Jesse Russell, PhD |  Assistant Professor of English, University of Mary

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In The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got and the West Forgot, authors Jonathan Witt and Jay Richards (W&R) attempt to find what they consider the true meaning of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings: that the author of Lord of the Rings advocated a technocratic, laissez-faire capitalist political system.

This libertarian reading of Tolkien is not surprising considering that Jonathan Witt is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, a think tank that integrates “Judeo-Christian truths with free-market principles,” according to its website. Jay Richards is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, which is known mostly for presenting nature’s “compelling evidence for intelligent design.”

The problem with W&R’s interpretation is not that they are trying to prove that capitalism and technology have produced a much higher standard of living in the West. This argument was won long before they conceived the idea of writing the book. The primary issue is that The Hobbit Party attempts to argue that since capitalism makes many people fabulously wealthy and provides access to mounds of cheap goods, Tolkien must have supported capitalism.

There & Back Again, Again

To be fair, substantive portions of The Hobbit Party are worth reading. But everything W&R say about Tolkien’s Catholicism (Chapters 5 and 9), anti-materialism (Chapter 5), Christian environmental stewardship (Chapter 7), vision of the Just War and praise of noble chivalry (Chapter 6), and regionalism (Chapter 8) has already been said before by previous authors.

W&R’s unique contribution to Tolkien studies is their discussion of Tolkien’s praise of fertility contra the misanthropy of contemporary environmentalists. However, this point doesn’t help their argument since one could be pro-life without being pro-capitalist. This section of the book stands alone amidst a Mordor of error and redundancy. Because of the efforts of authors Shippey, Pearce and Kreeft (listed to the side), readers already know that in Tolkien’s works, the forces of Mordor represent the forces of Soviet Communism and German National Socialism in their totalitarianism, violence and hyper-industrialized contempt for the natural world. What W&R attempt to do is to prove that Tolkien is not critiquing the third head of modernity’s hydra (capitalism) contrary to what readers had previously thought.

As Americans we are naturally skeptical of literary criticism. We would rather read books than talk about them, and what we hate the most, of course, is when someone else is trying to explain a book to us. We know that, when someone is trying to tell us what a book really means, what that person is trying to tell us is what he or she wants the book to mean. It is thus not weird that many have attempted to get Tolkien’s works to mean not what they were written to mean but what ideologically committed people think the books mean, or perhaps should mean.

Hippie Hobbits

Interpretations are legion. Perhaps Tolkien was a hippie, and his references to tobacco use are actually references to drug use; there are numerous rude and inventive references to marijuana and psychedelic drug use throughout Peter Jackson’s movies. Maybe Tolkien was a New Ager, and the references to magic should be taken literally as a guide to ushering in the Age of Aquarius; the rock band Led Zeppelin wove references to Tolkien in their occult hymns. No, Tolkien was a really a Nazi and his use of Nordic culture was a tribute to a failed Austrian painter (Tolkien famously received a letter from a Berlin publisher in 1938 questioning his ethnic purity; in response, the English novelist lectured the publishers for misusing the word “Aryan,” which has more to do with Iran than Deutschland and praised the Jews as being a gifted people). Or best of all, Sam and Frodo are not really sincere, Christian friends; they are secretly gay as was Tolkien, supposedly, and everyone else for that matter—such a fantastic view of the fantasy novelist can be found in Brenda Partridge’s infamo
us essay, titled “No Sex Please—We’re Hobbits: The Construction of Female Sexuality in The Lord of the Rings.”

Happily, most people ignore these critics and just read the books. Or they watched Peter Jackson’s movies, which unintentionally inspired a steady stream of critics trying to dispel or qualify traditional readings of Tolkien, even though his status as a Catholic fantasy writer who opposed the excesses of modernity from a conservative perspective has firmly been established.

