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Portrayal of Race in the Hobbit Essay Sample

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Portrayal of Race in the Hobbit Essay Sample

J.R.R. Tolkien began writing The Hobbit in 1930 and it was published in 1937.

In 1930s Europe, the political climate was turbulent. The Great Depression of the 1930s crippled the world’s economy. The rise of anti-Semitism in the 1930s emphasized its hatred of the Jews as a race and not only the Jewish religion. There were frequent pogroms of Jewish people occurring in Eastern Europe and the rise of Nazism in Germany led to the mass extermination of six million Jews. Writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien have criticized Hitler and Nazism in Germany.

Tolkien had very strong political beliefs. He was an anti-communist and criticized Nazism. In preparation for the release of The Hobbit in Germany, his publisher asked him if he was of Aryan origin. He said that he was proud to have many Jewish friends and also went further in denouncing the race-doctrine of Nazi Germany, saying that it was antisemitic, unscientific and destructive. This sort of antisemitism, which was prevalent in the 1930s, influenced Tolkien’s writings of The Hobbit. Firstly, I do not want to limit the definition of antisemitism as overt violence and discrimination of Jewish people. But rather as the claim that Jews are psychologically and biologically different from Christians, which has been an idea prevalent in Europe since the middle ages. Antisemitism is therefore, a set of beliefs and not just an action.

The antisemitism of the 1930s influenced Tolkien’s construction of the different races in The Hobbit. In this essay, I will focus on the similarities between the Dwarvish race and the Jewish people.

“The Dwarves of course are quite obviously – wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.” – J.R.R Tolkien

In Tolkien’s own words, the Dwarvish race in The Hobbit is constructed to be Semitic. This construction of race was potentially influenced by antisemitic beliefs from his own lifetime, and from the medieval texts that he studied.[1] From both of these time periods, one of the prime antisemitic claims is that the Jews were visually distinguishable from Christians.

In a 1911 article by Redcliffe N. Salaman, it was agreed upon by ‘ethnologists’ that

“… Jews constitute a definite people in something more than a political sense, and that they possess though not a uniform, still a distinguishing type. […] All, however, practically agree that whether blonde or dark, tall or short, long headed or round headed, the Jew is a Jew because he looks like one.”[2] Physiologically, the Dwarves in The Hobbit all have beards, which just so happens to be a characteristic of the Jews. The first appearance of them in the book refers to them as “the bearded Dwarves” (Chapter 1). This description indicates that their beards are a racial characteristic of the Dwarves. Jews in medieval art were commonly depicted wearing beards as well.[11]

There are undeniable similarities between the Dwarves and the Jewish struggle. In The Hobbit, the dwarves are dispossessed from their homeland, which is the Lonely Mountain, and they must live amongst other groups and learn their tongue. This dispossession is similar to the Jewish diaspora, which began 6th century BCE. The Jews were exiled away from their homeland in which they lived in for over a millennium. The Jews were forced to disperse themselves elsewhere and different groups of Jewish people settled in different lands.[9] Tolkien further accentuates the diaspora of the Dwarves with the destruction of the Mines Of Moria and the Lonely Mountain. The insurrection of the Jews during the diaspora is similar to the Dwarves quest to get back the Lonely Mountain by defeating the dragon, Smaug.

“The few of us that were well outside sat and wept in hiding, and cursed Smaug; and there we were unexpectedly joined by my father and grandfather with singed beards. They looked very grim but they said very little. When I asked how they had got away, they told me to hold my tongue, and said that one day in the proper time I should know. After that we went away, and we have had to earn our livings as best we could up and down the lands, often enough sinking as low as black-smith work or even coal mining.” – (Chapter 1)

Thorin and his families lost their land and wandered Middle-Earth, trying to survive as black-smiths or coal miners while living in exile. The Dwarves in The Hobbit speak a language called ‘Khuzdul’ which is very similar to Hebrew in terms of phonology and morphology. Earlier quoted, Tolkien said that their words are constructed to be Semitic.

“I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews: at once natives and aliens in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue…” – Letter 176, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

This quote by Tolkien is in regards to the Dwarves of Middle-Earth. Tolkien shows that the dwarves speak the language of men but have their own accent, a distinct sign of their ethnic difference. Their accent comes from their own secret language, Khuzdul that they only speak amongst each other. Like medieval Jewish groups, the Dwarves use their own language amongst themselves and adopted the languages of the land that they lived in as well.[1] They are forced to wander the world and adopt the languages of other lands.

The resemblance between the Jews and the Dwarves in The Hobbit extends beyond their plight, appearance and language. In the novel, the Dwarves psychological attributes draw in antisemitic stereotypes, especially of early twentieth century (and that of previous centuries) writings portraying Jews to be extremely gold-hungry, rowdy, overly-proud and whiny.[1] The most dominant psychological attribute of the Dwarves is there insatiable love for gold, which resonates the widespread antisemitic belief that Jews are greedy. This is a recurring theme in the story, starting at the beginning of the book with the Dwarves singing:

“Far over the misty mountains cold, To dungeons deep and caverns old, We must away, ere break of day, To find our long-forgotten gold. (Chapter 1)

The irony here is that their ‘long-forgotten gold’ is not forgotten. The whole point of the Dwarves quest is to get back their lost treasure.

“But we have never forgotten our stolen treasure. And even now, when I will allow we have a good bit laid by and are not so badly off – here Thorin stroked the gold chain round his neck – we still mean to get it back, and to bring our curses home to Smaug – if we can.” (Chapter 1)

Despite the Dwarves being ‘not so badly off’ without their treasure, (which is shown as Thorin strokes his gold chain), the Dwarves love of gold leaves them vengeful and filled with greed to take back what is theirs. Lastly, the pinnacle moment of the Dwarfs greed is when they refuse to grant any of their treasure to Bard, the man who slayed Smaug the Dragon, and also refused to grant relief to the villagers of Laketown. When the people of Laketown make the request, the Dwarves are in the mountain enjoying their newly begotten treasure.

