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In 1958, at a Dutch bash held in his honor, J.R.R. Tolkien told his audience:

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.[1]

The Eagle and ChildTo Tolkien in 1958, the world must have appeared as though it were trapped in deepest and darkest winter. Clyde Kilby, an English professor from Wheaton College, worked with Tolkien in the summer of 1966, helping him to organize the manuscript for The Silmarillion. “Tolkien was an Old Western Man who was staggered at the present direction of civilization,” Kilby recorded after a summer of conversations with Tolkien. “Even our much vaunted talk of equality he felt debased by our attempts to ‘mechanize and formalize it.’”[2] Tolkien wrote that the saints living in the modern world were those “who have for all their imperfections never finally bowed head and will to the world or the evil spirit (in modern but not universal terms: mechanism, ‘scientific’ materialism, Socialism in either of its factions now at war).”[3]

Like many Englishmen, he feared a world divided in two, in which the smaller peoples would be swallowed. Only fifteen years earlier, in reaction to the Teheran Conference, Tolkien had written: “I heard of that bloodthirsty old murderer Josef Stalin inviting all nations to join a happy family of folks devoted to the abolition of tyranny and intolerance!” One would be blind to miss Tolkien’s disgust. “I wonder (if we survive this war) if there will be any niche, even of sufferance, left for reactionary back numbers like me (and you). The bigger things get the smaller and duller or flatter the globe gets. It is getting to be one blasted little provincial suburb.” Soon, he feared, America would spread its “sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass production” throughout the world.[4] Neither “ism”—corporate consumer capitalism or communism, both radical forms of materialism—seemed particularly attractive to Tolkien, a man who loved England (but not Great Britain!) and who loved monarchy according to medieval conventions, while hating statism in any form.

In his politics, Tolkien greatly resembled his closest friend and fellow member of the Inklings (the famous Oxford literary group), C.S. Lewis. During England’s darkest days of World War II, hope emerged from an unlikely source. An Oxford don–a professor of English literature, who would later be best known for a seven-part children’s fantasy series–gave frequent public addresses to the English people. Their purpose was to bolster English spirits. In late February, 1943, he devoted three of his addresses to a philosophical rather than a theological question. These relatively heady lectures were entitled: “Men without Chests,” “The Way,” and “The Abolition of Man.”[5] In each, C.S. Lewis addressed the nature and the future of character in England. Rather than spending his address on buoying the optimism of the English during the war against the German National Socialists, Lewis decided to ask what the English were really fighting for. Freedom from Nazi brutality was good, of course, but not, he argued, if it merely led to the victory of the “conditioners,” the democratic bureaucrats on the loose in England who served as an internal threat. The conditioners claimed to be liberating individuals from arbitrary restraints imposed by “religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ and ‘basic’ values may emerge.”[6] In other words, the conditioners needed to destroy history and faith, which they claimed as artificial shackles on the true, unadulterated self. Such debasement of tradition, Lewis argued, can only lead to the creation of man-made (and consequently, man-centered) philosophies, ignoring the Natural Law. But, the Natural Law, Lewis cautioned, “is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected.”[7] Anything created outside of the Natural Law will simply be mere “ideologies,” that is, finite systems created by finite minds, shadows of shadows of a complex and nuanced world. “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in,” Lewis concluded.[8]

Two years later, Lewis published his ideas on character, virtue, and the Natural Law in novel form, That Hideous Strength, part three of his renowned space trilogy. Published two years before Orwell’s similar anti-totalitarian masterpiece, Lewis’s novel is a theistic 1984. The story revolves around a group of academic and bureaucratic conditioners–known as the N.I.C.E. (National Institute for Coordinated Experiments), who take over a small but elite English college as a prelude to a takeover of Britain. To stop “That Hideous Strength,” a new King Arthur emerges in the form of a philology professor, Dr. Ransom. With the aid of small group of friends, he awakens Merlin from a fifteen-century long sleep. Modernity perplexes Merlin. In a telling conversation, Merlin states:

This is a cold age in which I have awaked. If all this West part of the world is apostate, might it not be lawful, in our great need, to look farther . . . beyond Christendom? Should we not find some even among the heathen who are not wholly corrupt? There were tales in my day of some such: men who knew not the articles of our most holy Faith, but who worshipped God as they could and acknowledged the Law of Nature. Sir, I believe it would be lawful to seek help even there. Beyond Byzantium.[9]

Ransom responds:

You do not understand. The poison was brewed in these West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now. However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren books: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshiping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all.[10]

Lewis was virulently anti-Nazi and anti-communist, and, like Tolkien, he also knew that democracy has its own risks. The West has bred all three political/economic systems. As an ideology, man-made and man-centered, bureaucratic democracy may appear as a brightly-colored package, more pleasing to the eye than the grittiness of socialism, but it too desires to make man a means to an end, to make him a mere cog in a machine.[11]

Tolkien has proven to be one of the best selling authors of all time, selling the greatest number of his works in the very same century that he so much despised. Something in Tolkien’s world clearly resonated with many in the modern world. Dissidents of a sort.

