Home > Culture, Film, Literature, Politics > Conservatism and Class in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth Works

Conservatism and Class in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth Works

With the considerable cultural capital built up by the Middle Earth works of J.R.R. Tolkien in the geek subculture and with the progressive-leaning bourgeois creative class in general, there has been a tendency to construe the legendary Oxford don’s mythological-fantasy literary fictions as fundamentally liberal texts. This impression has been encouraged by the film versions of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which under the stewardship of a left-leaning movie director and his creative-class cadre of collaborators placed a greater emphasis on progressive canards visible in the texts such as environmentalism and interracial tolerance. The third film in the Rings series, The Return of the King, even included a striking, Wellesian montage vibrating with anti-war sentiment and explicit criticism of deluded, imperious political leaders sending young men to die for dubious causes.

It’s important to recognize, however, that Tolkien’s work stems from and reflects a very specific political context but, much more importantly, a specific class context in early 20th-Century Britain. The Oxford professor was an officer in the First World War and a firm member of his country’s bourgeois educational establishment thereafter. He was conservative in the small-c sense at least, in that he yearned for the restoration of a glorious past that he felt to have been worn away by current socioeconomic conditions. For Tolkien, that desired return to the past involved a much farther journey through time: the glorious lost England to be admired and emulated was not that of a few decades earlier but of several centuries earlier. Tolkien thought, not un-idiosyncratically, that it was all downhill for distinctive Anglo-Saxon culture after the Norman Conquest, and felt the pain of 1066 as acutely as if that year’s historic events were the death of a friend. There’s been quite a bit of critical work published on the influence of Catholic thinking on Tolkien’s work. There’s also been plentiful analyses of the roots of Middle Earth in mythology, medieval literature, and the history of language. But much less has been written and said about the class assumptions that preconditioned his work and its ideological implications.

Take the aforementioned environmentalist angle of The Lord of the Rings, for example. Tolkien demonstrated the characteristics of an avid nature-lover in his writing, penning meticulous, aesthetically-pleasing descriptions of landscapes, flora, and fauna (the spectacular New Zealand vistas that characterize Peter Jackson’s films of Tolkien’s work are a visual extension of these flourishes on the page). The element of Rings usually cited as environmentalist in thrust is the subplot of the walking-tree being Ents demolishing the industrialized Isengard stronghold of wizard-gone-sour Saruman the White, who has denuded the nearby forests in the name of a demonic form of technological progress. Although inspired by Tolkien’s narrative frustration at William Shakespeare’s broken promise of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane and bringing ruin with it in Macbeth, the Ents’ assault on Isengard is generally seen as a radical, vengeful sabotage of industry by a slighted and injured natural world.

Published in the 1950s in Britain, The Lord of the Rings first rose to the level of cultural phenomenon when unauthorized paperback copies spread through American universities in the 1960s. The rising youth counterculture of the period embraced the trilogy as an imaginative vision with rebellious undertones (the Ring as the atom bomb has been a common symbolic reading), with flower-child hippies responding particularly to the pastoral humility of hobbits, the natural harmoniousness of the Elves, and the anti-industrial assault of the Ents on Isengard. Tolkien, though faintly amused by the growing fanbase for his writings that he once dubbed his “deplorable cultus”, made statements broadly agreeing with what we now think of in terms of tree-hugger ideology, specifically lamenting the disappearance of England’s woods and fields that he remembered from his youth and their replacement by concrete urban blocks.

Such views carry a very different valence in Britain than their dominant leftist overtones on this side of the pond, however, even down to today. They dovetail with heritage preservation efforts that are among the bastions of quotidian Toryism in the UK, seeking to preserve and even reconstitute architectural and pastoral realities redolent of a weakened aristocratic order of inherited class positions. Lampooned in pop culture by progressive voices like the Kinks in The Village Green Preservation Society and Edgar Wright, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg in Hot Fuzz, these campaigns and the worldview that underlies them evince a sharp anti-modernity and anti-diversity that is often manifested in Tolkien’s work and is central to conservatism from its classic to contemporary iterations. Behind such backwards-looking nostalgia lurks a robust belief in the inherent benefits of social stratification and the maintenance of hereditary privilege.

This ideological colouring is apparent across Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Repeatedly, “good” characters and races are marked as the product of noble lineage and gentlemanly wealth, while “evil” ones carry the markers of the working-class. It has been pointed out (by a critic whose name I cannot recall and therefore whose observation I cannot cite) that the compelling tension of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings stems from Tolkien contrasting the more historically proximal, familiar pastoral landed gentry character of the hobbits (what are they but diminutive hairy-footed gentleman farmers, like background figures out of a George Eliot country opus?) with the high-myth heroism of the milieu of medieval romance represented by Elves, dwarves, men and wizards.

The humble, sympathetic hobbit heroes Bilbo and Frodo Baggins may sit lower on the grand Middle Earth hierarchical pyramid than Elf princes or kings in the wilderness or quasi-angelic wizards, but they still possess a noblesse oblige that grants them a begrudging respect from the upper-crust fellows that they encounter on their journeys. Even the comparatively irresponsible and immature Merry and Pippin are scions of major Shire families, while Sam Gamgee, though clearly from the servant caste, distinguishes himself chiefly by maintaining his steadfast loyalty to his master and to the class order that he represents. The antagonists, meanwhile, are clumsy, dirty, morally-debased proletarians who threaten the viable authority of the more noble peoples, be they the hated orcs or savage men or even trolls or spiders.

Language was always paramount to the philologist Tolkien, who allowed the lineage and meaning of names and words to suggest character arcs and narrative developments in his books. So it makes ample sense that Tolkien marks his world’s vital class distinctions most strongly through language and dialogue. The formal speech of Elves, of Gandalf and Saruman, and of noble men like Aragorn contrasts with that of the hobbits, although even the Bagginses have a way with words: the dangerously clever-speaking dragon Smaug notes Bilbo’s fine verbal manners particularly. Orcs, meanwhile, speak like guttural factory workers, while the comic trolls turned to stone in The Hobbit express themselves in the dialect of rural commoners and even have English peasant names (Tom, Bert, and William). Even the spiders of Mirkwood, whose speech Bilbo can understand, hiss and spit out lower-income-level colloquialisms.

In addition to these examples, the predominant narrative obsession in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is the restoration of the male heirs of noble lineages (be they the House of Durin or the Kings of Gondor) to positions of political control. It betrays Tolkien’s allegiance to a conservative conception of British society that privileges noble bloodlines and a traditional hereditary aristocracy over an open and inclusive democracy that breaks down invidious class distinctions. Middle Earth may be a convincing, detail-rich fantasy world creation that is the setting for stories that have captivated millions of readers and moviegoers, but it remains a world founded in assumptions of class stratification reflective of its creator’s position in and dedication to a social and political context of a highly-ordered, class-driven Britain.

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Categories: Culture, Film, Literature, Politics

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