philosophy and ideology, we may wish had.

Middle-earth: Representation and Appropriation

However, it is the strong links between the design styles given to the various races and their real world counterparts that is of greater interest here, and of most interest is which real world races have formed the basis for these different design styles: Roman, Celtic, Saxon – these are nations that have contributed directly to both the cultural and racial mix of the Britons. The detailed mise-en-scène and soundscapes presented in Rings resonate with the actual races who provided the bedrock of social and cultural history from which modern Britain descended. The music for the film (composed and conducted by Howard Shore) although usually serving the traditional function of film music – that of underscoring the emotional content of a given scene – m is also intended to evoke cultural significance and references.

oliphant_re_animal_rides_lord_of_the_rings_wallpaper-1280x960Given the filmmakers’ selective application of this rigourous design approach, a problematic arises: while the real world referents are explicit in relation to the Hobbits, Gondorians et al. – and are flagged up by the production and design teams on the DVD commentaries and documentaries – they maintain that the “evil” races of Haradrim, Easterlings and Uruk-hai do not follow the template already established within the film. With the audience already encouraged to make the real world cultural connections in the early stages of the trilogy, it is an impossible and somewhat naïve demand that they should not continue to do so with the villainous races. The Easterlings and Haradrim may not have been modelled on any specific cultural grouping, but with the cloth head-dresses and kohl-rimmed eyes of the former and the face paint and elephant-like Mûmakil of the latter, it is inevitable that the audiences would see parallels between them and the generic stereotypes associated with Middle Eastern and North African cultures. The use of a Maori actor in the prominent role of Lurtz – the most notable and visual villain in Fellowship – similarly mobilises issues of colonial and postcolonial negotiations for both Britain and New Zealand. The potential for racist and pro-fascist readings of Rings is manifest.

If we view these differing races as a collective, taking into account the distinctive, individual design concepts attributable to each, it is possible to map the racial composition of the peoples of Middle-earth as reflecting the constituent parts of British ethnic/racial heritage. The basic racial composition of the native British is Germanic-Celt and early cultural history is marked by the ideological war for dominance between these two. The result was that the Germanic tradition became the dominant image of Britain, with the Celtic becoming the alternative, resistant one and more associated with the Scottish, Irish and Welsh peoples. Despite the fact that the English also have a long Celtic history, this is generally perceived to have been lost. In recent years, this has started to change:

“A curious aspect of contemporary ‘Celticity’ lies in the fact that it often aims to recruit English people as much as anyone else […]. The assumption seems to be that ‘Englishness’ is no more than a modern cultural veneer overlying a broad ancestral community that is only just awakening to its lost Celtic roots.” (Davies 1999: 84)

The Hobbits and the imagery of the Shire conform to notions of the “Little Englander,” while the Elves and Dwarves draw heavily on Celtic traditions of the British Isles and Éire. The races of Man, specifically the Rohirrim and the Gondorians, draw on very different visual and aural references: Teutonic in the case of Rohan; Roman and Central European in the case of Gondor. The Fellowship itself represents the alliance of differing races and the assorted battles that are the set pieces of the films – Helm’s Deep in Towers, the siege of Gondor in Return – show the setting aside of differences in order to achieve a unified nation of Middle-earth. However, it is undeniable that the Fellowship and the races who are constructed as the “good guys” are predominantly male and exclusively white.

