A Marxist View of Tolkien’s Middle Earth
January 21, 2023 9:05 AM   Subscribe

“A Marxist View of Tolkien’s Middle Earth” by John Molyneux, 11 January 2023
J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy world is a medieval utopia with poverty and oppression airbrushed out of the picture. But Tolkien’s work also contains a romantic critique of industrial capitalism that is an important part of its vast popular appeal.
posted by ob1quixote (56 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thank you for sharing this.

With all the times I've read The Lord of the Rings, and the enormous amount of time I've spent thinking about it, it never occurred to me that there are no female Orcs.

Or maybe there were, and Frodo and the rest just assumed they were male?
posted by Zumbador at 9:40 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]


I am appreciating how accessible this writing is. I was expecting something more stereotypically scholarly, but this feels very welcoming. Nice.
posted by TangoCharlie at 9:57 AM on January 21


Michael Moorcock said it well enough in "Epic Pooh".

Tolkien is a response to the rapid changes of mid-Twentieth Century England. His response is to stick his head in the sand and idealise a past that never existed.

Same could be said about present-day Britain's leaders.
posted by happyinmotion at 10:33 AM on January 21 [12 favorites]


As for female orcs, Tolkien probably borrowed a page from Warhammer 40K, where orcs grow from spores. /jk

At least female dwarves are acknowledged in the lore (they look like male dwarves) – an aspect I’ve always enjoyed in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is the description of dwarfish courtship, which starts with a diffident, careful and tactful attempt to ascertain which gender the other dwarf is.
posted by bouvin at 10:39 AM on January 21 [18 favorites]


Tolkien is a response to the rapid changes of mid-Twentieth Century England. His response is to stick his head in the sand and idealise a past that never existed.

Tolkien is a response to the rapid changes of early twentieth century England. He was also part of the generation that fought in World War I and were forever changed by it. I think he was a very different type of person from a very different time than present-day Britain's leaders.
posted by heatherlogan at 11:01 AM on January 21 [51 favorites]


This is really good, thanks for posting!

IIRC there is something somewhere in JRRT's writings/manuscripts about how the inability of orcs to procreate is emblematic of the inability of Morgoth to actually create anything new (hearkening back to the Augustinian argument about the nature of evil, I suppose). That would perhaps suggest that orcs might have only one gender. But I might have been imagining that, IDK.

I have some lingering dissatisfaction with the aesthetic analysis at the end, which seems like it misses an obvious point -- simplicity and complexity are in a dialectical relationship, or put differently, simplification is necessary in order to achieve a full understanding of complexity. The shortcoming (in this regard) is not so much LOTR's simplification as the failure to build any bridge to integrate that simplified understanding back into our complex world. Of course, we know what sort of bridge Tolkien would have built if he had tried -- so maybe that shortcoming is itself the source of LOTR's enduring appeal, since we are left to slot in our own assumptions about how the story relates to our world.
posted by Not A Thing at 11:07 AM on January 21 [11 favorites]


From the article;
The real Middle Ages had the Black Death and numerous other plagues and famines. Nothing like this ever happens in Middle Earth, not in the ten thousand years of its Three Ages.

The LotR appendix described "the great plague", which depopulated a large chunk of Middle Earth some 700 years before the novel
posted by Luddite at 1:01 PM on January 21 [27 favorites]


The LotR appendix described "the great plague", which depopulated a large chunk of Middle Earth some 700 years before the novel

And famine, too, during the Long Winter.
posted by Novus at 1:16 PM on January 21 [8 favorites]


we know what sort of bridge Tolkien would have built if he had tried

Do we? He had children and students and my faint recollection of a Tolkien biography is that he did pretty well by both. That’s a lot of a person’s bridge to the future.
posted by clew at 1:33 PM on January 21 [10 favorites]


I was expecting an angry screed like Moorcock's, but Molyneux is pretty much right on everything, while being as generous to Tolkien as possible.

I'd add though that Tolkien puts in a few things that undercut the leader-worship and thus add to the general appeal. One is the hobbits: in a way the whole point of the book is that it isn't a wizard or a king that ultimately destroys the Ring, but a trio of hobbits, the weakest and most forgotten of Middle Earth's creatures. People like underdogs winning.
posted by zompist at 1:44 PM on January 21 [18 favorites]


The claim that middle-earth knows nothing of plague when the ruins of Osgiliath are right there looked a bit silly. But I'm sure people have been jumping on that for 10 years now.

And I'm not so surprised Tolkien is well-liked on the left. I mean, an escapist world where everyone* is so profoundly noble that there is no urgent need to fight the system? Where your 'betters' are actually, like, better and kind of deserve their good fortune?! No real poverty? A posh fantasy, but what an excellent vacation from a life that is all about class struggle and shit.

Seriously, I enjoyed that a lot.

*Sure, there's the enemy, but mostly your betters have it all covered with their councils and plans. Neat. You can join as a volunteer Hobbit if you're really really determined.
posted by Ashenmote at 2:13 PM on January 21 [8 favorites]


The hobbits are middle class and working class compared to the noble Elves and men. And they are essential. Frodo, the upper middle class hobbit, does what the nobility cannot, but himself would fail without the working-class Sam. Sam supposedly having been modelled on the working-class batmen that Tolkien knew as an officer in WWI.

Tolkien wrote somewhere something along the lines of "tugging your forelock to the squire may not be good for the squire but it's damned good for you."

A recurring theme in LOTR and its wider universe is the value of humility and the sin of pride. Galadriel passes the test. Boromir fails.

So this is part of the appeal. The humble are valued, uplifted. The working class is valorised (in a patronising way). It's the hierarchical propaganda of knowing your place, and staying in your place being virtuous, rewarded, AND APPRECIATED. Valuing working people and their lives is a good thing from a left perspective, so there's that.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:23 PM on January 21 [8 favorites]


he did pretty well by both.

