How can a Marxist read Tolkien? Or: ‘An Unreliable Narrative’, part II.

Not long ago, I found myself in a bar in Germany with two comrades, and force of circumstance brought up the writings of Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien. As a known fan of his works, I found myself inevitably confronted with the question, why someone with Marxist convictions and such a different world outlook than Tolkien’s own would enjoy his works, beyond the mere love of a good tale. I found it difficult to answer this question in an effective way, even though it was hardly the first time I was asked this. The easiest, and in some respects best answer is to simply say: De gustibus non est disputandum. This ancient principle is easy to defend as the essence of all debates about whether the enjoyment of a particular work of writing – or for that matter of film, or music, or any other medium – is ‘problematic’ and whether one should care. There’s no accounting for taste. More importantly, one should not want to account for taste in this sense: while the question where tastes come from, what economists would call the determination of preference, is interesting from a social science viewpoint, it helps not at all in resolving the interminable arguments about ‘problematic’ works. Such debates begin and end with a dialogue along the lines of: “But X is bad for such and such reasons!” “Yes, but I don’t care, because it’s fun”. And such a waste of energy is best avoided in the first place.

In this essay I do not, therefore, want to indulge overmuch in an argument of that kind. It’s not about whether it is ‘okay’ for a leftist, indeed a radical, to enjoy Tolkien’s works, despite their author being as far from a left-winger as it is politically possible to be. That Tolkien was indeed not even just a conservative, but properly a reactionary, in the full sense of that often abused word, is well known to anyone who has investigated his life or views in to any degree. What I want to do here is to go beyond that mere observation and the intractable arguments about politics versus taste in one’s choice of reading material: I want to investigate what I get out of Tolkien’s works, despite being so opposed to his politics, his religion, and indeed much of his worldview, and in so doing perhaps contribute also to an understanding among radicals of how his work can even so fulfil a need that is not met by any avowedly left-wing work, not even in the genre of left-wing fantasy. Indeed, this also means engaging with some of the extant critiques and evaluations of Tolkien’s works, but not at the level of apologetics or to join the critics, but for the purposes of getting a better grip on what, in my view, his contribution is really about. More than that, I hope to do so in a different way than most commentary on Tolkien has done: by going beyond The Lord of the Rings in examining his ‘Legendarium’, the total of his life’s mythopoeic work, of which the story of the hobbits and Mount Doom is only a relatively small component. The Legendarium, taken as a whole and as a single project, is I think the proper subject for understanding Tolkien. So the purpose of this essay is not to convince you that you should like Tolkien if you do not do so already. That would be ridiculous. But it is to suggest how he can be appreciated, if one does, from the viewpoint of a Marxist.

Note that I assume the reader has a basic familiarity with Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, its characters and structure, such as could be gleaned from reading either The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, or from watching the films.

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