3618486-orcsThis visual dominance of whiteness is seen as a positive aspect – and something to be enjoyed – by some white nationalist groups. Started in 1995 and based in the USA, is an online white nationalist community which does, as most forums do, afford its users the space and scope to engage with any aspect of culture and society. The membership is not exclusively American, but it is devoted to a conservative, right-wing world view. The BNP used the release of Return as part of their recruitment drive and quotations from the film were used extensively in their literature. However, unlike, their message boards do not include threads on Tolkien and Rings. On the boards, the discussion of identity within Rings centres on race and by extension to notions of nationhood. Within the thread “Culture and Customs” there is a sub-thread devoted solely to discussions of Tolkien and Rings, with many of the topics and discussions concentrating on race. The issue of the Orcs is a recurring one at the site. The imagery in the films of white-skinned heroes battling the Orc and Uruk-hai hordes is one that clearly resonates with some of the posters, as is seen in this contribution from “BigWhite”:

“I too enjoyed the fact that there were no non-whites in The Fellowship. As far as the Orcs and Goblins and whatever, they definitely were darker skinned and lived in darkness as well, down in the Mines of Moria. All of the evil forces appear to be represented by darkness, a nice symbolic gesture which I did not bother to point out to my liberal friends (who also enjoyed the movie). I wonder why the PC Police haven’t whined about this absence of Negroes in the movie?” (BigWhite: 2002)

Throughout the discussions there are numerous references to the belief that Tolkien himself was pro-white and a white-separatist/nationalist and that this can be seen in the films; as “VitPuma” comments, “For me it wasn’t the story in the books, it was the visual impact of the movie… the actors, the costumes, the music… that’s the first thing I thought about when I left the theatre – it simply screamed ‘White Nationalism’” (VitPuma: 2007). The issue of race in Rings is debated both in critical works and in the online forums and is a core problematic throughout the trilogy.

A Question of Race

The Orcs – and their allies from the races of men, the Haradrim and Easterlings – are constructed, both in Tolkien’s writings and the films, as being the antithesis of the races of the Fellowship in their values, beliefs and appearance. As spectators, we identify with the entirely Caucasian cast of heroes; the Orcs and their allies are marked by their physical and racial difference – they become the other of Middle-earth. Tolkien’s implied intention to create a mythology for England results in a narrative that – it is possible to argue – centres on the mastery and expulsion of the dark other in favour of the (supposedly) superior white nations – a criticism that is expanded on by K.A. Dilday, whose essay on the films is addressed in later paragraphs. This undiluted whiteness of the accepted races of Middle-earth, can be seen to actively encourage the exclusion and discounting of the contribution of non-white immigrants to England and Britain as a whole. Indeed, this interpretation of the film was actively promoted by the BNP.

After screenings of Return the BNP handed out pamphlets specifically aimed at Rings’ audience. Quotes from an interview with John Rhys-Davies were included; Rhys-Davies had expressed concern over the erosion of native European culture in the face of the new wave of immigration, stating that, “There is a demographic catastrophe happening in Europe that nobody wants to talk about […]. By 2020, fifty percent of the children in Holland under the age of 18 will be of Muslim descent” (quoted in Anon.: 2004). The BNP aligns these words from the actor with its own reading of Rings as a proto-fascist parable – using Rhys-Davies’ personal observations as a validation of its own ideological appropriation of Middle-earth. The pamphlet concludes with the warning:

“We in the British National Party are organising politically to fight for the right of the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish natives of these islands to retain control of our own destiny and to preserve our own identity. That’s why we’ll be contesting every single seat in the country in June’s European elections, calling for Britain to be set free from the Eurocrats in Brussels/Mordor, and for an immediate halt to the mass immigration which is turning our ‘Shire’ into an overcrowded slum like Isengard.”

Before even Return had been released – and before the existence of this pamphlet – Rings had already become a site of struggle regarding ideological ownership of the text. Sophie Blakemore’s (2002) article from the Birmingham Post discusses the fact that on the day Towers came out on general release in Britain, Dr Stephen Shapiro of the University of Warwick commented on the worrying trend of the trilogy being “hijacked” by right wing groups:

