A cinematic juggernaut has just rolled into town. With the first film in the new Hobbit trilogy, its director, Sir Peter Jackson, has embarked on a quest to repeat his Lord of the Rings omnispectacular. Over the next few weeks we may have to become accustomed to images of Baggins in Burger King and Mordor in McDonald’s. The media hype which all this marketing guff engenders will no doubt cause our literary and cultural custodians to remind us (with that form of detached ennui which they have perfected) that Tolkien is no more than a sort of reactionary Harry Potter. Philip Pullman was therefore right to denounce it all as “infantile” and Richard Eyre justified when he termed Middle Earth the “Kingdom of Kitsch”. Jim Naughtie will continue to sigh when any reference to J.R.R. Tolkien is made on the Today programme—and Mark Lawson will tell BBC Radio 4 audiences that this form of bread and circuses isn’t a patch on Ken Loach’s recent outing into poverty among Asian minorities in Bootle.
But wait. Things are not as they seem. There is an agenda here. There usually is when it comes to popular culture—but in the case of Tolkien we are looking at big politics. For the author of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and The Hobbit was the greatest conservative writer of the second-half of the 20th century. No—not in an Ayn Rand sense, nor in the raw modernist style embraced by T.S. Eliot or Wyndham Lewis. Rather, Tolkien combined remarkable talents for story-telling and philology with a matching ability to communicate conservative values and images with unequalled popularity. His pre-history of the West is dominated by hereditary structures and a settled social order that appealed to the nostalgia of a postwar generation. He was clearly doing something right, given that Rings has sold more copies than almost any other work of fiction in history. It has been voted the nation’s favourite novel in England, Australia, the US and even Germany.
It is this astonishing success that underlies the fierce hostility one encounters from a literary and cultural establishment dominated by the liberal Left (notwithstanding the brief counter-cultural popularity which Rings had in the 1960s). While by no means all on the Right “get” Tolkien (the poet John Heath-Stubbs called it “a combination of Wagner and Winnie-the-Pooh”), all too often those who should know better are simply carried along by an ill-informed deference to established critics who shout louder. Too many conservatives simply do not engage in this area of cultural politics—and then naively wonder at general elections why the broadcast media is pumping out an undercurrent of left-wing assumptions which have scarcely moved on since 1945.
For the Left political battles are won indirectly through the domination of institutions, the professions, culture and received thought. The idea that our children, visual media and society could be significantly influenced by the social conservatism of Middle Earth is anathema to that world view. Germaine Greer wrote: “It has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th century. The bad dream has materialised.” E.P. Thompson blamed the Cold War mentality on “too much early reading of The Lord of the Rings”. Rosemary Jackson described his works as “conservative vehicles for social and instinctual repression”. This is some claim for a set of novels that does not mention economics, sex or religion.
For too long lazy assumptions were made that the Tolkien universe was merely an extended fairy story about trolls, elves and little folk—as if Animal Farm was simply a behavioural study of farmyard life. Many of these calumnies were expressed by those who had not read—let alone understood— the books. Other critics simply saw this as a convenient way to dismiss what they regarded as a regressive, archaic and therefore dystopian vision of human society.
While Tolkien had an aversion to allegory (and looking for the “meaning” in a novel is always hazardous) it is important to understand that he was writing about England and the wider struggle for Western survival. The novels were written through the terrible prism of the Great War in which, he wrote, “by 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead”. Tolkien’s world died in the months which followed the Christmas truce of 1914. It is surely this which drove his anguished description of the Nírnaeth Arnoediad or the “Battle of Unnumbered Tears” in The Silmarillion when so many of the noble Eldar were slaughtered. He writes of honour, service and country—and yet those who are victorious cannot live in the world they have protected (“I saved the Shire—but not for me,” Frodo laments). The central theme of The Lord of the Rings is, in the words of one critic, “death, the passing of beauty so that it can be saved, and the renunciation of power for the sake of love”. The story is undoubtedly spiritual, without ever mentioning God. Beyond this, it should also not be forgotten that The Lord of the Rings ends up with the Hobbits returning to their homeland, finding a totalitarian and collectivist regime has been imposed on the good folk of the Shire, and overthrowing it in a bloody popular coup. The attack on post-war socialism could not be more direct.
And what of the films? Described by the US blogger Spengler (David Goldman) as “the most important cultural event of the past decade”, Peter Jackson’s cinematic interpretation of Rings was generally faithful to the books and equally potent. Released originally around the same time as 9/11, the superlative second film (coincidentally entitled The Two Towers) reflected the melancholy of the novel and mirrored the geopolitical events of the day in more than just the title. As the captains of the West are besieged by a foe aiming only at their total destruction, they clamour: “What can men do against such reckless hate?” King Théoden elegises with foreboding: “Where is the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? They have passed like rain on the mountain, like wind in the meadow. The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow. How did it come to this?” How indeed, the Western world asked itself, as New York, the Pentagon and later London, Madrid and Bali came under attack from a medieval enemy of civilisation itself.
While its millenarian and anti-relativist themes received much approval from audiences, it was attacked in some quarters as racist (white-skinned heroes attacking darker-skinned foes), and even Libby Purves joined in this extraordinary attack in her weekly Times column. Opposition to taking Tolkien seriously as an author was unabated in many literary circles, although it was around this time that a number of academics on the Right began to explore the phenomenon which the cult of Middle Earth had become. None of this prevented a second enormous wave of popularity for the novels and films, as new generations found fresh stimulation and fulfilment in the Tolkien oeuvre.
The allusions to the Tolkien universe are now everywhere. Viewers of The Thick of It are used to Tolkien references being the currency of thought for Tory special advisers. It is said that Cameron’s task in opposition was compared in real life by colleagues to that of the diminutive hero with hairy feet. The new Hobbit movies have already caused major political strife in New Zealand, where the conservative National Government and Peter Jackson had to combine to crush a truculent union movement bent on disrupting the films. More recently they have even come under attack from the animal rights movement. Doubtless the approach of the commentariat in Britain will be first to ignore the new Hobbit films, then to denigrate them (or their source) and finally to tell us that, if we simply must read fantasy, we should “of course” prefer J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter or Philip Pullman’s equally empty His Dark Materials trilogy. However, the former is a one-dimensional construct which intellectually extends no further than the imagined walls of Hogwarts—while the latter is a leftist polemic, the film adaptation of which was a critical and box-office failure.
A.N. Wilson opened his recent Age of Elizabeth II with a tribute to Tolkien, whom he regarded as the towering English literary genius of the Queen’s reign. For him Tolkien presaged the postwar destruction of English life and the dismantling of our cohesive social conventions. The yeoman-republic of the Shire was largely unregulated but governed by a common understanding of how people should behave in order for society to function. It was suspicious of the motives of all those who sought power and—after his experience of societies run by Hitler, Stalin and Mao—Tolkien was even driven to say: “I would arrest anyone who uses the word ‘State’.” This professor of Anglo-Saxon would have loathed our brave new world with government of thought and deed by state regulation and acronym. Tolkien offers us instead a world of self-governing free people with, perhaps, an excessive reverence for the past over the future.
For conservatives, the extraordinary devotion to the author should perhaps confirm that a majority of people incline emotionally to a world of old-fashioned social tranquillity, conformity and order. The message of The Lord of the Rings is both tragic and heroic, and lacks the depressing cynicism and pessimism of modern literature—bizarrely seen by some as necessary for academic peer approval. If that is the reality of popular opinion, then those who lay claim to be our cultural arbiters ought to take note. “The facts of life,” as Chris Patten once said, “are Conservative.” So it seems is our mainstream culture.