Monday, October 11, 2010

Tolkien's tragic conservatism

As I've been rereading Lord of the Rings (for the third or fourth time) I've become aware of how deeply conservative it is. (Perhaps this is because I have myself become less conservative.)

The most telling characteristic is the pervasive sense of hierarchy. Most people seem to know their place, even the bad guys - though for them it's a more servile awareness. Women play almost no role in the books. The chief exception, of course, is Galadriel. Arwen, who plays a larger role in the movies, more or less stays home - literally - sewing. Examples could be multiplied but I don't think it's necessary.

To my mind, its more distinctly conservative feature is its sense of loss and the diminishing course of history. Everywhere the travelers find signs of a lost, nobler age. Those with the greatest knowledge of the past - the elves - are the characters that elicit (in me, anyway) a sense of pathos or, more accurately, sehnsucht. They're painfully beautiful, especially because they know their time is passing away. The happiest of Middle Earth's folk are the hobbits, who have very little knowledge of history or the goings-on of the world around them. The wise are those who know that theirs is a lesser age.

This is encapsulated perfectly in Galadriel's idea of "the long defeat". The battle against evil is not a straightforward story of mounting victories. The number of defeats is large, perhaps larger than the number of victories. And even those victories are not complete. Evil is never fully defeated. The great battle between Sauron and the Last Alliance of Men and Elves, which looms large in the background of the story, isn't decisive. Sauron's spirit lives on and Isildur, who takes the One Ring, is overcome by temptation and refuses to destroy it. For those who fight the long defeat, battles must be fought without expectation of victory. It's not hard to make the connection to the conservative side of the culture wars.

All of this resonates with cultural and "temperamental" conservatives. Maybe not so much for mainstream conservatives, tied as they are to the fortunes of electoral politics. I suspect those types are less truly conservative than the cultural or temperamental conservatives anyway. Tolkien's conservatism is not that of the Tea Party or the neoconservatives. It's much more akin to the conservatism of Wendell Berry, who once said that he is one who mourns for what is lost. It's a tragic conservatism. I don't much admire the rigid hierarchy of Tolkien's work, but there remains in it what Lewis described as "beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart."


  1. Jeremy,

    Its been a few years since I last read LOTR + Sillmarillion, but I read it more as an eschatological narrarative than as a political model. I'm not sure if I would call it "tragically conservative", but definetly "tragic". WHen taken with the Silmarillion, the summed history of ME, you can easliy see the the ME is in continual decline. The entropy of evil works its way into everything Illuvatar intended for it. Of course, you are right that the books /are/ conservative, though. I can't imagine being interested in a fantasy book where there was no greater past, but greater future. To me, this reads more like the gospel than a political position.

  2. This is really interesting. I certainly agree that Tolkien's outlook is conservative (and tragic), but I think his conservatism bears absolutely no resemblance to the American cultural and political phenomenon, which, in my view is not conservative at all.

    First of all, American "conservatism" is religiously capitalist, while Tolkien's conservatism is profoundly agrarian and anti-industrial. It would be quite possible to read the LOTR as an environmentalist parable. Tolkien clearly associates manufacture, machinery, mass-production, and the exploitation of nature with evil. He is deeply suspicious of love for wealth, and even of an over-emphasis on the technical aspects of craft. None of this makes sense to the American conservative.

    As for the "long defeat" and the "culture wars", I take you to mean that, from the perspective of evangelical fundamentalists, liberals are slowly but surely pecking away at their value system. I think this has little bearing on what is meant by the long defeat in LOTR. What I think Tolkien means by the long defeat is the decline in the nobility of our arts and culture as history unwinds. Look at our civic and religious architecture, our music and poetry, our political rhetoric. Can anyone honestly say these have not been in steady qualitative decline?