As one might imagine, the literati have not been pleased. “Tolkien–that’s for children, isn’t it? Or the adult slow,” wrote one British critic. “It just shows the folly of these polls, the folly of teaching people to read.”[12] English reviewer Andrew Rissik dismisses Tolkien’s relevance:

After the annihilating traumas of the last century, it’s merely perverse to ascribe greatness to this airy but strangely simplified mock-Teutonic never-never land, where races and species intermingle at will and great battles are fought but there is never any remotely convincing treatment of those fundamental human concerns through which all societies ultimately define themselves–religion, philosophy, politics and the conduct of sexual relationships.[13]

Feminist critic Germaine Greer contends that Tolkien’s works dismiss the “great struggles of the twentieth century”–such as “politics, war, the black movement, and [the] sexual revolution.”[14]

The British are not alone in their criticism. Famed American literature professor Harold Bloom contends that the Lord of the Rings is simply a period piece that “met a need in the early days of the Counter-Culture.”[15] That is, Tolkien’s Middle-earth provided one of the many escapist fads for the hippies of the 1960s and early 1970s. They desired escape by any means necessary: drugs, music, or Tolkien.[16] Further, Bloom contends, the protagonist of the story, Frodo, is not a hero, and his sage companion, Gandalf, is “self-important” lord of the rings book coverand rude.[17]

And, yet, Tolkien and the Inklings were doing exactly what their critics claimed they weren’t: They were attempting to confront the monstrosities of the twentieth century through the vehicle of myth, a vehicle that allows one to see reality from a new perspective—perhaps a higher reality that goes beyond mere facts, at least at the pragmatists defined them. Tolkien and Lewis did not want to escape from modernity, they wanted to challenge it. When Lewis asked why so many critics feared escape, Tolkien answered that only one type of person fears escape: the jailor.

Tolkien and Lewis, like their intellectual ancestor Edmund Burke, feared the mechanized political, economic, and cultural systems of the twentieth century. The French Revolutionaries, smug in their arrogance, introduced the disease of ideology into the world, a disease that has yet to be contained. “Out of the tomb of the murdered Monarchy in France, has arisen a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre, in a far more terrific guise than any which ever yet overpowered the imagination and subdued the fortitude of man,” Burke concluded in the last year of his life.[18] Rejecting the laws of nature as mere constructed impositions to shackle pure reason, Burke argued, the French Revolution instigated much havoc: “Laws overturned; tribunals subverted; industry without vigour; commerce expiring; the revenue unpaid, yet the people impoverished; a church pillaged, and a state not relieved; civil and military anarchy made the constitution of the kingdom; every thing human and divine sacrificed to the idol of the public credit, and national bankruptcy the consequence.”[19]

The French Revolutionaries attempted to overturn and remake all of society in their image (or images, more accurately). First, the revolutionaries, inspired by the vision of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, attempted to abolish all institutions of subsidiarity, institutions such as family, school, and church that make life worth living. As early as the fall of 1789, the revolutionaries emphasized this in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Article Three states: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.”

Their most vehement attacks on institutions of subsidiarity were against the Roman Catholic Church, then seen as an ally to the hated French monarchy and aristocracy. Priests and other religious were beaten, tortured, raped, and exiled. Church property was confiscated, and a prostitute was put on the altar at Notre Dame Cathedral and declared a goddess. One apostate abbot desired to distribute the bodily remains of “reactionaries” as a “Republican Eucharist.”[20]

Those who opposed the new revolutionary regimes (for they came and went based on who momentarily had the most might to rule) would pay with their lives. True to Burke’s prediction, at least twenty-five thousand forfeited their lives to the insatiable hunger of the guillotine between 1791 and 1794. Indeed, the revolutionaries were so blood thirsty, they tended to turn on each other.[21] The worst modern case of this would be in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1978, which almost collapsed due to so much internal bloodletting. Tellingly, many of the Khmer Rouge leadership, known as Ankor (The Organization—somewhat similar to The N.I.C.E. of Lewis’s imagination), had studied under the French Communist existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre.

Inspired by the excesses of the French Revolutionaries, the twentieth-century ideologues began their assault on the modern world with the destruction wrought by the first world war, and the consequences have been terrifying.[22] One scholar put it bluntly: “the French Revolution was the overture to the “Age of the G,” of guillotines, gaols, gallows, the Gestapo, gas chambers, and gulags. The guillotine marks the first step toward a mechanical-technological mass extermination, toward genocide.”[23] In regime after regime in the twentieth-century, ideologues repeated and multiplied the tragedies of the French Revolution: the Soviet Union and Mexico in 1917 (where the governor of Tabasco renamed his children, “Lenin, Lucifer, and Satan”)[24], Italy in the 1920s, Germany, Austria, Portugal, and Poland in the 1930s, the rest of eastern Europe in the final year of World War II, China and Korea the late 1940s, Vietnam and Cambodia by 1975, and numerous others in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Traditional understandings of character and virtue resulted in arrest, torture, the gulag, the firing squad, or the gas chamber. Throughout four of the seven continents, the killings fields could be found everywhere in the twentieth century. Indeed, of the seven continents, only North America (excluding Mexico), Australia, and Antarctica remained safe, the latter being the safest!

map of middle earthIn terms of the loss of human life, the world has never seen anything like the consequences of this ideological takeover. “As some departed beneath the sod,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “the machine kept bringing the replacements.”[25] Indeed, the ideological regimes incessantly demanded the blood sacrifices from the very beginning. Sound estimates are that ideological regimes—communist, national socialist, fascist, and all others—murdered almost 200 million of their own men, women, and children in the twentieth century.[26] This figure does not include those killed during the various wars of the same century. In sum, roughly an additional 38.5 million were killed in warfare between 1901 and 1987.[27] Communist China murdered the greatest number, estimates running as high as 65 million. The Soviet Union, at least up through 1987, slaughtered only 3 million less, Stalin claiming at last 41 million of those. Hitler, who will always be remembered for the holocaust of between 5 and 6 million Jews, also ended the lives of an additional 15 million persons, most of them Catholic, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox. The ideologues destroyed each of these person through the holocaust camps, the forced labor of Gulags, forced famines, in the interrogation chambers, and lined up in fields and across bridges, machine guns ripping into their flesh, releasing their souls into eternity. Numerous other ideological regimes—in Nationalist China, Japan, Turkey, Pakistan, Yugoslavia, North Korea, Mexico, and Indonesia—murdered millions as well.

