Orientalism in Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings was my favorite book and movie series growing up. I argue that the series is better than Star Wars and The Godfather by a large margin. That being said, I think all lovers of the trilogy should consider an orientalist perspective when experiencing the power of the one ring.

While it may not have been intentional, J.R.R. Tolkien created a world called “Middle Earth” that resembled a Eurocentric mindset. In Middle Earth, the west part of the map is filled with innocent white people (hobbits, elves, men, dwarves). The most extreme example is the snow-white elves. Further East in the map is Mordor where Mount Doom lies along with thousands of disgusting, uncivilized orcs.

Again, Tolkien most likely did not mean to hide a hate for the East in his books. However, the blatant contrast between the white westerners and orc easterners reflects a regional bias that may be prevalent among Europeans. Subconsciously, westerners may differentiate themselves from other regions, such as the East, based on race.

In the two biggest battles of the Lord of the Rings, there is a theme of everyone coming together in Middle Earth to defeat the orcs. The first battle is Helms Deep, where the men of Rohan are surprised by hundred of elves willing to fight along side them. Even though the idea is that two very different groups come together, both groups are still 100% white. Anyone who is not western is left out of the “good” alliance.

Tolkien had a clear lack of people of color in his book, but there is still no way I will try to cancel Lord of the Rings. But through this orientalist lens, we can see how a Eurocentric viewpoint can influence one of the greatest pieces of media in the last century.

Are Trump and Lear comparable?

Reading King Lear reminds us all of one “king:” former president Donald Trump.

Like Lear, Trump plays the victim more than he takes responsibility for his actions. Lear claims he is more “sinned against than sinning.” Similarly, Trump blames the “fake news” media for his own mistakes. Trump also uses derogatory words against women he disagrees with, calling some “pigs,” similar to how Lear refers to women he argues with as animals. Even their over-expressive language matches, with Trump claiming he is always the best (or “least racist person”) and Lear more or less forcing his daughters to exaggerate their love for him.

But even with all of their similarities, I think it is foolish to compare Trump and Lear when you take a step back. In fact, I think the two counter each other’s narrative.

Lear is a tragic character. He begins with power, and due to his own actions, loses what he once had. But with the other leader, Trump, he miraculously gained power, despite having all of the character flaws that Lear had.

Trump became the first president to have never had previous political or military experience. He went from a reality star to leader of the free world. If anything, Trump teaches us that diverging attention away from your own mistakes, having a problem with women in power, and being straight-up power-hungry can work, even in the 21st century.

Some would argue that we saw the fall, or the tragedy, of Trump in the 2020 election. But no matter how bad that election was for him or how bad he further ruins his reputation in the future, he still became president. He became the most powerful person in the world. Trump’s story is technically a comedy.

Character flaws in Shakespeare’s times, or at least in one of his plays, win in our era.

2,000 years in 9 minutes

In “Pyramids,” Frank Ocean shows how the power dynamic between Black and Europeans have shifted dramatically during Westernization through commentary from a Black male lover on a Black female lover in ancient Egypt and present day Las Vegas.

In the first part of the song, Ocean introduces “Cleopatra,” historically know as one of the most beautiful, important queens in world history. However, Cleopatra is not bathing in her lavish lifestyle. Instead, she is being chased, as there is “a thief out on the loose.” It appears that someone is trying to steal Cleopatra.

Later in the first part of the song, the speaker says, “I found you laying down with Samson and his full head of hair.” This line establishes that the speaker is a lover of Cleopatra and that he found her cheating on him. To further establish Cleopatra’s disloyalty, the speaker says, “Set the cheetah on the loose.” “Cheetah” can be heard as “cheater.” Furthermore, the line about Cleopatra cheating on her lover introduces the element of race. Samson, thought of as a white biblical figure, has stolen the queen of the black speaker. The speaker then says, “I found my black queen Cleopatra, bad dreams, Cleopatra.” To the speaker, Samson, or Europeans in general, has created nothing but “bad dreams” between him and his lover.

