What Hobbits can teach us about political communication

Hobbiton
HQ of the counter-revolution

In the final splurge of Tolkien fanboy-dom, the last of The Hobbit movies is almost upon us, a mere eternity since Peter Jackson first brought his vision of Middle Earth to the screen.

One of the more provoking pieces I’ve read is this piece by Damian Walters in The Guardian. Essentially, Walters argues that Tolkien is selling a conservative, reactionary tale, told by the victors and highly biased in its allocation of values.

Walters make the point that myths are more common than they used to be, especially in movies, and this seems to be a useful starting point for a classroom discussion with students about the politics and the political communication they can see (see my post on The Lego Movie for something similar).

Here are some questions we might consider:

  • How far do the different races of Middle Earth conform to stereotypes? Plucky and innovative hobbits, evil orcs, gruff dwarves, snooty elves, fallible men: there’s not much in the way of individual characterisation beyond this, plus a lot of those who don’t conform being punished for it in some way. Overlay this with the dubious geopolitics of Tolkien’s view of ‘the South’ or ‘the East’ and there’s much to play with. Indeed, I’d almost suggest you could have a very interesting simulation of Middle Earth international diplomacy! Something for the New Year, perhaps;
  • Laketown offers a rare instance of a model of governance that is nominally non-hereditary, with the venal Steward. In the movies, this is much more developed than the book, but offers an opportunity to consider Tolkien’s view of comparative political systems. Clearly, his preference is for the benign rule of an enlightened king, but he also acknowledges the pitfalls of such a model (albeit, these are usually caused by some external ‘evil’);
  • The political communication that Walters discusses is also important. The story is presented from Bilbo’s perspective and – through both inclination and opportunity – those he does not travel and fight with are distanced and othered. How can we really know what orcs, trolls and wargs are like, if we don’t step out of our own shoes? The movies have partially considered this with Smeagol/Gollum, but it’s hard to get a sense of the interiorality of Sauron when he is never present;
  • And this leads to a bigger question: are all myths political and socially conservative? Tolkien presents a world with a magic that in not fully in the control of any one, which forces individuals to do things against their will and which disrupts the natural order of things. It’s that last point which promotes a conservative agenda, as transgression gets punished and ‘right’ wins the day (albeit with set-backs). Likewise, the existence of a higher order of being – gods, magic and the rest – that removes a degree of agency from the individual. They can appeal to that higher order to justify their actions and to trump the interests of those around them: remember that the whole of the Lord of the Rings is driven by the stated (and unanswerable) need to destroy the ring.

How far you’d want to go with all of this is up to you. But as with other objects of popular culture, there’s often more to consider than might first be apparent.

UPDATE: Thanks to Keshia Jacotine for sending me a link to Ruane & James’ book on the International Relations of Middle Earth, which tackles things in a more systematic way.

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