The numbers and devastation are so immense, they render us numb, as our imaginations prevent us from considering such overwhelming human slaughter. Historical demographer R.J. Rummel attempted to put the numbers in perspective. “If one were to sit at a table and have this many people come in one door, walk at three miles per hour across the room with three feet between them,” he wrote, “and exit an opposite door, it would take over five years and nine months for them all to pass, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.”[28] During the twentieth century, then, if we exclude those killed during warfare, ideological states murdered roughly 2 million a year; 166,667 a month; 5,555 a day; 231 an hour; or 4 per minute. Such was the demand of blood to fuel the machine of the terror regimes. A very recent study argues that of all the martyrs during the two-thousand year history of Christianity, 65% of them were killed during the twentieth-century, and another 160,000 have been martyred yearly since 1991.[29]

In certain instances, the killing was systematic. In others, it was merely random. Any thought, or suspicion of an incorrect thought, could lead to one’s death or the death of a loved one. In Cambodia, to name one cruel example, the display of any emotions—all emotions being officially defined as bourgeois—resulted in immediate execution. In the Soviet Union, to give another example, Lenin frequently sent messages to his secret police with such horrifying instructions as “To N.K.V.D., Frunze. You are charged with the task of exterminating 10,000 enemies of the People. Report results by signal.” Usually, the secret police were given little time and no specific directions as to who the enemies of the people might be. They quickly rounded up 10,000 random persons so as to not violate their orders, and executed them.[30] One infamous story reports that Stalin often had the first person in a crowd who stopped applauding for one of his speeches immediately shot.

Lancashire FusiliersTolkien and Lewis witnessed first hand the brutality of the twentieth century: in the trenches of World War I. A member of the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers, one of the most decorated regiments of the war, suffering intense casualties, Tolkien considered himself a poor officer.[31] In 1916, he fought in the battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest of the war. On the first day alone, Germans slaughtered over twenty-thousand French and British soldiers. “One didn’t expect to survive, you know. Junior officers were being killed off, a dozen a minute,” Tolkien told an interviewer nearly sixty years after the war. “Parting from my wife then—we were only just married—it was like a death.”[32] It was here, though, in the trenches, that Tolkien first conceived the Middle-earth mythology—which he wrote (or recorded, as he preferred) for the remainder of his adult life and of which The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are significant manifestations.[33] His son Christopher Tolkien, for example, found that some of the first lines of verse “in which appear the Seven names of Gondolin are scribbled on the back of a paper setting out the chain of responsibility in a battalion.”[34] He began writing in earnest during his sick leave in 1916 and 1917 “in army huts, crowded, filled with the noise of gramophones.”[35] As Tolkien admitted in his famous academic essay “On Fairy Stories,” that “a real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life for war.”[36] “The war made me poignantly aware of the beauty of the world I remember,” Tolkien said in 1968, only five years before his death. “I remember miles and miles of seething, tortured earth, perhaps best described in the chapters about the approaches to Mordor. It was a searing experience.”[37] In the filth of northern France, Tolkien longed for beauty. Though about Frodo and Sam passing through the Dead Marshes, the following passage from The Two Towers reveals much about Tolkien’s first-hand experiences with modernity and all of its inhumane brutality.[38]

More loathsome far was the country that the crawling day now slowly unveiled to his shrinking eyes. Even to the Mere of Dead Faces, some haggard phantom of green spring would come; but here neither spring nor summer would ever come again. Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were chocked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails upon the lands about. High mounds of crushed and powdered rock, great cones of earth fire-blasted and poison-stained, stood like an obscene graveyard in endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.[39]

It would be difficult to find a more hauntingly beautiful and disturbing passage in twentieth-century literature.[40]

As already noted, the Inklings, of which Tolkien and Lewis were the two most prominent members, attempted to reverse the course of the West. As Tolkien explained, it was really “the undetermined and unelected circle of friends who gathered about C.S.L., and met in his rooms in Magdalen.”[41] By the end of 1933, the Inklings still consisted only of the Lewis brothers and Tolkien. Humphrey Havard (a.k.a. “the Useless Quack”) and Hugo Dyson both joined in 1934. Charles Williams became a member in 1940, and Charles Wrenn, Nevill Coghill, and Owen Barfield attended irregularly beginning in the 1930s.[42] Other irregular members and attendees included Christopher Tolkien, John Tolkien, Lord David Cecil, J.A.W. Bennett, James Dundas-Grant, Adam Fox, Colin Hardie, Gervase Mathew, R.B. McCallum, Tom Stevens, and John Wain.[43]

Meetings of the Inklings became increasingly frequent in the late 1930s. Tolkien and Lewis met each other every Monday morning for a drink before the week began. “This is one of the pleasantest spots in the week,” Lewis wrote. “Sometimes we talk English school politics: sometimes we criticize one another’s poems: other days we drift into theology or ‘the state of the nation:’ rarely we fly no higher than bawdy and puns.”[44] The Inklings—Tolkien, Lewis, and their friends—formally met on Thursday evenings in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen, and informally met on Tuesdays for lunch and drinks at a local pub, “The Eagle and Child,” more affectionately known as “The Bird and Baby.”[45] On Tuesdays, more persons than just the formal Inklings, including the pub owner, joined in the discussions. “We sat in a small back room with a fine coal fire in winter,” one of Lewis’s students, James Dundas-Grant, remembered: “Back and forth the conversation would flow. Latin tags flying around. Homer quoted in original to make a point. And, Tolkien, jumping up and down, declaiming in Anglo-Saxon.”[46]

The Thursday evening sessions were more formal and unvarying. John Wain remembered the Thursday nights:

I can see that room so clearly now, the electric fire pumping heat into the dank air, the faded screen that broke some of the keener draughts, the enamel beer-jug on the table, the well-worn sofa and armchairs, and the men drifting in (those from distant colleges would be later), leaving overcoats and hats in any corner and coming over to warm their hands before finding a chair.[47]

Warnie Lewis recorded of the meetings:

The ritual of an Inklings was unvarying. When half a dozen or so had arrived, tea would be produced, after which when pipes were alight Jack would say, “well has nobody got anything to read us?” Out would come a manuscript and we would settle down to sit in judgement upon it. Real, unbiased judgement too, for about the Inklings there was nothing of a mutual admiration society; with us, praise for good work was unstinted but censure for bad, or even not so good, was often brutally frank. To read to the Inklings was a formidable ordeal.

