"Tolkien was an Anarchist"

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SierraStrider
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"Tolkien was an Anarchist"

Post by SierraStrider »

I just saw a fascinating discussion on the r/TolkienFans subreddit, where someone by the handle u/MadHopper posted the following:
Many people know of Tolkien’s various influences, but it’s not often discussed how his anarcho-monarchist political leanings touched on his work.

From a letter to Christopher in 1943:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people.
Tolkien detested government, the state, and industrialized bureaucracies. His ideal world was, we can gather, something like the Shire under Aragorn — sure, there’s a king, but he’s far off and doesn’t do anything to affect you, and the people are roughly self-governed and self-policed.

He even says as much, regarding monarchy:
And the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. And at least it is done only to a small group of men who know who their master is. The mediævals were only too right in taking nolo efiscopari as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop. Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. And so on down the line.
There should be a king, but he shouldn’t do anything. The best king is the one who doesn’t want it, and who whiled away his time doing unimportant and non-tyrannical things.
But the special horror of the present world is that the whole damned thing is in one bag. There is nowhere to fly to. Even the unlucky little Samoyedes, I suspect, have tinned food and the village loudspeaker telling Stalin’s bed-time stories about Democracy and the wicked Fascists who eat babies and steal sledge-dogs. There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as ‘patriotism’, may remain a habit! But it won’t do any good, if it is not universal.
This is the bit that surprised me the most. He openly says that the ‘one bright spot’ in a world under the specter of facism and Stalinism is the growing habit of men blowing up factories and power-stations. Resistance against the state and hierarchical powers is not just praised, but encouraged universally.

And we can sort of see this in Tolkien’s work. There are kings, many kings, but rarely concrete state structures. The ‘best’ rulers like Elrond and Galadriel don’t seem to sit atop a hierarchy or a class system — they are just there at the top being wise and smart, and their subjects are free to associate with them or leave as they will. There are no tax collectors in Lothlorien, or Elven cops. The most ‘statelike’ Kingdom we see, Númenór, is explicitly a critique of the British Empire — an island nation which colonized the world and enslaves lesser men before quite literally being destroyed by god for its hubris.

I know not everyone here will agree with these takes or interpretations, but it is very interesting to see how Tolkien’s politics influenced the world he built and the stories he told.
So that's...interesting. Anarcho-monarchism isn't a political position I've heard expressed before...it strikes me that it explains a lot about the way the "good" cultures in Middle-earth function. They're like expanded versions of tribal cultures, with no formal leadership appearing necessary. A bunch of elves hang out with Elrond because he's just super competent and good at leading. The hobbits' "mayor" seems to have about as much civic power as Prom Queen.

It's a bit of a baffling philosophy, if I'm honest. "We should have a king who doesn't want the job and mostly amuses himself with hobbies" is an understandable sentiment if there's no alternative to monarchy, but why have a king at all at that point? Quite odd.
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Re: "Tolkien was an Anarchist"

Post by Iodo »

SierraStrider wrote: So that's...interesting
Agreed, it's interesting, maybe Tolkien adopted this way of thinking because the war was the part of his life he hated the most, and he could have thought that it wouldn't have happened if Anarcho-monarchism was the political system of the time, because people would instead be more concerned about local matters and global superpowers wouldn't have been as likely to fight each-other?
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Re: "Tolkien was an Anarchist"

Post by Elleth »

While I decidedly *don't* want to get into modern politics, as such a thing has already destroyed one good board I miss...

... there is an interesting principle on this point out there: that one of the virtues of monarchy was [in theory] power always comes with direct accountability.
A fine from the Department may as well have dropped out of the impersonal clear blue sky, but if the king levies another tax on top of an already bad harvest year, you know exactly what person decided that and who to blame.

(In practice of course it was never nearly so simple - peasant uprisings are full of sentiments like "oh no, we love the King - but his ministers are hopelessly corrupt!, he needs to know!!" )
We deal with all the pains and failings of whatever system we live in every day - other systems are too easy to imagine in a rosy romantic glow.

That said, I do think monarchy is a much better fit for the average human mind, as it's simply family dynamics upscaled.
Most people don't - can't - constantly think in terms of legislative definitions and formalized process. "Find the important guy/gal and ask for patronage or plead your case" is the much more human approach, and tends to work its way into any system built, no matter how well intentioned.

A system of legislators and courts and administrative departments can in principle deliver better, more impartial justice... but it's devilishly hard to keep such a thing running as designed when you have to staff it with humans and their bothersome proclivity for fief-building.