    Tolkien's hierarchicalism seems to me a reflection of his national heritage and temperament as an Englishman who was raised in the first half of the twentieth century and worked in a highly traditional and structured academic setting. There seems to me nothing of exaggerated devotion to superiors about Tolkien. In fact, the hobbits, his protagonists, are arguably the least hierarchically inclined segment of Middle-Earth's population while in some ways the most resistant to change, novelty and outside influence (i.e. the most conservative). In fact, I detect a strong strain of anti-authoritarianism, and anti-triumphalism in the LOTR as a whole: the true king is a ragged, wandering Ranger; the hero a hobbit who isn't strong enough to carry out his mission without the help of providence which arrives in the form of...Gollum; the destroyer of the Witch-King of Angmar is a woman; the entire object of the quest is an attempt to cast power away rather than utilize it. You see what I mean?

    So while I agree Tolkien is conservative, his conservatism is really alien to the values of the contemporary conservative movement in America.

  3. Wayward Disciple:

    I think we mostly agree. I definitely agree that Tolkien's conservatism is alien to what is known to most people as political conservatism. In fact, I'd guess that Tolkien would be utterly repulsed by libertarianism, which is the direction much of political conservatism seems to be going these days.

    You make an excellent point about the long defeat. I hadn't considered it from that angle. I can't say much about the arts (being, generally, a philistine), but I can see what you mean.

    Also a good point about hierarchy and hobbits. Though, it seems to me, that hobbit culture is considered rather uncouth. It is only the odd hobbits who go on the adventures, so Frodo and his friends shouldn't be considered representative. And even they are amazed when faced with true nobility. Their tongues are unloosed and they beging speaking properly in the present of the "great ones". The wise are very much on the side of the hierarchy. I have to say, I don't see much anti-authoritarianism in LOTR.

    I do agree with the anti-triumphalism part though. The victories are won unconventionally - on the model of the life and ministry of Jesus.

    Thanks for commenting. I hope to hear more from you.

  4. Hi Jeremy,

    Link-hopped my way here somewhat randomly, and enjoyed this post. I am just finishing up a thesis on Lewis, which entails lots of connected reading about Tolkien.

    It's funny that you say you are becoming less conservative, because I find myself moving in the other direction. Lewis, the medievalist, was convinced that the universe was hierarchically ordered, and initially found myself having a strong negative reaction to this. But the more I read on it, the more it bugs me, because it seems that the idea has some force. I want to write Lewis off as a dinosaur whose ideas were a product of his times rather than carefully reasoned out, but recently I am starting to wonder if perhaps that is the case with me.

    Anyway, good thinking post.

  5. Interesting that you should bring up feminism. With regards to "women play[ing] almost no role in the books" (with the exception of Galadriel and Arwen), I believe that statement can be countered.

    I'll start with perhaps the most striking example IN Lord of the Rings: Eowyn.
    At first, she merely demonstrates popularity as the default ruler of the people of Rohan in Theoden's absence. She does, however, rebel at being relegated to a domestic or backup role:

    LOTR pg. 784. "And [Eowyn] answered: 'All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is with the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more..."'

    As Eowyn shortly states, the fate she detests most is that of "a cage" -- "to stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire."

    With this dialog, Tolkien obviously gives women a voice -- and an eloquent voice at that -- against sexism. Eowyn's role in LOTR is not limited to merely that of a speaker.

    She promptly disguises herself and rides with Theoden's force to the critical Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Fighting through the Mordor ranks within her eored, she remains close enough to Theoden to aid him against the captain of Sauron's forces -- the Witch King. She displays unrivaled courage (she alone of Theoden's guard did not flee or cower), strength and deft swordsmanship (she lops off the head of the Witch King's "dragon"-steed with one stroke), toughness (she fights through the pain of a shattered shield-arm), and quick wits (she immediately recognizes the significance of the "no MAN shall kill me" prophecy concerning the Witch King). And then she kills the Witch-King (albeit with a little hobbit help). Kings (most notably Earnur), chieftains of the Dunedan, and numerous male warriors in general had failed miserably to do so.

    The death of the Witch King saved the day at Pelennor Fields, which was crucial in the War of the Ring.

    Whewwww! That was dense! The following is a concise list of some female characters from Tolkien's mythology that were strong and/or critical.

