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.

Section 1. Critiques

Readings of Tolkien: Moorcock

Before this can be done, it is instructive to look at how some other Marxist, or at least left-wing, commentators have read and interpreted Tolkien’s works. Contrary perhaps to expectations one may have based on the idea that people mostly read works in accord with their own worldview (and even more so contrary to the ideas that they should do so), there is a fair amount of soi-disant commentary of this stripe, and by no means all of it of a negative kind. Ursula Le Guin and China Miéville, to name two best-selling leftwing writers of fantasy, have both expressed their liking for Tolkien’s works, and Terry Pratchett – perhaps no radical, but certainly no reactionary either – began his career with reviewing, then fondly parodying, the professor’s books. (Alan Garner could be added to this list as well.) There is not a great academic radical literature on Tolkien, but some commentaries on his work, particularly The Lord of the Rings, do exist: one of the most imaginative is that by Ishay Landa, which really deserves a commentary of its own. It is therefore, at an absolute minimum, possible to write or be ‘on the left’ and not hate him. And yet that this should be so is often questioned, and this is, I suspect, due more than anything to the influence of radical sci-fi writer Michael Moorcock’s (in)famous essay on The Lord of the Rings: “epic Pooh“.

It is useful to begin with Moorcock’s polemic, because this essay has established many objections to Tolkien that are true, and yet not anywhere as decisive of the value of the latter’s works as Moorcock seems to have thought. Let me quickly review his objections to LotR, which express I think fairly well the most common ones raised against Tolkien’s work more generally. They amount to this: that Tolkien was a romantic; that he was an “orthodox Tory”; that he sentimentally indulges a middle class “moderation” (this mostly based on the portrait of the Shire in LotR); that he sought a vanished rural idyll; in short, that he “corrupted romanticism” by “sentimentalized pleas for moderation of aspiration which are at the root of their kind of conservatism”.

Interestingly, Moorcock for all his polemical denunciation does not actually go into the most common (and perhaps most salient) contemporary political criticism of Tolkien’s world-building, one breathed new life by the Peter Jackson films: his treatment of race, gender, and culture. I will therefore discuss those separately from Moorcock’s specific objections, which reveal the preoccupations of the 1970s (new) left compared to the left of 2015. Even so, what I might call the Moorcock critique – Tolkien as a sentimental Tory with nostalgia problems – retains also a certain relevance in negative left commentary on Tolkien’s work, as illustrated by a PhD thesis from 2012 grandly titled “Ideology in the Lord of the Rings: A Marxist Analysis”. This thesis concludes, rather lamely, that Tolkien defended hierarchy and was a Catholic, something one hardly needs a dissertation-length analysis (or even a five-page polemic like Moorcock’s) to observe. So what to make of this line of argument?

Firstly, that much of it is true. I will say more about this shortly; but it is absolutely undeniable that Tolkien supported – or at least did not oppose – hierarchy, was a Catholic (and a traditional one), was nostalgic for the past in his inspiration, and influenced by certain strands of Victorian and Edwardian romantic writing. Moorcock makes a great deal of sloppy errors in his polemic: some smaller ones, like mistaking Middle English for Anglo-Saxon (although Tolkien appreciated both), identifying Tolkien with “18th century Enlightened Toryism” – Tolkien was none of those – or indeed repeatedly suggesting Tolkien was from a comfortable part of the middle class. Although his father had been a bank manager, he died when JRRT was very young, and he grew up in considerable poverty raised by a single mother, who died not long after. His extended family were, in fact, rather lower middle class than anything – mostly clerks and craftsmen. But he makes a more telling error. Not just in confusing conservatism for reaction (Tolkien voted Tory with very little enthusiasm), but in the way he portrays Tolkien’s political ideology, that supposedly condemns his work. We are told that Tolkien was an enlightened 18th century Tory; that he was a crypto-fascist; that he represented the bankrupt middle class of the post-WWI era; that he was sentimental, comfort-seeking, sought consolation without any of ‘the negative’; and indeed that he hated humanity and for this reason was responsible for Thatcherism; and that he sought to flatter and protect the interests of Colonels who write to The Times.

In fact, Tolkien read the Daily Telegraph, but that is not the issue here. The problem with Moorcock’s denunciations is not that he dislikes Tolkien’s works, which he is well entitled to do, but that his critique is so incoherent. Moorcock’s primary objection to Tolkien’s works, as in the case of Steve Higham’s dissertation cited above, is that it has the wrong ideology. But without apparently noticing, Moorcock ascribes to the professor a whole range of completely different and mutually exclusive political and ideological frameworks. One cannot be, in all likelihood, a representative of the Edwardian upper middle class and its colonial interests and a fascist and an 18th century Burkean and misanthropic and overly sparing of human feelings or insufficiently negative about the social ‘status quo’ and a defender of a vile Christian orthodoxy and “take you to the edge of the Abyss and point out the excellent tea-garden at the bottom”. It is clear that while Moorcock hates something about Tolkien’s work, he cannot actually pinpoint at all what precise ideology it is, what worldview, that imbues the latter’s works with such life as it has, and that infuriates him so. As a result, his polemic is as incoherent as mistaken about Tolkien’s motives. Indeed, Moorcock could have known his argument was hopeless, because he repeatedly contrasts Tolkien (as well as Lewis and other writers of their joint ‘Inklings’ group in Oxford) with more politically sound authors like Le Guin and Garner, or the science fiction of David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, whom we are presumably to read instead. But it escaped him that Le Guin and Gardner took inspiration from Tolkien and approved of his writings (one can find Le Guin’s essay on Tolkien, praising his writing style, in the collection Meditations on Middle-Earth). One might add besides that Tolkien in fact rather enjoyed science-fiction, and said he read Lindsay’s book “with avidity”.