“‘It is very worrying that fascist groups are using The Lord of the Rings like this and are trying to infiltrate popular culture. This should be openly confronted and if readers of Tolkien feel that this is wrong and the books are not racist, I encourage them to challenge these groups,’ he said. Dr Shapiro said the trilogy of Middle Earth mythology represented anxieties about immigration. ‘Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings because he believed England’s original culture and mythology was destroyed by the Norman invasion, and thought his story-cycle would recreate the world of pre-invasion Britain. For today’s film fans, this older racial anxiety fuses with a current fear and hatred of Islam that supports a crusading war in the Middle East.’ He added that the books should not be used to incite racial hatred but to look at the modern state of race relations in the UK and further afield.” (Blakemore 2002)

The article also mentions the encouragement on the part of local British right wing groups to their members to see the film and offers Shapiro’s counter that all fans of Tolkien – whether of the novel or the films – who object to this reading of the work to make their own views heard (ibid.). For Rhys-Davies there is an irony in his becoming associated (much to his dismay [Ballinger 2004]) with a right-wing political group: in an article relating to his audience research project, Martin Barker (2005) revealed that audience members who named Gimli as their favourite character pointed to the fact that Gimli overcomes ingrained racial prejudice through his friendship with the Elf, Legolas (Orlando Bloom). As Barker explains, the character of Gimli in particular is linked to ideas of friendship but this is then extended to his being, “someone who overcomes (racial) prejudices in and through his friendship with Legolas” (Barker 2005: 371).

1auruk-haiAs with any film, there exists the possibility for numerous readings; it is this problematic around the potential for appropriation by fascist and right-wing groups that is discussed here. Jackson’s filming of the novels also opens up a further discourse over the negotiating of postcolonial states, due to the overt identification of New Zealand with Middle-earth and the use of Maori actors in the roles of Orcs, particularly the actor Lawrence Makoare who performs the role of Lurtz in Fellowship. Lurtz’s visceral birthing scene establishes him as the abject other but also gives him and his Uruk-hai brethren a direct physical connection to the land of Middle-earth, which raises issues around colonisation and ownership. While Makoare’s features are heavily distorted and the figure of Lurtz is not constructed specifically as Maori, his body shape and the distinctive topknot distinguish the actor as being non-Caucasian.

In classic Hollywood cinema, the relationship between the white protagonist and black minor characters is, at best, more often used to comment upon the character of the white man than explore the character of his black counterpart (Bogle 1991; Shohat and Stam 1994); by associating with black culture and characters, the essential decency of the white man is established. At worst, black characters are constructed to exemplify what is worst in human nature, frequently portrayed as the amoral savage – bloodthirsty, cruel and unthinking. These characteristics are certainly applicable to the brutal Orcs and Uruk-hai and so the honour and nobility of the Fellowship – and the attendant races of Middle-earth – is enhanced by comparison (although, it must be noted that in Jackson’s Rings, many Orcs are demonstrably not dark-skinned). Discourses around identity frequently include discursive strands on race, difference and ideology: who and what we are is partly defined through who and what we are not. Tolkien’s descriptions of the Orcs are, admittedly, very general and the overall impression of them is of blackened skin and disfigured faces, as opposed to the white skin and admirable physical characteristics of the Fellowship – a point that is developed in K.A. Dilday’s discussion of Rings:

“Elves, humans, hobbits and wizards were good for the most part. Orcs, trolls, and Sauron, the evil genius and lord of Mordor were smelly, ugly, and bad and none could shake their destiny. What was bred in the bone came out in the flesh.” (Dilday 2003: 2)