I mean sure, but I thought we were talking about Molyneux's aesthetic criticism of the Lord of the Rings as being too simplistic. In that respect I just meant to say that if Tolkien had done a more complete job of bridging the gap between Middle Earth simplicity and modern-day complexity in LOTR, he would probably have done so in line with his reactionary opinions about that complexity. There is already a bit of that in the Cleansing of the Shire (probably the part of LOTR that comes closest to a deliberate allegory for modern-day issues), and if he had done more of it we probably wouldn't find the result quite so pleasing.

As somebody might have said, you can either die a Tolkien, or keep writing long enough to become an Orson Scott Card.
posted by Not A Thing at 2:41 PM on January 21 [5 favorites]


This was a good read, none of the axe grinding one might fear.

I’m surprised given the author’s observations about the idealized society of Middle Earth where all evil stems directly from Morgoth’s original sin that there’s not more examination of the scouring of the Shire—where we finally see evil on a small scale. Tolkien describes a Shire which is so lush as to be almost post-scarcity, and to require so little governance as to be almost anarchical. Saurumon and company make it a police state where no one has enough to eat. I’ve never known quite what to make of that part, though it’s quite affecting. Is seems that the hobbits can look after themselves now that they’ve matured, and they might have to, because even after the literal return of the King, they’re kind of on their own as far as the minor-league evils they’ll have to face in the Fourth Age. It seems to cut against the theme of all being right with the world now that the King is back.
posted by skewed at 2:50 PM on January 21 [11 favorites]


I'm reminded of Tolkien's letter to his son during the War, where he talks of Anarchism (positively):

29 November 1943

[In the summer of 1943, Christopher, then aged eighteen, was called up into the Royal Air Force. When this letter was written, he was at a training camp in Manchester.]

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! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to ‘King George’s council, Winston and his gang’, it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy. 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. And at least it is done only to a small group of men who know who their master is. The mediævals were only too right in taking nolo episcopari as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop. Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. And soon down the line. But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that – after all only the fatal weakness of all good natural things in a bad corrupt unnatural world – is that it works and has worked only when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way. The quarrelsome, conceited Greeks managed to pull it off against Xerxes; but the abominable chemists and engineers have put such a power into Xerxes’ hands, and all ant-communities, that decent folk don’t seem to have a chance. We are all trying to do the Alexander-touch – and, as history teaches, that orientalized Alexander and all his generals. The poor boob fancied (or liked people to fancy) he was the son of Dionysus, and died of drink. The Greece that was worth saving from Persia perished anyway; and became a kind of Vichy-Hellas, or Fighting-Hellas (which did not fight), talking about Hellenic honour and culture and thriving on the sale of the early equivalent of dirty postcards. But the special horror of the present world is that the whole damned thing is in one bag. There is nowhere to fly to. Even the unlucky little Samoyedes, I suspect, have tinned food and the village loudspeaker telling Stalin’s bed-time stories about Democracy and the wicked Fascists who eat babies and steal sledge-dogs. There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as ‘patriotism’, may remain a habit! But it won’t do any good, if it is not universal. Well, cheers and all that to you dearest son. We were born in a dark age out of due time (for us). But there is this comfort: otherwise we should not know, or so much love, what we do love. I imagine the fish out of water is the only fish to have an inkling of water. Also we have still small swords to use. ‘I will not bow before the Iron Crown, nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.’ Have at the Orcs, with winged words, hildenasddran (war-adders), biting darts – but make sure of the mark, before shooting.

posted by BenAstrea at 3:01 PM on January 21 [26 favorites]


Yeah, my dad sent me a lot of letters along these lines.
posted by skewed at 3:34 PM on January 21 [10 favorites]


This is a fascinating sentence: "The issue of homophobia does not arise in Tolkien because, of course, there is no such thing as homosexuality in the imaginary world of Middle Earth."

I generally enjoyed the essay, but the idea that homophobia does not arise because "there is no such thing as homosexuality" seems overly simplistic and refuted by other parts of the article. Molyneux notes China Miéville's critique that making races "meaningful" is in itself a political choice, but doesn't seem to draw the connection to other choices that Tolkien made.

Even if you assume that we're talking about in-universe homophobia, as opposed to the homophobia that leads to writing a world with no gay people in it, I think there's a lot more analysis necessary about how gender and sexuality choices are portrayed in the books to draw this conclusion. (Analysis which I'm certainly not qualified to do, not being a Tolkien fan on par with the author or others in this thread.)
posted by kserra at 3:37 PM on January 21 [7 favorites]




I mean, I swear to god, there are not that many things that get my intellectual goat as reliably as the frickin Jacobin. Let's recap.

1. The Lord of The Rings is stupid, and there's no earthly reason why we should stop reading Brecht to even.

2. However, the unwashed plebeians seem to care. So we must too! For this and no other reason, let's demonstrate that we spent thousands of hours developing a deep understanding of this drivel.

3. This is not an allegory for anything. It's too dumb to be one.

4. However, let us now develop a complex theory of how it is an allegory for everything!

5. Where by "everything" we mean the eternal class struggle, if that wasn't evident.

6. I guess the ham-fisted part in the end, where they have to liberate the Shire from evil capitalists? I guess that part's OK though.
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 7:43 PM on January 21 [5 favorites]


Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers.

My current obsession with neurodivergence, and my personal conviction that Tolkien was autistic makes this so intriguing.

Also the fact that autistic people are often simultaneously oblivious to social hierarchy, and rigid about rules. Which creates an interesting contradiction.
posted by Zumbador at 8:19 PM on January 21 [4 favorites]


OT, but I don't see how that's a contradiction. Hierarchy and equality before the law are fundamentally incompatible. After all, the whole point of climbing a hierarchical ladder is so that (in one sense or another) you don't have to play by the same rules as everyone else. Anyone who claims to believe in the rule of law and is not an anarchist is not being serious.

