Tolkien’s Political & Religious Philosophy

The Political Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien

October 30, 2014

The author of The Hobbit, says Dr. Jay W. Richards, "didn’t like concentrated political power, even when it could seem to be justified for noble purposes."

Dr. Jay W. Richards is co-author, with Dr. Jonathan Witt, of the new book, The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot, published recently by Ignatius Press. Richards is Assistant Research Professor in the School of Business and Economics at The Catholic University of America, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and Executive Editor of The Stream. He is author and co-author of several books, including the New York Times bestsellers Infiltrated and Indivisible, as well as Money, Greed, and God, The Privileged Planet and The Untamed God.

"The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot" by Jay W. Richards and Jonathan Witt (Ignatius Press, 2014)

The Hobbit Party is a detailed study of the political principles and philosophy of J.R.R. Tolkien, focusing on how the famed author's beliefs about liberty and limited government shaped his work and grew directly from his theological vision of man and creation. “Richards and Witt have opened up an often ignored aspect of Tolkien's work,” states Dr. Thomas Howard, “namely the sense in which his myth bespeaks a political and economic order that stands in stark, even violent, contrast to the presiding power structures that dominate this unhappy globe. It should be made required reading in all courses in political philosophy.”

Richards recently answered several questions by CWR editor Carl E. Olson about The Hobbit Party, Tolkien, Western civilization, political philosophy, and Catholic social teadching.

CWR: Why have Tolkien's insights into political philosophy and related matters gone mostly unnoticed or ignored?

Richards: I wouldn’t say they’ve been ignored. There have been articles and chapters of books over the years discussing Tolkien’s political views. Unfortunately, he’s sometimes been called into the service of ideas (from environmentalism to Marxism) that he would have abhorred. This is possible because Tolkien is a rich and subtle thinker who can easily be misunderstood. Every interpreter is tempted to remake Tolkien in his or her own image. Our goal in The Hobbit Party is to provide a sustained treatment of Tolkien’s political and economic ideas on their own terms, and to correct some of the false readings of them. Tolkien insisted that his books were not allegorical, but he did allow that they had applicability to such questions.

CWR: There are many readers who refuse to acknowledge or pay attention to Tolkien's Catholic understanding of, well, everything. Why is that? How best to change the minds of such readers?

Richards: The miracle of Tolkien is that his work is deeply sacramental and Catholic, and can’t really be understood apart from those facts, and yet his novels, especially The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, have appealed to millions of people of diverse views, including many who are neither Catholic nor Christian. I think, in part, this is because he created great art that can be recognized as such, just as one can appreciate the painting of an El Greco or Giotto without necessarily signing on to these artists’ theology.

But it’s not just Tolkien’s craft that readers love. It is his perspective. It is the imaginary world he creates. As a result, Jonathan Witt and I think that the widespread love of Tolkien is an apologetic opportunity for Christians. Many of the things that non-Christians love about the novels really are an expression of Tolkien’s deeply Christian and Catholic worldview: from his defense of freedom over tyranny to his understanding of nature to his treatment of evil and power to the idea that greatness can be found in the simple and the humble. The trick is to show readers that what they already love in Tolkien is something intrinsic to his Christian perspective and, as a result, really is something they ought to consider as well.

CWR: How formative was World War I in shaping Tolkien's views about politics? What else influenced and guided his perspective on governing and political life?

Richards: There’s no doubt that the Great War had a formative influence on Tolkien. He lost two of his best friends in World War I, suffered months of trench warfare in the Battle of the Somme, and ended up convalescing in England after he contracted trench fever. That battle represented a form of war at its most brutal, and at its most futile. Hundreds of thousands died, and at the end, the allied forces had managed to advance a mere eight miles. Thousands of dead languished between the warring trenches for months on end. As a result, interpreters think the Dead Marshes in The Lord of the Rings was inspired by Tolkien’s experience at the Somme.

And yet, despite experiencing the brutality of modern warfare, he did not become a pacifist and treat war as always futile. In both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, we see pictures of wars fought by just characters for just reasons.

Incidentally, critics have accused Tolkien of escapism because he chose to write fantasy rather than so-called realism. How could a man who suffered mechanized warfare waste his time writing about dwarves and elves and wizards? But this is nonsense. As Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey has observed, Tolkien, like other respected authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, worked within the fantastic mode not to ignore reality, but to comment more effectively on the traumatic and dislocating events of his times.

Tolkien hated communism and fascism, and despised the softer administrative socialism of post-WWII England. It’s impossible to miss that when you read the late chapter in The Return of the King called “The Scouring of the Shire.” He also disliked certain features of modern industrial society and development, especially when they came at the expense of natural beauty.

It’s impossible to mention all the influences on his thinking here, but I should say that certain themes from Catholic Social Teaching, such as subsidiarity, solidarity, private property and so forth, definitely shaped his political perspective, and shaped his vision of Middle Earth.

CWR: What did Tolkien think were the greatest threats to Western civilization and freedom? What is an example of that as expressed in his fiction?

Richards: Almost certainly he thought the quest for unlimited power, especially coercive power over others, was the greatest threat to civilization and to freedom. That comes through on even a superficial reading of The Lord of the Rings. Unlike traditional quests, the Fellowship of the Ring sets off not to acquire the Ring of Power but to get rid the world of it. The choice before them is not simply life or death, but the ordinary but hard won freedom of creatures versus utter subjugation and slavery to Sauron.

