En marxistisk analys av Tolkien – del 4

TolkienAnalysen är gjord av den brittiske marxisten John Molyneux som var (är?) medlem i brittiska och irländska SWP. Den är lång, så jag delar upp den på flera inlägg. Detta är det fjärde. Texten är tagen från Molyneux egen blogg.

Tolkien’s world – a Marxist Analysis, part 4

Tolkien’s Appeal

We can now return to the question posed at the beginning of this essay, namely explaining how work based on such a conservative outlook has enjoyed such immense popularity. The question is the more interesting because it does not seem to be popularity on a right wing or conservative basis, in the way that the Bond novels and films appeal mainly to the macho male, or Agatha Christie murder mysteries appeal to middle class nostalgia for the English village and mansion of yesteryear. Rather a major part of Tolkien’s appeal, and what turned him into an international best seller, was to the ‘hippy’ counter culture in America in the sixties.

One obvious and tempting answer is simply to say that the ‘average’ or typical reader is not interested in the kind of social and political issues discussed here but is simply swept along by the good writing and dramatic story line. In a sense this is obviously true and good writing and gripping action are doubtless necessary conditions of the work’s success, but in themselves they are not a sufficient explanation. The affection in which The Lord of the Rings is held by so many involves not just being gripped by the story line but being ‘enchanted’ or ‘inspired’ by its vision and its values, and that ‘vision’ and those ‘values’ cannot be separated from the social relations in which they are embedded – even if the ‘average’ reader is not aware of this in these terms.

So how does a vision of a feudal society imbued with deeply conservative values, which in the real world, in a modern bourgeois democratic society, would have practically zero political support, manage to exercise such an attraction?

First, because what we are presented with is a totally idealised feudal society. The most obvious and fundamental feature of feudalism and medieval society, namely its poverty and hence the poverty of most of its people is simply airbrushed out. Even in contemporary America or Europe there is large scale poverty, never mind Latin America, South Asia or Africa or Europe in the Middle Ages, but not in Middle Earth. Neither in The Shire, nor Rohan, nor Gondor, nor anywhere else, do we encounter ordinary, run of the mill poverty. From time to time we encounter ‘lowly’ or ‘humble’ people, such as Sam Gamgee and his Gaffer, or Beregond in Minas Tirith, but never anyone actually suffering privation. Nor do we find any of the conconcomitants of poverty such as squalor or disease or even grinding hard work. The real Middle Ages had the Black Death and numerous other plagues and famines. I offer a couple of paragraphs from Wikipedia on famine in the Middle Ages ( it matters not whether the details are correct or not for the general picture is abundantly clear):

Famine in the Medieval European context meant that people died of starvation on a massive scale. As brutal as they were, famines were familiar occurrences in Medieval Europe. As an example, localized famines occurred in France during the fourteenth century in 1304, 1305, 1310, 1315–1317 (the Great Famine), 1330–1334, 1349–1351, 1358–1360, 1371, 1374–1375 and 1390. In England, the most prosperous kingdom affected by the Great Famine, years of famine included 1315–1317, 1321, 1351, and 1369. For most people there was often not enough to eat and life expectancy was relatively short since many children died. According to records of the British Royal family, the best off in society, the average life expectancy in 1276 was 35.28 years. Between 1301 and 1325 during the Great Famine it was 29.84 while between 1348-1375, during the Black Death and subsequent plagues, it went to 17.33.

The height of the famine was reached in 1317 as the wet weather hung on. Finally, in the summer the weather returned to its normal patterns. By now, however, people were so weakened by diseases such as pneumonia, bronchitis, tuberculosis, and other sicknesses, and so much of the seed stock had been eaten, that it was not until 1325 that the food supply returned to relatively normal conditions and the population began to increase again. Historians debate the toll but it is estimated that 10%-25% of the population of many cities and towns died. While the Black Death (1338–1375) would kill more, for many the Great Famine was worse. While the plague swept through an area in a matter of months, the Great Famine lingered for years, drawing out the suffering of those who would slowly starve to death and face cannibalism, child-murder and rampant crime.*

Nothing like this ever happens in Middle Earth, not in the 10,000 years of its Three Ages. Average life expectancy in medieval Europe was about 30 – it was so low because of the high infant mortality. Infant mortality was ever the scourge of the poor and it remained high until well into the twentieth century. The infant mortality rate was well over 100 per 1000 births in Victorian Britain and 150 per 1000 worldwide in 1950. Today it is 6.3 per 1000 in the USA, and 2.75 in Sweden but 180 in Angola and 154 in Sierra Leone. No such problem exists in Tolkien world. Nor is there cholera or TB or cancer or heart attacks.

Crucially, also, there is no exploitation or systematic oppression or slavery except where carried out by Morgoth, Sauron or his agents and allies. The extreme moral bi-polarity of Middle Earth (which I think is an important aesthetic weakness) is very useful here. Middle Earth is not a boringly happy utopia, on the contrary it is filled with danger and evil, without Tolkien ever having to deal with any issues of social justice because all injustice and oppression is simply laid at the door of the Enemy.

