The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot
By Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richard
San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014.
Pp. 232. $21.95 hardcover.
One quality of powerful myth is its malleability. Just as Robin Hood has been appropriated by groups depicting him as either an antitax rebel or an antirich redistributionist, J. R. R. Tolkien has been depicted both as an antimodernist environmentalist on the one hand and a racist allegorist of the Second World War on the other. Appropriations of Tolkien's mythology are often not based on a consistent systematic examination of the principles found in his books; rather, they tend to arise either from a priori assumptions or from the reviewers' gut instincts. In The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot, Jonathan Witt and Jay W. Richard attempt to correct that tendency and in their study examine the political ethics of Tolkien's mythology.
Although Witt and Richard do not shy away from talking about the author's own personal values and attitudes, they take their evidence primarily from Tolkien's mythology itself. This focus is prudent because in many ways Tolkien was a man out of time and place: an African-born Englishman of Edwardian demeanor, a devout Roman Catholic in an Anglican land, a man who revolutionized popular literature in the twentieth century while steeping his own mind in the languages and literatures of a millennium earlier. These nuances in his biography defy simplistic pigeonholing and to some degree are entirely beside the point; for most readers, "Tolkien" means a mythology, not a man.
Witt and Richards choose the Shire for the conceptual center of their argument. At first glance, it might appear that Middle-earth is dominated by hereditary monarchies, but the closer one examines the various regions, the less that appears to be true. Kings are absent in Gondor, the city governed for centuries by seneschals. The elves are so old that the phrase "hereditary monarchy" seems not to be an apt description. Thorin has been displaced by a dragon, Mordor is dominated by Sauron, and huge territories are seemingly governed either by local chieftains or by no one at all. Yet these vast kingdoms, fallen empires, and sweeping alliances are held within the bookends of the Shire, a place that is depicted as apparently insignificant but opens and closes The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Although Witt and Richards do occasionally...