Americans love Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It’s just like home!

Summary: The Lord of the Rings tells us much about the new America now emerging. It is a stratified society of great and small people, just like Tolkien’s Middle Earth. But there is still time to build a different America, if we have to the will and wit to do so. A revised version from the archives.

“United we stand, divided we fall.”
— From Aesop’s fable, “The Four Oxen and the Lion“.

This is where the rich people live.

Rivendell in "Lord of the Rings."

Always on the top of my reading list is the London Review of Books, with each issue overflowing with insights about our past, present, and future. As in this excerpt from Jenny Turner’s brilliant essay “Reasons for Liking Tolkien.”

Lord of the Rings
The set of books available at Amazon.

“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.

Lord of the Rings
DVDs available at Amazon.

“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.”

The last point is the key. In Middle Earth the commoners look up to and obey their betters, as Sam does to Frodo. All the greats are people of high lineage, from the angel Gandolf to the four hobbits – three of whom are from the Shire’s leading families. The fourth, Sam, is Lord of the Rings only instance of upwards mobility. He goes from gardener to Mayor by virtue of being protege to one of Middle Earth’s greats (Frodo) and briefly wearing its god-like talisman (the One Ring).

We too live in Middle Earth

Americans live amidst powerful wizards who can accomplish deeds beyond the imagination of us lesser folks. Some of these are celebrities who live out their hedonistic fantasies, unrestrained by our laws and moral codes. Some are politicians to whom we give our hearts, such as Obam and Trump. Some are wealthy businesses people who flout our laws and rape our economy.

These elite groups form the 1%. They own our government. Charities orient themselves to serve their priorities. Their hired hands write our laws and pass judgment in our courts. Their police suppress protests.  Their Wall Street banks are engines shaping society to their design. The news media tell their narrative to explain events (as in this op-ed by suck-up expert David Brooks). Their lavishly funded think-tanks create stories justifying their plans for America. They have grand dreams of molding the future in new forms.

See 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. This shows that we have lost a feature of America that we value most highly.

American politics-as-usual is jousting among factions of the 1%. Republican presidential candidates compete to see who can tax the rich the least, shift the most of the tax burden to the middle class, and slash the largest amount of benefits to the poor. Both parties agree on massive military spending and the forever war, plus allegiance to Wall Street. Success comes to those who most skillfully pander to their needs and most successfully advance their interests.

Example: Bill Gates, a next-gen American prince

See his version of Rivendell, built on a hillside overlooking Lake Washington in Medina, Washington: 66,000 square feet on 5.15 acres; with an assessed value of over $200 million. It is 61 times the size of my home and 1400x times its assessed value.

Our future

“Every nation has the government it deserves.”
— By Joseph de Maistre (lawyer, diplomat, philosopher). From Letter 76 dated 13 August 1811, published in Lettres et Opuscules.

We serve our ruling elites best by squabbling amongst ourselves. The Left’s focus on identity politics is their greatest gift to the 1%, as is the Right’s loyal service to the 1%. Both have become our foes, a situation both perilous and unique in our history.

Finding a path to a better future will be difficult. I believe the only course with any hope of success is rebuilding in some form the populist – progressive alliance that powered the New Deal. The terms will differ but the need to work together remains the same. Preventing this is the top goal of our ruling elites. Helping the 1% are the leaders of the Left and Right, who work to keep us divided into squabbling tribes for their own benefit.

These trends become pathologically weird as America descends into ClownWorld.

Only a people with the deepest love of liberty and care for the future can make this happen. It will begin with decisions we make as individuals, one by one. The Founders knew this would happen, as Alexander Hamilton explained in The Federalist Papers. They had faith in us. Let’s be worthy of that faith.

“It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country to decide, by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.” (Paper #1.)

“{Liberty} must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government. And here, after all, as intimated upon another occasion, must we seek for the only solid basis of all our rights.” (Paper #84.)

American Power

For More Information

Ideas! For some 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 fearabout increasing income inequality and falling social mobility, about steps to reforming America, and especially these…

  1. America, the land of limited opportunity. We must open our eyes to the truth.
  2. The bad news about reforming America: time is our enemy.
  3. Learning not to trust each other in America, and not to trust America.
  4. Growing inequality powers the rise of New America.
  5. American politics isn’t broken. It’s working just fine for the 1%.
  6. See America’s income inequality grow during 1979-2011, a driver of Campaign 2016.
  7. Much of what we love about America was true only for a moment.
  8. ImportantMarx was right. Social class explains American politics.

