Deeper Cut: The Two Masters: H. P. Lovecraft, J. R. R. Tolkien, & Racism in Fantasy

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) were contemporary denizens of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and each would become a critical influence on the development of fantasy fiction throughout the latter half of the 20th century and continuing on into the current day. Their influence on each other was, as far as can be determined, practically nonexistent: there is no record of any correspondence between them, and while Tolkien did publish poetry and essays during Lovecraft’s lifetime, his first major work of fiction The Hobbit was not published until September 1937—and Lovecraft died in March of that year. Tolkien had more opportunity to read Lovecraft, whose work was reprinted in the United Kingdom in the Not At Night series, the British edition of Weird Tales, and increasingly in other hardback and paperback anthologies following Lovecraft’s death, but there is no direct indication from Tolkien’s correspondence that he did.

Even if the two did not directly interact with each other on a personal level or read one another’s works, they were both white heterosexual cisgender men who were born and grew up in the Anglosphere—and so it should not come as any great surprise that their respective fictional worlds bare some similarities, and are informed by the prejudices and social norms that they shared. Their works in turn strongly influenced the development of fantasy fiction as it exists today. While a detailed comparison of their lives and works could fill a book, a brief look at some of the key parallels and differences shows how racial ideology shaped both Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos—sometimes in similar ways, sometimes very differently.

British vs. American Fantasy Racism

By the turn of the century, both the United Kingdom and the United States of America were global colonial empires that used military force and other forms of influence (economic, cultural, etc.) to dominate or eradicate indigenous populations and further their geopolitical goals. While many of their colonies broke away and achieved independence over the course of the 20th century, Lovecraft and Tolkien were both familiar with and their views informed by the racist and colonialist ideology that supported the efforts to expand and maintain those holdings, including white supremacist propaganda such as Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” (1899).

Because of this shared cultural basis, trying to map the cultural differences in racial ideology between Tolkien and Lovecraft can be difficult. The United States with its large BIPOC population, formal laws legalizing racial discrimination (Black Codes or Jim Crow, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, etc.), and recent and ongoing history of racial violence (slavery, the American Civil War, the American Indian Wars, lynching, the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, etc.) was perhaps more well-known for racial discrimination than Britain—but the British Empire saw its fair share of violence as well including civil wars, rebellions, and even the 1919 race riots. The Anglosphere, as a whole, was permeated with ideas of white supremacy, colour prejudice, and racial violence.

While Lovecraft and Tolkien had vast differences in their lives and upbringing, they shared that common identity of being white, male, and “Anglo-Saxon” (a term which has become so misused politically, co-opted by white supremacists, and which is of sufficiently questionable historical value that historians are seriously arguing to stop using it). What differentiates them is less any particular national flavor or expression of racism, but in the traditions of fantasy fiction they were working within.

Michael Moorcock famously summed up The Lord of the Rings as “Epic Pooh”, noting:

The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many
of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an
epic. If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron and his henchmen are that old
bourgeois bugaboo, the Mob – mindless football supporters throwing their beerbottles over the fence the worst aspects of modern urban society represented as the
whole by a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom “good taste” is synonymous
with “restraint” (pastel colours, murmured protest) and “civilized” behaviour means
“conventional behaviour in all circumstances”.

Many of Moorcock’s criticisms can apply as well to Lovecraft as to Tolkien: “The Silver Key” is undoubtedly a look backwards to simpler and happier times and “The Street” is effectively a nativist fable where everything was fine until the immigrants came in and property values started to decline, to take only two examples. Lovecraft and Tolkien both held the image of the traditional English rural gentry as a kind of ideal.

Yet Lovecraft was no hobbit. While Lovecraft had an antiquarian yearning for old buildings and a rose-tinted vision of British Colonial period, his fiction was mostly set in the current day and focused on themes of degeneration, hoary survivals from the past, ancient aliens, and cults rather than a celebration or exultation of the small joys in life. While Lovecraft regretted what he called the coming “Machine Culture,” he did not ignore or decry the advancement of technology and industrialization, or exalt a rural state that had fallen into decay. Dunwich is no Shire, for all the rural trappings; it is kind of an anti-Shire, a place where old ways and habits have turned inward and strange.

Moorcock places Tolkien in a tradition of fantasy that includes writers like Lord Dunsany, William Morris, and C. S. Lewis, British authors noted for their backward-looking fantasy with often stark differences between good and evil. Lovecraft was influenced by Dunsany too—but Lovecraft’s fantasy is part of the American school of fantasy as exemplified by Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Fritz Leiber, Jr., who were his friends and correspondents. While no one will accuse Lovecraft of being an action writer in the Sword & Sorcery mold, this school of American fantasy is closer to the hardboiled detective fiction of the period (see George Knight’s “Robert E. Howard: Hardboiled Heroic Fantasist” in The Dark Barbarian), influenced by realism. Lovecraft et al. aren’t generally looking to preserve an idyll setting from corruption: their worlds are already corrupted, lived in, and sometimes degenerate. Good and evil are rarely absolute, or absolutely defined; and the moral grayness is intimate with the settings and the characters.

Understanding this difference is critical to appreciate how both Tolkien and Lovecraft are informed by and use race in their fiction. They are coming from a not-identical but substantially similar ideological background of colonialism and white supremacy, but how they express that ideology is shaped by what both are trying to accomplish, and how they do it.