To bring this back to the OP, I would be very interested (perhaps even more interested) in reading a similar analysis of Tolkien from an anarchist standpoint. Anybody know of one?
posted by Not A Thing at 8:41 PM on January 21


Is it off topic?

OT, but I don't see how that's a contradiction. Hierarchy and equality before the law are fundamentally incompatible

Rules and laws are not the same, and I wasn't referring to laws in my comment. 🙂

One aspect of being neurodivergent (specifically autistic) is that I can't help absorbing rules and having to consciously resist just adopting them.

Like, my sister happened to mention that she likes to eat savoury food from plates or bowls that are warm tertiary colours, (red brown, cream, etc) and sweet foods from blue or white crockery. That offhand comment stuck with me permanently and I still have to fend off the urge to match food and crockery colours.

I have many other examples.

I think it's because of growing up having to accept and adopt so many arbitrary (to me) social rules about how to interact with people, or else suffer pretty severe displeasure from everyone.

So, just speaking about myself, I'm frequently oblivious to social hierarchy and speak to my boss in far too familiar a way, or keep asking questions of people above me in the hierarchy that are interpreted as rude and arrogant, when I'm just asking for information.

But I also accept the rules created by the people "in charge" and will either follow the rules, or openly state that I won't follow them because of [reason].

Most people I know just ignore rules that they find inconvenient and do what they want.

To me, that seems like a contradiction.
posted by Zumbador at 9:45 PM on January 21 [4 favorites]


As fond as I am of reading Tolkien takes I found the review kind of bloodless. A lot of times he seems to gesture down towards interesting paths (and fairly well travelled ones, too) but never goes down them.

I have a lot of problems with calling something feudalism just because there are hereditary titles, but it's especially odd coming from a Marxist who's already talking about means of production. There's really nothing in the LoTR on how production or politics is organized. The sources of wealth for the great men--and even the bourgeoise hobbits--are even less a part of the narrative than they are in Mansfield Park. (And if you are going to mention Edward Said, why not do it there?). The hobbits have silverware and iron plows, without the need for greedy silversmiths, let alone miners. This seems more important than the lack of poverty--the lack of labor. It's the ultimate in enjoying your life in comfort while the nasty bits get outsourced.

In a lot of ways Middle Earth, when it works the way Tolkien thinks it should, makes me think of the idealization of the English countryside that was so common then, the sort of thing Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc took even more seriously. In the American sphere, it's like Jefferson's idea of yeoman farmer's for Americans--everyone is well off, educated, and not required to do back breaking labor. But also definitely not urban immigrants, bankers, or factory workers. Tolkien's big advantage is that it's fantasy.

it never occurred to me that there are no female Orcs.

Or maybe there were, and Frodo and the rest just assumed they were male?


The mistake was not Frodo's. All the orcs encountered are soldiers, and female soldiers aren't part of Tolkien's imagination. Women warrior-heroes, occasionally. But even for Eowyn, Tolkien has Gandalf say that the end that her desire to fight instead of doing womanly stuff was a sign of how bad things had gotten.
posted by mark k at 11:19 PM on January 21 [7 favorites]


A reminder that even in The Lord of the Rings there are little glimpses of the orcs as creatures who think independently of their masters:
[after a discussion of living near the Nazgûl and Shelob]

"I'd like to try somewhere where there's none of 'em. But the war's on now, and when that's over things may be easier."

"It's going well, they say."

"They would." grunted Gorbag. "We'll see. But anyway, if it does go well, there should be a lot more room. What d'you say? - if we get a chance, you and me'll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there's good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses."

"Ah!" said Shagrat. "Like old times."

"Yes," said Gorbag. "But don't count on it. I'm not easy in my mind. As I said, the Big Bosses, ay," his voice sank almost to a whisper, "ay, even the Biggest, can make mistakes. Something nearly slipped you say. I say, something has slipped. And we've got to look out. Always the poor Uruks to put slips right, and small thanks. But don't forget: the enemies don't love us any more than they love Him, and if they get topsides on Him, we're done too..."
posted by The Tensor at 11:46 PM on January 21 [20 favorites]


The Tensor, that conversation always struck me as significant too.

And I think there was also a hint of this interior life and independence in the conversation between the orks Grishnákh and Ugluk, and the fact that Grishnákh knew about the ring and tried to get it for himself.

‘Nazgûl, Nazgûl,’ said Grishnákh, shivering and licking his lips, as if the word had a foul taste that he savoured painfully. ‘You speak of what is deep beyond the reach of your muddy dreams, Uglúk,’ he said. ‘Nazgûl! Ah! All that they make out! One day you'll wish that you had not said that. Ape!’ he snarled fiercely. 'You ought to know that they're the apple of the Great Eye. But the winged Nazgûl: not yet, not yet. He won't let them show themselves across the Great River yet, not too soon. They're for the War-and other purposes.’

I am also reminded of Sam's musings about the Haradrim

It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would rather have stayed there in peace.
posted by Zumbador at 12:19 AM on January 22 [13 favorites]


I like the essay, but I think Molyneux missed something fundamental about the structure of the Lord of the Rings. To be fair, almost everyone has, except Ursula K. Le Guin, of course, who pointed out that every crucial character of Tolkien’s novel has a double. Gandalf has Sauron, Aragon has the Witch-King, Frodo has Gollum, etc. This is even acknowledged by characters in the book, when they set up the Fellowship of the Ring as a mirror of the Ringwraiths.

Le Guin further points out that this goes too for larger aspects of the world-building, Elves and Orcs are clear doubles, for instance, and so are Gondor and Mordor, Lothlorien and Mirkwood, and so on. I think that also goes for feudalism. The good parts of feudalism, as Tolkien saw them, reside in the free peoples, while the bad parts are in the peoples under the yoke of Sauron.

