The political views of an author don’t matter very much. You pick up a book to be entertained, and the plain fact is that the ability to write something worth reading is pretty evenly distributed across the political spectrum. Nonetheless we like to think that authors we admire hold roughly the same views that we do. Sadly for the many fans of J.R.R.Tolkien his views are not ones that many people currently hold. But before we get into that lets have a look at the character of Tolkien as it emerges from these letters.
The dwarfs, Gandalf and Bilbo have now reunited but are still far from out of trouble. Gandalf points out that the Goblins are quite likely to be chasing them soon and on top of that they are in wolf country. As it turns out the wolves and the goblins have a working agreement, if not a complete alliance. The situation is therefore precarious. So it is no surprise that as night falls the party find themselves surrounded by wolves. This is a bit of bad luck because as it happens they are on the very spot that the wolves have arranged to meet with their partners in crime for a spot of village raiding.
The Hobbit has grown in popularity in many ways, but one of the most surprising started in the Seventies. That was when the game Dungeons and Dragons emerged. This was very much a cult thing, I can remember that there was a small group of us at school who knew about and enjoyed D and D. There was another small group who knew about and loathed D and D. But most were totally unaware of it, which gave it a delicious exclusive feel.
My three favourite twentieth century English authors are Orwell, Tolkien and C.S.Lewis. It isn’t a perfectly equal trinity though. I think Orwell and Tolkien are writers of huge genius who will be read for centuries to come. Lewis I like a lot and enjoy reading, but he isn’t really in the same category. He can certainly write well and has lots of interesting ideas, but I think he is very much of his time and will get steadily less relevant as the world changes. He also got a lot of his ideas from the other two. This doesn’t diminish how much fun you get from reading him. But originality always commands more respect than derivation, no matter how skilfully done.
“I’m a roving Jack of all trades
Of every trade and all trades
And if you want to know my name
They call me Jack of all trades…
In Swallow Street made bellows-pipes
In Wharf Street was a blacksmith
In Beak Street there I did sell tripe
In Freeman Street a locksmith
In Cherry Street I was a quack
In Summer Lane sold pancakes
On then at last I got a knack
To manufacture worm cakes”
Birmingham folk song.
The Hobbit was a great success on its publication. Children loved it and sales were robust. The publisher asked Tolkien for more about hobbits. Tolkien’s response was to send an early draft of the Silmarillion.
For anyone who hasn’t read both books, here is the opening line of the first one.
“In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.”
Here is one of the opening lines of the Silmarillion. (Its structure is a bit diffuse making it hard to tell exactly where the actual narrative begins.)
“In the beginning was Eru, who in Arda is known as Illuvatar”.
It doesn’t really grab you and pull you into the story the way the Hobbit does. I think the publishers can be forgiven for deciding not to go with the Silmarillion.
Where Bilbo lives is a very comfortable and law abiding place. As we get further away from home things get wilder. The Hobbit is of course a children’s book and Tolkien makes things as simple for his youthful audience. He designates this area as ‘the Wild’. This is fairly easy on the brain and gets us to the right place mentally with minimal effort.
The opening sentence deserves to be included in any list of great opening sentences for a novel. ‘In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.’ But before we get any further we get a description of how well appointed and comfortable this hole is. Hobbits are materialistic creatures and are not likely to be fobbed off with any notion of reward in an afterlife for good behaviour in this one. Our hero, Bilbo Baggins is pretty down to earth, quite apart from actually living in a hole in the earth. One of the things we are going to get throughout the book is frequent references back to egg and bacon, and making cups of tea. These are the things that Bilbo misses about home while he is out having his adventure. Simple pleasures.
Bilbo is a very respectable individual. He is very polite and a stickler for manners. In his first conversation with Gandalf you might almost think of him as a bit snobbish. He doesn’t have a job and he doesn’t employ people. He starts off the book being a bit dull. You can apparently tell what opinion a Baggins will have on any subject without going to the trouble of actually asking him. But his status is such that he is free to go on an adventure if he wants to. The only issue is whether Gandalf the wizard can persuade him to give up his stable life style for something a bit unpredictable. This is by no means easy. Bilbo has several issues that trouble him about the prospect. The one that particularly bothers him is that there is no guarantee of regular meals.