Two books that can help us better understand our peril

Two books by Jefferson Cowie (prof of history at Vanderbilt).

The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics” (2016). See my review of it here.

Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (2010).

The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics
Available at Amazon.
Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class
Available at Amazon and

16 thoughts on “Americans love Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It’s just like home!”

  1. “Republican presidential candidates compete to see who can tax the rich the least, shift the most of the tax burden to the middle class, and slash the largest amount of benefits to the poor. ”

    It seems Trump is a modest improvement compared to the usual. Because the way he is dealing with immigration will enable greater distribution of wealth to the 99% due to greater labor scarcity.

    I think Corporate welfare and failing to hold CEO’s accountable for the destruction of their companies whilst they go out in golden parachutes also contributes to the greater accumulation of wealth in their hands.

    And the fact that if they are going to slash benefits for the poor that they don’t at the same time reduce the tax burden on the middle class at the same time is instructive.

    I think to ensure a safety net that fraternal organizations like the Odd Fellows would have to be renewed:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odd_Fellows

    If its going to go away anyway.

  2. The problem in 2020 then may be a global war as growth globally falters and we seek someone to hate/ blame.

    1. Just a guy,

      “The problem in 2020 then may be a global war as growth globally falters”

      There is no historical relationship between recessions and wars, let alone growth slowdowns.

      There is not even a relationship between depressions and wars. Depressions were quite common before the development of powerful central banks. Even the Great Depression did not start wars. The two major aggressive States both were among the least affected by the depression. The weakness of the other States might have made war more likely however (althouth I doubt that was a major factor).

  3. Dillon Miller

    You mention Sam as the only evidence of upward mobility. The climax of Tolkein’s work indicates that all the people of Middle Earth benefit from Sauron’s destruction; from the elves returning to their ancestral homeland, to the repeated indication that Aragorn’s reign brought lasting peace and prosperity.
    You reference Saruman’s takeover of the Shire. When defeated, pages describe at length how the hobbits flourished in the aftermath of his defeat. The wine from that year, the crops, the rebuilding, everyone in the land sees improvement in their daily lives.
    Following their victory, the peoples of Middle Earth benefit greatly in these stories from a conventional perspective. It is interesting that you would elect to ignore this in favor of scrutinizing individual economic prosperity.
    This is without mentioning that, upward mobility aside, the lesson of many of the (individual) characters’ arcs is redemption: Eowyn slaying the Witch King, Gandalf’s resurrection as the White Wizard, Boromir’s last moments dying to protect the Fellowship’s quest, Pippin agonizing over stealing a look at the Palantir, Theoden recognizing that he allowed Wormtongue to warp his mind, Bilbo resisting the Ring, and more besides.
    These tales show us individuals overcoming odds and flaws, at every level of power in the story, and the characters that fail to overcome temptation are among the most esteemed in the land. Having read and re-read the books periodically for decades now, I (and countless others) have drawn endless inspiration to be better, to make better of the world we live in. Is this not an indication that this tale inspires progress for the individual, regardless of origin? Upward mobility, from an ethical perspective?
    The Lord of the Rings does not teach us to suck up to the powerful, but to recognize that the most humble among us may have strengths beyond our wildest imagination. It is a story about bravery, redemption, love, sorrow, madness; watering it down to inaccurately suit your portrayal of modern America socioeconomics is cheap, and missing the point… if, perhaps, expected for this kind of half-borrowed, poorly edited schlock.

    1. Dillon,

      While your points are correct, they ignore the subject of this post. I didn’t say that the Lord of the Rings was all about social stratification, but that the societies depicted were highly stratified.

      “The climax of Tolkein’s work indicates that all the people of Middle Earth benefit from Sauron’s destruction …”

      True, of course. But I didn’t say otherwise. Peoples across history and the globe have benefited from victory in war. But that seldom made their societies less stratified – which is the subject of this post.

      “the lesson of many of the (individual) characters’ arcs is redemption”

      True, of course. But first – all of the people you mention were royalty or aristocracy. Second, people across history and the globe have grown in knowledge and spirituality without upward mobility. The former are intangibles, the later is material (economics).

