Tolkien’s world – a Marxist Analysis, part 2
The World of Middle Earth.
The reason the social relations of Middle Earth are so easily recognised is that they are (with one important exception) essentially feudal. We do not live in a feudal society, but feudalism is the social order that immediately preceded capitalism in Europe, and that existed alongside capitalism in many parts of the world until well into the twentieth century. Moreover, there still survive, even in the twenty first century, hangovers of feudalism such as the British monarchy, aristocracy and the House of Lords. In addition feudal social relations permeate a large part of our classic literature (Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowulf etc) of our mythology, (the Arthurian legends, Robin Hood etc) and our children’s fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White etc).
According to Marx social relations correspond to a certain level of development of the forces of production (technology, plus labour, plus science). The productive forces of Middle Earth are resolutely medieval. Not only are they pre- industrial, they are pre- early modern – no steam engines or power driven machinery, no printing, no transport more advanced than the ship and the horse (except eagles in extremis), importantly no guns or cannon (the only explosions or fireworks are courtesy of wizardry or sorcery). Actually very little attention is paid to production at all. It is clear that Middle Earth is overwhelmingly rural – Minas Tirith in Gondor is the only real city we encounter in the whole epic – and therefore it is more or less assumed that most people are farmers of some sort and not worthy of much mention.
Middle Earth is a world of Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses, Lords and Ladies. The role of heridity and lineage, of what sociologists call ascribed (as opposed to achieved) status and what in everyday language would be called class, is absolutely overwhelming and completely taken for granted. Almost every single character’s social position and part in the story is determined, in the first instance, by their birth. This applies from the very top to the very bottom, in small matters and large. Why, for example, is Sam Gamgee Frodo’s servant? It is not age – Merry and Pippin are young but from higher families in the Shire social order – it is class. Aragorn, not Boromir or Faramir, is destined to rule Gondor because he is the heir of Isildur, albeit this was 3000 years ago, and has ancestry stretching even further back to Earendil and the Elven kings of the First Age, whereas they are merely sons of a Steward. True, he has to prove himself and win his throne in many battles but his leadership role is predestined. And Aragorn will love and wed Arwen not Eowyn because she is of matching birth – they are repeating the ancient union of Luthien and Beren. Eowyn, who originally loves Aragorn, instead marries Faramir who is of roughly equivalent standing in the Middle Earth hierarchy.
At first glance the central character of Gandalf may appear not to fit this mould in that his lineage is not spelt out in The Lord of the Rings, and that Saruman not Gandalf is at first cast as the senior wizard; moreover wizards do not seem to have a fixed position in the Middle Earth social order (compare the relatively lowly Radagast). But in The Silmarillion, the prequel to the saga of the Rings, which provides a creation myth for Middle Earth and tells the history of its First Age, this gap is filled. Gandalf, we are told, was originally Olorin and a Maiar . The Maiar were the servants of the Valar, the Lords of Arda (guardians of creation made in the beginning by Iluvatar, the One) in Valinor, beyond the confines of the world. Gandalf is thus of higher lineage even than Elrond or Galadriel, but, interestingly, matches that of his two great foes, the Balrog in Moria ( Balrogs were Maiar perverted by Melkor/Morgoth, the fallen Ainur/Valar and Great Enemy) and Sauron, Morgoth’s emissary, just as Frodo’s descent and social status matches that of his nemesis Smeagol/Gollum.
At no point in The Lord of The Rings is this hierarchical social structure subject to any form of critique or challenge, either by an individual character or a collective group, or even implicitly by the logic of the narrative. The history of Middle Earth contains no Wat Tylers, John Lilburnes or Tom Paines. On the contrary acceptance of traditional and inherited authority is invariably a sign of ‘good’ character, resistance to it a sign of siding, or potentially siding, with the enemy. For example one of the things that marks Faramir as the ‘good’ brother in contrast to Boromir, is his more or less instant recognition and acceptance of Aragorn as his ruler.
Indeed, in a parallel with the Christian story of Lucifer the fallen archangel, the origin of all evil in Tolkien’s world is the rebellion against authority of Melkor, the Ainur. In The Silmarillion it is told how at the beginning of creation Iluvatar revealed to the Ainur a ‘mighty theme’ of which they were to ‘make in harmony together a Great Music’.
But now Iluvatar sat and hearkened, and for a great while it seemed good to him, for in the music there were no flaws. But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Iluvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself. (The Silmarillion, 1977, p.16)
From this act of insubordination flows all the misfortunes of Arda – the temptation of Feanor, the darkening of Valinor, the great war at the end of the First Age, the fall of Numenor, and the rise of Sauron. Thus from first to last Tolkien’s worldview is imbued with a deep seated respect for traditional authority.
To add to this there runs through the whole saga another hallmark of conservatism, namely the belief that things are not what they used to be, that the world is in decline, and that the old days were finer, nobler, more dignified, more heroic than the present. As Elrond puts it when recounting the mustering of the hosts of Gil-galad and Elendil for the assault on Sauron at the end of the Second Age, ‘I remember well the splendour of their banners … It recalled to me the glory of the Elder Days and the hosts of Beleriand, so many great princes and captains were assembled. And yet not so many, nor so fair [ my emphasis], as when Thangorodrim was broken’. (The Fellowship of the Ring, 1974, p.233)
Finally there is a view of fate, predestination and ‘the will of the Gods’ that is not only pre-modern and pre-enlightment but reminiscent of Ancient Greece and the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles. When, at the Council of Elrond, Frodo announces that he will undertake the task of taking the Ring to the Cracks of Doom, Elrond says ‘I think this task is appointed for you, Frodo’, and indeed the whole episode has been foretold in lines which came to both Faramir and Boromir in dreams:
Seek for the Sword that was broken:
In Imladris it dwells
There shall be counsels taken
Stronger than Morgul-spells.
There shall be shown a token
That Doom is near at hand,
For Isildur’s Bane shall waken,
And the Halfling forth shall stand.
[The Fellowship of the Ring p.236]
Similarly Smeagol/Gollum is fated ‘to play his part before the end’ – an absolutely crucial part as it turns out – and the various acts of mercy that are shown to him by Gandalf, Aragorn, the Elves of Mirkwood, and Frodo himself all facilitate this predetermined destiny. Predictions and prophesies are scattered throughout the story and they always come true. As in Greek tragedy anyone who attempts to frustrate or avoid their fate merely ends up contributing to its inevitable fulfilment. The centrality of this conception of fate, which turns out ultimately to be the will of God, for Tolkien’s whole vision is made clear by Iluvatar’s response to Melkor’s aforementioned original sin of musical innovation.
Then Iluvatar spoke, and he said: ’Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Iluvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’[The Silmarillion p.17]
This view of destiny is highly conservative because it both reflects the fact that human beings are not in control of their society or their own lives (in Marxist terms, alienated and dominated by the products of their own labour) and reinforces the idea that that they can never become so.
31 October , 2010
Del 1 (Part 1), Del 3 (Part 3), Del 4 (Part 4), Del 5 (Part 5)
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