Tolkien’s Nuanced View of Government

Last December, Tolkien fans celebrated the 20th anniversary of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. In two recent essays on this site, media and cultural critic Titus Techera takes this opportunity to comment on both the films and the books from which they are drawn. Techera’s essays were particularly focused on Tolkien’s politics, and although Techera is a keen essayist, I believe he has underappreciated the complexity of Tolkien’s political views. In this essay I will offer an alternate reading, showing how Techera has misunderstood Tolkien’s views of both monarchy and democracy. 

The Films: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

First, some initial elementary observations about the films seem appropriate, though I am not myself a media critic. Techera has performed a good service in drawing our attention to their anniversary. The films have weathered two decades well, and their success gave rise to no less than three sequential Jackson films on The Hobbit. The momentum has continued with Jackson’s reverent documentary on World War I, They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) and most recently the insightful and self-restrained documentary on The Beatles, Get Back (2021). 

Jackson was an unlikely choice for such a massive (8 years) and expensive ($280 million) project as LOTR. His previous directorial work was in low-budget, “splatstick” horror films that combined comedy and gore. In his first full-length film, Bad Taste (1987), Jackson himself plays the character “Derek” who is introduced hungrily spooning the grey matter from a corpse. After more horror, Jackson gained a degree of mainstream recognition with his bio-drama Heavenly Creatures (1994) based on a notorious murder in Christchurch.

Jackson’s choice of his native country, as reflexive a decision as it might have been for him, was nonetheless brilliant. The Shire was constructed on the North Island and still remains standing as a tourist attraction.  The breathtaking scenery and epic battles take place on the South Island, most notably in the “Southern Alps.” As one might imagine, the filming has given rise to a cottage industry of tour companies who pack movie fans into large four-wheel-drive vehicles and bounce along to the various film venues. Superb as well is most of the casting: It seems impossible to improve upon, for example, Ian McKellan as Gandalf, Elijah Wood as Frodo, and Liv Tyler as Arwen. Interestingly, Russell Crowe was an early candidate for Aragorn, before Viggo Mortenson assumed the role.

The notable miscast is Welshman David Wenham as Faramir. Though Wenham performs the role competently, the character calls for a stronger bearing. Faramir is the subject of the all-important chapter in the book “The Window on the West” where, in several instances, he speaks for the author. More generally, as Tolkien’s grandson Simon perceptively noted, there was too much material crowded into the Lord of the Rings films, and too little material thinly stretched to create The Hobbit trilogy. The late Christopher Tolkien, Tolkien’s son and literary executor, had no use for the films at all. 

At points, the films are simply ugly. The orcs are excessive, and far too many of them are dismembered, beheaded, impaled, and otherwise mutilated. In this, Jackson is surely betraying Tolkien’s sensibilities. Jackson seems not to know the Tolkien who once warned C.S. Lewis that the latter’s attempt to parse the mind of the demonic in The Screwtape Letters was improper. If Jackson had indulged his horror film proclivities a bit less, there would have been room to include, for example, the most fascinating character in the book, Tom Bombadil, whose exclusion irritated Tolkien devotees the most, and rightfully so. 

No Return to Kingship

Techera seems to discuss the book more than the films, although it is not always clear when Techera is writing about one or the other. It can be difficult to decipher his broad generalizations about Tolkien’s politics. He writes, “The inclusive character of the fellowship, which is Tolkien’s basic idea of politics, the one to which he devotes most of his work, is evidence of divine love of all beings that have, if I may use the old-fashioned word, souls.” 

Techera claims that Jackson learned from Tolkien “the necessity of some kind of kingship.” America, moreover, because of growing divisions among the citizenry, and growing weaknesses of citizens themselves, is in need of “something like a kingship.”

Accordingly, Jackson the director (and Tolkien the author?) believe we need to overcome “our distrust of kingship” even if we might be “sacrificing our freedom” because we as citizens “might be turning cowardly,” given the “uncertainty of the future.” Accordingly, we need someone “who can withstand the enemy” by which Techera seems to mean cultural and political threats to a decent life. Moreover, it “goes without saying that a certain political wisdom is required of a king.” Techera insists, though, that when Jackson pursued this intent through the films, “we simply ignored what Jackson was showing us when it became uncomfortable, because at the time we thought we had the luxury to do so.” 

It is a misinterpretation of Tolkien’s work to assume that either Tolkien or Jackson advocated some monarchical political solution. After all, the heroes in the books are hobbits. If anything, Jackson seems to interpret Tolkien correctly in suggesting that a rejuvenation of the middle class is essential if we are to meet the challenges of our time. To be sure, Tolkien, rooted as he was in Aristotle and St. Thomas, appreciated the practical virtues of a monarchy, but he was by no means a monarchist.

It may seem that Tolkien promotes monarchy, given that the last third of the trilogy is entitled “Return of the King.” It is essential to note though that Aragorn’s coronation is not the culmination of the trilogy; rather, the destruction of the One Ring is the story’s climax. Aragorn doesn’t save the world. Depriving Sauron of his source of power is the political salvation of Middle Earth, and the heroic, self-sacrificial act of the Hobbits enables Aragorn’s reign. Aragorn’s elevation to his hereditary position is given precious little space in the book; it is confined to only eleven or twelve pages of the chapter “The Steward and the King,” and that includes observations on Aragorn’s actual reign.  

