J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy world is a medieval utopia with poverty and oppression airbrushed out of the picture. But Tolkien’s work also contains a romantic critique of industrial capitalism that is an important part of its vast popular appeal.
The One Ring shown on a page from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. (Zanastardust / Wikimedia Commons)
John Molyneux, who died suddenly at the end of last year, was a veteran socialist activist in Britain and Ireland, and the author of many books and articles about Marxist politics. He was also a prolific writer on the subject of artists like Michelangelo and Rembrandt. In this essay, first published in 2010, Molyneux discussed the fantasy world of J. R. R Tolkien and tried to account for the popular appeal of his books to countless readers (including Molyneux himself, who was clearly a huge fan).
The writings of J. R. R. Tolkien might seem a somewhat unusual subject for Marxist analysis, and indeed for me. I usually write about visual art or politics rather than literature, and when Marxists write about literature they are more likely to focus on issues of method, or on figures from the canon of high culture (William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy), or modernism (Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett), or with avowed radical politics (Maxim Gorky, Bertolt Brecht, Seán O’Casey, John Steinbeck).
Tolkien fits none of these categories. Indeed he is a writer to whom many Marxists would take an instant dislike, who some would decline to read altogether (as not serious literature) or who, if they did like him, they might be slightly shamefaced about, almost as if they had a private taste for James Bond or Mills and Boon, for if Tolkien is not pulp fiction, he is not quite regarded as high culture either.
Nevertheless there already exists a small body of Marxist writing on Tolkien. Moreover there is a serious justification for writing seriously about Tolkien; namely, his exceptional popularity and the need to account for that popularity. The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy are among the highest-selling novels of all time, having sold hundreds of millions of copies, and the film adaptations based upon those books have also reached a vast audience.
Popularity on this scale means that the ideological content of this work is a factor of at least some significance in the consciousness of many millions of people, and thus worthy of analysis. Moreover this popularity bears with it a conundrum.
It is clear that Tolkien’s worldview is in many respects right-wing and reactionary, but if this is the case, how come his work is so popular? Is it despite or because of this reactionary outlook? Or what is the relation between Tolkien’s worldview and his audience?
Investigating, and hopefully resolving, this puzzle is one of the main aims of this essay. It also throws up a number of interesting points about history, ideology, and art.
When I refer to Tolkien’s worldview, I mean not his personal political opinions, but his outlook as embodied in his novels. Although personal opinions undoubtedly influenced the outlook of the novels, it is the latter, not the former, that matters. The latter has influenced many, many millions; the former are known only to a tiny minority. Moreover, that worldview is expressed primarily not in the details of the plot of either The Hobbit or The Lord of The Rings but in the overall vision of Middle Earth as an imagined society.
Tolkien’s worldview is in many respects right-wing and reactionary, but if this is the case, how come his work is so popular?
The Lord of the Rings is not, in my opinion, an allegory. In this I concur with Tolkien who was most insistent on this point in the foreword to the Second Edition. Unlike, say, Animal Farm, which is manifestly an allegory for the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin, the story of the War of the Rings does not correspond to — and still less is it an elaborate code for — World War I, or World War II, or any other actual historical episode. The real history it most closely resembles is that of the Cold War, but we know that it was conceived long before the Cold War began.
The plot of The Lord of the Rings, therefore, is largely sui generis. The social relations of Middle Earth, however, are not and could not be. It is very easy to imagine futuristic technology — intergalactic spaceships, death stars, transporter beams and the like — and it is relatively easy to imagine strange nonexistent creatures — Orcs, Ents, insect people, Cactacae — but it is close to impossible to invent nonexistent social relations, and the social relations of Middle Earth are readily recognizable.
The reason the social relations of Middle Earth can be so easily recognized is that they are (with one important exception) essentially feudal. We do not live in a feudal society, but feudalism is the social order that immediately preceded capitalism in Europe, and that existed alongside capitalism in many parts of the world until well into the twentieth century.
Moreover, there still survive, even in the twenty-first century, hangovers of feudalism such as the British monarchy, aristocracy, and the House of Lords. In addition, feudal social relations permeate a large part of our classic literature (Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Beowulf), our mythology (the Arthurian legends, Robin Hood), and our children’s fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White).
