The Reading Room
The political philosophy of Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings presents several societies with different approaches to government. The most prominent include the idyllic Shire, the grand realm of Gondor, the hardy kingdom of Rohan, and the absolute dictatorship of Mordor. Looking at them gives strong indications of his views of government. In addition, we have his own words on the kind of governance he favored.
The most detailed description of a governmental structure is that of the Shire, the home of the Hobbits. In the Prologue, Tolkien explains: “The Shire at this time had hardly any ‘government.’ Families for the most part managed their own affairs. ... The Thain was the master of the Shire-moot, and captain of the Shire-muster and the Hobbitry-in-arms, but as a muster and moot were only held in times of emergency, which no longer occurred, the Thainship had ceased to be more than a nominal dignity.”
He goes on to describe the Shiriffs, the closest thing the Shire had to police. Their concern was more with stray animals and suspicious outsiders than with policing the residents. At the start of the trilogy, the Shire is essentially a limited-government utopia.
At the other extreme is Mordor under Sauron. We see only its military aspect, not the ordinary life of its inhabitants. It’s clear, nonetheless, that freedom is unknown in Mordor. It may be like ancient Sparta, with every aspect of life militarized.
We aren’t told much about the governments of Rohan and Gondor. Each of them has a king, and Gondor has had a line of stewards for centuries, standing in for the true royal line but exercising the same power. Who makes the laws? How are enforcement and adjudication handled? There’s hardly any information. Describing the normal social workings of those nations wasn’t Tolkien’s purpose.
A brief passage describes Aragorn’s actions after his coronation. He receives embassies, pardons prisoners, grants lands, and pronounces sentences. There is no suggestion that a council or court restrains his power. This would be a concern in real life, but we’re supposed to accept that Aragorn is a good king who can be trusted to rule justly.
A letter which Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher in 1943 shows that his political ideas were eccentric but rested on a strong distrust of powerful governments. He wrote that “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.”
As for the form of government he preferred: “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning the abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)—or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy.” Aragorn’s reign sounds like the kind of “unconstitutional monarchy” he had in mind: “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 dare call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers.”
He despised the Nazis and called Hitler a “ruddy little ignoramus.” When a Berlin publisher wrote to him in 1937 about translating The Hobbit into German, the letter asked for proof of his “Aryan descent.” He replied: “Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.”
The One Ring is a clear symbol of corrupting power, as are the Nine Rings of the Nazgûl. Anyone who uses it to wield power, even with good intentions, will eventually be ruled by it. It has to be destroyed, not used. Gandalf is deeply afraid of what would happen if he used it: “With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly.” Frodo can carry the Ring with relative safety only because the desire for power isn’t part of his nature.
Too often in history, revolutions and reforms have led only to the replacement of one tyrant with another. Tolkien knew that something better is possible, though difficult to attain. Gandalf advises Aragorn: “He [Sauron] is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring, and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. That we should try to destroy the Ring itself has not yet entered into his darkest dream.”
Tolkien was no political philosopher, and his views weren’t well developed. Throughout his writing, though, he shows a love of human (and elvish, dwarvish, etc.) freedom and a distrust of power.