March 12th 2016


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Several items missing from list of the big spend

CANBERRA OBSERVED Greens back Coalition in Senate voting reform

ENERGY Nuclear reprocessing feasible here: SA inquiry

HISTORY OF TAIWAN Fifty-year journey from poverty to prosperity

SPEECH IN PARLIAMENT Warning: wolves in anti-bullying clothing

EDITORIAL Turnbull ignores three elephants in the room

DOMESTIC AND FAMILY VIOLENCE Family portrait or ideological caricature?

OPINION Goebbels revisited: the attack on Cardinal Pell

FAMILY AND SOCIETY SSCA apologists try to shrug off media furore

EUTHANASIA Legitimate denial of choice at end of life (Part II of two)

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Welcome backdown on vaccinations

ENVIRONMENT Food bowl emptied due to conservationist myopia

MUSIC Much-loved concertos clouded with melancholy

CINEMA Spotlight in the darkness: Spotlight

BOOK REVIEW Governing Middle-earth

BOOK REVIEW A land of contrasts

LETTERS

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BOOK REVIEW
Governing Middle-earth




News Weekly, March 12, 2016

 

THE HOBBIT PARTY: The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got and the West Forgot

by Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards

(Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2015)
Hardback: 211 pages
ISBN: 9781586178239
Price: AUD$42.95

 

Reviewed by Peter Madison

 

Many readers of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, as well as viewers of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, will tell you that they love these stories and find themselves going back to them again and again as a means of escaping the real world. But how many realise that author J.R.R. Tolkien did not intend these stories to be so much a door leading out of the real world as a window looking in, an offering from the author’s insights into the nature of creation, man, society, good and evil and God?

As appreciation for serious Tolkien studies grows, authors Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards make their contribution with The Hobbit Party, which, as the subtitle indicates, aims to illustrate The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot.

Richards and Witt met in the first grade, but first encountered the world of Middle-earth in high school and, as with the average reader described above, the primary appeal of the books was as “a bit of relief from the flat, dusty landscape” of their childhood in the Texas High Plains. Only much later did the spiritual and political significance of Tolkien’s creation become apparent to them. Richards is now an economics professor at the Catholic University of America, Witt a fellow of the Acton Institute and a former English professor.

What distinguishes their argument in The Hobbit Party is that it is not focused so much on the spiritual content of Tolkien’s works as the political.

There is now a growing body of literature focusing on the former, with notable titles including The Gospel According to Tolkien by Ralph Wood and On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis by Louis Markos. Very little attention, however, has been given to the latter, as author and Tolkien scholar Joseph Pearce notes: “If much has been written on the religious significance of The Lord of the Rings, less has been written on its political significance—and the little that has been written is often erroneous in its conclusions and ignorant of Tolkien’s intentions. … Much more work is needed in this area, not least because Tolkien stated, implicitly at least, that the political significance of the work was second only to the religious in its importance.”

Tolkien’s political outlook

The authors of The Hobbit Party make a valiant effort to make up this deficit, with a tour of Middle-earth that honours the many influences on Tolkien’s political outlook, from the thought of Augustine and Aquinas to Locke and Smith, as well as contemporary Catholic social teaching, which became more clearly defined in Tolkien’s lifetime. The Hobbit Party purports to reveal Tolkien’s views on such diverse topics as big government, the free market, just war theory, localism and distributism, and others. Here we outline only two of these topics.

What did Tolkien think of big government? The Britain into which he was born in 1892 was dramatically different to that which he left behind in 1973.

As historian A.J.P. Taylor writes: “Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country forever without a passport or any sort of official permission.” (quoted p122)

Over the next half-century, however, all this would change. The role of government would expand dramatically in those parts of Europe enslaved by fascist and socialist regimes, but only gradually in the case of other Western nations, including Britain. Tolkien, we are told, could not abide the soft despotism that overran his Britain.

Little government or none?

Witt and Richards allege that in spite of attempts on the part of socialist and countercultural scholars to co-opt Tolkien as a fellow traveller, he was in fact “a lifelong enemy of big government in every form” (p16). Notwithstanding the immense and complicated problems facing modern society, Tolkien nevertheless did not see bigger government as an answer and expressed this in his novels.

Witt and Richards write: “We are all fallen creatures, and that includes every political leader we might appoint to run some centralised plan for building a better society. This is why Tolkien steadfastly opposed the trend – strongly in evidence in the England of his day – to place more and more power in the hands of politicians in the hopes of hastening social reform.” (p23)

The primary evidence for Tolkien’s opposition to big government, according to Witt and Richards, lies in the depiction of the Shire.