For some viewers and critics of Rings – Dilday; Sue Kim (2004) – the evil hordes are viewed as being uniformly black-skinned. This overlooks the differing skin tones in various Orcs, Trolls and Uruks – they range from the white-skinned Grishnákh and Gothmog, to the dark-skinned Lurtz. This raises the notion that black or dark skin per se is not necessarily and inherently evil. Similarly, the voices of the Orcs – again, Grishnákh is particular – use the accents of the British working classes. However, what Dilday identifies here is not simply a matter of the other being defined through physical difference and colour, but also through breeding and genetics. Research into the science of human breeding – eugenics – began with Sir Francis Galton in the 1880s and by the early decades of the twentieth century it was a much-discussed subject. However, eugenics, with its focus on the planned improvement of the human race by selection of superior parents, fell out of favour after War World Two and the genetic experiments and racial “cleansing” carried out under the Nazi regime. The discourse of eugenics finds its binary counterpart in cacogenics (bad breeding), a field that has not been as widely discussed, but is far more prevalent as an inherent factor in many works of fantasy. The mastery of the savage, dark-skinned Orcs by the conquering white heroes could, potentially, be read as a racist fantasy that champions the supremacy of the Caucasian people over everyone else – this reading is clearly upheld by many members of Stormfront. By extension, the crossbred Uruk-hai, who are even more bestial and unthinking than their Orc forebears, could be read as a warning against miscegenation.

2e75177a9947However, as with all analyses that adhere too closely to an argument based on the acceptance of these structures of binary oppositions, the application of this structure to Rings is too limiting. To view Middle-earth and its inhabitants purely in terms of structuralist principles would be to overlook the complexities of narrative and character in Tolkien’s novels, which are transposed and enhanced through the dense visual world of Jackson’s films. The wilful reading of fascist sympathies into Tolkien has long been chronicled, along with attempts to draw parallels between the consciously racist National Socialist promotion of Wagner’s Ring cycle as the ideal Aryan myth in Germany, and Tolkien’s creation of a national myth for England. Criticism for his depiction of the villains – including the Haradrim, Easterlings and Corsairs – as coming from the East fuelled such associations, although Tolkien repeatedly clarified his own abhorrence of what he termed “the wholly pernicious and unscientific race doctrine” (Carpenter 1981: 37).[4] Tolkien took issue with these developments in his own lifetime, commenting on the similarities between his trilogy and Der Ring des Nibelungen (1869-1876), “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ends” (Carpenter 1981: 306). The most compelling argument against charges of fascism or racism comes from Tolkien’s 1938 response to a letter from the German publishers Rutten and Loening who, with a view to publishing a German translation of The Hobbit, had written to Tolkien’s publishers to enquire whether Tolkien was of “arisch” origin. Tolkien himself responded:

“I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people […]. I am an English subject – which should suffice.” (Ibid.: 37)

He was similarly at pains to distance himself from the term Nordic and any idea that he may have perceived northern Europe as superior to any other region:

“Not Nordic, please! A word I personally dislike; it is associated, though of French origin, with racialist theories […]. Auden has asserted that for me ‘the North is a sacred direction’. That is not true. The North-west of Europe, where I (and most of my ancestors) have lived, has my affection, as a man’s home should. I love its atmosphere, and know more of its histories and languages than I do of other parts; but it is not ‘sacred’, nor does it exhaust my affections […]. That it is untrue for my story, a mere reading of the synopses should show. The North was the seat of the fortresses of the Devil. The progress of the tale ends in what is far more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome than anything that would be devised by a ‘Nordic’. (Ibid.: 375-6)

Tolkien’s keenness to distance himself from any form or racist or fascist ideology is pointed out by a poster, “JohnJoyTree,” on the Stormfront forum: “JRRT was consciously non-racist” (JohnJoyTree: 2002). In fact, some Stormfront posters objected to the fact that far from presenting a white nationalist fantasy of racial superiority, Rings – both the films and novel – supports an opposing ideology, as is seen in the discussion started by “ImperialMarshall”:

Arwen_at_Helm's_Deep“That’s right, LOTR is pro-race mixing. Put the fact that all the people are played by White actors out of your head, and look at the LOTR mythology. There are 3 main races: Man, Elf and Dwarf. For the most part, they remain seperate. But there are 3 instances of race-mixing in the LOTR mythos, between Man and Elf. The first 2 are in the Silmarillion, but you can see the third instance in the movie between Aragorn and Arwen, and the offspring of the 2nd instance in Elrond. In all of them, the mixing of races are celebrated, and the mixers and their offspring are heroes. Just replace ‘Elf’ with ‘Negro’ and ask yourself: Is this really such a WN movie as you think it is?” (ImperialMarshall: 2004a)

This comment is answered by “schutzstaffel1983” and their observation that, “when I seen the ending to Return of the King & seen Aragorn kissing his new wife the thought they was race mixing popped in my head too” (schutzstaffel1983: 2004).

