British Fantasy and the Jewish Question, pt. 3: From Late Victorian Fantasy to Tolkien

At least one major Victorian fantasy writer, George MacDonald, was at times quite warm toward the Jews, and a landmark of British literary philosemitism, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, was published in 1876. Nevertheless, among the writers of late Victorian fantastic fiction, negative stereotypes of Jews outweigh positive representations, a trend that continued into the twentieth-century.

Such portrayals reflect the prejudices of their time, especially fear and resentment regarding the economic role Jews were thought to play in England, South Africa, and world finance more generally, as well as uneasy awareness of the eruption of mass violence against Jews in the Russian empire, and the efforts of the incipient Zionist movement to seek a Jewish state. British political anxieties about imperial rule as well as spiritual anxieties regarding a disenchanted, post-Darwinian world preside over these portrayals, as we will see.

H. Rider Haggard (whose King Solomon’s Mines I discussed in a previous post) co-authored the 1890 novel The World’s Desire with his friend Andrew Lang, a scholar and historian best known today for his compilations of fairy tales for children. The World’s Desire, which was republished in 1972 as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, imagines Homer’s Odysseus traveling to a sorcerous Egypt during the period of the Biblical Exodus.

Haggard and Lang refer to the Israelites as the “Apura,” a term found in ancient Egyptian records and believed by some scholars to be a variant of the name “Hebrew.” The novel’s portrayal of the so-called Apura everywhere reflects contemporary anti-Jewish stereotypes, these Israelites distinguished by their greed, callousness, and raptor-like appearances. Moses and Aaron are described as follows: “Their faces were tawny, dry, wasted with desert wandering; their noses were hooked like eagles’ beaks, and their eyes were yellow as the eyes of lions.” Elsewhere, the Israelites are “dark men and women with keen black eyes and the features of birds of prey.”

A Ballantine Books edition of The World’s Desire

Haggard and Lang’s Exodus is not a story of liberation, but a sadistic exploitation of Egypt by Israel. Following the slaying of the first-born, we read how “the fierce-faced Apura, clamouring like gulls, tore the silver trinkets from the children of those of the baser sort, or the sacred amulets from the mummies of those who were laid out for burial.” Odysseus witnesses Apura women viciously mocking bereaved Egyptian mothers while taking their jewelry.

Of the Israelite departure from Egypt, Haggard and Lang write: “Now they are gone hissing curses on the land that bare them, and robbing those who nursed them up while they were yet a little people, as a mother nurses her child.” As Theodor Herzl did not publish The Jewish State until after Haggard and Lang wrote their novel, this is unlikely to be a slight against Jewish political independence specifically. Yet Eliot’s novel of Jewish national rebirth had already appeared, and the complaints of ingratitude and flight of Jewish capital are in any case resonant with imperial concerns in general.

Haggard comments further on the Jews, their nature and politics, in Pearl Maiden: A Tale of the Fall of Jerusalem (1903), a historical romance set in Roman Palestine and that employs the typology, made famous by Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, of the cruel and ugly Jewish father juxtaposed with the fair and compassionate Jewish daughter who embraces Christianity. Even the most positively portrayed Jew (apart from the daughter) in the novel, a young man named Caleb, is fundamentally limited and materialistic, obsessed with earthly power and therefore unable to comprehend the spiritual superiority of Christianity.

Caleb had hoped to lead a rebellion against the Romans and win independence for the Jews. But, writes Haggard, “Jew as he was, he could never be great nor fill his soul with the glory that it craved.” As in the Bulwer-Lytton novel discussed in an earlier post, Jews are capable of material acquisition (Caleb “had hidden money, which, after the gift of his race, he was able to turn to good account”) but are not suited for political sovereignty.

Mass violence against Jews in Russia during the pogroms of 1903-1906 was widely reported in the British press, and I surmise that this occasions the tentative reconsideration of the phenomenon of anti-Jewish prejudice that we find in Haggard’s 1911 novel Red Eve. Set in Europe during the Black Plague, Red Eve features a personification of death who guides the novel’s chivalric hero, Hugh de Cressi, across a violence-ravaged Europe a la Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal.

Mob violence against Jews is a feature of this journey. On his way to Avignon, Hugh witnesses “forty or fifty frenzied people, most of them drunk. . . engaged in burning a poor Jew. . . . When Hugh and his companions came upon the scene the Jew had already burned and this crowd of devils were preparing to cast his wife and children into the flames.” The ringleader of the mob accuses the Jews of being “wizards” and poisoning the town wells in order to bring about the plague, just as in a later episode Hugh and his squire are accused of being “sorcerers” and “English wizards” because they protect Jews.

