Letter to Professor Margaret Sinex, commenting on her draft article

Tolkien's Haradrim and Medieval Constructions of the Other

which she allowed me to cite in my article on "The South"


Dear Professor Sinex,


I have attached some comments or notes that I made on first reading the paper.

Overall, my impression is that some of the parallels you see between the Haradrim and the European images of the Africans/Outlanders (stature, yellow color preference of the Jews) are not strong enough in Tolkien’s texts to bear mention here. Also, I’m not a medievalist by any means, and I could not read the quoted texts that were not translated – is that an accepted problem for non-specialist readers?

What I liked about the paper was that, as I guessed from my friend’s notes on your lecture, you have demonstrated a strong medieval tradition of picturing Africans by standard conventions that far predate the modern era of slavery or our own conventions of race-prejudice, conventions that Tolkien to some extent drew on. On the other hand, it’s easy enough to see where modern Europeans were coming from when the Age of Exploration forced them to deal with darker peoples from the South on a more realistic and continuing basis: any accusation of  “racism” in Tolkien personally may be misplaced, but he accurately mimics in his created world the European perception, both modern and medieval, of the darker Southern peoples.

I know your title is a draft, but your use of  “the Other” does not seem to appear very much in your text. I don’t know much about modern academic buzzwords, but doesn’t “the Other” have a standard set of associations and interpretive meanings that the title invites us to expect in your analysis?

My own interpretation of the Haradrim is that they occupy the “Edge” of Middle-earth, giving Tolkien an indefinite “boundary” to his geography, the equivalent in space of his famous “vistas” in time and legend, that he maintained were crucial to giving a sense of realism to his secondary world. See Tolkien’s Letter 247 and Shippey’s discussion of this in Road to Middle-earth, p. 229. That is why I got nervous when you began taking Medieval geography farther afield into the Antipodes.

Finally, for my recent research I read Tolkien’s 1931-32 paper Sigelwara Land in hopes of establishing just what Tolkien meant by his “black half-troll.” I found that his paper is remarkably vague in its conclusions as to what Sigelwara means in Anglo-saxon, and why it became the standard word for translating the placename Ethiopia from the Greek Bible. Should your paper take account of this work of Tolkien’s, despite its indefinite conclusions? (I can send you a copy if you’d like).


Notes while reading:


p. 1. I’m not sure the Haradrim as such (or their predecessors) appear in The Silmarillion. p. 4: Oh, I see you mean in Akallabeth. Do most readers take a reference to The Silmarillion to mean what is correctly the Quenta Silmarillion, or the entire volume also including Akallabeth and Of the Rings of Power?


p. 1. I don’t think the Haradrim are of truly unusual size for Men. Orcs are generally squatter and smaller than Western Men like the Dunedain and the Rohirrim. So Gollum’s observation that the Haradrim are much bigger is more to the effect that their evil, though less than Orcs’, is enhanced by their being, roughly, the size of western Men. It’s their “cruel wickedness” that is important in the description, I think: the Haradrim are the human equivalent of Orcs in evil.


p. 1. “They dwell in the far South” is tricky. Tolkien marks Near Harad, Harad, and Far Harad on his map. Insofar as Gondor is also South of our heroes’ northwestern homelands in Middle-earth, Harad is definitely farther South than that. But “Far Harad” means “Far South”, and the people from there are even more frightening than the warrior Haradrim we see here. (as you note on p. 4, I see)


p. 6. I always feel like I’m walking through a minefield when trying to distinguish between Tolkien’s “darkness” and “blackness”. Sometimes Dark is a synonym for Black, and is treated as a color; sometimes it implies Shadow and all the metaphors involving Light that that implies. The color Black is not always evil in Tolkien (cf. Elendil’s/Aragorn’s livery), but Darkness always is. Did medieval thought make some kind of distinction along these lines too? For instance, is “swert” a synonym for “black” – are “swertings” a Tolkien mock-medieval substitute for “negro”? Or is “swert” more like dusky or dark, and more appropriate for what we might call “brown-skinned” people like North Africans and Western Asians? After all, even Sam has “faithful brown hands” appropriate to a servant-class gardener.


p. 8. This is fascinating. If I understand you, the Europeans reported Saracens (what I would call North Africans, etc., as above) as having “pitch-black” skin to match their “black” (=evil, sinful) hearts. I would have sworn that most of the Muslim (Paynim?) opponents of Christian Europe were (again) what might be characterized as “brown-skinned.” This is a common phenomenon in racist typology, obviously, and takes place even today. It is a triumph of language over observation.

