Problematic Classics: Four Questions to Ask When Beloved Books Haven’t Aged Well | Tor.com
Most of us who love speculative fiction run into this problem at some point. There are classics of the genre that are uncomfortable for various reasons. Some of them are straight-out racist, or unrepentantly misogynistic, or homophobic, or all of the above. How and why and when we come to these realizations can change depending on who we are, as well: I’m guessing none of my African American friends have come across the n-word in a novel and “not noticed,” even as kids. The fact that I hadn’t noticed or remembered the use of that word, even as a child, is a sign of my own privilege. And for all of us, regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, class, orientation, or other factors, there will be moments and experiences of growth and change throughout our lives—but the books we loved have stayed the same.
We can have a debate in the comments about whether Tolkien’s world is racist, but in general, if someone in Middle-earth has black skin (the Uruk-hai, at least some other orcs, the Southrons) or are described as “swarthy” (the Easterlings, the Dunlendings), then you better believe they’re going to be bad guys, with very few exceptions. Sure, there are plenty of white, non-swarthy bad guys, too, but it’s hard to escape the sense that it’s the people of color you need to keep an eye on, in these books. (Yes, I know Samwise sees a dead enemy soldier in The Two Towers and reflects on whether he might have been a good person who was lied to. This shows, I think, Tolkien’s empathy for people and desire to humanize and complicate the Haradrim and other dark-complexioned combatants, but this is one brief paragraph in a massive trilogy. It is the exception and not the rule.) C.S. Lewis’s Calormenes are similar in this respect, though at least we get Aravis and Emeth, who are good-hearted Calormenes. We had best not even get started on the work of H.P. Lovecraft, though.