Of Guilty Guilds: Addressing Anti-Immigration Populism in The Rings of Power, Episode 4
As per my Episode 4 review of The Rings of Power, I noted that the Men of Númenor objecting to Elves on a “they’ll steal our jobs!” basis feels a tad weird. Of all the things these people have to throw at their pointy-eared brethren, the show settles upon that? It is not merely profoundly petty, considering the wider cosmic themes of Death and Mortality at work in the source material, but also carries with it a whiff of on-the-nose contemporary commentary. Recall that the real reason Tolkien’s Númenoreans fall out with the Elves is over envy at immortality. Jobs never come into it.
Now, for me, this is not a deal-breaker. Pharazôn – who both dampens down the crowd and harnesses it for public relations purposes – is posing as a Man of the People. The guy is weighed down with Guild badges like Leonid Brezhnev with self-awarded medals, and is interested primarily in maintaining excellent political relationships with the people of the island. Given his populist political tendencies, the addition of certain sinister overtones is not completely outlandish. It’s not exactly Tolkien, but I’m prepared to live with it.
However, certain other commentators are not prepared to live with it, asserting that this is the show imposing modern politics on Tolkien. Now, such people do have a case. Immersion matters in art – if it is broken, that is the fault of the creator. However, this might also be a Mountebank and the Farmer situation from Aesop’s Fables, whereby the audience incorrectly thinks the real thing is a fake. Or as TV Tropes calls it, Reality is Unrealistic.
You see, tempting though it is to imagine that pre-moderns had other concerns, to think “they’re stealing our jobs!” is purely modern politics is to ignore history. Indeed, stirring up the rabble over “immigrants stealing jobs” is a time-honoured tradition. In 1517, the so-called Evil May Day resulted in anti-foreigner riots in London.
The phenomenon even shows up in English Elizabethan Drama, with Sir Thomas More (the play of 1591-1593, not the person) explicitly featuring it – the scene where More tries to reason with the crowd is
now often thought to be the work of William Shakespeare himself. In an uglier variant, Robert Wilson’s xenophobic Pedlar’s Prophecy (1595) actively runs with the notion that Migrants are the Problem. So such
rhetoric is not simply the domain of twentieth and twenty-first century societies, nor even democratic ones. This stuff is as old as it is ugly.
But putting it in Tolkien is still a bit weird, right? I mean, Tolkien deals with myth, not in economics or politics. Well, in that case I would suggest the show is guilty of trying to ground Tolkien’s worldbuilding in reality.
You see, Tolkien likes having Guilds in his world. Aldarion’s Guild of Venturers might be the most famous one, closely followed by the Gwaith-i-Mirdain of Eregion. More obscure – but arguably more relevant
for the present discussion – is the Guild of Weaponsmiths in Númenor (Unfinished Tales, p.219.). And what Tolkien’s Guilds all have in common is that they are communities of like-minded individuals, devoted to preserving or expanding knowledge. Less charitably in the case of Aldarion, his Guild is just a club for rich boys who like to muck around with ships.
Tolkien the academic is interested in these institutions preserving and expanding knowledge. What he does not consider is the economic implications of the Guild system. Because in historical reality, the purpose of Guilds was to strictly regulate economic activity in a given location – the regulation in question being tantamount to a price-fixing Cartel. The Guilds kept their membership exclusive and their prices high, and jealously maintained their monopolistic privileges. Heaven help you if you wanted to work as a smith in a given city without Guild approval. That sort of economic competition could not be allowed.
(While the Guilds themselves are gone today, or at least have been de-fanged, their legacy still survives in various odd little legal quirks, like council by-laws).
So while Tolkien probably did not imagine the Gwaith-i-Mirdain turning up on some innocent Elf’s doorstep and demanding that they stop making jewellery for their neighbour “or else”, that is actually what the situation implies. In theory. Cue fanfiction about Celebrimbor running his Guild like a Mafia boss.
It is also what The Rings of Power itself runs with, at least in the case of Númenor. In Episode 3, we have Halbrand being told that he cannot work as a smith without Guild membership, and Eärien’s entry into the Builders’ Guild is seen as a big deal. Pharazôn’s collection of Guild badges testifies to his ability to curry favour with political interest groups, all of whom are interested in one thing – preserving their economic power.
Well and good. Now put yourself in the shoes of one of these Guildsmen. You have a comfortable, protected livelihood. Your customers pay premium rates for your products, but then you pay premium rates for everyone else’s products too. You have your well-established place in the economic hierarchy, and your Guild-Master is one of Chancellor Pharazôn’s drinking-buddies. Your son will follow in your footsteps, and you know that he too will enjoy a comfortable, protected livelihood.
Now suppose that you learn of a new arrival in town – an arrival who turns up with an Elf, no less. You hear this arrival has tried to steal someone else’s Guild-badge – a direct economic threat to everyone associated with Guilds. Why, who knows what mediocre work an unlicensed smith might turn out, quite apart from the likelihood that he will be undercutting Guild prices too – if he’s low-quality (of course he’s low-quality. He’s not Númenorean!), he’ll want to sell-off his stuff cheaper than the fixed price to ensure he gets customers. He must be stopped, clearly. And that Elf associated with him… why that makes it worse. Imagine if the Elves started filling the key crafting roles, or start infiltrating your Guild. No chance now of advancement – those bastards live forever!
So given the in-universe situation, the Guildsman’s Quendiphobic rhetoric actually makes self-interested sense, albeit he ought to be going after Halbrand more than Galadriel. Is the scene remotely based in Tolkien’s own work and thought-processes? No. But Tolkien was not interested in economics, and he gives zero thought to how his Númenorean Guild of Weaponsmiths would actually behave in practice. The show is actually making a stab at this, and in the process trying to inject allusions to Elven immortality being an issue for Númenoreans. Is the result a bit on the nose, given modern political debates? Yes, I think one can make that case – and the immersion argument is a fair one. But the show is not being stupid about this, given the worldbuilding details Tolkien left them to work with.
Alas, in this case I think The Rings of Power might have been too clever for its own good.