Tolkien and the Jews

 

Guest post by R. Jeffrey Saks

Rabbi Jeffrey Saks is the founding director of ATID. His frequent lectures at the Agnon House in Jerusalem are broadcast on WebYeshiva.org/Agnon.

With the release of the first installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy, diehard Middle Earth fans and movie-goers worldwide are reveling in the experience of entering J.R.R. Tolkien’s fully realized world, despite the critical panning the movie has received. Ever curious if Hobbits are good for the Jews, writers have been examining the canon of Tolkien’s work with Talmudic precision for Jewish connections – to clarify some mistaken or imprecise reporting we present or revisit some of the interesting Jewish connections in Tolkien’s Middle Earth and in the stories behind it…

  • Rumors that the wretched and tragic villain Gollum – around whom so much of the plots of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings turn – was based on the Jewish legend of the Golem have never been substantiated. The Annotated Hobbit claims the name Gollum comes from Old Norse gull, meaning gold, or in one inflection “something precious” or a ring. Tolkien himself claimed the name comes from the “horrible swallowing sound” in [Gollum’s] throat.
  • During World War II Tolkien and other Oxford professors would stand watch as air raid wardens. In January 1944 he related the following in a letter to his son (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 67):

    I was [on air raid duty] in the small C33 room: very cold and damp. But an incident occurred which moved me and made the occasion memorable. My companion in misfortune was Cecil Roth (the learned Jew historian). I found him charming, full of gentleness (in every sense); and we sat up till after 12 talking. He lent me his watch as there were no going clocks in the place: – and nonetheless himself came and called me at 10 to 7: so that I could go to Communion! It seemed like a fleeting glimpse of an unfallen world. Actually I was awake, and just (as one does) discovering a number of reasons (other than tiredness and having no chance to shave or even wash), such as the desirability of getting home in good time to open up and un-black and all that, why I should not go. But the incursion of this gentle Jew, and his sombre glance at my rosary by my bed, settled it. I was down at St Aloysius at 7.15 just in time to go to Confession before Mass; and I came home just before the end of Mass.

  • In a 1971 BBC interview (available on YouTube), Tolkien suggested that the race of dwarves who populate his mythology “of course are quite obviously – wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews?” Tolkien was by trade a linguist and philologist, and created languages for each of his fictional races. “Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic,” he said of the Dwarvish tongue. Of course, the dwarves have a great love of gold, and some have drawn attention to a possible anti-Semitic sentiment here. “I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews,” he writes (Letters, p. 229), “at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue.” In The Silmarillion (Tolkien’s collection of background legend to the world he created), chapter 2 tells of the creation of the Dwarves, which tells a founding myth not too removed from the story of Akeidat Yitzhak (Abraham’s binding of, and near slaughter, of Isaac), and the notion that while born first the race of Dwarves was superseded by the race of Elves (perhaps a hint to the status of Jews vis-à-vis God within the Christian worldview). The screenwriters of the new Hobbit film, highlighting the Dwarvish Diaspora, how they were exiled from the ancestral home and questing to return, put a speech in the mouth of “gentile” Bilbo Baggins worthy of Mickey Marcus and “Cast a Giant Shadow”. The scene doesn’t exist in the book, but the hobbit declares his loyalty to his companions and their nationalist hopes for return – Zionism Middle Earth style. The dwarves sorrowful song of longing to return to their homeland might have been lifted from a Middle Earth Kinnot Tisha B’Av.
  • The publishers of the German translation of The Hobbit wanted Tolkien to affirm he was “of Aryan origin” before they would issue the work in 1938. Tolkien wrote an agitated reply to his British publishers complaining of the “lunatic laws” of the Third Reich, saying (Letters, pp. 37-38):

    Personally I should be inclined to refuse to give any Bestätigung [confirmation] (although it happens that I can), and let a German translation go hang. In any case I should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print. 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 notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.

    In the draft of the letter to the German publisher, he declared:

    I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Flindustani, 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….

    I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

    In 1971 he explained the origins of his family name as (Letters, p. 410):

    My name is Tolkien, anglicized from To(l)kiehn = tollkühn, and came from Saxony in the 18th century. It is not Jewish in origin, though I should consider it an honour if it were.

  • The first translation of The Hobbit into Hebrew was undertaken in Egyptian captivity by four Israeli Air Force pilots held as prisoners of war following the War of Attrition in the early 1970s. In possession of an English copy of the book received via the Red Cross. “We were a goup of about 20 prisoners,” recalled Rami Harpaz, “including many who couldn’t read English. So that they could also enjoy the book we decided to translate it to Hebrew.” When they were released in 1973 after three years of captivity, they took seven notebooks with the draft of the translation, which was published with funding from the Israel Air Force.
  • The Israeli Tolkien Society organizes activities, conferences, and research on Tolkien and his works in Israel. Their website has information in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English – and, of course, Elvish. The Hobbit was recently released in its third Hebrew translation, to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the original English publishing and with release of the film. But for lovers of mama-loshen, for the first time The Hobbit has been released in a Yiddish version (Der Hobbit translated by Barry Berish Goldsteinlisten to the translator discuss why in the world he did this).
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    28 Responses

    1. G Pickholz says:

      Tolkien himself stated it was an adaptation of Wagner’s Rings. If anything, the discussion should be about potential antisemitism,failure to assimilate and the battle of the urban Jew und der Deutsche Landtmench that so enthralled both Hitler and Herzl.

      That stated, my impression is Tolkien reaches very different conclusions than Wagner and deserves a pass at accusations. But pro-Semite? Are we analyzing the same literature?

    2. Nachum says:

      It was more of a response to Wagner- he took the same basic theme, but made it more moral and less pagan. Maybe I’m just looking at it through my eyes, but I see philo-Semitism and Zionism there (especially if you line up all the peoples in contemporary terms as some do)- and you can’t deny it in the works above.

    3. Nachum says:

      One of Tolkien’s middle names (passed down to most of his children) was “Reuel,” inherited from an old family friend, although he wasn’t sure if it came from the French (as in Revel) or Hebrew.

    4. Isaacson says:

      This is a nice article but I was hoping for an exploration of either some of the Jewish concepts in his writing (Galadriel choosing to reject the ring of power as an illustration of the Rambam’s concept of Teshuva) or of how Jewish linguistic terms were employed (Tom Bombadil – Tam Bam Badil)

    5. Frodl says:

      The dwarven song reminds me of Menucha v’Simcha.

    6. Larry Lennhoff says:

      chapter 2 tells of the creation of the Dwarves, which tells a founding myth not too removed from the story of Akeidat Yitzhak (Abraham’s binding of, and near slaughter, of Isaac), and the notion that while born first the race of Dwarves was superseded by the race of Elves (perhaps a hint to the status of Jews vis-à-vis God within the Christian worldview).
      I think connecting the creation of the Dwarves with Akedat Yitzchak is a stretch. The Dwarves’ creator unlike Abraham Avinu, both created the Dwarves without specific instructions from his deity and offered to destroy them without being commanded to by his deity. His deity then gave life to the Dwarves, but cast them into sleep so that the original plan that the Elves be the firstborn all along not be disrupted.

      As I write this, I think it might make an interesting switch on the birth of Yishmael, if God had cast Yishmael into suspended animation so that Isaac would be uncontested first born. They are even made a race of living beings as a reward for their creator, rather than on their own merits.

    7. Shlomo says:

      Let’s not forget the names that are based on Hebrew, like the plural “Rohirrim”…

    8. Shalom Spira says:

      Ye’yasher kochakhem R. Saks and respondents.

      Yes, there is a place for discussion of film in the beit midrash, seeing as the Talmud in Megillah 6a expounds upon Zechariah 9:7 to mean that the theatres of Western civilization will eventually be transformed into vehicles for Torah study. [And see Shu"t Yabi'a Omer VIII, Yoreh De'ah no. 20, who refers to two cases where he authorizes an individual to watch television programming (contra his previous attitude toward television in Shu"t Yabi'a Omer VI, Orach Chaim no. 13, final paragraph).] Accordingly, R. Saks’ learned analysis of The Hobbit is most welcome.

      At the same time, care should be taken not to transcend the guidelines established by R. Joseph Ber Soloveitchik in “Confrontation”. Accordingly, the opinion of the church on the replacement of the Jews with another nation is irrelevant in the beit midrash. Likewise, any references to foreign deities being quoted in Tolkien’s works should be ignored. The starting point for any exploration of film in the beit midrash must be an adherence to Rambam’s thirteen principles of faith. [Yes, it is true, Dr. Marc Shapiro has raised valuable questions regarding some of the details of Rambam's thirteen principles, but those questions serve as clarifications rather than refutations of Rambam.]

