When Amazon launched its new Lord of the Rings show several weeks ago, noted evangelical commentator David French had this to say about the relevance of Tolkien’s ethic to the American cultural and political scene:
Why does America need to remember Tolkien again? Because we’re mired in Westeros, playing the game of thrones. When you hear words like “fight fire with fire,” or “make them play by their own rules,” or “punch back twice as hard,” or “wield power to reward friends and punish enemies,” you’re hearing an ethos that declares, “win or die.”
French further insists that Tolkien the war veteran knew better than most about the harsh realities of the “real world”:
Tolkien wasn’t naive. He knew that world. He’d confronted it directly. That’s why characters like Boromir or Fëanor resonate so strongly. In the quest to confront the enemy, you become the enemy. Yet faithful people understand, in Faramir’s words, that they “do not wish for such triumphs.” Instead, they fix their eyes on the “high beauty” that is forever beyond the shadow’s reach.
Of course, past and present critics from various ideological perspectives have objected to championing Tolkien in this manner on any number of grounds: 1) that the fiction of Lord of the Rings supposedly does portray a naïve black-and-white morality hopelessly removed from the real world; 2) that Tolkien the man endorsed unsavory but preferable political actors in his own day, such as Franco during the Spanish Civil War; 3) that both the fiction and its author have sympathy with “fascism.”
But do these critiques really hit home? Insofar as they reveal how he saw his fictional world in relation to that of the mid-twentieth century, some of Tolkien’s personal letters might suggest otherwise. In fact, the more holistic perspective offered by these letters shows not naivety but profound circumspection in Tolkien’s political imagination, and proves that we cannot so summarily dismiss the morality of Middle-Earth.
An Unrealistic Moral World?
First, why the apparent moral unsophistication in Tolkien’s fiction? Needless to say, current tastes often prefer “darker,” “grittier,” and otherwise fine stories like Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games to the supposedly bland Middle-Earth, where the heroes and their kingdoms are just a little too thoroughly good and their villainous counterparts a little too overtly evil. In some venues, I have encountered cynical types on the Right all but sneering that Tolkien’s mythology is too jejune and ill-suited for the pressing exigencies of the present moment: “Try your hobbit politics, see how that works out for you.” Meanwhile, some on the Left have read into Middle-Earth the aforementioned quasi-fascist idealism, or a thinly-disguised defense of Western superiority with hints of racism and xenophobia sprinkled in for good measure.
None of this is especially new or insightful, of course: reviewers were making some of these complaints almost as soon as The Lord of the Rings came off the press. Describing his own politics in November of 1955, Tolkien stated at the outset, “I am not a ‘reformer’ (by exercise of power) since it seems doomed to Sarumanism. But ‘embalming’ has its own punishments.” He continues:
Some reviewers have called the whole thing simple-minded, just a plain fight between Good and Evil, with all the good just good, and the bad just bad. Pardonable, perhaps (though at least Boromir has been overlooked) in people in a hurry, and with only a fragment to read, and, of course, without the earlier written but unpublished Elvish histories. But the Elves are not wholly good or in the right. Not so much because they had flirted with Sauron; as because with or without his assistance they were ’embalmers’. They wanted to have their cake and eat it: to live in the mortal historical Middle-earth because they had become fond of it (and perhaps because they there had the advantages of a superior caste), and so tried to stop its change and history, stop its growth, keep it as a pleasaunce, even largely a desert, where they could be ‘artists’ – and they were overburdened with sadness and nostalgic regret. In their way the Men of Gondor were similar: a withering people whose only ‘hallows’ were their tombs. But in any case this is a tale about a war, and if war is allowed (at least as a topic and a setting) it is not much good complaining that all the people on one side are against those on the other. Not that I have made even this issue quite so simple: there are Saruman, and Denethor, and Boromir; and there are treacheries and strife even among the Orcs.
A few lines before this, Tolkien notes that the idyllic hobbits themselves are an impermanent “historical accident” in the mythos and hardly offer some kind of communal or cultural ideal.
