Friday, 19 July 2013

The Political Tolkien

I have on occasion in my Transactions dealt with examples of articles or blogs where an author has attempted to use Tolkien's works in order to argue a political viewpoint.

On one hand I find this practice to be highly dubious. They usually involve a highly biased reading of Tolkien (or in some cases of the Jackson films, attributing things from the films to Tolkien), and even in the cases where I sympathize with the political aims of the author, I have found that their reading of Tolkien is most likely incorrect.

From a purely rational viewpoint, it does, of course, not matter whether their reading of Tolkien is correct or not — as long as they are not arguing about matters of Germanic philology, their invocation of Tolkien to support their case is invariably a fallacious appeal to authority, and should be treated as such.

The phenomenon is, however, interesting as an expression of popular adoption of Tolkien, and I think there could be an interesting paper waiting in an investigation of the variations over time and place of what kinds of viewpoints Tolkien is used as a fallacious authority for.

Many of us will know about the twisted readings of some racist / fascist groups as one of the more extreme examples of this, but it is certainly not alone. Other examples include readings that take Tolkien as supporting a modern environmentalist agenda, or readings that make Tolkien appear to promote modern paganism, or make him appear intolerant to all kinds of heathens or heretics (i.e. everybody who is not a Roman Catholic).

Many will doubtlessly also recall the 2011 affair about John McCain's use of ‘Hobbits’ to describe the Tea-party followers, and I think we could go on: the examples are too numerous to recount them all (a list of examples is provided below).

The reason for my writing this is a recent piece that has been received rather more positively than most other, the July 17th article ‘The Eye of Sauron Is the Modern Surveillance State’ by David Rosen and Aaron Santesso at Slate.com

First off, this article does not attempt to use Tolkien as a false authority to back up an opinion. Instead the authors take a look at the descriptions of the limitations and effects of centralized surveillance as described by Tolkien (the Eye of Sauron) and Orwell (1984) and then try to argue why they believe that Tolkien's description (written at pretty much the same time as Orwell's) is the better match for the limitations and effects of modern centralized surveillance. However, though the authors avoid most of the blunders of others who have used Tolkien in a political context, their article is not without a certain reading bias.

My purpose is, however, not to provide an analysis of the article's claims about Tolkien's portrayal, but rather to comment on this phenomenon generally. I suppose it is unavoidable that a strong popular culture phenomenon will enter into political discourse, and so Tolkien did both in the late sixties and in the new millennium.

From the perspective of a dedicated (I would not protest over-much if anyone should whisper the word ‘obsessed’) Tolkien enthusiast and student such as myself, it is of course interesting in itself as signalling both a shift in the adoption of Tolkien into popular culture, and also as an indication of changing perceptions of Tolkien. I would dearly love to see a study of this aspect of Tolkien's influence in popular culture.

Does anyone know of such a study? Or do we have any takers for such a study? (I know I am not up to it myself)

On the other hand, I am also usually saddened at the way Tolkien's actual thoughts and ideas get twisted and perverted to lend a fallacious support to someone's political agenda — even where I might agree more with the writer than I would with Tolkien, I find it to be disrespectful to the author to corrupt his views in this way.

So, not great conclusions here, but just a few words that I had to get out of my system ...


And finally a very short list of a few examples from the last three years of articles in the genre discussed:
2010-10-31, Drout, Michael D.C.; ‘Dept. of What If: Would hobbits go on strike?’, in Washington Post
2011-07-28, Rateliff, John D.; ’Well, This is Weird’, Sacnoth's Scriptorium
2011-08-05, Marquand, Robert; ‘Tea-party hobbits? Hardly, say indignant Tolkien scholars.’ in The Christian Science Monitor
2012-12-12, Stewart, Keith; ‘Tolkien in the tar sands’, Rabble.ca
2012-12-31, Platt, David; ‘Why Do Precious Leftists Loathe Tolkien's Shire?’, in Standpoint
2013-07-17, Rosen, David & Santesso, Aaron; ‘The Eye of Sauron Is the Modern Surveillance State’ at Slate.com

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for this list. I'll pass it on to one of my colleagues who will be teaching a course in January called "The Politics of Middle-earth." He's doing research on the subject now, and hopefully we'll see something in print soon.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That sounds really good, Anna Smol, thank you!

    I also posted in the Tolkien Society facebook group, where a few more stories got posted along with references to a couple of books, which, however, study Tolkien's political views and not the use of Tolkien by others.

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/TheTolkienSociety.EducationalCharity/10151752705641068/

    ReplyDelete
  3. Some pieces in Beyond Bree in recent years have dealt briefly with political topics and Tolkien. An entry in the Days of the Craze series noted a Vietnam War-era article in The Nation (US) with a parody Middle-earth map showing the Gulf of Tolkin (punning on Gulf of Tonkin), etc. Another piece reviewed Dickerson and Evans' study of environmental concerns and Tolkien, noting a Tolkienian reference in the old Mother Earth News, etc.

    ReplyDelete