Moorcock is also wrong about his interpretation of Tolkien’s imaginary. For the latter’s work are not a matter of consolation, as he implies, of the type that would deny the reality of evil, or the possibility that it may win out, as implied by his analogy of the tea-pot at the bottom of the abyss. Quite the opposite: he is closer to the mark when he identifies in Tolkien a thoroughgoing pessimism, and much of his nostalgia stems from this. On one occasion in his essay, although he misreads it, Moorcock quotes Tolkien’s observation that fairy-stories (as the latter called what we would call ‘fantasy’) are about Death, and its inevitability, and our desire to escape from it. Moorcock and his fellow critics in this vein should have taken this more seriously in his readings than they have done. Far from being a sentimental consolation of the Victorian middle classes, in the style of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, this observation leads one to the pessimistic Christianity of memento mori and the danse macabre. And far from indulging in rural idylls – an idea that seems to be based entirely on a cursory reading of LotR‘s first few chapters, ignoring the doom-laden “Shadow of the Past” – it is concerned with the process of imagination, creativity, and the vision of other worlds, and to what extent such visions can or cannot offer a final consolation in the face of death and defeat. It is the one observation of Moorcock’s, this particular quote from Tolkien’s famous essay On Fairy-Stories, that is well-found, if contrary to his argument: “And lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death… the ‘consolation’ of fairy-tales has another aspect than the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires. For more important is the Consolation of the Happy Ending.” But we cannot learn from Moorcock’s critique what he meant by this, although it is at the heart of the vision of Tolkien’s Legendarium. I will therefore have cause to return to this point later.

The point here is not to engage in a counter-polemic with Moorcock or his line of critique, but to point to its incoherence. This very incoherence reveals that there is more to Tolkien’s worldview, as expressed in his Legendarium, than met his rival’s eye. It’s perhaps in that context interesting to observe how much the critics in this vein tend to focus on the particulars of The Lord of the Rings, mistaking a part for the whole: it is, I suspect, one of the sources of their misreading. But more importantly, while they rightly identify Tolkien’s ideology as opposite to that of the left, they misidentify what it really was; and it raises the question why, if his work is so diametrically unsuited to a progressive reading, it was precisely the heyday of the American ‘New Left’ that saw Tolkien become one of the most popular authors of all time, as he is now. Not everyone who voted Tolkien as their favorite author in poll after poll can be a Times-reading Colonel, surely? To understand what Tolkien’s Legendarium has to offer we must therefore go beyond the Moorcock style of criticism. Undeniably, Tolkien was a reactionary and in some sense a romantic, and he certainly was a Christian also. But there are many ways to be these things, and such an influential, genre-making author deserves a closer and more complex – if you will, more dialectical – reading of his ideology than the Moorcock line provides.

Readings of Tolkien: Race and gender

More salient are contemporary critiques of Tolkien’s works, again in particular focusing on The Lord of the Rings, that point to the racist, Orientalist, and misogynist tropes in his work. Although this aspect is in some respects heightened in the Peter Jackson depiction of LotR, the accusations undeniably have a solid foundation in the text itself: the identification of evil with ‘swarthiness’ or darkness, the hierarchical division between different ‘races’ to whom are ascribed inherent moral properties, the enemies coming from the East or the hot lands of the South, and so forth, all point to a racial-cultural set of tropes that are rightly no longer accepted as given or appropriate in literature or film. One may take as illustrative of this critique this essay by Anderson Rearick in Modern Fiction Studies. In it, Rearick not just points to those features but casts an accusing finger at Tolkien specialists and fans alike for a certain cliquishness that makes them close their eyes to this reality in Tolkien’s works and worldview.

Equally the neglect of women in the books is a recurring point of contention: although there are clearly heroically intended women acting independently in LotR, they are all ultimately ‘tamed’ and ‘settled’ in a sense, and there are in any case vastly fewer of them than there are male heroes. And in The Hobbit there are no women protagonists of any kind at all. Faced with this Jackson’s script-writers were forced, in order to make it palatable for a modern audience, to exaggerate or invent new roles for women actors so that the whole would not be such a male affair. It does not help that when this already became a common criticism by reviewers of the Lord of the Rings at the time of its publication, i.e. in the 1950s, Tolkien dismissively commented that “it does not matter and is not true anyway” (Letters 165). But elsewhere the situation is not much better: although in The Silmarillion as published there are several women with major plot-moving roles, most notably Lúthien, they are again still few and far between, and their main role is to serve as wives or love interests of men and in this role affect the doings of men as objects of their interest or as dispensers of wisdom (this can safely be said of Nienor and Melian respectively, for example).

Of course, defenders of Tolkien’s world have sought to introduce mitigating evidence. It is certainly not the case that, especially for his time, Tolkien in private life was notably racist or a supporter of fascism, as Moorcock also suggested. When asked for a declaration of Aryanhood by a prospective German publisher interested in bringing out a translation of The Hobbit – the year being 1938 – Tolkien wrote an equal parts indignant and pedantic letter in reply, stressing his total rejection of the racial categories and theories of Abstammung implied by Nazi ideology. Indeed he mentioned to the publisher on this occasion that “I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine” (Letters 29). (One might add that in doing air raid duty during World War II, Tolkien very amiably shared his role with the Oxford Reader in Jewish Studies, Cecil Roth, whom he much liked and admired.) Biting is the observation that, although the name Tolkien is originally German, “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”. Indeed in private he fulmigated against “that ruddy little ignoramus Hitler” for “ruining, perverting, misapplying and making for ever accursed that noble northern spirit… which I have ever loved and tried to present in its true light” (Letters 45). Indeed, he rejected the use of the label ‘Nordic’ to describe the atmosphere of his works, so keen was he to reject associations with “racialist theories” (Letters 294).

Perhaps more notably for someone born in South Africa, and certainly for someone of his political convictions, Tolkien also opposed apartheid and racial segregation in that country long before it became generally accepted to do so: in his valedictory speech he made a point of remarking, in reference to struggles within English departments in British academia at that time, that “I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.” When his son was stationed in South Africa during the war, he commented more obliquely: “The treatment of colour nearly always horrifies anyone going out from Britain, & not only in South Africa. Unfort[unately], not many retain that generous sentiment for long” (Letters 61). On other points, some have pointed to the fact that in Tolkien white can also come to stand for evil (as in Saruman’s symbol) and that in the First Era, as in the published Silmarillion, the evil resides in the North rather than in the East.

All this, of course, does not do away with the reality of Tolkien’s indulgence of racial and Oriental tropes in his work. It does not relieve them of the accusation of racism, and indeed cannot. It is by all means a change for the better that tropes that would be unremarkable to Edwardians are now recognized as the naturalization of ‘the colonizer’s model of the world’. The appearance of Orcs, Tolkien once averred, was based on “degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types”, which hardly helps his case as racialization goes (Letters 210). To what extent that is a definite stumbling block is for the individual reader to decide. More interesting is interpreting the origins of this phenomenon in his work. Indeed, throughout his lifetime Tolkien wrestled much with the problem of how a seemingly inherently evil race, such as Orcs, could come to exist, given the Christian premises that nobody is irredeemable and the impossibility for evil to add to Creation (in the full sense).

One Catholic friend in Oxford accused him of theological impropriety in his depiction of Orcs in this manner, as did various readers who wrote him letters; and throughout his Legendarium the story of the origins of the appearance of Orcs, and their relation to other beings, constantly changes, reflecting Tolkien’s fundamental unease with this use of the mythologically classical tropes of incarnated good and evil beings, even before the publication of The Lord of the Rings. This is a good example of how a mere reading of LotR on its own, without taking the whole project as a context, can be misleading. Similarly, we find that he frequently emphasized in discussions of his work in later years that Elves should be seen – if in need of interpretation – as idealizations of certain creative attributes of humanity, rather than as expressing a belief in the existence or desirability of a separate superior race. As he put it on one occasion: “I do not care. This is a biological dictum in my imaginary world… Elves and Men are represented as biologically akin in this ‘history’, because Elves are certain aspects of Men and their talents and desires, incarnated in my little world” (Letters 189).

Indeed the many evil doings of elves throughout the Legendarium, especially evident in the stories of the elder days published in The Silmarillion and elsewhere; their often arrogant and neglectful attitude; and Tolkien’s own observation that they sinned by seeking to preserve their own world at all costs (how is that for nostalgia?) attest that moral superiority is not inherent in Elves as a ‘race’, only a greater creative power, and that the latter can be a two-edged sword. Once again we are led to imagination, change, and death as greater themes in his works in the Legendarium as a whole, greater than the specific moral lessons (if any) of LotR or The Hobbit as stories that critics tend to focus on.

In the same vein, the critique of the role of women in Tolkien seems to me equally justified. Here, in fact, Tolkien’s own opinions were much less ahead of their time, indeed rather behind, and particularly influenced by his conservative Catholicism. He did not seek to infantilize women, something he hated particularly in the courtly tradition of Middle English literature, but had no qualms about emphasizing their traditional role in his stories, and saw them on the whole as not fundamental to the structure of his plots (Lúthien, whose tale goes back to the very beginnings of the creation of his Legendarium, perhaps excepted). This might be defensible as another trope derived from actual mythological portrayal, as with the case of incarnated evil being, but this hardly acquits Tolkien in modern eyes any more than does the importance of Eowyn’s gender for the MacBeth-like riddle on the death of the King of Angmar, or the gender balance between male-appearing and female-appearing Valar in Middle-Earth. (It does seem to have garnered him some incongruous supporters among the American religious right.) As mentioned, it was perhaps the main point of critique among the literary critical reception of his books in the 1950s, and remains so today, despite a considerable literature of reappraisal by modern critics.

More than hatred of women, the “not necessary” comment is nowadays taken as an expression of the fundamentally male social circles Tolkien moved in and where he acquired and tested his literary creativity: from the idealistic literary group he formed with other boys at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, to the all-male discussion circle of the Inklings. In other respects, women in his life were very important to him. He got his devout Catholicism from his mother, whom he perceived his whole life as an inspiration and a martyr for the faith. (Galadriel, it has often been noted, has more than a passing resemblance to depictions of the Virgin Mary in Catholic tradition.) And he was devoted to his wife Edith: as their tombstones indicate, she was the Lúthien to his Beren. Strikingly for the founder of the genre of fantasy, his treatment of gender, although more ambiguous at times in the wider Legendarium than sometimes acknowledged – for instance, the Valar have no gender and only appear in a gendered guise, which renders the fact they nonetheless have children in earlier versions of the legend remarkably unorthodox – is fundamentally beset not simply by thoroughgoing misogyny but perhaps more by a failure of the imagination, attributable mainly to his conservative Christianity.

This was a major guide in the development of Tolkien’s legendarium, given his absolute faith and conviction, and indeed became so rather increasingly as he got older and tinkered unceasingly with the legends of his world. But it is also just one strand. As Dimitra Fimi observes in her excellent work Tolkien, Race, and Cultural History, the role of hierarchy, especially of ‘races’ in his work, is variegated throughout the Legendarium and in their functions within the world of Middle-Earth. This is precisely because they stem from different inspirations in Tolkien’s worldview, and come into the Legendarium at different stages of his writing and his life. As she notes, “the ‘races’ of Middle-Earth and their sub-groupings come from all the different strands of Tolkien’s academic knowledge and awareness: philology and linguistics, anthropology and folklore. Tolkien’s world combines stereotypical ideas straight out of Victorian anthropology… [with] divisions based on spiritual concerns, like the subdivisions of the Elves into those who wished to see the ‘light’ and those who refused to go to ‘paradise’; and romantic interpretations of the ‘primitive’ and even the ‘barbarian’… The blending of all these different strands makes Middle-Earth complex and unpredictable, a fantasy world that reproduces some of the concepts and prejudices of the ‘primary’ world, while at the same time questioning, challenging, and transforming others” (159).

