Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Tolkien the Fascist?

Against my better judgment, I'm going to address the claims of someone who commented on my spoof audio commentary for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. Jonathan doesn't care for my sense of humor (I'm unapologetic), and he hates Tolkien's story, actually agreeing with what my commentary satirizes:
Lord of the Rings is outrageously conservative, sexist, and (above all else) anti-urban fascist. When Tolkien ranted about Hitler, he was protesting too much - because he was at war with the beast in himself... I'll never understand the 60s love affair with Tolkien. He wasn't an environmentalist (unfortunately), he was an anti-urban fascist. He stood for all the crap we hippies despise: Victorian virtue, national obligation, and Wagnerian racism. All this poison finds its way into Lord of the Rings.
Many feel this way. Neil Camberly describes the attitude of egalitarian critics who have attacked Lord of the Rings for being racist and fascist:
"The films are "fascist"... They hold up beauty as something inherently good, and ugliness as something inherently bad. Their heroes are strong men and women of honor, decency and moral character. The films glorify ethnic collectivism and nationalism, self-sacrifice on behalf of one's biological community, and courage in the face of overwhelming odds and overbearing evil. Like the 20th century's fascist philosopher-kings, Tolkien's kings spend little time taking votes from their nervous soldiers and citizens over whether their kingdoms should perish with honor or perish with each man desperately trying to save his own skin. But most of all, the films earn their "fascist" credentials by clearly delineating good and evil in the tradition of Western literature's great adventure stories."
But Tolkien was, if anything, an anarchist. This is what he wrote to his son Christopher in 1943:
"My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) -- or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remain obstinate!... Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people... The most improper job of any man, even saints, is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity." (Letter #52; bold mine)
Tolkien was no fascist. He railed against Hitler, not because he was "at war with the beast in himself" (as Jonathan preposterously puts it), but because he was at war with the corruption of the Germanic spirit. This is what he wrote to his son Michael in 1941:
"I have in this War a burning private grudge: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler... Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble, northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true lights." (Letter #45)
Nazi-fascism was a perversion of the ancient pagan ethic to which Tolkien was drawn (despite his Catholicism). And it's that northern ethos which makes its way into Middle-Earth -- not a "Wagnerian racism" supposed by commenter Jonathan, nor any implied Hitlerism. Tolkien's themes are so simple that they sound trite when listed: courage in the face of hopeless odds, loyalty and friendship, love for nature, and doing good for goodness sake. In that light, I suppose it's easy to see why people misconstrue Lord of the Rings as fascist. Middle-Earth presents "fascism" -- if we could suppose it -- in an unfallen state, uncorrupted by tyranny and bigotry.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Jonathan said...

Middle-Earth presents "fascism" -- if we could suppose it -- in an unfallen state, uncorrupted by tyranny and bigotry.

Wow!! I guess that says it all, doesn't it?

6/06/2006  
Anonymous Ian Myles Slater said...

If Jonathan doesn't accept the existence of irony, or grasp the idea of "unfallen," I suppose that he can't be faulted for misunderstanding anything else.

Anyone with real doubts on the subject should forget about the fiction, which is open to wilful or ignorant misinterpretation on a grand scale, and try the "Letters." Most notably the acid reply to the German publisher who needed Tolkien's affirmation of his "Aryan" status to issue a translation of "The Hobbit." (It was not forwarded by Allen and Unwin, who apparently used a less explosive alternative refusal, and so survived in their files.)

A very self-conscious Catholic, he was opposed to the fiercely anti-clerical Spanish Republic, but has nothing much to say in favor of the Phalangists, unlike some contempoaries. Those determined to paint him as a racist may wish to attribute this to some unexpressed anger over their employment of Muslims from North Africa; but, without a textual basis, that sort of argument would depend on the conclusion it is intended to support.

"Fascist" is sometimes used merely as a pejorative synonym for "deeply traditional," instead of "radically authoritarian nationalism." So I suppose someone whose patterns of thought were largely formed before World War I, and lamented industrialization, could, from a perspective almost a century later, be called "fascist" with perfect consistency.

But if so, exactly what historians should now call the real-life Black Shirts must be considered a serious question.

6/07/2006  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Most notably the acid reply to the German publisher who needed Tolkien's affirmation of his "Aryan" status to issue a translation of "The Hobbit." (It was not forwarded by Allen and Unwin, who apparently used a less explosive alternative refusal, and so survived in their files.)

This is one of the drafts:

"Dear Sirs,

Thank you for your letter ... I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian; as far as I am aware noone of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject -- which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

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.

I trust you will find this reply satisfactory, and remain yours faithfully

J.R.R. Tolkien"

(Letter #30)

6/07/2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the woman tolkien chose as executor of his estate found his library to contain some eyebrow-raising materials, including a sizeable collection of obscure racialist/fascist INSTAURATION magazines from the long-pre-internet era, not exactly something one stumbles upon in a bookshop.

His "reply" to German authorities strongly resembles those prepared for such unfortunate targets of Jewish scorn, almost certainly a fraud.

Tolkien likely admired Jewish hero and defector Benjamin Freedman, a similarly posthumously distorted genius.

6/25/2006  
Anonymous roland said...

'Tolkien's themes are so simple that they sound trite when listed: courage in the face of hopeless odds, loyalty and friendship, love for nature, and doing good for goodness sake.'

Unfortunately, these are not neutral terms, as is already obvious in Plato and Aristotle, for they have overlapping class and moral characteristics. As Ste. Croix shows so well, goodness, beauty, uprightness are opposed to evil, ugliness and lowliness in specific class senses.

1/07/2010  
Blogger Aleks said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3/19/2010  
Blogger Aleks said...

I love JRR Tolkien's work, but it is racist and fairly fascistic. Most of the good guys are tall white men of the north and west, simple country farmers, and the dunedain who remain supermen even though their quality has diminished by mingling with the "blood of lesser men." The dwarves and elves are also good races. The enemies are various swarming slave races, the cowardly Easterlings, the savage elephant riding painted Haradrim, the literally subhuman orcs. Those counseling peace are perfidious fools, cowards or traitors*.

This won't keep me from rereading The Simirilian, The Hobbit, LOTR and the Children of Hurin. But Tolkien was a man of his time and place and we should appreciate his virtues without ignoring his vices.

Calling Tolkien himself a fascist is quite a few bridges too far for me.

*A few exceptions do apply, for example the Kinslaying way back in the First Age. But within the Lord of the Rings and in most other cases peace is always selling out at Munich. Like I said, a man of his time.

3/19/2010  
Blogger Aleks said...

Calling Tolkien himself a fascist is quite a few bridges too far for me.

It occurred to me that my comment was very weak. What I meant was "The idea that Tolkien was himself a fascist is idiotic."

3/20/2010  
Blogger Fingolfin said...

He seems to horribly contradict himself in that quote; he's all for anarchism but then there's the part about "execute them if they remain obstinate" — which is a bit scary for me, and completely opposed to the anarchist philosophy.

There was an exclamation mark after it... so do you think he was joking? Strange fellow for sure.

4/21/2011  

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