According to Karl Marx, social relations correspond to a certain level of development of the forces of production (technology, plus labor, plus science). The productive forces of Middle Earth are resolutely medieval. Not only are they preindustrial, they are pre–early modern — no steam engines or power-driven machinery, no printing, no transport more advanced than the ship and the horse (except eagles in extremis), importantly no guns or cannon (the only explosions or fireworks are courtesy of wizardry or sorcery).
Actually very little attention is paid to production at all. It is clear that Middle Earth is overwhelmingly rural — Minas Tirith in Gondor is the only real city we encounter in the whole epic — and therefore it is more or less assumed that most people are farmers of some sort and not worthy of much mention.
A World of Hierarchy
Middle Earth is a world of kings and queens, princes and princesses, lords and ladies. The role of heredity and lineage — of what sociologists call ascribed (as opposed to achieved) status and what in everyday language would be called class — is absolutely overwhelming and completely taken for granted. Almost every single character’s social position and part in the story is determined, in the first instance, by their birth.
This applies from the very top to the very bottom, in small matters and large. Why, for example, is Sam Gamgee Frodo’s servant? It is not age — Merry and Pippin are young but from higher families in the Shire social order — it is class. Aragorn, not Boromir or Faramir, is destined to rule Gondor because he is the heir of Isildur, even though this was three thousand years ago, and he has ancestry stretching even further back to Earendil and the Elven kings of the First Age, whereas Boromir and Faramir are merely sons of a Steward.
The role of heredity and lineage is absolutely overwhelming and completely taken for granted in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
True, Aragorn has to prove himself and win his throne in many battles, but his leadership role is predestined. And Aragorn will love and wed Arwen, not Eowyn, because she is of matching birth — they are repeating the ancient union of Luthien and Beren. Eowyn, who originally loves Aragorn, instead marries Faramir, who is of roughly equivalent standing in the Middle Earth hierarchy.
At first glance, the central character of Gandalf may appear not to fit this mold in that his lineage is not spelt out in The Lord of the Rings, and that Saruman, not Gandalf, is at first cast as the senior wizard. Moreover, wizards do not seem to have a fixed position in the Middle Earth social order (compare the relatively lowly Radagast). But in The Silmarillion, the prequel to the saga of the Rings, which provides a creation myth for Middle Earth and tells the history of its First Age, this gap is filled.
Gandalf, we are told, was originally Olorin and a Maiar. The Maiar were the servants of the Valar, the Lords of Arda (guardians of creation made in the beginning by Iluvatar, the One) in Valinor, beyond the confines of the world. Gandalf is thus of higher lineage even than Elrond or Galadriel, but, interestingly, matches that of his two great foes, the Balrog in Moria — Balrogs were Maiar perverted by Melkor/Morgoth, the fallen Ainur/Valar and Great Enemy — and Sauron, Morgoth’s emissary, just as Frodo’s descent and social status match that of his nemesis Smeagol/Gollum.
At no point in The Lord of the Rings is this hierarchical social structure subject to any form of critique or challenge, either by an individual character or a collective group, or even implicitly by the logic of the narrative. The history of Middle Earth contains no Wat Tylers, John Lilburnes, or Tom Paines. On the contrary, acceptance of traditional and inherited authority is invariably a sign of “good” character, resistance to it a sign of siding, or potentially siding, with the enemy. For example, one of the things that marks Faramir as the “good” brother in contrast to Boromir is his more or less instant recognition and acceptance of Aragorn as his ruler.
Indeed, in a parallel with the Christian story of Lucifer, the fallen archangel, the origin of all evil in Tolkien’s world is the rebellion against authority of Melkor, the Ainur. In The Silmarillion it is told how at the beginning of creation, Iluvatar revealed to the Ainur a “mighty theme” of which they were to “make in harmony together a Great Music”:
But now Iluvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws. But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Iluvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.
From this act of insubordination flows all the misfortunes of Arda — the temptation of Feanor, the darkening of Valinor, the great war at the end of the First Age, the fall of Numenor, and the rise of Sauron. Thus from first to last Tolkien’s worldview is imbued with a deep-seated respect for traditional authority.
To add to this, there runs through the whole saga another hallmark of conservatism, namely the belief that things are not what they used to be, that the world is in decline, and that the old days were finer, nobler, more dignified, more heroic than the present. As Elrond puts it when recounting the mustering of the hosts of Gil-galad and Elendil for the assault on Sauron at the end of the Second Age:
I remember well the splendour of their banners . . . It recalled to me the glory of the Elder Days and the hosts of Beleriand, so many great princes and captains were assembled. And yet not so many, nor so fair, as when Thangorodrim was broken.
