The Shire and the Free Society

J  R  R Tolkien

Middle-earth is, in one sense, the story of struggle against inevitable decline. While the Ring is destroyed and a new age of peace is ushered in, there is nevertheless the palpable sense that it is a reprieve as much as a victory—that decline has been temporarily arrested but not halted. After all, Gondor in its replenished splendor under the King is still only an imitation of Númenor; the Elves, wise teachers of Men and lovers of beauty, must depart to the havens and sail westward, never to return. In the midst of triumphant joy there is deep and poignant sorrow.

Those subject to the aesthetic allure of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world and the particular beauty it evokes might easily be content with appreciating his peculiar “sub-creation” for what it primarily is: a story. But others interested in its broader thematic resonances may turn to two new interpretations of Tolkien’s fiction and find some reward. The Hobbit Party by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards and Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings: A Philosophy of War by Graham McAleer take up this rich theme of decline and consider it on the level of the ideological battleground of the 20th and 21st centuries. Here Tolkien features not as an antiquarian Oxford don looking back with regret at a pre-industrialized past, but a defender and critic of Western civilization, attempting through the mode of myth-making and storytelling to offer some cure for the more dangerous political and intellectual tendencies of our age.

The provocative (if rather blunt) subtitle of Witt and Richards’ book, The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot, expresses both its thematic interest and its mission. It is at once an interpretation and a political statement. For some readers who might recall Tolkien’s famous disavowal of any explicit political interpretation of The Lord of the Rings, the book might appear misplaced from the very beginning. But one of the chief virtues of The Hobbit Party is that, as the authors themselves have clearly been under the spell of Middle-earth, they are sensitive to its aesthetic qualities at the same time as they are able to read more general moral and political implications that naturally arise from them. As Christian interpreters with a reverence for tradition, for community, for “roots” as Tolkien might say, they offer a reading that usually feels genuine, running with rather than against the interpretative grain of the stories.

The political position that Witt and Richards take is familiar. Western civilization is in grave danger of losing sight of the fundamental values that it has inherited from a rich tradition and from which is drawn its unique vitality; it is “well on its way to a devil’s bargain with Saruman and his gang of ‘gatherers and sharers.’ ”

The corrupted Shire, so vividly described by Tolkien in the penultimate chapter of The Lord of the Rings, with its long lists of rules, its gangs of Shirrifs, cut-down trees, smoke stacks, and ugly brick buildings, is the spectral image of the modern administrative state with its “meddlesome regulations” and its tendency to sacrifice individual responsibility and freedom for a bland kind of hypocritical equality. More frightening still is Sauron’s totalitarian regime, replete with the Panopticon terror of “the Eye” and the will to enslave the free peoples of Middle-earth under one universal and homogeneous state of slavery: Hobbits, Men, Dwarves and Elves transmuted into Orcs.

As Witt and Richards put it:

The telescoping power of the fantasy genre foreground[s] the essential differences between the totalitarian and the free society . . . one is a landscape of fear and domination; the other is a place where exchanges and mutual endeavours are pursued freely and where needs not filled by markets are typically met through voluntary gift giving and receiving.

Each chapter takes up a different aspect of the freedom question and outlines its positive and negative manifestations in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Shire is the ideal model of a free society; with minimalistic government, its small inhabitants are free to farm and trade without interference from power either external or internal. Even after Aragorn is restored to his throne, the King abstains from entering the Shire out of respect for its autonomy.

By contrast, Lake Town (where Bilbo and the Dwarves find themselves after their adventures with the Wood Elves in The Hobbit) exhibits a more ambiguous kind of capitalism. Witt and Richards see nothing wrong with capitalism so long as it is moderated by virtue—the kind of trust, hospitality, and responsibility typified by Bard rather than the money-loving Master or the overbearing greed of Smaug and Thorin (at his worst). Such lessons (they suggest with an obvious dig at contemporary politics) would be well learnt by the “nanny state” that “bails out banks that ought to experience costs as well as benefits so that those leading them can develop the virtue of taking prudent risks.”

Freedom presupposes responsibility and hence individual choice. When Frodo is momentarily caught between the Voice and the Eye on Amon Hen at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, he must quickly decide whether he will succumb to temptation (as Saruman did) or persevere against the odds.

It also requires courage. The notion of a free society must be complimented by that of the Just War, which Witt and Richards trace to the doctrines of the Church Fathers. The emphasis on war in the Tolkien books broaches a middle ground between “realism,” where morality is disregarded in order to achieve victory at all costs, and pacifism, which rejects war regardless of the situation. These readings are, on the whole, appealing and Witt and Richards astutely combine political moderation with the need for individual virtue.

Nevertheless, The Hobbit Party is open to some possible reservations. There is a tendency to polarize ideas into blunt extremes: freedom and slavery, responsibility and the “nanny state,” free-will and deterministic materialism. Perhaps there is rhetorical force in such interpretative strategies but it risks alienating readers not already sympathetic to the political and theological position Witt and Richards have adopted.

It also risks missing some of the depth of Tolkien’s conceptions. Over the years, Middle-earth, with its goodies and baddies, has indeed irritated those critics whose modern sensibility cannot tolerate such absolute abstractions. But this is more a misreading than an accurate appraisal; Tolkien is subtler than he seems. If the Shire represents an ideal government, it is also worth keeping in mind the Hobbits’ (metaphorical) “smallness,” their parochial ways, their petty greed which seems, at least in part, to make them vulnerable to the machinations of a Saruman and (most tellingly perhaps) their fear of the sea. Arguably, this tendency also extends to the authors’ treatment of opposing critical perspectives which feels, at times, straw-manned, rather than convincingly dismissed.

Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings: A Philosophy of War is based on a similar premise to The Hobbit Party. Tolkien took aim at a “malformed” Western civilization and his stories are, in an important sense, a corrective: The Lord of the Rings “is not nostalgia, not a fable or a return to the past, but a modern criticism and, implicitly, a proposal.” This proposal is best considered, according to McAleer, through the unifying theme of war—not the particular wars of the 20th century, but the philosophical theory of war, notably espoused by three important Catholic philosophers of Tolkien’s day: Carl Schmitt, Max Scheler, and Aurel Kolnai. In its interests and its focus, the book is far more theoretically oriented and is therefore a rather different kettle of fish from The Hobbit Party.

War, argues McAleer, “stems from an attachment to land, the boundaries of which depend on sacred love, and express a civilization.” The particular connection to place in The Lord of the Rings is theorized by McAleer under Schmitt’s concept of political theology. Land is the focal point for society from which are derived particular customs, laws, and values of a community. Concomitant to this attachment to land is the friend-enemy distinction that Schmitt describes in terms of the “man ring”: a primeval ritual and “an elemental gesture of human life” where “persons foster face-to face communications in the man ring but also establish a boundary with their backs.”

In less theoretical terms, the borders of a country mark out a distinct culture as they preserve it against outside threats. It is the locus of “grace, privilege, distinction, hierarchy, a vigorous moral order, and a retributive attitude willing to defend these things.” On the other side, and threatening to destroy the “man ring,” are the forces of primitivism and vanity. The former is represented by the regimes of Sauron and Saruman, who “exercise power unreservedly over a docile mass society, undifferentiated, lacking style, manners and status.” In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron poses an existential threat to the Shire and the other free peoples of Middle-earth, desiring to be “sovereign over all, all bound inside one perverse man ring: not protection, but consumption.”

For McAleer, Tolkien not only offers a critique but a potential antidote—a “counter-vision” to the “civilizational exhaustion” that has resulted from capitalism. The idyllic government of the Shire presents a political model that serves as a counterpoint to the “totalizing identity” of the “bourgeois-capitalist economic ethos” populated by its “spiritual vampires.” Here McAleer draws on Scheler’s concept of the estate; the idea that people must be rooted to a particular land where centers of privilege can develop, and communities can generate values that are distinct to each locality. In Scheler’s words: “to know one’s estate is to be truly at home in the State, at home in the consciousness of firmly defined and assured lawful rights on which no one may trespass.” Tolkien thus advocates the social philosophy known as “distributism” (a notion which is incidentally rejected by Witt and Richards).

One consequence of the Hobbits’ adventures in The Lord of the Rings is the awareness that their home must be defended. Here McAleer traces Tolkien’s influences to the Just War tradition, propounded by Thomas Aquinas and the 16th century Spaniard, Francisco de Vitoria. Tolkien mediates between these doctrines that permit wars of humanitarian intervention, and Schmitt’s contention that war can only be waged if one state poses an existential threat to another (although in a particularly interesting discussion, McAleer carefully distances Tolkien from Schmitt’s darker links with fascism).

A further dimension to the justification of a moral war is the conception of an objective moral order embodied in Kolnai’s theory of “disgust reaction,” where disgust expresses “one of the deep layers of moral consensus.” McAleer applies this theory, perhaps less convincingly than his other readings, to The Lord of the Rings. The agents of Sauron and Saruman thus provoke disgust in the Hobbits just as Gandalf “avoids defilement” by placing the Ring in an envelope when Bilbo leaves Bag End. This intuition of a moral consensus provides one of the basic elements from which the protagonists can righteously pursue the final defeat of Sauron and Saruman.

McAleer’s book certainly goes far in the way of placing Tolkien in the context of 20th century Catholic philosophic thinking. Given that such thinkers are not widely known outside philosophic circles, this alone makes the book valuable, apart from the other virtues it contains. That said, more specific interpretations offered by the book can feel strained at times. Tolkien was certainly not in the habit of speaking (or identifying himself) in “isms” or in the technical language of 20th century philosophy, at least not in those letters where he is inclined (sometimes reluctantly) to unfold the meaning of his works. Nor does there seem to be much of a clue to this line of thinking in places where Tolkien presented a more formal theory of myth-making, such as his 1939 essay “On Faery Stories” where his interests center on the nature of poetic “sub-creation” rather than on a philosophical creed per se.

This is not in the least to deny McAleer’s basic point that a conscious set of philosophical ideas is implicit in the stories, but it does emphasize the interpretative risks inherent in applying such formal theories too zealously to Tolkien’s works.

As both books indicate in their separate ways, J.R.R. Tolkien was an ardent defender of the Western tradition. Part of his defense consisted in his diagnosis of the spiritual ills of the 20th century that quietly lies underneath the surface of the stories. On this score, the books are particularly insightful and there is much to be gained.

As for the more active part of his defense—what Tolkien really thought could be done in the wake of the profound social and intellectual upheavals he witnessed in his lifetime—this is more difficult to determine. Whether he was serious about a political vision such as distributism, as McAleer suggests, is open to debate. Yet it is surely true that his very act of “sub-creation”—endowing his little world with an intricate beauty borrowed from ages past—constitutes an act of defense of the very first order.

It is Bard the bowman aiming for the dragon’s heart in defense of his city. In Tolkien’s words:

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate,

that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;

that seek no parley, and in guarded room,

though small and bare, upon a clumsy loom

weave tissues gilded by the far-off day

hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.