Given this obvious pro race-mixing stance, “ImperialMarshall” does not “understand why WNs love LOTR so much that an entire sub-forum is devoted to LOTR. I really don’t” (ImperialMarshall: 2004b). It would seem that even within the world of white nationalism and supremacy, and despite the possibilities of perception and interpretation, Tolkien’s world is not quite racist enough.

However, it is not only White Nationalists who identify a right-wing agenda within the trilogy: Douglas Kellner’s (2006) advances the reading of Jackson’s Rings as reproducing, “the dominant conservative and patriarchal militarist ideology manifest in the United States and elsewhere during the past years” (2006: 17-18). Kellner’s argument that the trilogy, “has more to do with conservatism and militarism than faith and Christian redemption” (ibid.: 32), follows through with an analysis that links these identified ideologies of the film text with the Anglo-American-led military campaigns against Iraq and Afghanistan, with each of the three films resonating with events of the years in which they were released. Kellner does, however, undermine his own argument of a “multiperspectivist” reading by asserting that the films “should be read” (Kellner 2006: 18) as being inherently conservative and militaristic to the point of being pro-fascist. Where Kellner is correct is that Rings does enter into dialogue with contemporary anxieties and concerns: however, my reading is directly opposed to his as it is my contention that the trilogy engages strongly with notions of nationhood, identity and multiculturalism.

Multicultural Britain

“[M]ulticulturalism is the basis of liberalism […]. Society has the overriding right to protect itself against anarchy and terrorism, but so far as possible society should leave people free to make their own judgements and decide on their own actions […] liberty depends on pluralism and therefore has to accept multiculturalism.” (Rees-Mogg 2007: 19)

It is arguable that liberty, tolerance and the democratic principle have long been some of the defining characteristics of the British nation. Therefore, multiculturalism, as William Rees-Mogg argues, is an undeniable facet of contemporary British culture and identity. Multiculturalism is not a new concept and is certainly not a new issue to British identity; although, it is probably only from the second half of the twentieth century on that it has become a feature of mainstream debate and discussion. This is, as Paul Gilroy argues, as it should be: “In Britain, ‘race’ cannot be adequately understood if it is falsely divorced or abstracted from other social relations” (Gilroy 1993[1987]: 14). It is broadly true that British identity underwent – and continues to undergo in the new millennium – significant changes in the second half of the twentieth century. However, the view of the 1950s as being the origin of non-white immigration into Britain – specifically, the arrival of SS Empire Windrush in 1948 with her Caribbean migrants – is not entirely accurate. Post-1948, non-white migrants certainly became more visible in the cultural and political arenas; but as an island nation with strong trading routes, non-white migrant workers had formed part of the fabric of the British nation for over 200 hundred years previous to Windrush. In terms of cultural consciousness and cultural memory, the 1950s and 1960s are generally viewed as the turning point – or breaking point – of contemporary British cultural life and identity. If one takes a superficial look at Jackson’s Rings, one could ask the question of how this fantasy world with its entirely Caucasian heroes has any bearing on a contemporary multicultural society.