Regarding anarchism/absence of law/absence of control: I think that's a human ideal, but it relies on a great deal of unspoken "that's just not done" in place of law.
When you and your neighbors have gone to the same church/mosque/synagogue/sacred grove for four hundred years and have broadly similar ideas of right and wrong, your disputes are likely to be comparatively small and you have a shared sense of who to go to as a mediator. Contrariwise, if one neighbor takes it as granted that (for instance) dogs are treasured household pets, and another that they're wild game for the cookpot, you're going to need a legal system to sort out who can do what. And the broader those disagreements, the more comprehensive and intrusive those laws need to be.

On the other hand, the downside of deeply homogenous communities with all these "understandings" - as anyone from a small rural town likely knows - is that old boys' networks are rife, and individuals falling too outside the norm can easily find themselves shunned.


... it's always something. pick your poison.



oh - edit: regarding this:
They're like expanded versions of tribal cultures, with no formal leadership appearing necessary. A bunch of elves hang out with Elrond because he's just super competent and good at leading. The hobbits' "mayor" seems to have about as much civic power as Prom Queen.
... I think much of that falls out on the page as it does because the narrative lens is generally on the aristocratic class, and there's [properly] no room in the story to spend on who's mucking the stables of Edoras or composting the guts of Lord Elrond's latest hunting trip. Thus every reader tends to fill in the gaps with whatever their own ideals suggest. An essentially Edwardian Tolkien might have had one thing in mind, 1960's hippies another, 2010's voluntaryists another yet again and so on.

I still think it's an interesting question, but one to always hold with a bit of "it's just a story, bro" humility. :mrgreen:
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Re: "Tolkien was an Anarchist"

Post by SierraStrider »

Elleth wrote:While I decidedly *don't* want to get into modern politics, as such a thing has already destroyed one good board I miss...
GOD NO. I don't care if he voted Tory or Labour and wouldn't have brought up so mundane a fact, but...anarcho-monarchism is just such an endearingly offbeat ideal of human governance that it seemed an interesting topic--and far enough from anyone's likely political leanings not to be a sore spot for discussion.
Elleth wrote:I still think it's an interesting question, but one to always hold with a bit of "it's just a story, bro" humility. :mrgreen:
Also yes.
Iodo wrote: maybe Tolkien adopted this way of thinking because the war was the part of his life he hated the most, and he could have thought that it wouldn't have happened if Anarcho-monarchism was the political system of the time, because people would instead be more concerned about local matters and global superpowers wouldn't have been as likely to fight each-other?
A very interesting point. It's easy to see an allegory for continental fascism in Mordor, a charge which the Professor vehemently denied, openly despising allegory. But I think in this light, we can maybe see parallels between the "bad" powers of Mordor and Isengard and capital-G Governments in general. One of the more morally gray institutions is the comparatively bureaucratic Stewardship of Gondor.

From what I've read of WWI...it wouldn't be surprising if its horrors soured one on the entire concept of letting anyone make decisions on behalf of those underneath them.
Elleth wrote: Regarding anarchism/absence of law/absence of control: I think that's a human ideal, but it relies on a great deal of unspoken "that's just not done" in place of law.
It's occurred to me that most popular stories are inherently anarchistic on some level. The adventurer travels into the wilderness to accomplish tasks the local Duke can't handle. The Man with No Name brings frontier justice
to a town with no law but the six-gun. Even in something like Star Trek, where all of the good guys fall dutifully into a highly regimented chain of command, all of the interesting stuff happens "where no man has gone before"--beyond the reach of the Federation. It all focuses on individuals who thrive making decisions outside or even contrary to the normal strictures of governmental rule or social expectations. Seems like a fascinating mirror held up to the human mind.
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Re: "Tolkien was an Anarchist"

Post by Elleth »

It's occurred to me that most popular stories are inherently anarchistic on some level. The adventurer travels into the wilderness to accomplish tasks the local Duke can't handle. The Man with No Name brings frontier justice
to a town with no law but the six-gun. Even in something like Star Trek, where all of the good guys fall dutifully into a highly regimented chain of command, all of the interesting stuff happens "where no man has gone before"--beyond the reach of the Federation. It all focuses on individuals who thrive making decisions outside or even contrary to the normal strictures of governmental rule or social expectations. Seems like a fascinating mirror held up to the human mind.
Very good point!

... I guess then there's a distinction then between "Shire anarchy" (maybe there's rules, but since they're all against horrible things that you wouldn't want to do anyway, you never notice them), and "Into the Wild/Final Frontier/Borderlands anarchy" (the only law is the sword/phaser/sixgun on your hip).

