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Tolkien’s Ideal of Monarchy


JRR Tolkien’s love of monarchy is seen through his work. Last third of the Lord of the Rings has return of the King to Gondor, and restoration of the monarchy – and this is linked inexorably to the fall of Sauron, who, being a tyrant, represents a corruption of monarchy. In this, Tolkien echoes Aristotle and his six forms of government. Aragorn is a monarch, whereas Sauron is a tyrant. In the First Age, Manwe is a monarch while Melkor is the tyrant. It is thus clear that a government can be both good and evil, depending on the people who run it. This is especially obvious in Tolkien, since majority – though not all – statesm in Middle Earth are monarchies. Arda itself is a monarchy, with Eru on top and Manwe as his “governor”. This natural order is also replicated in most of the states. And list of monarchies in Middle-Earth is extensive indeed: Gondor, Arnor, Rohan, Numenor, Lothlorien, Mirkwood, Iron Hills, Khazad-dum, Doriath, Gondolin, Nargothrond; but also Mordor, Angmar, Isengard and Angband which replicate tyrannies. By comparison, list of pluralistic governments is a short one: Shire is a polity, whereas the Lake Town is a democracy.

But this does not mean that Tolkien advocates authoritharianism. Quite the opposite. In fact, Tolkien’s political views could be best described as “anarcho-monarchism”. Tolkien has explained the basic idea in a letter to his son Christopher: “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. (emphasis mine). Tolkien was, in general, opposed to the authority and importance given to the national governments. Instead, Tolkien was an advocate of unconstitutional monarchy in which government – the monarch – would only take interest in the lives of the people when absolutely necessary (such as war), and would otherwise stay out of the way.

This political ideal is a direct consequence of Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs and the Catholic ideal of subsidiarity, an environment, as David Hart describes it, in which “authority and responsibility for the public weal are so devolved to the local and communal that every significant public decision becomes a matter of common interest and common consent”. This belief was likely reinforced by Tolkien’s experiences of two World Wars, both of which were caused by overpowerful governments which leveraged popular outrage to push nations into conflict over colonial resources. Anarcho-monarchism thus rejects both authoritharianism and populism, and thus differs from liberal ideologies of 20th and 21st century, all of which embrace populism and some – such as Progressivism – embrace authoritharianism as well.

Political Institutions in Middle-Earth

Tolkien’s ideal political institutions can be described with one word: minimalist. There is little reference to formal political or judicial process. Political disputes are resolved through consensus or moral authority, not through formal institutional rules or procedures. Shire and Lake-Town are democracies and Gondor is a hereditary monarchy – though with the King being absent.

Governments of the Free People of Middle Earth are monarchical and hierarchical, but are not authoritharian. In fact, the false dichtonomy between authoritharianism and democracy cannot be applied at all to Middle Earth. By typical modern-day standards, Mordor, Gondor, Rohan and Elven realms would all be classified as authoritharian. No Middle-Earth society is egalitarian: characters are conscious of class and social mobility is limited. Lake-Town is a democracy, but it is in no way described as superior to Gondor or Rohan.

It is institutional rules that determine how political actions translate into outcomes, with institutions being formal aspects that guide political processes (e.g. the office of a Steward, but also an oath of loyalty are both institutions). Institutions enable more efficient rule but also create barriers between the ruler and the people. And even regular voting is no guarantee that democracy is actually representative and accountable to the public – in addition to formal barriers, there are also many informal obstacles such as questions of campaign funding, lobbying, and post-term interests of politicians (e.g. expectations of a future career in supranational institutions might drive them to subordinate national interests to interests of such institutions). These problems might be mitigated, but only by limiting the power of the government.

In modern democracy, legislative committees narrow the range of options in order to prevent constant cycling through policies – but this effectively destroys democracy as a small group of people can set an agenda. Democratic governments also trust unelected bureocrats and judges to formulate policies and manage disputes. Elections, which in theory exist to ensure accountability, in practice promote corrupt and destructive behaviour since politicians have only limited time to get rich, and also try and secure reelection. Elective democracy as a system is designed to select for the worst character traits: duplicity, hypocrisy, narcissism, demagoguery and immediacy. Democracy likewise is not a precondition for economic growth and good governance.