Finally, there is a view of fate, predestination and “the will of the Gods” that is not only premodern and pre-enlightenment but reminiscent of Ancient Greece and the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles. When, at the Council of Elrond, Frodo announces that he will undertake the task of taking the Ring to the Cracks of Doom, Elrond says: “I think this task is appointed for you, Frodo,” and indeed the whole episode has been foretold in lines which came to both Faramir and Boromir in dreams:
Seek for the Sword that was broken:
In Imladris it dwells
There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells.
There shall be shown a token
That Doom is near at hand,
For Isildur’s Bane shall waken,
And the Halfling forth shall stand.
Similarly, Smeagol/Gollum is fated “to play his part before the end” — an absolutely crucial part as it turns out — and the various acts of mercy that are shown to him by Gandalf, Aragorn, the Elves of Mirkwood, and Frodo himself all facilitate this predetermined destiny.
As in Greek tragedy, anyone who attempts to frustrate or avoid their fate on Middle Earth merely ends up contributing to its inevitable fulfilment.
Predictions and prophesies are scattered throughout the story, and they always come true. As in Greek tragedy, anyone who attempts to frustrate or avoid their fate merely ends up contributing to its inevitable fulfilment. This conception of fate turns out ultimately to be the will of God, for Tolkien’s whole vision is made clear by Iluvatar’s response to Melkor’s aforementioned original sin of musical innovation:
Then Iluvatar spoke, and he said: “Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Iluvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.”
This view of destiny is highly conservative because it both reflects the fact that human beings are not in control of their society or their own lives (in Marxist terms, alienated and dominated by the products of their own labor) and reinforces the idea that that they can never become so.
Was Tolkien Racist?
The world view that I have just analyzed was, give or take certain elements, by no means confined to Tolkien, but existed as a definite strand on the intellectual wing of British upper-class and middle-class culture. Other members of the literary group The Inklings (C. S. Lewis, Hugo Dyson) shared it to a degree, as did the likes of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. And within this outlook there was clearly a tendency towards racism — witness the antisemitism in Eliot and Pound.
This is partly because it contained elements, e.g. the emphasis on inherited characteristics and kinship, which leant themselves to racial views, and partly because, as a result particularly of imperialism, racist attitudes were endemic in the upper reaches of British society in Tolkien’s formative years. It is therefore necessary to pose the question of how much racism there is to be found in Tolkien’s work.
The answer, it seems to me, is not simple. On the one hand, the existence of different races with deeply ingrained physical and psychological characteristics is absolutely central to the story from beginning to end. In the course of the saga we meet elves, men, dwarves, hobbits, orcs, ents, and, marginally, trolls, all of whom are speaking peoples.
Of these the elves, especially the High Elves or Eldar, who have dwelt in the Undying Lands, are clearly in some sense “the highest,” i.e. the most refined, the “fairest” in Tolkien’s words, the most gifted in craft and learned in lore, the most farsighted, literally and figuratively, and, above all, they are “immortal” unless slain. They are by no means perfect, capable of both error and “sin,” and at various times are seduced by the wiles of Morgoth or Sauron, but, unless I am mistaken, no elf in the whole history of Arda ever actually joins the “dark side” and fights with the Enemy.
Men, by contrast, are mortal, less learned, much more various (with types ranging from Butterbur to Aragorn, Faramir to the Haradrim, and Denethor to the Wild Men of Druadan), more fertile and more numerous, and more morally ambiguous. The Numenorians under Ar- Pharazon attempted to make war on the Valar and the Undying Lands (in the Second Age) and in the War of the Ring, large numbers of men — Easterlings, Haradrim, etc. — fight with Sauron.
At no point in the entire narrative do we encounter an Orc who is anything other than a merciless enemy.
Dwarves are called by Tolkien “a race apart”: they were created not by Iluvatar but by the Valar Aule. They are shorter than elves or men, mortal but longer lived than most humans, and have definite behavioral and psychological characteristics: love of mountains, caves, mining, jewels, stonework. They are proud and jealous of their rights, sturdy and stiff-necked, and they fight with axes, not swords or bows.