White Mythic Spaces & Black Hobbits

The popular perception of the First World War has remained an inherently white mythic space in which white men fight against other whtie men and where minorities, when and if they are featured, are given an anonymous secondary role and are subject to the will and motivation of their white heroic leaders.

Stefan Aguirre Quiroga, “Race, Battlefield 1 and the White Mythic Space of the First World War” (2018)

H. P. Lovecraft and J. R. R. Tolkien were white heterosexual men who were writing for what they probably assumed would be a white heterosexual male audience, and the majority of characters in all of their stories are also white, heterosexual (to the degree they express any sexuality), and male. In this, they were not any different from the thousands of other writers at the time, from Ernest Hemingway and J. D. Salinger to P. G. Wodehouse and Joseph Conrad. In many cases, neither Tolkien nor Lovecraft had to specify whether a principal character was “white” in terms of early 20th-century colour prejudice: it was assumed unless stated or implied otherwise. This is what makes stories like “Medusa’s Coil” possible: if every character’s race was clearly defined rather than assumed, there could be no subterfuge and thus no story.

White heterosexual man was the default everyman; the express normal. Anything that was not—women, gay, Black, etc.—was “other.” When most folks think of racism in the works of Lovecraft or Tolkien, this overwhelming default whiteness, heterosexuality, and masculinity is often understood, but difficult to acknowledge or talk about because it is still seen as the default. For white audiences especially, the vast numbers of white people in the Lovecraft Mythos or Middle Earth don’t look weird, because white audiences are used to seeing all-white casts. This mythic white space is something that most white audiences might not even question until they see an adaptation or derivative work with more diverse casting, such as the inclusion of Black characters in The Color Out of Space (2020) or The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022).

Is it really that weird to have Black and brown hobbits?

Almost no Afro-American would deny that life for blacks is infinitely better than it was forty years aog. But in the worlds of today’s fantasy, the racial atmosphere remains unchanged. Blacks are either ignored or are portrayed in the same hackneyed stereotypes that should have died with colonialism. A detailed discussion of contemporary fantasy is really a topic for another essay. However, J. R. R. Tolkien and Michael Moorcock are good examples of writers who construct worlds wherein blacks are absent. There is really nothing wrong with that. Who needs black Hobbits? Seriously, the point is that it is better to be ignored than maligned.

Charles R. Saunders, “Die Black Dog!: A Look At Racism in Fantasy Literature”

Arguments over Black hobbits run into two issues: what Tolkien wrote, and what Tolkien did not write. As far as what Tolkien wrote, fans and scholars willing may recall that in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings, in the chapter “Concerning Hobbits,” the Harfoots were described as “browner of skin,” and the Fallonides were “fairer of skin and also of hair.” Whether this corresponded to different races as they are popularly recognized today or whether this reflected or could be interpreted as the early 20th-century racialist ideas of the difference between “dark whites” (Melanochroi) and “fair whites” (Xanthochroi) is up for debate. Tolkien wrote that some hobbits were browner of skin, but that was it. He didn’t go into anthropological detail on the subject.

What Tolkien did not write about hobbits and other characters in his work was anything that utilized the standard racial terminology of the early 20th century. Lovecraft, writing stories set in his contemporary world, could and sometimes did specify Caucasian, Asian, Negroid, etc., and go into as much detail as any anthropologist or Ku Klux Klanner, if necessary. He could and sometimes (though rarely) in his fiction even used racial pejoratives and slurs, particularly if he wanted to establish a given character as a racist (as in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” and “Medusa’s Coil.”) There aren’t a lot of BIPOC characters in Lovecraft’s Mythos, but they exist and are described using familiar terms.

Tolkien didn’t do this; arguably, he couldn’t. Middle Earth is handicapped from using this technical language of race because the fictional setting does not have the same constituent cultural baggage that led to such terminology. “Black hobbits” don’t exist in Middle Earth as Tolkien wrote it not because the physiognomy is impossible but because “Blackness” in the real-world racial sense does not exist in Middle Earth as Tolkien originally conceived it.

Which is a long way to say that yes, there are Dark Elves in Middle Earth, but they’re Moriquendi who are called that because they never saw the light of the Two Trees, not because they necessarily have more skin pigment than other elves; likewise the Black Númenóreans were “black” in that they associated with Sauron, not because of the color of their skin or hair. Tolkien wasn’t explicitly framing his characters in terms of 20th-century racism the way Lovecraft could and did. That doesn’t mean that those racialist ideas didn’t inform what Tolkien did write, and the people who read, illustrated, and wrote about Middle Earth were also bringing their cultural baggage of 20th-century racism with them in interpreting the material.

When illustrators depicted elves and hobbits from Tolkien’s writings, they tended largely to show them as white—reinforcing the idea of the mythic white space, above and beyond the actual words Tolkien wrote. These artistic decisions are important: Tolkien never specifies anywhere in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings that elves have pointed ears, either, but pointed ears have since become a defining feature of fantasy elves.

