The Politics of Tolkien

247842722_086d2515f8_zIn a recent interview with Rolling Stone George RR Martin had this to say about the differences between his work and that of JRR Tolkien.

A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly.Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I’ve tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don’t have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.”

To some degree, Martin’s point is well-taken. For all the detail of his worlds, Tolkien doesn’t often wade into the more prosaic details that some find so interesting. (Although I do suspect the rise of the wonk probably exacerbates this issue–few eras have been more obsessed with prosaic detail than our own.)

That said, I think he sells Tolkien a bit short as well. It’s actually not as hard to deduce Tolkien’s politics as is sometimes said. To take one example, consider Aragorn’s decree about the Shire after the Ring has been destroyed. He decrees that the Shire will be kept for the Hobbits alone, with no “Big People” being allowed in. In fact, Tolkien points out in one of the appendices that Aragorn himself never entered the Shire again after making that decree. That suggests that Tolkien believed a just king is a king who respects the way of life of other places and, as much as he can, attempts to protect it from outside forces, including himself.

Further evidence of Tolkien’s localism can be found in the Scouring of the Shire, which was regrettably excluded from the recent films. In the Scouring, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin return to find the Shire has been taken over by a boss who has holed up at Bag End and is passing all sorts of obnoxious, pointless Rules about food consumption, land use, architecture, and the like. The “scouring” referred to in the title refers to the eradication of that boss and all his rules and ruffians who enforce the rules. The just rules that govern life in the Shire are largely unwritten and are defined by the people themselves. They largely consist of not meddling where one shouldn’t, of respecting your neighbor’s rights to privacy and property, and dedicating yourself to sustaining the life and land of the Shire.

From those examples, I would conclude that Tolkien’s politics are basically the politics one expects of a staunch Catholic who affirms Rome’s teachings on subsidiarity. But there are other things that suggest this same sort of political structure. Consider the arch anti-industrialism of the Hobbits, Ents, and Elves. With one possible exception all of the heroes of The Lord of the Rings are more agrarian while nearly all the villains are industrialists–consider Treebeard’s comment that Saruman possesses “a mind of metal.”  The reason these industrialists are condemned by Tolkien is for their greed and ambition and how those vices drive them to destroy places that they cannot understand (largely due to those very vices). Saruman is condemned multiple times for his wanton destruction of Fangorn Forest, for example.

The one exception alluded to above is Tolkien’s extremely cautious endorsement of the Dwarves. Even here, the dwarves are at their best when they are acting as craftsmen, when their work in the mountains mirrors the Elves’ work in the woods–work that draws out the latent beauty of a place and delights the people living in the place. But even here Tolkien is leery of being too enthusiastic about the Dwarves, as any reader of The Hobbit well knows.

The account of the dwarves’ creation (found in The Silmarillion) is itself instructive–one of the lesser deities of Tolkien’s world creates the dwarves in secret against the wishes of Iluvatar. But when Iluvatar discovers their existence, he also recognizes that the lesser deity was not purposely being rebellious in the same way as the fallen deities. Instead, he was attempting in a faulty way to emulate Iluvatar himself. And so he spares them. Even so, one can often detect a bit of suspicion in Tolkien’s writing about dwarves. (Note that the dwarf spoken of in the loftiest terms by Tolkien is the dwarf who develops a love for the elves, Gimli. Amongst the dwarves, Gimli is the only one allowed into the Undying Lands in the west.)

There is a further point that is important to understanding the differences in Tolkien’s approach to politics. For Tolkien, political justice is less about using certain policies to produce certain social outcomes and is more about approximation to boundaries and definitions defined from outside creation. Tolkien believed that the very act of staying loyal to those boundaries will, more often than not, guarantee a reasonably just, equitable, healthy society. It won’t be perfect, of course, but it will be healthy enough that one can live a good life in the community. (Note that it’s not the king per se who guarantees a society’s health, contra Martin, but is rather the entire society’s relationship to given norms.)

The creation myth of Tolkien’s legendary world suggests this when it begins with the one great being, Eru Iluvatar singing the world into existence. Those creatures who are good in Tolkien’s world join the song by harmonizing with the music of Iluvatar. Those who are bad introduce their own music and attempt to draw others into it and away from the song of Iluvatar. So for Tolkien moral goodness, on both an individual and a social scale, is about living within the (benevolently) defined limitations ascribed by greater authorities than oneself.

More practically speaking, goodness in Tolkien revolves around ideals of honor, fidelity, and humility. For honor, consider the hierarchical nature of many of the communities in Middle Earth, as well as the harsh judgment of Saruman, who is (rightly) seen as failing to fulfill his calling as a Maia sent into Middle Earth to oppose Sauron. A good example of fidelity, of course, is the beloved character Samwise Gamgee. The necessity of humility is seen in Tolkien’s suspicions about ambition and the importance of understanding that one cannot rightly, justly wield the One Ring. The characters who go bad, generally, are ones who desire power beyond what has been given to them. The ones who stay good accept the limitations of their unique role in society.

Obviously one can quite reasonably say that such virtues are an inadequate basis for an industrial-era political society like our own. (This is one of the reasons that several close friends of mine roll their eyes whenever I start banging on about Wendell Berry.) And that’s a fair objection. What isn’t as helpful is doing what Martin seems to do, which is suggest that Tolkien doesn’t have a clear idea of what a just society looks like on a more practical level because he lazily assumes that a just king makes for a just world. That’s simply not true. The problem isn’t that Tolkien lacks a vision for political society that goes beyond asking “is the king good or bad?”

