May 2, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 20: A Long-Expected Party

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

This is a post I've been looking forward to for quite some time. Like I said in my first post on the Hobbit almost three years ago, I have a long and intensely personal relationship with Tolkien's major works, especially the Lord of the Rings. But it's not as if this is a project without some wider relevance; we're talking about the second-highest-selling novel in the world, after all. It's the tremendous reach of the Lord of the Rings, and its massive influence in effectively giving birth to fantasy literature as we know it today, that prompted Professor Tom Shippey, an academic successor of Tolkien's, to argue that Tolkien was the author of the century. It's fitting that the best-selling novel of all time is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; as Shippey says, "in my youth Charles Dickens was not regarded as a suitable author for those reading English Studies at university" (Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, xix). In my youth, Dickens was part of our English philology syllabus, but Tolkien most emphatically was not. We'll see how long it takes!

To say that the Lord of the Rings is a problematic work is an understatement. The novel and its author have been accused of racism, fascism and misogyny, childishness, escapism, not being Serious Literature, and lots more. I already talked quite a bit about the "critics' Tolkien" in my Hobbit posts, so I won't repeat myself here. Suffice to say that the literary snobbism directed at Tolkien has already been handled by Shippey and others. My interest is in the politics of the Lord of the Rings, especially gender and race. The Hobbit, I found, is undoubtedbly misogynist in its near-total erasure of the very existence of women. It wasn't as racist as I thought it might have been, although the late author's unfortunate comments on the dwarves made it worse than it needed to be. To be honest, I'm not exactly expecting the Lord of the Rings to pass the Bechdel test, either.

However, what I do expect to find is the same as I found with the Hobbit: that the reality of Tolkien's actual text is a lot more nuanced and interesting than its critics make it out to be. Again, my goal isn't to make excuses for him or try to explain away the troubling aspects of his work. There's an entire movement of people online making the senseless argument that things they like need to be taken seriously as art, but simultaneously made entirely immune to criticism. I have no time for this kind of stupidity. I've experienced the profound disdain "genre" literature is still held in among the self-appointed literati of previous generations. If we don't want to repeat their mistakes, we need to take fantasy literature seriously, and that means facing its problems head-on. To me, properly appreciating a text as a work of art has always meant trying to read it intelligently. I'll do my best.


I'll start with one of the lighter problems: the prologue really stinks. Seriously, "Concerning Hobbits?" I fell asleep halfway through the title. I understand that Tolkien did receive a pile of correspondance asking for more information on hobbits, so I hope the people who made those requests are happy, because the rest of us aren't. If, for some reason, you're interested in the particulars of the administration of the Shire, or the technicalities of hobbit smoking, you can find that in the prologue whenever you feel like it. If not, for pity's sake, don't make the mistake of trying to read it. As an appendix, this would be fine; as a prologue, it's an atrocity.

The story itself starts with a chapter dedicated to Bilbo's birthday party. It's actually startling that after the horror of the prologue, the exposition in this chapter is done quite decently. First we're told how Bilbo's doing: he's "very rich and very peculiar", with rumours saying Bag End is full of buried treasure, and also remarkably well-preserved for a hobbit of 110 years of age. He has no close friends, though, until he adopts one of his considerably younger cousins as his heir. Cousin Frodo moves into Bag End, destroying the hopes of the Sackville-Bagginses, who had been looking forward to inheriting Bag End.

The coming party will be Bilbo's 111th, "eleventy-one" being a special number for hobbits, and Frodo's 33rd, or his coming of age. Seeing as how I'm 33 now, I obviously think this is quite a reasonable idea. With the huge party approaching, everyone starts talking about Bilbo again. We're treated to one pub conversation about him, presided over by Bilbo's gardener, Ham "Gaffer" Gamgee, whose son Sam is briefly mentioned. It's the stereotype of village gossip at its best: Bilbo's character, Frodo's family history, especially the death of his parents, and the prospect of jools hidden in Bag End are gone over, to resounding conclusions: Bilbo is queer (as in strange), and Frodo is not a real Baggins because he grew up among the strange, almost foreign Brandybucks, which makes him queer as well. The Gaffer defends his employer; interestingly, the crux of the disageement seems to be whether Bilbo is vulgarly rich. Ham Gamgee has no qualms conceding that Bilbo has plenty of money and it shows no sign of running out, but stresses that he's generous with it and there are no huge, buried treasures, while the more skeptical are fixated on gold and jools. There's a slight discontinuity from the Hobbit, where at the end of the story Bilbo had entirely lost his respectability. Now it seems that his adventures have effectively liberated him from all the bad parts of middle-class life like limited financial resources and the opinion of his peers, but he's actually still remained respectable enough and certainly is not vulgar.