The Lovecraft Mythos doesn’t tend to get the same “Black hobbits” debate because as much as his works also represent a white mythic space and many of the same preconceptions are there, Lovecraft also very expressly wrote about BIPOC as well. Lovecraft’s characterization of those non-white characters tends to be very stereotypical—the Native American Grey Eagle from “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound” could have stepped out of a turn-of-the-century Western dime novel, and is a literary cousin to the Native Americans of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. While it’s weird to think of Lovecraft as more expressly racially inclusive than Tolkien in his fiction, the point is that Lovecraft was working within the contemporary framework of racial ideology and the language that was part of his setting (an expression of hardboiled realism) and Tolkien was working outside of that ideology and language, building a world from a different set of first principles that didn’t necessarily have to agree with the real world (an expression of idealism).

Lovecraft and Tolkien were both bringing similar cultural assumptions to bear when creating their fiction, and they were by and large being read and interpreted by the same audience. When we think about race in Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos, we have to keep in mind the large part that reader response plays in the racial ideas being expressed. Every reader brings their own prejudices and ideology to these stories that can color how they can interpret both what is expressly written, and what is not written. Are the Black hobbits not there because Tolkien didn’t explicitly write them, or because we refuse to consider the possibility of Black hobbits? If Black hobbits break our suspension of disbelief, why is that? What does that say about us?

Machen & Mongoloids

When we talk about mythic white space and Black hobbits, we are focusing on real-world racialist terminology as applied to fantasy settings; yet some of the hallmarks of both Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos are the fantasy races that occupy them: the Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Ents, Hobbits, Trolls, Deep Ones, Mi-Go, Ghouls, and Great Race of Yith, among others. Nor were Tolkien and Lovecraft alone in this kind of creation: Lord Dunsany’s fantasies included creatures from Classical myth and folklore such as centaurs (“The Bride of the Man-Horse”) and elves (“The Kith of the Elf-Folk”); E. R. Eddison in The Worm Ouroboros (1922) had Demons, Witches, Imps, Pixies, and Goblins who were essentially humans with individual nation-states of Demonland, Witchland, Impland, etc.; Edgar Rice Burroughs transplanted colonialist tropes to space in his Barsoom tales beginning with A Princess of Mars (1912), with Green Martians, White Martians, Red Martians, Yellow Martians, and Black Martians; Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword (1954) drew from folklore and myth to depict a near-genocidal conflict between elves and trolls, with many other supernatural tribes and nations drawn into the conflict.

The creation, depiction, and reception of all of these fantasy peoples and kindreds were informed by contemporary ideas of race, and the practice of euhemerism in particular introduced a good deal of scientific racism and racial stereotypes into fantasy fiction. Different creators didn’t apply all the same aspects of 20th-century racism in their writing, and the unevenness of the approach can sometimes make it difficult to distinguish how an author is being influenced, but a particular example might help demonstrate how this worked.

They would be seen by a peasant in the fields walking towards some green and rounded hillock, and seen no more on earth; and there are stories of mothers who have left a child quietly sleeping, with the cottage door rudely barred with a piece of wood, and have returned, not to find the plump and rosy little Saxon, but a thin and wizened creature, with sallow skin and black, piercing eyes, the child of another race. Then, again, there were myths darker still; the dread of witch and wizard, the lurid evil of the Sabbath, and the hint of demons who mingled with the daughters of men. And just as we have turned the terrible ‘fair folk’ into a company of benignant, if freakish elves, so we have hidden from us the black foulness of the witch and her companions under a popular diablerie of old women and broomsticks, and a comic cat with tail on end. […] Supposing these traditions to be true, who were the demons who are reported to have attended the Sabbaths? I need not say that I laid aside what I may call the supernatural hypothesis of the Middle Ages, and came to the conclusion that fairies and devils were of one and the same race and origin; invention, no doubt, and the Gothic fancy of old days, had done much in the way of exaggeration and distortion; yet I firmly believe that beneath all this imagery there was a black background of truth.

Arthur Machen, “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895)

Machen penned a loose grouping of stories that supposed the “Little People” (elves, fairies, etc.) were not purely supernatural or otherworldly beings of myth but were based on genuine, physical beings; a lost branch of the human family tree, of which strange survivals might yet exist in the contemporary period—and Machen was directly paralleled in “scientific” literature by anthropologists like Margaret Murray, who in The Witch-Cult of Western Europe (1921) argued that the witch-cult did exist and that it was the nature-religion passed down from a pre-Caucasian “Mongoloid” people in Europe, “Mongoloid” being one of the scientific racism designations for Asian peoples which covered everything from Huns, Magyars, and Sami peoples to Chinese, Indians, and even Jews in some cases. Machen’s emphasis on sallow skin and slant eyes was a direct reference to stereotypes of “Mongoloid” appearance.

H. P. Lovecraft was directly inspired by both Arthur Machen and Margaret Murray; he adopted and conglomerated their ideas into his own personal theory of the witch-cult and strange survivals of a pre-human race, which inspired stories like “The Festival,” and in turn influenced correspondents like Robert E. Howard (see “Conan and the Little People”). Yet Tolkien, while probably not drawing directly from Machen as Lovecraft had, was absolutely influenced by these same stereotypes. In one letter he wrote:

The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the ‘human’ form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.

J. R. R. Tolkien to Forrest J. Ackermann, June 1958, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 274

This is an example of how real-world racial stereotypes influenced Tolkien and Lovecraft. Yet it is important to appreciate that Tolkien and Lovecraft were generally not simply using fantasy as a metaphor for real-world racial conflicts: the appearance of the Orcs were inspired by stereotypes of Asian people, but the Orcs are not culturally Asian or intended to represent real-life nations like China or Japan; neither were the Deep Ones of Innsmouth representative of Asians, Black people, Jews or any other real-life race or ethnicity. H. P. Lovecraft did dabble in a fantasy Yellow Peril with the story “Polaris,” but that was again, not metaphorical: he was very explicit that the ancient Inutos were supposed to be the ancestors of the Inuit of today.

Which again is the difference in approach between Lovecraft and Tolkien. Because he was writing stories predominantly set in contemporary time and with the language of contemporary race and prejudices, Lovecraft had no need for metaphors to conceal racial prejudice—he could be as explicit as he needed to be for the story, and generally was. Lovecraft could and did use real-world racism to his narrative advantage, using racial stereotypes and prejudices as stepping stones to lead readers into much more fantastic and weirder territory. The real-world prejudice expressed against the folks of Innsmouth, for instance, is based on the false assumption that the sailors and townsfolk and intermarried with Chinese brides and Pacific Islanders; the locals of Massachusetts couldn’t even conceive of who the Innsmouth folk actually married. Machen’s adoption of euhemerism to fantasy held tremendous potential for Lovecraft (and many other fantasy writers) to adapt creatures of myth into contemporary scientific racism terms, and writers after Lovecraft continue to use real-world (and changing) attitudes towards race as part of their stories, as in “The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys.

By contrast, Tolkien’s racial ideology is more subliminal: the whole framing of the background of Middle Earth and the development and depiction of its peoples is very strongly inspired by the implicit biases of Tolkien’s upbringing in a culture of white supremacy. The delineation of the various kindreds of the Elves is almost Linnaean in its approach, but a lot of the underlying assumptions of race and prejudice in The Lord of the Rings are unexamined and thus never worked out in the course of the books.

For example, one basic problem is the idea of a race, like orcs, being depicted as wholly evil. This is dangerously representative of racist propaganda of the early 20th century, the kind of blanket bigotry which led directly to the Holocaust. While Tolkien doesn’t address this much in the actual text of The Lord of the Rings, he admits in one letter:

[…] asserted somewhere, Book Five, page 190, where Frodo assets that the orcs are not evil in origin. We believe that, I suppose, of all human kinds and sorts and breeds, though some appear, both as individuals and groups to be, by us at any rate, unredeemable…

J. R. R. Tolkien to W. H. Auden, 12 May 1965, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 355

The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book 5, page 190

Whether or not Tolkien was consciously aware of the influences on his writing, the first generation of readers of The Lord of the Rings lived during the tumultuous 1950s, 60s, 70s did so in the shadow of the Holocaust, when de-colonization and civil rights movements were front-page news, and they could hardly have missed it. While not everyone would read racial bias into the work of Tolkien—or even Lovecraft, whose more explicitly racist works were not widely published for the first few decades—reading race in their stories was very common, and why the idea of fantasy races persists in fantasy fiction to this day. Tolkien and Lovecraft were not alone in this recontextualization of mythic and folkloric figures in terms of early 20th-century racist ideology, but they were both very influential in promoting that idea, either explicitly (in terms of Lovecraft and the witch-cult/Little People theory) or implicitly (Tolkien’s evil orcs).

Half-Elves & Hybridity

As for the negro question in general—I think that intermarriage ought to be banned in view of the vast number of blacks in the country. Illicit miscegenation by the white male is bad enough, heaven knows—but at least the hybrid offspring is kept below a definite colour-line & kept from vitiating the main stock. Nothing but pain & disaster can come from the mingling of black & white, & the law ought to aid in checking this criminal folly. Granting the negro his full due, he is not the sort of material which can mix successfully into the fabric of a civilised Caucasian nation. Isolated cases of high-grade hybrids prove nothing. It is easy to see the ultimate result of the wholesale pollution of highly evolved blood by definitely inferior strains.

H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 30 July 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea et al. 142-143

Irredeemably evil races are one problematic ramification of the influence of racial ideology on fantasy literature, but once you include the idea of “races” in a fantasy setting, it may necessarily introduce other contingent ideas such as interracial relationships, individuals with biracial or multiracial ancestry, eugenics, and genocide. Both Tolkien and Lovecraft developed these ideas into their fictional words in different ways, and they had plenty of works to draw inspiration from, including the demigods of Classical Greek and Roman mythology and contemporary fantasists like Lord Dunsany (the eponymous “Bride of the Man-Horse” had as grandparents a centaur, a god, a desert lion, and a sphinx) and Arthur Machen (notably Helen Vaughan of “The Great God Pan”).

Lovecraft would be inspired by “The Great God Pan” in particular when he wrote “The Dunwich Horror,” and the hybrid entity Wilbur Whately and his twin can fairly be described as a product of cosmic miscegenation. In his fiction, Lovecraft essentially always uses portrays race-mixing as something abhorrent, or resulting in a monstrous entity; readers might read something of Lovecraft’s personal prejudice into that fact, but in terms of stories like “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” “The Curse of Yig,” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” the monstrous aspect comes from a genuinely monstrous and inhuman parent, and the effects of that heritage (regardless of how remote) tend to be out of proportion—that is to say, Lovecraft wasn’t being realistic, he was employing fantasy genetics to achieve certain narrative results.

Genetics as a discipline developed throughout the 20th century; the idea of heredity was fairly firmly established before Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859, but the actual mechanism of inheritance (DNA) was not discovered until 1953. Genetic engineering during the writing of the Lovecraft Mythos and Middle Earth was essentially the art of horse breeders and the science of Gregor Mendel’s peas. When we read about the swine-things found beneath Exham Priority in “The Rats in the Walls” or the hybrid gyaa-yothn in “The Mound,” we’re looking at fantasy eugenics at play—and the same is true for Tolkien’s orcs, uruks, and other servants:

The Orcs were first bred by the Dark Power of the North in the Elder Days. […] And these creatures, being filled with malice, hating even their own kind, quickly developed many barbarous dialects as there were groups or settlements of their race, so that their Orkish speech was of little use to them in intercourse between different tribes.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, page 409

If Lovecraft used hybridity to emphasize the monstrous for his own story ends, Tolkien could do this as well. In various places in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien seems to hint at different possible relationships between various breeds of hobbits and elves, men, and dwarves, and also of half-orcs and goblin-men, and even once refers to those “out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls” at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields…but most of these relationships are suggested only, or explicit only in supplementary materials. Interracial relationships are almost entirely off-the-page, and only those involving humans and elves like Aragorn’s marriage to Arwen are explicit in The Lord of the Rings itself. The most prominent hybrids in The Lord of the Rings and its backstory are the twin half-elves Elrond and Elros, whose lines of descent would intermarry in a symbolic restoration of the sundered nobility of Númenór on the throne of Gondor.

The differences between Elrond and Wilbur Whateley may seem to outweigh their similarities, but both characters were ultimately expressions of how their different creators used the idea of racial hybridity to tell the stories they wanted to tell. Lovecraft, a devotee of horror and weird fiction, made his hybrids monstrous, creatures that were both human and inhuman; Tolkien’s narrative of nobility and restoration used them as a vehicle for the return of the king. In both cases, the authors were influenced by ideas of interracial relationships and eugenics: they found expression in different ways, but they were coming from the same basic idea that if you cross a horse and a donkey you get a mule, something that partakes of both parents and yet is neither.

Jews, Dwarves, & Hitler

The dwarves of course are quite obviously—wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.

J. R. R. Tolkien, 1964 Interview

Meir Y. Soloveichik in The Secrets Jews of The Hobbit makes the argument that Tolkien coded Jewish stereotypes into the Dwarves of Middle Earth. A case could be made that at least some of these aspects are coincidental; Tolkien was partly inspired by the Nibelunglied, with its magic ring, dragon, magic sword, and greedy dwarves, so he wasn’t exactly making up the dwarves out of whole cloth, but was drawing inspiration from Norse and Germanic myth. Leaving aside for the moment whether the Nibelunglied coded antisemitism into its depiction of dwarves, this confluence of fantasy, Germany, and racism raises the question: what were Lovecraft and Tolkien’s responses to Hitler and Nazism?

Lovecraft, because he died in March 1937, only saw the early years of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. As an antisemite himself, Lovecraft was at first willing to believe the propaganda of the Nazi party after Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933, and though he disagreed with some aspects of the antisemitic Nazi program, he was sympathetic with others:

Our literature & drama, selected by Jewish producers & great Jewish publishing houses like Knopf, & feeling the pressure of Jewish finance & mercantile advertising, are daily getting farther & farther from the real feelings of the plain American in New England or Virginia or Kansas; whilst the profound Semitism of New York is affecting the “intellectuals” who flock there & creating a flimsy & synthetic body of culture & ideology radically hostile to the virile American attitude. Some day I hope that a reasonably civilised way of getting America’s voice uppermost again can be devised. Not that I would advocate violence—but certainly, I can’t regard the Nazis with that complete lack of sympathy shewn by those who take popular newspaper sentiment at face value. By the way—it’s hardly accurate to compare the Jewish with the negro problem. The trouble with the Jew is not his blood—which can mix with ours without disastrous results—but his persistent & antagonistic culture-tradition. On the other hand, the negro represents a vastly inferior biological variant which must under no circumstances taint our Aryan stock. The absolute colour-line as applied to negroes is both necessary & sensible, whereas a similar deadline against Jews (though attempted by Hitler) is ridiculous.

H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 29 May 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea et al. 132-133

Within a few years, Hitler’s moves had already alienated Lovecraft, and Lovecraft’s criticisms would outnumber his moderate initial support for some phases of Nazism. The initial interest Lovecraft had in a fascist state that shared his white/Nordic/Aryan identity, and which promoted ideas of white supremacy, antisemitism, and nationalism that Lovecraft shared waned relatively quickly as it became apparent that the Nazis were violent anti-intellectual thugs. For his part, Lovecraft never wrote any reference to the Nazis into his fiction, and only one blatantly Jewish character (the bookshop dealer in “The Descendant”). This may or may not have been the result of earlier pushback Lovecraft had received on publicly voicing antisemitic comments, which he then did not repeat.

Tolkien’s response to Hitler and the Nazis is more directly antithetical. As a philologist, Tolkien was more aware than Lovecraft of the linguistic origin and meaning of “Aryan” and “Semite,” and whatever white supremacist ideas Tolkien might have absorbed growing up in the United Kingdom, they did not extend to embracing any aspect of Nazism or its racist ideology. Tolkien made this quite plain in a pair of letters about a proposed German translation of The Hobbit, where he wrote in part:

I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the nation that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.

J. R. R. Tolkien to Stanley Unwin, 25 July 1938, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 37

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.

J. R. R. Tolkien to Rütten & Leoning Verlag, 25 July 1938, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 37

Tolkien’s anti-Hitler attitudes would understandably grow more acute after Nazi Germany declared war on Great Britain, and stemmed in part from the great deal of study that Tolkien had put into the Norse and Germanic literature and folklore, which Nazis were corrupting with their racist ideology:

Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that it in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will). Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.

J. R. R. Tolkien to Michael Tolkien, 9 June 1941, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 55-56

Tolkien’s concern about the influence of Nazi ideology on “corrupting” the Norse and Germanic literature he so loved (keeping in mind that English is a Germanic language) with the white supremacist and antisemitic prejudice was well-founded, even today hate groups appropriate Norse and Germanic symbols such as runes, and terms like “Anglo-Saxon” are used to foster white supremacist ideals.

What Tolkien and Lovecraft perhaps did not see coming was the long tail of white supremacist ideological influence on fantasy—not so much the Nazis themselves, who would go on to become stock villains and the models for many more in works like Kthulhu Reich (2019) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健), but in the way that readers and critics would interpret the racial ideologies and prejudices in fantasy fiction through the lens of World War II. Racial depictions and ideas which would be relatively mainstream and unremarkable before the 1940s thus become subject to atemporal criticism. An example might help demonstrate this:

[Robert E.] Howard’s tales, on the other hand, imagine a world in which a powerful blue-eyed muscled barbarian of the north can subdue various supernatural and racial grotesqueries. It’s hard not to see in his most well-known creation a kind of Death’s Head SS commando in a loincloth, treading the jeweled kingdoms of the earth beneath his jackboots.

W. Scott Poole, In the Mountains of Madness 229

Thus does Poole describe Robert E. Howard’s most popular creation, Conan the Cimmerian. In fairness to Poole, Howard was a white supremacist and subscribed to the idea of a white “Aryan” race; it’s part of the reason Howard got on with Lovecraft. This did influence their fiction: the very first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” states that it takes place “between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas”—a clear reference to the Aryan race theory. However, Poole misses that just because you’re a white supremacist in the 1930s doesn’t automatically make you a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer. Robert E. Howard was an antisemite, but Howard and Lovecraft argued about the Nazis in their letters, and Howard was not in favor of them—not because of any antiracist sentiment, but because he didn’t trust fascist politics, disliked propaganda, and detested bullying.

To some folks, it may seem like splitting hairs: does it really matter if an individual was a card-carrying, goose-stepping, Heil Hitler-ing Nazi™ instead of a general population American or British white supremacist?

Consider Tolkien and his dwarves. You would be hard-pressed to find a fantasist of that period more clearly opposed to Nazism, but being anti-Nazi doesn’t mean your work is free from antisemitic stereotypes or white supremacy. “Nazi” is a powerful label, but it is prone to dilution through misuse and overapplication, and it tends to flatten out any possible nuance or depth. Strictly speaking, Lovecraft, Howard, and Tolkien were never Nazis—but all three of them were drawing on some of the same ideas that the Nazis used in formulating their imagery and ideology. Historical racism is a reality in fantasy fiction that needs to be acknowledged and addressed, and that’s hard to do when blanket labels are applied without respect to historical accuracy, as Poole did with Howard. Characterizing Conan as a Nazi stormtrooper is both inaccurate and lazy; it reduces the character to caricature instead of acknowledging or exploring the complicated ways ’30s racist ideologies informed and shaped fantasy fiction—and Conan the Cimmerian was an is a hugely influential character in fantasy.

The problem with antisemitism in fantasy is that it is pernicious—antisemitism has found so much expression in European myth and folklore, and through that folklore in fantasy literature, sometimes coded and sometimes overt, it can be terribly easy for writers to repeat stereotypes. Sometimes without necessarily knowing that they are doing it.

When J. K. Rowling, for example, attributed goblins in the Harry Potter books as being secretive, greedy, big-nosed bankers looked down upon by wizards, she was perpetuating antisemitic stereotypes. They are little different from Tolkien’s dwarves, with the possible exception of being less subtle and less fully developed—Tolkien expanded considerably on the original presentation in The Hobbit, and the dwarves are never without positive attributes like courage—but it’s still a lot of the same iconography that the Nazis used in Jud Süß.

There is a bit of irony here in that Lovecraft, who was noted as an antisemite during his life and for his at least moderate initial agreement with Hitler, should not be a major force for antisemitic imagery in fantasy while Tolkien who was vocally opposed to Hitler may have coded antisemitic imagery into his dwarves—and did it so well that many aspects like dwarf beards and greed have become incredibly commonplace in fantasy fiction. The distinction between Lovecraft and Tolkien’s personal beliefs and their fiction is a critical one: a writer doesn’t have to believe in racist stereotypes to repeat racist ideas, nor is a racist required to make everything they write reflect their personal prejudices.

Personal Comparisons

I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.

J. R. R. Tolkien, “Valedictory Address to the University of Oxford” (1959) in J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam

It is a fact that we have many more examples of H. P. Lovecraft being explicitly racist than we do J. R. R. Tolkien; it is also a fact that we have many more examples of Tolkien being antiracist than Lovecraft—speaking out against apartheid in South Africa, as above, or denouncing association of Middle Earth with white supremacist ideas, for example when he was asked if Middle Earth corresponds to “Nordic Europe” Tolkien wrote:

Not Nordic, please! A word I personally dislike; it is associated, though of French origin, with racialist theories.