The purpose of this discussion is not, I emphasize again, to reject the common criticisms of Tolkien on political grounds as unfounded. Quite the contrary: generally they are justified, although almost always the matter is more complex than the critics are likely to realize. That should not surprise us, since that is often the case with subjects one is inclined to criticize once one really becomes learned in them. (Economics comes to mind as an analogous case, where the common critiques are also frequently right, but in a much more complex and layered way than most ‘vulgar’ criticisms would acknowledge.) However that may be, I rather see the importance of discussing these ‘problematic’ aspects of Tolkien because they tend to prevent any further consideration, as if the subject were thereby exhausted. And that, I think, would be a shame. It is not that these aspects are not bad when seen in proper context, which is too common and too simple a rebuttal. I would say it is more that they have, as exemplified by Moorcock’s discussion of Tolkien, often prevented many progressive-minded people from investigating the context at all. And it is the context, the Legendarium as a whole, that I argue is deserving of a sustained attention from this viewpoint that it has hitherto not much received. Having discussed the most common criticisms, let me therefore now turn to what interests me most: the challenging and transforming. What is it about Tolkien’s Legendarium that could be read as inspiration for radicals?

Section 2. Tolkien’s Legendarium: History, Mythology, and Sub-Creation

The origins and purpose of Tolkien’s mythopoeia

While tens, possibly hundreds of millions have read Tolkien’s best known fantasy stories, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, fewer are familiar with the larger Legendarium of Tolkien’s writings on Middle-Earth of which they are a part. Some may indeed have read the published Silmarillion, although many have found its sparse, archaic chroniclers’ style difficult going after the detailed narrative of LotR. Others may have read Tolkien’s opera minora, mostly not set in the same world at all, like Farmer Giles of Ham and Leaf by Niggle. But very few have braved the thirteen volume History of Middle-Earth, edited by his son Christopher Tolkien, that provides all documentary detail about the whole of Tolkien’s writings concerned with Middle-Earth from his earliest poems to the very end of his life. Fewer yet have read the considerable secondary literature that deals with this larger oeuvre, this life’s work of this otherwise fairly obscure professor of Anglo-Saxon philology. To do so, however, is to my mind essential to make the case for Tolkien’s powers of inspiration, even – or especially – for those who do not otherwise share his worldview or politics. Let me therefore begin by giving a short overview of the origins and purpose of Tolkien’s Legendarium, as brief as a discussion of several thousand pages of manuscript text allows. In this, I rely not just on my own careful reading of the History of Middle-Earth as a whole, but also on the insights of many Tolkien scholars.

The basic facts of Tolkien’s professional life reveal little remarkable (see the Tolkien Society’s short biography for some detail). He was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, and moved to England as a child. Having been orphaned young, he lived as a lodger with family members, rather unhappily, and became acquainted with Edith Bratt, whom he married after a considerable waiting period and after she had converted (at his insistence) to his devout Roman Catholicism. He served as a signals officer in World War I and was invalidated out. Having had a youthful fascination with language, philology, and myth, he first took a job at the Oxford English Dictionary, then became a faculty member specialized in Anglo-Saxon (or Old English) philology at Leeds. Later, he sequentially held the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professorship in Anglo-Saxon and the Merton Professorship of English Language and Literature at Oxford, retiring in 1959. During his lifetime, he published only few, but rather influential writings on mythology and language, concentrating particularly (but not exclusively) on the world of the Anglo-Saxons, for which he was awarded a CBE. Most of these were actually given as talks or occasional lectures rather than as academic publications; and according to the customs of the time he never obtained a modern-style PhD.

However, he had also a lifelong desire to contribute something grand to the revitalisation of Christian life in England, and to this end to give England the mythology that – other than the Beowulf story, concerned with Scandinavian affairs – it never had. First the TCBS, a club of schoolmates with similar inspiration, provided him with support in this endeavour, but most of them died in the War. In later years the support and exchange of ideas necessary to sustain such private ambitions was given to Tolkien by a loose collective of Christian writers and readers called the Inklings, meeting at Oxford; of them the most famous (besides Tolkien himself) are C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. In 1937 he published The Hobbit, based on stories he had told his children, and after a clamor (not least from his publisher) for more Hobbit stuff, he spent a long period germinating The Lord of the Rings, published to some acclaim and (initially) modest success in 1954.

So what’s all the fuss about? Tolkien’s Legendarium can be taken as a single, life-long project, in which his passion for language, his desire to make a new mythology, his attempt to evoke the feeling of the historical sublime, and his quest for a renewal of his idealised Anglo-Saxon world came together. As Tolkien scholars such as Charles Noad and Dimitra Fimi point out, it began with the merger of his myth-making and his invention of languages. While linguistic aesthetics remained a major source of inspiration and the work of many labors throughout Tolkien’s life, it was what he would come to call his sub-creation – creative powers exercised by created beings – that gave life and structure to the whole. This project of integrated sub-creation, that constitutes his Legendarium of Middle-Earth as a whole, in turn took two interrelated forms, coming together but also in tension with one another: mythology and imagined history. As Tolkien himself put the relationship between language, myth and history later in a letter to Milton Waldman, when seeking a publisher for The Lord of the Rings: “[A] basic passion of mine ab initio was for myth (not allegory!) and for fairy-story, and above all for heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history, of which there is far too little in the world (accessible to me) for my appetite. I was an undergraduate before thought and experience revealed to me that these were not divergent interests – opposite poles of science and romance – but integrally related” (Letters 144, emphasis added).

