British Fantasy and the Jewish Question, pt. 1

Tolkien’s dwarves, as has often been pointed out, are based on the Jews. While the band that shows up at the home of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit has roots in northern European sources such as the Poetic Edda, Tolkien also gives Thorin Oakenshield and company a story of exile and a powerful yearning to return to the homeland from which they were dispersed. Thorin recalls how the dwarves who survived Smaug’s devastation “sat and wept” by the side of the Lonely Mountain, echoing Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” He continues: “After that, we went away, and we have had to earn our livings as best we could up and down the lands.” The Jewish experience of diaspora, the persistence of Jewish memory, and the Jewish determination to win ancestral sovereignty once again—these resound in Tolkien’s portrayal of his dwarves.

In this, The Hobbit both continues and responds to a long tradition of British literary representations of Jews. From Charles Dickens’s Fagin to George Eliot’s Deronda, the major writers of nineteenth-century British literature produced both antisemitic and philosemitic works, and frequently engaged the so-called “Jewish Question” of how Jews ought (or ought not) to be incorporated into modern society and politics. Writers who produced and influenced fantasy engaged in these portrayals and questions, and so in this series I consider the “Jewish Question” as manifest in the development of British fantasy literature.

Part of this concerns, not fantasy literature, strictly speaking, but historical romance which, especially in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, nurtured modern fantasy’s medievalism and fascination with chivalry. British philosemitism is famously embodied in Scott’s novel Ivanhoe (1819), in the character of Rebecca. So admirable is she that Scott was compelled, in an introduction to a later edition of his novel, to justify his decision to have Ivanhoe marry his fellow Christian Rowena rather than the Jewish character as some readers wanted.

Rebecca’s bravery and loyalty throw into stark relief the injustice of anti-Jewish bigotry, and the novel, though set in medieval times, works fairly unambiguously as a brief for the political emancipation of Jews, who would not have full rights as citizens until later in the century. Ivanhoe is hardly free of anti-Jewish stereotype; Rebecca’s father Isaac is the familiar type of the greedy Jew. Yet Scott gives Isaac virtues as well, and moreover takes pains to argue that obsession with money is not intrinsic to Jews but an acquired habit necessary for this politically powerless group’s survival in a hostile Christian world.

Less noted is the novel’s consideration of the Jews as a nation with its own political ambitions. As I have discussed in another post, Rebecca challenges Ivanhoe’s dismissal of the Jews as a people incapable of chivalry. She draws a contrast between the bloodthirsty culture of Christendom as she finds it, and the possibility of a kind of “Jewish chivalry” in which the moral values Ivanhoe claims to uphold are put into actual political-military practice.

In doing so, Scott’s Rebecca gestures toward an ideal of a nation-state that weds military might with a code of moral justice. Scott seems to intend this as a universal ideal rather than an expectation of a Jewish state to come, though Rebecca hints at the possibility of a Jewish national rebirth when a “new Maccabeus” will arise to lead her people.

A historical romance that comments even more extensively on the political condition of present-day Jews is Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Leila, or the Seige of Granada (1838). (The image at the top is a detail from the first edition frontispiece.) This novel focuses on the Jew Almamen, and his daughter Leila during the final stages of the Christian reconquest of Spain in the late fifteenth century. Like Ivanhoe and other works of the period, it attempts to square the opposed conceptions of Jews as, on the one hand, a noble, Biblical warrior people, and, on the other, a devious and clannish commercial people.


Bulwer-Lytton’s anti-hero Almamen embodies the passions of Jewish nationalism under conditions of exile. As a boy, Almamen experiences the terror of minority powerlessness and anti-Jewish mania first-hand, witnessing his father hacked apart on orders of the Muslim king of Granada, “without other crime than his reputed riches; and his body literally cut open, to search for the jewels it was supposed he had swallowed.” Almamen draws the conclusion that, for a scattered minority, political power is essential.

Almamen is thought by superstitious Christians and Muslims to be a sorcerer, even as Bulwer-Lytton makes clear that his powers are not magical but derive from his own will and perceptiveness, as well as accoutrements such as artificial smoke effects. Like the Jews in Charles Maturin’s Melmoth, Almamen has his secret, subterranean “bat-cave,” with its gothic mix of the medieval and modern:

the rock yawned, and discovered a circular cavern, lighted with brazen lamps, and spread with hangings and cushions of thick furs. Upon rude and seemingly natural pillars of rock, various antique and rusty arms were suspended; in large niches were deposited scrolls, clasped and bound with iron; and a profusion of strange and uncouth instruments and machines (in which modern science might, perhaps, discover the tools of chemical invention) gave a magical and ominous aspect to the wild abode.

More importantly, Almamen is a once-in-a-lifetime political talent. His very physiognomy indicates his outisized abilities, and perhaps his flaws as well:

the forehead was broad, massive, and singularly high, and the dark eyes of unusual size and brilliancy; his beard, short, black, and glossy, curled upward, and concealed all the lower part of the face, save a firm, compressed, and resolute expression in the lips, which were large and full; the nose was high, aquiline, and well-shaped; and the whole character of the head (which was, for symmetry, on too large and gigantic a scale as proportioned to the form) was indicative of extraordinary energy and power. 

Under less impossible conditions Almamen might have been able to achieve political success, and provide his people with the security and dignity they lack. However, it is all Almamen can do to try to win some modest legal rights and protections for the Jews, a minority without territory or army, struggling for survival between the contending powers of Christendom and Islam.

Almamen must not only contend with external threats but with internal ones too, especially the the leadership class of his own people who worry that his political schemes are “impracticable and dangerous” and may interfere with their pursuit of money. Here Bulwer-Lytton gives voice to the familiar charge that Jews are greedy and degenerate, albeit as a result of political disabilities that cause them, short-sightedly, to channel all their energies into economic advancement. Almamen thanks God that he is not like most Jews, who are corrupted by their “avarice, that gnaws away from our whole race the heart, the soul, nay― the very form, of man!”

More crippling to his ambitions, Almamen is possessed by a consuming hatred and vengefulness, a result of long persecution. While this rage spurs Almamen toward some of his successes, it finally destroys him, especially as he turns his hatred towards his own people and even his own daughter when she embraces Christianity.

With its mix of philosemitic admiration and antisemitic stereotype, Bulwer-Lytton’s Almamen is a precursor to Tolkien’s dwarves and especially Thorin Oakenshield. Almamen is a nationalist who wants to restore political sovereignty to his people. He reveals himself as a dazzling and heroic battlefield warrior who strikes terror into his foes. But as his plans unravel due to external hatreds and internal betrayals, he descends into a tragic madness and is undone.

Coming up: Benjamin Disraeli’s Jewish fantasy novel

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