In Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series, Sauron, and characters allied with Sauron, are frequently associated with the colors red, yellow, and black. For example, here is a description of the Haradim -- a group of men allied with Sauron -- from The Two Towers.

They the are fierce. They have black eyes, and long black hair, and gold rings in their ears; yes, lots of beautiful gold. And some have red paint on their cheeks, and red cloaks; and their flags are red, and the tips of their spears; and they have round shields, yellow and black with big spikes. Not nice; very cruel wicked Men they look. Almost as bad as Orcs, and much bigger. Sméagol thinks they have come out of the South beyond the Great River’s end.

Another example: the eye of Sauron is described in The Fellowship of the Ring as "rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat’s, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothingness."

I could list more examples of this, but suffice it to say, the more you read the story, the more obvious this pattern becomes.

Is there a reason behind this?

  • It's probably pirates. – Helmar Jan 18 '17 at 19:38
  • Are these Orcs or Men (Easterlings, I'm thinking)? – HDE 226868 Jan 18 '17 at 19:43

This isn’t coincidental. In Margaret Sinex’s fantastic paper titled “Monsterized Saracens, Tolkien’s Haradrim, and Other Medieval ‘Fantasy Products’” (appearing in the 2010 Volume 7 edition of the Tolkien Studies journal), she notes how these colors were used by medieval Europeans to depict Jews.

To quote from Debra Strickland’s book Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art:

Both yellow and red are colors that feature consistently in pejorative images of Jews, and both colors had contemporary associations with criminals and other social undesirables including Jews themselves once they were forced to wear the yellow badge of infamy in certain regions.

Here’s an example of this from the Lorenzkirche (Church of St. Lawrence) in Germany. In this stained glass picture, several Jews are shown worshiping the golden calf (i.e. being idolatrous). Notice how one of the ways the figures are identified as Jewish is through their yellow hats and clothing. (For a more detailed analysis of this picture, consult Sinex’s paper or Strickland’s book).

Image of Jews with yellow hats and clothes worshiping the Golden Calf. There are also some red elements in the picture (a pair of pants, a hat)

Photograph by George P. Landow.

Tolkien was a medievalist, so this is yet another example of him incorporating medieval literature and art into his writing.

This answer was taken from my blog post on race in The Lord of the Rings. Although I stand by most of what I wrote in this blog post, I need to go back and revise it substantially.

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    What is the basis for picking this interpretation over other plausible ones?Is there any relation with the flag of Germany before and after nazism, or do you put that down to a coincidence? – Gilles Jan 18 '17 at 20:38
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    @Gilles if you think that this is related to the flag of Germany, feel free to write an answer saying so. However, I think my interpretation is much more plausible. Tolkien was a scholar who studied medieval Europe, and he incorporated this into his work. The Orcs and the men who serve Sauron represent racial categories, and it makes sense that Tolkien would borrow aspects of how race was portrayed in medieval Europe and incorporate it into his writing. (Although the way Tolkien portrays race in The Lord of the Rings is in many ways more reflective of modern ideas of race.) – user111 Jan 18 '17 at 20:51
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    You've got to be kidding me! Tolkien was absolutely against such interpretations of his work. He would never knowingly put such allegory. You could make a pile of nonsense interpretations of LoTR bigger then the book itself, but it wouldn't make them any better. – Mithoron Apr 24 '17 at 22:22
  • @Mithoron whether Tolkien personally is against an interpretation should have no bearing on whether that interpretation is correct. See literature.stackexchange.com/questions/2009/… and literature.stackexchange.com/questions/1016/… – user111 Apr 25 '17 at 11:09
  • Ok then. I choose to interpret your comment to mean that authorial intent is the absolute and only component of a text's meaning. Not what you meant? Tough. – Ne Mo Sep 4 '18 at 13:56

These colours are generally considered 'evil' and frequently are associated with evil characters.

  • Black is easy to explain. Humans have an instinctive fear of the dark, and blackness inbuilt since the time of the cavemen. Death can be found in the dark, so black is considered evil. For instance 'the dark side'

  • Red is associated with danger or poison. It is also similar to the colour of blood, associated with pain and death

  • Yellow is also considered evil, but not as often. It is also associated with gold, which in fantasy books, often leads to fights, fatalities, goblins or dragons. It can also be for danger.

So Tolkien is indirectly telling us that the orcs are evil.

  • I don't really think this is a satisfactory answer. While red, yellow, and black are sometimes associated with evil, this isn't a hard and fast rule. This answer would be stronger if you could explain, for example, why the colors are associated together. – user111 Jan 18 '17 at 19:46
  • @Hamlet okay I'll try and expand, I think that this is one of the main reasons though. – Beastly Gerbil Jan 18 '17 at 19:48

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