Stay classy Legolas: social relations in Tolkien

[Spoilers every which way.]

As a long-time fan of Tolkien and his universe, I’ve heard most of the criticisms laid at his door. That his writing is inherently racist/Orientalist/anti-Semitic; that he’s sexist; that he, as much as his chum C S Lewis but less sledgehammerishly, is attempting Christian indoctrination by stealth.

Last week I saw The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug with my family, and thoroughly enjoyed it. What many fellow geeks found irritating – the introduction of entirely new characters and fluffing-up of established ones – I thought was reasonable, entertaining and in keeping with the book’s spirit. Particularly, this essay is a defence of Tauriel.

What Peter Jackson’s fanboy-behind-camera direction did was to accidentally (?) highlight a further questionable aspect of Middle Earth: the dominance of the upper class.

Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is a wholly new character, brought in for a dramatic love triangle between herself, Legolas and Kíli. She is a sexy Mirkwood elf, admirably written as a headstrong warrior and nonconformist who has risen to captaincy of Mirkwood’s scouts. It becomes clear to the viewer early on that she and Legolas have a ‘thing’ going on, partially expressed by their martial one-upmanship (which is probably a nod to Legolas’ bromance with Gimli in LOTR). But there’s a bar to future special-touching: Legolas is the son of Thranduil, Mirkwood’s King. Tauriel is not noble at all, and is a lower class (caste/people/race) of Elf altogether.

Thranduil, whose nuanced character is particularly well acted, confronts Tauriel about her intentions:

Thranduil: [Legolas] has grown very fond of you.

Tauriel: I assure you my lord, he thinks of me as no more than a captain of the guard.

Thranduil: Perhaps he did once. Now I’m not so sure.

Tauriel: I do not think you would allow your son to pledge himself to a lowly Silvan elf.

Thranduil: No, you’re right, I would not. [He goes on to order her to give Leggy the cold shoulder]

‘Silvan elf’ here means one of the lowest classes of elves, who are less wise and less technologically advanced than High or Grey ones. Tolkien has a pretty extensive elf classification system, and Mirkwood Royalty’s place in it is somewhat debatable, but they are clearly several rungs above, even without titles and wealth coming into it.

Luckily for Tauriel, she develops a hot spot for Kíli: both her actor and Tolkien fans moan.

Still, that little exchange introduces questions about Middle Earth class that were largely lacking from Tolkien’s cannon. This, I will argue, is actually an improvement since there are significant social questions in the Middle Earth universe that nobody seems to notice or address.

After racking my considerably-charmless brain for some time, I can think of only three positive non-noble characters: Sam, Beregond and Sador. I’ll talk through them and how their functions are problematic, then look at the greater number of evil non-noble characters, before three-legged-race-finish-line-tumbling to what might be called a conclusion. First of all, though, some pre-emptive rebuttal:

But Frodo, Merry and Pippin aren’t nobles!
No, not strictly speaking. They are, however, each male members and heirs-presumptive of the Shire’s three eldest families. There is no suggestion that they ever need to work or subsistence farm. The Bagginses clearly have wealth (especially after Bilbo’s exploits), employ at least two domestic servants (the Gamgees), can host massive parties without obvious discomfort, and are treated with Hobbiton’s respect even though they’re considered weird – everyone calls Frodo ‘Mr Frodo’.

Merry becomes the Master of Buckland as head of the Brandybuck family, with (Hobbity) authority over nearly a quarter of the Shire. His father’s nickname was ‘Scattergold’ for his generosity. Pippin becomes Thain of the Shire, originally a military posting now hereditarily attached to the Took household, of which he becomes head. At short notice, Pippin’s father Paladin is able to send a force 100-strong to the rebellion at the end of Return of the King – not bad.

These three hobbits are related to one another, too. Inasmuch as the Shire is a rural oligarchy, these Fellowship members are the Fitzwilliam Darcys of the Four Farthings.

The dwarves asides Thorin aren’t noble – neither’s Gimli

They aren’t noble: they’re part royal. All 13 are related to Thorin, and descendants of at least one of the Kings of Durin’s Folk. Although impoverished after Smaug took Erebor, they are still the cream of Dwarvish society, as evidenced later by Balin having the moral authority to try to re-establish the Kingdom of Khazad-dûm (Moria). Gimli grows up in what can only be assumed as great wealth, given his father’s station and role in Erebor’s reconquest. Gimli too plays on his bloodline to found the Lordship of the Glittering Caves.

