A FAMOUS GROUSE
MUCH indignant spluttering into the lager and lady petrol here at the Mahogany Ridge following reports that JRR Tolkien’s portrayal of the orcs in his The Lord of the Rings trilogy is racist.
The Middle-Earthers among the regulars were immediately up in arms. Impossible, they cried. Anti-Shire propaganda. Fake news from Mordor. Politically correct ullage from that dark snowflake, Sauron. Et cetera.
But no. An American science fiction writer, Andy Duncan, this week claimed that in Tolkien’s stories orcs are demonised with no attempt to understand their motivation to serve as henchmen and soldiers for all sorts of arch-villainy — and this indicates a belief that some people are inferior to others.
“It’s hard not to miss that repeated notion in Tolkien that some races are just worse than others and it seems — in the long term, if you embrace this too much — it has dire consequences for yourself and society,” Duncan told a Wired podcast.
The orcs, of course, are not necessarily “people”; Tolkien has variously described them as demons, evil spirits, bogeys and fanged humanoids with little or no regard for personal hygiene.
They’re miserable beings who hate everyone, even themselves. They’re perhaps not entirely stupid and occasionally demonstrate a certain low cunning, but they do have only one aim in life: the destruction of absolutely everything around them.
In that sense, they’re like the Economic Freedom Fighters. Of whom a bit more some paragraphs hence.
First, though, a note of caution regarding, if I may, the orcward comparison.
Tolkien did unfortunately suggest, in a 1956 letter, that orcs are sallow-complexioned, flat-nosed and squat with wide mouths, slanted eyes, hunched backs and crooked legs, and are “in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the … least lovely Mongol-types”.
The racial imagery has provoked heated debate over the years.
For instance, Stephen Shapiro, English professor at the University of Warwick and quite the wizard when it comes to cultural studies, has been quoted by the Times of London as saying: “Put simply, Tolkien’s good guys are white and the bad guys are black, slant-eyed, unattractive, inarticulate and a psychologically undeveloped horde.”
There are those who vigorously defend Tolkien against such charges. He may have been born in Bloemfontein, but (they say) he returned to England with his mother in 1895 when he was three years old following the death of his father. He was thus too young to be infected by the antediluvian vapours of the Orange Free State, then still a Boer republic.
Tolkien never returned to the land of his birth — the claim that a later trip to the hamlet of Hogsback provided the inspiration for Middle Earth is hogwash — but he would later declare South Africa’s racial policies abhorrent.
He knew the horror of war; he was at the Somme in 1916, and the experience shaped his conviction that both the British empire and the United Kingdom should be dismantled.
He especially loathed the Nazis. In 1938, following the success of The Hobbit, Tolkien entered into negotiations with a Berlin-based publisher, Rütten & Loening, who were keen to publish a German translation of the novel. All was going well until they inquired about Tolkien’s racial identity. Furious, he wrote back:
“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. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient.
I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.”
Later still, many readers would come to regard The Lord of the Rings as an allegory of events in Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s; the orcs, in particular, being dead ringers for the Waffen-SS. Tolkien, however, was not pleased with this simplistic interpretation of his work.
Moving to the present, Julius Malema and the EFF last week unveiled their own version of the Nazi party’s military wing with a heavily armed, goons-in-fatigues show of force in Johannesburg outside the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture.
The turn-out did not go unnoticed by the chattering classes, and there came the predictable derision on social media about Teletubbies in Black Friday bargain basement camouflage gear.
They may have appeared comical, these bullies in bush clobber, but as a paramilitary force engaged in an apparently illegal show of strength outside a constitutionally-endorsed inquiry into the criminal assault on the country’s sovereignty, they did convey a chilling and thuggish message.
As if this wasn’t enough, there then came the usual bluster of blatant lies and crudely racist belligerence in which Malema and his deputy, Fraud Shivambu, railed away at the usual suspects, like the media, and hinted at the violence that was coming their way.
The public enterprises minister, Pravin Gordhan, came in for particular flak and was labeled a “dog of white monopoly capital” in the VBS looters’ ongoing campaign to paint Gordhan and his family as corrupt stooges. As Malema put it, “We must hit the dog until the owner comes out.”
Gordhan was having none of it, and has laid complaints with the police against Malema and Shivambu, saying their comments amounted to crimen injuria or criminal defamation, and were an incitement to commit violence.
He has also approached the Equality Court demanding that the pair pay him R150 000 in damages, which he will donate to a worthy cause, apologise unconditionally and pay the costs of the matter.
The Effniks responded by laying a raft of criminal charges against Gordhan. Among others, they include money laundering, corruption, racketeering, fraud and perjury.
There is a particular irony about the perjury allegation: scrutiny by News24 journalists has revealed a number of significant “unexplained discrepancies” in the charges, which seemingly have no basis in fact whatsoever. They are essentially the same trumped-up allegations that were levelled against Gordhan when Jacob Zuma fired him as finance minister in 2017.
Given this, and the EFF’s general disregard for facts, it should come as no surprise that columnist Max du Preez has called on the media to be extremely vigilant in their coverage of the party, to fact-check their statements and, before broadcasting them, to remove incendiary talk and defamatory comments from soundbites.
“All media,” Du Preez wrote, “should from now on carefully consider on a daily basis whether an EFF statement or event is really newsworthy or an attempt to obfuscate, mislead or manipulate the media.”
He has no illusions about this bunch. “Here’s my honest opinion of the EFF. I think it has a deep affinity to violence, I think it is racist, dishonest, undemocratic, militaristic and proto-fascist and its senior leadership is probably as corrupt as the worst of the Zuma lot.”
He is not alone in this. Writing in Business Day this week, historian and author Milton Shain singled out the EFF as the single greatest threat to our democratic order.
“Identity and exclusion inform Malema’s politics,” Shain wrote. “His rhetoric is Africanist in a racist sense. Indians, coloureds and whites are for him marginal at best…
“While his oeuvre is not classically fascist, he shares with fascists an ability to build alliances and co-operate with elites. Political space is, after all, necessary for success. His populism and hostility towards whites finds fertile ground in a society with glaring racial inequality and massive poverty.”
Not strictly fascist, then. But fascist-like. And orc-like, too, possessed of a certain low cunning. Some of them, we have heard, even have university degrees.
Call it the New Cleffer, but they’re well aware that, when it comes to dealing with those who would expose and investigate their shortcomings, and draw attention to their reprehensible behaviour, attack is the best form of defence.
And the louder, the more baseless and hare-brained, the more vicious and gutless the attack, the better its chances of dominating the news agenda to the extent that reason is lost.