    9. Mr. Cohen says:

      “Many of Tolkien’s words, particularly in Sindarin, adopt plural forms that look startlingly like Hebrew. Hebrew nouns, like French and Old English nouns, have genders, and these affect word form …. examples might include:
      Rohirrim …. Naugrim … Balchoth … Tolkien was at pains to point out that such resemblances were purely coincidental (Letters 144).”

      SOURCE: The Science of Middle-Earth (chapter 3, page 43) by Henry Gee, 2004, Cold Spring Press, Cold Spring Harbor, NY 11724, ISBN 1-59360-023-2.

    10. Mr. Cohen says:

      “Further links between Adunaic, Khuzdul, and Hebrew come in asides in letters (see Letters 156, 211), in which Tolkien likened the Numenoreans to the Jews of ancient Israael in that they were monotheists with only one place of worship. Tolkien also admitted to thinking of the Dwarves as the Jews of Middle-earth in that they were a wandering people, often alien in their present habitations, but maintaining their language, which, while they kept it to themselves, colored the accents of the languages they adopted in their host communities (Letters 176).”

      SOURCE: The Science of Middle-Earth (chapter 3, page 44) by Henry Gee, 2004, Cold Spring Press, Cold Spring Harbor, NY 11724, ISBN 1-59360-023-2.

    11. Mr. Cohen says:

      A few months ago I read an internet article about how Tolkein’s dwarves originally wanted gold and jewels because of their greed, but after World War II, Tolkein adopted a more positive attitude towards Jews, and as a result, his “new” dwarves wanted gold and jewels because of their aesthetic or artistic value.

    12. spacedout BT says:

      Better to be compared to dwarves than orcs!

    13. Y.Aharon says:

      Tolkien insisted that his tales not be interpreted allegorically. Thus, his depiction of the race of dwarves only bears a superficial resemblance to a stereotypical portrayal of Jews. If anything, historical Jews can be better noted in his depiction of the race of elves – the ‘firstborn’. They were loved by the angelic powers, the Valar, who wished to bring them to their own land, Amman (Valinor), safe from the predations of the fallen angel – Melkor. Three tribes of elves (the light elves) completed their journeys to that land and basked initially in its light and wisdom. Some elven clans never made it or were never interested (the dark elves, including the wood elves in The Hobbit). One tribe, the Noldor (deep elves), ultimately left Valinor when it turned dark and returned to Middle Earth. There they diminished in stature and were saved from utter defeat by Melkor, whom they called Morgoth (dark lord), by the Valar. Their destiny, however, was to return to Valinor (or a nearby isle of the immortals) which they managed to do gradually. Their stay in Middle Earth served the purpose of enlightening and ennobling the subsequent race of men.

      Is this not essentially the story of the Jewish people? Brought to the Promised Land after much difficulty, experiencing the divine presence there, and then leaving under a cloud. That long exile has served to further the education of mankind. Gradually, they returned to the Promised Land.

    14. Yoel B says:

      Tolkien seems to follow the Christian approach of seeing pagan virtue as prefiguration of the Christian virtue which comes from establishing the correct relationship with Jesus. That approach seems to bypass Sinai and the Law.

    15. Alan Abbey says:

      Interesting exegesis and parshanut above. I took Bilbo’s speech about a stateless people less as proto-philo-Zionism but rather as (at best) general support for nationalistic claims by the many non-state peoples of our world today (Tibetans, Kurds) and more likely the Palestinians.

      As for Middle Earth’s “religion,” there isn’t any real “God” figure in it at all, is there? There are unstated beings of great power who put Gandalf back into play after falling with the Balrog, and there are vague references to immortal or god-like beings, but the theology of the different races of ME is far from any monotheistic view of the world.

