J. R. R. Tolkien among the Illiberals

A central paradox of politics runs through Tolkien’s fiction and his letters: power is not evil per se — but the Will to Power most certainly is.

(Image: Andres Iga @andresiga | Unsplash.com)

Great literature is, almost inevitably, a political affair. It could hardly be otherwise. Poetry, as Aristotle recognized long ago, plays with the universals of human experience — and man is a political animal. Thus the poet can hardly avoid touching questions of social order, whether directly (as in the case of Virgil, Dante, and Milton) or indirectly (Homer, the Beowulf-poet, and — generally — Chaucer).

But if art imitates life, life can also come to imitate art. Given literature’s power to embody universals, appeal to the emotions, and give order to experience, it quite naturally becomes the lens through which readers interpret their everyday experience. Witness the droves of millennials who read every cultural conflict as a reenactment of Harry Potter or Star Wars. And what is true of inferior literature is doubly true in the case of great literature: both Jefferson and Adams interpreted the American struggle for independence in Miltonic terms; Virgil’s ordered piety helped to define Rome’s Augustan aspirations; the Duke of Essex’s rebels commissioned a revival of Shakespeare’s Richard II before launching their uprising against Elizabeth. Percy Shelley doubtless exaggerated when he crowned poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” — but not entirely. Where there is no vision, the people perishes — and, as often as not, poets provide that vision.

As we survey the wreckage of the twentieth century’s liberal order all around us, we are most certainly a people in need of a vision: the old certainties no longer hold, and it is not yet clear what will emerge to replace them. English-speaking Christians are therefore fortunate to have their own great poet in J. R. R. Tolkien, the traditional Catholic, Oxford don, and the great English-speaking author of the twentieth century. It is therefore most regrettable that the political implications of Tolkien’s work have been so consistently misunderstood both by many of his professed admirers and his harshest critics; he is praised for values utterly foreign to his work and condemned for views he never held.

Tolkien’s radical, practical politics

While politicized readings of Tolkien are varied and legion, the dominant reading of Tolkien is as a kind of politically quietist libertarian; in part because of this, Tolkien-influenced politics are dismissed as naïve and fanciful and (as suggested by one celebrated magazine) the province of “wacky neo-medievalists dreaming of the Shire.”

Part of the confusion, it must be admitted, can be attributed directly to the professor himself: both his fiction and his private writings can, on an initial reading, seem to support this view. The peaceful, disorganized, and luddite Hobbits have been countercultural icons since the 1960s; Tolkien himself said that his political beliefs tended towards “anarchism”; he was moreover deeply suspicious of political reformers, calling their action “Sarumanian.” And of course the entire narrative thrust of the work centers on the quest to destroy the Ring of Power and thereby liberate the free peoples of Middle-Earth from the threat of tyranny and domination; in C. S. Lewis’s review of the work, he identified “the dethronement of power” as its central theme. The libertarian, anarchic reading of The Lord of the Rings, then, would seem to be vindicated.

A closer reading, both of Tolkien’s letters and his fiction, makes it clear that Tolkien has little common ground with any modern form of anarchism or libertarianism. The Lord of the Rings, after all, assumes monarchy as the natural form of politics and ends with the establishment of Aragorn’s reunified kingdom — something very nearly akin to a Holy Roman Empire. Even the agrarian Shire is hardly a pure democracy: it is governed by tradition, custom, and (perhaps most importantly) a handful of ruling families. And Tolkien’s letters profess a politics even more radical: such as his disagreement with C. S. Lewis over the Spanish Civil War. Tolkien lamented that Lewis was so swayed by “Red propaganda” that he “believes all that is said against Franco, and nothing that is said for him”; by contrast, Tolkien held unshaken sympathy for the Nationalist side in the Spanish Civil War. He befriended and defended Roy Campbell, the English poet and adventurer who fought alongside the Nationalist forces – and even went so far as to compare him, repeatedly, to a real-life Strider.

It is hard to square all of this with the picture of the anarcho-libertarian Tolkien. But perhaps the clearest expression of Tolkien’s practical political theory comes in the draft of a letter (never sent) to C.S. Lewis. In the pamphlet Christian Behavior (eventually republished as a part of Mere Christianity), Lewis had argued — in good classical liberal fashion — that Christian influence in the public sphere should be strictly limited. “A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for everyone. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine.” Lewis therefore proposed England adopt a two-tiered marriage system, recognizing civil marriage, a dissoluble contract endorsed and regulated by the state, and Christian marriage, permanent and under the supervision of the Church.

In his letter, Tolkien rejects Lewis’s argument, root and branch. He notes, in the first place, that Lewis’s comparison of the Christian law of marriage and the Islamic law on alcohol is “a most stinking red herring”: put simply, the Christian’s permanent monogamy is demanded by the universal moral law; the Muslim’s complete abstinence from alcohol is not. This is because Christianity is true. “No item of compulsory Christian morals is valid for only for Christians,” he notes; the natural law is binding universally. Deviation from Christian morals is therefore an abuse, tolerable only as a most reluctant expedient. The law, after all, is a teacher — and the mass of citizens will shape their behavior to the contours the law provides. Under England’s liberal divorce laws, Tolkien argued, “A situation is being, has been, produced in which ordinary unphilosophical and irreligious folk are not only not restrained by law from inconstancy, but are actually by law and social custom encouraged to inconstancy.”

Because of all this, Tolkien takes exception to Lewis’s attempted fusion of Christianity and liberalism: especially his suggestion that toleration of divorce is “somehow related to the Christian virtue of charity.” Far from being an extension of Christianity, liberalism is in fact an implicit denial of the faith; its pretended neutrality presupposes that religious claims are irrational. The separation of civic and religious marriage would thus be “a piece of propaganda, a counter-homily,” as though “the State was in fact saying by implication: I do not recognize the existence of your church; you may have taken certain vows in your meeting-place but they are just foolishness, private taboos, a burden you take on yourself: a limited and impermanent contract is all that is really necessary for citizens.” If the law does not direct citizens towards their final end, it will direct them away from it.

To recapitulate: in his letter to Lewis, Tolkien claims that all compulsory Christian morality is compulsory universally; deviations from it can be granted legal toleration only as a reluctant expedient. The law is necessarily a teacher — and thus it should support, rather than undermine, Christian morality. We see here an anticipation of arguments later made by the likes of Brent Bozell and Cardinal Danielou; a twenty-first century integralist could hardly ask for more.

A rebuke and a warning

Here, of course, we run into a natural objection. If Tolkien’s private beliefs are so far removed from the logic of anarchy and libertarianism, why do his imaginative works seem to enshrine it? This question, alas, merely reveals the lack of reading comprehension (or, perhaps, the lack of reading simpliciter) among the twenty-first century public. The Hobbits do enjoy, it would seem, something like an anarchic — or at least stateless — society: the Mayor of the Shire, one might remember, is primarily responsible for presiding at feasts; the shiriffs are chiefly considered with stray animals. It is undeniably true that Lord of the Rings presents this as a desirable state of affairs.

But it also makes it clear that the simple way of life enjoyed by the Shirefolk is very much an exception. After all, the hobbits have the good fortune to inhabit former royal farmlands (thus the mighty task of clearing and ordering their country was accomplished before they ever arrived in it) geographically isolated from the main conflicts of their age (thus they need not worry, much, about militaries or borders). As others have pointed out, even the hobbits’ social order is built upon the remnants of a higher civilization. By force of habitual obedience, they keep to “the Rules” and reverence “the King” — the remnants of the old royal law, as they understand it. Even so, the peace and quiet enjoyed by the Shirefolk is not of their own making: the Rangers — the last ragged remnants of the old empire — keep the country under a continual, thankless guard.

The social order of the Shire is, then, the political equivalent of a carefully tended garden. The soil is prepared; the seeds planted and tended; weeds are removed — until, in the end, what is in fact highly artificial appears to be natural. Thus, while hobbits may “think that peace and plenty were the rule in Middle-earth and the right of all sensible folk,” Tolkien immediately makes it clear that this belief is naïve to the point of ingratitude: “they forgot or ignored what little they had ever known of the Guardians, and of the labours of those that made possible the long peace of the Shire. They were, in fact, sheltered, but they had ceased to remember it.” The reader, however, must not forget: time and again, Tolkien shows us that the peaceful simplicity of the hobbits is only made possible by the laborious complexity of the Men of the West.

The hobbits are not the only ones to benefit from the exertions of others, however: so too does the enigmatic Tom Bombadil. As Tolkien describes him, Bombadil represents what many take to be the Tolkienian ideal: the complete and total abnegation of power. In this, he stands apart from every other character in the story. For all their differences, Tolkien noted, both Aragorn and Sauron seek a “measure of control”: the only question is whether the West will have Aragorn as its generous and benevolent king or Sauron as its god-tyrant. Bombadil, by contrast, has renounced control entirely, and so enjoys a special privilege. “If you…take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war.”

As Tolkien makes clear in his letter, however, Bombadil’s quietistic renunciation is an insufficient response to the problem of evil. The disinterested freedom he enjoys may be “an excellent thing” — but it is, like the hobbits’ peaceable agrarian life, a luxury that depends on the painful work of others. Though the Ring has no power over Bombadil’s simplicity, “there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive.” The innocence and simplicity of Tom Bombadil and the more simple hobbits may merit our admiration — the patient labors of Gandalf and Aragorn merit our praise.

But if Tolkien’s work stands as a rebuke to a naive and anarchic post-liberalism, it also serves as a warning to the more active and authoritarian branches of the movement: political power may be necessary, but it can still be the proximate cause of a man’s damnation. The fall of Denethor, the steward of Gondor, is almost a parable about the dangers of politics. Where other characters in his novel place their duties to God and humanity first, “Denethor was tainted by mere politics: and hence his failure.” Put simply, the steward had placed second things first: the preservation of Gondor (and his authority within it) over the Common Good of all. It is, of course, a wholly natural error for a public man to make. Political affairs are immediate, concrete, and pressing; the Good is remote and abstract and elusive. But a natural error can still be fatal, and all of Denethor’s most grievous sins — his hubris in using the palantír, his willingness to claim the Ring, and his ultimate despair and suicide — can be traced to this.