The problem is that his vision doesn’t map very well onto the world we live in today, which assumes industrialization on a foundational level as well as the near-absolute autonomy of the individual to define themselves in whatever way seems best to them. These assumptions undermine Tolkien’s agrarian, localist vision on such a fundamental level that it’s hard to even have a direct debate about the issues because the assumptions and values of the two sides are so utterly foreign to one another. (I’d recommend reading my friend Jose Mena’s piece in which he explains why Catholic social teaching is fundamentally incomprehensible to many Americans on this point. If the topic interests you, you can also read my piece looking at the shared vision of CS Lewis and Wendell Berry. The things that unite them are also, generally, characteristics of Tolkien’s thought as well.) That might limit Tolkien’s usefulness as a thinker–though I would argue that it doesn’t–but that’s a fundamentally different critique than the one Martin seems to be making.

  • Michael Hansen

    Wonderful piece! Having just finished The Silmarillion for the first time I even more of its importance in understanding Tolkien!

  • Rudy U Martinka

    You may be interested in King Solomon and the Meaning of Life for an added perspective.

    Regards and good will blogging

  • Nobody

    one can quite reasonably say that such virtues are an inadequate basis
    for an industrial-era political society like our own. – See more at:
    one can quite reasonably say that such virtues are an inadequate basis
    for an industrial-era political society like our own. – See more at:

  • Matthew Loftus

    There are certain limitations to Tolkien’s world that don’t map very well– GRRM brings up orcs, whose extinction (I guess) is morally permissible, whereas real life is made up mostly of Boromirs, Gimlis, and Sarumans.

    That said, I really like this piece and I hope it makes its way into the inevitable end-of-year Distributist roundups.

  • Samwise

    Though you present it in opposition to the quote above, your entire article illustrates Martin’s point.

    As you say, Tolkien’s politics are clearly evident in his storytelling. So much so that it’s effectively an editorial. It’s a moral fable where good succeeds because of “approximation to boundaries and definitions defined from outside creation.” “Outside” being the operative word.

    You have illustrated what Martin is saying– that Tolkien’s universe is simplified and unrealistic, and adheres to laws proscribed from an outside force– namely, the author.

    By contrast, Martin’s approach is to deliberately avoid moralizing. Doing good doesn’t always lead to good consequences. Good doesn’t always triumph over evil, and evil is a really tricky concept to pin down.

    • fantasywind

      Simplified and unrealistic really? Answer me Is Denethor strictly good or bad? Is Gollum strictly bad?
      I won’t bother explaining Tolkien did it for me:

      “In my story I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is
      such a thing, since that is Zero. I do not think that at any rate any
      ‘rational being’ is wholly evil.

      …In my story Sauron represents as near an approach to the wholly evil
      will as is possible. He had gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well,
      at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according
      to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic)
      well-being of other inhabitants of the Earth. But he went further than
      human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination, being in origin an
      immortal (angelic) spirit.’”

      “Some reviewers have called the whole thing simple-minded, just a plain
      fight between Good and Evil, with all the good just good, and the bad
      just bad. Pardonable, perhaps (though at least Boromir has been
      overlooked) in people in a hurry and with only a fragment to read and of
      course without the earlier-written but unpublished Elvish histories
      [The Silmarillion]. The Elves are not wholly good or in the right. Not
      so much because they had flirted with Sauron, as because with or without
      his assistance they were ’embalmers’. In their way the Men of Gondor
      were similar: a withering people whose only ‘hallows’ were their tombs.
      But in any case this is a tale about a war, and if war is allowed (at
      least as a topic and a setting) it is not much good complaining that all
      the people on one side are against those on the other. Not that I have
      made even this issue quite so simple: there are Saruman, and Denethor,
      and Boromir; and there are treacheries and strife even among the Orcs.
      [Besides], in this ‘mythology’ all the ‘angelic’ powers concerned with
      this world were capable of many degrees of error and failing, between
      the absolute Satanic rebellion and evil of Morgoth and his satellite
      Sauron, and the fainéance of some of the other higher powers or ‘gods’.
      The ‘wizards’ were not exempt. Indeed, being incarnate, they were more
      likely to stray, or err. Gandalf alone fully passes the tests, on a
      moral plane anyway (he makes mistakes of judgement). Since in the view
      of this tale and mythology, Power, when it dominates or seeks to
      dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason) is
      evil, these ‘wizards’ were incarnated in the life-forms of
      Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body.’

      ‘So I feel that the fiddle-faddle in reviews, and correspondence about
      them, as to whether my ‘good people’ were kind and merciful and gave
      quarter (in fact they do), or not, is quite beside the point. Some
      critics seem determined to represent me as a simple-minded adolescent,
      inspired with, say, a ‘With-the-flag-to-Pretoria’ spirit, and wilfully
      distort what is said in my tale. I have not that spirit, and it does not
      appear in the story. The figure of Denethor alone is enough to show
      this; but I have not made any of the peoples on the ‘right’ side,
      Hobbits, Rohirrim, Men of Dale or of Gondor, any better than men have
      been or are, or can be.”

  • Pingback: What was Tolkien’s political vision? | Tempora Christiana()

  • Ross Balmer

    Sounds to me like Aragorn believed in racial segregation. Jim Crow alive and well in Middle Earth.

    • fantasywind

      Then what about Bree-land: Men and Hobbits living mingled with each other?! What about Elves that lived in Ithilien a human land, under leadership of Legolas or Dwarves in white Mountains and working often in Rohan and Gondor, both human kingdoms? Shocking right, ughh.

      “In [King’s Elessar’s] time
      the City was made more fair than it had ever been, even in the days of
      its first glory; and it was filled with trees and with fountains, and
      its gates were wrought of mithril and steel, and its streets were paved with white marble; and the Folk of the Mountain laboured in it, and the Folk of the Wood rejoiced to come there..”
      Racial segregation pfff.