A Socialist reads the Hobbit: The Hobbit by J.R.R.Tolkien

I was very young when I read the Narnia books – so young I can’t remember a time I hadn’t read them.  I loved them, and I still do. At about 11 or 12 I read the Hobbit, as it seemed to be a similar kind of book.  It really hit the spot, and I instantly transferred it to the top of my favourite book league table.  It stayed there until I got onto Lord of the Rings at the age of 14.  If I am honest, Lord of the Rings is still my favourite book. 
(I am not honest very often, I usually say Paradise Lost if anyone asks.  I am not bothered about the snobbery some people have towards the Lord of the Rings.  It just seems a bit lame to chose a book that so many other people would also chose.)

Having read and reread these books since childhood, Narnia and Middle Earth seem very real to me.  And initially I also felt like I was on the same wavelength as the authors and that they and I shared progressive values and sympathies.  And I managed to miss a really and obvious point about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  I simply never realised that Aslan is supposed to be Jesus. It just never crossed my mind.  It wasn’t until I was about 18 that I saw it pointed out in print somewhere.  Once it was drawn to my attention it was, of course obvious.

I went on to discover that both C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien were Christians.  Not only that, but far from being forward looking and modern they were lovers of the archaic and highly suspicious of the modern world and its technology and even of science itself.  My reading of them was about as totally wrong as it was possible to be.  I still loved the books, but I had to distance myself mentally to some extent from the authors. Back then I was a believer in science, progress and reason and I still remain true to that today.  I have always identified with the left and liberal causes and believed that things are in the long run getting better.  I have tended to regard conservatives in general and particularly religion as a barrier to progress.  Although my basic views haven’t changed much, I have got a bit mellower and less partisan over the years.  In real life I have failed to detect any correlation between people’s political position and how intelligent, likable or trustworthy they are.  I have come to accept that while I have a set of beliefs and ideas that I haven’t really deviated from, there are plenty of other options around that I can respect.  Many things that seemed idiotic when I was twenty, now make sense even if I still don’t actually accept them at fifty.

I hope you’ll excuse this long preamble because I think you need a bit of historical background on me to understand why I am asking this question.  How could someone read the Hobbit and see it as a socialist story? I did, and I can’t believe that my experience can have been completely unique.  Tolkien was a man who would have been happier living in the Middle Ages and whose highly conservative form of faith was central to his life and outlook.  How does he write something that chimes totally with a progressive atheist?  Lets see.

For a start, it isn’t at all obvious from reading the Hobbit that Tolkien is a Christian.  Religion is never mentioned.  There are no churches.  There are no temples.   There are no overt references to God.  Slipping into the Hobbit from the real world I grew up in, this was great.  Sundays free to enjoy with a clear conscience.  No boring Bible.  Just an interesting world to have adventures in.  Brilliant.

But it isn’t just that there is no moralistic God imposing his ethics.  This is a world where magic exists.  Gandalf is a wizard who has powers that he can use for good.   They are quite limited powers.  He can’t create things out of nothing for example.  So it is magical, but it isn’t arbitary.  In that respect, it is a lot like technology.  You can do lots of things with it, but you can’t suspend the laws of nature.  It feels like the way the real world works, just a different set of rules.  The world of the Hobbit does not fly in the face of reality it just gives you an alternative reality that you can buy into.  The things that happen don’t feel like miracles.

The other thing about the hobbit is the cast of creatures we meet.  Okay, hobbits were obviously just small boys allowed to live away from their parents so they could smoke and eat as much as they liked without getting told off.  I didn’t have a problem with that when I was 12.  A part of me is still 12 so I have kept that one going.  But the other inhabitants of the imaginary world all have a very particular character to them.  They all seem to be drawn from English folklore, or maybe northern European folklore.  Dwarves, elves, goblins, dragons, eagles all seem to have a very particular pedigree.  You don’t see any creatures with a connection to classical Greek mythology.  There are no centaurs or cyclops or anything like that.  There is nothing with a Christian connection either. An angel would really look out of place.

This seemed like a pretty radical approach.  Fairies and elves and the like were one of the many things that the Church was against.   One of the big motivations for the Church of England to get into mass education in a big way in the Victorian era was to wipe out the folk lore of pixies, fairies and elves that had persisted in England since the conversion to Christianity.  To read a book where these taboo creatures despised by the authorities were wandering around with no apology – and above all as serious characters with sensible motives – well it seemed to me to be frankly subversive.

And then there was the politics.  Or rather, there was the lack of politics.  Bilbo Baggins lives in a society where people just live together.  There was no obvious government or authority.  If he felt like it he could go off with a gang of dwarfs for a spot of burgling.  He didn’t need a passport.  He didn’t need to evade officials at the border.  It was the personification of anarchy, in its most positive sense.  Bilbo was not a prince, just a regular guy.  Later on in the book he is dealing on equal terms with kings just like any good democrat.  It all seemed very much like an ideal society free of bosses and hierarchies.

So in the class ridden world of seventies Britain with the Church still influential, reading the Hobbit was like a little rebellion in itself, and also a vision of what a better world could be like.  I had no idea when I read it that this was almost the polar opposite of what its author would have thought.  Tolkien was still alive at the time I started reading his books.  I wonder what he would have made of it to know that not far from him was a small boy being inspired in exactly the opposite direction from what he would approve of by his own work.

But Tolkien was always clear that the big thing about his writing was telling a story.  He wasn’t writing propaganda or trying to make a point.  He was telling a story.  And in that he succeeded brilliantly.  And in the end, everyone no matter what their outlook on life enjoys a good story.

12 Comments

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12 Responses to A Socialist reads the Hobbit: The Hobbit by J.R.R.Tolkien

  1. Calvus

    “Anarchy” is exactly the word. Tolkien was a reluctant anarchist, as he once wrote to his son.

