Hobbits of the world unite (A revolutionary reads Tolkien)

Friday, December 28, 2012
Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit.

Is there any reason for a revolutionary to watch a fantasy movie like The Hobbit? Activists and radicals, perhaps more than anyone, must live in the real world.

Uninterested in escaping from the struggles of life, a radical mind sees real social situations brimming with injustice to be fought and wants to do something about it. Perhaps this is why there are not too many fantasy writers among the literary heroes of the radical left. We tend to favour poignant and sensual descriptions of real world conditions.

This season’s debut of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, or the performance of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, that tragic social commentary of the experience of itinerant work during the great depression at Sydney Opera house this year, are the food of great progressive political sentiment.

By contrast, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit along with other blockbuster fantasy movies like Harry Potter, X-Men, and the Twilight saga are read by the kind of people who are more concerned with the coming zombie apocalypse, or masked Super-Villains, than they are by the plight of the urban poor. They inspire people to fight evil wizards, or deranged mutant supremacists, not bosses in a union.

In 1978, Michael Moorcock wrote Epic Pooh, a famous critical essay in which he denounced the ideology of Tolkien and similar writings as fundamentally conservative, misanthropic and anti-progress. He identified Tolkien’s work as an epic reformulation of Winnie the Pooh, drawing on a kind of corrupted romantic memory of the rural idylls of pre-industrial Britain, and portraying all progress as a degeneration from that utopian past.

The great anti-Nazi playwriter of the early twentieth century, Bertolt Brecht, believed that all popular literature (Volkstümlich or people’s literature) is realist literature in the sense that it exposes the underlying structures of human society, and he said that classical literature gains social recognition because it gives “artistic expression to advances towards a continually stronger, bolder and more delicate humanity.”

So, lefty realists often miss the real world implications of a movie like The Hobbit, by forgetting that popular literature exposes the dominant ideology of popular culture. The Hobbit, based on the fourth best-selling novel in human history, has already taken the prize for the best-selling opening day in U.S. cinema history.

It remains to be seen how it will compare to The Return of the King, which took in an overall profit of more than US$1.1 billion, becoming the third-highest grossing film of all time.

That has to leave us asking ourselves what to make of this powerful shaping force in the level of popular consciousness, and how, if fantasy is irrelevant to “real life”, do the people of our world connect so strongly with the ideology of the “Free Peoples of Middle Earth”, and want to make its heroes our own?

The new technology of 3D at 48 frames per second gave The Hobbit the impression of an almost realer-than-life countryside, with live actors. The background story of Thror’s kingdom, the last great kingdom of dwarves, has scenery of dwarven architecture and mountains of gold treasure that make your eyes ache from the sharp detail of gleaming metal.

Tolkien’s son and heir, Christopher Tolkien, has not been a fan of Peter Jackson’s work. “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25,” he bemoaned. “And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”

Christopher might have a better time at The Hobbit. In some ways this movie was even more Tolkien than the Lord of the Rings trilogy managed to be. Packing over a thousand pages of slow, lingering narrative and song into some nine hours of film could never do justice to Tolkien’s aesthetic. It gave the movie a rushed feel.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the entire second half of the first book had to be left out of the movie simply because nothing happens in that section. It is a character study of Tom Bombadil, and an action movie has no room for slow character development.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, however, has plenty of room. It spreads a mere six chapters over three leisurely hours. Almost half of the first Hobbit movie is devoted to a long conversation between Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves in which they talk each other into banding together.

Many viewers felt their hearts lift when The Hobbit opened with the musical theme of the Shire. The Shire is Tolkien’s utopia, his blueprint for an ideal anarcho-feudal society. Bilbo is the master of Bag End, and while this isn’t clear from The Hobbit, itself, he employs a number of servants from a loyal class of Hobbit serfs. Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings is Bag End’s gardener, and throughout the Lord of the Rings, he will sacrifice anything to protect Frodo.

This unrealistic attitude to the relationships between feudal lord (Bilbo) and serf (Sam) is the false consciousness of Tolkien and everyone who is opposed to human progress. The truth about feudalism is that no economic system in human history had a higher level of social inequality, leading to uncontrollable war, disease, political and religious oppression. Sam’s undying devotion for Frodo perpetuates the myth of an impoverished underclass who just love to be oppressed.

The Shire seems to be Tolkien’s nostalgia for this climax of injustice in human history — a reactionary ideology articulated by Elrond, the Lord of the Elf city of Rivendell, in his lamentation that the glorious battles and victories of the ancient world have faded away: “I remember well the splendour of their banners ... It recalled to me the glory of the Elder Days and the hosts of Beleriand, so many great princes and captains were assembled. And yet not so many, nor so fair, as when Thangorodrim was broken.”

