Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part II

I will admit it: yesterday’s post was a bit cheeky. I took this quote:

[T]he traditional format of a high fantasy novel is that some source of disruption threatens to destabilize the land; it is up to the hero (usually it is a ‘he’) to set things right and restore the order of benign tyranny to the world. Fantasy, in short, is frequently consolatory, and I don’t get on with it. (para. 12)

And actually tried looking at high fantasy novels from the 1920s and 1930s to see how well they matched up – if anything is traditional in this stuffy old genre it ought to be stuff from before the Second World War, right?

Lo and behold, neither the Tolkienian nor non-Tolkienian works actually fit with Stross’ quote (cited with approval in the introduction to McGarry and Ravipinto). But, you see, I know full well that when the article talks of “traditional high fantasy”, it does not literally mean “traditional high fantasy”. I was merely approaching the matter from the point of view of someone who knows a bit about the genre’s history, rather than the all-too common viewpoint that modern fantasy sprung from a hole in the ground in the 1950s. What Stross really means with this quote about “traditional high fantasy” is The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) and its attempted imitations.


Fantasy would still exist without this particular work, but it would not be fantasy as we know it (it would be an interesting thought experiment to imagine how the genre would have developed had Tolkien developed a bad case of writer’s block in 1940). The question is therefore – how well can this 1100 page monster be condensed into Stross’ formulaic summary? The answer is that while the book can be read like that (indeed, it is inevitably a much better fit than either The Hobbit or The Silmarillion due to being so much more prominent), I would suggest that it probably shouldn’t be read like that. To do so is to miss (deliberately or otherwise) so much nuance and complexity.

Let’s start with “some source of disruption that threatens to destabilise the land”. At face value, you would guess Stross is referring to Sauron: the Dark Lord of Mordor disrupting Middle-earth. But here’s the funny thing: Mordor is incredibly stable. Sauron has ruled it as a god-king for thousands of years, and (unlike Gondor) has never presided over civil war or disorder. Sauron’s chief servants, the Nazgûl, are enslaved more fully to his will than any other beings in Arda (they’re not going to rebel!), while the Dark Lord trusts the actually unreliable Saruman about as far as he can throw him (see the proposed peace offering from the Lieutenant of Barad-dûr, when talk of rebuilding Isengard comes up).

Sauron, in explicit contrast to, for example, Shelob, also doesn’t want to engulf the world to satiate his dark hunger: he merely wants to rule it. Just as he ruled Middle-earth for much of the Second Age – the Black Years of Middle-earth – for never forget that Sauron has been there already. Gandalf, after all, talks of the Dark Lord covering all the lands in a second darkness, a tyrannical re-unification of everyone under the thumb of Barad-dûr.

Why am I going on about this? Simple. Sauron is a force for order and stability in Middle-earth, not chaos and disruption, as is Saruman too, of course (recall him trying to persuade Gandalf with talk of the rule of knowledge and order). Too many people have this idea, likely based off the portrayal of the Orcs, that Sauron seeks to overturn things; in Michael Moorcock’s infamous Epic Pooh essay, the Dark Lord and his minions are compared to football hooligans throwing beer bottles over middle-class fences.

But, no, if you read Tolkien’s essay on Morgoth and Sauron (History of Middle-earth Volume X), it becomes quite explicit: Sauron, in contrast to his old master, doesn’t mind the existence of the world, so long as he can do what he likes with it (anyone who believes I am cheating by referring to texts beyond the book is welcome to re-read the previous paragraph: this interpretation of Sauron’s character is supported by the actual work). And if Sauron the villain is a force for order, that must mean Tolkien isn’t quite so keen on law-abiding stability as people think.

Turning to the next part of the “traditional” framework, we encounter “it is up to the hero (usually it is a ‘he’) to set things right”. Again, at face value, The Lord of the Rings appears to fit. Regardless of whether you think the hero of the story is Frodo, Sam, or even Aragorn, all three of them have penises (indeed, the entire Fellowship is a veritable sausage-fest), and all of them are trying to do the right thing. And again, if you look closer, things get messier.

As is made explicit throughout the book (see Galadriel’s comments, for example), the heroes actually face a choice of evils: the destruction of the One Ring means the end of Elvish civilisation in Middle-earth, but Sauron cannot be defeated otherwise. Is this “setting things right”? Perhaps – after much back-and-forth, it is clear that it is a lesser evil than letting Sauron win – but it is not restoring things to the status quo. The Quest is about ending magic in the world, and indeed literally brings about the end of the Third Age and the arrival of the Dominion of Men. All very sad, of course, but if Tolkien was promoting staunch reactionary ideas in this book, it’s a bit bizarre for him to have the heroes forever change the world.

