“The Battle of the Five Armies,” the final installment of “The Hobbit” film trilogy, opened last week, and online boards are buzzing with discussions of Peter Jackson’s casting decisions, his use or overuse of computer-generated imagery and what Middle-Earth’s creator, J.R.R. Tolkien, would have thought of the films. Geeky questions, to be sure, but for those who follow both Tolkien and politics, we suggest a still geekier line of inquiry: How would Tolkien vote? That is, what kind of political vision did the Oxford professor carry into his novels?
His wildly popular novels have, after all, shaped generations of followers, and are shot through with valuable insights about man and government that might not be obvious to a casual reader or fan of the movie versions. Tolkien’s political insights, moreover, are in danger of being lost and forgotten in the capitols of the West. Here, in other words, is a vein worth mining.
Hippies Love Hobbits, But Did Tolkien Love Big Government?
The traditional, church-going Tolkien was bemused to learn that many of his first American fans were pot-smoking, free-loving hippies of the 1960s. In their defense, these hippies could point to hobbit hero Frodo Baggins going in for nonviolence near the end of “The Lord of the Rings,” and to the novelist’s love for trees and hatred of the ugly side of industrialism. Surely if Tolkien were alive today, the thinking goes, he would be a Prius-driving, organic smoothie-drinking, COEXIST bumper-sticker sporting liberal.
But what about all the stuff in his work about honor, chivalry, family, martial courage, and moral absolutes? Responding to these elements, some on the Left have dismissed Tolkien as a hopelessly old-fashioned dead white male conservative.
Both views can’t be right. Is the truth somewhere in the middle—Tolkien the soft-edged moderate? A tempting solution, but Tolkien’s political views were anything but moderate.
Tolkien Believed in Ordered Anarchy
An early hint of this can be found in the beloved homeland of the hobbits, the Shire. Her 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 geometric 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,’” we eventually learn. “Families for the most part managed their own affairs.”
Significantly, Tolkien once described himself as a hobbit “in all but size,” commenting in the same letter 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, Tolkien created a society after his own heart, one marked by minimal government, private charity, and a commitment to property rights and the rule of law.
The ‘Gatherers and Sharers’ of The Shire
This isn’t to say the Shire is without problems. Near the end of “The Lord of the Rings,” Frodo returns home after a quest to destroy a corrupting ring of absolute power. To his dismay, a gang of bossy outsiders has infiltrated the Shire, “gatherers and sharers . . . going around counting and measuring and taking off to storage,” supposedly “for fair distribution,” but what becomes of most of it is anyone’s guess.
Ugly new buildings are being thrown up, beautiful hobbit homes spoiled. And for all the effort to “spread the wealth around” (to borrow a phrase from our current president), the only thing that seems to be spreading is the gatherers’ power. It’s a critique of aesthetically impoverished urban development, to be sure. But conservatives and progressives alike also have seen in it a pointed critique of the modern, hyper-regulated nanny state.
As Hal Colebatch put it in the “Tolkien Encyclopedia,” the Shire’s joyless regime of bureaucratic rules and suffocating redistribution “owed much to the drabness, bleakness and bureaucratic regulation of postwar Britain under the Attlee labor Government.”
The Lonely Mountain vs. the Market
It’s true that “The Hobbit” movie opening this week features not only a greedy dragon but also a greedy businessman. If you assume capitalism is based on greed, then you might see in this a critique of economic freedom. But look more closely. The greedy dragon Smaug isn’t an entrepreneurial capitalist but a miser. He doesn’t risk and invest; he hoards.
As for the greedy businessman we meet when Bilbo and the dwarves reach Lake-town, notice that this businessman is also the mayor of Lake-town. He’s cronyism personified. He’s gamed the system to give himself artificial advantages in the marketplace—hardly the definition of a free economy. To his credit, Peter Jackson even teased this element of the story to the surface in the second of the three “Hobbit” films by having Bard the Bowman running afoul of the mayor’s toll-collecting goons.
In the final third of “The Hobbit,” greed and miserliness all but shut down trade and human flourishing in the river valley. When they are displaced by generosity and trust, thanks in no small measure to the courage and generosity of Bilbo and Gandalf, enterprise and trade expand in the river valley. Thus does Tolkien’s story capture what some have missed: the essence of a free and flourishing economy are not greed and selfishness but rather freedom, creativity, courage, and trust.
Tolkien Hated Big Brother
The intellectual establishment of Tolkien’s day hated God and loved Big Brother. The Catholic Tolkien loved God and hated Big Brother. Unlike the many self-appointed “radicals” in lockstep with the socialist spirit of his age, Tolkien was the true radical—the round peg in the square hole of modernity.
The issue of Tolkien’s political vision is rich and complex. We wrote a book to do it justice. But there’s a line running through all that nuance that isn’t the least complex, one we distilled in the title of its first chapter: “In a Hole in the Ground There Lived an Enemy of Big Government.”
How would Bilbo Baggins and his maker vote? For far smaller government, and tea and tobacco at four.