Thursday, 12 February 2015

OK, whose side was Tolkien on?

Fantasy__038816_I have two children off sick from school at the moment which has involved a very long afternoon watching the films that make up Lord of the Rings.  I suppose I must have seen the end before, with Gollum and the ring cast into the crack of doom, and - ten years on - I can't see Gollum without thinking of Vice President Dick Cheney.  But then, what?

Despite its elongation and long loving camera shots on departing hobbits, Peter Jackson's version has missed out the return to the Shire and its cleansing from the invading industrialism of Wormtongue and Saruman.

It is as if it was a film of Odysseus without the return to Ithaca and the defeat of the suitors.  Or perhaps even the triumphal entry into Jerusalem without the cleansing of the temple.

It also reminded me that there is a peculiar debate going on in semi-academic circles about the USA about the economic doctrines espoused by Tolkein.

The argument has been going on on an American website called The Imaginative Conservative, the home of Roger Scruton-esque intellectuals, between two commentators who I take (I may be mistaken) to be Catholic conservatives.  On the one side, Jay Richards and Jonathan Witt, co-authors of a book about Tolkien's politics called The Hobbit Party.  On the other side the biographer of Hilaire Belloc, Joseph Pearce.

The question at issue is precisely what Tolkien meant when he wrote about 'The Scouring of the Shire'.  According to Pearce, Richards and Witt are so concerned to prove that Tolkien was no socialist that they miss the basic truth - he was a Distributist.

Distributism was a version of English Liberalism which was preached a century ago by Belloc and his sidekick G. K. Chesterton, which suggested that both capitalism and socialism would tend towards tyranny and that the solution was the 'restore' widespread property ownership.  They borrowed and adapted Joseph Chamberlain's old motto (Three acres and a cow); it was an agrarian vision of small farmers, small shops and small townships.

Pearce says that The Hobbit Party is right to describe Tolkien as anti-socialist, but miss the clear evidence in the Lord of the Rings - the same bit that Peter Jackson missed out - that Tolkien was also concerrned about the effects of rampant capitalism:

"It was one of the saddest hours in their lives. The great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the Water, through rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a streaming and stinking outflow. All along the Bywater Road every tree had been felled. As they crossed the bridge and looked up the Hill they gasped. Even Sam’s vision in the Mirror had not prepared him for what they saw. The Old Grange on the west side had been knocked down, and its place taken by rows of tarred sheds. All the chestnuts were gone. The banks and hedgerows were broken. Great wagons were standing in disorder in a field beaten bare of grass. Bagshot Row was a yawning sand and gravel quarry. Bag End up beyond could not be seen for a clutter of large huts..."

My feeling is that Pearce is right.  Tolkien may have been no conscious follower of the Distributists, though as a Roman Catholic, he was where Distributism eventually went.  He may well have been more of a vague follower of Clough Williams Ellis whose book Britain and the Beast put the case against Saruman's industrial version of England.  But Tolkien's portrait of the Shire was intended as an ideal.

Does this matter?  Well, yes, I think it does.  Because there are hidden political seeds in these books, and this political seed - like Distributism - was intended as an attack on turbo-capitalism, where nobody is allowed to belong anywhere.  it is an economic doctrine so conservative that it becomes radical again, and I have a good deal of sympathy with it.

It also articulates an important division within conservatism that may turn out to be extremely important over here.

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