  4. The Inimitable NEET

    I’m not sure why you’re using a highly skewed interpretation of Tolkien that cherry-picks passages to make a salient point. The Lord of the Rings can be used as an allegory for many contemporary phenomena – as much as any writer can see modern-day circumstances embodied in fiction – but using it as a reflection of the stratification of modern society is risible, especially when it relies on a willful misunderstanding of what the “powerful” in LotR are capable of.

    One of the primary themes of LotR is that almost all of the major institutions are marked by impotence and irresolution. Every remaining refuge (Rivendell, Lorien, Gondor, Erebor) is a hollow shell of an earlier, more glorious sanctuary (Gondolin/Nargothrond, Doriath, Golden Age Gondor and Numenor by default, Moria -> Belegost/Nogrod). Emphasis on sanctuary as these are not prosperous places. The kingdoms of men are falling into disrepair while their leaders succumb to bitter nihilism; they cannot rally the native population let alone project their power onto other lands. by contrast, the Elves consolidate all their remaining power to preserving the remnants of their former history (meanwhile their numbers dwindle as their brethren flee across the ocean).

    Far from being the 1%, they and their ways of life are repositories of fading glory. Their power, magnificent and awe-inspiring to the parochial Hobbits, is in truth a nostalgic illusion contingent on the craftsmanship and knowledge of their predecessors. The greatest among them are less erudite, noble, and willing to exert their will on the world than their ancestors. Tolkien had to restraint himself from bashing the reader over the head with how anvilicious he makes this motif. Even then Denethor, Elrond, Gandalf, and Galadriel all make various reiterations of this point in speeches so the reader doesn’t accidentally miss it.

    The Palantir reference is particularly ironic. Neither Saruman nor Denethor know how to use them – their design and function exceeds their comprehension – which subsequently allows Sauron to manipulate them with his Palantir stolen from Minas Ithil. Perhaps a nod to quantitative finance would be most apt.

    In reality, Middle-earth is a haphazard jumble of different societies that have little impact on each other. The fact that they rarely interact with each other or seek out help is noted by Tolkien as one of the major barriers stifling them from achieving anything of worth. It’s only after Sauron’s defeat that people start taking initiative in the expansive sense instead of reactionarily .

    “He goes from gardener to Mayor by virtue of being protege to one of Middle Earth’s greats (Frodo) and briefly wearing its god-like talisman (the One Ring).”

    This is largely meaningless if you’re familiar with the series. Mayor, Thain, etc. are formal titles that carry little weight since the Shire is bereft of poverty or noticeable disparities in wealth. The product of an idyllic existence cloistered from the world, granted, but that’s another reason to be skeptical of the idea of Hobbits as “lower members of society”.

    And let’s not even get into how she generously mis-characterizes Tolkien’s ideas on power and its relationship to ontology.

    I’ve read the article and I fail to see the brilliance behind it. It’s a series of paltry observations that are more bare bones and less illuminating than other authors, although the latter additions lack the venom and self-satisfaction present in this one. The unexplained popularity of the books that eternally befuddles her is quite simple to understand as long as one’s not bogged down in suffocating elitist logic. Similarly this article reads as a desperate exercise to exorcise a personal phantom, to prove herself above the works that her silly child brain enjoyed. But as Turner says, anxieties have a way of sublimating themselves into prose.

    1. NEET,

      Your comment makes little sense. The LofR has a thousand and one themes and dimensions. This is just one. Most of your points are irrelevant to the simple point of inequality. I’ll mention just a few.

      “Mayor, Thain, etc. are formal titles that carry little weight since the Shire”

      So you are saying that going from Frodo’s servant to Mayor isn’t upward mobility? Daft.

      “The Palantir reference is particularly ironic. Neither Saruman nor Denethor know how to use them ”

      That’s quite wrong. It is explicitly stated that both used the Palantir effectively. But they eventually connected to Sauron, who uses that comm link to seduce them.

      “Far from being the 1%, they and their ways of life are repositories of fading glory.”

      So you are saying that the Elves, for example, do not have greater wealth and power than the others in Middle Earth? Such as the Hobbits, Rohan horse-herders, and Gondor’s peasants? That they were even greater in the past is hardly relevant to this point. Wow. Too daft for reply.

      1. The Inimitable NEET

        “So you are saying that going from Frodo’s servant to Mayor isn’t upward mobility? Daft.”

        In the most cursory sense imaginable.