One of the many problems with W&R’s’ thesis is the attempt to read Tolkien’s antistatism as supportive of their economic liberalism, citing the absence of direct, bureaucratic rule in the Shire. Yet an antistatist is not necessarily a pro-capitalist. Another example of Tolkien’s support for capitalism, according to the authors, is the contract that the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf sign at the beginning of The Hobbit (or There and Back Again). But what W&R fail to grasp is that Tolkien’s description of the contract is obviously satirical. Also, a contract doesn’t have to be capitalistic, as if feudal and other societies didn’t have such arrangements. Nor were they going on a business venture. Bilbo and company did not set out to sell something to get the gold or invest it for Smaug the fearsome dragon. Rather the party’s quest was a romantic journey to recover a hoard of treasure from the winged fire-serpent. Sometimes the simplest readings are best.

W&R find further evidence that Tolkien supported liberal capitalism in the “business” agreement between Beorn, the shape-shifting woodsman, and Bilbo’s crew through which Tolkien supposedly emphasizes “property rights.” Also, for the authors of The Hobbit Party, Bilbo’s desire to compensate the wood elves for what he stole is an infallible sign of Tolkien’s support for capitalism. One wonders what versions of Tolkien’s books W&R were reading. Even the fact that the characters in Tolkien’s stories exercise free will is indicative that Tolkien espoused “libertarian freedom” and thus supported the free market model.

The overwhelming thrust of Tolkien’s literary works, as W&R note, includes serious attacks on industrialization and the proliferation of technology in the modern world. W&R ignore this obvious thread in the English author’s work and attempt to argue just the opposite: that Tolkien was a qualified advocate of the industrial revolution. Their argument, drawn from Shippey’s depiction of Bilbo Baggins as an Edwardian gentlemen, is that because there are clocks, tea, tobacco and bacon and egg breakfasts in the Hobbit, Tolkien thought that the advancement of technology in the indus- trial age was a good thing and certainly would approve of all the wonderful advancements of the computer age. Surely, the authors aren’t suggesting
that because Hobbits drink tea, Tolkien would condone the iPhone? In fact, Tolkien despised the automobile, that prime emblem of modern capitalism, and refused to set foot in one, choosing to ride a bicycle, which is surely a non-Orcish, non-destructive technological advancement.

A Hobbit After All

Another observation that sixty years of Tolkien criticism has failed to apprehend, according to W & R, is that the dragon Smaug does not really represent industry—isn’t that why he is called Smaug? The dragon hoards money instead of investing it in the stock market like a good capitalist. Therefore, W&R erroneously conclude that Tolkien supported capitalism.

Also, despite what every previous reader thought, W & R brashly suggest that Tolkien did not argue for small-scale craftsmanship and the virtues of the local market. For the two critics, the fact that the Hobbits might have traded with dwarves and elves reveals that Tolkien supported the global free market. And because the dwarves employed a large number of workers in the construction of Moria and the Hobbits built a water mill, Tolkien would approve of big business.

Throughout The Hobbit Party, W&R attempt to make their convincing argument for the power of capitalism to generate wealth support their unconvincing argument that Tolkien was a capitalist. No doubt Jonathan Witt and Jay Richards had good intentions when writing the book, but they forgot the actual vision Tolkien made explicit in his works.

In the end (and long before), Tolkien was neither a bookish advocate for big business nor a tweed-wearing Marxist. Instead, Tolkien sought a free market in the medieval sense: a local marketplace in which crafted goods are honestly exchanged on a small scale. The “hobbit party” is the party of the humane economy—free from both pincers of big business and big government. Of course in Tolkien’s works, Hobbits, elves, dwarves and men use technology, but it is technology at the service of life.

It is the bad guys in Tolkien’s world who are part of the big technocratic and evil system. Orcs and other monsters of Mordor are slaves of an oppressive, all-powerful master who imposes a system in which all the little guys are mere chattel. Mordor represents any economic and political order that leads to serfdom, whether it is capitalist or socialist.

Happily, readers can enjoy Tolkien without any need to use The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as cultural capital to say that the author is on “my side.” Rather, Tolkien is best by one’s side—in print or on Kindle.

Hobbits, Hobbits Everywhere

The first print run of The Hobbit numbered 1,500 copies. Since 1937, the novel has been translated into over 60 languages, including Elvish of course. Estimates of how many copies have been sold worldwide range from 35 to 100 million. The first adaptation of The Hobbit was staged in 1953 at St. Margaret’s School, an all-girls academy in Edinburgh, Scotland.