Hugh intercedes and saves the wife and children, “two comely little girls of eight and six years of age.” The widow decides to accept Hugh’s protection and travel with him to Avignon, but first she takes her husband’s charred hand from the fire and throws it toward the town while “muttering curses.”

“What do you?” asked Hugh curiously.
“I pray, sir, to Jehovah, the God of the Jews, that for every grain of these ashes He may take a life in payment for that of my murdered husband, and I think that He will listen.” “Like enough,” answered Hugh, crossing himself, “but, woman, can you wonder that we Christians hold you sorcerers when we hear such prayers from your lips?”
She turned with a tragic motion, and, pointing to the bones of her husband smouldering in the fire, answered: “And can you wonder, sir, that we wretched creatures utter such prayers when you, our masters, do such deeds as this?”
“No,” answered Hugh, “I cannot. Let us be going from this shambles.”

What Christians take for evidence of Jewish sorcery (and is evidently a “custom” entirely of Haggard’s invention) is an expression of the Jewish wish for vengeance, which Hugh must admit is not unwarranted. Hugh’s squire is even more sympathetic, reflecting: “The Jews killed one Man who chanced to be a God, though they knew it not, and ever since the Christians have killed thousands of the Jews. Now, which is the most wicked, those Jews who killed the Man Who was a God, because He said He was a God, or those Christians who throw a man into a fire to burn before his wife’s and children’s eyes?”

Nevertheless, when Haggard returned to the Exodus in his 1918 novel Moon Of Israel: A Tale of the Exodus, he again portrays the Jews as “fierce-eyed and hook-nosed” fanatics, though at least their young women are “well-shaped and pleasant to behold” and their “children very beautiful.”

This late novel comments vituperatively on contemporary Jews and their Zionist aspirations. Haggard replaces Moses with an Egyptian prince named Seti who, with the beautiful Israelite Merapi, are presented as tolerant and open-minded in contrast to the cruelty of Egyptian empire on the one hand and the reflexive hostility of the Jews on the other. Seti would like to end the enslavement of the Israelites and let them go to their own country, but the Israelites do not recognize his good intentions, and at one point nearly kill him when he accidentally damages their tabernacle. “Surely you are a strange folk,” he says, “who seek to make an enemy of one who has tried to be your friend.”

Seti’s father, the Pharaoh, asks why these ungrateful Israelites should be allowed to leave Egypt merely “because of certain hardships that they have suffered in the past,” when those “hardships, however, have left them many and rich.” Seti agrees that “The way to a Hebrew’s heart is through treasure bags” and he characterizes the Israelites as “this sour folk who hate us,” though, he adds, “with reason.”

Another friend of Haggard’s, Rudyard Kipling, wrote his dislike of Jews into the 1906 children’s classic Puck of Pook’s Hill, in which the fairy of the title introduces a proper English boy and girl to the history of England, conjuring up medieval knights and Roman soldiers to tell their stories. The only unsympathetic figure in the whole pageant is the final speaker, a baleful and wild-eyed Wandering Jew named Kadmiel.

We learn that Kadmiel was indirectly responsible for the signing of the Magna Carta, but this is not intended to credit the Jews with the birth of English liberty. Instead, Kipling’s story has Kadmiel, motivated by greed, steal a treasure that might otherwise have filled out King John’s coffers so that the king wouldn’t have had to share power with the nobility.

On the one hand, Puck and the English children suggest that anti-Jewish persecution isn’t quite sporting. Yet the Jew is unpleasant and more alien than any other character in the book, human or fairy. Kipling drives the point home when he has a current-day Jewish parvenu ride by, pheasant hunting on his newly acquired estate.

Kadmiel: “We Jews dream so many dreams. You would never guess it to see us slink about the rubbish-heaps in our quarter; but at the day’s end—doors shut, candles lit—aha! then we became the Chosen again.” H. R. Millar illustration in the original edition of Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill.

Kipling furthermore appends his poem, “Song of the Fifth River,” to the tale. The poem tells how “dark Israel” since time immemorial was granted power to know the mysterious meanderings of the “Secret River of Gold” and its “thousand springs / That comfort the market-place, / Or sap the power of Kings.” As Kadmiel confirms, “we Jews know how the earth’s gold moves.”

1906 was also the year that Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet was published. This children’s fantasy is packed with the tropes of the late Victorian occult revival. Nesbit’s child protagonists perform an occult ritual with a “word of power,” the soul of an ancient Egyptian is reincarnated in a contemporary Englishman, the Theosophical Society is (humorously) referenced, and Atlantis is revealed as humanity’s ur-civilization.

English children meet the queen of Babylon in Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet.