    The Ring is an amplifier for evil, where “evil” can be defined as an unjust desire to control other people. I think Christians and Socialists can agree on that.

  2. Yes absolutely. The government of the Shire in Lord of the Rings is a sort of anarchy.

  3. Bing the opposite of you politically, I have a hard time understanding where liberals like yourself think you are logical and those like myself are considered evil and backwards. In my mind it is quite the opposite: liberals are emotional and try to base society and laws on emotion and libertarians and conservatives(specifically from the United States) use reason and logic. Most liberals I have met will throw out logic and reason any day as long as their agenda is met. IOW, the ends justify the means. To me liberals raise man above all else (including themselves) whereas most to the right politically believe in a higher power than themselves. This creates a moral fiber that cannot be changed, even if we are not always perfect in our ways. Man above man politically has always created bondage and slavery.

  4. @Eric – I'm not a politician or a political activist. I don't even try particularly hard to win people over to my viewpoint. So I don't have any right to speak of behalf anybody but myself.

    But you and I can definitely agree on one thing. Politicians on the left are not particularly logical or reasonable. Are politicians on the right any more so? I don't think so, but I can see a way you might argue that was the case.

    As a working scientist I can assure from direct personal experience reason and logic are fine enough tools. But for effective problem solving you need to use gut feelings, intuition and emotion as well. I would definitely NOT vote for Mr Spock.

    Belief in a higher power does seem to be slightly more prevalent on the right than on the left. I'd be interested to know why this is the case but I can't see any evidence that this affects their moral fibre.

  5. Historyscientist,

    First off, let me apologize for the tone of my original post. Rereading it, I think I may have come off a bit standoffish.

    Secondly, I understand you're not a political activist and aren't necessarily looking to change people's minds. Neither am I. I, however, tend to think those on the left are more likely to be hypocrites and will stand by their position no matter what. I have no facts to back this up, just empirical evidence from the many people I have met over the years and specifically, see in government. I was a liberal for many years until I woke up, read, challenged and began to question what society seemed to be trying to force down my throat and into my thought patterns. Morality is based upon something larger than ourselves otherwise we could arbitrarily set morality everyday. Today murder is wrong, tomorrow it is not based upon the majority of the governed.

    I understand the gut feelings, etc., but in politics, feelings create chaos. Whenever the government gets involved to right a perceived wrong, especially based on feelings, it tends to overcompensate and create a new problem on the polar opposite of the original justification.

    I fault no one for not believing in a higher power, or God. However, when man thinks he is at the pinnacle of creation, at least in the government sense, man creates bondage, slavery and downright torture to his fellow humans. There are enormous exhibits of this in the past (Nazi's, Communist Russia, Communist China, North Korea, to name a few.

    Obviously I believe in God. When someone tells me that there is no such thing as God, I ask for proof. Since science is not meant to prove theories but actually to disprove them, it makes no sense in a logical process. I may not be able to prove that God exists, but can you prove that God doesn't?

  6. No need to apologise Eric. You didn't sound at all stand offish. Its good to hear from anyone interested enough to have an opinion. Most people never get that far.

    I can't disprove the existence of God, and the most commonly held Christian idea of him holds that you have to have faith. If that is correct He has, for whatever reason, chosen to create us without the ability to prove his existence either. That puts whether he exists or not a bit beyond either of our pay scales.

    But I think it is possible to say that faith in God is not significant when it comes to personal morality. Try this thought experiment. God one day decides to reveal himself to Man. It is His universe and he is beyond our ability to understand, so He could do that any time he chose.

    His message is 'yes I do exist, but I have chosen to cease to exist. So all you atheists and agnostics have been wrong all along. But as it happens, from now on you are going to be right because I am leaving you all to it. Goodbye.'

    Would you change your morality in the light of this? Maybe you would, and possibly some other people would. But I think the majority of people would carry on exactly as before.

  7. I randomly came across this and your childhood favorites are much the same as mine. So, if you haven't read them, I highly recommend the Xanth series by Piers Anthony and also Robert Heinlein's Red Planet. Excellent reads!

  8. Thanks for the recommendations Jessie.

  9. You have some interesting thoughts on Tolkien's work as well as Lewis' writing. I'm just curious but have you read any of Lewis' other works. It might give you a little clarity in regards Christianity and faith.

    I do agree that initially you can read Tolkien's work without reading much of Christianity in it, especially “The Hobbit.” It's just a fun read and many people can take it as such. I usually do as well. But sometimes it's fun to look beneath the surface and see what's there.

    I must commend you for not sounding bitter or angry in this blog post. It sets you apart as a socialist and I for one greatly appreciate the difference.

  10. Thanks for your kind words. I have read a great deal of Lewis' writings. I hope that I am clear enough at least on his conception of Christianity after all that reading.

    I can't say that I have ever noticed that socialists that I know are any more bitter and angry than anybody else. I wouldn't say they are more intelligent, more public spirited or more honest either. They just seem like normal people to me. In fact, despite looking I have failed to spot any correlation between people's beliefs and politics and their character and their actions. We all seem to be cut from pretty much the same cloth. The only slightly curious thing I have noticed is that socialists seem to stick with their partners for much longer. Not sure why that is, especially as if anything you might predict that it would be conservatives and christians who value things like marriage. It might just be the people I know though, I have never seen a survey that confirms it.

  11. I have to disagree with you. Ths world of the lord of the rings does in fact have a God. Read the silmarillion. The very first words say that Eru who was the one created the world.

  12. Yes there is a God in the Silmarillion. But that hadn't been published when I read the Hobbit as a teenager. But even the identification of Eru with the Christian God is far from obvious.

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