The dystopia of Middle Earth, the realm of dragons who steal the gold and hoard it, and of orcs and goblins who man great evil towers and mines and hoard wealth, and rip down trees and build great wheeled machines is an expression of reactionary horror to the industrialisation of Britain, and the emergence of capitalism in the 19th century.

The subhuman figures of the degenerate orcs, grinding away in their dark mouldy dungeons beneath the earth, are nothing other than the pitiable proletarians of Dickensian London, who were driven south from their rural homelands to the factories of London by the potato-famine of the hungry ’40’s.

The Shire is Tolkien’s peaceful and prosperous time capsule where feudal social relationships have been maintained. There, the ownership of property, and the share in commodities remains determined by the privilege of ancestral houses (such as the Baggins’ claim to Bag End) and there is very little government.

Tolkein discussed the development of this kind of political philosophy in a letter to his son in the decades between the writing of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He once said: “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) …”

The anarcho-monarchism that he is talking about is one in which the community itself is so conservative and stable that such ceremonial features as kings, aristocracy, police and army begin to take on a symbolic or ritual characteristic. The function of the king is not to exercise political power itself, but to abolish it, by holding all the power in order that others are prevented from exercising it.

Tolkien once offered the example that he would like the monarch to have absolute and unquestioned power so great that he could execute his servants on a whim, but to be more interested in stamp-collecting than in ever using it.

In the description of the Shire in the opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien describes the minimal government which would be necessary in such a utopia. The local “shirriff” wanders around the streets like a rural constable, maintaining conversation with the locals, keeping out stray animals and directing passers-by to the best local beer. There is also a local mayor who is elected, and his role is to preside at banquets, and to serve as first shirriff.

The reason that nothing more is required to maintain order is that life is just so darn pleasant that nobody has any reason to cause social unrest.

But Tolkien’s utopian fantasy world, inspired by the genuine experience of English peasants brutalised by the London bourgeoisie, contains within it all the seeds of its own transformation, and therefore a clue to the radicalisation of all conservative fantasies about a return to lost pastoral perfection.

Jackson’s rendition of The Hobbit for cinema, pausing as it does for three hours on the beginning of the journey, gives expression to the moment that a petit-bourgeois hobbit named Bilbo found himself transformed into a subversive burglar who took up a blade and went to fight the dragon Smaug, who had stolen all of the dwarven treasures from their rightful owners.

Smaug is a fairly transparent parody of a corporate fat-cat, and the dwarves are the guildsmen of Middle Earth. They once lived in their mines, perfectly content to make things of beauty, and enjoy the fruit of their own labour.

But when they arrive on Bilbo’s doorstep, they have become a band of dispossessed refugees. They have formed a kind of trade union, a company of workers who refuse to see their labour being robbed by a greedy dragon-boss. No wonder a comfortable rural manor-lord like Bilbo finds them unsettling.

But by allowing the social reality of these trade unionists to invade his country paradise, Tolkien has betrayed his own political vision. And there is something about their clarity of purpose that gets under the skin of Tolkien-Bilbo. Late in the evening, Bilbo falls asleep listening to the dispossessed dwarves singing deep and ancient songs of their stolen homeland and wealth:

For over the misty mountains grim
To dungeons deep and caverns dim
We must away, ere break of day,
To win our harps and gold from him!

It is this singing that transforms the comfortable and homely hobbit into an adventurer and dissident fighter for justice. Tolkien’s own prose describes the transformation: “As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of the dwarves.

“Then something Tookish [“Tooks” are a more adventurous hobbit clan] woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.”

Tolkien’s utopianism is alive in Australia. There’s something of it in right-wing populist groups like Bob Katter’s “force from the north”, with its deceptively worker-friendly policies of protectionism, farmer’s rights, and the breaking of the Coles-Woolworths duopoly.

Gandalf knew what he was doing when he brought the dwarves and Bilbo the hobbit together for a united quest. He knew we can’t create a better Middle Earth (read: Australia) without a team effort, without “class collaboration”.

He knew, as must the leaders of the left in Australia, that there can be no vision for democracy and justice which ignores the contributions and interests of rural Australians, farmers, students, and small-businesses as well as workers.

This kind of collaboration was recently seen in Australia in the campaign against coal seam gas mining, when rural farmers who had never seen a picket-line, and probably voted Liberal-National party their whole lives, stood up to Smaug, to the dragon-like environmental vandals who would poison their water and pollute their air.

Farmers of all people know that they want a clean environment and fair pay, but when they find themselves standing next to inner-city hipsters and Marxists on a picket line they can also realise, just as Bilbo did in his first meeting with the dwarves, that their own needs are inextricably linked to the liberation of all oppressed people in the world. “Tookish” revolutionary consciousness emerges only in shared struggles, and against common foes.

What is wanting is the kind of leadership Gandalf offered — something to draw the interests of both rural and urban Australia together into a common cause.


From GLW issue 950