Anarcho-Monarchism in the Shire

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

J.R.R. Tolkien and Salvador Dalí both found themselves drawn simultaneously towards anarchism and monarchism, David B. Hart notes:

In the case of Dalí it was probably a meaningless remark, since almost everything he ever said was, [...] but Tolkien was, in his choleric way, giving voice to his deepest convictions regarding the ideal form of human society — albeit fleeting voice. The text of his sole anarcho-monarchist manifesto, such as it is, comes from a letter he wrote to his son Christopher in 1943 (forgive me for quoting at such length):

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning the abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) — or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate real of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could go back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so to refer to people….

And anyway, he continues, “the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men”:

Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. At least it is done only to a small group of men who know who their master is. The mediaevals were only too right in taking nolo episcopari as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop. Grant me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you dare call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. And so on down the line. But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that — after all only the fatal weakness of all good natural things in a bad corrupt unnatural world — is that it works and has only worked when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way…. There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as ‘patriotism’, may remain a habit! But it won’t do any good, if it is not universal.

Hart adds his own thoughts on democracy and kings:

If one were to devise a political system from scratch, knowing something of history and a great deal about human nature, the sort of person that one would chiefly want, if possible, to exclude from power would be the sort of person who most desires it, and who is most willing to make a great effort to acquire it. By all means, drag a reluctant Cincinnatus from his fields when the Volscians are at the gates, but then permit him to retreat again to his arable exile when the crisis has passed; for God’s sake, though, never surrender the fasces to anyone who eagerly reaches out his hand to take them.

Yet our system obliges us to elevate to office precisely those persons who have the ego-besotted effrontery to ask us to do so; it is rather like being compelled to cede the steering wheel to the drunkard in the back seat loudly proclaiming that he knows how to get us there in half the time. More to the point, since our perpetual electoral cycle is now largely a matter of product recognition, advertising, and marketing strategies, we must be content often to vote for persons willing to lie to us with some regularity or, if not that, at least to speak to us evasively and insincerely. In a better, purer world — the world that cannot be — ambition would be an absolute disqualification for political authority.

One can at least sympathize, then, with Tolkien’s view of monarchy. There is, after all, something degrading about deferring to a politician, or going through the silly charade of pretending that “public service” is a particularly honorable occupation, or being forced to choose which band of brigands, mediocrities, wealthy lawyers, and (God spare us) idealists will control our destinies for the next few years.

But a king — a king without any real power, that is — is such an ennoblingly arbitrary, such a tender and organically human institution. It is easy to give our loyalty to someone whose only claim on it is an accident of heredity, because then it is a free gesture of spontaneous affection that requires no element of self-deception, and that does not involve the humiliation of having to ask to be ruled.

The ideal king would be rather like the king in chess: the most useless piece on the board, which occupies its square simply to prevent any other piece from doing so, but which is somehow still the whole game. There is something positively sacramental about its strategic impotence. And there is something blessedly gallant about giving one’s wholehearted allegiance to some poor inbred ditherer whose chief passions are Dresden china and the history of fly-fishing, but who nonetheless, quite ex opere operato, is also the bearer of the dignity of the nation, the anointed embodiment of the genius gentis — a kind of totem or, better, mascot.

As for Tolkien’s anarchism, I think it obvious he meant it in the classical sense: not the total absence of law and governance, but the absence of a political archetes — that is, of the leadership principle as such. In Tolkien’s case, it might be better to speak of a “radical subsidiarism,” in which authority and responsibility for the public weal are so devolved to the local and communal that every significant public decision becomes a matter of common interest and common consent. Of course, such a social vision could be dismissed as mere agrarian and village primitivism; but that would not have bothered Tolkien, what with his proto-ecologist view of modernity.

Stuart Koehl looks to Middle Earth for an expression of Tolkien’s political thinking — and disagrees with the anarchist label, because he defines the term differently:

I wouldn’t say Tolkien was an anarcho-monarchist. He did once say the best form of government was an extremely inefficient absolute monarchy, which, in effect, is what the Hobbits erected in the Shire: their loyalty was nominally towards the High King in the North, but as that office had remained vacant for centuries, they went around organizing their own business while pretending as though there still was a king.

