Once again I’ve been back to Middle Earth. What a delight it was to arrive in The Shire in times BLR - before Lord of the Rings; what a delight it was to see Bilbo in his youth in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
This is not a movie review. All I will say is that The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien’s slender prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, has itself been padded out into a trilogy, of which An Unexpected Journey is the first part. Bilbo’s journey is thus considerably longer than expected. The yarn has been spun out, unnecessarily so, some might conclude.
No, it’s not a movie review. I want to talk about something else altogether: I want to talk about old J. R. R. as a cultural colossus. Germaine Greer, that 60s feminist fossil, once wrote that it was her nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the ‘most influential’ writer of the twentieth century. What she meant, in her snooty and condescending way, was that he would turn out to be the most popular.
Tolkien’s popularity might very well be said to be the nightmare of all the Marxist and sub-Marxist literati, forever perplexed by the obduracy of the Masses, who consistently refused to be impressed by such groundbreaking works as The Intellectual Eunuch or Revolutionary Thought for Infants. Edmund Wilson, that political fraud and fellow traveller, once dismissed The Lord of the Rings as “balderdash” and “juvenile trash.” By the end of the last century that selfsame “balderdash” and “juvenile trash” was crowned in a survey by English readers as “the greatest book of the twentieth century.” I expect it was all just a massive case of false consciousness.
Now I do not want you to think I’m a Tolkien groupie, one of the army who believe that the Master is beyond all criticism; I’m most assuredly not. I do not think that The Lord of the Rings is ‘the greatest book’ of the twentieth century; far from it. For me it’s too much of a boy’s own world, a muscular masculine mythology created by a retiring
Oxford don. But I can understand the enthusiasm
for Middle Earth, for hobbits, elves, dwarfs, wizards, trolls and orcs. I
can understand, above all, the enthusiasm for The Shire, really an idealised England, Merry
England, if you like, of a mythical and pre-industrial age.
The thing is, you see, while Tolkien may not the most influential writer of the last or any other century, he has a good claim to be the most influential conservative writer, and the emphasis really does have to be placed on conservative. He is the most influential simply because he is the most reassuring, speaking directly to the sub-political conservatism of ordinary people.
George Orwell would have understood this. In the second part of The Road to Wigan Pier, a journey into
industrial north in the 1930s, he discusses the problem of socialism. In
his view socialism, as a cure for the ills of the time, was a jolly good
thing. Even so, he was objective enough to understand that, as a
political philosophy, it was deeply repellent to ‘spiritually sensitive’
people. Why? Simply because socialism, as he puts it, is
essentially an urban creed. It’s also a creed bound up a theory
of endless mechanisation, in the worship of machines. It must lead to
some form of collectivisation; it demands things that are “not compatible with
a primitive way of life.”
Middle Earth is a ‘primitive way of life’; life in The Shire is harmonious and primitive,
at its most benign. Tolkien spins a moral fable not just of good and
evil, but one in which evil is represented as the antithesis of nature.
The orcs are not born; they are tortured into existence, manufactured, if you
like. They serve as the helots of industry. Who can forget that
scene in The Two Towers, the second part of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings
movie trilogy, where Saruman, the evil wizard, muses on the future of Middle
Earth? As his orcs are busy destroying ,
the trees to be used as fuel in subterranean manufactories, he sees a new world
arising, a joyless world where all are subject to the machine. Fangorn Forest
In a recent article in the political journal Standpoint (Why do precious leftists loathe Tolkien’s Shire?), David Platt drew my attention to A. N. Wilson’s Age of Elizabeth II. This opens with a tribute to Tolkien, whom the author regarded as the “towering English literary genius of the Queen’s reign.” For him Tolkien, in his gloomier mood, presaged the post-war destruction of English life, the dismantling of our cohesive social conventions. The Shire is the yeoman republic, faced with the onward march of industry, urbanisation and deforestation.
Tolkien’s political message is clear enough. Those familiar with the novels will be aware that
Jackson left out an important postscript in
his adaptation of The Return of the King. The Ring of Power has been
destroyed. Their quest completed, Frodo and the other hobbits return to
the Shire, hoping to recapture a home that history has passed by. But it
has not. Saruman has come. As Platt says in his article, a
collectivist and totalitarian regime has been imposed on the Shire folk, one
that is subsequently overthrown in a popular coup. The attack on post-war
socialism could not be more direct.
Tolkien!, thou should’st be living at this hour:
need of thee. Just imagine what he would have made of the Shire now; just
imagine what this professor of Anglo-Saxon and advocate of Beowulf would have
made of our yeoman republic in its senescence. How he would have loathed
our world of political correctness, regulation and shabby acronyms, a world
where political labels like Conservative, Liberal and Socialist have become
practically meaningless as one movement melds into another, as England merges
more and more into a ghastly Continental Mordor, watched over by the Great Eye
So, yes, Tolkien speaks to the conservative in all of us, regardless of our particular politics. He speaks to all those who reverence the past, all those who despise theory, anything contrived and artificial. In a deeper sense he speaks to all those who have a love of
England and its
ancient folkways. OK, I confess to a personal lack of realism here, nostalgia
for things that perhaps never were, for an England
of wolves, of fens and of myths, an England where Grendel still broods
in the marsh. But I prefer that to Greer and all her howling eunuchs.
I won't be watching any of the Hobbit films. Jackson's Lord of the Rings films were little more than a New Zealand travelogue, and you are absolutely spot-on to draw attention to his omission of the scouring of the Shire, although I've never seen it as a "postscript". It is integral to the entire story.ReplyDelete
You might be interested in this post by an old school friend (and Cambridge history graduate) about Tolkien and his work.
Dennis, thanks. Yes, I only describe it as a postscript because it comes after the destruction of the Ring, the main event of the trilogy.Delete
Thank you for linking that article. I left a comment.
Nice interesting postReplyDelete
Follow me on :
Jolly good. :-)Delete
Good entertainment for the masses, a temporary means of escaping reality, at least for a few hours anyway. By the way, I have the DVDs.ReplyDelete
Great escapist fun, Anthony, but there is also a deeper moral.Delete
Yes, that Elven women are most desirable.Delete
I'm not sure Tolkien cared that much for women...even elven women. :-)Delete
No all, believe me. :-)Delete
I enjoyed "Lord of the rings" very much "The hobbit" so far not so much but still look forward to the next instalment. I recognise fantasy for what it is but that does not detach me from revelling in enjoyment of reading or watching films that contain fantasy and science fiction.It is after all merely escapism a means of shutting out the real world for a few hours. A world that is to me in crises then is it not always in one way another. I love historical novels and films but I do not hanker to return to some perceived golden age that in reality is no better or worse than the present. I do not have the intellect to recognise subliminal messages unless they are blatantly obvious in books and films. I did not for example see any political messages in Tolkien's writings but then I was not looking for them. That you have and have pointed them out is interesting your interpretation of that message is a bit difficult for me to grasp (above my pay grade). For me from what you say I understood only that he was fearful of socialism and feminism. As it turns out he had every reason to be so. No doubt at some point(not in my lifetime but perhaps in yours) extremes of socialism and feminism will be ditched and a new more rational path will be tread. Then in some distant future time no doubt there will be those who will look back at our time with nostalgia.ReplyDelete
Ah, Antisthenes, I suspect it was always thus!Delete
Outside the Shire, I always wondered who was producing all the food for Elves, and Dwarves, and Men.ReplyDelete
Calvin, that was one of my early thoughts also! I also wondered if there were any orc or dwarf females.Delete
You might give the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard a try sometime. There is more to them than you might imagine.ReplyDelete
Thanks, Calvin. I'll have a look.Delete