The sub-creative tensions of Tolkien’s Legendarium

How did Tolkien integrally relate them? While the whole of his Legendarium and its development is too large a subject to describe in a short summary, the important thing is to understand the tensions and the power inherent in this project. In essence, his Legendarium went through a number of stages, from the earliest Book of Lost Tales through various versions, prose and poetic, of the stories eventually published (in just one of many forms) as The Silmarillion. Scholars know these various versions by the short titles of these immensely rich and varied interpretations of the mythical world he was building up: the Quenta Silmarillion, QS2Lays of Beleriand, The Lay of Leithian, and so forth, plus a number of independent narratives dealing with the integration of this mythology into a fantastical (pre-)history of our world, most notably The Notion Club Papers (for my money his most interesting work). This vast body of works continued to evolve until his death and has only been published in full in the History of Middle-Earth. But within this ever-changing sub-creation, however divergent the narrative frameworks, there is continuity: the linguistic aesthetic, but most importantly the joining of myth-making to the search for a recreation of history, mentioned above.

I think it is this continuity that integrates his work as a project more than any continuity of world or story that is precisely the Legendarium’s main source of tension and generates its most powerful effect on the reader (if the reader is sensitive to such things, at least). Let me explain these tensions. While the Legendarium began as a mythological world in which he could exercise his fascination with Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and other Germanic pagan worlds and stories – from which derive the basic concepts of his elves, dwarves, and wizards, but also his guardian gods – without giving up his essentially Christian commitment, this generated a tension throughout between the mythological and the theological. For even as Tolkien increasingly developed his own mythology into a world of his own making, with his own rules, in which the historically rather vague and dark character of elves and dwarves in Old Norse sagas became the fascinating ‘races’ we know now, and in which Middle-Earth took shape as a place with its own theogony and Creation story, he was unwilling and unable to give up the fundamentally Christian nature of any world that he would sub-create. So a natural theology of loosely Christian monotheism overlays a mythological world deriving its inspiration primarily from Germanic paganism. As over time Tolkien came to remove more and more any explicit references to Christianity in his work, he became increasingly preoccupied (especially towards the end of his life) with making his world consistent with a Christian worldview. However fiercely he defended, most notably in his grand poem “Mythopoeia”, the right of – indeed need for – sub-creation in humans as created beings, he was never entirely sure that he was on a path that was permissible for a good Christian. Yet he ‘could do no other’. This is one source of tension.

Another source is between the myth-making and the imagined history. As I have set out in the previous essay on this subject, Tolkien’s Legendarium is throughout characterized by a peculiar kind of narrative irony. On the one hand, the world itself is set out in deadly earnest as a ‘translation’ by Tolkien himself, as editor, of long-forgotten works of lore and mythology from ancient days. It is quite explicit that these ancient days, the first three Ages of the world, are ages of our world, and that therefore we now live (according to his own estimation) in anywhere between the Fifth and Seventh. (Personally, I enjoy thinking we live in the Fifth, since that would make the Sixth World of the Shadowrun universe, a cyberpunk take on Tolkienian fantasy, neatly fit the same timeline. But that is a digression.)

As we are told, the work of LotR for example is an edition of a manuscript derived from the Red Book of Westmarch as written by Bilbo, Frodo, Samwise Gamgee and  as further elaborated on by late Gondorian and other sources. The names in Tolkien’s world are such as would be equivalents for English-speaking people in the 20th century, so that Westron names are given appropriate equivalents in terms of traditional English place-names, the old Westron personal naming schemes are rendered in Lombard, Frankish and other colouring, and so forth.

The explicit purpose of all this is not just to establish the familiar literary trope of the story-as-manuscript-edition, but a deeper one. As explored most systematically and with greatest profundity in The Notion Club Papers, Tolkien’s often cited ambition to create “a mythology for England” – although he never precisely formulated it quite so – combined with his Christian commitments carried with them for him the duty of reconciling mythology with history. That is to say, whatever he would ‘subcreate’ about the world of the Legendarium would also need to be imaginable as the mythological prehistory of our own world, and in particular as the prehistory of that people and period that above all else had Tolkien’s heart: Anglo-Saxon England. But the joining of mythological time to the misty times of the early Middle Ages continues even into the present and the future, as shown by the extremely complex temporal layering of The Notion Club Papers. In that work, a future text describes a present (in the 1930s-40s) group of scholar-literators, modelled after the Inklings, who are visited by mysterious dreams and omens from the past, namely the period of the Legendarium. All this mediated of course by the Anglo-Saxon period.

It is no wonder perhaps that despite the development of the work Tolkien abandoned it, which Christopher Tolkien attributes to its excessive narrative complexity. But this fundamental sense of continuity, in which mythological prehistory is joined to the early medieval period from which the elements of its mythology are originally drawn (pagan and Christian alike), and from there become also part of historical reflection and imagining on the relationship between story, myth, and real historical continuity. From the earliest works in the Legendarium, inspired by the imagined prehistory of the references to an Earendel in the Anglo-Saxon Crist cycle, this was and remained Tolkien’s fundamental creative approach and scope. In the earliest versions it is as simple as an Anglo-Saxon seafarer who wanders off the world and ends up in the land of the elves, a theme which would in many variations recur in Tolkien’s work as a whole (see e.g. his poem on St. Brendan’s navigations). Later it becomes an extremely complex tapestry in which are interwoven elements of Tolkien’s own mythological imagining; of themes from early medieval mythology; of real or imagined (historial) chronicles of events on which among other things the Beowulf was based, such as the tales of the Danes and Geats and the legend of Sheaf; of present interpretations of such tales and the question why and how we seek meaning in them; and all this as part of a single weaving in which the Christian story is intended to be, though by no means always in reality, the dominant pattern.