Tolkien himself, then, had no use for the animating spirits of either progressivism or reactionary conservatism as political forces in the real world: so much for his fascism. Moreover, he defended the realism of Middle-Earth, arguing that the two major sides in the War of the Ring each had their conflicted or compromised actors. He also alludes to the (at the time) uncompleted stories contained in the Silmarillion. To understate matters, the elves and men Tolkien sets in the First and Second Age were themselves morally “problematic” at many turns. One need only read the biography of Fëanor or the Fall of Numenor, the latter of which echoes the narratives of Atlantis, the biblical Flood, and the Tower of Babel. If readers believe Middle-Earth to represent some kind of quasi-Manichean or else childish world, they are not reading the stories carefully enough, warns Tolkien.
A Political Realist?
Fair enough. But on the other side, what about Tolkien’s apparent support for the likes of Franco? That would seem to suggest he was a consummate political realist, that he saw his own day in such conflicted terms, where one had to accept alliances with the ostensible Denethors of the world to defeat the Sarumans or Saurons. Perhaps Tolkien was a grizzled calculator who knew how to accept the lesser of two evils when faced with a “binary choice.”
We should let Tolkien speak for himself. We have two letters from in 1944 to his son Christopher, who was away serving in the RAF at the time. It seems Christopher was bothered by some of what he witnessed in the character in his fellow officers, and so the elder Tolkien writes to Christopher:
I hope you will have some more leave in genuine Africa, ere too long. Away from the ‘lesser servants of Mordor’. Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction: your vigorous words well describe the tribe; only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For ‘romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory’, and its wars are still derived from the ‘inner war’ of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels. But it does make some difference who are your captains and whether they are orc-like per se! And what it is all about (or thought to be). It is even in this world possible to be (more or less) in the wrong or in the right.
Here in the midst of the epochal, existential struggle of WWII, Tolkien remains surprisingly circumspect and even-keeled. He suggests that there is still ultimately a side basically for Good and another for Evil in the war—and who looking back on it would blame him today? Nevertheless, the overall justice of the cause did not blind Tolkien to the fact that the “Good Side” still had the moral equivalent of orcs (and worse) marching in its ranks; it was no good to ignore that fact so as to avoid cognitive dissonance.
Later in August, Tolkien expounded further on the same theme, as Christopher appears to have voiced more concerns about the bad company he was keeping in the RAF:
I read your letters carefully, and of course as is quite right you open your rather troubled heart to us; but do not think that any detail of your exterior life, your friends, acquaintance, or the most minor events, are not worth writing or of interest. I am glad that you are finding it (at times) easier to rub along. I shouldn’t worry too much, if the process sometimes seems to be a declension from the highest standards (intellectual and aesthetic, at any rate, not moral). I don’t think you are in the least likely permanently to decline upon the worse; and I should say that you need a little thickening of the outer skin, if only as a protection for the more sensitive interior; and if you acquire it, it will be of permanent value in any walk of later life in this tough world (which shows no signs of softening).
From the practicality of Christopher’s “toughening,” his father turns to the bigger problem:
And of course, as you already discover, one of the discoveries of the process is the realization of the values that often lurk under dreadful appearances. Urukhai is only a figure of speech. There are no genuine Uruks, that is folk made bad by the intention of their maker; and not many who are so corrupted as to be irredeemable (though I fear it must be admitted that there are human creatures that seem irredeemable short of a special miracle, and that there are probably abnormally many of such creatures in Deutschland and Nippon — but certainly these unhappy countries have no monopoly: I have met them, or thought so, in England’s green and pleasant land).
Again, we have a remarkably even-handed approach to the war with its moral and national dynamics. To adapt the famous line of Solzhenitsyn, Tolkien knows the real borders between Good and Evil did not run between nations. Yes, he suspected nations such as Germany and Japan had for the time a disproportionate number of morally depraved human beings, but England certainly had its own supply. One is reminded of the Scouring of the Shire near the close of The Return of the King, where the technocratic ethos of “Sarumanism” has corrupted the very English homeland of the hobbits itself, aided and abetted even by hobbits such as Ted Sandyman and Lotho Sackville-Baggins. This all puts a different spin, then, on Tolkien’s apparent preference for someone like Franco in Spain. If Tolkien preferred the Allies win the Second World War, his preference was not blind, absolute, or unqualified. Such an approach to macro-politic and crisis probably applied just as much to Franco.