This is a man who wrote, “The most improper job of any man, even saints, is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.” And he once wrote his son that his “political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs).” He just didn’t like concentrated political power, even when it could seem to be justified for noble purposes.

We suspect that if Tolkien were alive today he would be worried about a virulent form of transhumanism that seeks to abandon our human form for a more durable “hardware.” He would also be deeply suspicious of the growth of crony corporatism—which is neither socialism nor a free market—in which certain corporations collude with government regulators to prevent upstart competitors for entering the market.

CWR: What is a simple definition of "distributism"? Was Tolkien a distributist? And why does it matter?

Richards: Distributism isn’t easy to define, and in the book we don’t try to analyze the thought of all who endorse “distributism.” That said, we define it as a political and economic idea that seeks to put families at the center of the economy, and that seeks a widespread distribution of private and productive property. It’s often identified with nostalgia for pastoral life and the English Middle Ages, and is commonly associated with Catholic thinkers Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton.

As an aspiration, it’s very much worth pursuing. If you limit the definition of distributism to this aspiration, then many people, including Jonathan Witt and me, would be distributists. Tolkien would be as well. Just think of the Shire! This is why we think a number of Tolkien interpreters, including some of our favorites, have identified Tolkien as a distributist. We initially thought that was the case as well.

But as we got into the details, we decided this was probably a mistake. Even though Tolkien was well acquainted with Belloc and Chesterton’s work, and had a great deal in common with them, we could find no evidence that he ever attended a distributist meeting or endorsed it in any way. Moreover, in contrast to Chesterton, Tolkien was much more skeptical even of democracy.

The difficulty, we think, is that Belloc in particular didn’t simply offer an appealing ideal. He proposed some very specific policies to bring about a distributist society, and he did so with economic ideas that we think were in some ways mistaken. For instance, in his Essay on the Restoration of Property, Belloc wrote that “the effort at restoring property will certainly fail if it is hampered by a superstition against the use of force as the handmaid of Justice.” In contrast, in “The Scouring of the Shire,” Tolkien describes a group of bossy outsiders who have infiltrated the Shire, “gatherers and sharers . . . going around counting and measuring and taking off to storage,” supposedly “for fair distribution.” It’s not a complimentary picture. Given Tolkien’s views about the use of coercive power to achieve presumably laudable goals, it’s hard to imagine him signing off on the details of Belloc’s program.

The question is complicated, of course, and we spend some time on it in the book. But in any case, in order to glean wisdom from Tolkien’s economic views, we think it’s better to describe Tolkien’s views on their own terms rather than to identify them with those of other thinkers, such as Chesterton and Belloc.

CWR: How did Tolkien present or depict Just War theory in The Lord of the Rings? How might his work help us better understand that theory and apply it today?

Richards: Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings involve fighting and wars. Tom Shippey has even referred to The Lord of the Rings as a war book. What’s interesting is the way the protagonists—from Frodo and Sam to Aragorn and Gandalf—conduct themselves in war. We argue that The Lord of the Rings can be read, at least in part, as a reflection on the just conduct of war. This doesn’t come through so clearly in the movies, but in the books, the protagonists treat their defeated enemies with dignity. They don’t annihilate them or enslave them after they have been disarmed. They do not engage in wars of conquest, but in wars of necessity to preserve freedom for themselves and others. This is especially important today, when we have to decide both when and how to conduct war, and how to treat our enemies. We could do far worse than to study Tolkien’s insights on these questions.

CWR: Could The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings been written by a non-Christian author? How essential was a Christian worldview to Tolkien's creation of Middle Earth?

Richards: It’s hard to imagine that the Middle Earth books could have been written by anyone who had not deeply indwelled a Christian worldview. This might be surprising to readers who haven’t noticed the theology in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It’s obvious, however, to those who have read Tolkien’s own private correspondence and studied The Silmarillion, which is explicitly theistic. The Silmarillion (as edited by Tolkien’s son Christopher and published in 1977) begins with a creation story that is quite similar to the one we find in Genesis 1. The wizards, such as Saruman and Gandalf, are essentially “incarnate angels” (that’s how Tolkien puts it). And he told a priest friend that The Lord of the Rings is a Catholic work.

Even without these interpretive guides, though, the influence of a Christian mind is all over The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s treatment of the duality of evil, his defense of freedom, his belief that freedom is possible, his portrayal of nature as both good and fallen, and his musings on life and death, all have a decidedly Christian cast to them. The idea that heroism and greatness could be found in the small and the humble would have been odd to the pagan mind un-tinctured by the gospel. But Tolkien believed that the greatness of the Creator of the universe is made most manifest in the apparent weakness of Christ’s death on the cross. He believed that a humble peasant girl could be the Mother of God. And so he could imagine, could create, characters like Bilbo, Frodo and Sam.

I could go on. I suspect it’s hard for a properly catechized Catholic to read Tolkien’s depiction of the elf queen Galadriel without thinking of Mary. It’s not a stretch to see Tom Bombadil as an image of what Adam would have become if the fall hadn’t happened. And the elvish waybread? C’mon.


© Hank Edmondson 2012