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What We Can Learn About Freedom From ‘The Hobbit Party’


Like Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards, authors of “The Hobbit Party,” I discovered J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth in early adolescence. By the time I finished high school, I must have read the books (“The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) three or four times. In the 40 years since then, I’ve read the books on my own and with my kids at least twice as many times.

And don’t get me started on the various cinematic versions, from the early hokey animations—“Frodo of the nine fingers and the Ring of Doom”—to Peter Jackson’s monumental efforts. My son—now in college—insists that we binge on the LOTR movies at least once a year. I don’t object.

My experience, it turns out, isn’t all that unusual. Together, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy have sold roughly 250 million copies, the latter trailing only Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” among works of fiction. And the Peter Jackson movies have grossed over $5.8 billion worldwide, including more than $1.8 billion in the United States alone. To be sure, more than a handful of movies have done better at the box office, but, among movie series, only the “Star Wars” franchise seems to have attracted a larger audience.

Tolkien’s Subtle Economic Ideas

The enduring popularity of Tolkien’s Middle Earth testifies to the art and power of his story-telling. As Witt and Richards point out, it also represents a proverbial “teachable moment,” if only we stop to think both about the setting for the action and the inner lives of the characters. Our two authors, a literature scholar and economist, respectively, compellingly explain the lessons that Tolkien so artfully and subtly teaches.

Tolkien is subtle enough that most of us don’t notice what he’s teaching, but when Witt and Richards shine a light on it, the lesson is clear enough.

Consider, for a moment, the arrangement that frames all the adventures in “The Hobbit.” As our authors point out, “the central plot element of the novel [is] launched by a commercial bargain complete with shareholders, two scheduled meetings, a modest life insurance provision, a signed contract and—in good businesslike fashion—an emphasis on punctuality.” “Moreover,” they continue, “the adventure that unfolds from the initial contract at Bag End involves a sustained focus on custom, propriety, punctuality, property rights, the rule of law, and a capacity for trust that extends beyond family and clan.”

While hardly the first things most of us think about when we contemplate Middle Earth, these features of Tolkien’s narrative are indeed important, not just for the prospering of Thorin Oakenshield and Company, but also for any economic enterprise. Tolkien is subtle enough that most of us don’t notice what he’s teaching, but when Witt and Richards shine a light on it, the lesson is clear enough.

A Vision of Human Flourishing from Hobbits

The book also contains discussions of freedom, virtue, and responsibility (for my money, worth the cover price by itself), limited government, just-war theory, human enterprise and environmental stewardship, and love and death. Tolkien has clearly drunk deeply from and thought profoundly about the well of Western wisdom, beginning with the Bible and continuing through authors such as St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, and Adam Smith. His great gift was a capacity to build—or, in his language, “sub-create”—an imaginary world utilizing the sound construction materials these masters provide. In turn, that world provides a source of reflection for those who would contemplate it.

We learn, not from Tolkien’s pedantry, but by thinking about how his world works, what animates and motivates his characters, and what sorts of situations and conflicts they encounter. In this connection, “The Hobbit Party” is an indispensable guide, calling us to stop and think where we might otherwise have been inclined just to be carried along by the adventure.

Those who love the stories will find their reading enriched by “The Hobbit Party.” Parents looking for palatable ways to introduce their children to “The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot” (the subtitle) will find ample materials to guide discussions spurred by “The Hobbit” or “The Lord of the Rings.”

I can’t say that I’ll read “The Hobbit Party” as many times as I’ve read Tolkien’s works, but I do know that the next time I pick up Tolkien, I’ll see things—thanks to Witt and Richards—that I didn’t see the last time.