[Marxism] Tolkien

DCQ deeseekyou at comcast.net
Mon Nov 13 00:06:25 MST 2006

I sat down to write my bit about Borat and saw this. Since I am a 
sincere fan of Tolkien's writing, I'll say my bit.

Suffice to say that Tolkien has become something of a punching bag on 
the left since the movies debuted. The only pre-movie reference I had 
seen in any left writing was a two-word description by John Molyneux in 
'98 or '99 calling him a "romantic anti-capitalist." Those two words 
have more truth in them than in almost anything I have seen since.

Most left critiques of Tolkien attack two things: 1) his 
political-economic-social ideas, particularly about industrialization, 
and 2) his writing style.

On the subject of his politics, there are a few things to say. First, I 
think that anyone who aspires to be something more than a stalinist 
hack, a liberal dilettante, or a conservative philistine should 
understand that we can't dismiss a writer based solely on his/her 
political ideas. Even those who mentioned a few weeks back that, with 
respect to poets like Pound and Eliot, we should enjoy the poetry but 
hold our noses over the politics miss the point. The point is neither 
to mistake the politics for the poetry/art, nor to ignore the politics. 
Instead, we need to understand that both the poetry and the politics 
come from the same source. We don't ignore one in favor of the other to 
suit whatever our political purpose du jour is--if we are going to say 
anything of value, that is. Secondly, it is a gross mischaracterization 
of Tolkien's politics and social attitudes to lump him in with people 
like Eliot and Pound. While Eliot and Pound were openly pro-fascist, 
Tolkien refused to allow the Hobbit to be published in Germany when the 
Nazi gov't demanded an affidavit declaring that he had no "Jewish 
blood," and openly despised Hitler, calling him a "ruddy little 
ignoramus," at a time when most of upper-class British society was 
quite fond of him. But he was not merely anti-fascist, like so many 
timid, pro-war liberals; he was openly critical of the behavior and the 
pro-war jingoism of the Allies *during* WWII, and condemned the bombing 
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as atrocities. Beyond that, he spoke out 
against apartheid in South Africa (where he was born) publicly as early 
as 1959. He was broadly anti-war his whole life, a position which is 
driven home by the fact that he was a foot soldier in WWI and nearly 
every friend he had before the war was dead when it was over. And while 
his stories do tend to focus on men, his female characters like Eowyn 
and Luthien and Galadriel are creations that misogynists like Eliot 
couldn't begin to imagine, since these characters are not only strong 
in their own rights, but directly and verbally challenge the 
male-chauvinism in the worlds they inhabit.

And since we're on the subject of his characters and creations, it is 
as good a time as any to bring up things like Tolkien's 
environmentalism (anthropomorphized in Treebeard and the Ents, but 
flowing throughout his work), his anti-racism (in the relationship 
between Gimli and Legolas, as in other places), the hugs and kisses 
that men share in his writings without even the slightest hint of 
machismo or homophobia, his critique of industrialization, and his 
stirring portrayal of a successful Luddite peasant civil-war and 
rebellion (which is the actual climax of the novel, but cut from the 
movie). And for someone who is constantly criticized for having his 
heroes be Very Good and his villains be Very Bad, I can only say that 
they haven't actually read Tolkien's writing. At every turn, Tolkien 
takes great care in creating compelling scenarios in which we care 
about the outcome, and yet also takes the time to give us sympathetic 
portrayals of "the bad guys," including Gollum, Southron soldiers and 
conscripts, and even orcs, the ring-wraiths, and Sauron himself. 
Conversely, with "the good guys," he also treats us to portraits of 
greedy comprador hobbits, traitorous wizards, machiavellian 
politicians, and male chauvinist and elitist heroes.

I do not mean to twist Tolkien into a radical or a revolutionary. But I 
do want to correct the mischaracterization of Tolkien as a simple 
reactionary or fascist (which the original post accuses Tolkien of 
being). He was a conservative, generally speaking, but he was a 
contradictory one. He recognized this himself, and became dissatisfied 
with the label "conservative." Instead, he referred to himself as 
either an anarchist or--and I think this is a brilliant insight on his 
part--as an "anarcho-monarchist."

On the subject of Tolkien's style, I don't have much to say. Style is 
always a matter of preference. What is undeniable is that Tolkien spent 
a great deal of time on and attention to the rhythm of both his prose 
and poetry. Others may giggle at his sensuous prose, but there are 
passages that bring tears to my eyes every time I read them. And for 
those who can only chuckle at what they call Tolkien's "high style," I 
can only wonder what these critics do with something like Beowulf or 
The Iliad. Is Shakespeare stilted?

In terms of what Tolkien does with his style, it would be hard to find 
another writer in the 20th century whose sense of tragedy on both the 
epic and the individual scales is as keenly developed. Faulkner and 
Achebe are two contenders in my mind, but the former seems positively 
parochial in comparison, while the latter's journalistic style keeps 
the reader at a distance from someone like Okonkwo. Perhaps Vonnegut...

Are there faults in his writing? Absolutely. In both the composition 
and in the content. Jokes fall flat. Dialogue stumbles. Certain 
characterizations are indeed cringeworthy. Deus ex machinas appear far 
too often (though not nearly as often as in a typical movie or TV 
show...or novel for that matter).

Beyond all of this, the job of a critic on the left is not simply to 
pass judgment on a work, a more socially conscious version of an NYT or 
LRB writer. Is it successful or does it fail? ("At what?" I'm always 
tempted to ask.) Especially if something becomes the cultural 
phenomenon that Lord of the Rings has become, we have a responsibility 
to acknowledge and explain it to the extent that we can, and suggesting 
a course of action. If Tolkien was nothing but a miserable reactionary 
who couldn't write, then we can do little else but draw pessimistic 
conclusions about the level of consciousness (and aesthetic tastes) of 
millions of people. But if Tolkien is a more contradictory writer, then 
there are some pretty interesting things we can discuss with 
prospective radicals, socialists, and revolutionaries.

Left critics who fail to understand this are merely being contrarian at 
best or, at worst, parasites.


On Nov 12, 2006, at 8:31 PM, Louis Proyect wrote:

> Tolkien comes at the fag end of a British tradition of romantic 
> repulsion against industrialism and its effects on humans and the 
> environment, and his work misses all of the progressive aspects found 
> in earlier incarnations of this tradition. Where Blake in poems like 
> 'London' and William Morris in his utopian novels decry the effects of 
> industrialisation on the working class that the industrial revolution 
> created, Tolkien identifies this class completely with all the 
> negative aspects of industrialism. In doing so, he dehumanises them 
> more surely than any mill owner or coal baron.
> Where the likes of Morris wanted to get rid of the ugly aspects of 
> industrial society by empowering workers, Tolkien wants to turn back 
> the clock and thus eliminate the entire working class. In common with 
> reactionary contemporaries like Evelyn Waugh and TS Eliot, he retreats 
> from the modern world into a vision of an idealised Middle Ages 
> society, a society ballasted by a happy peasantry that knows its 
> place. Tolkien is rather like those middle class Western 
> 'primitivists' whose response to the impact of industrialisation on 
> the people of the Third World is to demand that those people leave 
> their dark satanic mills and teeming cities, don grass skirts, pick up 
> spears, and run around in the bush in noble savage mode.
> full: http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2006/11/against-tolkien.html

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