Lord of the Rings elfCertainly, the Inklings could be rough with one another, and they rarely pulled punches. Though Tolkien probably dealt his share of blows, he received a number of them as well, especially from Hugo Dyson. As Tolkien read The Lord of the Rings chapter by chapter to the group, Dyson usually commented negatively or sighed loudly. One night, he went as far as to say, “Oh —-, not another elf.”[48] After Tolkien achieved immense popularity with The Lord of the Rings, Dyson told a reporter, “Dear Ronald writing all those silly books with three introductions and 10 appendixes. His was not a true imagination, you know: He made it all up.”[49]

Coming from a modernist and leftist perspective, Wain viewed the Inklings as politically very conservative, religiously very Catholic (either Anglo or Roman), and artistically very anti-modernist.[50] Insiders such as Havard viewed the Inklings as cohesive as well.[51] They were, as Wain writes, “a circle of investigators, almost of incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life.”[52] Further, Wain argued, C.S. Lewis led the group as a pro-Christian political cell, working with fellow travelers such as Dorothy Sayers, Roger Lancelyn Green, and Roy Campbell. The only open leftist among the more permanent Inklings was Coghill.[53] Ultimately, Wain rightly concludes, the Inklings failed to reverse the course of oppressive ideology, and “Jack didn’t kill the giant, but the bout was a good one, and worth watching.”[54]

Tolkien’s greatest work, The Lord of the Rings, is a defense of the West. This is not to suggest, however, that The Lord of the Rings serves as a mere allegory of some single event or multiple events of the twentieth century. Indeed, many critics have argued that Tolkien’s story is a thinly-veiled allegory about World War II, or about Communism, or about the Atomic Bomb. In one sense they are right, as it is about all of these things generally. But, more importantly, it is also about none of these things specifically. In the preface to the Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien wrote unequivocally

The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had inspired or directed the development of the legend, then certainly the Ring would have been seized and used against Sauron; he would have not been annihilated but enslaved, and Barad-dûr would not have been destroyed but occupied. Saruman, failing to get possession of the Ring, would in the confusion and treacheries of the time have found in Mordor the missing links in his own researches into Ring-lore, and before long he would have made a Great Ring of his own with which to challenge the self-styled Ruler of Middle-earth. In that conflict both sides would have held hobbits in hatred and contempt: they would not long have survived even as slaves.[55]

The charge of allegory surfaced many times during Tolkien’s life time, and he strongly resented it. “For one thing, they [the stories of the legendarium] were mostly written before the thirties,” Tolkien stated in an interview. “These wretched people who must find allegories in everything.”[56] Tolkien detested the charge for a good reason; the depth and significance of his stories were far greater than just one event or a series of connected events in any one century. His stories were timeless and eternal, the struggle of the just against the wicked. C.S. Lewis, who probably understood Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings better than anyone, wrote: “Sauron is eternal; the war of the Ring is only one of a thousand wars against him.”[57] In other words, modernity, fascism, communism, and the atomic bomb all just represented new manifestations of evil.

Though the story and spirit behind the Middle-earth works was bigger than either communism or Joseph Stalin, both were related to the evils introduced by Morgoth and Sauron. Still, during the 1980s, Tolkien’s works served as handbooks for the peaceful, anti-communist underground movements in Eastern Europe and Russia.[58] One former Czech dissident, Michal Semin, writes:

Mordor was understood to be the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union. It was also placed in [the] east. The rings, of course, represent the seduction of the devil to take everything into merely human hands with no reference to [the] transcendent[al] end of man. They follow the path of the original “non serviam.” Then the special role of the [Hobbits], creatures of no special or magic powers, very simple and to a certain degree worldly. This served to remind us that even ordinary Czech citizens may stand against the evil of totalitarianism without tanks and artillery. The whole book is also anti-utopian. It helped us to understand that . . . no paradise on earth should be expected.[59]

Not surprisingly, the Soviet Union forbade books by Tolkien, understanding that Moscow and Mordor were similar in essence if not in form. They also feared that Tolkien’s orcs might represent the proletariat. Poorly translated, photo-copied works circulated throughout the Russian underground prior to 1991.[60]

Abolition of ManNot all modern evils appear as obvious as those of Stalin and Hitler, or as blatant as that of the mechanized and inhumane fighting of the first world war. Tyranny and modernity arrive in many packages, some of them brightly colored. Understanding this, Tolkien despised the impersonal democratic capitalism of the twentieth century and especially its handmaiden, the softly oppressive democratic bureaucracies of the western world, almost as much as he hated fascism and communism. All forms of twentieth-century government–whether blatantly socialist such as fascism or communism, or just mildly socialist, such as bureaucratic democracies–involved planning, that is, putting men into categories and holes. As much as Lewis in The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength, Tolkien feared the democratic conditioners and the “men without chests” who planned for the sake of planning, draining life of its vast richness and wonders [related, I think, to the Austrian desire for diversity]. Bureaucrats especially targeted language, Tolkien’s specialty, and to the author, the spice of real life. “In modern England the usage has become disastrously confused by the maleficent interference of the Government with the usual object of governments: uniformity.”[61]