Hobbits are of unknown origin (they don’t figure in The Silmarillion) but, of course, are small, jolly, tough underneath, etc. The Ents, the shepherds of the trees, were created at the request of the Valar Yavanna: they are treelike in appearance and strength and somewhat slow, though by no means stupid. Lastly, and crucially, there are the Orcs, who began (probably — Tolkien is not categorical on this) as elves imprisoned, enslaved, and corrupted by Melkor in his first stronghold of Utumno.
I say crucially because the Orcs became and remain all bad, utterly and universally evil, without any redeeming or mitigating qualities whatsoever. At no point in the entire narrative do we encounter an Orc who is anything other than a merciless enemy, and consequently at no point do we as readers feel anything for them other than delight in their defeat and slaughter. On the face of it, this is outright racism.
Orientalism on Middle Earth
And yet it doesn’t feel like it; nor is this a purely personal judgement. I know many people with a visceral hatred of racism, who would react with disgust to any manifestation of it, who nonetheless love The Lord of the Rings. And there are reasons for this. There are three main grounds for opposing, indeed hating racism:
The biological fact that different human races do not exist, that there is only one human race or species and therefore all racial prejudice, discrimination, and oppression involves not only stupidity but also inherent injustice. It fundamentally violates the humanity of those who are its victims.
The social and historical fact that racism, because it denies people’s essential humanity, is associated with, leads to, and is used to justify the most appalling treatment of human beings, the worst crimes against humanity (slavery, colonialism, genocide, apartheid and so on).
The specifically socialist argument that racism is used by ruling classes to divide and rule the oppressed and to provide scapegoats onto whom the anger of the oppressed can be diverted.
But if we examine Tolkien’s work in the light of these arguments, it can be seen that none of them quite applies. In the real world, racism is false and denies our common humanity, but in Tolkien’s imaginary world there really are different races. In the real world, racism leads to barbaric behavior, but in Tolkien’s story the narrative, and his disguised authorial voice, consistently opposes any gratuitous cruelty to or maltreatment of the weak, the defeated, or even the enemy.
Orcs are consistently killed, but the story is such that they are only encountered as enemies in battle. Within the terms of the story they are never imprisoned, enslaved, executed, or tortured, so the fact that they are seen as inherently evil (and within the terms of the story are inherently evil) does not lead to any especially barbaric behavior beyond the barbarism inherent in war.
Racism may be a ruling-class weapon in the class struggle to which socialists counterpose working-class unity, but in Tolkien’s world there is no class struggle. The struggle is between the free peoples and the enemy, and in this struggle Tolkien consistently advocates interracial unity: Aragorn, by lineage and behavior, epitomizes the unity of elves and men and, together with Gandalf, secures the unity of Rohan and Gondor; the friendship between Legolas and Gimli and Gimli’s adoration of Galadriel overcomes grievances between elves and dwarves that stretch back to the slaying of King Thingol in the dispute over the Nauglamir (the Necklace of the Dwarves containing a Silmaril) in the Elder Days; the Hobbits (Merry and Pippin) draw Treebeard and the Ents (and the Huorns) into the War, where they play a vital role in defeating the treacherous Saruman.
The saga is constructed throughout around a West/East dichotomy in which West is invariably identified with goodness and light and East with darkness and frequently evil.
Unfortunately, Tolkien does not get off this hook quite so easily. Three issues remain. The first — and I owe this point to China Miéville — is that Tolkien has, of course, chosen to imagine a world in which “races” with inherent racial characteristics “really” exist, and that is a definite political/ideological choice.
The second is the way the saga is constructed throughout around a West/East dichotomy in which West is invariably identified with goodness and light and East with darkness and frequently evil. In the uttermost west is located the seat of the gods and the blessed Aman or Undying Realm, and other locations are judged more or less fair in terms of their relation to this. In The Lord of the Rings Gondor is west, Mordor is east, and the force that marches against Mordor for the final battle on the Field of Cormallen are the “Men of the West” or the “Host of the West” led by the “Captains of the West.”
Sometimes this has been read as a reflection of the Cold War, but we know that the main lines of the story were formulated as early as World War I. Rather it is imperial “orientalism” (as famously analyzed by Edward Said) that is the influence here, and this undoubtedly contains serious elements of racism.
