The Politics of Fantasy: The Hobbit and Fascism

By Firchow, Peter Edgerly | The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Fantasy: The Hobbit and Fascism

Firchow, Peter Edgerly, The Midwest Quarterly

FASCIST HOBBITS? A patently absurd notion, so absurd indeed that it could only be believed, as George Orwell once observed in connection with another absurdity, by intellectuals. Hobbits are shy, amiable, chubby little creatures who prefer to be left alone in their own company. No nasty adventures or ambiguous entanglements with unpredictable foreigners--just long, lazy mornings and afternoons filled with a succession of tea and seedcakes, watching the hair grow on one's toes, puffing on one's pipe, and talking of nothing more threatening than tomorrow's weather.

But, then, what is the point of bringing into such peaceful surroundings these monstrous black--or, even worse, brown--herrings? And how is a fascist to be defined if the term can be stretched to include hobbits? Not surprisingly, given the apparently pacific nature of hobbits, there have been practically no discussions of Tolkien's fiction that link it in any way, either positively or negatively, with fascism. One of the very few exceptions is Robert Plank, who interprets the penultimate chapter of Lord of the Rings ("The Scouring of the Shire") as a negative depiction of a fascist (or possibly communist) take-over of the Shire, even though, as he acknowledges, Tolkien specifically warned against any such interpretation (111 and 114). Plank never really defines what he means by fascism (neither does Tolkien, for that matter, when he disclaims any links to it), as is evident from Plank's uncertainty as to whether the evil wizard Saruman and his thugs are to be seen as fascists or communists.

Since the precedent is so good and even endorsed by Tolkien himself, I will follow it here by not providing a definition either. Yet I will in the course of this essay argue that certain social traits and/or ideas can and even should be looked at as fascist in tendency, specifically the idea that the group or community takes precedence over the individual or that certain groups or communities are innately or by nature superior to others, especially when headed by strong leaders, and that, further and most disturbing, the superior groups are justified in seeking to exterminate the inferior ones. These ideas, to be sure, were already fairly widespread before the onset of specifically fascist movements in Italy and Germany, as was the case for example in certain strains of imperialist thought (notably those linked to Leopold II's Congo Free State) but by the late 1930s when Tolkien published the first of his hobbit books they were generally discredited and disavowed in most mainstream writing in the English-speaking world. In other words, while these ideas precede the rise of fascism in Europe and therefore are not to be specifically identified with fascism, once fascism was established in Italy and Germany anyone expressing or endorsing such views ran the risk of being described as fascist, as for instance George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, and T. S. Eliot, among other notable contemporaneous literary figures, more or less deliberately and notoriously did. (See Shaw, O'Brien, Ricks, Julius, and Eliot.) These ideas are also, as I hope to show, implicit in some of Tolkien's most popular work. Part of my argument in fact is that the very popularity of Tolkien's work suggests that his anti-democratic, elitist, and even genocidal stance reflects a similar outlook among his British readers and even in Western society in general, an outlook, however, which could only become popular when it was cloaked, as it were, by means of a ring of invisibility.

Judging by the response even today of most readers of The Hobbit, including just about all of my students for whom it has been assigned reading for a number of years, the extermination of nasty working-class trolls or even nastier goblins and spiders is something to be greeted enthusiastically. Why? Because they are never explicitly associated (except indirectly perhaps the trolls) with contemporaneous events. These evil beings, it would appear, are purely creatures of fantasy, so that nothing horrible that happens to them can have any possible relevance to the so-called real world inhabited by Tolkien's readers, and therefore we who take pleasure in their variegated demise cannot in any way be held responsible for their genocide. …

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