Democracy, itself the newly-fashionable word in England during the war, was nothing but a sham, according to Tolkien. In ancient Greece, democracy served as a fancy name for mob rule. Any Greek city-state worth remembering, Tolkien wrote, is worth remembering precisely because of its centralized ability to mobilize and tackle another power.[62] Even worse, Tolkien argued, democracy naturally ends in slavery: “I am not a ‘democrat’ only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power–and then we get and are getting slavery,” Tolkien claimed, echoing a number of critics of democracy from Plato in the Republic to Tocqueville in Democracy in America.[63]

As Tolkien viewed it, democracy necessitated planning, with man, again, becoming nothing more than a cog in the machine. Planning, though, because it is the necessary product of finite minds, wreaks nothing but havoc upon the complex, multifaceted world created by God. Man, simply put, is too complex to narrow him into precise categories. “I personally find most people incalculable in any particular situation or emergency,” Tolkien wrote.[64] Categorizing man only leads to bloodshed, as three-dimensional beings are not made for two-dimensional ideologies. Tolkien also believed that no individual could ably rule over another. This proved especially true of those who sought power.[65]

Perhaps one of Tolkien’s most forceful attacks on western democratic “creeping socialism” came at the end of his stunningly brilliant and autobiographical short story, Leaf by Niggle. A painter, Niggle (Tolkien), has moved on to heaven. Bureaucrats come to inspect his house…

‘I think he was a silly little man,’ said Councillor Tompkins. ‘Worthless, in fact; no use to Society at all.’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Atkins, who was nobody of importance, just a schoolmaster. ‘I am not so sure; it depends on what you mean by use.’

‘No practical or economic use,’ said Tompkins. ‘I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business. But you don’t, and so we get useless people of his sort. If I ran this country I should put him and his like to some job that they’re fit for, washing dishes in a communal kitchen or something, and I should see that they did it properly. Or I would put them away.’

Tolkien never labeled himself a member of one party or another in England, though he seems to have favored the conservatives far more than labour, and he despised liberalism in any shape or form.[66] Discussing in 1965 the influence of his surrogate father, Father Francis Morgan, Tolkien stated that the Roman Catholic priest’s teachings “pierced even the ‘liberal’ darkness out of which I came.”[67] At other times, he revealed his own politics rather forcefully. “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)–or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy,” Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher. “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!”[68]

Tolkien also hated all forms of nationalism. In this, he followed the Christian Humanism of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, both of whom believed that democracy would soon dissolve into the worship of the collective or the state. “There is a new religion which is not exactly the worship of the State, but the worship of the collective body (formerly called England, now quite commonly called the Empire), of which the individual is a member,” Belloc wrote.[69] Echoing Belloc, Tolkien wrote: “For I love England (not Great Britain and certainly not the British Commonwealth (grr!)),” Tolkien stated in the middle of World War II.[70] The result of the love of empire, Belloc concluded, is that man will behave according to the laws of the state, which he now sees as sacrosanct, but will “deny the divine authority lying behind those conceptions.”[71] It was exactly this false, substitute myth and national community (as opposed to real, organic, Burkean communities, institutions (“little platoons”), and subsidiarity) that Tolkien attacked. In writing on language, Tolkien stated that one should love Welsh (Briton), for example, “for satisfaction and therefore for delight–and not for imperial policy–we are still ‘British’ at heart.”[72] He wanted real authority and real community, enforced by true myth, as opposed to the synthetic myths and national communities the moderns created almost from whole cloth.

The Shire serves as Tolkien’s best representation of an ideal agrarian republic. The Shire is, itself, a pre-modern society, and the Hobbits often seem innocent and childlike because they are. They live in a pre-cynical age. They simply live the good life, as farmers, shopkeepers, men, women, and children. The Hobbits are, simply put, normal. They eat, they drink, they smoke, they argue, they gossip, they collect too many gifts (“mathom”), they garden, and they love. “Hobbits are unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today; for they love peace and quiet and good tilled earth: a well-ordered and well-armed countryside was their favourite haunt,” Tolkien wrote in the Prologue to the Fellowship of the Ring. “They do not and did not understand or like machines more complicated than a forge-bellows, a water-mill, or a hand-loom, though they were skilful [sic] with tools.”[73]

ShireTolkien admitted that the Shire was the pre-industrial England of his youth. “‘The Shire’ is based on rural England and not any other country in the world,” Tolkien wrote to his publisher. “The toponymy of the Shire, to take the first list, is a ‘parody’ of that of rural England, in much the same sense as are its inhabitants: they go together and are meant to.”[74] Politically, the Shire is, as Lewis described it, “almost anarchical.”[75] Tolkien called it a “half republic half aristocracy,” essentially an isolationist Jeffersonian society based on a natural aristocracy. That is, the Shire is a place where the best rise to the top, but do so through virtue and an agrarian lifestyle.[76] As noted above, most Hobbits farm, and kinship and family order society. A family defines a person’s reputation, as in the case of Bilbo Baggins being part Took, one of the most audacious of families in the Shire. Prior to the quest related in The Hobbit, Gandalf is taken with Bilbo for this reason almost exclusively.[77] Usually the head of a family group serves as a “chieftain.”[78] No one Hobbit or group of Hobbits decreed new laws. Instead, the Hobbits voluntarily obeyed the laws of a king absent for a 1,000 years, known as “The Rules” because they were “both ancient and just.”[79] In emergencies, which were few and far between, the head of the Took family served as president of the Shire-moot, a type of congress, and as the leader of the local militia.[80] Twelve shirriffs policed the Shire, wearing a feather in a cap to mark them. Their main job, though, was to capture stray animals. A group of men also patrolled the borders of the Shire “to see that Outsiders of any kind, great or small, did not make themselves a nuisance.”[81]