The third, linked to the first and second, is the characterization of the men of the east and south. In the war, the Easterlings and Southrons and Corsairs of Umbar (also from the far south) are allies of Sauron. This seems to be taken for granted as part of the natural order of things, not requiring any particular explanation. Nor are we offered any account or detailed description of these peoples.
Boromir, in his report to the Council of Elrond, refers to “the cruel Haradrim,” and again in the account of the Siege of Gondor we are told of “regiments from the South, Haradrim, cruel and tall,” and then offered this description: “Easterlings with axes, and Variags of Khand, Southrons in Scarlet, and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues.” The element of racist stereotyping here is clear. It is a minor element in the story as a whole, but it is there.
Taken together, these three points leave Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings guilty of racism but with mitigating circumstances, and the mitigation is such that for most readers, the racism will not be one of the reasons for the appeal of the book.
Gender and Sexuality
The question of sexism is, I think, much more straightforward, as one would expect given the near universality of sexism in the culture and literature preceding the 1970s. I will begin with a quotation about Dwarf women, from Appendix A to The Return of the King:
Dis was the daughter of Thrain II. She is the only dwarf-woman named in these histories. It was said by Gimli that there are few dwarf-women, probably no more than a third of the whole people. They seldom walk abroad except at great need. They are in voice and appearance, and in garb if they must go on a journey, so like to the dwarf-men that the eyes and ears of other peoples cannot tell them apart. This has given rise to the foolish opinion among Men that there are no dwarf-women, and that Dwarves “grow out of stone.”
It is because of the fewness of women among them that the kind of the dwarves increases slowly, and is in peril when they have no secure dwellings. For Dwarves take only one wife or husband each in their lives, and are jealous, as in all matters of their rights. The number of dwarf-men that marry is actually less than one-third. For not all the women take husbands: some desire none; some desire one that they cannot get, and so will have no other. As for the men, very many do not desire marriage, being engrossed in their crafts.
This situation of dwarf-women is only an extreme version of the overall situation of women in The Lord of the Rings — above all, they are distinguished by their absence. In the whole story, there are only three significant female characters — Arwen, Galadriel, and Eowyn, and of these Arwen remains very shadowy. In addition, I can think only of walk-on parts for Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, Rose Cotton, Goldberry (Tom Bombadil’s wife), and Ioreth, of whom Lobelia and Ioreth are part comic relief.
There are no women members of the Fellowship of the Ring, no Ent Women (though the past existence of Ent wives is acknowledged), and no Orc women. In The Hobbit to the best of my recall there is no woman character at all. In a way it is extraordinary.
Equally extraordinary in contemporary terms, though less extraordinary in the extremely prudish middle-class culture of prewar England, is the almost complete silence on matters of sex and sexuality. Bilbo and Frodo appear to live their entire lives in celibate bachelorhood (without the least concern). Elrond is at least four thousand years old before he marries, and it is then thirty-nine years before his sons are born and another 102 years before the birth of Arwen.
Aragorn is twenty when he falls in love with Arwen (who is about 2,500 and, we are told, a “maiden”), forty-nine when he and Arwen “plight their troth” in Lothlorien, and eighty-eight before they are able to marry, until which time we must presume he remains celibate. Now Aragorn has been told that he is due an exceptionally long lifespan (thrice that of ordinary men), but even so, it is something of a tall order. Boromir and Faramir are forty-one and thirty six respectively, but both still single, and so on. As Carl Freedman comments: “Through three thick volumes, there is, for example, hardly a single important instance of sexual desire.”
Tolkien’s sexism is of the old-fashioned, gentlemanly, ‘chivalrous’ kind, not the active misogyny found in Ian Fleming or Norman Mailer.
This combination of the rarity and absence of sex enables Tolkien to place his main female characters on very high pedestals. Galadriel and Arwen are both wondrously beautiful (“fair”), dignified, noble, and kind. Goldberry, though not developed as a character, is clearly cut from the same cloth. Eowyn, from a feminist standpoint the most interesting, is a kind of Joan of Arc figure, until she settles for regal domestic bliss with her second choice, Faramir.
Tolkien’s sexism is of the old-fashioned, gentlemanly, “chivalrous” kind, not the active misogyny found in Ian Fleming or Norman Mailer. There are no wicked women or femme fatales (unless you count Shelob, the female spider), and his very few key woman characters are certainly not weak or subservient.
