Diversity and Difference: Cosmopolitanism and the Lord of the Rings

By Young, Helen | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Diversity and Difference: Cosmopolitanism and the Lord of the Rings


Young, Helen, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


I mean, admittedly, it's not a haven for the brothers. You know, strictly the Caucasian persuasion in the 'Dale.

--Mr. Trick, "Faith, Hope & Trick" (1)

MR. TRICK'S ASIDE MIGHT BE A COMMENT NOT JUST ON BUFFY THE VAMPIRE Slayer's Sunnydale but on fantasy worlds in general; they are widely thought of as almost exclusively of the "Caucasian persuasion," lacking racial diversity in characters, themes, and structures and being exclusively concerned with white, Western culture. Indeed some works, such as J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and film adaptations of it directed by Peter Jackson, have been accused of outright racism (Chism, "Race"). Charges of racism, and defenses against them, form a significant part of the scholarly literature and public discussions of representations of race in fantasy worlds (e.g., Rearick; Kirkland). A common perception is that most fantasy, like its sister genre science fiction, rarely addresses issues of racism and that minority readers are often not interested in it because it generally pays lip-service at best to such questions (Westfahl 72). Popular fantasy, however, often generates its narrative trajectory from encounters between different cultures and species. Further, its worlds are commonly populated by different, often mutually suspicious or inimical species such as elves, dwarves, humans, and goblins. Such generic features strongly suggest that an investigation of representations of racial and cultural difference might be illuminating.

Issues surrounding racial and cultural difference are highly significant for contemporary society with its increasingly mobile global population, and one broad theoretical concept which is garnering increasing attention in international social, educational, and cultural studies is "cosmopolitanism." Cosmopolitanism is broadly a set of sociological theories which are concerned with overcoming national prejudices, recognizing the mutual interdependence of global humanity, and advocating world citizenship, justice, and democracy (Fine). While the concept has only relatively recently been articulated as a whole, many of its elements have been espoused in fantasy literature for many years, an argument this article will make with reference to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. While many fantasy works rely on European cultural references and are lacking in multicultural human societies, such features are not synonymous with racism, and do not necessarily indicate a lack of concern with diversity.

A small amount of recent work reveals ways sf and fantasy can reflect changing ideologies of race and ethnicity (Chappell; Thrall; Young). A significant body of scholarly literature examines representations of race in sf, while relatively little addresses fantasy narratives, as Elisabeth Anne Leonard noted over a decade ago. Tolkien's work, though, has been a locus for discussions, and indeed debates, about race and racism in the fantasy genre since it was first published (Rearick). By exploring connections between Tolkien's work and contemporary concepts of cosmopolitanism, this article seeks to add a new dimension to this ongoing discussion. Although a degree of defense is perhaps inherent in its argument, it is not primarily concerned with taking a side but rather with demonstrating how fantasy concepts of difference and diversity resonate with those of the real world. This article argues that The Lord of the Rings is ultimately a cosmopolitan work because it provides a model of society in which common ground and a united purpose not only allow diversity, but require it.

Jane Chance argues that "Tolkien demonstrates that he dislikes most of all [...] segregation of the Other, and isolation of those who are different, whether by race, nationality, culture, class, age, or gender" (172). There are, moreover, as Sandra Straubhaar has argued, elements of multiculturalism and hybridity in The Lord of the Rings, along with racialized taxonomies of human worth--the "High" Gondorians and the "Middle" Rohirrim, for example (102-04). …

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