It is on this tension in particular that I think we must focus if we are to understand Tolkien aright. Moreover, since Tolkien presents us in this way – perhaps more than any other writer of fiction in the 20th century has done – with something approaching a complete and integrated worldview in which fiction and nonfiction join together, it is our task to see how this understanding can help us be inspired by him without being confronted with the need to accept or reject this worldview as a whole. This I will now explore in the below considerations.

The affinities of Marx and Tolkien: the historical sublime

It is the coming together of these elements in Tolkien’s Legendarium as a whole that I want to explore here. If we take Marxism to be based on the imaginative re-interpretation of history, combining the best impulses of Enlightenment anthropological optimism and Romantic pessimism, then the relationship between that project and that of Tolkien at the level of the imagination can be established. For Tolkien’s lifelong project was based on the imaginative union of history and mythology, of Christian hope and Romantic (even pagan) pessimism. And both achieve their best effects, derive their greatest significance, from the imagined experience of the historical sublime: the sense of awe evoked by the sudden recognition of meaning within the deep mists of historical time.

As Frank Ankersmit has discussed in his works on the historical sublime, it is not a coincidence that this sensation and the experience of mythology are so similar in structure, a strong emotive and even moral impulse or commitment generated by the distance between the everyday and that meaning discerned in historical time. In Marxism this identification of the historical sublime, and its importance for the effect generated by that kind of meta-narrative or ‘secular myth’ generally called historical materialism, has been powerfully expressed by Walter Benjamin among others.

I want therefore – as briefly as possible given the complexity and diversity of the Legendarium and yet as fully as the constraints of space permit – to explore this affinity of the imagination. I will do this by exploring three dimensions of this affinity as they manifest themselves within the Legendarium: myth-making and ‘feigned history’; sub-creation; and finally the historical sublime. In each case I will try to show how Tolkien’s imaginative vision, although founded on a decidedly reactionary Christian worldview, nonetheless has a relevance of kind rather than content with the romantic evocative structure of Marx and Engels’ historical materialism. But first something must be said about Tolkien’s ideology: his particular dialectic between pessimism and hope that gives Tolkien’s work its Christian colouring.

Tolkien’s ideology: pessimism and hope

Most discussions of the ideological components of Tolkien’s worldview hitherto tend to take either of two approaches. Either they fulsomely praise his traditional Catholicism and his expression of a Christian worldview at the level of morals, natural theology, and the virtues and vices of his characters; or they condemn his concessions to racism, sexism, and his seeming love of arbitrary hierarchies and conservative sentimentalism. In a longer version of this essay I could deal with such objections, but here I want to simply propose to suspend this rather old and ineffectual discussion. Instead I invite readers to look at an ideological frame that I think was more important for the shape Tolkien gave to Middle-Earth, its histories and legends: the notion of the ‘long defeat’.

“Through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat”, Galadriel says in LotR. And so too Elrond in the council of Rivendell, when he gloomily observes that “I have seen three ages in the West of the world, and many defeats and many fruitless victories”. This, I think, lies at the heart of the narrative structure of Tolkien’s works, published and unpublished. For him, history was a long defeat, as he put it a war that is always being lost; between weak good and powerful evil in this world, and between the human fear of death and the necessity of its acceptance.

Far from a Victorian sentimental romanticism of consolation alone, this view is grim and pessimistic, consciously evoking the fatalism of the pagan worldview still felt in works like Beowulf; but given a final ‘eucatastrophe’, a sudden eruption of the often longed-for but never realistically expected good, by the Christian message of salvation. The long war of the elves against the god of evil described in the many tales of the First Age, most often read in the forms of the published Silmarillion, are a good illustration: being a war of mortal beings against a god, they cannot win, and know they cannot. Nor do they really expect any good to come of it in the end, though they continue to hope for it: and so it does come, because they have not given up.

Tolkien’s attitude to the fortitude in the face of doom that was the greatest virtue of the Germanic pagan tradition is much the same. These virtues were expressed in their mythologies and in what Tolkien called their ‘historial’ accounts, their mythologised accounts of real historical events and figures, for which these pagan peoples – the old Norse in particular – have justly become famous. Tolkien sought to draw on this vision of strength in the face of a long defeat without, however, accepting their ultimate fatalism and the cult of violence that resulted from it.

In The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorhthelm’s Son he expresses this most clearly. This play about an imagined dialogue between two Anglo-Saxons, following the notorious defeat of Anglo-Saxon forces against Viking raiders at the battle of Maldon, deals with the dialectic of pagan pessimism and Christian hope. The battle of Maldon is the subject of a famous Anglo-Saxon eponymous poem, in which appears a passage often seen as the best expression of the pagan worldview and ideological commitment: 

Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre,

mod sceal þe mare þe ure maegen lytlað.

Or in Tolkien’s translation: “Heart shall be bolder, harder be purpose / More proud the spirit as our strength lessens.” The demand to strengthen the spirit, to prevail against a certain Doom, is – although in the poem attributed to a Christian warrior – the essence of Germanic pagan commitment, even to its ‘political ideology’ in that sense. But in the Beorhtnoth dialogue Tolkien contrasts his appreciation of this demand with another, opposing, demand: to have hope of a final liberation. The defeat at Maldon came about by an excessive love of war and the contest of wills (struggle, as we would say) for its own sake, born of fatalism, Tolkien suggests, and so many died needlessly in the defeat of a good cause. Strength in the face of the long defeat is good and necessary, but loses its virtue when the hope of an unlooked-for liberation, the eucatastrophe, is abandoned. In the Christian context of Tolkien’s worldview (and that of the Anglo-Saxons), this is of course salvation; but we need not take that specific lesson from the larger point.