Though if I had to draw parallels with Marx, I think that the way Tolkien characterized the social relations between Sauron and his subjects is probably closer to Marx’s orientalist fantasy of “the asiatic mode of production”, than any actual feudalism. But then any analogies between Lord of the Rings and real world history tend to break down when compared to the complexity of the work.
posted by Kattullus at 12:47 AM on January 22 [21 favorites]


My understanding is that Tolkien started writing about Middle Earth because he was annoyed that the English didn't have their own folklore and mythology. He was especially annoyed by the Norman invasion. Lord of the Rings as a trilogy of novels was just a tiny fragment of his overall mission to create an English Folk Mythology, and not even the most 'important' part, to him.
posted by lazaruslong at 2:57 AM on January 22 [4 favorites]


The original has long ago succumbed to bitrot, and this link includes some extraneous editorialising, but China Mieville's 50 Science Fiction and Fantasy Works Every Socialist Should Read is an excellent resource on this broad topic.
posted by prismatic7 at 4:53 AM on January 22 [3 favorites]


every crucial character of Tolkien’s novel has a double. Gandalf has Sauron, Aragon has the Witch-King, Frodo has Gollum, etc

Someone once had an essay talking about this mirror concept as an illustration of the three traditional Christian "theological virtues" of faith, hope, and charity, specifically in terms of three pairs of characters who either had a certain virtue or didn't.

First there's Aragorn, who has enough faith in something - destiny, or maybe just his companions - to resist the ring and put forth all his effort to help his friends and see the plan through, even when the situation seems hopeless. Versus either Boromir or Denethor (can't remember which), who both lose faith and then lose their humility, seeking to lash out, seize power, accept no help when help is needed.

Then there's Gandalf, who represents hope, whose magic is much more about kindling hope and courage in the people of middle earth than it is about firing off badass spells. Versus Saruman, who gives in to despair, surrenders to Sauron, and betrays his own reason for coming to Middle Earth in the first place.

Then there's Frodo, who shows a sense of charity to Gollum, versus Sam, who does not. This one is interesting to me because I've heard many people describe Sam as the real hero of the story, but I have always bristled at how mean -- how uncharitable -- Sam is to Gollum.

LOTR is very, very easy to poke holes in. It's big, it's popular. It's dismissed as lowbrow and childish by certain snobbish types. Its latent racism and sexism are obviously Achilles heels, and I think they create the books' biggest weak spot: its orcs (and indeed the human Haradrim, Variags, and Easterlings) are almost never presented as anything but irredeemably bad, which means that not only is Tolkien's depiction of them cruel (uncharitable!) and unrealistic and bigoted, these entire groups of characters are tremendously fucking boring.

But the story still has something going for it. Comparing it to a lot of the popular fantasy of today, there's something I fundamentally like about Tolkien's story that a lot of recent fantasy doesn't have. Namely, Tolkien is very leery about power fantasies. What is the One Ring, anyway, if not the temptation of the ultimate power fantasy? A lot of storytelling these days either implicitly or explicitly extols the virtue of finally flexing your muscles -- realizing your inner strength -- coming into your power -- honing your power -- believing in your own power -- gaining the mastery. Something inside me has never trusted this line of thinking, never found it relatable. It's always been a turnoff for me. It all smells a bit like reheated Horatio Alger. Meanwhile, Frodo's strength lies in his abiding humility against the lure of the ultimate power fantasy - and in the charity he shows to Gollum, because he recognizes his own frailty in Gollum's frailty. He acknowledges, as Sam does not, that whatever Gollum has become, that could be me, that probably will be me, because I'm fundamentally just as fallible as this pathetic whining asshole. To me, that's the thing at the heart of LOTR that makes it an important story to me.
posted by cubeb at 7:30 AM on January 22 [44 favorites]


My favorite part of "A Marxist View of Tolkien’s Middle Earth" is the pay-per-click sidebar ads offering to sell me a book about abolitionist feminism.
posted by metametamind at 8:15 AM on January 22 [7 favorites]


Blaming Jacobin for enshittification seems beside the point, like complaining about Che Guevara t-shirts. David Bowie made that joke about socialists in "Life on Mars" several decades ago, and it has not gotten more witty.

The existence of Che Guevara t-shirts does not disprove the theories of commodity fetishism, y'all. ( I mean, in fact, the opposite is more true.)

But I do agree that the article is shallow. I would take a page from American socialist theorists, who have written things like Parecon--and examine how Tolkien's jobs affect his politics.

I think one of the key aspects is that Tolkien is writing as a soldier--someone, most often travelling, given for dead within an inescapable hierarchy. Of course, Tolkien's job as an Oxford linguist is also affecting the books, but the soldierly aspects of the authorship are less examined.

Although the Rings books aren't about any particular war, Tolkien is writing from the perspective of doing a particular job.

This frame explains to me, at least, the focus on hierarchies, and why there are no women, except in the Shire or in the background. The book reads like someone shipped out for war--which is also very British-soldiery.

My understanding is that Tolkien started writing about Middle Earth because he was annoyed that the English didn't have their own folklore and mythology. He was especially annoyed by the Norman invasion. Lord of the Rings as a trilogy of novels was just a tiny fragment of his overall mission to create an English Folk Mythology, and not even the most 'important' part, to him.
posted by lazaruslong at 2:57 AM on January 22 [1 favorite −] Favorite added! [!]


As a Norman by descent this is fascinating to me and I would love to read Tolkien's fannish hate screeds about The Once and Future King
posted by eustatic at 10:08 AM on January 22 [5 favorites]


anyway, i take back the criticism of the article being 'shallow', since i learned something about "Feudal Socialism', which sounds like something the republican party in the US has been doing.

but i suppose the article is a little flat because i have read deeper takes on each one of the criticisms on race and gender; the author is giving us a survey of criticisms, and not spending a lot of time on each.
posted by eustatic at 10:33 AM on January 22 [2 favorites]


cubeb: Then there's Frodo, who shows a sense of charity to Gollum, versus Sam, who does not.