    Luthien (elf) -- cast down Morgoth himself (a deed previously achieved by only the Valar), defeated Sauron (and broke his fortress of Tol-in-Guarhoth), and saved the a** of her lover Beren countless times (he was virtually useless); the besting of Morgoth facilitated the recovery of a Silmaril, which was necessary to pave the path for reconciliation with and aid from the Valar (the latter resulted in the final end to Morgoth’s rule over First Age Middle-Earth).

    Haleth (human) -- warrior queen of great heart and strength; initially fought with her father and brother in the defense of the Haladin colony, and following the death of her father and brother she assumed sole leadership. By willpower alone, she held her decimated people together through a hopeless week of orc assaults, and after victory due to elvish aid, she led the survivors on a grueling march to a new colony location. She never married.

    Galadriel (elf) -- although previously mentioned in this post, it is good to point out some of her key aspects. She is the dominant figure in her marriage with Celeborn: she has more acute wisdom/perception (she perceived Gandalf’s fate in Moria while Celeborn did not, summoned the White Council, suspected Saruman), she has more power (one of the three rings, the ability to break Sauron’s Mirkwood fortress of Dol Guldur), and she is more level-headed (she chides Celeborn for his rash words).


    Inzilbeth and Miriel (human) -- courageous queens of Numenor; despite the fact that their (jerk) husbands were followers of the dominant Cult of Morgoth (fostered by Sauron), they remained true to the Faithful, a small group of those who respected the authority of the Valar. During these time periods, being a member of the Faithful resulted in (1) oppression and later (2) summary execution, often by sacrifice and/or fire. Inzilbeth’s resilience, and defiance of her husband’s wishes by instructing the heir apparent, bought time for the Faithful. Also, Tolkien notes that Ar-Pharazon did great evil to force Miriel into marriage.

    Melian (maia) -- plays a similar role to Galadriel with regards to marriage; she has more wisdom and level-headedness than her husband Thingol, and her power was responsible for the growth of the glory of Doriath. Her power, specifically the girdle of Melian, also kept both the might and sight of Morgoth at bay.

    Idril Celebrindal (elf) -- alone of all the inhabitants of Gondolin she has the foresight and intelligence to both suspect Maeglin of treachery and prepared a strategically located secret passage (it opened to a blind spot in the surrounding mountains that was overlooked by the captains of Morgoth’s surprise attack). She fought Maeglin (who was armed and intent on rape/murder) unarmed in defense of both herself and her son Earendil; she held him off long enough for armed aid to arrive.

    Elwing (half-elf) -- braved the voyage (hitherto fatal to all seafarers) with her husband Earendil and, as a mortal, risked the mandate of death to join Earendil on the shores of Valinor. Although she was not physically strong, she braved two military assaults to preserve the Silmaril (critical to the reconciliation with the Valar) and, against her husband’s commands, risked unknown and likely fatal dangers to join him in his effort.

    Aredhel Ar-Feiniel (elf) -- sister of Turgon, king of the hidden city of Gondolin. An adventurous and free spirit, she fought Turgon’s attempts to corral her (as was the law) within the city limits: “I am your sister and not your servant, and beyond your bounds I will go as seems good to me. And if you begrudge me an escort, then I will go alone.” She overrode her travelling companions’ urges (really the desires of Turgon) and chose the intended destination; she was the only one of the foursome to make it through the shortcut of Ered Gorgoroth, “for she was fearless and hardy of heart”. She ultimately refused to submit to her husband Eol, and she died after bravely intercepting a poisoned javelin.

    Throughout Tolkien’s Middle-Earth legends, many female characters play crucial roles and/or defy convention in a variety of ways (and are portrayed positively in the process). I admit: there are female figures that contrast with hardy warriors like Eowyn, wise rulers like Gladriel, or independent sisters/wives like Aredhel, but that is reality. Not every woman is strong enough to be a warrior or emotionally resilient, but Tolkien includes a healthy dose of those who are. He also includes a healthy dose of foolish, cowardly and/or useless men. That too is reality.

    I hope this ponderous “treatise” in defense of Tolkien allows you to enjoy his tragically conservative writings a little more.


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.