Mythology and historial narrative

Unlike the insinuations of critics like Moorcock, therefore, Tolkien is not giving us the suggestion that all will be well in the end as long as we keep calm and carry on. Rather, nothing will be well until, unexpectedly but brought about by our own perseverance in the long defeat, a eucatastrophe becomes possible. This is a radical dialectic of pessimism and hope, not the maudlin Biedermeier sentimentality that those impute to Tolkien who have only read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (and even those not very carefully). And this view gave the framework for Tolkien’s union of mythology, imagined history, and even linguistic aesthetic: the need for sources of hope in this world requires not just a re-reading of history but a re-imagining of it, one in which the meaning imbued by mythology could be transferred onto the level of the historical.

In this way, feigned (or re-imagined) history is given mythological dimension, and yet can be the far end of a single gradient with the real history of states, peoples, and classes as we know it, without any qualitative rupture. Imagine, if you will, this gradient with Tolkien and the Beowulf writer on one end and Plekhanov and Kautsky at the other. Of course, for Tolkien himself the irruption of the Christian story onto history, Christianity as ‘true myth’, was also a necessary part of this re-imagining: in this way he converted C.S. Lewis. This is not the place to go into the merits or demerits of a Christian Marxism, of course. Rather, I want to draw attention to how this favored framework of Tolkien’s, the ‘historial’ level where mythology meets real history, is what gives his work the sense of depth that can in turn evoke the historical sublime.

This sense that from evil can, if one persists in struggle, come unintended and unexpected good; and that a powerful re-imagining of history can give meaning to the apparent meaninglessness of the ‘long defeat’ and so sustain our struggle until liberation comes; these are seen from this vantage point not so different from the ‘master narrative’ of historical materialism. Tolkien’s framework of the long defeat gives his entire Legendarium its melancholy, pessimistic, and yet ultimately hopeful character: and is this not true also of the best Marxist historians?

One need only think of Marx’s re-imagining of the history of class society: with its cycle from paradisiacal origins in ‘primitive communism’ through the long defeat that is class society in its countless oppressive and exploitative variegations, ultimately culminating, as an unintended consequence, in the emergence of the gravediggers of that same class society in the form of the proletariat. Then the eucatastrophe of liberation becomes a possibility, an irruption into history. It is not for nothing that Marx describes the history before this event as the ‘prehistory of humankind’, suggesting that from the post-liberation vantage point it will be experienced as of primarily symbolic significance: as the long evil we unexpectedly escaped. Of course, I am not suggesting Marx’s writings are, as so many anti-Marxists have insinuated, merely a translation of the Christian messianic story. The difference made by its this-worldly nature is profound, its attitude to scientific inquiry fundamentally different. But even so this is a historial narrative, a transposition of a mythological register onto real historical figures and events, powerful enough to have gripped millions.

Sub-creation and the imagination

There is however another point of affinity that needs exploring. For besides Christianity Tolkien had another font of hope in the struggle of the long defeat: the power of what he called ‘sub-creation’. By this he meant that strange power of creativity, imagination and inspiration that humans have to create imaginary worlds, to imagine things differently than they presently are, and to contrast the real with the possible or the thinkable. This capacity of imagination lies at the basis of all utopianism and all social critique, but also at the basis of Tolkien’s ‘fairy story’, what we would now call fantasy. He called this sub-creation because for him it was creation by a created being, of course; but importantly, in this formulation of imaginative powers, he emphasized the right and ability of humans to create worlds, real and potential, as a right equal to that of the Creator himself. This is best expressed in his famous poem, Mythopoeia:

Though all the crannies of the world we filled,

with elves and goblins, though we dared to build

Gods and their houses out of dark and light

and sowed the seeds of dragons – ’twas our right

(used or misused). That right has not decayed

we make still by the law in which we’re made.

Although this poem is a Christian defense of mythology against skeptics and secularisation, the formulation of the power and right to sub-create is here remarkably ‘materialist’ in tone. The law in which we’re made could as well be our evolved psychology as our imbued Creation, and the gods which we have made ourselves could include the Christian one. Even so, the power of creativity and imagination is our birthright, that we will not trade for a mess of pottage. I would suggest here a strong analogy with Marx’s vision, especially explicit in his early works, of homo faber as the fulfilled ideal of species-being.

The “little maker, with maker’s art” Tolkien invokes as his ideal for humanity at the end of this poem, as contrasted with submission to the given facts of the world as it is described by state or science. This sounds strikingly familiar to Marx’s famous romantic opposition of free creative powers to the confinement of the division of labor, taken as a given. Indeed, elsewhere Tolkien insightfully remarks that true imagination is really this-worldly. As he put it in On Fairy-Stories, “creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.”

This right to sub-creative work and imagination, recognizing reality but not enslaved to it, lies at the basis of all critique and all praxis. For without it, we could not imagine our world otherwise than that it is, and the romantic component of Marxism would lose out to the Panglossianism of Enlightenment reason, one that can only explain but not imagine. Tolkien’s call for the centrality of imagination and the work of sub-creation to our imagining of the world and our place in it is, seen in this way, but a different expression of the principle that “the philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.” Such change is a matter of struggle with hope, as discussed in the previous section; but it can only have meaning and purpose when based on the imagination of difference, of worlds that do not (yet) exist, and when this imaginative capacity takes shape in the work of writing and doing.

Historical depth 

One of the most striking aspects of Tolkien’s works, noted by many fans and appreciative critics from the publication of LotR onwards, is the sense of historical depth. Tolkien sought to reproduce what he described as “the flavour that rooted works have”, and by all accounts he has succeeded magnificently at this, as any comparison with his subsequent epigones should make clear. His most powerful instrument to this end is the suggestion of stories not told, hints of ancient things not explained or understood by the protagonists, and the layering of present narrative with backgrounds of legend and myth.

