Summary: Lord of the Rings teaches us about the new America now emerging. It is a stratified society, with great people ruling small people. Tolkien, ever the realist, shows how the small people can prosper in the 21st century – as America comes to resemble Middle Earth. It is not a pretty picture.
A small man visits the homes of the 1%.
Always on the top of my reading list is the London Review of Books. Each issue explains much about our past, present, and future. Here is an excerpt from Jenny Turner’s brilliant essay “Reasons for Liking Tolkien” in the 15 November 2001 issue.
“Depressed people report feelings of powerlessness to be an index of their condition; and just look at how power is distributed on Middle Earth. Aragorn has it, Gandalf has it, Galadriel has it, because of what they are (a king, a wizard, an elf-queen) rather than what they do. To hold power is to be good-looking: ‘great and beautiful’ (Galadriel), ‘in the flower of manhood’ (Aragorn).
“There isn’t a lot of magic on Middle Earth: rabbits don’t come out of hats, no one gets turned into a stone or a poodle. Its place is taken by something more plausible-seeming and refined. Political power (being a king, a wizard, a queen) is elided with willpower, an ability to make things happen. Powerful people run faster and have stronger characters (which, as we know, is why they cannot bear the Ring). They have and make use of televisual devices (the palantírs of Orthanc and Gondor, the mirror of Galadriel), bending them to their bidding. They build sanctuaries – Rivendell, Lórien – in which they can protect the beautiful and the good. ‘An essential power of Faerië is thus the power of making immediately effective by the will the visions of “fantasy”,’ as Tolkien says in ‘On Fairy-Stories’.
“In a politics like this, hobbits are in a subordinate position, always slightly left out.
They don’t have any special powers or dispensations, unless they can cadge some from the big guys: hospitality and amulets and potions from Elrond, Galadriel, Treebeard.
- They offer themselves as pageboys, they hitch a ride on Gandalf’s horse.
- They bow deep to Théoden, Denethor, Faramir, Aragorn.
- They are ‘flotsam and jetsam’, ‘small ragtag’.
- Once or twice, they even get mistaken for orcs.
“In the movie trailer Cate Blanchett murmurs some placatory nonsense about how even the smallest person can change the world, but that is the same tokenism that allows a hobbit to stab at an evil ankle. Gandalf says at one point that the Shire has a sort of magic, but it is just small-town volkischness, sentimental and slightly sinister. This is especially evident when they arm themselves with hammers and axes in ‘The Scouring of the Shire’. In the end, hobbits are small and weak and furry-footed, and Tolkien has given tallness and strength and glinting grey eyes far too much weight in his world for this not to count.
“The politics of The Lord of the Rings, in short, comprises a familiar mixture of infatuation with power with an awareness of one’s own helplessness beside it. One’s best hope, really, is to suck up to the big people, in the hope they will see you all right. It’s the perennial fantasy of the “powerless.”
We too live in Middle Earth, a nation with great and powerful wizards who can accomplish deeds beyond the imagination of lesser folks. There are celebrities who live out their hedonistic fantasies, unrestrained by our laws and moral codes. There are politicians to whom we give our hearts – such as Obama and Trump. There are wealthy businessmen who rape our economy, operating above our laws.
These people own our government. Charities are determined by their priorities. Their hired hands write our laws, pass judgement in our courts. Their police suppress protests. The great Wall Street banks are engines shaping society to their design. The news media tell their narrative explaining events (as in this op-ed by suck-up expert David Brooks). The major think-tanks create stories justifying their plans for America.
American politics is little but factional conflicts among the rich, in which we get to choose sides. Success comes to those who most skillfully pander to their pretenses and most successfully advance their interests.
Compare America to our peers. It’s not a pretty picture.
See this from the OECD’s latest report about social mobility, comparing it among nations. The US has some of the lowest social mobility among our peers. Oddly, few Americans know this – any most pride themselves on America’s high social mobility. Click to enlarge.
See a prince’s home
Bill Gates is a modern American prince. Here we see his version of Rivendell, built on a hillside overlooking Lake Washington in Medina, Washington: 66,000 square feet on 5.15 acres. Assessed value $200 million.
For More Information
Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about increasing income inequality and falling social mobility, about corporate profits, about unions, especially these…
- See America’s income inequality grow during 1979-2011, a driver of Campaign 2016.
- More proof of rising inequality, perhaps our greatest threat.
- An anthropologist looks at America’s growing proletariat.
- The Fed sounds a red alarm about rising inequality.
- Review of Robert Reich’s great Inequality For All.
- America is well-run. Not by us. Not for us.
Books about the death of unions: one factor boosting inequality
Against Labor: How U.S. Employers Organized to Defeat Union Activism edited by Rosemary Feurer and Chad Pearson.
What Unions No Longer Do by Jake Rosenfeld.