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.
Jay Richards and I have an Ignatius Press book on Tolkien’s commitment to freedom coming out soon, so we’ve been following developments in the Hobbit film trilogy more closely than we might otherwise. A recent development is director Peter Jackson announcing a subtitle change to the third film—from There and Back Again, to Battle of the Five Armies.
That’s maybe a bit narrow for a novel that’s also about food, fellowship and song, but I think it’d be going too far to say it’s somehow out of step with Tolkien. The book, a prelude to The Lord of the Rings, features the now titular battle of five armies, a narrowly avoided battle of three armies and, leading up to this, skirmishes with everything from clever spiders to dimwitted trolls.
The Lord of the Rings, though more sophisticated in its themes, is similarly chock-full of clashing swords and the like. In one battle, two of the nobler characters even compete to see who can kill the most orcs. Interestingly, the peace-loving hippies of the ’60s were among the first to embrace the battle-soaked novel in large numbers. What are we to make of this curious alliance?