My interpretation is that Sam is jealous of Gollum. I think that part is pretty clear from the text. The question, however, of what is the root of his jealousy, is more difficult to answer.

I think there are three reasonably obvious interpretations. The first is that Sam considers Frodo his friend, and he doesn’t like that Frodo is hanging out with someone who’s clearly such bad news. At first that explanation seems kinda ludicrous, because his reactions are way over the top for that scenario, but I think that particular theory can be made to work, if you consider Frodo and Gollum to be doubles, and that what Sam doesn’t like is seeing the bad side of Frodo, that hunger for power that ultimately almost dooms their quest.

The second interpretation is that Sam considers himself Frodo’s servant, and doesn’t like it that someone else has muscled in on his turf. But the problem is that Sam doesn’t seem to really think of Gollum as a competitor in that sense, as Gollum’s not doing the kind of nurturing work that comes so easily to Sam, whose self image is tied up in his skill as a gardener. However, again the double motif comes to our rescue, because if we think of Gollum as Sam’s double, then what Sam doesn’t like is seeing his own bad side, his need for validation from people higher up the social scale.

The third interpretation is both the most obvious and the most slippery. Sam and Frodo are a romantic pair, and Sam doesn’t like not being the center of attention anymore. There are many advantages to that theory, principally that there’s a lot in the text to support that. The way that their relationship is linked to Sam’s gardening skills only really has one parallel in the book, Faramir’s tending for Eowyn, which is one of the two major heteronormative pairings in the book. Also, there’s that moment when Sam is described as fighting to rescue Frodo with the ferocity of a small animal battling for his mate. And not to mention that when Sam gives back the one ring, he does so on his knees. Oh, and that Frodo expects Sam to move in with him once they’re back in the Shire, and is momentarily put out when Sam says he can’t because he’s marrying Rosie (though he does say there’s room for everyone). Without forgetting that Sam goes off to the Grey Havens after Rosie dies, looking to join Frodo in another world (though it’s not stated whether he gets to do that). But also, crucially, there’s no need to consider anyone a double to make romantic jealousy work as the root of Sam’s hostility to Gollum.

It’s a basic human emotion and doesn’t need any theoretical framework to fit the text. That said, it also neatly folds both doublings into itself. The only thing that’s worse than being faced with a constant reminder of your beloved’s worst aspects, is being constantly reminded of your own.

However, what’s slippery about it is that the other romantic relationships are very heteronormative. They’re weird in other ways, e.g. Aragorn’s incredibly long courtship of Arwen, but they fit the basic cishet template. But I think the way out of that thinking is twofold. First, there are very, very few romantic relationships in the book. I’ve mentioned all three of them already, and the only other contender for entry is the legendary tale of Beren and Luthien. And they’re all non-standard, Aragorn’s decades long courtship, as mentioned, the meeting of two war heroes in Eowyn and Faramir, and that Rosie and Sam move into the house of Sam’s friend. All three are kinda odd, so in that sense a romance between two male hobbits isn’t that much of an outlier.

And as I’ve mentioned, there’s a clear parallel between the way Sam tends to the wounded and traumatized Frodo to how Faramir tends to the wounded and traumatized Eowyn. Oh, and remember how Sam runs off to the Grey Havens and probably dies? You know who else does something like that? After Aragorn dies, Arwen runs off to Lothlorien and wanders about for a bit and dies.

I’m not saying Sam doesn’t love Rosie, but I’m pretty sure the text makes it clear that he loves Frodo too, and Frodo returns the emotion.
posted by Kattullus at 1:39 PM on January 22 [5 favorites]


But isn't there English folklore? The Arthurian legends. Beowulf, which Tolkien himself rescued from dusty obscurity. OK, maybe he thought there should be more.
posted by sjswitzer at 2:14 PM on January 22 [3 favorites]


I am also reminded of Sam's musings about the Haradrim

(and indeed the human Haradrim, Variags, and Easterlings) are almost never presented as anything but irredeemably bad

Just an observation that the Haradrim (and other Middle-earth humans) were at one point in history victims of the colonising and world domination of the Numenoreans (Aragorn's ancestors). The Numenoreans were the greatest empire the world had seen during the Second Age, became oppressive, and it all came crashing down (literally) when they finally overreached.

As I interpret it, mistrust was against the Dunedain survivors of Numenor was sowed during these ancient times among their colonial victims, and was not without a degree of logic and contributed to the division of Men, although forgiveness and mercy are also important virtues in these works.

The 'Men of the West' - descendants of Earendil, Aragorn's people - were not necessarily good at all points in history - indeed, the Numenoreans became pirates and slave-traders who committed human sacrifice and (in Ar-Pharazon's case) forced his cousin to marry him against her will. A key theme in Tolkien's works as a whole (although maybe not at all clear from just reading LotR, which concerns a relatively small time period in the whole legendarium) is how peoples in all times and places can succumb to evil.

Along similar lines, from the article :

They are by no means perfect, capable of both error and “sin,” and at various times are seduced by the wiles of Morgoth or Sauron, but, unless I am mistaken, no elf in the whole history of Arda ever actually joins the “dark side” and fights with the Enemy.

Maeglin betraying the location of Gondolin to Morgoth is the obvious exception, but this aside, to me this quote misses a point central to Tolkien's whole worldview.

