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Why Did Tolkien Care About the Jews?

In the current issue of Commentary my friend Rabbi Meir Soloveichik discusses J.R.R. Tolkien's fascination with the Jews, who are of course the Dwarves in the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as Tolkien himself stated in a 1971 BBC interview. Tolkien was no anti-Semite (not, at least, according to the canonical definition, namely someone who hates the Jews more than is absolutely necessary). His views in The Hobbit were typical of the philo-Semites of the 1930s: the Jews/Dwarves are "calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people...if you don’t expect too much."

In The Lord of the Rings, completed after the Holocaust, Tolkien turned more sympathetic, depicting a great Elf-Dwarf friendship, and presaging (as Rabbi Soloveichik points out) a Jewish-Christian alliance against the forces of evil. One might add that in The Silmarillion, Tolkien's early (but posthumously published) compendium of Middle-Earth mythology, the Dwarves were created before the Elves, just as the Jews came before the Christians--but by mistake, in Tolkien's account.

In the Dwarves' quest for their ancient homeland in the Lonely Mountain, Rabbi Soloveichik observes, Tolkien evinces a certain sympathy for Zionism.

But all this begs the question of what put the Jews at the center of Tolkien's attention in the first place. Part of the answer is to be found in Tolkien's lifelong effort to undo the pernicious influence of Richard Wagner, whose "Ring of the Nibelungs" is the most influential art work of the past two hundreds years (and in my view also the most pernicious). Wagner plundered the ancient Norse and Germanic sagas in the service of a revived paganism. Tolkien by contrast set out to repurpose the old pagan stories to make them a sounder foundation for the Christianity that would succeed them.

In Wagner's pageant of gods and heroes, the aristocracy (the gods) establish their rule by treaties (covenants). But in order to maintain their rule they must hire the Giants (capital and labor) to build their fortress Valhalla, and steal the cursed gold of the Nibelung dwarves (the Jews). Wagner made clear in his writings and correspondence that the nasty Nibelungen were the Jews, whom he really, really hated. In one of his last writings he claims that the point of the Eucharist is to purge the communicant of pollutants to Aryan blood, in particular to remove the stain of Jewish blood from Jesus himself.  Wagner stole the plot of his breakthrough opera "The Flying Dutchman" from one Jew (Heinrich Heine) and its musical portrayal of the sea from another Jew (Felix Mendelssohn), and then published a pamphlet alleging that Jews could only imitate but not create new art.