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Gandalf is a “manipulative spin doctor” in a “profoundly conservative” story

In an blogpost for the Guardian, writer Damian Walter argues that, despite Tolkien’s excellence, his stories are “profoundly conservative” fantasies that “mythologise human history”.

In the article, Walter writes:

Tolkien’s myths are profoundly conservative. Both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings turn on the “return of the king” to his rightful throne. In both cases this “victory” means the reassertion of a feudal social structure which had been disrupted by “evil”. Both books are one-sided recollections made the Baggins family, members of the landed gentry, in the Red Book of Westmarch – an unreliable historical source if ever there was one. A balanced telling might well have shown Smaug to be much more of a reforming force in the valley of Dale.

And of course Sauron doesn’t even get to appear on the page in The Lord of the Rings, at least not in any form more substantial than a huge burning eye, exactly the kind of treatment one would expect in a work of propaganda.

We’re left to take on trust from Gandalf, a manipulative spin doctor, and the Elves, immortal elitists who kill humans and hobbits for even entering their territory, when they say that the maker of the one ring is evil. Isn’t it more likely that the orcs, who live in dire poverty, actually support Sauron because he represents the liberal forces of science and industrialisation, in the face of a brutally oppressive conservative social order?

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings aren’t fantasies because they feature dragons, elves and talking trees. They’re fantasies because they mythologise human history, ignoring the brutality and oppression that were part and parcel of a world ruled by men with swords.

You can read the full article here. Let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.

About the Author: Shaun Gunner

Shaun is the current Chair of The Tolkien Society. Elected in 2013, Shaun regularly speaks about adaptations of Tolkien’s works whilst passionately believing the Society needs to reach out to new audiences. In his spare time can be found in the cinema, playing video games and Lego, or on Twitter.

  • binghi

    U got everything wrong my friend. Dont forget that Morgoth created orcs by twisting elven nature in the first place, so if someone is to blame for their life in poverty its the one who Sauron served and in a way still serves.And about that last line, I belive orcs wield swords too and I belive that those orcs represent men with swords that couldnt be stoped in our history.(sry for my bad english and grammar)
    P.S. dunno why ppl try to find flaws in everything,its such a beautifull story and it doesnt deserve such ignorant criticism.

  • Guest

    It strikes me as being half an article. Mr. Walter presents an interesting point about perspective and how readers should react to the socio-political scheme that Tolkien presents (vaguely) in his mythology… Then Walter abruptly stops before giving more than a suggestion of what alternatives there are. No good reason is given for presenting the alternatives, nor is it mentioned why Tolkien’s perspective may be flawed, or even why it’s necessarily “conservative.” Walter touches on the romantic concept of returning to a time past in order to fix things, which was a hugely popular theme in all forms of art in the late 19th and early 20th century Europe, but he doesn’t seem to understand the core values behind that movement that were mocking industrialism and capitalistic greed, and the inattention to nature and human relations that came with the quickening pace of life.

    I would suggest to Mr. Walter that he read “Understanding The Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism” ed. Zimbardo and Isaacs (2004), and “Ents, Elves and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien” by Dickerson and Evans (2006) to get an educated glimpse behind the scenery of Tolkien’s world to what he was on about – rather than what he wasn’t. Tolkien’s world is not an all-encompassing vision of society in Middle-earth, and the sooner a reader who professes to be a fan gets that through their head, the better off they’ll be.

    This smacks of one of George R.R. Martin’s recent remarks on Tolkien, where he wished he knew more about Aragorn’s political agenda, and whether or not the people rejoiced at the return of the King after they started paying taxes, etc… No, no, and no! That’s not the point of Tolkien’s world, and it’s not the sort of message the man ever wanted to prescribe to his works! Boo…

  • Aaron Stormageddon

    While I think analysing Tolkien’s work through a ‘conservative’ lens is valid, this article does no such thing because it fundamentally misunderstands his viewpoint. A proper analysis would properly deconstruct ‘conservatism’ and what it means to Tolkien.

  • Mike Peterson

    I would give the article credence if he had considered Tolkien’s unfinished title, “The New Shadow”, which I’m sure most of you already know, was supposed to be about the darkside of men, who create their own evil cults and all that jazz.

    Walter’s argument is suddenly invalid:
    “I did begin a story placed about 100 years after the Downfall, but it proved both sinister and depressing. Since we are dealing with Men it is inevitable that we should be concerned with the most regrettable feature of their nature: their quick satiety with good. So that the people of Gondor in times of peace, justice and prosperity, would become discontented and restless — while the dynasts descended from Aragorn would become just kings and governors — like Denethor or worse. I found that even so early there was an outcrop of revolutionary plots, about a centre of secret Satanistic religion; while Gondorian boys were playing at being Orcs and going around doing damage. I could have written a ‘thriller’ about the plot and its discovery and overthrow — but it would have been just that. Not worth doing.” – JRR