Antisemitism in Popular Fantasy Novels

By: Alana Drasnin

Ever since I was a small child, I’ve always been especially enamored with fantasy fiction. I love nothing more than to dive into a new world, one so different from our own. Within these wondrous worlds, I had never really noticed the hidden symbolism, pointing to anti-semitism, until I became older. Only over the past several years, have I seen the issue of antisemitism in popular literature being brought up. The main examples of fantasy fiction I’ve come across from the 20th and 21st centuries are the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, and The Lord of the Rings series and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein.

In Harry Potter, the goblins tick off many of the boxes for Jewish stereotypes. For example, they have large hooked noses, are greedy, and work in a bank. The toxic stereotype of all Jewish people being wealthy and money-hungry, is one that has been around for a long time and is thrown around quite frequently. It is used to justify hatred towards Jewish people and to villainize them. Jews are also often characterized as having distinct, large hooked noses. The purpose of this stereotype is to paint the Jewish people out to be disgusting and different. The fact that these stereotypes were weaved into a series that’s considered both YA and children’s is truly unsettling to me. Since J.K. Rowling is a known TERF, a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, and has included many racist stereotypes throughout her novels, her blatant antisemitism is sadly not as surprising as it should be.

Author J.R.R. Tolkein once said in an interview and various letters, about the dwarves he created for the Lord of the Rings series, “I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations…” and even, “[t]he Dwarves of course are quite obviously—couldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic.” In the series, the dwarves are known for being greedy and obsessed with accumulating all the jewels they can possibly find. This is even shown in the prequel, The Hobbit, through the elves’ dislike of the dwarves, due to their beliefs that the dwarves stole treasure from them once before. It’s also shown through the dismay of other characters, who know the main reason the dwarves have decided to embark on this journey is to reclaim their jewels. One could also say that the dragon, Smaug, is an example of antisemitic stereotypes, seeing as he’s especially greedy and could also be considered a reptile. The stereotype of Jewish people as controlling, greedy reptiles or “lizard people” is one that has existed for a long time and is extremely dehumanizing. 

Seeing as antisemitism continues to be on the rise, these popular works of fiction are even more alarming. These books have garnered such a vast amount of recognition, which means these stereotypes and prejudice are circulating further and reaching a larger audience. With more recent events over the past several years, like the white supremacist march in 2007, where the words “Jews will not replace us!” rang out through the streets, or threats of sexual assault towards Jewish women this past summer, from cars driving down Jewish neigbborhoods in London, England; this is truly concerning. This hatred and prejudice has always been there, but now more than ever, people are feeling more comfortable being open about it. Because of this, it is especially important to be mindful and more socially aware of what you see and hear.

As a Jewish person myself, there’s something so painful about knowing that the authors you once looked up to, view you as some disgusting creature and have only worked to promote and normalize this hatred. I am unable to open those books without that knowledge looming over my head. I hope that with this in mind, you will now have a better eye for picking up on not only antisemitism, but also prejudice, in popular fantasy novels.

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