As the authors observe: “This gentle civilisation appears to have no department of unmotorised vehicles, no internal revenue service, no government official telling people who may and may not have laying hens in their backyard … and no political institution even capable of collecting tariffs on foreign goods.” (p25)

In fact, the authors note, the Shire seems to have hardly any government at all; instead, as Tolkien described it, “families for the most part managed their own affairs” (p25). As Tolkien presents the Shire as an ideal society, we are to take it that the conspicuous absence of regulation is also ideal.

Wars in his worlds

What were Tolkien’s views on war? He could not fail to have had views, considering he himself had fought in the trenches of World War I, where he lost most of his friends, and then lived through the even more destructive World War II 20 years later.

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit certainly do not skimp on the details of war. Huge battles are joined by armies thousands strong, with both sophisticated and crude weapons wreaking huge death tolls; those who rally to the cry of the Fellowship against Sauron are brave warriors risking their lives in the face of a terrifying enemy with huge force at its disposal. Some might see in all this a glorification of war. Did Tolkien intend it as such?

Or are we to read in this a symbolic message about the value of courage and perseverance in a fight with spiritual enemies? Not according to Witt and Richards, who accuse scholar Matthew Dickerson of coming close to “explaining away the warfare as a literary convention” and of unjustifiably spiritualising “key elements of the narrative” (p107).

No, the battle for Middle-earth is a real war; not an allegory for a purely spiritual or moral conflict between or within intelligent creatures. It is a war that neither glamorises violence nor pretends that violence must never be employed in self-defence. Instead, according to The Hobbit Party, it reveals “Tolkien’s complex moral vision of war” (p106), and this is the Christian doctrine of Just War.

In fact, the authors assert: “Much of The Lord of the Rings could be read as an extended interpretation of them [the principles of Just War] and one that rebukes some of the more fashionable ways of interpreting them.” (p112)

Such principles include just cause, right intention, proper authority and public declaration, last resort, probability of success, and proportionality. At various points in the novel, and especially at the Council of Elrond, we see leaders arguing for war or against war, with false or valid appeals to the principles above. Ultimately, it appears, Tolkien tells us that while on the one hand war is horrific, on the other “to prematurely beat swords into ploughshares is not just foolish but immoral when the swords are needed to protect the innocent” (p109).

The Hobbit Party offers many well-reasoned interpretations for parts of Tolkien’s stories; however, not every interpretation will satisfy every reader. Joseph Pearce, for example, noted biographer of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, takes issue with the authors’ explanation of Tolkien’s position vis-à-vis distributism: the view that private and productive property should be distributed more equally through a population rather than concentrated in the hands of a few.

Was Tolkien an advocate of distributism? Pearce argues for the affirmative, along with other scholars including Peter Kreeft. Richards and Witt, however, devote several pages in The Hobbit Party to arguing for the negative.

First, they argue, “no endorsement of the distributist program has ever been discovered in Tolkien’s writings” (p162); and second, “Tolkien expressed views that run counter to the distributist program” (p162). This is allegedly visible in his novels.

Witt and Richards, for example, argue that the Elves are meant to have mistakenly spurned innovation and progress in their civilisation, in a way that resembles the distributists’ “nostalgia for pastoral life” (p157). Then, at the end of The Hobbit, when Bilbo returns home to find his property being auctioned off, no one questions his right to reclaim his property: “It never crosses the hobbits’ collective mind that some government official should have the power to appropriate a sizable portion of Bilbo’s property and redistribute it more equitably throughout the community.” (p163)

Pearce has responded to The Hobbit Party by alleging that the authors’ arguments are “incoherent” and tend to conflate the positions of socialism and distributism, especially with respect to the writings of Belloc. The debate whether Tolkien espoused distributism may have a long life ahead.

How does The Hobbit Party rate for style? Overall, the authors do a very good job of keeping the reader engaged from start to finish. They tend not to make bold statements – although they evidently have not avoided controversy altogether – and most of their arguments come across as balanced and well supported. This effort to remain balanced can, however, risk tedium – a bit like watching a tennis player who is safe and solid at the baseline but lacks the flair to go for a creative winner.

Also, the authors are guilty of some long tangents that tend to express their own political views rather than Tolkien’s. On the plus side, they do manage to interject doses of humour, and convey their love and passion for the literature of Middle-earth.

The Hobbit Party is well worth the read, and it is to be hoped that others will follow the lead of the Witt and Richards in studying the political and social messages latent in the works of one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century.


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