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The Politics of Tolkien

April 28th, 2014 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

In 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.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).