Then there’s the accusation that our heroes merely restore the order of benign tyranny to the world.  As we have seen, to call what happens at the end of The Lord of the Rings a restoration is to focus on one aspect (the return of the King to Gondor) at the expense of everything else: not just the end of the Elves, but the changes that take place in The Shire (you know, where our actual heroes live). Even if we give into the Gondor-centric view, for all the glamour associated with King Elessar, he is really first of the new as much as he is a revival of the old.

One suspects that the claim of the Heir of Isildur to rule Gondor would have been rather more contested and difficult had Denethor not taken himself out of the equation and Gandalf not launched his coup. Minas Tirith has a history of telling Isildur’s line to get stuffed, after all, which does actually make Aragorn’s rise a break from convention.

But, more importantly, labelling Aragorn a benign tyrant is a little too smug and self-congratulatory a reading: apparently wearing a crown (as opposed to wearing a grey suit and having a slightly different job title) qualifies one as a tyrant. Aragorn, for one thing, is less a dictator than Denethor ever was, never mind Sauron or Saruman: he explicitly makes peace with Mordor’s human allies (Sauron’s former slaves end up getting control of the agricultural fields they worked), and goes around giving self-government wherever possible (c.f. the Ents, the Drúedain).

Most notably, he forbids all humans – including himself – from setting foot in The Shire. Is one still a tyrant (benign or otherwise) if one voluntarily surrenders power?

Essay continued.

4 thoughts on “Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Part II

  1. Thanks for taking some much time to read our paper. It’s flattering to know that the work has attracted attention.

    I’m not going to defend our thesis–the paper itself should do that–but I do take issue with this:

    “Sauron is a force for order and stability in Middle-earth, not chaos and disruption, as is Saruman too, of course (recall him trying to persuade Gandalf with talk of the rule of knowledge and order).”

    I think you’re reading that out of context. Yes, Saruman claim that Sauron’s victory would bring order, but it’s important to note that he does so as part of his effort to persuade Gandalf to his side. All tyrants claim to pursue good ends; that’s how they get people to go along with them. Generally speaking, dictators don’t say, “I don’t give a fig about you huddled masses; I just want to be in charge.”

    It’s also interesting to note that, when Gandalf doesn’t buy the knowledge-and-order sales pitch, Saruman moves right to an appeal to personal ambition, which also fails. Saruman then orders Gandalf imprisoned and begins a campaign to undermine the supposed order that Sauron would bring, in pursuit of his own personal power. So I think it’s fair to say that Saruman doesn’t care what the new world is, as long as he’s in charge of it.

    Thanks again for reading!


  2. Hi Neil,

    Thanks for commenting! There’s still a long way to go, of course – after 2000+ words, I still haven’t quite finished dealing with your introductory quote, let alone engaged with the meat of your thesis.

    In regards to Saruman, I will confess that my interpretation is shaped by the Morgoth/Sauron Essay (which I have now belatedly realised can be found online: http://users.bestweb.net/~jfgm/valaquenta/MorgothSauron.htm)

    “Sauron had never reached this stage of nihilistic madness. He did not object to the existence of the world, so long as he could do what he liked with it. He still had the relics of positive purposes, that descended from the good of the nature in which he began: it had been his virtue (and therefore also the cause of his fall, and of his relapse) that he loved order and co-ordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction. (It was the apparent will and power of Melkor to effect his designs quickly and masterfully that had first attracted Sauron to him.) Sauron had, in fact, been very like Saruman, and so still understood him quickly and could guess what he would be likely to think and do, even without the aid of the palantíri or of spies; whereas Gandalf eluded and puzzled him. But like all minds of this cast, Sauron’s love (originally) or (later) mere understanding of other individual intelligences was correspondingly weaker; and thought the only real good in, or rational motive for, all this ordering and planning and organisation was the good of all the inhabitants of Arda (even admitting Sauron’s right to be their supreme lord), his ‘plans’, the idea coming from his own isolated mind, became the sole object of his will, and an end, the End, in itself.”

    I might be reading a bit too much into “Sauron had, in fact, been very like Saruman…”, in the sense that I have (in large part) run with the idea that Saruman (like Sauron) believed he was only being who could truly give Middle-earth what it needed. Saruman’s appeal to Gandalf is based off what Saruman values himself (he never really gets Gandalf either), namely order and ambition. I think our White Wizard completely conflates himself with a necessary force for order – much as Sauron does. In short, both Sauron and Saruman are Lawful Evil.



  3. I’m not sure I’d call Saruman lawful evil. He doesn’t care much about order; he’s invested in being in charge, whatever that means. The man betrays both the White Council for Sauron, and then Sauron for himself, which does not suggest to me a man who places much stock in law or custom. He’ll lie shamelessly, switch sides without the slightest notice, and backstab anyone when it becomes convenient, regardless of what promises he may have made. That strikes me as chaotic evil, more than anything else.

    (BTW, I LOVE the alignment game. I spend a good deal of time trying to determine the alignment of fictional characters, so this speculation is welcome.)


  4. Pingback: Of J.R.R. Tolkien and status quos: Compendium | A Phuulish Fellow

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