Families, though, usually protected themselves. One of the more powerful and independent-minded Hobbit families, the Brandybucks, lived on the edge of the Shire as a sort of Hobbit colony, “Buckland.” The head of the family, the “Master of the Hall,” wielded considerable power over his own kin group. To protect themselves, the Brandybucks over generations built a twenty-mile long hedge, known as the “High Hay.”[82] When three Ringwraiths appeared in Buckland, searching for Frodo and the ring, traditions long kept but usually unneeded proved effective. Signaling danger, “horns rang out. It rent the night like fire on a hill-top. AWAKE! FEAR! FIRE! FOES! AWAKE!” The Brandybucks grabbed arms and came to the rescue, driving away the evil, at least for the time being.[83]

Evil and modernity, of course, did penetrate the Shire, as the four victorious Hobbits–Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippen–discover when they return home from points south after being gone for a year. In one of the most politically interesting chapters of the Lord of the Rings, “The Scouring of the Shire,” the four Hobbits find the Shire turned into a fascist corporatist state run by “The Chief.” The Chief has set up collectivized, smoke-belching factories, built ugly houses to replace Hobbit holes, and has torn up rows of trees, gardens, and homes, displacing a number of Hobbits. The Chief has established new rules, mostly laws taxing and regulating the use and limiting the consumption of foodstuffs and various materials. Resembling a puritan dictatorship, the Chief has also outlawed beer—perhaps the greatest assault against the good life of the Hobbits! The Hobbits have become enslaved, working under the watchful eyes of gangs of men. Perhaps most disturbing for the four, several Hobbits–friends and family–are collaborating with the fascist bullies. “‘This is worse than Mordor!’ said Sam. ‘Much worse in a way. It comes home to you, as they say; because it is home, and you remember it before it was all ruined.’” Frodo replies, “Yes, this is Mordor.”[84]

The Hobbits, of course, are victorious against the Chief and his men. Under the leadership of Sam, Merry, and Pippen, the Hobbits respond by issuing the traditional alarm of danger. Very quickly, and with only limited bloodshed, thanks to the influence of the now-pacifist Frodo, the Hobbits take back the government of the Shire, driving out the men and their leader, Sharkey.

It should be noted, however, that Tolkien was not a strict republican in the modern (mostly Protestant) sense, even though the Shire points the reader in that direction. Like many Roman and Anglo-Catholics of his day and age, Tolkien retained a fondness for monarchy throughout his life.[85] In his love of monarchy, he echoed the medieval desire for the Christiana Res Publica, a centralized theology with decentralized governments and polities. “I saw monarchy without tyranny, aristocracy without factions, democracy without tumult, wealth without luxury,” Erasmus had explained. “Would that it had been your lot, divine Plato, to come upon such a republic.”[86] In other words, in the medieval mind, it is perfectly possible to have monarchy and republicanism. However indirect or imagined, the Shire was ruled by a monarch for nearly a thousand years prior to the crowning of Aragorn. That the king did not exist, does not matter. The members of the Shire, though knowing better, acted as though he did.

Aragorn-screencaps-viggo-mortensen-2257038-960-404Aside from this, though, there remains something sacred in the Roman Catholic imagination regarding a good king, and especially the return of a good king after a long absence. This has been especially true since the Reformation. “After the calamities of the Reformation, English Civil War, Glorious, French, Industrial, and Russian Revolutions, etc.,” Charles Coulombe explains, “the king became more than that; he became the exiled leader of the faithful, whose return alone would bring a return to the old ways, and an end to change and unrest.”[87] Aragorn represents such an imagined Catholic king: noble, chivalrous, powerful, and a healer. His Middle-earth mythology, Tolkien hoped, would serve as a wake-up call for the West, to return it to its pre-statist, pre-imperialist, pre-materialist phase.   With the return of Aragorn the king, the “progress of the tale ends in what is far more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome,” Tolkien wrote in 1967.[88]

And, yet, his monarchy was not an early modern or modern one—centralized, oppressive, and bureaucratic. Rather it was medieval in the best sense of the word: just and virtuous, where the king acted as a servant rather than a tyrant. Many of the nations and peoples who had sided with Sauron were forgiven, and they were free to leave the court without punishment. Aragorn liberated Sauron’s slaves, redistributing the arable lands to them as recompense for their enslavement. He awarded his allies in the war with just words and gifts. As one character noted, Aragorn acted with “mercy and justice”–certainly the trademarks of a medieval king of Christendom.[89] Most important, Aragorn unites all of Middle-earth, reestablishes the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor, extends justice and mercy throughout the lands, as well as cleaning out the remaining strongholds of evil.

Understanding his great burden, Aragorn ruled not arbitrarily, but through the most medieval of institutions, the Council, known in Tolkien’s mythology as the “Great Council of Gondor.” With it, Aragorn “governed the realm with the frame of ancient law, of which he was administrator (and interpreter) but not the maker.”[90]

As Tolkien believed, repression and ideology were all tools of the enemy. For the just to use them—even in the service of good—would be to negate justice itself. Gandalf, as the best example, will not touch the Ring of Power—for he would be deluded in using it for Evil, believing it would be good. “Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good,” Gandalf explains to Frodo.[91] Power, Tolkien warns us, is ALWAYS perilous. To fight the Enemy, one must not become the Enemy.

I would like to end with a line from one of Tolkien’s poems; this one entitled “Mythopoeia”:

I will not walk with your progressive apes,

erect and sapient. Before them gapes

the dark abyss to which their progress tends–

if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,

and does not ceaselessly revolve the same

unfruitful course with changing of a name.[92]

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

[1]On Tolkien’s Dutch bash, see Rene van Rossenberg, “Tolkien’s Exceptional Visit to Holland: A Reconstruction,” in Patricia Reynolds and Glen H. Goodknight, eds., Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference, Keble College, Oxford, 1992 (Mythopoeic Society, 1995), 301-09.

