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Politics

Tolkien wrote in November 1943 that: "My political opinions lean more and more towards Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) - or to "unconstitutional" Monarchy."

There is no indication that he ever departed much from this, and the good societies in his fiction tend to be either minimally governed like The Shire and Bree, or benevolent monarchies like Gondor, Rohan and the Elvish and Dwarvish kingdoms (The Shire and Bree are isolated remnants of the old North Kingdom of Arnor).

He went on in the same letter to express himself more forcibly: "I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights or mind) and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!"

Tolkien at times used the word "politics" in the sense of power-politics, as distinct from competing ideologies or value-systems. Thus he wrote that it seemed to him wrong to describe Frodo's quest as having a "political" motive, although part of its intended result was the overthrow of an evil empire. He wrote: "It seems clear to me that Frodo's duty was humane, not political. He naturally thought first of the Shire, since his roots were there, but the quest had as its objective not the preserving of this or that polity, such as the half-republic half-aristocracy of the Shire, but the liberation from an evil tyranny of all the 'humane' ... Denethor was tainted with mere politics ... it had become for him a prime motive to preserve the polity of Gondor, as it was, against another potentate, who had made himself stronger and was to be feared and opposed for that reason rather than because he was ruthless and wicked."

Political intrigue concerned with power rather than morality, and consequent in-fighting and civil war, had, at the time of the War of the Ring, desperately weakened Gondor and the West, as it previously helped destroy the Elf-realms in the Silmarillion (and as it helped destroy the Roman Empire and innumerable other real-world polities). Meanwhile, the "unconstitutional monarchy" to which he referred was presumably necessary for quick and enforceable decision-making, such as ordering the Muster of Rohan. Monarchical splendour, in good kings like Aragorn/Elessar and Theoden, provides a link with the Numinous, the noble, chivalrous and splendid, giving such good kings a role beyond just providing leadership, justice, command and generally setting a good example. The restoration of the Kingdom of Gondor is part of the best outcome possible.

Monarchs in Middle-Earth do make use of councillors (though Denethor, probably a sign of his growing megalomania, apparently does not). However, the only thing we see like a Parliament is the Entmoot, and that has some disadvantages since the lengthy discussions (this is emphasised more in the Peter Jackson film than the book) prevent the Ents from acting until nearly too late.

Tolkien did not appear to respect politicians much. He wrote in World War II: "If people were in the habit of referring to 'King George's council, Winston and his gang,' it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy." His tales were set in an ancient world before parliamentary democracy had evolved anyway. In December, 1943, while allied propaganda extolled Stalin as kindly "Uncle Joe," Tolkien referred to him at the Teheran conference of allied leaders as "that bloodthirsty old murderer Josef Stalin inviting all nations to join a happy family of folks devoted to the abolition of tyranny and intolerance! But I must also admit that in the photographs our little cherub W. S. C." [Winston Churchill] "actually looked the biggest ruffian present. Humph."

Metapolitics

"Politics" also has the "metapolitical" sense of competing ideologies with competing eschatological claims. Mordor is a totalitarian State, with Sauron demanding the honours of a god. For Tolkien this meant inevitably that the resultant order would be evil, even if Sauron had begun by meaning well. Tolkien wrote in 1956: "[E]ven if in desperation 'The West' had bred or hired hordes of orcs and had cruelly ravaged the lands of other men as allies of Sauron, or merely to prevent them from aiding him, their cause would still have been indefeasibly right. As does the cause of those who now oppose the State-God and Marshal This or That as its High Priest." Although The Lord of The Rings is not a direct allegory about the assault mounted on the West by totalitarianism in the 20th Century, what Tolkien called the applicability of its values to that situation is obvious.

However, despite Tolkien's denial of direct allegory, the Shire under the control of Saurman's bullies, who have initially called themselves "gatherers" and "sharers" may well remind some of the drab, bureaucratic Britain under the first post-war Labor Government with food-rationing, power-strikes and uncleared bomb-sites, known variously as the Age of Austerity and (by Evelyn Waugh) as The Attlee Terror.

