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The Hobbit Party: Tolkien and the Social Order

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 05, 2015

It is well-known even among non-Catholic readers that J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic and that his Catholicism deeply informed his fiction. Indeed, there is something of a cottage industry in Catholic interpretations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But Tolkien also had a unique vision of the social and political order, and fewer words have been devoted to finding political insights in Middle-Earth. Recently, however, Ignatius Press has published a book on the topic by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards, The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot.

In such books there is always the danger of didacticizing or allegorizing Tolkien, who famously hated allegory. Fortunately, Witt and Richards are well aware of this, and instead abide by the distinction Tolkien himself made between allegory and applicability, in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings:

I much prefer history [to allegory], true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse "applicability" with "allegory"; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

Liberty in Life, Literature and Law

Indeed, the theme of freedom vs. domination is one of the most obviously “applicable” ideas found in Tolkien’s work, and one of the few which has been preserved to a degree in Peter Jackson’s popular film adaptations. After all, the central problem of The Lord of the Rings is the Ring itself, an object of immense power which inevitably corrupts all who use it, even with good intentions.

The One Ring was created by Sauron for no other purpose than domination. It is instructive to compare the Ring to the three lesser rings possessed by Galadriel, Elrond and Gandalf. Gandalf’s ring, about which we know the most, is used to “rekindle hearts to the valour of old in a world that grows chill.” This is appropriate, for the purpose of the wizards, according to Tolkien, was to “train, advise, instruct, arouse the hearts and minds of those threatened by Sauron to a resistance with their own strengths; and not just to do the job for them.” In a letter, Tolkien wrote that “the supremely bad motive is (for this tale, since it is specifically about it) domination of other ‘free’ wills.”

As we have seen above in Tolkien’s critique of allegory, his distaste for domination is essential not just to the plot of his stories but to his literary theory. One thing Tolkien liked about literature is that of all the arts it allows its audience the most freedom. If a painter wants to depict bread, Tolkien noted, he must show a particular piece of bread that he has imagined, whereas the writer who writes “bread” gives the reader the universal idea of bread and the reader himself is free to “picture it in some form of his own.”

Tolkien’s political views, as revealed in his letters, went along the same lines. To his son Christopher he wrote: “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs).” He was naturally suspicious of those who think they can order society as they see fit: “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.”

Elsewhere we find another striking passage:

Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to ‘King George’s Council, Winston and his gang’, it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy.

The Shire, Land of the Free

We can easily find these ideals embodied in Tolkien’s sub-creation. If there is one place in Middle-Earth where Tolkien would have liked to live, it is certainly the Shire. Much has been made of Tolkien’s love of tradition and distaste for much of the modern technology brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Yet the Shire is hardly medieval; its inhabitants enjoy many modern innovations and customs characteristic of Western capitalism of the past century, such as cultivating and smoking tobacco, having afternoon tea, having the mail delivered, exact time-keeping, and friction matches.

More significantly, the Shire is exactly the sort of ideal society that would have been dreamed up by someone whose political opinions leaned “more and more to Anarchy.” It outdoes Western capitalism in one very significant respect; in Tolkien’s own words: “The Shire of this time had hardly any ‘government.’ Families for the most part managed their own affairs.” The little law enforcement the Shire has, the Shirriffs, concern themselves mostly with keeping stray animals from grazing on property that is not their owner’s – in other words, with protecting property rights.

The Shire clearly has smaller government and a freer market than most supposed “free economies” of the West today, and Witt and Richards contrast it with modern American society, which is beset by what Alexis de Tocqueville described as “petty, complicated, detailed” laws covering everything from cooking to driving to farming to education to children’s lemonade stands. Indeed, the implicit critique of power in Tolkien should not be limited merely to the obvious totalitarianism of twentieth-century Nazism or Communism, for Tolkien also detested the "soft totalitarianism" of the modern social-democratic state.

In Tolkien, the material most applicable to this manner of government comes at the end of The Lord of the Rings, in a chapter called “The Scouring of the Shire.” In a brilliant anticlimax missing from the film adaptations, Frodo and his hobbit companions return triumphantly after destroying the Ring and defeating Sauron, only to find that the corrupt wizard Saruman has taken over in their absence, and that the virtually non-existent government of the Shire has been transformed into an expanded police power with bureaucratic rules.