While definitely enemies of Morgoth, the whole point of the Silmarillion is how, much like the Numenoreans in a later Age, many of the 'greatest' Elves were so consumed by pride and hate that they succumbed to evil - the three Kinslayings committed by Feanor and his sons being the prime examples, along with Celegorm's attempted abduction and attempted rape of Luthien. Thingol is also a somewhat morally grey character. Indeed, the greatest crimes committed by inhabitants of Arda (apart from the likes of Morgoth or Sauron) were at the door of Elves. One reason why the Elves of the Third Age 'seem' so pure is that only the good ones survived the cataclysms of the First Age - and furthermore had countless centuries to reflect on their and their kin's past misdeeds.

Pride leading to a fall and ultimate destruction is perhaps the central theme of the whole legendarium, and nobody is immune - from Melkor to Feanor to Ar-Pharazon, and the greatest are oftentimes the most susceptible. Whereas those who can resist it (such as Galadriel) are ultimately saved.
posted by plep at 2:23 PM on January 22 [13 favorites]


But isn't there English folklore? The Arthurian legends. Beowulf, which Tolkien himself rescued from dusty obscurity. OK, maybe he thought there should be more.

I think the idea is that there’s next to nothing left of the indigenous culture of the people of England after it was conquered/settled/whatever by the Romans, the Vikings, the Germanic tribes including the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings again, and then the Normans. Arthur and Beowulf I believe both date to the Anglo-Saxon period.
posted by skewed at 2:27 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


the whole point of the Silmarillion is how, much like the Numenoreans in a later Age, many of the 'greatest' Elves were so consumed by pride and hate that they succumbed to evil

Yes, one shouldn't mistake the morality of Tolkien's world to be a simple matter of opposing teams. Anyone with power (except Iluvatar, I suppose) can fall, and that doesn't mean they immediately go find their nearest representative of Morgoth to sign up.
posted by praemunire at 2:40 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]


I think the article makes a good point that Tolkien appeals to left and liberal people in a way you wouldn't expect if it has a purely conservative worldview.

But I think he's looking for too much consistency. I think Tolkien didn't really have a coherent socioeconomic worldview at all.

I was reading an article lately which talked about fascism as being based more on "vibes" than consistency, in that case a vibe of hatred and permanent conflict.

If you look at the Ents, they're told some news, they go through a collective decision-making process that must have been written by someone who's gone through collective decision-making processes, then go to war as equals against an industrialist, hierarchical institution. The Shire is a cosy world without any apparent government apart from some sort of mayor. The good kings mostly lead by example and inspiration, not through coercive force and bureaucracy: Aragorn could be Nestor Makhno.

Tolkien has a vibe of anarchy, even though the actual world-building is embedded in a traditionalist set of structures that don't seem like they could operate anarchically.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:59 PM on January 22 [14 favorites]



If you look at the Ents, they're told some news, they go through a collective decision-making process that must have been written by someone who's gone through collective decision-making processes, then go to war as equals against an industrialist, hierarchical institution.

This is so true.

Makes me want to look at leadership and decision making through the whole story like the Council of Elrond, the Company of the Ring deciding on their route through Moria or not, Aragon, Gimli and Legolas deciding whether to follow Frodo and Sam or the captured hobbits, and so on.
posted by Zumbador at 12:35 AM on January 23 [4 favorites]


Then there's Frodo, who shows a sense of charity to Gollum, versus Sam, who does not. This one is interesting to me because I've heard many people describe Sam as the real hero of the story, but I have always bristled at how mean -- how uncharitable -- Sam is to Gollum.

I think there's another view which is to think of them as class stereotypes of attitudes towards foreigners. Frodo is is willing to accept and forgive Gollum's strangeness while Sam displays a salt-of-the-earth working class mistrust of the strange. Notably, they're both right - Frodo is right to show mercy but also to try and understand Gollum but Sam is ultimately right in a pragmatic way. I wonder what his own wartime service was like in that regard? Fighting Germans whose language he knew, whose culture he was familiar with (he'd even been abroad to the German speaking part of Switzerland before the war which would have been very unusual at the time). He might well have had an interaction with a grizzled sergeant or two who felt that the only good German was a good one, something which would have been both a horrific and alien thought to Tolkien and also pragmatically true for a junior officer who might face one.

However, what’s slippery about it is that the other romantic relationships are very heteronormative. They’re weird in other ways, e.g. Aragorn’s incredibly long courtship of Arwen, but they fit the basic cishet template. But I think the way out of that thinking is twofold. First, there are very, very few romantic relationships in the book. I’ve mentioned all three of them already, and the only other contender for entry is the legendary tale of Beren and Luthien. And they’re all non-standard, Aragorn’s decades long courtship, as mentioned, the meeting of two war heroes in Eowyn and Faramir, and that Rosie and Sam move into the house of Sam’s friend. All three are kinda odd, so in that sense a romance between two male hobbits isn’t that much of an outlier.

They're definitely cishet, but I'd be careful of using "heteronormative" about relationships that are so odd. Actually though, Sam and Rosie living together in the house of their employer would not be so unusual for higher domestic servants in the era of Tolkien's childhood (live in domestic servants almost completely disappeared for all but the most outrageously rich during and after WWI).

Ironically for an attempt at creating a substitute ancient folklore, LOTR is so imbued with Christian values that there's no way it could be from pre-Christian Northern Europe. Germanic folktales and Icelandic Saga do not typically have happy endings due to the victories of the small and the humble.
posted by atrazine at 2:31 AM on January 23 [5 favorites]


I think a lot of the Inklings' work has to be understood not as Christian allegory, but as science fiction where Christianity is just true.

The most obvious case is C.S. Lewis' space trilogy starting with "Out of the Silent Planet", where a human character visits Mars and finds a world where the Fall never happened and the sentient-horse-like inhabitants live in their own Eden. But Narnia had similar origins: he imagined a world with talking animals and naturally wondered what form Christ would take in such a world. They're not quite allegories in that "here is a particular message I wish to convey by making X stand for Y". But they take for granted that Christianity is how the world is, so that comes out in certain aspects of the world. So when Eustace gets undragoned by Aslan in "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader", it's a baptism, but it's not "here's why you should get baptized, kids", it's a form of baptism that happens in that world, which is both painful and disturbing as well as transformative and exhilarating.