The History of Middle-earth Boxed Set

Monarchy of Gondor

Lord of the Rings may well be a philosophical-political tractate, with how it contrasts an ideal king – Aragorn – against Sauron. While Tolkien does not discuss Aragorn’s policies in detail, he does provide several basic characteristics of Elessar’s reign:

  1. lasting and stable peace
  2. presence of trade and wealth
  3. racial and ethnic sequestration

Lasting peace

Elessar and Theoden both show great capacity as warriors but also as peace makers. Theoden (or rather Erkenbrand) forgives Dunlendings, who were amazed because Saruman had told them Rohirrim were cruel and burn their prisoners alive. Aragorn (Elessar) deals with his enemies in two ways. Orcs, who are creatures driven by evil will, are either hunted down or left to die far from his kindoms. But the second group, Men under Sauron’s command, are dealt with differently: Elessar seeks long-term diplomatic settlement with Easterlings and Southrons, pardoning them and making peace settlement before releasing them back to their own lands. Sauron’s slaves are liberated and given areas around the lake Nurnen. Instead of pursuing historical “scorched earth” policy, Elessar helped the people enslaved by the Enemy to become self-sufficient and independent.

Trade and Wealth

Along with renovation of the society and culture in general, trade and wealth are also renewed. During Third Age, Gondor declines – its population is reduced, Minas Tirith becomes a fortress with few if any civilians living there, and Ithilien is lost to the enemy. Elves and Dwarves are also declining, as are other Good People – ancestors of Rohirrim are pushed out of their homelands. But as the Enemy is defeated and Elessar ascends to the throne, this decline is reversed. Riches again start flowing into the city and city itself is renovated, made more fair and beautiful than ever before. Northern lands of the reunited Kingdom are connected with the south again, and riches emerge even in the North, where Shire prospers. And Aragorn does not attempt to sieze the riches for himself, neither in Shire nor in Minas Tirith: all areas of the kingdom are allowed to use their wealth for their own betterment.

Ethnic Sequestration

Tolkien’s ideal of radical subsidiarism directly leads to the ideal of ethnic sequestration – racially homogenous societies that enclave themselves from the world. This is what king Elessar institutes within his borders, and ties back to Hart’s idea of “radical subsidiarism” – distinct ethnic regions are far more conductive to self-rule than cosmopolitan ones, thus propagating freedom and independence where multiethnic society propagates governmental intervention and tyranny.

Elessar’s domain consists of a number of ethnically defined sub-states that answer to the Crown in varying degrees. Within the Kingdom proper there are old monarchies of Gondor and Arnor under direct authority of the Crown. Shire and Bree have extensive self-government under auspices of the Crown, as do Dale and Erebor. Elessar himself makes decrees which define ethnically homogenous safe zones. Both the Shire and the Druadan Forest are declared free from any outside influence, with Men forbidden from entering these areas without permission of their inhabitants. This ethnic sequestration is in the service of ideals of self-determination, self-government and subsidiarity.

Right of Kings

While Aragorn’s confirmation and blessing by the Valar appear to argue otherwise, Gondor does not follow the Divine Right of Kings. Lineage and blood are important, but Council of Gondor was able to reject Arvedui’s claim to the throne and find a candidate to their own liking – which would not have been possible if bloodline commanded ultimate respect. Much earlier, Castamir managed to oust Eldacar due to popular support, and when he lost it due to his tyrannical behaviour, he himself was ousted.

Royalty is seen as special: Numenorean line of kings is blessed by Valar and part-elven ancestry into having lifespan five times that of normal humans, where average Numenorean has a lifespan thrice that of normal man. Royal line of Gondor draws ancestry from this bloodline, through thousands of years. But they are still portrayed as mortal and fallible: more akin to Christian portrayals of kings, than to pagan ideal of a divine monarch. Feanor leads his people to strife and suffering, and Ar-Pharazon is clearly a tyrant. But the return of rightful kings to Dale, Erebor and Gondor signals a beginning of new era of prosperity for these kingdoms.

Case of Smaug

Another reason why anarcho-monarchism is an ideal political system can be seen by looking at Smaug. While he himself is far from an ideal ruler, his “rule” over Erebor actually has many similarities to Aragorn’s rule and Tolkien’s ideal of anarcho-monarchism. Smaug definitely fits Tolkien’s “far off” ideal, spending most of his time lazing within bowels of the mountain. Like Aragorn, he is distant and unreachable, occupying little concern in the minds of his own subjects.

Under Smaug’s rule, areas surrounding the Lonely Mountain are almost completely free of the conflict. Neither orcs, wolves nor Easterlings enter his realm during his reign, and Elves of Mirkwood do not face a significant threat from their eastern flank. Neither do Men of Lake-town. Only after his death do orcs flood the area. Easterlings, far more dangerous enemy than the Orcs, are also absent, despite their frequent invasions of Gondor (which in few cases nearly brought the kingdom to ruin). They, too, make their appearance soon after Smaug’s death, and during War of the Ring, a huge host of Easterlings invades Dale and Erebor, nearly destroying both.

Smaug’s influence also secures the affluence of both realms through trade. Societies of Elves and Men in “Wilderness” have a surprising degree of economic development. Elven king’s palace is ornate, and also serves as a safe for his rich treasure. Elves also trade with men of Lake-town, which itself is described as thriving, and also trading on “the great river from the South”.

Much like with Aragorn, so do peoples in Smaug’s domain live in racially / ethnically distinct societies. Elves dwell in Mirkwood, Dwarves in the Iron Hills and Men in the Lake Town. While trade between the groups exists, they keep largely to themselves, and only contact between different groups are the elven traders. Yet there is no racial hostilities: men of Lake-town were friends with the elves prior to dragon’s demise, nor was there ill will between either of these groups and dwarves of the Iron Hills. But this utopia is shattered by dragon’s death, as different races nearly come to blows over dragon’s enormous wealth.

What Smaug does illustrate is an important advantage of anarcho-monarchism: since all groups are more-or-less self-ruling, they can easily prosper with a less-than-ideal (or outright evil) ruler, so long as ruler in question does not successfully end anarcho-monarchist order and implements tyranny. Both Elessar’s and Smaug’s reigns yield three key consequences: 1) lasting peace, 2) trade and regional wealth, and 3) coexistence of different groups.

Yet Smaug falls short – very short – of the ideal of anarcho-monarchism. While Smaug’s distancing from his subjects allows those subjects to prosper despite Smaug’s own flaws, final hours of his reigns are spent in wholesale slaughter of those same subjects. Unlike Aragorn, who is accepted as a king through very Byzantine tradition of acclamation, Smaug is still a self-imposed tyrant whose benevolence was wholly accidental. Where Aragorn is still accountable to his subjects (in theory at least), Smaug is accountable to nobody but himself. Aragorn gains his legitimacy through the will of his people and is beholden to the same, while Smaug’s rule is propped up through violence and violence alone.

Kingdom of Numenor

Numenor is much less detailed than Gondor, but it again shows Tolkien’s preference for anarcho-monarchism. King only becomes an authoritharian ruler once a Shadow falls onto Numenor. Under normal conditions, King of Numenor is relatively limited in power: “A Númenórean King was monarch, with the power of unquestioned decision in debate; but he governed the realm with the frame of ancient law, of which he was administrator (and interpreter) but not the maker. In all debatable matters of importance domestic, or external, however, even Denethor [Steward of Gondor] had a Council, and at least listened to what the Lords of the Fiefs and the Captains of the Forces had to say.”. Under modern governments, King cannot make up laws as he wishes: laws are provided by tradition, and this tradition has greater authority and demands greater respect than the office of the King. As a result, a King cannot ever truly become a tyrant, and if he tried then a rebellion against the King would be legal (assuming it was possible).

This can be seen during the fall of Numenor: the Faithful secretly, and in some cases openly, rebel against the unjust mandates. Amandil and Elendil both defy Ar-Pharazon, first in secret and then openly, yet their line becomes the Kings of Gondor and Arnor. And while Ar-Pharazon attempted to gain absolute power, this stemmed from personal ambitions and rebellion against the Valar, and was contrary to political traditions of Numenor.

It is also clear that democracy will not have saved Numenor. While the Kings of Numenor did lead the rebellion against the Valar, they were also supported by the majority of their people. It is pointed out that Tar-Palantir’s repentance was not supported by the majority of Numenoreans, while Ar-Pharazon’s later usurpation was.

