Tolkien & Politics

17 Aug 2020

London, UK

by Matthew Eric Bassett

When Tolkien first published the Lord of the Rings some critics mocked it by asking why any sensible adult would read a book about elves and orcs. They doubted whether it had any themes beyond the comprehension of a seven-year-old. 1 Yet one theme that runs through much of Tolkien's work — including the Lord of the Rings — is the relationship between language and power. It is easy for a reader to get distracted by the magic rings and glowing swords and miss the real power — the real magic — that is exercised through the characters' words. We glimpse a bit of this in Tom Bombadil, a character from the book whose songs and poems themselves have the power to banish evil. There is another great display of the power of words in the Silmarillion: Sauron, the great enemy of the Lord of the Rings, is there merely a lieutenant of a greater entity. When he senses that two spies disguised as his servants, one of them a great Elf king, are approaching his outpost, he leaves his tower to meet them. The Elven king and Sauron end up fighting it out. That fight, however, wasn't one of magic lightning or telekinesis; they sang at each other. Sauron's words were stronger, and with them he stripped the spies of their disguises and imprisoned them. This is the "real magic" in Tolkien; it is not sword fights or wizard staffs, but ordinary words meant to influence or transform those listening to them. It's an excellent analogy for politics.

Tolkien makes this analogy explicit for us in the power of Saruman. 2 In the book, Saruman's greatest asset is his voice. With it, he convinces rulers and peoples to adopt policies beneficial to himself and hurtful to themselves. He does this by essentially casting spells on people. I do not mean spells of strange-sounding words or cast out of wands. His spells were ordinary human speech, spoken melodiously and with great cunning, and often containing a bit of truth: like how the country needs "organizing" or that crops need "gatherers and sharers". But the effect of these words is to get people to police their neighbors, damage their environment, and give up their freedoms.

Modern politicians are trying to be like Saruman. When politicians defend themselves by saying to the American people things like "such and such country is corrupt, but so is everyone" or "there are a lot of killers, you think our country is so innocent?" they sound as though they are speaking ordinary words that contain some truth, but they are actually casting spells. These spells work an apathy towards liberal democracy as well as a sense of nihilism that undercuts efforts for a better, less corrupt government. These spells create (false) expectations that everyone is equally bad when it comes to demonstrating Western values like the rule of law, equality, and civil rights. "If everyone is corrupt then so are my political opponents," the enchanted people start to think, "so all that matters is that my side wins". 3 And so these spells help to justify "rigging the system"; they form a foundation for stripping away the rights of political opponents.

Perhaps you can think of some other spells cast by politicians you support or oppose.

Those spells that I mentioned above are, in a way, counter-spells. They are spells trying to directly fight a whole class of other spells known as "American Exceptionalism." At its best, these spells convince Americans that their country is unique in that it is founded on the virtuous and noble idea that all persons are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights. The counter-spells are so strong today that it feels almost anti-intellectual just to type that last sentence. I guess that today's politicians have a more powerful song, or maybe that no one is bothering to sing a different tune. It may also be that those casting the counter-spells are helped by the fact that politicians have also used "American Exceptionalism" to advance many ignoble ideas. They've used it to enchant people into supporting immoral actions in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iraq, or closer to home.

In Tolkien's work, Saruman's spells are overcome by the plain speech of Théoden and Gandalf. Both of them break his words (and his will) by recounting Saruman's deeds and acts of war. Frodo counters Saruman with mercy. The heroes in Tolkien's story always have the truth on their side. The speak it plainly, because the truth is always plain, and never manipulate it. I guess that — more than elves and orcs — is what makes it fantasy.