There are “Gatherers and sharers… going around counting and measuring and taking off to storage,” supposedly for the purpose of “fair distribution,” but there is a great deal of gathering and very little sharing; and as one hobbit ruefully notes, “They do more gathering than sharing, and we never see most of the stuff again.” Environmental destruction is wrought not by the owners of private property but by its violators. It is up to the returning heroes to set things right by expelling Saruman and deposing his thugs and petty tyrants, and they accomplish just that.

The Courteous Adventurer

In contrast to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who held that liberty is "Not the Daughter but the Mother of Order," Lord Acton wrote that "Liberty is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization." One especially illuminating aspect of The Hobbit Party is its attention to the customs and values, some seemingly insignificant, which provide the necessary soil in which liberty and prosperity can grow.

In particular, Witt and Richards find these values permeating the milieu of The Hobbit; they write that “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.” All of these have been strongly correlated with economic development; for example, societies which lack the value of punctuality tend to remain in poverty.

Civility, custom and hospitality are often lacking in our times. Formal manners, propriety and courtesy are often seen as snobbish or inauthentic, or a mere superficial veneer for the rich rather than the soil from which material and spiritual prosperity can emerge. Yet if Bilbo had not been courteous and welcoming to strangers, his adventure never would have happened.

These virtues also prove crucial to Bilbo’s role as diplomat and peacekeeper later in the novel. In contrast, the villains encountered in the early stages of Bilbo’s adventure – the trolls William, Bert and Tom, and the goblins in the mountain caves – are all characteristically impolite, inhospitable, “untidy and dirty.”

One interesting feature of The Hobbit is that Bilbo’s adventure is the result of a formal business contract:

Thorin and Company to Burglar Bilbo greeting! … Terms: cash on delivery, up to and not exceeding one fourteenth of total profits (if any); all traveling expenses guaranteed in any event; funeral expenses to be defrayed by us or our representatives, if occasion arises and the matter is not otherwise arranged for.

The famous riddle contest with Gollum is another contract. Bilbo wins with an unfair question (“What have I got in my pocket?”) in order to save his own life, but the narrator goes out of his way to note that “the riddle-game was sacred and of immense antiquity, and… that last question had not been a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws.” For Tolkien, that Bilbo had not played according to the rules was even important enough to be reiterated in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings.

Formality, diplomacy, good manners and abiding by one’s contract also comes into play when Gandalf seeks the aid and hospitality of the shape-shifter Beorn. Still later, when the dwarves are unjustly imprisoned by the Elvenking Thranduil, Bilbo is forced to steal food from the king’s larders as he goes about rescuing his friends. Morally, Bilbo is completely justified in this, for property rights are not so absolute as to outrank the need to preserve one’s life. Even here, though, the importance of respecting others' property is reinforced, as Bilbo later feels obligated to repay Thranduil for his “hospitality” out of his newly-won riches.

Tolkien and the Ideologues

These are just a few of the points brought up in The Hobbit Party. Two of the strongest chapters examine Tolkien’s relationship to various schools of thought that have attempted to claim him over the decades, such as environmentalism, Marxism and distributism. While acknowledging what they had in common, the authors show how far Tolkien ultimately was from these ideologies. The authors also examine the cultural and economic advantages and disadvantages of both localism and globalization in light of Tolkien’s work. Also covered are Tolkien’s insights on just war and the value of life, and his portrayal of commerce, aristocracy and the middle class.

In contrast with the above schools of thought, Witt and Richards are conscientiously faithful to Tolkien’s texts, and the insights they draw from these are, while sometimes surprising, never tendentious. The authors’ own political and economic perspective is present, but the connections drawn between theirs and Tolkien’s are typically plausible, and the two are clearly distinguished so as to avoid putting words in Tolkien’s mouth. It is a matter of finding common values rather than putting Tolkien in an ideological box. The authors also use Catholic social teaching to illumine Tolkien’s worldview further. All of this makes The Hobbit Party a generally reliable guide for those who wish to understand the vision of society which, in part, makes the tales of Middle-Earth so compelling.

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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