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Tolkien v. Power

Mises Daily: Thursday, February 21, 2002 by

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A 1997 readers' poll conducted by Britain's Channel 4 and the Waterstone's bookstore chain voted J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings the "greatest book of the century." A 1999 poll of Amazon.com customers went even further, choosing it as the "greatest book of the millenium." And now, Peter Jackson's dramatization of The Fellowship of the Ring confirms itself a widely announced blockbuster. Some consider The Lord of Rings a childish fable, but millions of people all over the world have found it an enjoyable and inspiring read. 

Hardcore environmentalists have tried to enlist Mr. Tolkien among them, focusing on Tolkien's candid love for nature, for example. But if loving nature necessarily implies you are an environmentalist, people like Ludwig von Mises should also have been very sympathetic toward the Green movement. Indeed, as Justin Raimondo points out, his point wasn't to bash industry or capitalism; it was to illustrate that evil is expansionist and projects itself even on the landscape. Hence bad environmental aesthetics are a reflection of bad rulers, which is to say, the use of power. 

And here we have the correct understanding of the theme of the novel: it is about the evils of power. More precisely, the book aligns itself against power--not "economic power" or "social power", but specifically political power. This is also the central theme of the classical liberal political tradition. 

This has been explained in various occasions by Tolkien himself:

"You can make the Ring into an allegory of our own time, if you like: and allegory of the inevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1995, p. 121.)

"Power is an ominous and sinister word in all these tales" (p. 152.)

J. R. Tolkien"The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on" (pp. 178-179.)

"In my story Sauron represents as near an approach to the wholly evil will as is possible. He had gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of Earth. But he went further than human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit" (p. 243.)

"Of course my story is not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power (exerted for domination)" (p. 246.)

So, we can say The Lord of the Rings fictionalize Edmund Burke's motto: "In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing, the Thing itself is the Abuse!" That's what Tolkien is trying to convey and dramatize in a novel over 600,000 words long.

The Lord of the Rings is the epic journey to destroy the One Ring, which symbolizes power - and this is very clear when you understand that the Ring not only confers power but also imposes serfdom on the wearer. The man who wears the Ring becomes a slave at the same time as he is made supremely powerful. 

This is an allegory for what actually happens in our world every day: rulers, even well intentioned and idealistic ones, are ruled themselves at the same time. They are ruled by consensus and by the spasmodic hunger to acquire yet more power than they already have. This is why the state has never been limited, as the classical liberal thinkers had hoped it would be - because the people in charge of keeping the power of the state limited never do so. Politicians and rulers generally, always want to become more important and more respected - more powerful, in short.

It does not matter what stirring words a politician uses to legitimize his actions; he is inside a vicious circle he can't escape. As Edmund Burke put it many years ago, "Ask of politicians the ends for which laws were originally designed, and they will answer that laws were designed as a protection for the poor and weak (...) but surely no pretence can be so ridiculous (...)." (Edmund Burke, A Vindication of Natural Society, 1756). 

Tolkien was fond of that idea. Indeed, he went one step further, saying, "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!" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1995, p. 63.; See NYT Review.)

In Tolkien's vision, the power is always evil - a good power cannot even exist. Since the very beginning, the good guys own the Ring. Since it is the most powerful weapon in the world, many of them ask why it can't be used against Sauron, the Dark Lord. Even though the Ring was forged by him and undoubtedly it is evil, yet it could help to pursue a good end, they suspect. This is an extraordinary way to ask the question: could the means be subordinated to the ends? Can a good end be pursued by evil means? Tolkin answers that no, evil means can only bring to an evil end - no matter if the original intentions are good.

When Frodo offers him the Ring, the wise Gandalf cries:

"No! With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly! Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strenght to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused" (The Lord of the Rings, 2001, p. 60.)

Frodo also offers the Ring to Galadriel, queen of Elves. She refuses it too. Hear her words: 

"I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer. For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! It was brought within my grasp. The evil that was devised long ago works on in many ways, whether Sauron himself stands or falls. Would not have been a noble deed to set to the credit of his Ring, if I had taken it by force or fear from my guest? And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!... I pass the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel" (pp. 356-357.)

