Power and Politics in Tolkien’s Work

Good government in Middle Earth

By Gwydion M. Williams

I first raised the matter of democratic government in my review of Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance. Criticising what he had said about Tolkien, I pointed out that Tolkien had included various forms of popular government in Middle Earth, whereas Moorcock in his own work had shown a strong preference for absolute and arbitrary government. I therefore feel an obligation to take up the interesting points that Jason Finch raised in Democratic Government in Middle-earth (Amon Hen 129). He argues that the differences between Mordor on the one hand and Rohan, Gondor and the Shire on the other were not so large.

To say that a society is democratic is not to say that it is fair or has an equal distribution of wealth and power. This was certainly not the case in Athens, pioneer of democracy. Slaves and women were never included. Nor were resident foreigners, nor even their children who were born in Athens. Citizenship was an inherited right of free adult male Athenians, sometimes granted as a favour to resident aliens. And though political rights within this privileged strata were in theory equal, in practice it was mostly the rich men who did the actual governing.

In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, there are no classless societies, except perhaps the Ents. The notion that a classless society might be desirable took some 150 years to travel from Karl Marx and the Communist League to John Major and the Conservative Party. It did not influence Tolkien at all.

In the Hobbits’ Shire, one must assume that there was no class struggle because nothing very much changed. Most Hobbits had some property. The propertyless minority could come and go as they pleased, work for whom they pleased. Existing differences were traditional and were seen as fair and just, a phenomenon that is common in similar traditional societies in our own world. The ease with which the excessively rich Lotho Sackville-Baggins was able to take over suggests that Hobbits were used to their upper class being reasonable and moderate and not trying to upset other people’s way of life.

Since it had never made much difference which particular individuals held high office, one would not expect most Hobbits to care very much. One could see ruling as a specialised trade, like baking cakes or shoeing horses. As long as it is done well, why bother about the exact methods? And if the militia had no function except to defend the entire population against raiders, why not leave it in the hands of families who had a track record of handling such matters competently?

If this is pseudo-democracy, then there were no real democracies in our own world before the 19th century.

Democracy – rule by the people – only becomes necessary when the lives of the people are being changed and disrupted. If you can live much as you please, within the framework of a fixed and acceptable way of life, does it matter if you do not actually chose the person who governs you? In actual European history, demands for modern democratic government only began when industrialisation and free trade began to disrupt relatively settle ways of life. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, no such process is supposed to have occurred. So the Middle-Earth mix of local self-government and hereditary rulers would have been accepted and popular.

All of the local democracies in the actual history of Europe were very limited and local. The English Parliament that overthrew Charles the First was elected by perhaps one twentieth of the population. When Rousseau described himself as a ‘Citizen of Geneva’, he was actually declaring his membership of the highest and most privileged of the five hereditary groups among the population of that republic. That was the normal pattern, up until the American Revolution. America retained property qualifications for a great many years, and its early Presidents from Washington onwards tended to be rich men who were often also slave-owners. The pioneering democracy of the United States of America recognised and sanctified slavery and other sorts of bonded or unfree labour. Not all of it was black, though white bondsmen and bondswomen found it easy to escape into a sympathetic population.

The limited democracy of the Shire was a very enlightened and mild system, compared to anything that actually existed before the 20th century, and also compared to what was happening in Europe at the time Tolkien was writing Lord of the Rings.

Sauron is a despot who rules over an unwilling population, a population he must forcibly restrain from leaving his realm. I do not think that any other government in Middle Earth prevented people from ‘voting with their feet’. Some of them refused to let strangers in. None stopped their inhabitants quitting for some better land, or else setting up on their own somewhere. Unlike other rulers in Middle Earth, Sauron showed no respect at all for people’s existing rights. He can do as he pleases, whereas rulers like Elrond and Aragorn feel constrained by some sort of ‘natural law’ that is broadly in line with what the ordinary people believe in.

The same applied to the lesser rulers under Sauron. The Nazgul in Minas Morgul are seen as despotic even by the Orc captains. (IV.10, The Choice of Master Samwise). And these are the same nice fellows who refuse to take the minor risk of rescuing a fellow Orc warrior whom Shelob had caught and hung up in webs and then perhaps forgotten about.

Most wars before the 19th century can be seen as ‘a series of disagreements between kings’. But if one king feels morally bound to respect your existing rights while the other is planning either to enslave you or feed you to his Orcs, you’d have little trouble knowing which side you ought to be on!

This was published in Amon Hen, some time before 2000.

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