Moreover, Thorin isn’t *just* a King. He is the heir to the senior branch of the most senior dwarven royal line, who literally traces his ancestry back to the creation of his race. He isn’t technically just king of Erebor – he’s high king of all the dwarves in the world. This isn’t a dead letter – his grandfather holding that office was cause enough for all seven Dwarf Houses to send armies to the battle we see in The Hobbit’s prologue.

What about the wizards?

Ok, they aren’t literally noble. I don’t know anyone who’d call them ‘working class’, but still: the five wizards (Istari) are maiar (lesser gods) sent from Valinor (roughly Heaven) to help fight Sauron. Saruman is clearly noble enough to be *given a whole city* by a waning Gondor, and Gandalf is trusted with one of the three Elvish rings of power, which gives him massive magic authority, should he wish to wield it. There are implications that the two unnamed blue wizards ‘go native’ and set up their own kingdoms in the East.

Seriously, all the good characters in Tolkien’s works are some kind of gentry, royalty or demigod. Even the animals are: Shadowfax is the lord of the Mearas (super-horses) and Gwaihir is referred to as the Wind-Lord, and seems to control other Great Eagles. Moreover, regaining birthrights and lost kingdoms is a major theme in all of Tolkien’s work, rather than an aside. It’s not only Erebor, the Arkensone, Gondor and Arnor, but also the Silmarils, Turin’s identity and helmet, the Nauglamir, even [in Ar-Phazaron’s eyes] immortality.

By contrast, the majority of non-noble named characters are either incompetent bumblers or outright evil. In the first category you get Barliman Butterbur, Fatty Bolger, Bob and Nob. Butterbur’s inability to complete simple tasks in particular hinders Gandalf and puts the Hobbits, and the Ring Quest itself, in serious danger.

In the latter there’s Bill Ferney (betrays the hobbits to the Nazgul), Ruffians/Sharkey’s Men (despoil the Shire, bully/torture/kill several Hobbits), Grima Wormtongue (almost brings down Rohan, helps despoil the Shire), Mîm, Ibun and Khîm the Petty Dwarves (betrayed Túrin and his Outlaws), Ted Sandyman (embraces the capitalism and ‘improvements’ to the Shire imposed by Sharkey), and the Outlaws before Túrin’s leadership (went around raiding refugees and human settlements.) Somewhere in the middle is Saeros, whose envy of mortal Túrin made him taunt the man into a fight, which he lost, and his accidental death forced Túrin to flee Menegroth.

Right, so who are the common people and why would you wanna live like them?

Beregond is a Citadel Guardsman in Minas Tirith, i.e. an elite soldier of normal birth. He’s got a few kids, and presumably a wife. He’s appointed to show Pippin around the city when the hobbit rocks up, and does so, serving primarily as an exposition device. He’s fanatically loyal to Faramir, and keeps telling Pippin what a top chap Faramir is.

This is handy, because when Faramir is dying from his wounds at Orthanc and crazy Denethor wants to set them both on fire, Beregond intercedes. He not only abandons his post in the siege (an offense the carries the death penalty) but also kills two of the steward’s guards and holds off others until Gandalf can turn up to really save the day. Finally he stops Denethor stabbing Faramir, a further act of treason against Denethor, but equally, a further act of selfless loyalty towards Faramir.

In the battle before the Black Gates, Beregond acquits himself well, fighting alongside Pippin and getting crushed by a falling troll chieftain.

When the war’s over and Aragon becomes king, Beregond is brought forth to be judged. In an act of *supreme precedent-breaking clemency* Aragon banishes him from the city where his family live, and appoints him Captain of Faramir’s new bodyguard.

Beregond is not a complex character. Tolkien digs loyalty, and hammers this point home. A good peasant should be willing to forfeit their life for their superior’s, and should be grateful for whatever comes after. As you may have noticed, he was minor enough not to make it into the films.

His traits have plenty in common with…

Sador Labadal

Sador is a character from The Silmarillion and The Tale of the Children of Húrin. [Read them if you want to be like me.]

He mainly features as a minor character within Túrin’s story arc. Túrin is very very noble, heir to one of the Beleriand races of ‘good’ men, the House of Hador. As a child, he befriends Sador, an old crippled woodsman who cut off his own foot by accident and is kept around the hall as a kind of jollity. Through various complications and battles, Túrin’s dad Húrin loses the kingdom when Túrin’s still a kid, and Túrin grows up an exile. The realm (Dor-lómin) is taken over by Easterlings (not the same Easterlings as you see in LOTR) but many of the people remain.

Child-Túrin pitied Sador and calls him Labadal, which apparently means ‘hopafoot’, a kind of loving nickname. Túrin also gives him an elven knife, a gift far beyond his station: although Sador uses it to carve a chair for Húrin, once again showing subservience as a virtue.

So Túrin grows up in exile, and we see him do some pretty twisted, Oedipian stuff. He’s got a serious anger problem, is far too hasty, and keeps murdering people by accident. He accidentally gets the last known elf city sacked and the elf-maiden he loves carried off by a dragon.

Said dragon convinces Túrin that the people he left behind in Dor-lómin, mainly his sister and mother, are suffering greatly under Easterling rule. Túrin turns up, disguised, and old Sador helps him infiltrate the appropriate Hall. However Túrin loses his shit and kills an Easterling petty king. In the ensuing rebellion, Sador dies. Túrin leaves in a rage, and the dwindling remanant of his people are persecuted even more by the Easterlings.

Sador is a tad more involved than Beregond, since he isn’t just there to show the importance of blind loyalty, but also to give depth to Túrin’s character: Túrin has the ‘common touch’ and is shown to be capable of sympathy and jesting, even though most of his life is pretty dark. That’s not much good for Sador or the numerous other men of his House who lose out, though.

Moreover, Túrin’s arc is really long, and Sador is realistically no more than a cameo. His and Beregond’s minor heroics certainly don’t adequately defend Tolkien’s works from charges of classism. Who might? Well, obviously…

Samwise Gamgee

Ah, Sam. Good old salt-of-the-earth, son of the Gaffer, multiple generations of farmers, ringbearer extraordinaire.

Although for most of LOTR Sam is Frodo’s sidekick, Tolkien maintains that he’s actually the most important character, the ‘chief hero’. Ruddy and honest, Sam is the only person to successfully resist the Ring’s temptation. He does various excellent things as we all know, and they cannot be simply ascribed to servile fidelity, since Sam and Frodo have a demonstrable friendship. Sam’s choice to rescue Frodo from Cirith Ungol, rather than complete the Ring quest, notably elevates this friendship above the preservation of the free world. The utilitarians of Middle Earth would not be pleased.

There’s no denying that Sam is a full character. He’s the dependable servant in FOTR, but the only one to stay with Frodo after the sundering. He exhibits a childlike fascination for elves, but a distinct bravery. He goes through a range of emotions during Gollum’s capture and road movie. He likes potatoes – indeed he loves all growing things, being a gardener (!) He fights and mortally wounds Shelob the giant spider, and manages to start a small orc civil war to free Frodo. Finally, he is able to carry Frodo up Orodruin where (implicitly) others would succumb to the Ring or lose heart.

After the Battle of Bywater, he replants the whole Shire using the magic soil and mallorn nut given to him by Galadiel (the cunning lady). He thus embodies the rural English values that Tolkien so admires. In a private letter, Tolkien wrote:

My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself.’

Superior morally, yes, but not elsewhere. These men were JT’s subordinates. There’s a troublesome sense of karma, even here: upon his return from questing, Sam is quickly elevated to one of the richest and most notable hobbits in the Shire. He gets his girl (Rosie), and is elected mayor of the whole shire seven times (49 years). When Frodo leaves for the Undying Lands, Sam inherits Bag End (i.e. a huge manor house) and changes his surname to ‘Gardener’.

In essence, his reward for all his travails was to be elevated to a position that his three comrades had held since birth. Explicit gentrification. Hmm.

Kate from Lost

This, then, is why I think there’s value in Tauriel’s character. We don’t know what awaits her in Hobbit III, but she’s already set herself apart from Tolkien’s named non-noble characters. She challenges Mirkwood mores, first by battle-flirting with Legolas, then by even considering a relationship with a dwarf. She directly disobeys her King’s orders in service of love and/or a higher purpose, and disobeys them again when Legolas urges her to return: indeed, she convinces Legolas to join her, making her the leader rather than a sidekick or loyal hanger-on.

Evangeline Lilly


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One thought on “Stay classy Legolas: social relations in Tolkien

  1. Pingback: Unobtanium Man and his Unlikely Band of Brothers | Haywire Thought

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