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Falling in love with Tolkien yet again

I am re-reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time in many years. I tend to dip into chapters now and again but I only recently realised it was available on the Kindle, which made it convenient enough to be my daily read. As a result I am rediscovering the way various strands of the plot weave together so elegantly.

I was also minded to dip into the large collection of supplementary material that is now available. I stumbled across this, from letter 52, written to his son on 29 November 1943:

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 anybody 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 Gerorge’s council, Winston and his gang’, it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy. Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.

I should have included this in my post about how language affects thought. And I am wondering to what extent reading Tolkien as a child led to my ending up here. And it has just occurred to me that I was introduced to The Hobbit by the same English teacher who lent me a copy of 1984 (which I did not return).

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16 comments to Falling in love with Tolkien yet again

  • Of course at school you were reading Heinlein also?

  • I have long argued Lord of the Rings can be seen as addressing the malign core essence of woking through state power.

  • Bob Grahame

    I don’t like Woking much either, but never quite thought of it as Mordor, or emblematic of all that is wrong with the modern “state”…

  • Jonathan

    I re-read it last year after about 20 years and rediscovered what an excellent book it is; it just has great depth. One really feels those thousands of years of Middle Earth history behind the story in a way I simply haven’t with Game of Thrones, which I have enjoyed reading, it just doesn’t compare though. There’s also a great sense of loss: of people, of innocence, and the dawn of a new age with all its uncertainty.
    I believe that Tolkien saw the Hobbits as the English, with their own Country organised to suit themselves on a basis of self-sufficiency, voluntary cooperation, and respect for their own laws and customs. An all-knowing, all-powerful State would have been anathema to them.

  • Edward MJ

    That’s a great quote.

    Interestingly, there’s an alternative account of LOTR from the Mordorian perspective called The Last Ringbearer. I’ve not read it yet, but apparently Peter Thiel has spoken highly of it, so it’s on my list.

    “The novel is based on the premise that the Tolkien account is a “history written by the victors”. In Eskov’s version of the story, Mordor is described as a peaceful country on the verge of an industrial revolution, that is a threat to the war-mongering and imperialistic faction represented by Gandalf (whose attitude has been described by Saruman as “crafting the Final Solution to the Mordorian problem”) and the elves.

    For example, Barad-dûr, Sauron’s citadel, is described in chapter 2 as

    …that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle-earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic. The shining tower of the Barad-dûr citadel rose over the plains of Mordor almost as high as Orodruin like a monument to Man – free Man who had politely but firmly declined the guardianship of the Dwellers on High and started living by his own reason”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Ringbearer

  • ams

    “I should have included this in my post about how language affects thought.”

    In your 2011 post, you advance the notion that we internally use language to think with in a sort of formal process akin to a sloppy computer manipulating symbols. I don’t know how common this is, but whenever I hear this thesis (I think the philosopher’s name you are looking for is Edward Sapir and Lee Whorf) it always strikes me as not corresponding at all to what goes on in my head.

    I don’t think in terms of words at all. To me, understanding a concept is a sort of pseudo-visual process. To me, “I see” is much closer to the essence than a metaphor for “I understand”.

    When I’m programming, fast and sloppy, I don’t care about variable names. (It bites me in the ass later), but I’m perfectly fine burning through some complicated process, naming my variables things like jnk1, jnk2, q1,q2,q3,q4, etc, because the names are irrelevant, and the mechanism/workings/picture of the process is the primary thing I’m trying to get the computer to do.

    When I try to write, I keep tripping over the problem that I don’t really have names for a lot of the things I am trying to describe. (Or when playing around with fiction, names for any of the characters.) (The ones that get invented on the spot are awkward.)

    Does anyone else think like this?

    Word games have never really impressed me. You can bend language into pretzel knots, but as long as you understand the referents that each word is supposed to refer to (once you get the mental image behind the words), then communication has occured.

  • ams

    PS: The map is still not the territory, and it’s still important to understand that. It’s just that my maps aren’t made of words.

    I wonder if this has anything to do with Poincaire’s dichotomy between formalist and intuitionist mathemeticians?

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Edward MJ: I have read The Last Ringbearer and it is jolly good fun. Really it is a spy thriller. Though if Barad-dur really is “the only civilization in Middle-earth to bet on rational knowledge”, one wonders why they lost the war.

    ams: it sounds like you have solved the problem. Really I was attacking people who *forget* what it is that words and names are a shorthand for, and advocating writing out descriptions in full to remind them (or ourselves).

  • Paul Marks

    The Shire has no taxation – and no “legislature” to change the laws.

    At least till “the Chief” (really a puppet of Saraman) and his men take over.

    Then “everything but the rules got short – the rules got longer and longer”.

    The men did do some things apart from just steal money and impose regulations.

    For example they built public housing – as ugly as the place I am typing this from.

    But the resources were not from the state (which does not create wealth) they were stolen from the people – thus preventing them create their own habitations and so on.

    Just as the endless “rules” did not stimulate production – they strangled it.

  • Does anyone remember “Bored of The Rings” with its great satire of Tim Leary ?

  • A few years ago the Libertarian Futurist Society voted Lord of the Rings into our Hall of Fame. There were a lot of online comments from people who thought we were insane, largely I think because one of Tolkien’s heroes, Aragorn, ended up becoming a king; apparently the relatively superficial question of the internal organization of government seemed more important to them than what the government did or how it went about it. Very few people remarked on the anti-socialist parable of Sharkey’s End.

  • the quote yearns for anarchy but then wishes arrest and execution for people capitalising certain words!
    Who does the arresting? Who does the executing?

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    wh00ps, strictly speaking you’re right, but I think he’s just playfully imagining himself as an omnipotent dictator. This is a personal letter after all. It’s clear that the gist of it is that there is too much of politicians bossing people around.

    He also goes on to clarify the type of King he would like given a monarchy: one whose chief interest is stamp collecting. I’d take that over 650 people and their staff paid full time to think up new rules.

    Finally, I don’t need my authors to be in total agreement with me in order to enjoy their fiction, but it’s very nice when they can at least see my point of view. This letter shows that Tolkien does so much more than I had at first thought.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    C’mon, wh00ps, admit it, isn’t your own statement that Tolkien “wishes arrest and execution for people capitalising certain words!” itself a bit of dramatic exaggeration to make a rhetorical point? You don’t really think he meant it literally, do you?

    You triggered a nostalgic memory for me. Once, on the much-missed Daily Ablution blog by Scott Burgess, I wrongly accused certain people of misusing the word “literally”. I then announced my intention of having anyone who said “literally” when they meant “figuratively” shot when I became empress. “Literally shot?” asked someone. “Literally shot when I am literally empress,” I replied, to cheers from the audience. Well cheers from that part of it consisting of me, anyway.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Natalie, I miss that blog too. Scott Burgess just seemed to disappear off the Internet one day. I wonder what happened to him.

    By the way, dramatic exaggerations notwithstanding, Wh00ps’s own blog is rather good. I would encourage him to resume posting.

  • Mr Ed

    Wh00ps

    wishes arrest and execution for people capitalising certain words!

    But he did not write that.

    It was arrest for using the word ‘State’ in a particular context, and then an opportunity to recant, before execution for remaining obstinate. He would have been a fine Lord Protector… Oh dear, that’s me done for.

    Capitalising ‘government’ was merely an offence.

    He was clearly nicer than any Marxist or Nazi, who kill for what you are, or what they say you are.

    As for who does the executing, there would be no shortage of those types, there never seems to be thses days.