I still have vivid memories of reading Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ when I was a nipper, living in London suburbia in the late seventies and early eighties. It was a quiet and simple world then, with the odd Routemaster double decker bus chugging down the street outside my window and a box of Lego bricks on the floor beside my bed, alongside a small pile of Matchbox cars. I lay on my bed in the afternoon sunshine and read 'The Fellowship of the Ring’ in paperback, the tome heavy in my hand, its pages stuffed with small, printed, engrossing text. I read and read and lost myself in Middle Earth and didn't come back to England for hours, or at least until I was called downstairs for tea.
Thirty-seven years on, I’m sitting here in Hampton planning a new science fiction novel. I’m hoping it’ll be an entertaining, imaginative saga that a reader will enjoy from beginning to end. While mulling over what to do, I’ve been thinking again about ‘The Lord of the Rings’, as it's possibly the most famous saga of all. ‘Should I draw on it as an inspiration?’ I wonder. ‘Should I examine how it was written and take notes from it on what constitutes a classic yarn?’
But this is where things get tricky. There is an aspect of Lord of the Rings that I didn’t notice when I was a kid and it’s all about evil. Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' has a very odd approach to assessing who’s good and who’s bad. In fact, you don’t need to listen to what the characters are saying or observe what they are doing to work this out. You can work out how bad someone is entirely from their physical appearance (I've stuck in a picture of an Orc sculpture by Boularis to illustrate this. It's very good. Click on the picture to go to the relevant page).
After some studying of the books and the films, here’s my top five ways to estimate a character's morality in 'Lord of the Rings', in ascending order:
Top five markers for calculating evilness in Lord of the Rings
Number 5: Pipe smoking, beer drinking and general food quality
Always a good acid test. If a character smokes a pipe, they’re good. They may not be health-conscious but they’re pure in heart. Likewise with food. Evil people are incapable of appreciating quality food and will make food and drink that tastes awful; the logic of this is beyond me.
Number 4: Height
The taller a character is, the nobler they are. Elves are taller and nobler than men who are taller and nobler than orcs and goblins. There’s never any doubt in the film that Boromir will be the man that succumbs to the temptations of the Ring as he’s under six foot tall.
Number 3: Skin colour
The darker someone’s skin, the more evil they are. Elves are almost white, men are tanned and goblins and orcs are somewhere around dark grey or brown. The Haradrim and Southerners who side with Sauron are indubitably dark-skinned and even have curved swords to mark themselves as from a sub-tropical climate. It’s a wonder they turned up at all. Surely it would have been more sensible for them to stay to the South and let the Northerners get on with their in-fighting? It’s not as if Sauron would head south at any point, as major characters in fantasy sagas never leave the map.
Number 2: Attractiveness
The more attractive you are, the more noble and courageous you are. This is common to all American movies and TV programmes, and so it’s pretty much taken as a default, but it’s still worth mentioning. Even among hobbits, the most attractive character gets to be the hero.
Number 1: Dental hygiene
Yes, it sounds silly, but after much studying of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies, I’ve realised that dental hygiene is absolutely the number one marker for evil-ness. Height may seem the most reliable choice at first glance, but it can lead you astray. Dwarves and hobbits are short but good and mountain trolls are tall but evil, thereby undermining Height’s usefulness. Attractiveness suffers the same problems. Gandalf isn’t exactly male model material - his nose is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle’s front bonnet - but he’s clearly super-good. Skin colour can be even more deceptive as an evilness marker, Elves are very pale and extremely noble but Gollum and Wormtongue are practically translucent and they’re both steeped in betrayal, avarice and in the latter’s case, aspirations to marry a taller woman. Clearly, skin colour reaches a ‘stay in the shade’ cut off point. Quite how the cave-dwelling dwarves avoided a problem that transformed Gollum is beyond me. Maybe they made it a rule to install full-spectrum lamps in their Grand Halls? It’s hard to say.
Dental hygiene is the absolutely rock-solid, reliable marker of goodness in ‘the Lord of the Rings' films. The worse a character’s teeth are, the more evil they are; it’s as simple as that. Note Saruman’s teeth in the film. It is astonishing that Gandalf didn’t spot Saruman’s corrupted heart sooner as it's blindingly obvious when we first see Saruman in Orthanc that he hasn't flossed in decades. Mithrandir, you berk, look at the man’s gum line, he's clearly succumbed to the forces of darkness!
Orcs’ appalling dental work can easily be overshadowed by their cataract-ridden eyes, unattractive noses and tendency to laugh inappropriately but their mouthparts are still very much their main fault. As a counter-example, Dwarves, though short and of middling attractiveness, have lovely teeth, indicating that even if you do dwell underground and have excessive body hair, you can still be a good person.
Some readers may point out that the evilness of orcs, goblins and trolls in the story is confirmed by their acts, but this probably wouldn’t hold up in court. Most of the hordes of orcs etc in the story seem to be acting under the mental influence of evil human wizards, which could easily get them acquitted on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Also, did you notice the look on the troll’s face in Balin’s tomb? The creature deserved sympathy, not hate, although I probably wouldn’t hug him. It isn’t a big step to conclude that the entire Lord of the Rings saga is a grudge match between wizards with every other race working as their mind-addled pawns.
There is also the problem in Lord of the Rings that many of the allegedly good characters in the story are able to kill large numbers of sentient creatures without any indications of emotional concern. This is not a good indicator of character and is closely associated with psychopathic tendencies. Possessing a ready willingness to stick sharp metal into someone else’s vital organs is not a good thing. Sometimes, in desperate circumstances, a man may be forced to do such a thing but he really should be affected emotionally by what he has done, whereas Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli seem to enter the battlefields of Middle Earth like jaded pest exterminators. For Pity’s sake, guys, the enemy might have halitosis and B.O. you could kill flies with, but they’re still clothed, sentient bipeds!
Was this weird view of personal character just a cinematic flaw? Did Tolkien personally have this attitude? Was this strain - or more accurately stain - of shallow racism in his book an accidental side-effect of a parochial upbringing or was it plain white-supremacy? I don’t know. The evidence is mixed. Maybe the best thing is to focus on the elements in the story that do show some humanity, for example:
"It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.”
I have an idea; how about I write a fantasy saga from the point of view of some Orcs? Ordinary creatures with unhygienic habits who are led astray by ‘lies and threats’ from a wizard and suffer the consequences? The main character could be an orc, pure in heart, with yellow, uneven teeth who survives, gains friends, saves lives and finds love regardless of his dental hygiene. I could draw upon my own personal experiences of possessing a chipped front incisor, off-white enamel and patchy plaque to make the story convincing and win a Western audience over to the idea that you don't have to look like Bjorn Borg to be a good soul. It could become the most humane fantasy saga ever!
I’ll keep you posted.