The next stanza, which can be identified in the song by a beat switch, mentions the speaker seeing the sun through the “motel blinds.” Instantly, we are in a modern era, 2,000 years detached from the first part of the song. To connect these two seemingly distinct parts, the speaker says, “Wake up to a girl/
For now, let’s call her Cleopatra, Cleopatra.” The speaker is still a Black lover, however, it can be inferred that Frank Ocean is the speaker himself. And similarly to the first part of the song, he loves a girl named Cleopatra.

Ocean describes this modern Cleopatra with her “lipstick,” “six-inch heels,” and “panties” to allude to the audience that Cleopatra is a stripper or sex worker. This description contrasts with the first part of the song. While Cleopatra was first the world’s most important, famous queen, her relationship with Samson, which can represent interaction with Europeans, has turned her into a low-status stripper.

To connect everything together, Ocean repeats the line, “She’s working at the pyramid tonight.” Ocean is referring to the “fake” pyramid in Las Vegas, not the real ones of Giza. This line confirms that Cleopatra is a stirpper or sex worker, but it also alludes to where Cleopatra, or black women, actually belong. Because Ocean shows a black woman working at a fake pyramid, it can be implied that he thinks she doesn’t actually belong, especially because she is still being referred to as Cleopatra. Cleopatra should be returned to her rightful pyramid where she is appreciated as a queen.

Purposely “off topic”

While “Exist West” is first set in an unnamed war-torn country, author Mohsin Hamid includes an excerpt about a scene in Australia. When the reader first reads this portion, it’s hard to make any sense of the characters’ actions and the section’s place in the story’s plot because it is not clear yet that characters can travel through doors. However, after reading the novel, the reader can find commentary on subjects such as migration and race.

When I first read the excerpt, like so many others, I did not think of the woman in bed as a migrant. But with Hamid’s details of her, it is clear that she is a migrant who is part of a “gentrification of this neighborhood” and used the previous owner’s “alarm only sporadically.” However, this woman’s migration is different than that of Saeed’s or Nadia’s because of choice. The woman in Australia has a tattoo, “birth control pills,” and some gum, all emphasizing a mood of choice and comfort. This is a contrast to the two main characters’ migration, as their migration is more about fleeing a dangerous area than simply choosing to move.

One reason why I may have thought of the woman as not a migrant is because of inescapable implicit-bias that we all have. Maybe if Hamid had not described her as “pale” over and over again, she would have appeared to be a migrant just like Saeed and Nadia.

Who keeps who colonized?

One power dynamic that is present in The Stranger is the relationship between Europeans (colonizers) and Arabs (the colonized). Throughout the novel, Meursault depicts the Arab characters as distant, skulking people by calling them simply “the Arabs.” Furthermore, not one character calls an Arab character by name, not even that of the Arab who is murdered by Meursault. This decision by Camus could reveal how a colonizing relationship between two countries can strip the colonized people of their identity and group them in a single description such as “Arabs.”

One scene in the novel that is hard to overlook when examining the book’s commentary on colonialism is Meursault’s initial jail scene. As Meursault enters the jail, “they (the Arabs) ask me what I was in for. I said I’d killed an Arab and they were all silent.” Again, Meursault does not refer to any of the Arabs by name, and he continues to group the individual Arabs into just a single group. But more importantly, the Arabs do not retaliate against Meursault, even though they have the physical power in the situation. This phenomenon hints that although the Arabs are being oppressed by their colonizers, they are also supporting the very power dynamic that oppresses them, whether it be intentional or not.

The Therapist

In Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger, the main character is portrayed as an emotionless, bland man who makes little human connections. However, multiple characters vent to Meursault about their problems or thoughts. For example, Raymond enters Meursault’s apartment to discuss his thoughts on his mistress. Similarly, Salamano goes to Meursault’s apartment after losing his dog and says, ”What’s going to happen to me?” (39). Also, Meursault’s boss discusses a plan of the business with Meursault because, “He (the boss) just wanted to have my opinion on the matter” (40-41). 

By the end of “Part 1,” it is clear to the reader that characters venting to Meursault is not a coincidence. Despite the potential issues of being emotionless, Meursault’s ability to listen to others’ is valued by three separate characters, making him a pseudo-therapist. Furthermore, these interactions reveal how people can be valued in relationships; the ability to genuinely listen to another person about things that are completely unrelated to one’s own life strengthens relationships. Meursault checks this box, despite him being portrayed as emotionless.