Here Tolkien presents his readers with a thorny paradox. Had Denethor neglected the political good of Gondor, he would have been an unjust steward – and indeed Aragorn would have had no kingdom to return to; in attending too much to it, he lost his own soul. This central paradox of politics runs through Tolkien’s fiction and his letters. Power is not evil per se — but the Will to Power most certainly is. The ruler must use his power justly (to oppose evil, promote the good, and all the rest) lest he neglect the central duties of his office — but he must do so without succumbing to the libido dominandi. The governor is, as St. Paul tells us, a minister of God, executing good and evil — but we must never make a god of the state. The man most fit for rule is the one who does not desire it. And so on.

How can we resolve this dilemma?

The wisdom of Romance

This is the point where many contemporary readers lose patience with Tolkien’s fantasy. Isn’t it all rather a dodge? After all, fantasy allows Tolkien to simplify and clarify the often muddled reality of the real world; the evil lust for domination is made external and concrete in the Ring, and the diabolical Will to Power is thereby exorcised from the legitimate use of power.

This is, I would suggest, precisely the point. Simplification and clarification of moral issues has always been, after all, one of the chief functions of the fairy story; Romance, as Tolkien noted, grew out of Allegory. The first step towards resolving a dilemma is simply to recognize that it exists.

And that is not the only way Tolkien’s wisdom can guide us in darkening times. Though we cannot, naturally, derive policy proposals from a work of fantastic fiction, we can draw inspiration from the moral and spiritual underpinnings of Tolkien’s imaginary world. His eucatastrophe hinges, as all Catholic thought does, on the interplay of human work and divine grace: tireless effort on behalf of his heroes, only made fruitful by the good favor of God.

And with grace comes hope, and hope is — perhaps ironically, given Tolkien’s reputation as a pessimist — the final note of Tolkienian political philosophy. “The future is impenetrable especially to the wise,” he wrote, “for what is really important is always hid from contemporaries, and the seeds of what is to be are quietly germinating in the dark of some forgotten corner, while everyone is looking at Stalin or Hitler.” We do not know when the new Spring will come, or what it will look like when it does, but that is not our business. All we have to decide, in the end, is what to do with the time that is given to us.

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About Ben Reinhard 5 Articles
Ben Reinhard is Associate Professor of English at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He holds a B.A. from Purdue, as well as an M.M.S and Ph.D from the University of Notre Dame.


  1. Tom Bombadil is irrelevant to this argument, given that he’s an immortal spirit, one of those who descended to Arda at the beginning of time and took on human form as a guardian of Nature.

    One thing that can be firmly asserted about Tolkien’s real-world and literary politics is that all systems–however noble–will decay and die in this fallen world. this is true of the elven kingdoms, Numenor, and even Aragorn’s reunited Gondor and Arnor.

  2. It is not possible to measure the effect Tolkien’s work has had on contemporary society. For me as well, who read the Hobbit and the LotR first time about 1974. The movies were well done, but for me, missed the captivating experience of reading the books. One significant enjoyment was the reference to places with different names. Weathertop had an ancient name, Amon Sûl, and with it, an ancient history that influenced what was going on in the story. His histories all retell glory and failure, love and ruin. Through it all he maintains that the dread and hope of the current story line will have some resolution. It is unknown, as Tolkien believes, but faith in goodness is what buoys the heroes along their paths. Sam and Frodo travel in secret, essentially unaided by the powers of good with a few exceptions. All the rest proceed as they can to reject the overwhelming evil before them and hope in the duo’s success. They cannot know the outcome but remain faithful. Your points on Tolkien’s affection for monarchy and it beneficial political powers are accurate. I think we find monarchy so archaic or toothless in modern constitutional monarchies, it is hard to believe what Tolkien believed. Those who would see only the wholesome anarchy of the Shire fail to connect one of the first enjoyments I had reading it. It is packed with history that sometimes only appears in former place names and at others explained in detail. The history of what came before makes the faith in goodness real as well as possible. Thanks for the essay.

  3. One of the most important influences on Professor Tolkien’s writing was the history and theology of the Old and New Testaments. (I have shown in a published article that the language used during the action at the Gate of Minas Tirith parallels language from the Gospels that appears almost exclusively in the Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible, illustrated with Gustav Dore lithographs, that the young J.R.R. Tolkien would have studied.)

    The movies, although excellent in so many ways, failed to transmit the metaphysics that were manifest in the scenes at Theoden’s Golden Hall, and at the Gate of Minas Tirith. What were very spiritual heights of the story were consequently reduced to Marvel Comics-type adventure scenes. None of the swashbuckling in those movie scenes occurred in the novel. Gandalf — the emissary of the Blessed Realm — alone stood against evil (or with Shadowfax) in these situations, as a testament to the power of the hidden spiritual realm. This was, unfortunately, lost on the scene writers.

    Thank you, Ben, for keeping the discussion relevant.

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