So the lost myths of the Anglo Saxons were presumably not much like Christian myths in real life. (The earliest Bible stories aren't much like Christian myths either, with Rachel stealing the household gods, and God apparently talking to the other gods). But because to Tolkien, Christianity is true, it's obvious that the unpolluted Anglo-Saxon myths would be much like Christian stories.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:57 AM on January 23 [7 favorites]


Apropos of very little, the apple of the Great Eye is one of the best turns of phrase in all Tolkien. I snicker every single time I read it. The Orc dialogues in LotR are all wonderful goldmines.

Morgoth may have been incapable of creation, but the Orcs must have an independent existence from him, because he would never have been able to conceive of such a thing as a pun.
posted by goblin-bee at 6:55 AM on January 23 [7 favorites]


But isn't there English folklore? The Arthurian legends. Beowulf, which Tolkien himself rescued from dusty obscurity. OK, maybe he thought there should be more.

From Letter #131
Also – and here I hope I shall not sound absurd – I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing its 'faerie' is too lavish, and fantastical, incoherent and repetitive. For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.

For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary 'real' world. (I am speaking, of course, of our present situation, not of ancient pagan, pre-Christian days. And I will not repeat what I tried to say in my essay, which you read.)
posted by lazaruslong at 7:23 AM on January 23 [6 favorites]


Without attributing to Tolkien the opinions of some of his readers, I guess it's probably still relevant to this thread that this happened: "Italy's Far-Right Leader Giorgia Meloni Is a 'Lord of the Rings' Stan": "Tolkien has been an icon in the Italian far-right for the last 50 years. It started in the 70s, with the publication of the Italian translation of Lord of the Rings. The preface of this first edition was written by Elémire Zolla, an expert in the history of religion and esotericism and a philosopher of great influence within the Italian right. According to Zolla, the novel should be understood as a hymn to tradition, Christianity and purity."
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:19 AM on January 23


Sounds like the Italian far right is pretty bad at reading! LotR isn't about preserving tradition, it's about the inevitable ending of old ways of life. It's not about defending territorial integrity: Gondor's whole approach is shown to be wrongheaded and futile. It's not about saving the world through purity of soul: Frodo fails this test at the critical moment. Yes, there are evil foreign hordes, but cross-cultural solidarity is what allows the good guys to prevail. And there's nothing distinctively right-wing about self-sacrifice for the common good or ecological critiques of modernity. Above all, the whole point of the book is that power must be renounced, not seized, which is a fundamentally anti-fascist message.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 2:53 PM on January 23 [11 favorites]


So LOTR doesn't echo an imaginary, hypothetical English tradition Tolkien wished existed, per the quote from Tolkien right above? It's not a plausible reading that it romanticizes a sort of pastoral anarchism--that is, in the reactionary sense of idealizing a past that never could have existed? It's not consonant with Christian readings?

Bear in mind, I'm not suggesting Tolkien's a problem to enjoy or that he didn't supply evidence for contrary readings as well. Rather, what Zolla et al. appear to see in it doesn't seem made up from whole cloth--they probably are taking advantage of the kinds of issues outlined in the Jacobin article and in this thread. If it's worth knowing the far right does this with fantasy, myth, 'Western' tradition in general (but less so with texts that are more clear), it's probably worth knowing that it's happening with Tolkien.
posted by Wobbuffet at 3:38 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


I'm saying we should lay claim to the good bits of LotR rather than ceding it to the fascists. Obviously the book has plenty of reactionary elements -- above all, the idea that there's a natural social order in which some people are inherently superior or inferior (which is the source of most of the book's flaws, as described by Molyneux and others, and the reason I'd never describe Tolkien as an anarchist). But I think the fascist readings are misreadings. They go against the grain of the text and misunderstand most of Tolkien's major thematic points.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 4:17 PM on January 23 [8 favorites]


Taking seriously the idea that the 'whole point of the book is that power must be renounced, not seized, which is a fundamentally anti-fascist message' ... am I misremembering that Frodo's alternative futures don't include one where he seizes power to become another Sauron but one where he is instead seized by corruption to become another Gollum--losing his 'ownmost' self--or else, according to Tolkien, simply getting "crushed to dust"? Other powerful people spend most of their lives exercising superior abilities in ways we're supposed to read as cautious if not wise, and accordingly heroes who might have the option get brief side moments where they decline to make themselves like their obviously terrible and spiritually hollowed-out enemies. It doesn't seem strained to read all of this as a story allowing heroes strengths/points of view 'authentic' to themselves that they never renounce but rather draw on wherever they know how to resist the enemy's corruption--i.e. themes that aren't hard to find in right wing thought, including in Zolla's foreword to LOTR where Gollum is played up as the alternative ("Gollum had forgotten the leaves, the treetops, the buds that open to the air, that is, the destination of the things that are their principle, the entelechy"--textually not wrong, just ugh).
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:07 PM on January 23


I'm not entirely sure what point you are making and I'm trying to.

If it is just about some far right groups liking Tolkien and that "...it's probably worth knowing that it's happening with Tolkien" then point taken, we know that many groups are bad at reading comprehension and will find succor in media properties that are unrelated or even opposed to their stated ideology.

This is common. See also the rightwing GOP in USA using the Village People's "YMCA" at their rallies etc.
posted by lazaruslong at 6:23 AM on January 24


Sure, as far as I know, there are no left-wing critiques of "YMCA," but there are left-wing critiques of Middle Earth--many right here in the thread and linked article. That there are left-wing critiques is already a significant indication that a text is tractable to right-wing readings--not misreadings, but stuff the right is picking up on that does have textual support. In Italy, that's happening, substantially influenced by the foreword to LOTR written by Elémire Zolla. However, also in this thread, there's a claim that Tolkien's text has "a fundamentally anti-fascist message" involving the renunciation of power that proves Zolla et al. in Italy are wrong. I think it doesn't?

