On this edition of Radio Free Acton, your humble host bravely battles a late-spring cold to bring you an interview with Jonathan Witt, Managing Editor at TheStream.org, and author of The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got and The West Forgot. Was Frodo a small-government type? Was Tolkien a card-carrying member of the local Republican party? Or were the hobbits short-statured hippies who really enjoyed their pipe weed and the free healthcare provided by the Shire’s smooth-running, benevolent bureaucracy? Find out on Radio Free Acton!
In light of the discussion about distributism in the recent comments, I’m posting John Zmirak’s excellent Religion & Liberty review of The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom that Tolkien Got and the West Forgot by Jonathan Witt and Jay Richards (Ignatius Press, 2014) here on the PowerBlog. Note how he ends the review with a discussion of Tolkien and whether his work lent support to distributism. Have at it.
In Praise of the Bourgeois, Liberty-Loving Race of Hobbits
By John Zmirak
"First they ignore it, then they ridicule it, then they willfully misunderstand it, then it becomes a classic." Mohandas Gandhi never said that about great works of literature, but it does describe the trajectory of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. We are long past the days when critics could lightly sneer at the book as "escapist," or convince people that it is secretly "militarist" or "racist." Too many tens of millions have actually read the work to swallow such poison pills. So readers of Tolkien who profoundly misunderstand the book and reject its central message have taken another tack: They have tried to misconstrue the work as a plea for radical environmentalism, Marxist revolution, or the use of the violent force employed by the state in the service of other agendas (such as Distributism) that were utterly alien to Tolkien. The Hobbit Party, by Jonathan Witt and Jay Richards does a brilliant job of exposing these crass or crafty misreadings of Tolkien, presenting in plain English and scholarly detail the true complexity and beauty of Tolkien's epic, and more honest applications of his insights.
The Hobbit Party is an easy and pleasurable read, deeply informative and grounded in a fundamental sympathy with the vision of the good that Tolkien wove through all his works. If you only bought one book on The Lord of the Rings, this would be an excellent choice. It's especially worthwhile as a gift for students who are already fans of the book, since it will connect them to Tolkien's intellectual roots and moral aspirations.
I’m reading through the Lord of the Rings trilogy with my son, and there’s a striking exchange between Gandalf and Denethor in The Return of the King. Gandalf has just arrived with Pippin from Rohan, and the two have been admitted into an audience with the Steward of Gondor.
As Denethor says of himself to Gandalf, “Yet the Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.”
To this Gandalf responds, “Unless the king should come again? Well, my lord Steward, it is your task to keep some kingdom still against that event, which few now look to see. In that task you shall have all the aid that you are pleased to ask for. But I will say this: the rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?”
Consider this claim not only in contrast with the decadent stewardship of Denethor, who conflates the particular good of his realm with the common good of Middle-earth, but also with respect to the corruption of Saruman. For as the resurrected Gandalf the White says, “Indeed I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been.”
For a funny look at what Gandalf’s stewardship responsibility amounts to in the LOTR, check out the “Gandalf Problem Solving” flowchart (HT: Jon Acuff):
A brief bit of Herman Bavinck, taken from his Beginselen der psychologie, 2d. ed. (Kampen: Kok, 1923); English translation Foundations of Psychology, trans. trans. Jack Vanden Born (M.C.S. Thesis: Calvin College, 1981). p. 92:
The freedom with which imagination brings forward its creation is, however, not a lawlessness. Unbridled fantasy produces only the outrageous. As fantasy is objectively, albeit indirectly, bound to the elements of the visible world, so it must subjectively be under the control of understanding. It must be led by moral ideas especially. But within these limitations fantasy is a splendid capacity.
See also, “The Morality of Narrative Imagination.”