I'd be tremendously interested in a proper analysis of how someone like Bilbo fits into how the English class system was perceived in Tolkien's day. It's a completely foreign country to me. He's apparently inexhaustibly wealthy without ever doing any work, keeps a considerable house and a gardener, but no servants. Hobbit existence seems to be a thoroughly idealized middle-class life with the luxuries of nobility but none of the oppobrium or political responsibilities; a notion of complete, respectable self-sufficiency through tons of money, again without the social burden of being rich. Clearly Bilbo is very respected in the community, highlighted by how everyone who doubts his credentials is either disliked by the folksy Gaffer or a suspicious outsider, but apparently he isn't expected to take any kind of responsibility for that community in any positive sense. He's a universally beloved, benevolent, massively rich man who's eccentric in various completely unthreatening ways, and who gets left completely to his own devices. One suspects a bit of wish-fulfillment here.


The party preparations proceed, including the arrival of Gandalf, bearing fireworks and compliments for Bilbo's garden. Bilbo confesses that he needs a holiday (from what, one wonders!), and intends to go through with "his plan". Invitations are sent out, tents and kitchens are set up in the field outside Bag End, and finally, the party can start. It's a garden party on a massive scale, with entertainments and huge amounts of food, and elaborate presents from Dale and the Lonely Mountain given to all comers. The festivities culminate in a meticulously described fireworks display orchestrated by Gandalf, ending in a depiction of Smaug at Erebor, whose demise signals dinner. It's hard to not think that the theme of the party is "look how super-rich and awesome Bilbo Baggins is", but apparently hobbits don't consider this vulgar.

At the heart of the party, in a pavilion erected around a tree, is the "special family dinner-party" for twelve dozen of Bilbo's closest relatives. He gives them a speech of decidedly mixed quality; the very end is repetitive and poorly thought out, but the middle part comes with one of my favorite lines:

I don't know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.

The audience, understandably, is trying to work out if this is a compliment or not. Bilbo then goes on to offend almost everyone present by explaining that the number of guests in the pavilion had been chosen to match Bilbo's and Frodo's combined age, and refers to them as "one gross", a hobbit term for a dozen dozens that isn't considered appropriate to use of people. Having created mass indignation, Bilbo ends his speech by announcing that he is leaving, and vanishes in a flash of light.

The flash, of course, was Gandalf's pyrotechnic addition to hide Bilbo putting on his ring; invisible, he makes his way back to Bag End, where he changes into his traveling clothes. As he's preparing to leave, Bilbo takes off the ring, puts it in an envelope and makes an effort to leave it on his mantlepiece, but fails. Just then, Gandalf arrives, to quiz Bilbo on his plans. The hobbit confesses that he doesn't feel "well-preserved" at all, but rather weary, stretched too thin and in need of a vacation. Gandalf presses him on his plan to leave the ring to Frodo, and Bilbo becomes belligerent over it, insisting that he owns it and actually calling it his "precious". Eventually, though, Bilbo makes up his mind and leaves the ring behind, disappearing out through the garden into the night with three dwarf companions.


With Bilbo gone, Frodo is left to sort out the mess. He's been left the Ring, which Gandalf warns him to not use, and a mass of curious visitors on his door the next day. In the hobbit tradition, Bilbo has left several friends and relatives presents, which they show up to collect, starting a rumour that the whole household was being given away. So whereas when Bilbo returned in the Hobbit to find Bag End in uproar, he now leaves it like he found it. The Sackville-Bagginses, Otho and Lobelia, also show up, demanding to see Bilbo's will and being generally obnoxious. Otho Sackville-Baggins was Bilbo's heir until Frodo's adoption, and is none too pleased by Bag End going to Frodo. It's worthy of note, by the way, that in one respect the Lord of the Rings surpasses the Hobbit immediately: Lobelia is a lady hobbit, and she gets to talk!

Eventually, the ruckus dies down and Frodo receives an evening visit from Gandalf, who warns him once more to not use the ring and announces he's cutting short his stay and leaving immediately on some urgent errand he won't disclose. The chapter closes on the wizard striding off into the gloom, leaving behind the new master of Bag End.


This is an effective chapter: we've been brought up to date in what happened since the Hobbit, the baton has been pased to our new protagonist, and we're now firmly established in the Shire. What kind of a place is it, then?

