Tolkien on Jews

The premier issue of The Jewish Review of Books arrived in my mailbox a few days ago. It is more than impressive in its scope and the quality of its contributions. I hope to have more to say about it soon. I couldn’t resist posting this quote, from a rather well thought-out consideration of why Jews don’t have a fantasy literature, while Christians like C S Lewis not only did well at it, but used the genre as a very successful outreach tool. (Some of the arguments include the rootedness of Christian cultures in more recent paganism, and Judaism’s detesting of anything that attributes force or power to something outside of HKBH.)

Here’s the quote:

Although it might seem unlikely that anyone would wonder whether the author of The Lord of the Rings was Jewish, the Nazis took no chances. When the publishing firm of Ruetten & Loening was negotiating with J. R. R. Tolkien over a German translation of The Hobbit in 1938, they demanded that Tolkien provide written assurance that he was an Aryan. Tolkien chastised the publishers for “impertinent and irrelevant inquiries,” and—ever the professor of philology— lectured them on the proper meaning of the term: “As far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects.” As to being Jewish, Tolkien regretted that “I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”

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13 Responses

  1. D.A. says:

    The quote about Tolkien is classic and worth repeating. I checked out the rest of the article on the JewishReviewOfBooks website and I was sorely disappointed. Actually I thought it was silly and superficial. The closest that the writer could come to some (a very little bit of) truth was with this statement:

    “To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history. Its halakhic core is not, I think, convincingly represented in fantasy allegory. In its rabbinic elaboration, even the messianic idea is shorn of its mythic and apocalyptic potential. Whereas fantasy grows naturally out of Christian soil, Judaism’s more adamant separation from myth and magic render classic elements of the fantasy genre undeveloped or suspect in the Jewish imaginative tradition.”

    It seems to me that this was a missed opportunity. But that should come to no surprise, considering that (it seems obvious) that the writer has never learned Rav Kook, Rebbe Nachman, or the Zohar (to name a few).
    I guess that I will keep dreaming of Moshiach.
    Shabbot Shalom!

  2. Ori says:

    Christians do seem to stress evil as a force in opposition to G-d more than we do. The Jewish Satan is a servant of G-d, just one with the sucky job of tempting people (such as Job). It seems that most Christians believe in fallen angels, who are in rebellion against G-d. This lends itself to what’s known as “High Fantasy” a lot more than the Jewish focus on the here and now.

    I tried to write Jewish Fantasy once (available by e-mail in case anybody’s interested). But I had to go back to the age of prophecy to do it, and even then it wasn’t about good and evil as much as good and ignorant.

  3. Mike S. says:

    I came across this ago and could only conclude that the author was familiar neither with Jewish writing nor with modern fantasy. Jews have been writing fantasy at least since the openly fantastic Rabbah bar bar Chana stories in Nezikin. And more modern fantasy is replete with Jewish writers. True the two biggest names in Engilsh fantasy of the 20th century were both professing Christians, but I am quite sure Jews contribute to fantasy writing out of proportion to our population.

    [YA – Readers of the Christian-authored fantasy could either enjoy the works as pure fantasy, or find some allegorical meaning in the main elements of the work and the general course that the plot took. But traditional readers of Bava Basra wrinkled their brows trying to decode every detail of the Rava bar bar Chana stories, understanding that their primary intent was to convey moral truth, and the packaging was nothing more than a vehicle. If anything, this was quite the opposite of fantasy writing.]

  4. I thought the interesting observation in the article was that there have been many important Jewish writers of science fiction.

  5. Ori says:

    Mike S., there is a difference between literature written by Jews, and literature that is about Judaism. I think the point of the JewishReviewOfBooks article is that there is a shortage of fantasy that is the latter.

    Narnia, for example, can be read as either a plain fantasy book (as I did when I was a kid), or a book about Christianity. But the Azazel book by Asimov, for example, doesn’t have anything in it about Judaism.