The good side in The Lord of The Rings do not hope to build a perfect future, as Marx looked to a perfect society when Communism had been achieved and the State had withered away, or as Hitler looked to the Millennium Reich: if Sauron is defeated, new evils will certainly come, and moral issues will not change. Also, the good people have faults: the Elves are caught in hopeless nostalgia for the vanished past and are abandoning Middle-Earth anyway, the Dwarves can fall prey to "grudge and greed." Gondor is slowly fading, and Aragorn/Elessar's descendants as rulers will become mere "politicians" like Denethor. There is no Utopia to be made on Middle-Earth, and even the desire for it is not good.

The Shire is not a model of a perfect society. Though the inhabitants are essentially good people, they are insular, dangerously ignorant of the outside world, complacent and often dull, losing the memory of the "high and perilous." Religious consciousness by the time of The War of the Ring has become very distant and abstract, though the remnants of it are a saving grace (or, it might be said, religion and politics have come together, generally a sign of dire times).

The temptations of "Order" and "Power"

Saruman, when trying to suborn Gandalf, evokes values of "knowledge, rule, order." (Similarly, in Star Wars, Darth Vader when trying to suborn Luke Skywalker, promises: "Together we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the Galaxy.") The Ring tempts good people with visions of power to do good and bring "order." Such temptations are the first steps on the slippery slope to Totalitarian tyranny, which soon comes to see all dissent from the tyrant's vision as evil. In Christian terms, the attempt to set up a rival good to God leads straight to the rejection of God, with literally Hellish consequences.

Tolkien said of life in post-war Oxford: "I am not a 'socialist' in any sense - being adverse to 'planning' (as must be plain) most of all because the 'planners', when they acquire power, become so bad—but I would not say we had to suffer the malice of Sharkey and his Ruffians here. Though the spirit of 'Isengard', if not of Mordor, is always cropping up. The present design of destroying Oxford in order to accommodate motor-cars is a case. But our chief adversary is a member of a 'Tory' Government. But you could apply it anywhere these days."

Tolkien's understanding of politics is also illustrated by the fact that on more than one occasion during World War II he expressed compassion for individual, innocent Germans caught up in the war, and denounced collective hatred. In a letter to Christopher Tolkien of 30 January, 1945, he expressed pity for the German refugees pouring west to escape from the Russians, and was horrified that people in England were gloating at their plight: "There seem no bowels of mercy or compassion, no imagination, in this dark diabolic hour." He went on "Well, well—you and I can do nothing about it. And that shd. be a measure of the amount of guilt that can justly be assumed to attach to any member of a country who is not a member of its actual government." Tolkien was completely opposed to the Totalitarian notion of collective guilt in an enemy. In The Two Towers he has Sam contemplate a dead enemy warrior and wonder if he was really evil at heart or if had been forced to march against Gondor by threats and lies, an important scene reproduced in the Peter Jackson film.

The English political philosopher with whom Tolkien was most in harmony was probably Edmund Burke, a whig (ie "Liberal" in the old sense which included minimal government, not the modern American sense of left-wing and State-interventionist). Burke saw society as an organic whole, whose liberties and rights were to be cherished and whose faults were to be remedied with the utmost care, not a machine that could be torn down and re-jigged by radical social engineering (Burke compared this latter to attempting to cure the wounds of one's father by chopping the old man to pieces and throwing the pieces into a magician's cauldron). Burke was horrified by the totalitarian nature of the French Revolution, which he predicted would end in terror and dictatorship, but regarded rebellion against tyranny as an ancient "right." (The Orcs in The Lord of the Rings refer to the free people as "cursed rebels," which is presumably what Sauron had told them.) Like Tolkien, Burke rejected the doctrine of "collective guilt," stating he knew no way of drawing up an indictment against a whole people.

Coercive systems based on false premises about the nature of existence pointed straight to evil and disaster. When Pope John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus: "Not only is it wrong from an ethical point of view to disregard human nature, which is made for freedom, but in the long run it is impossible to do so," he might have been speaking for Tolkien as well as for Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.

Tolkien did not see any secular social system as answering all Man's needs on Earth, because Man was not ultimately created for Earth.

Hal GP Colebatch

Further Reading

Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1981);

Hal G. P. Colebatch, Return of the Heroes: The Lord of the rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter and Social Conflict (Cybereditions, Christchurch, New Zealand, 2003);

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit;

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of The Rings

See also Capitalism; Communism; Kingship

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