One episode, in which the queen of ancient Babylon is magically transported to present-day London, is an opportunity for social satire (and was an inspiration for C. S. Lewis’s Jadis showing up in contemporary London in The Magician’s Nephew). When Nesbit’s queen, appalled by the conditions of the workers she sees (she assumes they are slaves), warns the English children accompanying her that their country is likely to have a revolt on its hands, this pointed exchange follows:   

            “Oh, no,” said Cyril; “you see they have votes—that makes them safe not to revolt. It makes all the difference. Father told me so.”
            “What is this vote?” asked the Queen. “Is it a charm? What do they do with it?”
            “I don’t know,” said the harassed Cyril; “it’s just a vote, that’s all! They don’t do anything particular with it.”
            “I see,” said the Queen; “a sort of plaything.”

Even more darkly, in the same episode the queen arrives at the London Stock Exchange where she notices the financiers with their “beautiful long, curved noses” and remarks that they would look more fitting “dressed like the Babylonians of my court.”

Her wish is magically granted, and the financial magnates, most with names such as Levinstein, Rosenbaum, and Cohen, and with immigrant accents to boot, are surprised to find themselves done up as oriental grandees. “I think it is chust a ver’ bad tream,” says Levinstein, who is even more dismayed to see that the working class people the queen mistook for slaves have been magically provided with food and drink. “‘All that goot food wasted,’ said old Mr Levinstein. ‘A bad tream—a bad tream.”

Nesbit’s mostly Jewish financiers are miserly and unfeeling, resenting the poor being fed. And they are alien. It is not only that they speak with accents, but that they are recognized by the Babylonian queen as semites attempting to pass themselves off as Englishmen. They ought not to be wearing English suits but rather “rings and armlets, flat gold collars and swords, and impossible looking head-dresses.”

Thus outfitted, they rage at the queen, and so she magically summons her imperial guard to slaughter them: “and there goes Lionel Cohen with his head off.” If magic subsequently brings them back to life, one still recognizes the murderous fantasy behind the whimsy.

“there goes Lionel Cohen with his head off.”
If magic subsequently brings Nesbit’s Jewish financiers back to life, one still recognizes the murderous fantasy behind the whimsy.

Nesbit’s conceit that Jews ought to be dressed as orientals anticipates G. K. Chesterton’s proposal in The New Jerusalem, his 1920 book on the Zionist movement and his trip to Palestine, that there be “one simple and sweeping law about Jews [in England], and no other . . . . that every Jew must be dressed like an Arab.” Chesterton rejected the liberal paradigm of Jewish assimilation and civic equality as unrealistic, and so proposed that Jews should be gotten up as bedouins, a policy that, he wrote, “applies to any Jew, and to our recovery of healthier relations with him. The point is that we should know where we are; and he would know where he is, which is in a foreign land.”

Chesteron’s antisemitism in The New Jerusalem clouds his usual contrarian wit and perceptiveness, as he indulges in pat and superficial typologies that fall well short of his aim of unembarrassed truth-telling about the Jewish place in England and England’s role in Mandate Palestine. Writing in 1920, he is evidently unconcerned that his sweeping reductions of Jews to oriental aliens amounts to a dehumanization that might justify eliminationist antisemitism. His defenders may find this more reflective of naivete than malice, but even a Chesterton-lover and questioner of liberal bromides like myself finds it pretty dismal.

Interestingly, the great modernist Yiddish and Hebrew poet Uri Zvi Grinberg used precisely this image to express his desire to leave a Europe that was slaughtering its Jews. In a Yiddish poem written in 1923, just before he emigrated to British Palestine, Grinberg wrote:

Dress me in a wide Arab abaya, throw a tallis on my shoulder,
Suddenly my poor blood is ablaze with the once-extinguished east.
Go on, take the dress coat and necktie and patent-leather shoes
That I purchased in Eu-r-rope.

Chesterton, without access to the newly resurrected Hebrew language or other key languages in which Jews were conducting their affairs, misses much of the positive reality on the ground in the yishuv (the Jewish state-in-the-making in Palestine) and which would bear fruit in the years to come. Yet he at least went to see things for himself, and sometimes the veils of his preconceptions and antipathies draw apart and he gets it just right:

I had expected many things of Jerusalem, but I had not expected this. I had expected to be disappointed with it as a place utterly profaned and fallen below its mission. I had expected to be awed by it; indeed I had expected to be frightened of it, as a place dedicated and even doomed by its mission. But I had never fancied that it would be possible to be fond of it; as one might be fond of a little walled town among the orchards of Normandy or the hop-fields of Kent.