[2]Kilby, “Tolkien the Man” from TOLKIEN AND THE SILMARILLION, unpublished parts of chapter, “Woodland Prisoner,” pg. 13 in Wheaton College Wade Collection, Kilby Files, 3-8.

[3] Carpenter, ed., Letters, 110.

[4]Humphrey Carpenter, ed., Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 65.

[5]Colin Duriez, The C.S. Lewis Encyclopedia (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2000), 12-13.

[6]C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1944; New York, Touchstone, 1996), 43.

[7]C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 55.

[8]C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 56. See also, Gerhart Niemeyer, “Augustine’s Political Philosophy?,” in The Christian Vision: Man in Society, ed. Lynne Morris (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 1984), 51.

[9]C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 293.

[10]Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 293.

[11]Russell Kirk, “The Errors of Ideology,” in The Politics of Prudence (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 1993), 1-14; Kirk, Enemies of the Permanent Things (1969; Peru, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1988), 153-71; and T.S. Eliot, After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (London, ENG: Faber & Faber, 1934).

[12]Susan Jeffreys, “Hard Hobbits to Break,” The (London) Sunday Times, 26 January 1997.

[13]Andrew Rissek, Review of Tom Shippley’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, in Guardian (London), 2 September 2000.

[14] Greere quoted in Paul Goodman, “Is This Really the Century’s Greatest Book?”, London Telegraph, 25 January 1997.

[15]Harold Bloom, “Introduction,” Modern Critical Interpretations: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, (Philadelphia, Penn.: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000), 2.

[16]On Tolkien as a cult figure, see Philip Norman, “The Prevalence of Hobbits,” New York Times Magazine (15 January 1967); and Joseph Mathewson, “The Hobbit Habit,” Esquire (September 1966).

[17]Harold Bloom, “Introduction,” Modern Critical Views: J.R.R. Tolkien (Philadelphia, Penn.: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000), 2.

[18] Edmund Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace (1797; Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1999), 65.

[19] Burke, Reflections, 128.

[20] Erik Ritter von Kuenelt-Leddihn, “The Age of the Guillotine,” in Reflections on the French Revolution: A Hillsdale Symposium, ed. Stephen Tonsor (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 1990), 79.

[21] Kirk, Politics of Prudence, 10.

[22] See Christopher Dawson, “The Left-Right Fallacy,” The Catholic Mind(April 1946), 253.

[23] Erik Ritter von Kuenelt-Leddihn, “The Age of the Guillotine,” 74.

[24] Robert Royal, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History (New York, N.Y.: Crossroad), 16.

[25] Solzhenitsyn, Gulag, vol. 1, 595.

[26] These figures come from the various estimates in R.J. Rummel, Death by Government (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Press, 1994); Stephane Courtois, et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999); and Robert Royal, Catholic Martyrs.

[27] Rummel, Death by Government, 3.

[28] Rummel, Death by Government, 13.

[29]“20th Century Saw 65% of Christian Martyrs, Says Author; Conclusions of New Study Published in Italy,” (Rome, Italy), May 9, 2002. See also, “Communism’s 100 Million Victims,” Mindszenty Report 40 (February 1998), 1-3.

[30] Rummel, Death by Government, 81.

[31] “J.R.R. Tolkien Dead at 81; Wrote ‘Lord of the Rings,’” New York Times, 3 September 1973: 18; and John Garth, “Tolkien Fantasy Born in Trenches of the Somme,” Evening Standard (London), 13 December 2001.

[32]Bill Cater, “We Talked of Love, Death, and Fairy Tales,” London Daily Telegraph, 29 November 2001, 23.

[33] See, for example, C.S. Lewis, “Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,” in On Stories and other Essays on Literature, 88.

[34] Christopher Tolkien, “The Silmarillion: A Brief Account of The Book and Its Making,” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), 3.

[35] Quoted in C. Tolkien, “The Silmarillion: A Brief Account,” 3. See, also, J.R.R. Tolkien, Oxford, to Clyde Kilby, Wheaton, Ill., December 18, 1965, in Wade Collection, JRRT to Misc. Correspondents Folder, Wheaton College, Wheaton Ill.

[36] Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in C. Tolkien, ed., The Monsters and the Critics (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), 135.

[37]Keith Brace, “In the Footsteps of the Hobbits [interview with Tolkien],” Birmingham Post, 25 March 1968.

[38]Daniel Grotta, J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth (Philadelphia, Penn.: Courage Books, 1992), 52-53. Tolkien acknowledges as much in Carpenter, ed., Letters, 303, but stressed that William Morris’s novels also influenced him.

[39]Tolkien, The Two Towers, 239.

[40] On the influence of war on a number of prominent twentieth-century authors, see Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien, vii-viii.

[41]J.R.R. Tolkien, Oxford, to William Luther White, 11 September 1967, in William Luther White, The Image of Man in C.S. Lewis (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1969), 221-22; and George Sayer, Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), 149.

[42]Sayer, Jack, 150-51.

[43]For a comprehensive list and mini-bio of each member, see Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), 255-59. On Hardie, see “Colin Hardie,” The London Times (20 October 1998).

[44]W.H. Lewis, ed., Letters of C.S. Lewis, 292.

[45]Sayer, Jack, 151-52; and Shirley Sugerman, ed., AA Conversation with Owen Barfield,@ in Evolution of Consciousness: Studies in Polarity (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1975), 9.

[46]James Dundas-Grant, AFrom an >Outsider,=@ chapter in Como, ed., C.S. Lewis, 231.

[47]Wain, Sprightly Running, 184.

[48]Dyson, quoted in A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), 217; and Warnie Lewis, Brothers and Friends, 200.

[49]Dyson quoted in Guy Davenport, “Hobbits in Kentucky,” New York Times (23 February 1979), A27. See also, Robert E. Havard, “Philia: Jack at Ease,” chapter in Como, ed., C.S. Lewis, 217.