Democracy in Middle Earth

Even in monarchies, Tolkien allows and, in fact, promotes, political participation. Both Eomer and Beregond disobey unwise orders, and are later rehabilitated and their dissent legitimized. Hobbits likewise launch an insurgency against Saruman’s occupation. The bad side of democracy is shown in the Lake-town. Lake-town shows how institutionalized democracy can easily become corrupt. Popular participation is necessary in any government, but the very fact of institutionalization of participation leads to its corruption. Elected Master of Laketown determines his policies based on what will lead to his reelection, and keeps swaying the people of Laketown with cunning words. But while Bard re-establishes Dale, Laketown itself continues under its democratic system of governance, and new Master is described in far more favourable terms than his predecessor.

Institutionalization

Governments depend on the balance of command and feedback to function, with feedback leading to adjustments in command side of things. This balance can vary: command with no feedback means totalitarianism, while feedback with no command means mob rule.

In Middle-Earth, two extremes are presented by Mordor and Shire. In Mordor, orcs are literally slaves. Shagrat and Gorbag, Uruks of Mordor, are forced to whisper that “even the Biggest can make mistakes”, and both acknowledge that the leadership had likely placed spies among their troops. This is a typical totalitarian regime, where leaders are treated as infallible and control is maintained through fear. Saruman too replicates this setup, although on a much smaller scale. Shire, on the other extreme, has next to no government. Lake-town does, but it is truly ruled by the mob, with the Master following the whims of his subjects. In both cases, lack of government leads to vulnerability to external threats, with Shire being easily taken over by Saruman.

Gondor and Rohan lie in between, but Gondor’s structure is more formalized and centralized than Rohan’s. Rohan has territorial organization of military but Theoden relies on vassals to summon troops. Gondor’s organization is likewise territorial, but much more structured and formalized, with far more levels of hierarchy – the Council of Gondor is the only formal political institution mentioned in the Lord of the Rings. But unlike Mordor, subjects can still join the elite if they prove capable, and Denethor listens to advice of his subordinates. Merry’s oath of service to Theoden is highly informal, while Pippin’s is formal and formulaic. Aragorn’s coronation is likewise highly formal.

But even Gondor’s instututions are limited – as noted, only the kingship and the Council of Gondor are formal. Modern people have a widely shared delusion that the institutions are fair, and right, and immune to personal biases and personalities – because they are institutions! This idea, of course, is ridiculous – institutions are comprised of human beings, and thus have their own biases, beliefs and idiosyncrasies, much like individual humans do. Tolkien rightly rejects this idea, and thus has removed institutional government whenever possible. Purpose of institutions and organzations is to hide the decision-maker and pacify the people so that individual decision-makers can go on with whatever scheme they want to impose.

Tolkien’s ideal society is, in fact, Shire. It has very few formal institutions, and even fewer of those are actually functional. It is an orderly society thanks to traditions, habits and character of its inhabitants, and the only political loyalty it has is to the far-off King in Annuminas (and then in Minas Tirith). The only formal political institution in the Shire is that of a Thain – a King’s representative and governor, whose formal political power however is limited to leadership in times of military threat.

Technocracy and generally autocracy is inpalatable to Tolkien. Saruman, after his fall to evil, espouses the same ideas that globalist technocrats do: “our time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the wise can see”. Utopia justifies the means, and this attitude is common to any tyrannical ruling class – including that of modern democracies – which believes that it knows better and is thus justified in imposing their kind hearted plans onto everyone else. No matter how good intentions may be, wielding power and forcing people into a mold always leads to evil. This is obvious from history – Communism most obviously – and is well-represented in the wraithing process which created the Nazgul, but also in Gandalf’s and Galadriel’s warnings of how attempting to use One Ring for good would always lead to evil.

Conclusions

Tolkien’s ideal polity is an anarchist monarchy – one that is informal and limited, with king not interfering into people’s lives any more than strictly necessary. This principle is completely contrary to modern ideal of democracy, where state has become a massive mechanism whose sole purpose is to interfere into people’s lives – and where such interference is seen as positive so long as it is in line with the opinions of “majority” (which is to say, of the media and the plutocrats who own them). Rather than a simplistic message of “monarchy good, democracy bad”, or else the reverse which is so common nowadays, Tolkien’s works are a warning that accumulation and institutionalization of power always lead to its abuse – no matter the form which government takes. Good government can be a monarchy or a democracy, but it must not be tyrannical.

5 Comments »

  1. This is a wonderful post. Thank you for writing this.

    I read the series plus Hobbit as a child and had no idea it was so laden with political themes, let alone so interesting ones.

    Liked by 1 person

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