The Sackville-Bagginses, who briefly appeared in the Hobbit, are a good example of hobbit society at its most unpleasantly petty. Their name is a double joke. At some point, the phrase "cul-de-sac" entered British usage to mean a dead end street. Supposedly a borrowing from French, where the actual word for a dead end is impasse and cul is these days quite rude. The British usage was rightly condemned by George Orwell as unnecessary "pretentious diction", and Tolkien named Bilbo's home Bag End, an almost-literal translation of cul-de-sac, to poke fun at it. The Sackville-Bagginses' pomposity is illustrated by the fact that they haven't been content with the robustly English name Baggins, but have added Sackville, which could easily be a vulgarly frenchified version of Baggins.

The Shire, then, isn't a completely unrealistic utopia, but a utopia nonetheless. If you believe Michael Moorcock, it's a fascist one:

“I think he’s a crypto-fascist,” says Moorcock, laughing. “In Tolkien, everyone’s in their place and happy to be there. We go there and back, to where we started. There’s no escape, nothing will ever change and nobody will ever break out of this well-­ordered world.”

The interviewer agrees, saying "it’s not hard to see Tolkien as a complacent, hierarchical force of Law in opposition to Moorcock’s free-ranging, morally complex Chaos". I'll be returning to these notions later, but for now, I take issue with the idea expressed here and also peddled elsewhere that Tolkien was a fascist. I make no apology for quoting at length from one of Tolkien's letters (52):

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) - or to "unconstitutional" Monarchy. I would arrest anyone who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to "King George's council, Winston and his gang", it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing this frightful landslide into Theyocracy.

This was written while Tolkien was working on the Lord of the Rings, and it's this thinking that we find in it. Certainly, the Shire is complacent, even oppressively so; that's the one aspect in which it's explicitly an imperfect utopia. Is it hierarchical, dedicated to Law and everyone in their place, or crypto-fascist? Not one bit. As the horrible prologue makes clear, the actual government of the Shire is minimal. This is made possible by eliding from the narrative anyone and anything that might constitute a social problem, so we don't, for instance, know how the Shire deals with social conflicts, poverty or indeed anything more serious than organizing a garden party. I don't mean to say that the only possible way to solve social problems is with a capital-G government, especially as I personally believe the exact opposite, but to make the point that the Shire is a utopia where problems don't happen. But if anything, it's a liberal, minarchist one. It's complacent, in the sense that everyone except the vulgar seems content with their place, but it's completely devoid of control, hierarchy and devotion to abstract ideals over the individual that would keep them in their place. To call it fascist requires either sheer stupidity, or the kind of Soviet blinkers where anyone who disagrees with the party line is a fascist. I've studied actual, present-day fascism, and I can't possibly condone the kind of thinking where fascism comes to mean anything that isn't the currently fashionable brand of pseudo-Marxism. Fascism is a very frighteningly concrete system of political beliefs, not a generic insult. Of that system, not a trace is to be found in Tolkien's Shire.


According to the author himself, the Lord of the Rings has three main themes (Letters, 131):

Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.

To make any real sense of what Tolkien is about requires taking this theological mission statement seriously. He was a devout Catholic and maintained that the Lord of the Rings was fundamentally a Christian story, and while we don't have to agree with this, if we want to talk about the intentions and ideologies of the author, we do have to at least try to understand it. Christian theology is very silly, but people have a massive capacity for believing very silly things when they put their minds to it, and Tolkien certainly did. As I want to follow these themes throughout my reading, I'll briefly introduce them here.

By Fall he means the fall of mankind from grace, these days widely known as that story with Adam, Eve and the serpent. The divine tree with its forbidden fruit is an ancient Mesopotamian motif that the exiled Hebrews plagiarized into their holy books to answer the crucial question of absolute monotheism: if an omnipotent divine being exists, how can there be evil? The Hebrew solution was misogynistic victim-blaming; evil exists because a woman was goaded by a snake into eating a fruit. It seems barely credible that anyone can ever have considered this a reasonable answer, but there it is. In more abstract theological terms, the fall reconciles the imperfect world with its perfect creator. God, you see, made everything perfect, but then the thing with the snake happened and now the world is tainted by the original sin, eating fruit humanity's rebellion against god.

