Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Jewish analogue to The Doors of Durin

It is well known to Tolkien scholars that the Dwarves were in some ways analogous to the Jews, both culturally and linguistically. Tolkien made this quite clear himself. He wrote in 1955: “I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews: at once native and alien in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue” (Letters, #176).

Near the end of his life, he repeated this idea in a 1971 interview with the BBC: “The dwarves of course are quite obviously — wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.” Like the Semitic languages, Khuzdul, the language of the Dwarves, seems to be based on triconsonantal roots. Even a cursory examination of the attested corpus is enough to demonstrate this, and others have said more than enough about it already (for example, this treatment; and see Magnus Åberg’s “An Analysis of Dwarvish” [1]). Tolkien, again, made this quite explicit: “The language of the Dwarves […] is Semitic in cast, leaning phonetically to Hebrew (as suits the Dwarvish character)” [2].

And lest anybody think that Tolkien considered this any kind of denigration, he put that notion firmly to rest with his responses to requests from a Nazi-era German publishing house to substantiate that he had no Jewish background before they would go forward with a German translation of The Hobbit. In 1938, he replied tetchily: “Do I suffer this impertinence because of the possession of a German name, or do their lunatic laws require a certificate of ‘arisch’ origin from all persons of all countries?” He goes on: “Personally I should be inclined to refuse to give any Bestätigung (although it happens that I can), and let a German translation go hang. In any case I should object strongly to any such declaration appearing in print. I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine” (Letters, #29; and see also #30).

So, what do I have to add to this? More than a year ago, a friend of mine was travelling in China and shared some photos (thank you, Russ Hanser!), one of which really caught my eye, as I am sure it will yours. I’ve been meaning to write about this ever since. So, take a moment to consider the following image. The similarities are pretty jaw-dropping, don’t you think?

In both cases, a gateway or door is formed with two pillars and an arch connecting them above. The pillars are both tree-woven, and there is a crown beneath the apex of the arch. In both cases, there is writing in a script which can be written as both a true alphabet and as an abjad. In Tolkien’s illustration of the Doors of Durin, there are also seven stars, a single many-rayed star, and a hammer and anvil, which are not to be seen in the other image. But you can see why this Jewish imagery got my attention. I have no reason to think Tolkien had ever seen anything like it, but the resemblance is pretty incredible. So what is this Jewish image?

It’s the parokhet in front of the aron ha-kodesh in a synagogue, or what used to be a synagogue. Sounds like Dwarvish? Okay, let me back up. And for any of my Jewish friends who find fault with the explanation to follow, please don’t hesitate to correct me. I know I’m venturing into unfamiliar religious territory here.

Synagogues contain a closet or chest in which the Torah scrolls reside. This is an imitation of the Ark of the Covenant. Normally, the Ark of the Torah (the aron ha-kodesh, or aron kodesh “holy ark”) is placed a few steps above the ground on the wall nearest Jerusalem. In front of the ark, an ornate and expensive curtain is usually hung. This is the parokhet “curtain” < Aramaic porokta, symbolizing the curtain covering the Ark of the Covenant (cf. Exodus 40:21). For a bit more detail, follow this link.

So, the imagery that is so similar to Tolkien’s is on the parokhet. One could ask, then, whether this is typical imagery, of the type Tolkien could possibly have seen. The answer is yes and no. Since discovering this particular example, I’ve looked at many, and while the crown and pillars are pretty universal, and the arch pretty common, the style of the imagery on the parokhet varies a lot. You can follow this link to see a number of different examples. Most will not remind you very much of Tolkien’s illustration. A few are close, but this one is amazingly similar.

Could Tolkien have seen it? Alas, no. This particular parokhet hangs in what used to be the Ohel Moshe Synagogue in Shanghai, China, built in 1927, located at 62 Changyang Road in the Hongkou District. It is no longer an active synagogue; today, it’s the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai took in 30,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust (learn more here). The parokhet was donated to the museum in 2009 by the Israeli consulate in Shanghai (details here).

It also seems unlikely that the influence ran in the other direction, with Tolkien’s image influencing this design. It seems to be a purely coincidental resemblance, albeit a very strong one. It could be that the general design of the traditional parokhet influenced Tolkien’s conception of the Doors of Durin, though even that seems very unlikely to me. Better to say it is just one of those strange but wonderful coincidences that sometimes arise in literature and life. (Never mind that the Hebrew letter daleth, D as in Durin, comes from the word and pictogram for “door”.)