Like Bilbo himself, Gandalf is free of social commitments and can engage in projects that he deems worthwhile. The case in hand is an injustice that needs putting right. A colony of dwarfs have been deprived of their property and livelihood by a dragon. Gandalf is putting together a team to redress this, with some exiled dwarfs providing the bulk of the manpower, or should that be dwarfpower, for the expedition. He has picked out Bilbo as a burglar
Gandalf’s first problem is Bilbo’s reluctance to consider leaving his comfortable home. To get round this he contrives a bonding session. Bilbo finds that thanks to Gandalf’s plotting he has the dwarfs turning up at his hole. This gives him a chance to get to know the dwarfs and decide whether he really wants the burglar gig. The package on offer is reasonably attractive, with a 14th of the treasure payable on completion. Expenses, presumably funeral expenses, will still be payed in the event of the quest failing. We, like Bilbo, get to know a bit about the dwarfs. The leader is Thorin Oakenshield. What, not the Thorin Oakenshield you are probably asking? Yes, him! One of the crafty tricks by which we are drawn into the imaginary world in which the book is set is alluding to things as if we should already have heard about them. It is one of the ways Tolkien achieves the depth of his world the so many people who read his work comment on. So we learn that Thorin is a very famous. Gandalf has artfully tricked Bilbo into providing supper for a not just for any old dwarf, but a celebrity dwarf.
The dwarfs turn out to be a bit of a mixture of calculating opportunists and wild eyed romantics. On the one hand there is little doubt that they are motivated by a desire to regain their property and their treasure, and are prepared to pragmatically hire the expertise they need in the form of a burglar to do so. On the other hand they have a bohemian side. We see this when at one point in the evening they break out their musical instruments for a bit of improvised home entertainment. It is the music that sways Bilbo to overcome his objections and sign up.
C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien had an argument once, about myths. Initially C.S.Lewis dismissed myths because they were made up and so were untrue. Not so, said Tolkien. Yes they were made up, but that didn’t stop them reflecting the truth. What did he mean?
It is quite a subtle point. God made Man in his own image. So everyone, no matter what they believe, carries with them some reflection of God himself. This truth can be weak or distorted, but nonetheless the stories that men tell can still carry in them an echo of the divine being and therefore have some kind of truth in them. Myths can be true, even if they are made up. Tolkien was a Catholic, and in the case of Catholics they had an advantage in seeing the truth not shared by others. The actual God had revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. The Church was founded by people who had met the living God and had passed his truth on from person to person in an unbroken succession. So Catholics are closest to the truth and everyone ought really to sign up to get in on it. But others could and do see enough of the truth to offer a valuable insight.
It is a neat formulation, and quite a useful one for a Catholic living in England. Catholics are a large minority, but still a minority so Tolkien would have had to spend a lot of time working with non-Catholics – like his friend Lewis for instance – so it would be handy to have a frame of reference that enabled respect to be shown to other faiths. I can’t help thinking it wouldn’t be a bad idea if more religious people thought that way. Although they have stopped actually killing each other in Europe, the is still plenty of religious strife around the globe and this concept might reduce it a bit.
But I digress. The basic idea of people being predisposed towards a concept even if they haven’t heard of it because it is deeply programmed inside them is an interesting one. In fact, it does sound a bit like the way we all inherit certain characteristics as part of our evolutionary history. Some attitudes are really deeply ingrained in us, almost as if they are a part of our being. A good example of this is the taboo against incest. Incest is universally regarded as wrong and siblings are rarely actually attracted to each other. But there are cases where siblings brought up separately have found that they do find themselves attracted if they do meet as adults.
So the idea that we have inbuilt notions of what is right and how we should behave doesn’t seem to much of a stretch. Replace God with evolution and Christianity with socialism, and you can use the Tolkien’s idea to explain why so many people end up as socialists even when there is no obvious point at which they ‘convert’ to the idea. If you are a socialist you may well think like I do. It isn’t something that I consciously chose from a menu of available options. It was just the one that chimed with the way I thought.
(If you are reading in America, I am well aware that socialist sounds a lot more negative in the US than it does in Europe for some reason. I hope this doesn’t put you off too much. Just to be clear, just as there are many variations on Christianity, there are many strands to socialism. Indeed Christians and socialists both share several characteristics and there is a reasonably big overlap of people who are both. Not all socialists are Lenin any more than all Christians are Saint Ignatius de Loyola. )
So armed with Tolkien’s own intellectual trick, we can now reinterpret Tolkien. He may not have overtly been a socialist, but he still inherited the trend towards socialism and so we can pick up socialist threads in his work. In fact I suggest that he is one of the most socialist writers of the twentieth century. You just need to look carefully to see what is really going on under the bonnet.
Postscript – Tolkien expresses the idea I have discussed here at some length in his poem Mythopoeia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mythopoeia_%28poem%29 . It is unusual amongst Tolkien’s work for a number of reasons. For a start it is almost unreadable. Nobody will complain that it is too short. I have read it twice, the second time purely to check that I had it right for writing this blog post. I don’t have any plans for a third go. It is a bit of a shock after the beautifully written stuff we are used to from Tolkien. It is also very negative – again a rare trait for Tolkien. And it is also a very direct statement of his beliefs and how he sees things. As you see, I don’t recommend it. But given what I am doing with it, I though it necessary to give a reference so people can make their own minds up.
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.