Monday, November 1, 2010

History from a Hobbit's Perspective

Erica Yunghans chronicles it:


The Hobbit or There and Back Again by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is a fantasy novel which introduces the reader to 'Middle Earth' the magical world of Tolkien's creation. In the story, 'Hobbits' are short human-like creatures who tend to live peaceful, agrarian lives far away from war and adventures. The story revolves around one particular Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins who is jolted out of his comfortable existence by a manipulative wizard and driven into joining a group of Dwarves on a quest to reclaim the gold stolen from their ancestors by a dragon. The Hobbit was written in the period between the two World Wars and is a work firmly grounded in Tolkien's time and culture. Tolkien's cultural and social beliefs make their presence felt in the work. In this essay we shall endeavor to show how the ideas prevalent in Tolkien's time and the culture of his period made their impact on the fictional world he created.

'Merry England' Conservatism

Tolkien has often been identified as belonging to a school of thought that can be called 'Merry England' conservatism or Little Englandism. This conservative school of thought seeks to return Britain to an imagined perfect past (Jones 112).
One aspect of 'Merry England' conservatism is related to social conservatism. The followers of this ideology oppose what they see as corrupting modern influences which have destroyed the perfect social order which used to prevail in the past. It is asserted that in the past, the lower social classes were happy with their lot in life, despite being poor, women were happy in their homes being subservient to their husbands despite being denied the opportunity to have a career of their own and people were happy having their decisions made for them by a benevolent monarch. Some researchers find evidence of these ideas in Tolkien's works; for instance, it has been claimed that the few female characters in Tolkien's works are idealized and stereotyped portrayals written from a patriarchal perspective (Donovan 130).

This sort of philosophy can be seen in The Hobbit, a novel that depicts the adventures of a band of fifteen male characters. Implicit in this is the belief that women must remain in their homes. The Hobbit depicts women as helpless creatures, dependent upon the protection of brave men during war. This view of women can be seen in the description of the dragon's attack on the Lake-town when men huddle women and children into boats and heroes like Bard the bowman bravely go forth to fight the dragon (Tolkien 234-42).

Another aspect of 'Merry England' conservatism is a general distaste for imperialism and conquest of other countries. Tolkien was not keen on British occupation of other countries. His Hobbits are inward looking people, content to work in their fields and farms. Hobbits are benign creatures who do not wish to make war upon anyone (Bloom 91).

Genetic Determinism

A major aspect of Middle Earth is the interaction between different species of sentient creatures. Some of these species display both good and bad characteristics, but are on the whole depicted as good people, for example the Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits. Other species are essentially evil, such as the Goblins and the Trolls. There are no good Goblins or Trolls. In other words, the genetics of the Goblins and Trolls completely determine their conduct. This reflects the belief in the existence of good and evil races of humans that was prevalent in Tolkien's time (Rearick).

An anti-egalitarian view of the superiority of those with 'noble blood' can also be seen in the story. Elrond the elf is one of the major good characters of the Tolkien universe. He is a descendant of elf-lords and Human heroes (Tolkien 51). Bard, the hero of Lake-town, is likewise the descendant of "Girion, Lord of Dale" (250).


Another aspect of Tolkien's conservatism is his dislike of modern technology. Nearly a century before Tolkien's time, the workmen of England and Scotland had started a revolutionary against industrialization, called the Luddite movement. The Luddites were workmen whose livelihoods were threatened by the introduction of machines; they would gather together at night and mount destructive attacks on machines and factories. Tolkien has also been portrayed as a Luddite (Turner).

In accordance with these views, the Goblins, the main villains of The Hobbit, have been described as makers and designers of tools and instruments of torture. Tolkien has also speculated that the Goblins were responsible for the invention of various machines particularly those machines and devices which result in the death of large numbers of people at once (62). In this speculation, Tolkien has tried to convey to his young readers distaste for industrialization and an abhorrence of weapons of mass destruction that were first deployed in his time.

Dwarves as Jews

The Dwarves in The Hobbit exhibit characteristics that are stereotypically applied to the Jews. Such characterization of ethnicities has been accepted as rude and unfair in the present time; however, it was not considered impolite in Tolkien's days. For example, in The Hobbit the race of Dwarves is depicted as being greedy and fanatic in their love for gold (15). The Jews too were commonly portrayed as greedy and lustful of material wealth. The Dwarves of the golden age in the Lonely Mountain did not grow their own food (23). This also conforms to the portrayal of Jews as people who did not work the land but worked in other secondary professions. The Dwarves are depicted as being "clever with their hands" (23). The Jews too are traditionally depicted as talented at making things.

Lamarckian Evolution

'Lamarckian Evolution' or Lamarckianism is the belief that organisms can acquire major adaptive characteristics within their lifetimes and pass on those characteristics to their offspring. In the early twentieth century, this concept had not been thoroughly disproved and it was common for people to believe in it (Gee 81).
This concept may be seen the description of Gollum. Gollum, originally a Hobbit or a creature similar to Hobbits, acquires large eyes and the ability to see in the dark while living in the caves under Misty Mountains. Gollum even seems to have acquired a tapetum lucidum, the layer of tissue that causes the eyes of many animals to seem to glow in the dark (Tolkien 84). This concept can also be seen in The Hobbit under the description of the fish that inhabited the subterranean lake in Misty Mountains:

There are strange things living in the pools and lakes in the hearts of mountains: fish whose fathers swam in, goodness only knows how many years ago, and never swam out again, while their eyes grew bigger and bigger and bigger from trying to see in the blackness; also there are other things more slimy than fish. (71)

J. R. R. Tolkien was a man of his times and the effect of the thinking that was prevalent in those times is apparent in his works. While Tolkien disclaimed the idea that his work was allegorical in nature, many elements of his own political and social beliefs find their way into the novel. Some of the elements of the novel may not be very politically correct, such as elements suggesting anti-feminist and racist overtones to today's readers, but despite these flaws there are some great merits in Tolkien's works, even by today's standards. Tolkien was opposed to militarism, imperialism and the existence of weapons of mass destruction. He has associated the design and construction of such devices with the villains of his fictional world. Tolkien also opposed industrialization at a time when most people were unable to fathom the extent of environmental damage it causes.

While, by today's standards, Tolkien might be ridiculed for the suggested appearances of racism and bigotry towards some ethnicities, he wrote The Hobbit during a time when such beliefs were rather commonplace. There were reactionary sentiments against the industrial age. Many people were unemployed because technology introduced newer methods of production that reduced the need for physical labor, a human workforce. The world had been at war and all of Europe was still in shell shock. It could be argued that Tolkien's work was simply a reflection of the culture during that time period.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. J. R. R. Tolkien. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2008.
Donovan, Leslie A. "The Valkyrie Reflex in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: Galadriel, Shelob, Éowyn, and Arwen." Tolkien the Medievalist. Ed. Jane Chance. Lexington, KY: Routledge, 2003. 106-132.
Gee, Henry. The Science of Middle-Earth. Cold Spring, NY: Cold Spring Press, 2004.
Jones, Leslie. J.R.R. Tolkien: a Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.
Rearick, Anderson. "Why is the only good orc a dead orc? The dark face of racism examined in Tolkien's world." Modern Fiction Studies (2004): 861-874.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Hobbit: Or There and Back Again. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
Turner, Jenny. "Reasons for Liking Tolkien." London Review of Books 23.22 (2001): 15-24.

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