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jrr-tolkien-colourToday, 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

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15 replies to this post
  1. When he exorcised the tape recorder with the Lord’s Prayer in Gothic, I believe he wasn’t just being cleaver but rather true to himself. I wonder where that is.

  2. I suspect Tolkien would never Identify as a “Burkean”. (Whatever that means). I think the way Burke championed the English Revolution would be very unsettling for Tolkien.

  3. Thank you for your article! Two things about the tape recorder episode: His “exorcism” was probably somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and he came to enjoy recording himself reading greatly. Also, to nit-pick, Gothic is not Old German, but rather a member of the same “language family” as German: Germanic.

  4. I think a benevolent and unconstitutional monarchy can dovetail with anarchism beautifully (insofar as “anarchism” means nothing else than what its word-parts suggest = “the absence of government”). The purpose of the king in such a scheme ought to be principally military: he and his army defend the people of his realm from foreign aggression and invasion. He will not, he must not, dictate law. Anarchical societies, being completely volitional, may maintain order however they see fit relative to local custom and public needs. People cannot, of course, rely on the king’s forces to defend homes, so self-defense must be left up to homesteads and communities. This means there are no “police”; although there may be local militias, organized for the purposes of community protection from violators of natural rights and public safety in regional squabbles. The point is that Large Scale (or as it were “national”) Defense falls within the purview of the king. People of those communities within the borders of the king’s realm may, of course, if they wish, join in the king’s army when large-scale threats do arise.

    Such a “sketch” as this is precisely why we call it “philosophical” (or rather “theoretical”) anarchism. I.e., it’s simply a vision of How Things Ought To Be. It is not a call to action for actual “Change we can Believe In”, and it acknowledges that, given the condition of the world today, no such ideal could ever be achieved. We are thus limited to (true) conservatism: eschewing all manner of ideology and slowing the pace of so-called “progress” as much as is reasonably possible within our lifetime.

  5. It seems to me great liberty has been taken, and significant but very thinly substantiated assumptions made, in conjecturing about Tolkien’s politics in this article. Would were it all true, but there is little reason to believe it is, based on this short essay. This reads far more like wishful, psychological projection than assured analysis.

    • How do you conclude this? If anything this article seems to take a decidedly restrained approach to Tolkien’s political views, based on his expressed opinions or his readily apparent sympathies in his work (like his obvious affection for way of life of the Shire).

  6. Regarding the bit about race:

    Tolkien would have been considered a reactionary racist within a modernist frame. I believe it was partly dishonest on the author’s part to obfuscate this well know reality by saying he was not a racist or tribalist. However, this does not mean is racial views were unfavorable though to sane men. The world he created was full of racially deterministic and inegalitarian elements, he was quietly in opposition of immigration and a supporter of A. K. Chesterton (the founder of the British National front), and his devout curiosity and cultivation of what he named the “noble Northern spirit” shows that he was deeply prideful and tribalistic, just not aggressively chauvinistic.

    Try talking about the “noble Northern spirit” in a modern context and you will be accused of being a neo-Fascist.

  7. Andrew Lynn (@American_Tory),

    Racism, nationalism and tribalism are innately Leftist. I recommend the Austrian writer Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn on this subject.
    J. R. R. Tolkien was entirely opposed to the racism, which he called “wholly pernicious and unscientific”, nationalism and fascism. I suggest you read him.

    • James Waldrop is spot on. Kuehnelt-Leddihn rightly distinguished between nationalism and patriotism. The former is an ideology, the latter the love of one’s native land. One can ignore the humanity of another when you are enslaved by an ideology. The road from ideology to atrocity is straight: you can kill a member of a category rather than treat him or her as a fellow child of God made from flesh and bone and made in His image and likeness.

      Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn was himself an unreconstructed monarchist and one of the most insightful analysts of the modern world. The book is Leftism: From de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse (1974,)

      There is also the 1991 update: Leftism Revisited: from de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Pol Pot.

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