The diaspora of the Dwarves cannot help but reminds us of the diaspora of the Jews. Are Hitler and Mussolini analogous to the great dragons of the north by comparison? Well, let’s remember that Tolkien was not consciously representing the two great wars of the twentieth century in his fiction. Though, as he said, applicability is still the prerogative of the reader [3].

[1] Åberg, Magnus. “An Analysis of Dwarvish.” Arda Philology 1 (2005) [The Proceedings of the First International Conference on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Invented Languages; Omentielva Minya; Stockholm, 2005]: 42–65.

[2] From a 1964 letter to W.R. Matthews, quoted in “Words, Phrases & Passages in The Lord of the Rings”, Parma Eldalamberon 17 (2007), p. 85.

[3] See the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings.


  1. That really is neat! Why don't you think it likely that the parokhet design influenced Tolkien?

  2. Hi, Aaron. Well, it’s possible, but most of the parokhet designs I’ve looked at aren’t quite so similar as this particular one, though many of them do have the columns, arches, and crown. And while we do know that Tolkien had some Jewish friends, there’s no direct evidence he attended services at a synagogue or ever studied Judaica. It’s possible, but not something we can substantiate just on the basis of these similarities. Intriguing, though, eh? :)

  3. My wife Sara is something of an art historian and she once told me that 'The Lord of the Rings' and even 'The Silmarillion' would must surely gain from a dissertation including the Arts & Crafts movement, William Morris etc.

    Tolkien was something of an artist (I am using all terms all fairly loosely, as you may notice :)) which Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond have shown in their wonderful books like "Tolkien - Artist & Illustrator" or "The Art of the Hobbit." However, even though quite some inspirations have been "dug up" full-fledged research into this has not been or has there, Jason? Please correct me on this.

    Although the similarity is truly striking (awesome find, by the way!) the architctural forms of the arc, trees as pillars and the crown as symbol of ownership and/or sovereignty are pretty universal ... There might be a manor somewhere in Oxfordshire with a Crown on the front door, a portico and ivy to grow around it .... :)

  4. The only thing I can think of is that maybe he saw a reproduction of a similar image in a book... Speaking of which, what happened to his library anyway? I suppose Christopher Tolkien has all the books. I'd love to see photos of that, if he'd ever release them...

  5. @Marcel: There is certainly more research to be done on Tolkien the artist. I’ve seen conference papers on the subject, but I don’t think a great deal has been published. I would agree that your wife is absolutely correct about William Morris, Arts and Crafts, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, etc. Turning back this particular case, you’re also right about the universality of some of these images, which is one of the reasons I haven’t attempted to argue any causal relationship! :)

    @Deniz: Tolkien’s personal library ended up in a number of different places. Douglas A. Anderson wrote a good, albeit short entry on the subject in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, pp. 361–2. From time to time, you see copies of books Tolkien owned come up for auction. Quite a few are in university collections, but a rather large number have basically been scattered to the four winds.

  6. I hope I come across a book or two someday!

  7. You and me both! I know of some for sale, but I’ve never had the funds. Some day, I hope. I’ve been lucky enough to handle some books Tolkien once owned, and that was really something!

  8. I know this is way off topic, being only connected by the theme of a secret doorway, but did you know there is a legend that Queen Boadicia fought her last battle not at Wattling Street as Tacitus writes but outside London in the place where Kings Cross station now stands (which for a time was called Battle Bridge, and here is the first link: in Khazad Dum a battle was also fought on a bridge). During the construction of the present station, an ancient graveyard was exhumed. Although there is no proven link to Boadicia, popular London legend identified hers as being one that was located between platforms 9 and 10. Well that's where Harry Potter comes in and his secret/hidden doorway, platform 9 3/4 separating the world of the muggles from the world of magic. Would JKR have known? It's too much of a coincidence, I think.

    Khazad Dum was also a tomb and at the same time the portal to another world. Quite a lot of the thematics in Harry Potter revolves around the deaths of people close to him, or happens in graveyards, not to mention Harry Potter's own survival as a baby of what would otherwise have been a certain death. So maybe death or graves have that magical quality. Okay, its all tenuous I know, but it's strange that nobody (at least as far as I know) has commented on it. Sorry if this doesn't make sense.

  9. I'll emphasize that this is just for fun :-)
    Take a look at this doorway - this is 33 Routh Road, Wandsworth, where the TCBS held their Council of London. Coincidence? I dare say it is ;-)

    Google map

  10. This is a fun catch!
    However, I'd like to suggest you look up Solomon's Temple, and more, the two pillars standing by its door, Boaz and Jachin.
    That is what I thought, the first time I beheld the Doors of Durin. :)