Another factor in the appeal of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is that the entry point into this feudal world and our immediate point of identification throughout the saga is via the Hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo in particular, and The Shire (and not as it is in the much less popular Silmarillion, via the One, the Ainur and the Eldar). The Shire, especially The Shire as it is first presented at the start of The Hobbit, exists within a feudal context – wizard and Dwarves turn up at the door, but is not itself feudal. Here is the description of Bag End on page 1 of The Hobbit:

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats…..No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes, (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining rooms, all were on the same floor… This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins.

This is not medieval or feudal: it is England, very definitely England, [The name, Bag End, comes from the farmhouse in the tiny Worcestershire village of Dormston, in which Tolkien’s aunt lived] somewhere between the early modern period of the Tudors (in terms of its technology and being pre- Cromwell) and the Cotswolds of Cider with Rosie, or even later, in terms of its cosiness. It is worth noting that although The Shire has a Thain (an Anglo-Saxon term), an office held by the chief member of the Took family, ‘the Thainship had ceased to be more than a nominal dignity’ and ‘…The only real official in the Shire at this date was the Mayor of Michel Delving (or of the Shire) who was elected every seven years’ (The Fellowship of the Ring, p21, my emphasis). I think this is the only example of such a modern and democratic notion as election in the saga and significantly it is Sam who becomes Mayor when he returns from the War. Tolkien confirms this geographical/ historical location and his nostalgia for it in the Foreword to the Second Edition:

It has been supposed by some that ‘The Scouring of the Shire’ reflects the situation in England at the time when I was finishing my tale. It does not….It has indeed some basis in experience, though slender…The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten, in days when motor-cars were rare objects (I had never seen one) and men were still building suburban railways. (The Fellowship of the Ring, p.9)

The Shire, of course, is just as much an idealised image of rural England in the late nineteenth century (or any other time) as Middle Earth is of the middle ages. No enclosures, no hanging poachers, no Poor Laws, no Tolpuddle Martyrs and so on.

But there is a further point and it is the most important. This idealised view of the pre-capitalist, or early capitalist past, can form the basis for a critique of modern industrial capitalism. Marx refers to this in the, not very well known, section of The Communist Manifesto on ‘Feudal Socialism’:

Owing to their historical position, it became the vocation of the aristocracies of France and England to write pamphlets against modern bourgeois society….In order to arouse sympathy, the aristocracy was obliged to lose sight, apparently, of its own interests, and to formulate their indictment against the bourgeoisie in the interest of the exploited working class alone. Thus, the aristocracy took their revenge by singing lampoons on their new masters and whispering in his ears sinister prophesies of coming catastrophe.

In this way arose feudal Socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon; half an echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history….

Tolkien is not a ‘feudal socialist’ but he does favourably contrast the pre-industrial past with the industrial present. Earlier in the Manifesto Marx writes:

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.

Tolkien runs this film backwards. From the world of ‘egotistical calculation’ and ‘callous “cash payment”’ , he harks back to the ‘feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”’ and ‘feudal patriarchal idyllic relations’. This is the real key to Tolkien’s mass appeal, including his appeal to Haight-Ashbury hippies. Because IF one abstracts from the poverty, famine, disease, exploitation, oppression etc. then the Middle Ages CAN be held up as a purer, nobler time than the dirty modern world of factories, pollution, profit, money grubbing, vulgar commercial interest, shoddy goods, advertising and extreme alienation, and in some respects it WAS.. In real life, in actual politics, this abstraction is completely impossible, of course, and what one ends with is either tragedy (Pol Pot) or farce (Colonel Blimp, new age Druids) or some mixture of the two ( Mussolini perhaps) but in fantasy, indeed in literature and art, it is perfectly possible.

Nor does this just apply to Tolkien. It is why a romantic anti-capitalist feudalizing tendency, leaning sometimes to the left and sometimes to the right has been a substantial cultural force ever since the Industrial Revolution. Elements of it are present in William Blake (‘England’s green and pleasant land’ versus ‘the dark Satanic mills’) and the Romantic poets generally. It is explicit in the Pre-Raphaelites, and mixed with socialism and Marxism in William Morris (who was a significant influence on Tolkien). In Ireland we find it in Yeats’s invocation of the Celtic Twilight. It is a significant component underlying the brilliant critique (and the disgust tinged with anti-semitism) of T.S. Eliot’s most powerful poetry ( ‘The Waste Land’, ‘Gerontion’, ‘The Hollow Men’ etc) and probably receives its most extreme expression in the poetry, literary criticism and politics of Ezra Pound, which combined affection for Anglo-Saxon, Ancient Chinese, and Troubador poetry with right wing Social Credit economics (against usury and the bankers) and ended up broadcasting for Mussolini in the Second World War.

It this, I believe, which explains why Eliot and Pound could write major poetry while being, respectively, an Anglo-Catholic Royalist who thought the rot set in with the murder of Thomas a Beckett, and a real fascist; and why a conservative Catholic Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford could write books that have sold in the tens of millions.

John Molyneux
31 October , 2010

Del 1 (Part 1)Del 2 (Part 2), Del 3 (Part3), Del 5 (Part5)

* Once again I have thought it reasonable and convenient to cite Wikipedia because nothing turns on the accuracy of the specific figures. It is simply an easy way of pointing up well known general conditions.

Mer: Tolkien Society, Wikipedia, Guardian, AB, Forodrim,
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