It is best to understand that the five chapters that follow the destruction of the One Ring, including the coronation, constitute a kind of epilogue to the saga. More to the point, Aragorn fades into the background after the brief royal ceremony in Chapter 5 of the final section. He appears only briefly in Chapter 6 (“Many Partings”) and then disappears entirely in the final three chapters of the epic, as the attention turns back to the hobbits.

Tolkien was self-consciously writing in the tradition of sagas in which the plot trajectory often leads to the victory of the hero, and the restoration of some fallen household. Those events would take place in a medieval context of some sort. It is a mistake to take Aragorn’s rule as a promotion of a monarchy which would apply to any political setting. It is especially problematic to apply that to the United States, which never had medieval kingdoms like those of European countries. Tolkien explained in no uncertain terms that his work should never be taken as analogy; rather, he wrote a myth. For him, this meant that the reader might identify principles and consider their applicability. Tolkien was critical of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia precisely because it is an unabashed analogy. Tolkien warned that although the series might have appeal to Christians it would have limited appeal beyond that audience, and in this, Tolkien was exactly right.

Democracy and Other Bad Forms of Government

To be sure, Tolkien’s view of democracy is finely layered. The Shire does represent a kind of primitive democracy, almost an anarchy. Tolkien admitted late in life–after serving in the infantry in WWI, anxiously seeing his son fly for the Royal Air Forces in WWII, witnessing the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and watching the rise of communism–that he had almost become an anarchist. He had seen the destructive potential of governments of all kinds. Understanding this, we see how odd it is to say that the Shire constitutes “as much democracy as possible,” whatever that might mean exactly. Tolkien identified personally with the Hobbits, but at the same time acknowledged the historical frailty of democracy, as well as the destructive tendencies of a self-governing people.

Techera asserts that because of Jackson’s “democratization” of the Lord of the Rings,  the director declined to “introduce Americans to the glories of old world aristocracy.” All this was done to “please his audience.” As evidence, Techera complains that, among other things, there is “too much joking around and too much self-doubt and too much ignorance in his vision of the fellowship, which conceals entirely—from an audience too willing to be deceived—the fact that they are beholding princes and kings, not their childhood best friends and crushes.” 

It is true that Tolkien had an Aristotelian respect for aristocracy. He was by no means an egalitarian, recognizing the natural, theoretical, and practical limits of equality. This is especially evident in the chapter “The Council of Elrond” in which the best and the brightest of Middle Earth convene to craft a plan to save their world. Although many chapters are omitted from Jackson’s film, this one is featured prominently—and beautifully—in the cinematic version. 

Jackson also adds a scene not found in the text when Arwen comes to Frodo’s rescue from the Ringwraiths at the Fords of Bruinen, and then apparently transports him to Rivendell where he can recuperate. In this, Jackson enhances Arwen’s status beyond what Tolkien wrote, thus capturing and promoting her aristocratic status. Jackson even has Arwen speak of her “grace”—again extra-textual—which she dispenses on Frodo’s behalf, when she says “What Grace is given me, let it pass to him.” That phrase unavoidably evokes the individual who would have been to Tolkien the best of women, if not all human beings: the Virgin Mary, who Scripture describes as “full of grace” (Lk. 1-28). In this, whether intentionally or not, Jackson meets Tolkien’s aristocracy and raises it.

Techera’s judgment that the moviegoers were “willing to be deceived” may be a shrewd analysis of group psychology, but it is not clear how he arrives at that diagnosis. Perhaps moviegoers left the theater reminiscing about high school romances. Perhaps they were simply enjoying the afterglow of the movies themselves. Is there any way to know? It is true that Christopher Tolkien thought Jackson had vulgarized his father’s book. Perhaps this is what Techera means by “democratization,” but even so, the assumptions he draws from that complaint are unwarranted.

Techera would have done well to avail himself of Tolkien scholarship. Perhaps he has, but it is not evident. To be sure, there is relatively little secondary literature dealing with the elements of Tolkien’s political philosophy. In 2003, Ignatius Press reprinted Richard Purtill’s penetrating analysis J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion. Purtill demonstrates that one of the central themes of LOTR is the character development of certain of the book’s personalities. The best book available by far is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Grace (2002) by Brad Birzer, which provides a broad, balanced, and interdisciplinary guide to what Tolkien was about. A notable investigation of Tolkien’s religious ideas is The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth(2003) by acclaimed O’Connor scholar Ralph Wood—though Wood may push the Christian analogy too far for some. Tolkien’s countryman Stratford Caldecott’s elegant Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien(2003) has been published in the U.S. with the title The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit (2012). Caldecott’s is the most thoroughgoing discussion of the influence of Tolkien’s Catholicism on his work. It was the late Caldecott who, one memorable afternoon in Oxford over tea, opened my eyes to the depth of Tolkien’s work. All these works are accessible to the curious layperson, and of keen interest to the academic.

Techera also does not ground any of his claims in Tolkien’s correspondence, or in specific textual references from either book or film. He has written many fine essays; these two pieces on Tolkien’s books and Jackson’s films, however, oversimplify a complex story.

Reprinted from Law & Liberty

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *