Academic journal article Mythlore

Political Institutions in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying about the Lack of Democracy

Academic journal article Mythlore

Political Institutions in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying about the Lack of Democracy

Article excerpt

POLITICAL SCIENTISTS HAVE SOMETIMES STRUGGLED with the depiction of politics in Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium, especially with its treatment of democracy. The heroes fight to restore monarchy and seem skeptical of modern political values, such as equality and popular participation. Blackburn (64) even goes so far as to allege that Tolkien's characters possess a "naive" faith in enlightened despotism. However, the dichotomy between democracy and dictatorship/ authoritarianism overlooks important features of Middle-earth politics. The lack of formal democratic institutions does not mean that the citizens blindly accept despotism. Rather, I propose that we can better understand Tolkien's legendarium by focusing on the extent to which political relationships are institutionalized.

I begin the paper in Section 1 by justifying the need for a reevaluation of politics in Tolkien's legendarium. In Section 2, I demonstrate the problems with the dichotomy between authoritarianism and democracy both in real life and in speculative fiction. In Section 3, I discuss the treatment of democracy both in Tolkien's letters and in his legendarium. In Section 4, I examine how institutionalization varies across the Shire, Lake-town, Rohan, Gondor, Isengard, and Mordor. In Section 5, I attempt to provide a possible explanation for this variation using a game theoretic model. In Section 6, I speculate as to why immortality might make Elven politics more consensual. Finally, I conclude in Section 7 with a call for greater dialogue between political science and scholars of speculative fiction.

I have three goals in this paper. First, I hope to better understand-and at times correct misperceptions regarding--how Tolkien's worldview informed his literature. Tolkien's legendarium is not a political treatise, but his works do reflect concerns about political institutions. Second, I introduce new framework for understanding politics in Middle-earth. This should prove especially useful for 21st century readers, many of who likely--if unjustly--regard unconstitutional monarchy as equivalent to tyranny. This approach can also identify political variables overlooked in the existing literature. Finally, this paper is an experiment in application of political science to the study of speculative fiction. Applying existing analytical tools to radically different types of political systems forces political scientists to think carefully about the generalizability of and assumptions underlying those tools.


There has been relatively little analysis of politics in Tolkien legendarium. One strain of scholarship criticizes the depiction of politics in Middle-earth as unrealistic or undemocratic. Barnett worries that The Lord of the Rings presents "a distorted picture of politics" because all decisions are resolved by consensus with little sign of debate (386). Blackburn alleges that the characters demonstrate "blind faith in [their] political leaders" (64). (2) Other scholars have gone so far as to criticize Tolkien for promoting nationalism or fascism (see, e.g., Stimpson 8; Inglis 40). However, Curry (36-42) counters that a careful reading of the texts evinces little support for enlightened despotism, much less fascism. Tolkien himself strongly condemned Nazism (e.g., Letters 37).

One challenge to studying politics in Tolkien's legendarium is that the texts do not provide detailed information about political institutions. Ironically, Tolkien was not a terse writer; he famously included minute details about Middle-earth geography and reprinted entire poems. Despite this, there is almost no mention of formal political institutions, such as legislatures or judicial systems. Political disputes are resolved through consensus or moral authority, not by reference to institutional rules rules or procedures. Given that Tolkien engaged in deliberate and careful world-building, this omission is noteworthy and forces a closer reading of the text if we wish to truly understand political relationships in Tolkien's legendarium. …

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