J. R. R. Tolkien almost certainly read each of the English authors discussed above and in the previous two posts, and he was a particularly avid and admiring reader of Chesterton, Nesbit, and Haggard. As I began this series by noting, Tolkien’s dwarves are bound up with a history of perceptions and literary treatments of Jews, a tradition Tolkien sometimes conforms to but more often revises in sympathetic directions.[1]

It may therefore not be surprising that Tolkien’s dwarves are at times marked by the stereotypical trait of greed. More important, though, is that their noble qualities of faithfulness to home and independence and tradition are figured by Tolkien in material terms. If Tolkien’s elves are spiritual, his dwarves are carnal. “[W]e have never forgotten our stolen treasure,” says Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit, by which he means his people’s homeland and patrimony as much as the gems and metals that comprise the dragon’s stolen hoard.

On the one hand, this longing for the physical reflects the stereotype of greed and the Christian judgement of the Jews as a carnal people. Yet it also probes more sympathetically a feature of the Jewish national project that would be met with wariness and bafflement by many Christians, namely, that the Jews should want a literal, physical homeland, as opposed to Christian notions of a purely spiritual or heavenly Jerusalem. Like the Jews, Tolkien’s dwarves long for a tangible Zion.

One of Tolkien’s own illustrations of the Lonely Mountain. The featured image at the top is one of Tove Jansson’s illustrations for the Swedish edition of The Hobbit.

If Tolkien is stirred by this noble quest, he nevertheless also links what should be the happy return of the dwarves to their homeland with a measure of tragedy and war. I have already noted the resemblance of Thorin Oakenshield to the Jewish nationalist anti-hero of Bulwer-Lytton’s historical romance Leila. The toll of persecution and exile, plus the dwarven predisposition to avarice, drive Thorin toward a consuming miserliness and suspicion of the non-dwarven world. There may even be some resonance in this episode with the conflict between the desperately needed state-building project of the Jews in the dire 1930s, and increasingly anti-Zionist British policy during that decade.

I also think it possible that this part of The Hobbit has a loose imaginative connection with Tolkien’s South African provenance. The greatest treasure of the dwarves is the Arkenstone, a huge gem of unparalleled beauty discovered within the Lonely Mountain and then cut and shaped by the dwarves to be their precious heirloom. It is the loss of the Arkenstone and Thorin’s resulting madness that push the dwarves toward what seems an unncessary war.

Tolkien’s very early years in South Africa (he left at the age of three) was a time of increased Jewish immigration to South Africa and saw the emergence of several Jews among the region’s super-wealthy “Randlords” and mine owners. Tolkien was 13 when the largest diamond ever discovered was brought up from the Cullinan Mine in South Africa—not a Jewish-owned mine though the gem was cut by the Jewish diamond-cutting family of Asscher in Amsterdam.

None of this is to claim that Tolkien presents us with crude allegory, negative or positive, about either Jews or contemporary events, but rather that there are facets yet to consider of the complex interplay between his Middle Earth and ours.

As others have noted, the lowest point in what seems to be Tolkien’s meta-Jewish commentary, precisely because the tone indicates he is trying to be fair-minded, comes in The Hobbit when he remarks that “dwarves are not heroes, but 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 like Thorin and Company, if you don’t expect too much.”

But we ought not take this as a thinly veiled summation of Tolkien’s own thoughts on the Jews. For one thing, Tolkien also tells us in the book that it is precisely “the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic. . . a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves” that rouses Bilbo’s dormant sense of adventure, his urge to “wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.” Owen Dudley Edwards goes so far (perhaps too far) as to write that “Bilbo’s redemption from his dull, smug, complacent life by the dwarves is an eloquent metaphor for the impoverishment of western society without Jews.”

And, as Jeffrey Saks and Meir Soloveichik have each astutely discussed, such Jewish resonances become even more positive in The Lord of the Rings, where the noble character of the dwarf Gimli, his friendship with Legolas the elf, and his reverence for the elf-queen Galadriel, show Tolkien’s refashioning of the more negative notes in The Hobbit.

Certainly, the facile identity politics we see in much of academia and popular culture today is unable to take the measure, intellectually and humanly, of an achievement such as Tolkien’s legendarium (or much else). The simple fact is, as I know from reading The Hobbit to my children, that when Thorin Oakenshield breathes his last, we weep.

Coming up: the series concludes with Joan Aiken.


[1] Renée Vink cautions against assuming Jewish references in Tolkien where there are none in a helpful article, “‘Jewish’ Dwarves: Tolkien and Anti-Semitic Stereotyping.” I think Vink goes too far in missing the discursive forest for the individual trees, but this is an important corrective to some misapprehensions. That such assessments are so fraught has to do, I think, less with the outlook of any particular author or work, and more with our current “cancel culture” moment and its simplistic, crusading moralism.

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