Moral Compromise or Moral Clarity?
This brings us back to French’s thesis that the moral framework of Middle-Earth is particularly salient to the present political scene in America—especially for those who share Tolkien’s Christianity. I see multiple points here. First of all, a meta-textual observation emerges from all this: history might advise all sides today to beware moral panics and entertain longer time horizons, knowing older history than the Cold War and looking further into the future than the next election cycle. By most standards, we are living through nothing quite comparable to the upheavals, violence, and abominations at the global scale that cast their dark shadows across much of the twentieth century, some of which were experienced first-hand by the likes of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. And yet, one routinely finds the thinking, writing, and general moral instincts of these two far more tempered, realistic, and level-headed than most Christian commentary in 2022. Some of this could be attributed to their education, some to their real experience, and no doubt much to a real, providential measure of genius gifted to them. Where are the Tolkiens and Lewises of today?
As to what lessons Tolkien himself actually leaves us in his writings, there are two related advisements. Most authorities would agree Christianity does have a place for politics and civic engagement; I count Tolkien among them. But in a surprisingly liberal turn for such a traditional Roman Catholic and medievalist, he sternly warned against “bossing.”
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! . . . . Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.
Here, Tolkien may leave our contemporary integralist friends discomfited. More positively, he shows a keen aversion to the special temptation of libido dominandi in the political realm. Nor is it an accident, one suspects, that the story of the One Ring bears such a striking resemblance to Plato’s account of the semi-legendary Gyges. In the Republic, the myth of Gyges is recalled as a parable about justice and humanity’s moral weakness: would even a just person be able to keep themselves from abusing the naked power offered by such a magic ring? In Tolkien’s story, the answer is resoundingly clear: even a wise and just being who takes the Ring to achieve good will eventually be corrupted by evil. Those who heed the moral should remain alert to discern philosophies, ideologies, and movements for which “bossing” serves as the real attraction, and there are always many.
Even more practically, we would profit from emulating Tolkien’s ability to internalize and tolerate a certain species of moral tension in politics and society generally. Suffice it to say, our political coalitions (and the Christians who most fervently participate in them) utterly lack this skill. And it is here that I think French’s standard criticisms of the Christian Right strike truest. If Christians are to treat politics as a dirty, mercenary, and ultimately necessary game of “binary choice” or “lesser evil,” then by all means, that is one option. Let us then prefer Denethor to Saruman and still beware the “orcs and demons” in our own ranks. (Christians living in the Roman Empire prior to Constantine well understood something like this tension in their social world.) But to this observer at least, most politically-engaged people today—and Christians sometimes number among the worst offenders—have no interest in maintaining this moral awareness in the long run, with all healthy tensions resolving into polarization. Thus, even in those instances when we all see “madness growing in the eyes of Denethor,” the lesser evil often gets repackaged to us as good per se. Tolkien would have us see such a cynical course for what it is: pride and despair.
Andrew Koperski is a doctoral candidate in ancient history at The Ohio State University. His fields of focus include Late Antiquity, Early Christianity, and Byzantium. Much of his current research examines the formation of the biblical canon and the reception of apocryphal literature.
I decline to offer specific citations, but readers may instead test my claims against what turns up in a few minutes of web browsing. ↑
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 197. ↑
Tolkien, Letters, 82. ↑
Tolkien, Letters, 90. ↑
Tolkien, Letters, 90. ↑
For an extended and contextualized treatment of Tolkien and Spain, see José Manuel Ferrández Bru, “J. R. R. Tolkien and the Spanish Civil War,” Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society, no. 51 (2011): 16–19. Most notably, Bru stresses Tolkien’s generally liberal, even “anarchic” political philosophy. ↑
Tolkien, Letters, 63–4. ↑
Plato, Republic, 2:359a–2:360d ↑