Hobbit government is the farthest thing from anarchy. Hobbits follow The Rules, minimal though these might be. They are largely common sense, hallowed by custom, and enforced by social suasion. There is a local military commander, the Thain (obviously from the Anglo-Saxon thegn, a minor noble who commanded the fyrd in a particular place), and a titular functionary (the Mayor), and a small police force, the Sheriffs (again, the old Anglo-Saxon shire-reeves), who, by Tolkien’s admission, spend most of their time rounding up errant cattle and turning back scruffy-looking interlopers from the outside.

If anything, the Shire is something of a libertarian paradise, where people follow the Golden Rules of “mind your own business” and “keep your hands to yourself”, though, of course, there is a social class hierarchy in which certain families have hereditary status (“respectability”) equivalent to that of the country gentry in late 19th century England. All this is taken for granted, because everybody accepts and follows The Rules.

Anarchy, of course, is an obliteration of The Rules, and the civility of the Shire would collapse instantly if anyone were seriously to question their validity. Once the consensus of The Rules collapses, order can only be restored through force — external, tyrannical force, such as that imposed by Lotho Sackville-Baggins and Sharkey (Saruman), or the internal, regenerative force of the Hobbits themselves, once the Shire is raised by Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin. Like Cincinnatus, they take up arms only to defend the status quo ante (demonstrating in the process that the ancient institutions of the Thain and the fyrd do work), then put them down and return to their plows (both real and metaphorical).

It’s interesting to note, though, that to some extent the Hobbits of the Shire are free riders. Their rustic, libertarian paradise exists only because it is guarded by the Rangers of the North, who are, of course, the Dunedain of Arnor, whose Chieftain is also the Heir of Elendil, the rightful King of Arnor to whom the Hobbits have, all these centuries, been giving their nominal allegience. Not knowing this, however, the Hobbits fear, distrust and disdain the Rangers, who are not at all “respectable”.

Nonetheless, Aragorn, when restored to the throne as King Elessar, makes no attempt to altar the governance of the Shire, but rather legitimizes them by making the Shire self-governing and prohibiting Big People from entering its borders without prior leave. Even he does not violate his own law, but stops at the gate on the Great Road whenever he visits with the Mayor (Sam), the Thain (Pippin) and the Master of Buckland (Merry). It’s an interesting example of Tolkien’s realism and ambivalence about the ideal society he created that he recognizes it cannot stand against the “real” world without the protection of forces that are its antithesis to a large extent.

(I’ve been meaning to cite this piece for a while, but Kalim Kassam and Foseti brought it back to mind.)


  1. Bruce Charlton says:

    Thanks for pointing to this, which I had missed.

    One aspect that needs to be factored in, is that hobbits were not men (or, at least, they were a very distinctive race of men) — in particular they were much less status-seeking than men, and less aggressive. A different species naturally has a different form of government.

    Overall, I think that Tolkien advocated a religious monarchy, somewhat on the Byzantine model — Gondor under the Kings (before the Stewards) was the nearest thing in the Third Age (although the religion was vestigial) but this pretty much described Numenor.

    In other words, it was a monarchy that united spiritual and secular leadership — in which God chose the King, and the King represented God to his people.

    Divine sanction was revealed in The Lord of the Rings by Aragorn’s “miracles” of healing — and healing of a type only he could achieve (curing the Black Breath of the Nazgul King).

    The authority of the King was absolute, except that he must not go against the will of God (implicitly) — it just happened to be the King Aragorn’s will (for the good of his subjects) that he left The Shire to govern itself (subject to protection from the King’s Men).

    A good, kind King would have regarded Hobbits rather as we regard children or mentally-incompetent persons — creating for them a protected environment where they can conduct their own games safely.

    Hobbits could not, and probably should not, be integrated into the world of Men — there could only be some kind of parallel Hobbit society — else they would have been enslaved by bad men.

    (I would guess that the Rangers had for centuries been preventing this from happening in Bree, while they were also protecting the Shire Hobbits from invasion).

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