Why do we like The Lord of the Rings?

I am leading, with an old friend, a reading group of political science students.  The first book is The Fellowship of the Ring.  (Hearing this, a neighbor asked me, what can you possibly say?  But I spied he had two different copies of The Lord of the Rings on his bookshelves.)  There is much to say, of course, but one thing struck me first.  Many people love The Lord of the Rings.  The students know far more about it than I do.  But why?  What is the appeal here?  I believe that some part of the appeal lies in the fact that Tolkien vividly portrays a world without four kinds of alienation that plague us.


Economic.  There is no disconnection between those who produce and those who decide what to do with what they produce.  If you make beer in the Shires’ pub, you decide how it is distributed.  Industry where things are made but another decides how they are distributed is presented as something undertaken by the wicked.  But who would not prefer to be directly making and determining and distributing the products of their own labor?

Political. The Shire has a Sheriff, who mostly rounds up lost sheep.  This is a world, as David Graeber has observed, without bureaucracy.  It is a world where no one is going to ask you to fill out twenty five forms in April to do your taxes.  There is no They, to tell you what to do.  Tolkien himself described this personal politics in a letter to his son, worth quoting at some length:

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to ‘King George’s council, Winston and his gang’, it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy. Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. And at least it is done only to a small group of men who know who their master is. The mediævals were only too right in taking nolo efiscopari as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop. Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. And so on down the line. But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that – after all only the fatal weakness of all good natural things in a bad corrupt unnatural world – is that it works and has worked only when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way. The quarrelsome, conceited Greeks managed to pull it off against Xerxes; but the abominable chemists and engineers have put such a power into Xerxes’ hands, and all ant-communities, that decent folk don’t seem to have a chance. We are all trying to do the Alexander-touch – and, as history teaches, that orientalized Alexander and all his generals. The poor boob fancied (or liked people to fancy) he was the son of Dionysus, and died of drink. The Greece that was worth saving from Persia perished anyway; and became a kind of Vichy-Hellas, or Fighting-Hellas (which did not fight), talking about Hellenic honour and culture and thriving on the sale of the early equivalent of dirty postcards. But the special horror of the present world is that the whole damned thing is in one bag. There is nowhere to fly to. Even the unlucky little Samoyedes, I suspect, have tinned food and the village loudspeaker telling Stalin’s bed-time stories about Democracy and the wicked Fascists who eat babies and steal sledge-dogs. There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as ‘patriotism’, may remain a habit! But it won’t do any good, if it is not universal.  (The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkein, Humphrey Carpenter (ed.); 29 November 1943)

Historical.  History is for us a random collection of facts, of enormous complexity.  History in this world is personal.  It’s not enough that Sauron and Isildur existed–they also are personally involved now with Frodo.  The past is personal.  And this is reflected in the knowledge of the wise:  they know their history in song and poetry, not in lists of unbeautiful and disconnected facts.

Ecological. Nature literally talks to us.  Those who destroy nature — who have, like Saruman, “gears in their head,” are the wicked.  It suggests: to live in harmony with other living things is possible.

All this reminds me:  literature is dangerous.  It demands that we ask:  If we like this world so much, then why aren’t we trying to make our world more like it?


2 Replies to “Why do we like The Lord of the Rings?”

  1. We can be subsistence farmers now, and live in two-street communities with minimal hierarchies. Such arrangements are still common in some parts of the world. Fantasy writers can write out all the nastiness of such a life and paint a picture of a people without alienation, a people for whom the world makes sense.

    Stephen Wolfram addressed this very topic in a recent talk (approximately minute 13):

    He got me thinking that the social arrangements of the bronze-to-middle ages form a background against which our ideologies make the most sense. It’s no accident that most of the world’s people explicitly set their moral compass to writings from those times. We are supposed to turn to these when we lack a sense of purpose. When we do, we encounter characters who feel personally embedded in a struggle that features swords, prophets, divine commands, chosen tribes and moral simplicity. The hope is that if we manage to feel some sort of continuity with those characters, we will inherit some of their sense of purpose. And yes, stimulating those purpose receptors feels very good, especially when an excellent writer like Tolkien can render the world so convincingly.

    But while I am susceptible to the pleasure of purpose-stimulating fantasy (I re-read the LotR books every 5 years or so), I find Tolkein’s ideology (as expressed in the letter you cite, and in its slightly more veiled presentation in the books) to be totally reprehensible. If I had to choose between Stalin and Tolkien, I would always go with Stalin, disgusting though he is. Tolkien gives us idealized ludditism, and it’s useful to compare this to a very good piece of fan fiction from Russia called The Last Ring Bearer, which I remember as being pervaded with idealized Leninism. Both works are excellent, but I wouldn’t want people to set their moral compass by them.

    1. David,

      Thanks for the note. Even though for Tolkien there may be some essential link between agrarianism and the values he expresses, I believe we could abandon that link. Surely we can, in our technological society, still admire and pursue less alienated labor, and an improved relation to each other and to nature. (As for history–there I think you may be right. I don’t see any way that our relation to history could change; at least, not to become something like Tolkien portrays. Except, perhaps, in that we might find some of us sharing a common vision for a future, and so interpreting our history in light of that. But the end result is quite different.)

      I assume the thing you find reprehensible in the letter is the odd appeal to monarchy. I too find that disturbing. (As in the book I find some other things disturbing, such as the sexism.) But it seems that what he longs for is anarchism–that’s what he describes and defends at length in the letter. His sense that anarchism is only possible in an agrarian society is interesting because anarchists are often confronted with that claim. Many reject it, of course.

      In any case, many people do find LOTR very compelling. So, is there something admirable to be taken from it? Is there anything beneficent in our admiration?

      I hope you’re doing well.


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