TOLKIEN’S WORLD – a Marxist Analysis
by John Molyneux, author of a number of works including most recently Anarchism: A Marxist Criticism
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 – Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy etc – or modernism – Kafka, Joyce. Beckett – or with avowed radical politics – Gorky, Brecht, O’Casey, Steinbeck etc. 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 shame -faced 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 including several articles in Historical Materialism
Volume 10, issue 4 ( Ishay Landa, ‘Slaves of the Ring: Tolkien’s Political Unconscious’, Ben Watson, ‘Fantasy and Judgement: Adorno, Tolkien, Burroughs’, Carl Freedman, ‘A Note on Marxism and Fantasy’). Moreover there is a serious justification for writing seriously about Tolkien; namely, his exceptional popularity and the need to account for that popularity.
This popularity is truly extraordinary. According to Wikipedia
, The Lord of the Rings
, with 150 million sales world wide, is the second best selling novel of all time (after Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities
with 200 million) and the seventh best selling book of any kind (after The Bible
, Mao’s Little Red Book
, The Qu’ran
, the Chinese Dictionary
etc). It has sold more than The Da Vinci Code
and The Catcher in the Rye
combined, five times as many as War and Peace
or To Kill a Mocking Bird
and fifteen times as many as Catch 22
. The Hobbit
, with 100 million sales, comes in fourth among novels and twelfth of all books. To this must be added the fact that The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
, with takings of $1,119,110,941, was the third highest grossing film of all time, after Avatar
, with The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
only just behind [see here
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 world view 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 the 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.
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 Forward to the Second Edition (The Fellowship of the Ring
, 1974 pp 8-9) 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 [still less is it an elaborate code for] the First World War, or The Second World War 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 non-existent creatures – Orcs, Ents, insect people, Cactacae,etc – but it is close to impossible to invent non-existent social relations and the social relations of Middle Earth are readily recognisable.
The World of Middle Earth.
The reason the social relations of Middle Earth are so easily recognised 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, Chaucer, Beowulf etc) of our mythology, (the Arthurian legends, Robin Hood etc) and our children’s fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White etc).
According to Marx social relations correspond to a certain level of development of the forces of production (technology, plus labour, plus science). The productive forces of Middle Earth are resolutely medieval. Not only are they pre- industrial, 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.
Middle Earth is a world of Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses, Lords and Ladies. The role of heridity 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, albeit this was 3000 years ago, and has ancestry stretching even further back to Earendil and the Elven kings of the First Age, whereas they are merely sons of a Steward. True, he 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 mould 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 matches 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.
, 1977, p.16)
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 [ my emphasis], as when Thangorodrim was broken’. (The Fellowship of the Ring
, 1974, p.233)
Finally there is a view of fate, predestination and ‘the will of the Gods’ that is not only pre-modern and pre-enlightment 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.
[The Fellowship of the Ring
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. 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. The centrality of this conception of fate, which 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 labour) and reinforces the idea that that they can never become so.
Racism and Sexism
The world view that I have just analysed 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 and middle class culture; other members of The Inklings (C S Lewis, Hugo Dyson etc) 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 anti-semitism 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, 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.
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 behavioural 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., and the Ents, the shepherds of the Trees, were created at the request of the Valar Yavanna: they are tree- like 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.
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. 1) 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. 2) 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).3) The specifically socialist argument that racism is used by ruling classes to divide and rule the oppressed and to provide scapegoats onto whom 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 behaviour, 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 seen as inherently evil (and within the terms of the story ARE inherently evil) does not lead to any especially barbaric behaviour 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 inter-racial unity: Aragorn, by lineage and behaviour, epitomises 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 (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.
Unfortunately Tolkien does not get off this hook quite so easily. Three issues remain. The first, and I owe this point to China Mieville, 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 the First World War. Rather it is imperial ‘orientalism’ (as famously analysed 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 characterisation 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 and not requiring of 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’(The Fellowship of the Ring
, p.236), and again in the account of the Siege of Gondor we are told of ‘regiments from the South, Haradrim, cruel and tall’ (The Return of the King, p.90) 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 Return of the King, p.121).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.
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 nineteen seventies. 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 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 pre-war 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 4000 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 2500 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 life span (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’ (Carl Freedman, ‘A Note on Marxism and Fantasy’ op.cit. p.263).
This combination of 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 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 Return of the King
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.
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 the 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 part of Tolkien’s appeal, and what turned him into an international best seller, was to the ‘hippy’ counter culture in America in the sixties.
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. The affection in which The Lord of the Rings
is held by so many involves not just being gripped by the story line 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 idealised 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 contemporary America or Europe there is large scale poverty, never mind Latin America, South Asia or 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 encounter ‘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 conconcomitants 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. I offer a couple of paragraphs from Wikipedia on famine in the Middle Ages ( it matters not whether the details are correct or not for the general picture is abundantly clear):
Famine in the Medieval European context meant that people died of starvation on a massive scale. As brutal as they were, famines were familiar occurrences in Medieval Europe. As an example, localized famines occurred in France during the fourteenth century in 1304, 1305, 1310, 1315–1317 (the Great Famine), 1330–1334, 1349–1351, 1358–1360, 1371, 1374–1375 and 1390. In England, the most prosperous kingdom affected by the Great Famine, years of famine included 1315–1317, 1321, 1351, and 1369. For most people there was often not enough to eat and life expectancy was relatively short since many children died. According to records of the British Royal family, the best off in society, the average life expectancy in 1276 was 35.28 years. Between 1301 and 1325 during the Great Famine it was 29.84 while between 1348-1375, during the Black Death and subsequent plagues, it went to 17.33.