434807It is my contention that the truth of the narrative – the underlying message of the myth – is pro-unity and inclusive. Rings takes us back to the roots of the British people, back to the time when an assortment of races and cultures had contributed to the formation of Britain – and by doing so reminds us of the core of Britishness. We are an island race that has been constructed by successive waves of invaders and settlers and our identity has changed and evolved accordingly. In There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1993[1987]), Paul Gilroy makes it clear that his focus is cultural and does not address, “many of the important historical and structural issues arising, for example, in the political economy of black settlement” (ibid.: 13). Similarly, while it is my argument that Rings offers a visual reminder of a nation comprising different races and cultures who voluntarily come together, I am aware that the reality of national identity and race relations is far more complex. This does not, however, invalidate the underlying myth of the narrative. In Rings disparate and frequently hostile races choose to coalesce in order to form a new, unified cultural identity. While differences may be set aside, this does not mean that differences will be erased. As Rees-Mogg argues, multiculturalism can only be successful when the parameters of social equality are widened in order to accept difference. Naturally, there must be negotiations and concessions on both sides otherwise anarchy will ensue. It is my belief that Jackson’s Rings reflects a view of Britishness where the absorption of diverse cultures and the natural evolution of national identity is a defining – and perhaps the most important – characteristic of our nation.

Battle for Britain

In October 2009, the BBC’s political question-and-answer programme Question Time came under fire for inviting the leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, to appear as one of its panellists. The anti-fascist group Unite Against Fascism organised protests outside of the BBC building on the day of the programme’s live broadcast (22 October 2009); the focus of outrage was the political ideology of the BNP leader, and this extended to the BBC for providing Griffin with a public forum. The ensuing debate brought to the forefront ideas about Britishness – how it is defined and what sort of Britain we wish to inhabit. Inherent to this is the notion of freedom of speech: as the leader of a legitimate political party and an elected Member of the European Parliament, Griffin has the same rights to put his point of view across as the leaders of the Conservative or Labour parties. The liberal media, the protectors and the representatives of the mainstream political parties were all keen to stress that modern Britain is tolerant, inclusive and proudly multicultural. If a nation is to be truly tolerant, however, it also has to make room for the rights of those whose opinions run counter to these ideals. That Nick Griffin was invited to take part in national debate is a validation of the inclusive tolerance that underpins this ideal of British identity; that the majority of people were vociferous in their condemnation of the BNP’s beliefs is testament to the fact that, while intelligent debate and policy reform is necessary on matters of immigration, mainstream public opinion is broadminded and anti-fascist.

Even before Griffin’s appearance on Question Time, there had been numerous objections to the way in which the BNP have appropriated British icons and iconography with a view to imbuing them with their own political rhetoric. As Philippe Naughton and Aled Thomas reported in The Times, the BNP “routinely uses pictures of Winston Churchill and took a Second World War Spitfire as the logo of its recent European election campaign – dubbed the ‘Battle for Britain’ — when it had two MEPs elected” (Naughton and Thomas 2009). The article addresses the verbal attack by Nick Griffin in response to an open letter from four British generals who denounced the way in which the BNP has sought to insinuate itself into public consciousness as the party with the closest links to, and support of, the British Armed Forces. Extracts from the letter were printed in Fiona Hamilton and Michael Evans’ article in the Times:

“The letter, seen by The Times, is signed by General Sir Mike Jackson and General Sir Richard Dannatt, the former heads of the Army, Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, former Chief of the Defence Staff, and Major-General Patrick Cordingley, commander of the Desert Rats in the Gulf War. ‘We call on all those who seek to hijack the good name of Britain’s military for their own advantage to cease and desist,’ they write. ‘The values of these extremists – many of whom are essentially racist – are fundamentally at odds with the values of the modern British military, such as tolerance and fairness.’” (Hamilton and Evans 2009)

The appropriation of iconography associated with Britishness is similar to the art historian Albert Boime’s identification of how American neo-conservatives appropriated icons of Americana in order to promote a narrow, right-leaning definition of patriotism. Boime’s study explores how symbols such as the Lincoln Memorial, the buildings on Capitol Hill and the American flag itself have become monopolised by the New Right:

“In the hands of a Jesse Helms or a George Bush, these icons assumed an exclusivistic character that directly contradicted their stated purpose. Certain sectors have been allowed to appropriate the symbols of America and to exclude anyone from this association that does not agree with their ideology.” (Boime 1998: 8)