The reason why both Gandalf and Galadriel fear the power of the Ring is that they recognize that it was made to do bad, and therefore any good action made by it will turn into evil. In the words of the Lord of Rivendell, Elrond, 

"We cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil. Its strength is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart. If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron's throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear. And that is another reason why the Ring should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise. For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so. I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it." (p. 261.)

We can also affirm that Tolkien somehow had a clear perception regarding those myths that professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe has recently dismantled in his masterpiece Democracy: The God That Failed (Transaction Publisher, 2001). Of them, according to Hoppe, "the first and most fundamental is the myth that the emergence of states out of a prior, non-statist order has caused subsequent economic and civilizational progress. In fact, theory dictates that any progress must have occurred in spite - not because - of the institution of a state."  

Then, we have the myth, writes Hoppe:

[that] concerns the historic transition from absolute monarchies to democratic states. (.) is near-universal agreement that democracy represents an advance over monarchy and is the cause of economic and moral progress. This interpretation is curious in light of the fact that democracy has been the fountainhead of every form of socialism: of (European) democratic socialism and (American) liberalism and neo-conservatism as well as of international (Soviet) socialism, (Italian) fascism, and national (Nazi) socialism. More importantly, however, theory contradicts this interpretation; whereas both monarchies and democracies are deficient as states, democracy is worse than monarchy".

Mr. Tolkien wrote something very similar in a letter addressed to his son, Christopher:

 "If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and the process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to `King George's council, Winston and his gang', it would do a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1995, p. 63.)

No character in Lord of the Rings is "perfect" or "immaculate". Each one is a mixture of good and evil, and time after time he or she is called on to choose between a good and an evil action. Nevertheless, "Good" and "Evil" do exist, and - even though people may doubt or may not correctly distinguish one from the other - the two sides are clearly separated. This, of course, is the leading reason why the One Ring can only do bad - it's a constant temptation to one's evil side. Even the best man in the world would surrender it sooner or later.

Only from this perspective is it possible to see things with Tolkien's realistic eyes. He did recognize that people are good and bad, and some of them may freely choose evil and even find it pleasant. This is the consequence of the Fall: human beings are not perfect, and therefore every means of dominion is evil in itself. In fact, "The proper study of Man is anything but Man; 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 to it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1995, p. 64.)

One of the most controversial characters of The Lord of the Rings, Saruman, was a wise wizard before surrendering to the flatteries of absolute power (which, in the words of Lord Acton, "corrupts absolutely"). Trying to convince Gandalf to join him, he says: 

"The Elder days are gone. The Middle Days are passing. The Younger Days are beginning. The time of Elves is over, but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which We must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the Wise can see... A new Power [the evil Sauron's, the Ring maker] is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. There is no hope left in Elves or dying Nùmenor. This then is one choice before you, before us. We may join with the Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order, all things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be any real change in our designs, only in our means." 

Gandalf answers, "I would not give it [the One Ring], nay, neither news of it to you, now that I learn your mind. You were head of the Council, but you have unmasked yourself at last. Well, the choices are, it seems, to submit to Sauron, or to yourself. I will take neither" (The Lord of the Rings, 2001, pp. 252-253.)

As Tom Shippey points out, 

"What Saruman says encapsulates many of the things the modern world has learnt to dread most: the ditching of allies, the subordination of means to ends, the `conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder'. But the way he puts it is significant too. No other character in Middle Earth has Saruman's trick of balancing phrases against each other so that incompatibles are resolved, and none comes out with words as empty as `deploring', `ultimate', worst of all, `real'... None of them but Saruman pays any attention to expediency, practicability, Realpolitik, `political realism'" (The Road to Middle Earth, 1992, pp. 108-110.)

One might object that the contemporary era implies a sort of "end of history," because democracy is perceived as the "best form of government," and provides the illusion that no government governs without the consent of the governed. Tolkien would have not agreed. Indeed, as he wrote, "I am not a `democrat' only because `humility' and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power--and then we get and are getting slavery" (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 1995, p. 246)


Alberto Mingardi (www.albertomingardi.com) is a regular columnist for the national daily Libero (Milan). Send him MAIL. Carlo Stagnaro (www.forces.org/stagnaro) co-edits the libertarian magazine Enclave (Milan).