LOtR: A Philosophy of Questions

Although at first glance both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings may seem as only a simple, epic conflict between good and evil, J.R.R. Tolkein’s more detailed and complex work provides its reader with a history from which to draw their own conclusions rather than a moralistic epic. Like in philosophy and in real life, Tolkien asks the questions rather than beating readers over the head with answers.

Tolkien has explicitly said that The Lord of the Rings, and the extended tales of Middle Earth, are not meant to be moralistic. He did not write them to teach or imply any particular lessons; instead, they are history books of a time that never was. Thus, the analysis I will draw comes not from the intention of the author or any explicit moral lesson, but from the lessons in political philosophy that we can learn from our own history as well as the fictional history of Middle Earth. This realism is one of the greatest strengths of Tolkein’s writing. Mixing high fantasy with a realistic sense of human (and other species’) psychology and sociopolitical dealings, Lord of the Rings can teach readers much of leadership and sovereignty with far more nuance than the surface good-evil dichotomy would imply.

Rather than answering the core question of political philosophy, (who has the right to power and why,) Tolkien describes a variety of systems and their effects. Readers are welcome to draw their own conclusions from the various realms: the peaceful and bucolic democracy of the Shire with its mayor and little other authority; the proud land of Gondor, its kings lost and its Steward corrupted; Rohan, its horse lords a long and proud monarchy; the Ents with their Entmoot, a pure democracy reminiscent of Athens, complete with endless deliberation and an impossibly slow mode of speech. Most memorable of all, of course, is Sauron and the land of Mordor, an absolute dictator intent on spreading his reach through the entire continent.

Among these many groups, all possess realistic flaws as well as strengths. The Shire is peaceful, free, and happy – and enormously susceptible to invasion. Tolkien never presents the claim that such an unregulated lifestyle, with no functional police and the only government service a postal system, could work beyond the simple realities of hobbits. The Ents similarly are content and happy, yet have difficulty adapting their long deliberative process to the necessity for sudden action. Gondor prospers once its proper king is restored, but his long absence has clearly hurt the realm, and a system that allows such a situation may be suspect. Of Mordor there is no good to be said beyond its military success. There Tolkien and his readers draw the line.

Other lessons relevant to political philosophy also may be drawn out of The Lord of the Rings. The tension of race relations is explored in the traditional enmity of Dwarf and Elf, eventually reconciled by Gimli and Legolas. Humans, elves, and dwarves must cooperate to defeat a mutual enemy. However, Tolkien does make a slight caveat. Race relations are only discussed in the context of “good” species; Orcs are slaughtered by the thousand.

If there is one universal political lesson that Tolkien does impart however, it is the danger of excess power. Sauron is able to do such harm only due to the power of his One Ring, and his greatest servants are human kings corrupted by the prospect of extraordinary power into Wraiths, neither alive nor dead. Gandalf, the human incarnation of wisdom, must refuse the Ring from Frodo for fear of using it. At the resolution of the tale, there is no one with unusually large power. Sauron defeated, each king has power over one realm (perhaps an implication towards the benefits of self-determination) and the Elves and Gandalf, joined by Frodo, have departed the land, leaving all other species approximately equal in natural skill and wisdom.

Tolkien’s iconic trilogy shares with its readers the many flaws and strengths of many different types of political systems, and leaves the audience to make up their own minds while imparting a fundamental lesson about the danger of unchecked power. 

Photo Credit: Playadura*