The height of the famine was reached in 1317 as the wet weather hung on. Finally, in the summer the weather returned to its normal patterns. By now, however, people were so weakened by diseases such as pneumonia, bronchitis, tuberculosis, and other sicknesses, and so much of the seed stock had been eaten, that it was not until 1325 that the food supply returned to relatively normal conditions and the population began to increase again. Historians debate the toll but it is estimated that 10%-25% of the population of many cities and towns died. While the Black Death (1338–1375) would kill more, for many the Great Famine was worse. While the plague swept through an area in a matter of months, the Great Famine lingered for years, drawing out the suffering of those who would slowly starve to death and face cannibalism, child-murder and rampant crime
.[ from here
Nothing like this ever happens in Middle Earth, not in the 10,000 years of its Three Ages. Average life expectancy in medieval Europe was about 30 – it was so low because of the high infant mortality. 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 1000 births in Victorian Britain and 150 per 1000 worldwide in 1950. Today it is 6.3 per 1000 in the USA, and 2.75 in Sweden but 180 in Angola and 154 in Sierra Leone. No such problem exists in Tolkien world. Nor is there cholera or TB 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 bi-polarity 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, 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.
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 The Shire 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 1 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 [see here
] somewhere between the early modern period of the Tudors (in terms of its technology and being pre- Cromwell) and the Cotswolds of Cider with Rosie
, or even later, in terms of its cosiness. 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, ‘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’ (The Fellowship of the Ring
, p21, my emphasis). 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 Fellowship of the Ring
The Shire, of course, is just as much an idealised 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 idealised view of the pre-capitalist, 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 favourably contrast the pre-industrial past with the industrial present. Earlier in the Manifesto
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 fervour, 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’. 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, money grubbing, 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 ( 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 mixed with socialism and Marxism in William Morris (who was a significant influence on Tolkien). In Ireland we find it in Yeats’s invocation of the Celtic Twilight. It is a significant component underlying the brilliant critique (and the disgust tinged with anti-semitism) of T.S. Eliot’s most powerful poetry ( ‘The Waste Land’, ‘Gerontion’, ‘The Hollow Men’ etc) and 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) and ended up broadcasting for Mussolini in the Second World War.
It 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 murder of Thomas a Beckett, and a real fascist; and why a conservative Catholic Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford could write books that have sold in the tens of millions.
On Evaluating Tolkien
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 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.
Like Trotsky, who put the matter very clearly in ‘Class and Art’ (L.Trotsky, On Literature and Art
, Pathfinder, New York, 1977, pp 63-88), 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 Kipling, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Yeats, Faulkner and Celine 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 Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ make it a greater poem than Keats’ ‘escapist’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. However I am in favour, 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 anti-semitic 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.[See John Molyneux, ‘Michelangelo and human emancipation’
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.[ Carl Freedman’s condemnation of ‘the tedious flatness of much, though not all, of the prose’, (Carl Freedman, ‘A note on Marxism and Fantasy’, Historical Materialism
, Vol 10 Issue 4 p263) does not correspond to my experience of it ]. But at the same time it seriously limits Tolkien’s aesthetic achievement in two ways which are of fundamental importance in modern literature. First it precludes the possibility of linguistic innovation. Much of the greatest modern literature, whether Eliot or Joyce, Kafka or Beckett, Brecht or Ginsburg, Lorca or 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 Cezanne, Picasso, Kandinsky, Malevich, Mondrian, Ernst, Miro, Pollock, 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.
Second, it is the task of modern literature/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 idealised 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 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’. [Freedman op.cit p.263]. This problem is compounded by the extreme moral bi-polarity 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 Mieville’s trilogy set in the alternative present of New Crobuzon shows) but not a master of modern literature as a whole.
31 October , 2010
*I am well aware that citing Wikipedia is academically disapproved of but in this case it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether these figures are exact and I make no claim for their precise accuracy. They are merely indicative of the vast scale of Tolkien’s popularity and for this purpose Wikipedia seems perfectly adequate.
**Ishay Landa, in his aforementioned ‘Slaves of the Ring: Tolkien’s Political Unconscious’, rejects the term allegory but, in effect, argues that Tolkien’s work is an allegory for, or at least a reflection of, ‘ the crisis of capitalist property relations at the beginning of the twentieth century culminating in the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution’ (p.117). Tolkien, he argues, was ‘deeply aware of the calamitous consequences of imperialism, but at the same time was even more alarmed at the prospect of revolution,’ (p.117) . He sees the goblins/orcs (he quotes The Hobbit) as embodying ‘Tolkien’s underlying terror at the prospect of revolution’ (p.120) , but also that ‘The Ring’s essence is that of global expansion, of unlimited monopoly, of the unquenchable thirst for surplus value’ and that ‘the Ring is capitalism, mythically grasped’(p.124). I find this reading forced and unconvincing but a detailed critique of it would take me too far from the main theme of this article.
***Once again I have thought it reasonable and convenient to cite Wikipedia because nothing turns on the accuracy of the specific figures. It is simply an easy way of pointing up well known general conditions.
Labels: books, Marxism