15062RE: [mythsoc] Tolkien on Film: critique (long)
- May 28, 2005At 04:43 PM 5/27/2005 -0500, Croft, Janet B. wrote:
>Anyway, I don't think Smyth was totally off in seeing something of anResponding to you rather than to Smyth (since I don't follow her arguments)
>ambivalent nostalgia for "empire" in Tolkien's work, though in his
>letters he seemed to feel the ideal government to live under would be
>that of the Shire -- close to anarchy in the "minimal or no government"
>rather than chaotic sense
- there's a serious danger of confusion here between Tolkien's real-life
political beliefs and what he expresses in his fiction. In Middle-earth
there is a True King. In the primary world there isn't. That makes all
the difference. It is furthermore jumping to precarious conclusions to
assume that the ramifications of the set-up in Middle-earth are those
Tolkien would have liked in the primary world even though he acknowledged
them to be impossible.
What Tolkien said in his letter to Christopher (29/11/43) was that he
preferred minimalist anarchy or "unconstitutional" monarchy. What he's
opposing both of these to is what he calls "Theyocracy," the assumption of
power by large bureaucratic party-oriented governments, which is pretty
much required in any empire that's not a pure personal rule of an emperor.
In many other places he denounces the rising power of the state: in these
respects he was an old-fashioned conservative. (What he would have thought
of an emperor is probably well contained in an interview comment that
[quasi-quote] "tipping your hat to squire may be damn bad for squire but
it's damn good for you.")
None of this really fits in with a nostalgia for the British Empire, and in
every respect Tolkien was a small-England man. In his next letter to
Christopher (9/12/43), he writes, "I love England (not Great Britain and
certainly not the British Commonwealth (grr!))". Commonwealth was still a
very new term then, and he says nothing about empire. But the rest of the
letter is a denunciation of the growing uniformity of the world from a man
who always thought individual places should be as distinct as possible -
that's the point of there being different places.
That belief is certainly reflected all through his fiction. And if it's to
be seen in Fourth Age politics, it's in Elessar leaving his realms to
govern themselves as much as possible. His predecessors had actually ceded
Rohan; it was a separate country bound by treaty (not merely by friendship)
with Gondor. His grant of total autonomy to the Shire is recognition of
the situation that had held since the North-kingdom ended a thousand years
>But the older history ofIt's about major pitched war, yes, and tightly-held kingdoms, but there are
>Middle-earth, especially as seen in the Silmarillion (which Tolkien
>began writing while he was defending the British empire in the
>trenches), is full of great empires and their rise and fall, their
>inherent strengths and weaknesses.
no empires except Morgoth's. Fingolfin and Fingon as High Kings of the
Noldor lead by example and persuasion, not by imperial power, and kings
like Turgon and Thingol, and even Finrod, not to mention the sons of
Feanor, have their own, often conflicting, agendas. As Sara writes, "The
presence of the Elves on Middle-earth in the First Age was not an empire
but a diaspora; their kingdoms and settlements were autonomous enclaves;
there was no central government." The last part is not strictly true, but
it's close enough.
She also mentions the Numenorean empire, which Tolkien didn't even invent
until the mid 1930s, and didn't fully explore until the 1950s, and about
which he had in any case highly ambiguous feelings: see "Aldarion and Erendis."
Sara also writes:
> Yes, the reductionism is what I get incensed about. ...What incenses me in this area is the point of view expressed by John West
> In extracting from both book and film some bare facts (that battles are
>fought, evil overcome, empire ((not really)) established) Smyth obscures,
>not to say obliterates all this "speaking" of the book. Millions of people
>from different walks of life, conditions, classes, races, nationalities find
>this book speaks to them. It isn't and it cannot be because it offers views
>about western empire as a bulwark against evil.
and Peter Kreeft in _Celebrating Middle-earth_ (a book from the same people
who brought us _Untangling Tolkien_). They take the view that the moral
lesson of LOTR is that evil is real and must be fought. It seems to me
that Tolkien takes that for granted: propitiating evil is rejected out of
hand and appeasing it is never even considered; the weakness of the good is
faitheartedness (it is this which Denethor and, initially, Theoden, suffer
No, the real moral lesson of LOTR is to avoid the arrogance of power. Take
care that you do not become evil in your eagerness to fight it. This is
what Boromir fails to grasp; this is the test that Galadriel passes. Even
Saruman, the prime propitiator, is really suffering from arrogance.
For this reason, I conclude that the moral application of LOTR to the
current world situation is pretty much the opposite of what West and Kreeft
think it is.
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