In Hollywood during the 1990s, the era of the Clinton Administration (1993-2001), a number of films and TV series emerged that sought to link the political establishment and its attendant iconography with a left-liberal ideology. The films Dave (1993) and The American President (1995), along with the TV series The West Wing (1999-2000), create a structure of feeling that recalls the character and ethos of Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – a film that posits these national symbols as representing the ideals of equality and liberty that are the putative foundations for American political democracy. With the later films, cited above, placing their fictional presidents very clearly in the left-liberal camp, the narratives work not only to remind how audiences used to view their icons of political democracy (as inclusive and tolerant as opposed to exclusive and xenophobic) but also to re-appropriate them to the Left.

In the spirit of the American New Right, Nick Griffin and the BNP are, similarly, employing iconography that is linked to the “Best of British” that is part of the wartime spirit – and that, as has been discussed in this thesis, is an important factor in the national psyche and the ideas of British identity. The implication of such an association of British iconography with a model of right-wing rhetoric that emphasises patriotism is that anyone who is not “one of them” is not a patriot and not truly British. The objections to the BNP’s attempt to co-opt signifiers of Britishness for their own ideological objectives were augmented by the disputed icons – the Spitfire, Churchill, the Armed Forces as an entity – being reclaimed by the Left. The controversy around the use of iconic elements of modern British mythology brings this argument full circle and mirrors the BNP’s employment, in their propaganda, of elements of Tolkien’s alternate mythology for Britain.

16773_the_lord_of_the_ringsIn the examples cited above, in both American and British public life, icons and iconography are manipulated for political purposes. That purpose is, most often, to tie icons, which are seen to be fundamental in embodying defining principles of nationhood, to a particular political and ideological agenda. Rings does not employ such overt icons of British identity and pastness – due to its rooting in a mythic historicity, it cannot – but through its use of mise-en-scène, soundscapes and narrative, its underlying message of nation building is linked to the specificity of negotiating contemporary Britishness in potent and suggestive ways for British audiences. Rings is not simply telling the story of building a nation, it is telling the story of how that nation is built – through which principles is it defined? It is easy to make a statement to the effect that the unity of Middle-earth is a blueprint for nationhood – that the national identity of Britain in the future should or will be determined by the patterns of the past – that as a people the British will be changed by the newest arrivals on their shores; that Britishness is, perhaps, defined not through what remains the same but through the fact that it is forever changing. This evokes the statement on identity made by Wendy Everett: that identity – either individual or collective – is “an open-ended process of becoming, rather than a finite state; a construct rather than a given” (Everett 2000: 4). In that, perhaps, flux becomes the very constant that determines what Britishness means. The message that Rings can offer is a reminder that Britain and the British have rarely been a fixed, rigidly defined people in terms of culture and race but rather they have been made from numerous constituent parts and may long continue to be.

Laura Crossley is a lecturer in Film Studies, with a PhD from the University of Manchester; the PhD investigated notions of nation and identity in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Areas of interest focus on representations of British national identity in film and television, British stars and stardom and the function of nostalgia in film. We have previously published her essay “Multicultural Middle-earth: Constructing ‘Home’ and the Post-colonial Imaginary in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.


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[1] For the sake of brevity, from here I will be using the following abbreviations when referring to the trilogy: Rings (The Lord of the Rings); Fellowship (The Fellowship of the Ring); Towers (The Two Towers); Return (Return of the King).

[2] The review was reprinted in The Times, December 9, 2003.

[3] The Arthurian myths are more identifiably British than specifically English and they have been reworked and altered through other cultures, most notably by the French romance writers such as Chrétien de Troyes.

[4] This was an issue raised during a question and answer session at the Tolkien Conference 2005, when Priscilla Tolkien was adamant that her father despised racism, citing his statement, “The hatred of Apartheid is in my bones,” from his valedictory speech at Oxford in 1959.

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