In part this effect is generated in The Lord of the Rings by his drawing on vast quantities of existing materials relating to the previous ages of Middle-Earth, which subsequent publication in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales (not to mention The History of Middle-Earth) have revealed in more detail. But it is also a matter of approach: for Tolkien the historial dimension underlying all experience of present-day events was essential to understand and appreciate historical meaning, and equally the sense of continuity with a distant past, no longer fully known or understood but still sensed via historial re-imagining, was indispensable for his project.

Most important of all, however, is the sense of Sehnsucht and the evocation of the desire to visit and come to know an unfamiliar or imagined reality that is the result of the layering of historical time. Following an allegory Tolkien himself pursued in Leaf by Niggle, this effect is described by some Tolkien scholars by the image of ‘the forest and the mountains’. The forest is the world imagined, whether in the form of unknown pasts or futures or in the sense of ‘fantasy’, the imagined world we wish to reside in and to explore. But behind the forest, we also need to have the mountains: the sense that there is always a further realm, a deeper mystery, a new unknown to explore, even if we as individuals will never get there.

Without this sense of the unknown beyond, Tolkien’s Legendarium suggests, we cannot exercise our imaginative capacities in the world as it actually is. Although in Tolkien’s work this idea is applied to the deepening of a (fictive) historical past, the same could be said for the future: it has been described by many in the romantic strand of Marxist thought by the need for a utopian yearning as something separate from the hope of improvement or liberation in the here and now.

Tolkien achieves by this dual layering the effect of historical depth, a prerequisite for the historical sublime, perhaps better than any other writer of imaginary worlds has done. As Gergely Nagy has pointed out, this is done by the frequent references to oral tradition, to ‘lore’, to the wisdom of the ancients; beyond this, by the narrative structure itself, which often relies on phrases like “it is said”, “it is told”, “the wise say”, and so forth; and finally by the joining of his mythology to our earthly, real-worldly history by means of an imagined continuity of story.

This last point is the greatest source of historical depth creating a historical sublime in Tolkien’s Legendarium. For from the very beginning, Tolkien sought to unite his mythopoeic project with the re-imagining of real history, in order to reconstruct the meaning we give to that historical reality. The very prompt that set Tolkien to begin writing the first drafts in his Legendarium was his encounter in the Anglo-Saxon poem collection, the Crist, of the following phrase:

Eala earendel, engla beorhtast,
ofer middangeard monnum sended

Although this earendel is here invoked as the image of John the Baptist, Tolkien was convinced that it referred to a much older and pre-Christian imagination, and he wondered what this might have been. This question on the border of history and myth set his imagination working, and in a sense the Legendarium is a mythological imagining of what the answer might be, beginning with the tale of Eärendel the Mariner. But since the Crist is a real poem by real historical Anglo-Saxons, any such mythological re-imagining is also a re-imagining of the relationship of our historical knowledge to the deep mists of time from which mythology has sprung.

Tolkien consistently maintained such a connection: in his earliest Legendarium works, the tales of elven mythology are told to an Anglo-Saxon seafarer who sails into the forbidden lands, whereas even in his later published works one still finds Tolkien himself in his role as ‘translator’ of the Red Book of Westmarch, in which the tale of The Hobbit and LotR as well as many other matters of legend is told. And the consequence of this is that the historical depth of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is joined to our world, thereby increasing the sense of historical depth of our Earth and its history. This effect is most powerfully pronounced in The Notion Club Papers, a little read work of science-fiction by Tolkien that I consider to be – for this reason – one of his best: in this story all the layers, from the mythology of Elvenhome to the re-imagining of the Anglo-Saxon (and Germanic) mythological world to the present and even future come together in a single chain of meaning, emphasizing how even the future is conditional on our imagining of the past.

Indeed, more than any other writer of imagined worlds I know of, Tolkien furnishes us with the means to contest his own interpretations of his world, the means to turn his own idealisations and prejudices inside out and to re-imagine its history; not unlike how Marx used the materials furnished by Hegel’s fusion of history with myth, and turned it on its head. As Nagy puts it, “as philology works backward to the original, so Tolkien also creates myth backwards… we see that truth and the mythical past are for a significant extent similar… The mythical past itself, the story, is always hiding behind these accounts… Tolkien creates not only texts but also a tradition in which those texts stand. It is this that makes the pull of internal interpretation so irresistible.”

Conclusion: Tolkien, Marx, and the historical sublime

Tying these strands of argument together, we see that the joining of myth with history, the importance of sub-creation and imagining, and the suggestion of depth and meaning in seemingly meaningless historical chronology are essential elements of the effect of historical sublime that Tolkien achieves in his Legendarium as a whole. Emphasizing this point is not to reject the importance of Tolkien’s abilities as a storyteller, or to deny how many people of all political persuasions have enjoyed his best known books simply as good stories. But I would argue that the historical sublime of the Legendarium achieves its affective power from the same sources as that same power in Marxism does. Marxism’s visionary aspect is based on the image of the fulfilled human being as homo faber; of the re-imagining of history by turning Hegel’s ‘historial’ account on its head, and so achieving new meaning and depth in our history; on the struggle against the long defeat, joined with hope of liberation; and finally, on the possibility and even desirability of imagining a different world, in recognition of the facts of the world, but not in slavery to them.


Perhaps Moorcock was indeed being unfair to JRR. Nevertheless he did produce what is for me the funniest comment on the Tolkien phenomenon:

“This is not to deny that courageous characters are found in The Lord of the Rings, or a willingness to fight Evil (never really defined), but somehow those courageous characters take on the aspect of retired colonels at last driven to write a letter to The Times and we are not sure – because Tolkien cannot really bring himself to get close to his proles and their satanic leaders – if Sauron and Co. are quite as evil as we’re told. After all, anyone who hates hobbits can’t be all bad.”

That last sentence is a gem.

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