Today, January 3, 2015, J.R.R. Tolkien would have turned 123. Considering that he thought Bilbo’s birthday 111 (Eleventy-one) an important age, what would he have thought of “Twelvety-three?” I assume time no longer has any meaning for him, and he is smiling down from above. I know of several nuns who are praying for the cause of his sainthood, and I certainly join in such a prayer. Yet, 123: An interesting and impressive number.
Now that Peter Jackson has completed his demolition and adulteration (sorry, I am not a fan of his work) of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, I hope we—as a Western people—can reclaim Tolkien from Hollywood and all of its shuddering perversities. I enjoyed Jackson’s version of the Fellowship of the Ring, tolerated The Two Towers, and despised The Return of the King. I have not seen a single scene of the Hobbit trilogy. And I plan never to see it. I do not want Jackson to get a single penny of my money. Indeed, I would rather hoist myself on the nearest barbed wire fence than give that guy anything.
Back to happiness—one of my resolutions of the new year is to be more positive about life. Part of my resolution in rediscovering the good in the world is to reexamine my love of Tolkien and all things Inklings. I hope to do this throughout the year of our Lord 2015.
As a person who has written on Tolkien for almost fifteen years and read Tolkien for thirty-six years, I am often asked about his political views. In a sense, this is a funny question, as Tolkien really despised most politics. In fact, he really thought of himself as very anti-political. His few statements on the matter reveal just how unpolitical and apolitical and anti-political he could be.
It is also, however, a natural question for someone to ask about the great man, as we live in a highly politicized age.
So, what do we know?
First, Tolkien was a conservative and a Burkean. His wife confirmed the former, and C.S. Lewis’s letters seem to confirm the latter.
Second, though a conservative, Tolkien was not a very devout Tory, sometimes mocking Winston Churchill.
Third, Tolkien referred to himself in his letters as an anarchist of the non-violent variety. Almost certainly, Tolkien’s anarchism is neither the modern anarcho-capitalism of a Murray Rothbard nor the anarcho-socialism of the Chicago Haymarket rioters. Given his writings on the Shire, in particular, Tolkien almost certainly meant this in the sense that he was a Catholic and, therefore, that he believed in subsidiarity– that is the principle that power should reside at the most immediate level possible.
Fourth, in the same letter that Tolkien called himself an anarchist, philosophically understood, he also argued that he would support an unconstitutional monarchy. Puzzling, to be sure. But, again, given Tolkien’s writings regarding Middle-earth, and especially on Aragorn, Tolkien almost certainly meant that a king should be bound by his oath to his people and, especially to Christ. Philosophically, Tolkien would have identified with St. Thomas Aquinas, especially in the great saint’s letter On Kingship. For Aquinas, the only true king was the king who behaved as would Christ, willing to sacrifice himself for love.
Fifth, when Tolkien writes “unconstitutional,” he is likely thinking of an Alfred the Great, restrained by tradition, custom, and common law, as opposed to King John, supposedly restrained by the Magna Carta. There is nothing in Tolkien’s writings to claim that Tolkien opposed a constitution, only that a real king stood his word and his oath. Beowulf rather than Henry VIII.
Sixth, Tolkien despised imperialism. When he spoke of patriotism, he spoke of England, not Great Britain.
Seventh, Tolkien equally despised racism and tribalism. When the Germans wanted to publish The Hobbit, requesting any information on possible Jewish ancestry, Tolkien mocked them. Sadly, he noted, he possessed no such noble blood.
Eighth, Tolkien feared modern technology, but especially when used by governments. When a student brought a tape recorder to his house in the early 1950s, as Tolkien was having trouble selling The Lord of the Rings to any publisher, the author agreed to read some of his works into the device. Convinced such technology could only be devilish, he agreed to use the recording only after reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Gothic (Old German) to exorcise any evil at work in it. When the great professor learned of the American development and use of the Atomic bomb in 1945, words could never express his horror at the act.
Ninth, Tolkien feared the corruption of language by governments. He wrote: Languages “are the chief distinguishing marks of peoples. No people in fact comes into being until it speaks a language of its own; let the languages perish and the peoples perish too.” He considered language the most essential aspect of continuity in a people. Governments, however, recognized this fact long before the scholars did. For control and neatness, political rulers demand control over language, thus also controlling the past and the future.
Tenth, if Tolkien had to be pegged as anything, he should be pegged as an imaginative conservative, finding the work of Winston Elliott and Steve Klugewicz more than agreeable.
But, let me end with Tolkien’s words. Before a group of Dutch honoring him for his many achievements, Tolkien stated:
“I look East, West, North, South, and I do not see Sauron. But I see that Saruman has many descendants. We Hobbits have against them no magic weapons. Yet, my gentle hobbits, I give you this toast: To the Hobbits. May they outlast the Sarumans and see spring again in the trees.”
Happy Birthday, Professor Tolkien.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.