Unless the Europeans were really encountering very dark-skinned Africans from the Equatorial regions (who are as close to “black”-skinned as anyone on earth), who had been recruited, kidnapped, or otherwise transported to the front line of the conflict.


p. 17. The medieval moral world cartography and details on the questions of the Antipodes and Antipodeans is inherently interesting to me personally, but I’m totally trusting you that this is eventually going to circle around back and relate to the Haradrim again. There is a fringe tradition in Tolkien (I think in the Ambarkanta) involving the Southern (roughly Australia, S. Africa, etc.) and Western Continents (roughly the Americas) that “do not come into the tales” as the saying goes, but which attempt to account for the rest of the “real” world in terms of Middle-earth, particularly after the Change of the World. Tolkien never pursued this, for obvious story reasons. The further afield you go with the Medievals here, the closer the actual Haradrim appear as “neighbors” to the central arena of North-west Middle-earth. Their role as “edge-dwellers” is to go off the map, indefinitely. I doubt Tolkien himself thought through the issues of Far Harad much beyond mentioning the apes, the forest, and the distinctly black skin.


p. 18. Interesting that Albert the Great should conclude (a priori, I should guess) that the people of the south are “small and feeble”, while Les Narbonnais (your p. 8) has them “huge and black as ink”. Again, one wonders how the “huge” Saracens became so black… This also relates to the discussion on p. 26.


p. 23. I agree that red and gold and black are the Haradrim’s heraldic colors. I’m not sure I buy the identity of the Medieval Jew’s “yellow” with the Haradrim’s color, for whom gold is far more commonly used by Tolkien than yellow. In Tolkien, red is a generally evil color, linking blood, flame, and anger. Gold is more ambiguous: it and yellow are characteristically identified with the Sun and the light of the second Tree as much as with any negative characteristic like the greed that gold arouses, or the color harmony that yellow makes with red in any pictorial composition.


p. 24. “They are a handsome people” This hasn’t really been demonstrated yet, I think, if by handsome you mean their facial or bodily appearance. The bold colors serve to make them fearsome, rather than handsome, as I read the descriptions. Tolkien deliberately hides the dead soldier’s face from Sam and the reader, to avoid having to commit on whether the face, seen “close up”, would betray any sign of evil.


p. 26. Any connection with the giant Goliath in the Bible? Was he a stock figure of evil in the medieval imagination?


p. 28. The reference to the Mumak’s handler being a “giant among the Swertings” yet tiny next to the beast, always suggested to me that Swertings were otherwise of relative normal size for Men. See also my note on Gollum’s observation on p. 1 above. Remember that the Edain and the Eldar in Middle-earth are “tall.” (At times Tolkien speculated that the Eldar were as much as 8 or 9 feet tall!) Tolkien uses physical stature as a sign of moral greatness or spiritual power. Although Morgoth and Sauron are also gigantic, as fallen spirit-beings they have kept that attribute from their “good” days; all the Valar/Maiar are gigantic because their spiritual presence is so immense compared to the Children. It would seem odd to me if Tolkien thought of the Haradrim as a race taller than the Dunedain of Gondor.


p. 30. The troll-men of Far Harad. This is important. Tolkien is being more accurate to regional anthropology than the medievals were. The Haradrim (as Saracens) are brown-skinned, but the Far Harad men are black, and truly ugly (as Negroid features would be seen by Europeans--just as he characterized Orcs as ‘least-lovely Oriental types to European eyes’). The connection of distance to deformity is clear.

“Troll-men” is a very puzzling term here, since elsewhere Trolls in Tolkien are European stock folk-demons with some relation to Goblins or Orcs, and occupying a place in Morgoth’s stable equivalent to Yavanna’s Ents. I wonder if he was deliberately displacing the “ape” comparison so invidiously used by modern racists in discussing Negroid Africans? But no – you have it! Troll is short-hand for “monster” in Tolkien, if anything is, and he must be translating the “monstrous” convention you’ve documented, into his own world’s equivalent. Ah. That makes sense.


p. 31. Nice catch that Tolkien never renders the southern or eastern languages, just the sound – since he never seems to hesitate with anyone else. Too harsh for Tolkien to render as words? Or, as I might guess, too marginal to rate such attention? The other harsh language we encounter, by the way, is the Dunlendings’ at the siege of Helm’s Deep, and those people are marginal but not southern – in fact they typify Faramir’s “Men of Darkness,” showing that the edge is not strictly geographical.

The harshness of a language should correlate with the harshness of the appearance, since Tolkien’s verbal and visual esthetics are so closely linked. To me this is another indicator that we are not meant to see the Haradrim as “handsome” in any pleasing way.

I don’t think the comparison with Frodo’s ability to understand Faramir’s rangers really belongs here: it opens up a huge can of worms to speculate on the meaning of being able to understand another language and its sounds--at least with Tolkien it does.