I’ve just finished reading the Hobbit – it was a curiously old-fashioned tale. I guess I’ve gotten used to ambiguity, free will, and the really tough questions. In Middle Earth, the ‘good’ races all hate the ‘evil’ races, and the ‘evil’ races hate the ‘good’ races even more. Both of the races are equally racist, and nobody stops to think about their lot in life. Apparently, members of the ‘good’ races can be turned to evil, but never can an member of any ‘evil’ race turn from their ways and become good. It’s a pretty depressing message, really.
You see, they never see the racism of the ‘good’ races as making them any less good, while by the same token, the racism of the ‘evil’ races is in keeping with their evil nature and it doesn’t make them any better. Why can’t an orc or a goblin be aware of the evil he or she does and decide to worship the deities of the ‘good’ races and become a vegetarian and a pacifist? Will the ‘good’ races accept him or her as a member of the same ideology, or reject him or her because of bad blood between their two societies?
In one of my computer games, they realize that if they’re to exist in a multi-species world, that racism is inevitable. If you have a party of adventurers made up with at least one of every species, then every time you encounter their species, you will benefit. Goods will be cheaper. You’ll be given help when you need it. You’ll get greater rewards for completing their quests. But you could just as easily run into groups of people who don’t like them, who’ll attack you, overcharge you, steal from you, that sort of thing. If your party is just human, then you can expect to encounter anti-human racists, be overcharged, and get lesser rewards. But you’ll also be aided by your own who agree that humans are superior. You get to see how the same groups treat you differently based on who you travel with. Such layers of storytelling make for good surprises and thought-provoking quests (Is the non-human in your party going to be okay with raiding his/her own people?)
When it comes to authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and their predecessors, they couldn’t have fathomed a world where racism wasn’t an everyday reality. Where racism wasn’t normal and would be challenged. When we read their works, we have to remember that they were from a time that’s different from ours. Books are always harder to date – some of C.S. Lewis’ work is extremely popular and seem like it applies today and some of it is already dated and is out of step with our reality. They serve as an excellent jumping off point when we think about how we treat others who are just like us and others who are different from us. But we have to remember that what makes us good or evil isn’t the species we were born into, but the decisions we make and that we always have a choice to do better, to put the needs of others before our own wants, and to change our lives.