The former's a lot more comfy, but the latter's where the adventure happens.

Miserable things. Make one late for dinner. :mrgreen:
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Re: "Tolkien was an Anarchist"

Post by Sorrel »

I think it's worth noting that while Tolkien is a monarchist (of a sort), the contemporary label of anarcho-monarchism did not exist at his time, and its use today seems distinctly against Tolkien's bent, being in favour of absolute monarchy, a state, a feudal class system or a class system of some kind, etc. I'm not sure when it was coined, but I'm guessing not before the 80s, and it seems to me more Evola than Tolkein. It seems 'Tory anarchy' has also been used to describe his politics though
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Re: "Tolkien was an Anarchist"

Post by Sorrel »

as to why have a king at all, well, I don't have a good answer to that question - but in one of Tolkein's interviews he talks about liking having a clear succession, of these sorts of eternal institutions. I suspect a good deal of the appeal for him simply was that they are traditional, and in the sense that fairy-stories are bearers of truth that the good king really is necessary for a healthy and prosperous land, etc.

Within the scope of fantasy, well, kings and the divine right of kings are ubiquitous: even Le Guin, whose politics are more, shall we say, uncontroversially anarchist than Tolkien's and who explicitly was against the divine right of kings in her other writings and nonfiction relies on the tropes heavily within Earthsea
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Re: "Tolkien was an Anarchist"

Post by caedmon »

Here's an article that treats the subject. https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusi ... monarchism

As for Tolkien’s anarchism, I think it obvious he meant it in the classical sense: not the total absence of law and governance, but the absence of a political archetes—that is, of the leadership principle as such. In Tolkien’s case, it might be better to speak of a “radical subsidiarism,” in which authority and responsibility for the public weal are so devolved to the local and communal that every significant public decision becomes a matter of common interest and common consent. Of course, such a social vision could be dismissed as mere agrarian and village primitivism; but that would not have bothered Tolkien, what with his proto-ecologist view of modernity.

Now, obviously, none of this anarcho-monarchism is an actual program for political action or reform. But that is not the point. We all have to make our way as best we can across the burning desert floor of history, and those who do so with the aid of “political philosophies” come in two varieties.

There are those whose political visions hover tantalizingly near on the horizon, like inviting mirages, and who are as likely as not to get the whole caravan killed by trying to lead it off to one or another of those nonexistent oases. And then there are those whose political dreams are only cooling clouds, easing the journey with the meager shade of a gently ironic critique, but always hanging high up in the air, forever out of reach.

I like to think my own political philosophy—derived entirely from my exactingly close readings of The Compleat Angler and The Wind in the Willows—is of the latter kind. Certainly Tolkien’s was. Whatever the case, the only purpose of such a philosophy is to avert disappointment and prevent idolatry. Democracy is not an intrinsic good, after all; if it were, democratic institutions could not have produced the Nazis. Rather, a functioning democracy comes only as the late issue of a decently morally competent and stable culture.
-Jack Horner

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Re: "Tolkien was an Anarchist"

Post by Cimrandir »

That's a great article caedmon. Thank you for linking it here. As I read more and expand my political horizons (which is not very far yet as I have quite a long way to go), the more I am pulled in a direction that the Professor might agree with, if the article is correct in its reading. Primarily this quote that you illustrated above.
In Tolkien’s case, it might be better to speak of a “radical subsidiarism,” in which authority and responsibility for the public weal are so devolved to the local and communal that every significant public decision becomes a matter of common interest and common consent. Of course, such a social vision could be dismissed as mere agrarian and village primitivism; but that would not have bothered Tolkien, what with his proto-ecologist view of modernity.
I once worked for a fellow that had almost this exact philosophy. A proclaimed anarchist, he despised the State and the extension of power from it (police, etc). He imagined a world that shifted back to a community-based and unanimous consent in all matters of life. Where the people would care for each other because it's in the group's power to do so, where evil-doers would be banished after a communal conviction. Self-sufficient in most needs of life but with strong communal ties to other communities to get help and to help. It was very interesting to have a conversation with him and I'll admit that I've become taken by some of the broader ideas. I am somewhat less trusting of most folk and would fear devolving into an insular xenophobic group or a slow descent into a despotic community with power being seized by those willing to take it.
But it is very alluring and I'll admit I love the Professor even more for expressing thoughts on those lines. In these days of mega-corporations running amok, the earth being destroyed by naked greed, and a growing schism between those that cannot even agree on the basics of reality, it is a very powerful idea. Sadly, it may be that "cooling cloud" and will pass into fading memory unless there's some monumental shift like a minor apocalypse.
:)
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