By Taylor Marvin
Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate;
And through I oft have passed them by
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun
I recently finished reading JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As I hadn’t read the books for many years, this reread allowed me to, in my mind, approach the story fresh, a process that imparted a few scattered observations. In no particular order:
Most obviously, The Lord of the Rings is incredibly short, at least by modern standards. Perhaps my perception is influenced by A Song of Ice and Fire and other extended modern fantasy series, but despite his popular reputation for long-windedness Tolkien’s work is incredibly succinct and to the point. Despite the arguably extraneous Tom Bombadil and Scouring of the Shire sequences — arguably, as they do play an important role in the narrative — Tolkien doesn’t dwell. While George RR Martin’s reputation for overblown descriptions of heraldry and feasts may be exaggerated, Tolkien’s world-building is much more economical, relaying on names and references dropped into the narrative without explanation or embellishment.
This directness also extends to the story’s pacing, which is distinctly pre-modern. Tolkien isn’t interested in the dramatic, practical progression of his story — this event led to this, which allowed this further event to occur — but instead the great deeds of great figures. In keeping with this narrative style, The Lord of the Rings is notably undramatic. For example, when the hobbits Merry and Pippin attempt to convince Treebeard to rally the Ents to help their friends, there is little dramatic tension: despite the Ents’ thousands of years of self-imposed isolation from the wider world, Treebeard readily agrees to help them. Again this isn’t a critique, but I can’t help noting that a modern fantasy story would inject a dramatic fakeout here — indeed, as did the film adaptation of The Two Towers.
Secondly, The Lord of the Rings is incredibly conservative. In addition to Tolkien’s obvious love of nature and trees, in Middle-earth yesterday was better than today, and today will be better than tomorrow. Middle-earth’s past saw greater evils but also greater triumphs, and a fading grace that cannot be replicated. This nostalgia is an inherent fact of the world, and Middle-earth’s slow path towards the mundane cannot be remedied through technological advancement. Indeed, a common criticism of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is that Westerosi society and technology are unbelievable stagnant throughout the continent’s over 6,000 year history. But in Tolkien’s creation this criticism cannot apply, because in Middle-earth technological progress is implied to never even occur to its inhabitants — technology is either a gift from the gods, in the case of the Númenorians, or the necessarily evil work of outside powers, as with Sauman’s mind of ‘wheels and metal’.
In contemporary society, this brand of backwards-looking nostalgia is frequently criticized as romanticizing a violent and impoverished past. As I’ve frequently argued, the current era is an unprecedented golden age in human history, the recent decline interstate violence and poverty represent an enormous gain in human welfare, and romanticizing the past is most often only a disguised pinning for lost privileges. But I think it’s important to remember that this critique does not apply to Tolkien’s conservative worldview. As I’m sure other have noted, Tolkien invented Middle-earth in the midst of World War I and The Lord of the Rings was partially written during World War II. Given these circumstances it’s no wonder that Tolkien’s worldview was influenced by an era when all technological advancements seemed to only make wars more destructive. I’m reminded of Edward Gibbon’s famous claim in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that Rome in the second century AD was the best time and place to be alive in history. Today this seems ludicrous, but from Gibbon’s 18th century perspective, it’s a much more reasonable belief.
This conservatism is expressed in social themes, as well. Samwise Gamgee comes from a lower social class than Frodo, Merry, and Pippin, all idle gentleman while Sam’s family works. Sam is employed as Frodo’s servant, always refers to the other hobbits as “Mister”, and is expected to make the others breakfast and carry the heaviest pack, a subservience that is never questioned by his companions. In a more modern work Sam’s subservient position would be a topic to be addressed by the text; i.e. despite their master-servant relationship, Frodo would explicitly learn to treat Sam as an equal. But importantly, in Tolkien’s telling Sam’s class doesn’t make him less worthy than his social superiors — indeed, along with Aragorn Sam is one of the most unambiguously heroic characters in the novel. To Tolkien, innate goodness doesn’t replace inherited social status as the determinant of how people should be treated, another reflection of the culture influencing Tolkien’s writing.
Similarly, The Lord of the Rings is an strong endorsement of absolute monarchism, but not in a way that necessarily applies to our world. Unlike the modern understanding of monarchy Aragorn, the “divinely” appointed king, is literally better than the people he rules. Not just more capable in lore, medicine, and war, Aragorn lives far longer than his subjects — in Tolkien’s telling the preferred form of government is absolute rule by those who are so much more capable than those they govern that they may as well be another species. As others have remarked (I know Sean T. Collins has discussed this, but cannot find the link), Tolkien simply isn’t interested in the potential failings of hereditary government, or indeed governance at all. The Lord of the Rings ends with Aragorn coming into his crown, sidesteping the challenges of governance in a sentence, and Tolkien himself abandoned a story that was to be set during the reign of Aragon’s son and heir.
Tolkien also never questions whether the descendants of the Númenorians have the right to rule the Men of Middle-earth. Indeed, the racial themes of Middle-earth become more troubling if you chose to consider the inherently-superior Númenorians as colonists, though again this endorsement of the literally superior Númenorians doesn’t necessarily have any relevance to discussions of colonialism in our world. However, like fantasy authors to whom people of color are simply an inconvenience to be discarded, the fact that Tolkien created a world whose reality endorses hereditary monarchy and colonialism should be troubling to modern readers.