    16. Y. Aharon says:

      Not to seem like a Tolkien geek, but I can’t resist deflating the premise of the last poster. One should not attempt to draw great conclusions about Tolkien’s mythology by merely reading the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and The Hobbit. Despite the extensive Appendices in the former book, only some allusions to the prehistory of Middle Earth is to be found there (the First Age or the Elder Days). Tolkien’s posthumously published book, “The Silmarillion”, contains the legends of the Elder Days which feature the creation of the angelic spirits, later called the Valar, and then the physical world by Eru (the One) who is also called Iluvatar (the Father of all). The Valar are immortal and extremely powerful, but are not gods. In fact, Appendix A of LOTR mentions that the attempted invasion of the land of the Valar by the last king of the great island home of the Dunedain (Numenor) was thwarted when the Valar called upon “the One” who created a great rift in the ocean that drowned both the invading fleet and Numenor (only the loyal remnants escaped to Middle Earth by boat). Nor are they all immune to the failings of men and Elves such as the desire for power and domination. While the books mention men and kingdoms who worship the fallen Valar, Melkor (Morgoth) and Sauron, the more enlightened men such Aragorn and his Dunedain followers, do not. The Elves never have. Thus, the spirit of the books is monotheistic even as it presents some men who have come to worship an evil Valar as a deity.

    17. Does anyone have further knowledge of Tolkien’s relationship to other Jewish Oxford dons and faculty? His personal relationship to Cecil Roth and other Jewish historians and philologists at Oxford and Cambridge in the 30′s and 40′s? Where would I find good biographical material on this?

    18. Yuval says:

      I always liked the dwarves best anyway. You might note that the seven dwarves who received rings from Sauron (note, 7 is a significant number) were never corrupted and turned into wraiths like the nine men. They were mostly eaten by dragons and such things as far as I understand. Personally, I think that this speaks to Tolkien’s thoughts about the Jews’ place in the universe. If we think of it from his (Catholic) background, we could say that the Numenorians and Elves represent a pre-fallen ‘state of grace’; hence, the elves were not corrupted by the rings, but since they weren’t properly part of the world, they could not destroy Sauron either. The men were utterly corrupted by the gift of the nine rings and turned into tools of evil. The Dwarves occupied an odd place of “semi grace” in this hierarchy. They were not turned into tools of Sauron, but were followed by significant misfortune and their greatest kingdom taken from them and occupied by a demon (Moria, the Balrog), and dragons chased them from their lesser kingdoms. They were not morally corrupted, but being part of the world in a way the elves were not, they could not escape it’s ‘tsuris’.
      This tells me that in Tolkien’s conception, if the dwarves reflected his ideas of Jews, that Jews occupied a higher, not lower place compared to gentiles, thanks to their unique Covenant and status as chosen people. It is also significant that he chose for his protagonists “innocents”; a race designed to be outside the great wars and politics of their betters. If he had chosen Elves to be his protagonists, I would say he had a similar inspiration to Wagner, but in fact, I think he clearly leans more philo-Semitic.

    19. Anonymous says:

      R’ Yuval,

      Thank you and ye’yasher kochakha for your valuable comments. I am sure you will agree with me that we cannot entertain a catholic perspective on matters of religion. Rather (and by total contradistinction), we can only (and we do) embrace the Jewish perspective on matters of religion, as per R. Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s ruling in “Confrontation” (Tradition 6:2) and R. Moshe Feinstein’s ruling in Iggerot Mosheh, Yoreh De’ah III, no. 43.

      At the same tome, ye’yasher kochakha for focusing our attention on the dwarves. Indeed, the gemara in Berakhot 58b places a special value on dwarves, by insisting one recite the benediction “meshaneh ha-beri’yot” when seeing a midget. Moreover, the “midget on the shoulders of a giant” metaphor serves a most illuminating important purpose in the Oral Torah, as per R. Shnayer Z. Leiman’s essay available here: http://www.leimanlibrary.com/texts_of_publications/60.%20Dwarfs%20on%20the%20Shoulders%20of%20Giants.pdf

    20. Shalom Spira says:

      Sorry… I forgot my name!
      Signed,
      Shalom Spira

    21. Steg (dos iz nit der shteg) says:

      “This tells me that in Tolkien’s conception, if the dwarves reflected his ideas of Jews, that Jews occupied a higher, not lower place compared to gentiles, thanks to their unique Covenant and status as chosen people.”

      Yuval:

      I don’t think that any kind of ‘superiority’ is an accurate conclusion from Tolkien’s works — or from Yahadut, for that matter. While the Valar occupy an ‘angelic’ level of existence in Arda, Tolkien is clear that Elves and Humans are equal, but different, and that the primary distinction between them, human mortality, is the “Gift of Eru (=God) to Men” which the Elves are mystified by, and sometimes envious of. Elves are both physically and morally stronger than Humans in his works, but he doesn’t present that as indicating that they occupy some kind of more privileged place in the universe.