J. R. R. Tolkien to Charlotte and Denis PLimmer, 8 Feb 1967, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 375

However, before saying with absolute certainty that Lovecraft was more racist than Tolkien, it is important to remember that Lovecraft died in 1937, before World War II, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and decolonization movements around the world. Lovecraft, more than Tolkien, lived in a culture of legal segregation and anti-miscegenation laws, and saw the rise of the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, the Silver Shirts, and the Coughlinites as well as the Nazi party…and perhaps more importantly, we have a lot more letters from Lovecraft than Tolkien.

The published letters of H. P. Lovecraft comprise more than twenty volumes, with more still to be published, and cover a period of about 26 years (1911 – 1937). The published letters of J. R. R. Tolkien mostly consist of The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (1981) and cover 59 years (1914 – 1972). That isn’t to say there aren’t more Tolkien letters out there, but they largely haven’t been published or studied to the extent that Lovecraft’s letters have been, and the bits that have been published have been largely from during or after WW2. Which is to say: we have a lot more racist material from Lovecraft in part because we have a lot more material period, and we have more antiracist material from Tolkien in part because we have a lot more post-WW2 material, when Tolkien seems to have turned against racism, especially in association with his work.

It isn’t just that we have more material on racism from Lovecraft than Tolkien, we have more material from Lovecraft on almost everything—jazz music, Harlem, Ernest Hemingway, pornography, homosexuality, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, different types of cheese and canned beans, the Scottsboro Trial, etc.—at least, everything before his death in 1937. We will never know if Lovecraft might have changed his stance had he lived to see the true horrors perpetrated by the Nazis against Jews, Roma, homosexuals, etc. during the Holocaust, or the successes achieved by the Civil Rights movements.

Tolkien, to his credit, does appear to have been on the right side of history in opposing Hitler and apartheid—but keep in mind that we do not know the full picture of how he got to that point-of-view, and that views on race and prejudice are often muddy and conflicting, especially when seen through the lens of the present. It is easy in hindsight to see that the Nazis were monsters all along, and that the signs were all there…but it is different in the moment, when reports are conflicting, information is imperfect, and it is impossible to know how things will turn out. Historical racism was complicated, and so were historical individuals: Lovecraft and Tolkien were not simple men, nor were their views static throughout their life, but reflected changes in their lives and the world around them.

For all that Lovecraft was effectively always an antisemite, his views on Jews shifted considerably from his earliest references as a teenager to those at the end of his life. Lovecraft had Jewish friends like Tolkien did, and like Tolkien Lovecraft could credit them as being very gifted as well; Lovecraft even married a Jew, Sonia H. Greene. It is possible to oppose antisemitism and still code dwarves as Jewish; it is equally possible to be antisemitic and have Jewish friends. Not every bit of prejudice in the Lovecraft Mythos is an example of Lovecraft’s own prejudice: the real-life racial discrimination depicted in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is a red herring for the much weirder interspecies relationships taking place. Nor is Tolkien’s stance against white supremacist readings of Middle Earth necessarily reflective of what he wrote: he may have opposed Hitler, but he still wrote a story that shows the heavy influence of the European-centered white supremacist mindset of the day.

More than many authors, we tend to associate Lovecraft and Tolkien with their respective works, but we should not mistake their personal feelings as being necessarily reflective of what appeared in their works. While the letters and supplementary writings of Lovecraft and Tolkien can give us great insight into their lives and imaginary worlds, the Lovecraft Mythos and Middle Earth must also stand on their own—must be interpreted by readers as works apart from the authors themselves. Which readers have been doing for generations, sometimes addressing the racial ideas and implications, and sometimes continuing them.

The Racialist Legacy of Lovecraft & Tolkien

In tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons and massive multiplayer online roleplaying games like Worlds of Warcraft, one of the first choices a player makes is to decide their character’s race. Choosing a race can determine physical appearance, language, physical and mental attributes, and restrict access to various careers or classes. Race in fantasy gaming thus achieves a dream of every racialist in the early 20th century: to be able to both quantify the differences between groups of people, and to hardcode discrimination against them, segregating different races so that they in truth tend to obey various stereotypes.

At least, in some scenarios. In practice, race in fantasy gaming is one option among many, and here are often exceptions, special rules, and bending of said rules to allow players greater freedom to play the character they want. Yet the very fact that we use the term “race” to describe whether a player character is an elf, dwarf, human, halfling, orc, etc. is a reflection of the enduring legacy of Tolkien, Lovecraft, and other 20th century writers on the field of fantasy. Tolkien may not have invented elves and dwarves, taking inspiration from Norse and Germanic sagas and stories, but in a real way The Lord of the Rings helped codify elves and dwarves in the popular imagination—with many variations and further refinements; Gary Gygax famously included a long list of fantasy inspirations for Dungeons & Dragons in Appendix N. The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game (1981) by Sandy Petersen and published by Chaosium, Inc. doesn’t let players pick the race of their characters (at least, in terms of elves and dwarves, players can still pick skin color, ethnicity, nationality, etc.), but they do couch Lovecraft’s various entities in racial terms: Greater and Lesser Servitor Races, Independent Races, etc.