The book's "natural social order" is foundational, and I don't recall major characters renouncing the powers the text grants as appropriate (Tom Bombadil sort of does, I guess--a character who represents "a delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself"? If that's right, what an amazingly Heideggerian vibe). The others' dilemmas arise in how to handle the corrupting influence of a powerful enemy--including the sense they might think they're doing good by working with the enemy's tools. Some characters want to try it, but the wise ones who know how dreadful the enemy is and what corruption would look like say no. The innocent character who's stuck dealing with it ultimately gives in to the enemy's power--briefly giving up the good sense of hobbits that makes them unusually resistant to corruption. I don't think this is an unambiguous "anti-fascist" message--I think it's how the right often thinks about themselves.

I'm sure it makes sense to propagate more agreeable readings--or just enjoy it as a fantasy novel or whatever--but it also makes sense to understand that's what's happening, not that it's textually unfounded to read another way.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:12 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


Clearly there are some fascist Tolkien fans. But there are even fascist Star Wars fans, so even "this franchise is explicitly about defeating my ideology" isn't an absolute barrier for them. I feel like fascists are more often attracted to Norse mythology, then myth/history about the Spartans and the Romans, before Tolkien. E.g. if I see a tattoo of Nordic runes I think "Is this guy a fascist", but I wouldn't be bothered if someone sat down next to me on a bus with Quenya script all over his arms.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:33 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]


I don't recall major characters renouncing the powers the text grants as appropriate

Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond literally leave the world in order to make way for a new age in which their kind of power no longer exists. Previously, Galadriel and Elrond had both withdrawn into private refuges rather than using their power to impose their will on their world, while Gandalf mostly went around giving counsel that was largely disregarded instead of making full use of his authentic power as a Maia (which was occluded when he came to Middle-earth precisely because that kind of power would be wrong to use).

I think you're correct that the right often sees itself as the little guy resisting corruption, although I don't think that's exclusively a right-wing thing. The fascist move in those circumstances is to use violence to seize power, eliminate corrupting influences, and maintain a "purer" social order centered on obedience to authority. That's what Saruman tried to do. It's what Boromir suggests at the Council, and it's what Frodo inadvertently suggests when he offers the Ring to Gandalf and Galadriel. Aside from the scouring of the Shire (which is highly problematic!), the book is very, very clear that this strategy is no good. It is not possible to achieve good ends by using power in an active way; at best you can use it passively and non-violently, and even that is no longer possible at the end of the Third Age.

I suspect the other compelling image for the right in LotR, especially the European right, is Gondor: the strong military state selflessly preserving everyone's way of life by defending its borders against the evil foreign hordes. But again, the book shows that this mentality is ultimately a trap that not only turns the kingdom into a hollow, lifeless shell of past glories, but leads directly to the fascistic temptations of power. Gondor is a critique-in-advance of Fortress Europe. (That said, the return of the King is another reactionary fantasy: the restoration of an authority figure from an older, purer tradition.)
posted by Gerald Bostock at 1:21 PM on January 24 [4 favorites]


The return of the king! This makes me think it would be neat to pair this article with an analysis of the politics of Terry Pratchett, with particular reference to Captain Carrot and Vimes, the horror of monarchy and the reluctant use of power. Pratchett is in dialogue with Tolkein and all his imitators. Mmmm it's coming to me, type type type.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:56 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]


Pratchett’s depiction of Vetinari evolves from Machiavellian prince to a benevolent dictator. He falls into the trap of many series’ authors of loving his recurring characters too much. The earlier Vetinari was in many ways a nasty piece of work, but all the edges get sanded off him. By The Night Watch he’s an ideal ruler with the welfare of all at heart. When I reread the series, I stopped there.
posted by Kattullus at 12:18 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


Arthur and Beowulf I believe both date to the Anglo-Saxon period.

Beowulf is Old English, written in England but set in Scandinavia. (Modern scholarship favours the terms Old English or Early Medieval English rather than Anglo-Saxon)

Arthur is harder to pin down. He crops up in Welsh sources as well as French ones, and is popularised in Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth (who lived in Wales but may have been of Norman French descent). As far as we know, Arthur's setting is post-Roman occupation of Britain but pre-Saxon; he fights Saxons and, in Geoffrey's account, also invades Rome and becomes Emperor. From Geoffrey you get to Sir Thomas Malory in the late 15th century, whose absolute fave is the French knight Lancelot.

So the one thing Arthur *isn't* is Old English. I'd call him British.

One myth that is English, though later than Arthur or Beowulf, is Robin Hood. And there's a lot of Robin Hood in LOTR: Aragorn's "Strider" persona and the Rangers; Legolas of the wood-elves and his mighty bow; but most of all Faramir. Faramir's not quite an outlaw-- he's in disfavour rather than exile-- but some of the ingredients are there: an aristocrat in the woods leading a band of archers who love him, who does the morally right thing at a cost to himself. And really, is there a more Robin Hood thing to do than send the Ring away with Frodo and Sam rather than giving it to Denethor?
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:53 PM on January 27 [7 favorites]


I’m definitely no scholar of English/British history, so thanks for the correction and clarification—but the idea that I’ve understood Tolkien to be getting at is that there’s little or no remnant of the language or culture of the original inhabitants of what is now England, so nothing that came afterwards was “bound up with the tongue and soil,” as he laments in the letter lazaruslong linked to. I don’t know how serious Tolkien was about this, or how seriously the idea should be taken really, but it is interesting to me when thinking about what may have driven him to create his own mythic world.
posted by skewed at 8:15 AM on January 28


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