Galadriel is clearly superior — wiser and stronger — to her husband Celeborn, and Eowyn is given one of the most dramatic and heroic moments in the whole of The Lord of the Rings, when, in a straight lift from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, she slays the Lord of the Nazgul. “Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!”, says the Nazgul as he stands over the fallen Theoden:
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear was like the ring of steel, “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you if you touch him.”
The issue of homophobia does not arise in Tolkien because, of course, there is no such thing as homosexuality in the imaginary world of Middle Earth.
A Medieval Utopia
We can now return to the question posed at the beginning of this essay, namely explaining how work based on such a conservative outlook has enjoyed such immense popularity. The question is more interesting because it does not seem to be popularity on a right-wing or conservative basis, in the way that the Bond novels and films appeal mainly to the macho male, or Agatha Christie murder mysteries appeal to middle-class nostalgia for the English village and mansion of yesteryear. Rather, a major constituent of Tolkien’s appeal, and what turned him into an international bestseller, was the “hippy” counterculture in America in the 1960s.
One obvious and tempting answer is simply to say that the “average” or typical reader is not interested in the kind of social and political issues discussed here but is simply swept along by the good writing and dramatic story line. In a sense this is obviously true, and good writing and gripping action are doubtless necessary conditions of the work’s success, but in themselves they are not a sufficient explanation.
A major constituent of Tolkien’s appeal, and what turned him into an international bestseller, was the ‘hippy’ counterculture in America in the 1960s.
The affection in which The Lord of the Rings is held by so many involves not just being gripped by the storyline but being “enchanted” or “inspired” by its vision and its values, and that “vision” and those “values” cannot be separated from the social relations in which they are embedded — even if the “average” reader is not aware of this in these terms. So how does a vision of a feudal society imbued with deeply conservative values — which in the real world, in a modern bourgeois-democratic society, would have practically zero political support — manage to exercise such an attraction?
First, because what we are presented with is a totally idealized feudal society. The most obvious and fundamental feature of feudalism and medieval society, namely its poverty and hence the poverty of most of its people, is simply airbrushed out. Even in the contemporary United States or Europe there is large-scale poverty, never mind Latin America, South Asia, Africa, or Europe in the Middle Ages, but not in Middle Earth.
Neither in the Shire, nor Rohan, nor Gondor, nor anywhere else, do we encounter ordinary, run-of-the-mill poverty. From time to time we come across “lowly” or “humble” people, such as Sam Gamgee and his Gaffer, or Beregond in Minas Tirith, but never anyone actually suffering privation. Nor do we find any of the concomitants of poverty such as squalor or disease or even grinding hard work. The real Middle Ages had the Black Death and numerous other plagues and famines. Nothing like this ever happens in Middle Earth, not in the ten thousand years of its Three Ages.
Average life expectancy in medieval Europe was about thirty years — it was so low because of the high infant mortality rate. Infant mortality was ever the scourge of the poor, and it remained high until well into the twentieth century. The infant mortality rate was well over 100 per 1,000 births in Victorian Britain and 150 per 1,000 worldwide in 1950. Today it is 5.5 per 1,000 in the United States, and 1.8 in Sweden, but 55 in Angola and 72 in Sierra Leone. No such problem exists in Tolkien world. Nor is there cholera or tuberculosis or cancer or heart attacks.
Crucially, also, there is no exploitation or systematic oppression or slavery, except where carried out by Morgoth, Sauron, or his agents and allies. The extreme moral bipolarity of Middle Earth (which I think is an important aesthetic weakness) is very useful here. Middle Earth is not a boringly happy utopia — on the contrary it is filled with danger and evil — but without Tolkien ever having to deal with any issues of social justice because all injustice and oppression is simply laid at the door of the Enemy.
A Very English Fantasy
Another factor in the appeal of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is that the entry point into this feudal world and our immediate point of identification throughout the saga is via the Hobbits — Bilbo and Frodo in particular — and the Shire (and not as it is in the much less popular Silmarillion, via the One, the Ainur, and the Eldar). The Shire, especially as it is first presented at the start of The Hobbit, exists within a feudal context — wizard and dwarves turn up at the door — but is not itself feudal. Here is the description of Bag End on page one of The Hobbit:
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats . . . No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes, (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining rooms, all were on the same floor . . . This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins.
