Book review: Tolkien and Politics

  • Anthony Cooney, Patrick Harrington and David Kerr 

    Tolkien and Politics

    Click on image to buy book

  • Third Way Publications, London
  • ISBN 0954478827

Reviewed by Edward Canfield of Steadfast magazine

Tolkien and Politics, a publication of the ‘Third Way’, is a collection of essays which make a timely contribution to the growing discussion on the significance of Tolkien’s works. As the popularity of these works continues to spread and as the books are successfully transferred onto the medium of the cinema, this discussion is growing in complexity. The authors, Harrington, Kerr and Cooney, have researched thoroughly into Tolkien’s letters and have thought deeply about his ideas and principles. They are well placed to make judgements about Tolkien’s status as a writer of great literature and about the cultural significance of his books.Patrick Harrington, in an article that has already appeared in Steadfast, demonstrates that Tolkien was portraying an image of England and Englishness when he described the Hobbits’ homeland, the Shire. David Kerr included some interesting examples of the ‘anti-Tolkien backlash’ within the academic and literary elite. The venom of this milieu has been remarkable. Kerr shows how fashionable commentators have striven to demonise Tolkien, claiming that he was driven by ‘atavistic and ugly impulses’, that he ‘was animated by a visceral hatred of modernity and its glorious embodiment, the cosmopolitan city.’ The authors of Tolkien and Politics correctly point out that this loathing for the cosmopolitan city is not at all ugly or unhealthy. Modern cities breed enormous disparities of wealth and poverty in which crime increases as society breaks down. In the end this can lead only to one thing – a concentration of state power in an increasingly totalitarian society.1

Anthony Cooney handles the objection that Tolkien always denied that Lord of the Rings was an allegory. This means only that Tolkien did not want his vast creation to be reduced to a simple message in that way that George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 can be interpreted as a straight-forward denunciation of the failures and betrayals of the Soviet regime. When Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings he was consciously trying to create a mythology for England, creating in Cooney’s words, a ‘great tapestry of the folk memory’. As such the relevance of the book is timeless as it portrays the archetypes of human personality and confronts the fundamental issues of ethics and politics, the ever-present issues of duty within human conflict and of our responsibilities to live at one with the natural world.

Tolkien and Politics is continuing along the path outlined in Patrick Curry’s immensely important Defending Middle-Earth which first laid out clearly the message that Tolkien was giving about the natural world .2 Curry argued that Tolkein was describing an enchanted world, an enchanted world but one with such recognisable features of our own world within it that it calls for the re-sacralization of our living world. Tolkien and Politics does not follow along these lines in discussing the concept of re-enchantment. Instead it leads into an explanation of the relevance of Distributism to an understanding of Tolkien’s ideas. This is certainly fairly convincing. Tolkien after all was a Roman Catholic and a contemporary of the Distributionist thinkers, the Catholic intellectuals G.K.Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Harrington shows that Tolkien did subscribe to a magazine which appears to have argued for Distributist and Social Credit doctrines. The Third Way is Distributionist in ideology and clearly excited that Tolkien may have been receptive to this school of thought. I may be blinkered but I am not sure that this is the most significant aspect of Tolkien’s legacy to our generation. Tolkien’s message transcends easily applicable political interpretation. The message, or so it seems to me, is put forward cogently by Patrick Curry;

 “A fantasy like Lord of the Rings can help us not only to imagine wonder, but realize it by returning to our world and seeing it afresh. There is a strong relationship with the issue of place here, because without such re-enchantment – that is, unless our response to our communal, natural and sacred places as home partakes of wonder – then the outlook for our places, and all that hangs on them, is very dark. No strategy based purely (or even largely) on calculations of usefulness, self-interest or rationality can survive the onslaught of economic and scientific monologic that comprises ‘development’. Only re-enchantment can make it possible to realize that this world, its places and its inhabitants are existentially already wondrous.” 2

Tolkien and Politics is an interesting and important publication which gives insights into the thinking of a man who is becoming seen as the twentieth century’s most popular and most challenging writer. The decentralized and non-capitalist society which the Distributionist authors of Tolkien and Politics support certainly seems attractive and worth striving for but, for me at least, the most urgent message of Lord of the Rings is the implicit call for the re-enchantment of my country, the re-enchantment of England.

1 Tolkien and Politics p12
2 Defending Middle-Earth Patrick Curry 1997


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: