“War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Númenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom.”
In this memorable passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, we come to understand how Tolkien understood the necessities of war. Battles are never to be waged merely to claim victory or for the sake of winning. Instead, war is permissible only in order to defend truth and the beauty and wisdom that truth promotes.
It’s common knowledge that Tolkien was a devout Christian and that his faith informed and influenced him in a deep, memorable way. In other words, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit—his two best-known works—are religiously significant. What’s lesser known, however, are his political and economic convictions that were shaped by his Christian faith and that are very real and present in much of his writings. In the newly released book, The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot, authors Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richards aim to tell that side of the story.
Tolkien strongly disliked the notion that his created world of fantasy was meant to be an allegorical tale. Even so, Witt and Richards, illustrate the fact that the world of Middle Earth has applicability to our own. What then are the lessons that we can learn from these Hobbits?
Big government leads to bad policy:”Tolkien loved God and hated big brother” and we learn from his world of Middle Earth that the Hobbits are happiest when they are left to attend to their own affairs without interference. Key to this decentralized system was the role of the family, and in the prologue to the Lord of the Rings, we learn that “families for the most part managed their own affairs.” Sound familiar?
The classic Christian teaching of subsidiarity maintains that decisions should be made at the most local level possible, beginning with the family and working up from there—not top-down. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world today we see efforts to concentrate as much power as possible by the state leaving little room for families and average citizens to freely flourish on their own. Perhaps it’s time to return to fiction in order to right what’s gone wrong today.
Markets Matter: In The Hobbit, readers find themselves in Lake-town where despite conflict and friction in the surrounding towns around them, the residents and ruler of Lake-town live in harmony. How is this that Lake-town is the exception, Witt and Richards ask? First, the citizens are charitable: they help out those in need out of their own freewill and this generous disposition begets more generosity. Because of these conditions, they also trust one another and are trusted by those on the outside, which means they are able to support themselves through active trade with nearby towns. Taxes are only imposed as necessary and leadership is held responsible for how they spend and steward the town’s money and resources.
As these authors note, these same principles are what undergird any society in the world that is thriving. A free exchange of ideas and resources that is built on trust and cooperation leads to flourishing. Anything else hampers it.
The Right Reasons for War: The entire plot of Lord of the Rings is built around Frodo’s quest to destroy the ring of power and defeat Sauron’s forces of evil. This is an arduous, epic journey that at times is violent and complex. Just like real world situations. While Tolkien never glorifies war or considers it a trivial matter, we find in Tolkien someone with realistic sensibilities motivated by principles—a belief informed by the Christian tradition of just war theory which as its roots in St. Augustine.
Just war theory distinguishes between arbitrary conditions for war and is buttressed by a robust conception of war that can be morally justified if there is a just cause to defend legitimate interests, declared by the proper authorities, and is the last resort. In other words, war is not to be entered into casually, but with serious consideration. Frodo’s just cause was to destroy Sauron’s evil forces that jeopardized all of Middle Earth. One can’t help but drawing comparisons to Tolkien’s own life experience where he served as a soldier in World War I, or the atrocities of World War II which he witnessed taking place around him as he was writing Lord of the Rings, or our own present age in which extremists in the Middle East seek to wipe out an entire population of Christian believers. Moral courage requires bold action—then and now.
Today The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are among the best selling works of fiction in the world. Indeed, it seems they are even gaining in popularity as they age. Could it be that Tolkien’s world of fantasy provides us with a temporary escape so that when we return, we better understand our own? Could it also be that Tolkien’s fiction, so steeped in his Christian faith, allows us to understand that all truth—even the truth that is found in faraway places like the Shire of the Hobbit’s—directs us toward God’s truth?
As Samwise Gangee reminds says: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered, full of darkness and danger they were. Sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when there’s so much bad that had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow; even darkness must pass.”
The Hobbit Party reminds us that while the road to redemption is long and tedious, the principles offered by Tolkien can steer us back on the right path.