A brief post on Tolkien

I never get tired of talking about Tolkien. And occasionally I see something really great, which I really have to share. Behold, Alan Jacobs taking on a common, but misguided criticism of Tolkien.

It has just become the tale that middle-to-highbrow critics tell — ever since Edmund Wilson was saying his own manifestly untrue things about Tolkien in the New Yorker fifty years ago — that Tolkien’s fictional world is morally simplistic and rigidly Manichaean. It may be true that the story of the Ring is less morally ambiguous than the average realistic novel, but that’s primarily because Tolkien wasn’t especially interested in the problem of knowing right from wrong. His concern was to explore the psychology of the moment when you know right from wrong but aren’t sure whether you have the courage and fortitude to do the right thing.

Modern liberalism likes to think that all our problems are epistemological: we are afflicted by never knowing with sufficient clarity what we ought to do. Our fictions tend to reflect that assumption. Tolkien, not being a modern liberal, thought it more interesting to explore situations when people know what they need to know but may lack the strength of will to act on that knowledge. He might say, and with some justification, that contemporary literary fiction is not simplistic in regard to such problems but oblivious to them.

Forgive me, Alan, for quoting about half of your article. It was too good to omit anything.


  1. I thought it was just a tale of Fear.

    What cowards do out of fear of losing their priviledges.

    Also, Greed. This is all there, depth-wise, to the Tolkien stories.

  2. I suppose since I devoured the Tolkien series when I was much younger, my need to find some sort of liberal, centrist, conservative perspective on “the meaning of Tolkien’s writing and all things it includes” didn’t enter my mind. It was the adventure, the action, the strengths and fears. It was simply a wonderful read that I never considered dissecting. I just loved it. Quite possibly for that reason alone, I do not choose to engage in dissecting it. I love it.

    1. This is probably the correct way to read Tolkien. It wasn’t meant as a political tract, after all, regardless of whatever political values people have subsequently read into it. I think that Jacobs (whose political views are unknown to me) is mostly concerned with defending Tolkien against those who fault him for being insufficiently liberal — where “liberal” largely refers to classical liberalism, not necessarily to modern leftism.

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