  6. DF says:

    I want to give a shout-out to the Jewish Review of Books and its outstanding editor, my friend and neighbor, Dr. Abe Socher. [Cleveland rocks!] The whole publication makes for great reading. Obviously it is non-denominational in nature, but readers of this site may also be interested in Hillel Halkin’s lengthy article on the new Koren siddur. I disagree with much of what Halkin says, but as always, he is worth a read.

    I look forward to Rabbi Adlerstein’s Commentary on the new periodical.


  7. Speaking as a character in a fantasy trilogy, I can offer some pertinent thoughts:
    1) Most fantasy fiction is based on some simple princples. First, take a large, medieval society. Give them a variant on ol’ time Norse religion to worship. Add monsters and magic. There are notable exceptions where fantasy is placed in more recent time periods or mixed with science fiction but the majority of fantasy fiction is a variation on swords & sorcery.
    2) Norse religion, like other pagan religions, is heavy on creation stories soaked with violence and sex. “In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth” doesn’t give one much to work with.
    3) In fantasy fiction, you can introduce “gods” as characters and make them real. A religious Jew would have a problem doing that given there “There is only one God and thou shalt not meantion the names of idols” thing.
    4) If you’re going to use historical Jewish figures, you have to be careful. Look, there is some great fantasy-type stuff in the Midrash but it involves people we have a mesorah about. One could, for example, turn the story of Ashmedai and Shlomo HaMelech into a real page turner but in order to make it interesting to the general public, you’d have to get dirty with the characters which, when it comes to Shlomo HaMelech, simply will not do.

  8. Phil says:

    I wonder what it would’ve taken for Marcus Lehmann to become super famous…

  9. Mr. Cohen says:

    “Tolkien likened the Numenoreans to the Jews of ancient Israel in that they were monotheists with only one place of worship.

    Tolkein 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 habitation but maintaining their language, which, while they kept it to themselves, colored the accents of the languages they adopted in their host communities.”

    SOURCE: Chapter 3, page 44 of The Science of Middle Earth by Henry Gee

  10. > Tolkein also admitted to thinking of the Dwarves as the Jews of Middle-earth

    The trouble with that is the orcs kept following the dwarfs arounds and taking away their fortress, for example the Mines of Moriah. Does that make the Orcs the Chrisians or the Muslims?

  11. Raymond says:

    At least now I have some insight as to why, when I read fiction, I most resonate to realistic fiction, fiction that does not run away from the suffering that is so much part of life. The realistic, dark novels of the Victorian, Thomas Hardy, are my favorite novels. The Shakespeare plays that most resonate with me are his tragedies, particularly Othello, and, oddly enough, the very bloody Titus Andronicus. I regard Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to be a tragedy, too, but I do not want to get sidetracked here.

    I also recall reading somewhere that Jewish fiction is characterized by a virtual obsession with goodness and morality. That is one obsession worth being obsessed about. When I read fiction or any book, my purpose is to become more aware of what life on this Earth is all about, not learn about some fantasy that somebody concocts in his own mind.

    As for Marcus Lehmann, I read his book on Rabbi Akiva, and it is fantastic, a book I very highly recommend. But the book with the best stories of all, really are the ones in the Torah. G-d is a great storyteller.

  12. One Christian's perspective says:

    In researching and reading the entire article ‘Why There is No Jewish Narnia”, I found the following to be the key to my understanding of the article: “Judaism is far more skittish about acknowledging the existence of powers acting apart from God, even in rebellion – which leaves a lot less room for magic”- Michael Weingrad. Ori in his March 6th published comment alludes to the “here and now” of Jewish fiction as being the safer position than the place of high fantasy. Yet, isn’t seeking “the here and now” or “high fantasy”, the opposite ends of the same path, of man created comfort zones that avoid the journey of faith which often involves a test or furnace of affliction that refines and draws one fully into God’s plan and purpose as an active participant for our greater good and Gods Glory ?

  13. Maybell Brim says:

    Interesting blog you got here but I can’t seem to find the RSS button.

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