[50]Wain, Sprightly Running, 181. See also, Robert E. Havard, APhilia: Jack at Ease,@ chapter in Como, ed., C.S. Lewis, 226.

[51]Robert E. Havard, “Philia: Jack at Ease,” chapter in Como, ed., C.S. Lewis, 217.

[52]Wain, Sprightly Running, 181.

[53]C.S. Lewis, The Kilns, to Warnie Lewis, 17 March 1940, WCWC, CSL Letters to Warnie Lewis, Letter Index 172.

[54]Wain, Sprightly Running, 181-85.

[55] Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring, 7.

[56] Daphne Castell, “Tolkien on Tolkien: Making of a Myth,” Christian Science Monitor, 11 August 1966, p. 11. See also C.S. Lewis to Father Peter Milward, 10 December 1956, in W.H. Lewis, ed., Letters of C.S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1966), 273.

[57] C.S. Lewis, On Stories, 89

[58] Curry, Defending Middle-earth, 24.

[59] Michal Semin to the author, 13 November 2000.

[60]Alan Philips, “Young Russians Seek Refuge in Tolkien’s Middle Earth,” London Telegraph, 12 February 1997.

[61]Tolkien, “English and Welsh,” 182.

[62]Carpenter, ed., Letters, 107.

[63]Carpenter, ed., Letters, 246.

[64]Carpenter, ed., Letters, 240.

[65]Carpenter, ed., Letters, 64.

[66]Edith, Tolkien’s wife, stated her dislike for the Labour Party. Tolkien made comment, but merely listened. Most likely, he agreed with her. See Sayer, “Recollections of J.R.R. Tolkien,” 15. John Wain, the youngest member of the Inklings, wrote, that the Inklings “took for granted that a Labour government was the enemy of everything they stood for.” See, John Wain, Sprightly Running (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1962), 181.

[67]Carpenter, ed., Letters, 354.

[68]Carpenter, ed., Letters, 63.

[69]Belloc, “The Modern Man,” 434.

[70]Carpenter, ed., Letters, 65.

[71]Belloc, “The Modern Man,” 435.

[72]Tolkien, “English and Welsh,” 194.

[73]Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring, 10.

[74]Carpenter, ed., Letters, 250.

[75]Lewis, On Stories, 85.

[76]Carpenter, ed., Letters, 241.

[77]See, J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Quest for Erebor,” in Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980), 321-36.

[78]Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring, 14.

[79]Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring, 18.

[80]Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring, 18-19.

[81]Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring, 19.

[82]Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring, 108.

[83]Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring, 188-89.

[84]Tolkien, Return of the King, 297.

[85]This may very well have stemmed from Aquinas’s writings, favorable toward Christian kingship. See, Thomas Aquinas, Contra Summa Gentiles, Book 1.

[86]Quoted in Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, 173-74.

[87]Charles A. Coulombe, “The Lord of the Rings–A Catholic View,” chapter in Joseph Pearce, ed., Tolkien: A Celebration, Collected Writings on a Literary Legacy (London, ENG: Fount, 1999), 56.

[88] Carpenter, ed., Letters, 376.

[89]Tolkien, The Return of the King, 246-47.

[90]Carpenter, ed., Letters, 324.

[91]Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 71.

[92]Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” in Tree and Leaf, 100.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Dr. Birzer,

    What do you mean when you say, “Christian Humanism?” I have heard that term used in a variety of different ways, sometimes to pull the teeth from and relativize anything that might be considered traditionally minded or orthodox Christianity. Is it a philosophy? What are it’s tenets? Does it have any meaning divorced from orthodox belief? From what you have written about it, all I can come up with is, “The use of the liberal arts and humanities to defend the Christian view of society and the human person from ideology.”

  2. “As one might imagine, the literati have not been pleased.”

    That’s not much of a surprise. For a long time the world’s literary snobs have looked down on writers of popular fiction, figuring, I guess, that if the public likes it, it must automatically be junk.

  3. One wonders what a Kenyan, or an Indian, or even an Irishman would have thought about Tolkien addressing a group of English and Dutch beneficiaries of imperialism as “gentle Hobbits”. Did Tolkien really view the Empire’s history through such rose-colored goggles?

  4. Modernism has blood on its hands and HItler, Stalin, and the Khmer Rouge rank among the worst tyrants in any century. In the 20 Century far too many people were killed for ideas and the implementation of “-isms”.

    Tolkien is correct in criticizing for democracy for its susceptibility to mob rule, its pandering to the lowest common denominator, its dehumanization, and its bureaucracies mindlessly flattening the globe through its insistence on consistency. Unfortunately, the type of monarchy Tolkien would like to return to never existed. The actual Roman Catholic Kings of Christendom fell short of Aragorn, sometimes abominably so.Slavery and manorialism–two systems that literally made human beings cogs in medieval agricultural machines– flourished in Christendom. How many inept, cruel men were put in charge of kingdoms because their fathers happened to rule before them? How many nieces were forced to marry their uncles (as happened commonly among the Hapsburgs) and produce sickly, inbred “nobility”?

    Though you mention the many failings and atrocities of the French revolutionaries you neglect to mention that they were rebelling against a morally and financially bankrupt Catholic monarchy. They were not rebelling against Good King Aragorn and making mayhem in the peaceful realm of Gondor. Louis xvi was a mediocre, indecisive king who didn’t have the fortitude to reform a punishing tax code and an unreasonably greedy nobility. In the 1790s France had lost all of its North American possessions in the seven years war and was nearing penury because of the support it gave to the American Revolution. A series of famines and crop failures fell particularly hard on the French peasantry, who were best by the Catholic Church in France to pay their 10% tithe (generally paid in crops). The French Bishops were so recalcitrant in their refusal to lower their demands for tithes, that many lesser clergy opened railed against them.

    Myth can be used as lens to view history, but should never be mistaken for reality.

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