Fantasy gaming is one prominent example of how the idea of race has permeated the field of fantasy literature, but the influence of Tolkien, Lovecraft, et al. goes much further. The Lord of the Rings spawned innumerable fantasy trilogy imitators; the Lovecraft Mythos has had thousands of stories, poems, novels, and games expanding off of or adapting the original material Lovecraft wrote. Both Lovecraft and Tolkien’s work have been adapted to film, spectacularly so in the case of the Lord of the Rings trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, who followed up with a three-film adaptation of The Hobbit.

None of those six films featured Black hobbits. Tolkien’s white mythic space remained intact.

All of the issues of race in Lovecraft and Tolkien’s work come into play in the works derived, inspired, or adapted from Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos. Lovecraft and Tolkien were writing in the early-to-mid 20th century and that culture shaped their work, and because their work has been successful contemporary audiences still have to grapple with the legacy of racial ideology, white supremacy, and antisemitic imagery that appears in what they wrote. More than that, there are generations of writers and artists who have carried on tropes of half-elves, changelings, cosmic miscegenation, and selectively bred servant races without addressing where those ideas come from, or what the ramifications of their inclusion in their stories are.

More than ever, some writers and artists are addressing those issues. Casts of films and streaming shows are getting more diverse, cultural appropriation is less prominent, some of the old tropes are re-examined. The Shadowrun (1989, FASA) roleplaying game has elves, dwarves, orks, and trolls in a near-future cyberpunk setting, one where fantasy racism coexists and blends with real-world racism; Ruthanna Emrys’ The Litany of Earth (2014) looks back at “The Shadow over Innsmouth” from the perspective of the Japanese internment camps of World War II.

Orcs aren’t always evil anymore. A Deep One hybrid may be subject to racial profiling and discrimination. The syntax of race has shifted from Tolkien and Lovecraft’s day, and the interpretations and expansions of that work shift with them, often trailing the current consensus—and faced with reactionary feedback.

We have always lived in a politically-charged, race-conscious culture. Many major events of Lovecraft and Tolkien’s lives were centered around racial conflict, racial violence, and racist ideology. There was no “simpler time” without such conflict, not within historical memory. Greater diversity in adaptations of Tolkien and Lovecraft’s material to different media is a more recent development—a step away from the white mythic space that the Lovecraft Mythos and Middle Earth have occupied for so long—but it is no more politically-charged or forced than when Tolkien and Lovecraft chose how to write their stories in the first place, or when the first artist for their works decided that a given character should look Caucasian rather than Asian, or that orcs should be green or black.

As with picking a race in a roleplaying game, these choices have consequences that can restrict some options and open up others. The foundations of the white mythic space of Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos were laid down by Lovecraft and Tolkien as they wrote as white men to a presumably mostly white and male audience, but the space was built up by generations of writers and artists that perpetuated that imagery of imaginary worlds filled with white people. The reactionary impulse to growing diversity in fantasy is a desire to retreat to that white mythic space—and in doing so, they reiterate the same attitudes that Moorcock criticized Tolkien for. Hobbits wanting to be safe in the Shire, ignoring everything beyond their own borders, upset at any perceived intrusion.

The legacy of H. P. Lovecraft and J. R. R. Tolkien is more than just issues of half-elves and interracial communities in coastal Massachusetts, but the ideas of race that they absorbed in their life, that influenced them and found expression in their fiction, are still relevant today. Just as we deal with the aftermath of racial conflict that Lovecraft and Tolkien lived through in their own lives, we have to deal with how that conflict found expression in their creative works. Lovecraft and Tolkien are dead; they have made all the artistic choices they can. It is up to audiences and creators now to make their own decisions as to how they will address the literary legacy left to them—the future of what the Mythos and Middle Earth can be—and this is only a small part of dealing with the ongoing consequences of historical racism in daily life.

A Final Word

This is not by any means an exhaustive or complete examination of race in the lives and works of Lovecraft or Tolkien; entire books have been written on both men and their fiction, and the well of literary analysis and biography has not yet been exhausted. The point of this essay is to illustrate some of the commonalities and differences in how racism influenced Lovecraft and Tolkien, how it found expression in their respective imaginary worlds, and how their audience then interpreted that work through the lens of their own prejudice as well. Declaring Lovecraft or The Lord of the Rings as racist isn’t technically inaccurate, but it is a gross simplification that obscures how pervasive racism and white supremacy were—and, sadly, still are.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

2 thoughts on “Deeper Cut: The Two Masters: H. P. Lovecraft, J. R. R. Tolkien, & Racism in Fantasy

  1. Very good text about important matter. I would like to add two things.

    We know that Tolkien knew at least one Lovecraft’s story. In 1964, L. Sprague de Camp sent him his anthology “Swords & Sorcery” including “The Doom That Came to Sarnath”. In letter back to de Camp, Tolkien mentioned “all the items seem poor in the subsidiary (but to me not unimportant) matters of nomenclature. Best when inventive, least good when literary or archaic”, and i some later interview he “said he found [the anthology] interesting but did not much like the stories in it”. (The quotations from TolkienGateway.) Worth to mention that according to Joshi, it is a story with anti-racist tones, because people of Sarnath were punished for their prejudices against inhabitants of Ib.

    When it comes to inter-racial hybrids, Lovecraft had one positive example which comes to my mind: the people of Inganok, in the Dreamlands, who are descendants of the gods of Kadath.


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