      The Dwarves, created by the Vala Aulë instead of directly by Eru, are shown to be originally inferior to the ‘Children of Ilúvatar’ in their original non-sentience; only God can create thinking, multiplying, growing beings, as reflected in the attribution of Morgoth’s Orcs to mutated/”twisted” Elves. When Ilúvatar recognizes Aulë’s creation and “adopts” them, only then do they become equal to (and yet different from) God’s “own” children. I don’t remember if Tolkien ever “justified” it from an ‘objective’ point of view, but the Dwarves themselves believe that when they die (unlike Humans, who “pass beyond the world”) they are gathered in Mandos in special waiting-places of their own, because it will be their job to remake the world together with Aulë after the Final Battle.

    22. Steg (dos iz nit der shteg) says:

      Shalom Spira:

      The Dwarves of Tolkien’s world (or most other folklore/fantasy, for that matter) have no connection to ‘dwarfs’ as unusally-short human beings, other than the confluence of names; just like ‘giants’ as a term for unusuall-tall people is not related to the idea of Giants as creatures of fantasy.

    23. Steg (dos iz nit der shteg) says:

      Mr. Cohen:

      The Wikipedia article on the Dwarves — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dwarf_(Middle-earth)#Development — contains a good explanation of the development of the Dwarves in Tolkien’s work over time from more Germanic Folklore-based (with the attendant possible anti-semitic influences) to more explicitly Semitic (and anti-antisemitic, sometimes philo-semitic overtones) influences later on.

    24. Steg (dos iz nit der shteg) says:

      Since I’m responding to commenters already, I should also give a yishar koaḥ to Rabbi Sacks for this very well-researched and presented essay that inspired this discussion in the first place!

      And just a comment on the Dwarves’ Song for their Lost Homeland ~ Ḳinot connection — the poem fits perfectly with the traditional Ashkenazi tune for “Elí Tziyyon”.

    25. Steg (dos iz nit der shteg) says:

      Prof. Tolkien also wrote in a few places about his idea of Sub-Creation — a very interesting application of the “ma hu raḥum, af ata tihyeh raḥum” principle that posits the development of the human imagination as a holy, ‘imitatio Dei’ activity. Just as God created the world, it is our duty to create worlds of our own, even though they only exist in our heads.

      One of the most popular expositions of this idea comes in his poem “Mythopoeia”, which IIRC he wrote to his friend and colleague C S Lewis as part of a debate they had as to whether fantasy can have moral/religious significance. C S Lewis originally held that anything fictional is automatically of no religious worth, but J R R Tolkien eventually brought him around. ;-)

      The full poem is here — http://home.ccil.org/~cowan/mythopoeia.html — and other places on the ’net.

    26. Steg (dos iz nit der shteg) says:

      Y. Aharon:

      As a friend of mine in college put it –
      “People who are unusually obsessed with Star Trek are called ‘Trekkies’. People who are unusually obsessed with Star Wars are called ‘Star Wars geeks’. But people who are unusually obsessed with Tolkien are called ‘Tolkien *scholars*’.

    27. Steg (dos iz nit der shteg) says:

      Mr Isaacson:

      Do you have any evidence that Tom Bombadil’s name comes from Hebrew, rather than Hobbit-like English-Countryside-sounding roots? Prof Tolkien himself saw Tom as an enigma in his own world.

    28. Steg (dos iz nit der shteg) says:

      “[The Dwarves] are a tough, thrawn race for the most part, secretive, laborious, retentive of the memory of injuries (and of benefits), lovers of stone, of gems, of things that take shape under the hands of the craftsman rather than things that live by their own life. But they are not evil by nature, and few ever served the Enemy of free will, whatever the tales of Men may have alleged. For Men of old lusted after their wealth and the work of their hands, and there has been enmity between the races.”
      (Lord of the Rings, Appendix F section I)

    29. […] Dwarvish culture (see, for example, Seth Rogovoy’s article in The Forward, Rabbi Jeffrey Saks’ post on the Hirhurim blog, or Edmon Rodman’s piece in The Times of Israel). These range from the trivial: Durin’s Day, […]

     
     

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