“They spoke aloud, and cried out to one another, as they lifted old treasures from the mound or from the wall and held them in the light, caressing and fingering them,” (Chapter 13)

The sight of gold has an immediate effect on the Dwarves:
“The mere fleeting glimpses of treasure which they had caught as they went along had rekindled all the fire of their dwarvish hearts; and when the heart of a dwarf, even the most respectable, is wakened by gold and by jewels, he grows suddenly bold, and he may become fierce.” – Chapter 13

The Dwarves love for gold causes them to detach from their humanity, which is to show compassionate aid to the devastated Laketown by giving them some of their gold. However, some of their irrational behavior could stem from a curse put on the gold by the dragon.

“But also Bilbo did not reckon with the power that gold has upon which a dragon has long brooded, nor with Dwarvish hearts. Long hours in the past days Thorin had spent in the treasury, and the lust of it was heavy on him. Though he had hunted chiefly for the Arkenstone, yet he had an eye for many another wonderful thing that was lying there, about which were wound old memories of the labours and the sorrows of his race.” – Chapter 15

The race of Dwarves identity intertwines with their love of their precious gold and jewels. They are the only race to succumb so deeply to it as it is in their nature, their ‘Dwarvish hearts’. The Jewish people are a marginalised group in the Western culture and the Dwarves are also segregated from the heroic system of Middle-Earth: “There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.” – Chapter 15

Tolkien says here that Dwarves primary trait is their “idea of the value of money” and tells us that the best lot of them can only be “decent […] if you don’t expect too much”. This shows us that the Dwarves are automatically cast out of the ‘heroic value’ system of Middle-Earth, based on their characteristics, which reminds us of real life antisemitism – segregation.

To counter argue my thesis that the Dwarves are influenced from anti-Semitic stereotypes is that their attributes were already taken in from Old Norse sources and Germanic mythology. However, even if the Dwarves insatiable love of gold was taken from these sources, it still does not negate the fact that the race is linguistically Semitic, bearded and superseded. Earlier mentioned, Tolkien did state that the Dwarves resembled the Jews. The Hobbit shows all of the Dwarvish traits ‘coming together’ and Tolkien uses this to justify their exclusion of the cultures of Middle-Earth in the text, which resembles real life antisemitic beliefs.

Rebecca Brackmann says, “Tolkien himself was more aware of what he had done in his portrayal of Thorin and Company […]. His dismissal of the “pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine” and description of the Jews as “that gifted people” might have had a tinge of guilt under it, as he realized that the tying together of unpleasant stereotypes about Jews in his depiction of the Dwarves drew on beliefs that could have horrifying consequences for the real people so perceived.” [8] Tolkien is a writer who has drawn in antisemitic beliefs into his writing, maybe even unconsciously. It is possible that Tolkien has a motive for his choice in making the Dwarves resemble the Jews. The Hobbit was written at a time of political unrest and anti-Semitism was very prevalent. Perhaps he is attempting to send out a message of unity and togetherness despite cultural and racial differences.

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations […]. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.” [3]

However, Tolkien disliked allegory, leaving this reasoning out of the picture. Specifically, what Tolkien disliked about allegory was its ‘purposed domination of the author’.[3] He was a man who disliked imposing his religious faith to his readers. As he observed in a response to questions from Walter Allen of the New Statesman in 1959, “most readers appear to confuse [allegory] with significance of applicability” (Letters, 297).

The resonance a reader experiences is more universal, allowing for a much wider interpretation than the narrow assignments of allegory.[3] The adventure in The Hobbit can be very relatable to our real life. We can interpret the Dwarves as like Jews based on the many similarities between them, and Tolkien has even thought of both races as being similar as well. Tolkien was influenced by the antisemitism of his culture and political climate of his day and injected these ideas, perhaps unconsciously, into the Dwarvish race in The Hobbit.


1. Rateliff, John D., and J. R. R. Tolkien. Page 79-80. The History of the Hobbit :. London: HarperCollins, 2007. N. pag. Print.

2. Redcliffe N. Salaman M.D. “Page 278.” Heredity and the Jew. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.

3. Michael D.C., ed. “Applicability.” J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia:
Scholarship and Critical Assessment. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 5-6. Print.

4. Tolkien, J. R. R., Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981. Print.

5. “Norse Elements in the Work of J.R.R. Tolkien | Martin Wettstein – Academia.edu.”Norse Elements in the Work of J.R.R. Tolkien | Martin Wettstein – Academia.edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 July 2013.

6. “Racism in Tolkien’s Works – Tolkien Gateway.” Racism in Tolkien’s Works – Tolkien Gateway. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 July 2013.

7. Roberts, Joshua Luke. “On Charges of Racism against J. R. R. Tolkien | Joshua Luke Roberts – Academia.edu.” On Charges of Racism against J. R. R. Tolkien | Joshua Luke Roberts – Academia.edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 July 2013.

8. Brackmann, Rebecca. “Dwarves Are Not Heroes.” Thefreelibrary.com. N.p., 22 Mar. 2010. Web.

9. “The Diaspora.” The Diaspora. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 July 2013.

10. “The Jewish People as the Classic Diaspora: A Political Analysis.” The Jewish People as the Classic Diaspora: A Political Analysis. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 July 2013.

11. Turner, David. “ANTISEMITISM IN ART: THE MIDDLE AGES.” Web log post. N.p., n.d. Web.

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