Tolkien on Liberty and Limited Government
Director Peter Jackson’s blockbuster Hobbit trilogy, like his three Lord of the Rings films before it, has brought a resurgence of interest in the fantasy novels of J. R. R. Tolkien. Of course, Jackson’s movies did not create the Tolkien juggernaut; they merely capitalized on it. Tolkien’s novels are two of the three most popular of all time (behind only Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities), and Tolkien, a towering academic figure in his day, has only grown in importance as a literary figure since he died some forty years ago.
Scholars have spent decades debating the literary and theological significance of his novels. There’s been less careful treatment of Tolkien’s political and economic thought, even though, as Tolkien commentator Joseph Pearce has put it, the longer novel’s “political significance” is “second only to the religious in its importance.”
Partial readings of Tolkien might lead one to conclude that he was a pacifist, a Luddite, or an environmentalist. For instance, the hobbit hero Frodo goes in for nonviolence near the end of The Lord of the Rings. Plus, Tolkien loved trees and a verdant countryside, and detested the ugly elements of industrialism. Surely if the Oxford don were alive today, the thinking goes, he would be a Prius-driving, organic-smoothie-drinking, coexist-bumper-sticker-sporting liberal.
But wait. What of all the stuff in his work about honor, chivalry, family, battlefield courage, and moral absolutes? Focusing on this, some on the Left have concluded that, no, Tolkien must have been an old-fashioned dead white male conservative who glorified war.
Both views can’t be right. Is the truth somewhere in the middle? Was Tolkien a soft-edged moderate?
This doesn’t sound right either. Tolkien was a moderate beer drinker and pipe smoker. But there was nothing moderate about his political views.
Rather than casting Tolkien in any of these molds, we think the better course is the inductive one: a careful study of what he wrote personally, and of what he presented in his fiction.
Hardly Any Government
The first hint in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit comes from the beloved homeland of the hobbits, the Shire. The pastoral villages have no department of unmotorized vehicles, no internal revenue service, no government official telling people who may and may not have laying hens in their backyards, no government schools lining up hobbit children in rows to teach regimented behavior and groupthink, no government-controlled currency, and no political institution even capable of collecting tariffs on foreign goods.
“The Shire at this time had hardly any ‘government,’ ” Tolkien wrote in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings. “Families for the most part managed their own affairs.” Indeed, the only visible police are the “shirriffs,” who don’t wear uniforms and focus mainly on returning stray animals. In other words, their primary job is to protect private property.
This is significant because Tolkien once described himself as a hobbit “in all but size,” and in the same letter commented that his “political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs).” As he explained, “The most improper job of any man, even saints, is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”
In the Shire, it seems, Tolkien created a society after his own heart.
Resistance to Tyranny
Near the end of The Lord of the Rings, Frodo, along with his friends Sam, Merry, and Pippin, returns home to discover that a group of bossy outsiders has infiltrated the Shire. The newcomers are “gatherers and sharers . . . going around counting and measuring and taking off to storage,” supposedly “for fair distribution,” but what becomes of most of the bounty is anyone’s guess. …