To apply this to the first chapter of the Lord of the Rings, the Shire simply can't be an eternally unchanging utopia, because in a fallen world, such a thing cannot exist. No matter how idylic the rural paradise, it'll always contain a sneering miller lusting after jools and an avaricious Sackville-Baggins stealing your silver spoons. No-one is perfect and nothing ever works quite the way it's supposed to, because fruit.

One great consequence of the Fall is Mortality, to continue Tolkien's capitalizations. The wages of sin is death, as the ever-cheerful apostle Paul put it in his epistle to the Romans: because of the fruit incident, people die. We don't have to take Tolkien's word for this being a major theme of the text, since in literally the second paragraph of the first chapter we're told that one particularly curious thing about Bilbo is that he isn't dead yet. In his conversation with Gandalf, Bilbo says he feels "like butter that has been scraped over too much bread". So when I wondered what Bilbo could possibly need a holiday from, this is the answer: he's cheating death, which he can't actually do, because, as you recall, fruit. This is why I found it so utterly bizarre to read that Tolkien "ignores death".

The third theme is the Machine, or magic, which to Tolkien was the same thing. Theologically, the Machine represents humanity's desire to order the world as it likes, as opposed to the way Tolkien and, presumably, god, likes.

Both of these [the Fall and Mortality] (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, - and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents - or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized.
(Letters, 131)

This is where the argument for Tolkien's fascism decisively fails: in an exact antithesis of fascism and all other kinds of totalitarianism, he firmly identifies Power as a sin, a corrupt desire. It's also key to understanding his fundamental incoherence: while he did raise some chickens of his own, it was plans and devices that put food on the professor's table and paid him the salary that made it possible for him to develop his inner talents. Though he joked about dynamiting factories and power-stations, Tolkien was never a dogmatic luddite who dreamed of a return to nature. Instead, one can't escape the unfortunate feeling that the sin of Power was committed whenever the society Tolkien was comfortable in was changed - for instance, to allow others the opportunity of developing their inner abilities.

The Enemy in successive forms is always "naturally" concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others - speedily and according to the benefactor's own plans - is a recurrent motive.
(Letters, 131)

So if using power to benefit others is a sin, what are we supposed to do about, say, poverty? Here the equation of Machine, Magic and Power is illuminating. The difference between prayer and magic is, theologically, that magic is an attempt to manipulate the world, while prayer is asking a divine agency to do it for you. The first is not allowed in Christianity, while the second is encouraged. My interpretation of Tolkien's ideology is that attempting to make the world a better place by our own actions, outside the somewhat nebulously defined sphere of exercising our inner talents, is a corrupt desire that leads to sin. The only theologically acceptable solution to social problems, then, is either individual charity or prayer. So in short, social change is wrong because a woman ate a fruit once.

This, to me, is the heart of Tolkien's political ideology. It most certainly isn't fascism, which is a revolutionary modernist ideology that's the very apotheosis of Tolkien's Machine. It isn't even the hierarchical society that Moorcock described in Epic Pooh as men in grey knowing what's best for you. The point is that they don't. Because of the fruit thing, the world is a flawed, evil place inexorably spiraling toward the end of time, and trying to make it better only makes it worse. His ideology is an immensely privileged Christian conservativism, where Oxford dons can enjoy the fruits of other people's labors, but building a housing estate for those other people is a terrible sin. This isn't an ideology specifically directed at post-World War II Labour, or even an anti-socialist or anti-totalitarian one; it's anti-politics. The world is the way it is and it's going to be worse tomorrow, and there's nothing you can do about it because of an antediluvian fruit-eating episode.

To return to the first chapter, the Machine is present as magic, namely Bilbo's ring. As a creature of this world, Bilbo has a finite lifespan, which has been unnaturally extended. Other than that, this motif is still waiting in the wings. We will, I'm afraid, have ample opportunity to return to it. In general, I hope I've been able to explain that Tolkien's theology is key to understanding not only his text but especially his politics.


Like I said earlier, this chapter does a good job of opening the story. We catch up with Bilbo, and see him exit the stage, leaving his cousin and adopted heir as our new protagonist. The ring, which you have to remember was just a convenient invisibility device in the Hobbit, has taken on a more sinister air, especially with Bilbo's Gollum-like behavior. There are lots of little details I like, such as Bilbo's at times artless speech, which - intentionally or not - gives the strong impression of an orator who isn't quite as clever as he thinks he is. In general, I enjoy Tolkien's depiction of the Shire, maybe because I never could see it as a utopia myself.

Next time: exposition. Lots of exposition.


Leon said...

An excellent start. Looking forward to more.

Michael Halila said...

Thank you!