This is not medieval or feudal: it is England, very definitely England — the name, Bag End, comes from the farmhouse in the tiny Worcestershire village of Dormston, in which Tolkien’s aunt lived — somewhere between the early-modern period of the Tudors (in terms of its technology and being before Oliver Cromwell) and the Cotswolds of Cider with Rosie, or even later, in terms of its coziness.
The Shire, especially as it is first presented at the start of The Hobbit, exists within a feudal context but is not itself feudal.
It is worth noting that although the Shire has a Thain (an Anglo-Saxon term), an office held by the chief member of the Took family, we are told that “the Thainship had ceased to be more than a nominal dignity” and “the only real official in the Shire at this date was the Mayor of Michel Delving (or of the Shire) who was elected every seven years.” I think this is the only example of such a modern and democratic notion as election in the saga, and significantly it is Sam who becomes mayor when he returns from the war.
Tolkien confirms this geographical/ historical location and his nostalgia for it in the foreword to the Second Edition:
It has been supposed by some that “The Scouring of the Shire” reflects the situation in England at the time when I was finishing my tale. It does not . . . It has indeed some basis in experience, though slender . . . The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten, in days when motor cars were rare objects (I had never seen one) and men were still building suburban railways.
The Shire, of course, is just as much an idealized image of rural England in the late nineteenth century (or any other time) as Middle Earth is of the Middle Ages: no enclosures, no hanging poachers, no Poor Laws, no Tolpuddle Martyrs, and so on.
But there is a further point, and it is the most important. This idealized view of the precapitalist or early capitalist past can form the basis for a critique of modern industrial capitalism. Marx refers to this in the not very well-known section of the Communist Manifesto on “Feudal Socialism”:
Owing to their historical position, it became the vocation of the aristocracies of France and England to write pamphlets against modern bourgeois society . . . In order to arouse sympathy, the aristocracy was obliged to lose sight, apparently, of its own interests, and to formulate their indictment against the bourgeoisie in the interest of the exploited working class alone. Thus, the aristocracy took their revenge by singing lampoons on their new masters and whispering in his ears sinister prophesies of coming catastrophe.
In this way arose feudal Socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon; half an echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty, and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.
Tolkien is not a “feudal socialist,” but he does favorably contrast the preindustrial past with the industrial present. Earlier in the Manifesto, Marx writes:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors,” and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment.” It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.
Tolkien runs this film backwards. From the world of “egotistical calculation” and “callous ‘cash payment,’” he harks back to the “feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’” and “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.”
A romantic anti-capitalist feudalizing tendency has been a substantial cultural force ever since the Industrial Revolution.
This is the real key to Tolkien’s mass appeal, including his appeal to Haight-Ashbury hippies. Because if one abstracts from the poverty, famine, disease, exploitation, oppression, etc., then the Middle Ages can be held up as a purer, nobler time than the dirty modern world of factories, pollution, profit, moneygrubbing, vulgar commercial interest, shoddy goods, advertising, and extreme alienation — and in some respects it was. In real life, in actual politics, this abstraction is completely impossible, of course, and what one ends with is either tragedy (Pol Pot) or farce (Colonel Blimp, New Age Druids) or some mixture of the two (Benito Mussolini, perhaps). But in fantasy, indeed in literature and art, it is perfectly possible.
Nor does this just apply to Tolkien. It is why a romantic anti-capitalist feudalizing tendency, leaning sometimes to the Left and sometimes to the Right, has been a substantial cultural force ever since the Industrial Revolution. Elements of it are present in William Blake (“England’s green and pleasant land” versus the “dark Satanic mills”) and the Romantic poets generally. It is explicit in the Pre-Raphaelites, and is mixed with socialism and Marxism in William Morris (who was a significant influence on Tolkien).
In Ireland, we find it in W. B. Yeats’s invocation of the Celtic Twilight. It is a significant component underlying the brilliant critique (and the disgust tinged with antisemitism) of T. S. Eliot’s most powerful poetry (“The Waste Land,” “Gerontion,” “The Hollow Men,” etc.). It probably receives its most extreme expression in the poetry, literary criticism, and politics of Ezra Pound, which combined affection for Anglo-Saxon, Ancient Chinese, and Troubador poetry with right-wing social credit economics (against usury and the bankers). Pound ended up broadcasting for Mussolini during World War II.
It is this, I believe, which explains why Eliot and Pound could write major poetry while being, respectively, an Anglo-Catholic royalist who thought the rot set in with the twelfth-century murder of Saint Thomas Becket, and a real fascist. It also explains why a conservative Catholic professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford could write books that have sold in the hundreds of millions.
