Time for Tolkien

David Engels 

Originally published in Le Vif/L’Express  [1] (Brussels)
Translated by Margot Metroland

aragorn-trump-levifWe are in an epoch in which numerous religious, ethnic, or sexual groups are risking community-implosion by trying to impose their own values on everyone else. A time in which a certain politician we shall not name has been pushing political correctness to the point where it’s now proposed we should teach history according to the ethnicity of students.[2] At the same time we’re witnessing a paradoxical return to the nostalgic comfort of the old-fashioned grand epic, marvelously exemplified in the current craze for  J. R. R. Tolkien.

The Tolkien world is deeply imbued with a hierarchy that is charismatic rather than technocratic. A place where earthly power, in the image of the Kingship of Aragorn, is depicted as a burden, while obeisance is an honor. Here the hero is deeply individualistic, though driven not by egotistical materialism but rather a moral humanism that forces him—Elendil, Bilbo, or Faramir—to remain faithful to his convictions even at the price of a rupture with society.

Herein lies Tolkienian conservatism, which understands that happiness and harmony cannot be guaranteed by external means such as technology or institutions, but only through the ethical behavior of the individual, who learns, as Eowyn or Sam do, to accept their innate nature rather than a disordered idea of artificial egalitarianism. At the same time, this universe is deeply religious: it was defiled by the original fall of Melkor [or Morgoth, the First Dark Lord], making all happiness transient, and any hope of an ideal earthly order illusory. The history of Middle Earth is fundamentally a tragedy, consisting of a series of heroic acts —by Beren,  Eärendil and Frodo—doomed to failure. Only divine grace permits one to achieve the ideal of completing his quest.

But this vision is not merely confined to literary imagining. It’s also accompanied by a critical reflection on modernity, which today would probably suffice to expel Tolkien from Oxford. Here he is in a letter of 1943, being ironical: “It is getting to be all one blasted little provincial suburb. When they have introduced American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass-production throughout the Near East, the Middle East, the USSR . . .  how happy we shall be.” [3]  Even the long-awaited Allied victory leaves him skeptical: “The real war is not like the legendary war. If it had inspired or dictated the development of the legend, the Ring would certainly have been seized and used against Sauron.” (The Lord Of The Rings, 2nd ed., Foreword.)

What to say of the ulterior reasons beyond this renewed popularity of Tolkien at the beginning of the twenty-first century, other than that it conceals a deep dislike of our postmodern world and a longing for a grand epic about a simple, integral, ancestral society? An escapism, moreover, which is in the process of gradually transforming itself, as shown in the rise of charismatic, conservative movements for political restoration… When is the return of the king?


1. “C’est le moment de… (Re)Lire J.R.R. Tolkien.” Le Vif-L’Express, Brussels. 2 December 2016. Online: https://www.academia.edu/30198155/Cest_le_moment_de_…_relire_J.R.R._Tolkien_in_Le_Vif-Lexpress_1.12.2016_18

2. Deputée Catherine Moureaux. (Not named in original, but discussed here: http://www.causeur.fr/belgique-education-islam-histoire-molenbeek-41291.html )

3. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. 1981. London and New York: Allen & Unwin, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Time for Tolkien