I have not so far offered any aesthetic evaluation of Tolkien, as this was not the purpose of the article, but I am aware that such evaluation is one of the main things many readers look for in any such review of literary work. I am also aware that the analysis I have outlined does have evaluative implications; moreover, I think it is possible, likely even, that my analysis will be interpreted in unintended ways.
On the one hand, the diagnosis of Tolkien’s worldview as conservative, reactionary, and feudalist with an admixture of racism and sexism will be seen in some quarters as implying a strongly negative judgment on its literary merits. On the other hand, I suspect that my affection for the text, which is considerable, shows through and may be taken as signifying a very high estimation of Tolkien’s literary standing. Since my actual view lies between these poles, it seems advisable to conclude with a brief statement of it.
Tolkien is clearly the master of a particular genre of fantasy, but he is not a master of modern literature as a whole.
Like Leon Trotsky, who put the matter very clearly in his essay “Class and Art,” and Marx, judging by his fondness for Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Balzac, I do not think artistic merit or demerit can be read off from the artist’s progressive or reactionary ideology, even where that ideology is strongly embedded in the work.
For example, the evident fact that Rudyard Kipling, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats, William Faulkner, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline were right-wingers of one sort or another does not make them poor writers or necessarily inferior to say, William Morris, Robert Tressell, George Orwell, W. H. Auden, Upton Sinclair, and Edward Upward of the left. I do not even accept that the revolutionary implications of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” make it a greater poem than John Keats’s “escapist” “Ode to a Nightingale.”
However, I am in favor, as in this piece on Tolkien, of bringing out the political implications of work (whether progressive or reactionary), not pretending they don’t exist, and I think that sometimes it can be shown that an artist’s political stance substantially affects the quality of their work, either positively or negatively. For example, in general terms, a sexist novelist might be likely to have difficulty with creating powerful women characters, and, specifically, T. S. Eliot’s poetry was damaged by his antisemitic tendencies. On the other hand, Michelangelo’s sympathy with progressive republican forces in Renaissance Italy was a significant factor in the awesome tragic vision of his later years.
In relation to Tolkien, I have shown how his conservative “feudalism” lays the basis for his aesthetic appeal, when combined, of course, with his powerful imagination and strong narrative skills. But at the same time, it seriously limits Tolkien’s aesthetic achievement in two ways which are of fundamental importance in modern literature.
Firstly, it precludes the possibility of linguistic innovation. Much of the greatest modern literature, whether Eliot or Joyce, Kafka or Beckett, Brecht or Allen Ginsburg, Federico García Lorca or Harold Pinter, has been engaged in forging new ways of using the language, in “keeping it up” in dynamic tension with the evolution of spoken language, the so-called “vernacular” — in the same way that Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and others participated in the development of our collective means of visual expression. Tolkien was not, and did not wish to be, part of this.
Secondly, it is the task of modern literature and art to explore and confront the difficulty — the extreme difficulty, emotionally, morally, psychologically, economically, politically, etc. — of living in the modern world, a world of intense and complex alienation. Tolkien’s location of his narrative in the idealized feudal past means that he evades this task. He simply does not have to deal with modern social relations in the way that all the writers cited in the previous paragraph, and many others, do.
As Carl Freedman rightly says:
Middle Earth leaves out most of what makes us real human beings living in a real historical society . . . the great majority of the actual material interests — economic, political, ideological, sexual — that drive individuals and societies are silently erased.
This problem is compounded by the extreme moral bipolarity of Tolkien’s world, which is clearly derived from his conservative Christianity. From first to last, the history of Middle Earth and the wider history of all creation is dominated by a simple struggle between extra-human “good” and “evil.” It is true that this struggle goes on within a number of individuals — Denethor, Boromir, Smeagol/Gollum, Saruman, and Frodo himself are all examples — but it remains enormously oversimplified compared with the ambiguities, nuances, knots, complexities, tangles, and so on that characterize real life.
These weaknesses do not render Tolkien’s work unenjoyable or worthless. He is clearly the master of a particular genre of fantasy, which largely shares those weaknesses (though not wholly, as China Miéville’s trilogy set in the alternative present of New Crobuzon shows), but he is not a master of modern literature as a whole.Original post