        Class stratification exists in the Shire but the title of Mayor has very little to do with increasing or decreasing your status within that world. The responsibilities of being Mayor (which is an ELECTED position that required no prior experience, education, or connections) include being postmaster and presiding over fairs. All of these are insignificant in the books: almost no one commits crimes, the mailman is an unassuming profession and “presiding over fairs” = saying an opening speech and taking the role of head judge. It is a cosmetic title.

        Sam is Frodo’s gardener, not his servant. His father was also Bilbo’s gardener. The batman dynamic Tolkien uses is not one born from obligation.

        There are plenty of examples of class disparity in Rohan and Gondor if you want to press your point. They are obvious and irrefutable, but it’s pointless to quibble about minutiae that neglects the point.

        “That’s quite wrong. It is explicitly stated that both used the Palantir effectively. But they eventually connected to Sauron, who uses that comm link to seduce them.”

        No. It is stated that they used them with some success and it was implied Denethor had been using his for a while, as the snide commits to Gandalf imply. However, we don’t have information on how often they used them (Denethor claims he saw Gandalf from a far distance, but it could easily be an exaggeration out of spite) or their relative mastery. We know it was much easier for Denethor to use his than Saruman.

        Sauron only ‘seduced’ Saruman (Saruman planned to double-cross him to obtain the One Ring anyway, so it was a feint on his end). He tricked Denethor by selectively showing him images of his marshaled armies, which again reflects Denethor’s naivete compared to his predecessors. Denethor didn’t know how to shroud his palantir nor could he tear away Sauron’s pull from the Ithil-stone. To be fair, this latter comparison is based on scattered lore notes so it’s an esoteric objection.

        “So you are saying that the Elves, for example, do not have greater wealth and power than the others in Middle Earth? Such as the Hobbits, Rohan horse-herders, and Gondor’s peasants?”

        It’s a common misconception that Elves in general have power and wealth.

        The ‘Elves’ in LotR consist of a few remnants of the Noldor – the ones who have cultivated real power, knowledge, and culture – with the rest enjoying a pseudo-subsistence lifestyle. Galadriel and Elrond encourage the fallacy of composition but don’t conflate them with Wood-Elves. Their more humble brethren are reminiscent of indigenous tribes like the Apache with the advantages of immortality, beauty and supernatural grace. They lack material wealth (pointless in seclusion), technological advancement and don’t communicate with other kingdoms.

        If I described all those physical features and attributed them to the Yanomami, one would not call them richer and more powerful than a regular U.S. citizen.

        “That they were even greater in the past is hardly relevant to this point.”

        It’s perfectly relevant. A characteristic feature of the 1% is they seek to preserve and extend their influence via direct action or latent conspiring as a social class to protect each other. That’s what makes them the 1%: they have power and use it in ways that favor their interests.

        ‘The Dominion of Men’ spiel in LotR highlights that the Elves are spent as a relevant force in Middle-Earth. All the “power” displayed by them in the series is useless for accomplishing anything of lasting value, let alone defeating Sauron. Beyond protecting their borders Elves have no influence in world affairs, whether it’s political, economic, military or social. The protagonists unfamiliar with this fall for reputation and perceive said trappings of power as real power; Elrond and Galadriel both rebuke them at various points in the first book.

        Drawing an analogy between them and elite groups that “own our government”, among the other things you list, is…a bad look for your argument. Perhaps one could call it daft!

        “Wow. Too daft for reply.”

        Larry, one of the few traits I fault you for is your inability to bow gracefully in defeat.

        It’s one thing to disingenuously generalize my comments in an attempt to discredit me. It’s another to pout like a sore loser under the guise of feigning superiority. I’m disagreeing with Turner’s characterization of the power dynamics in the trilogy, not your general point stemming from them. She has a bone to pick with Tolkien for several reasons and it shows.

    2. Follow-up.

      Tolkien explicitly says that Saruman and Denethor were able to use the Palantir. As for Saruman, in The Two Towers:

      “Each Palantir replied to each, but all those in Gondor were ever open to the view of Osgiliath. Now it appears that, as the rock of Orthanc has withstood the storms of time, so there the Palantir of that tower has remained. But alone it could do nothing but see small images of things far off and days remote. Very useful, no doubt, that was to Saruman; yet it seems that he was not content. Further and further abroad he gazed, until he cast his gaze upon Barad-dur. Then he was caught!”

      1. The Inimitable NEET

        I know. I meant to say ” use them well” or else my follow-up comment would have made no sense on context (how could Sauron manipulate them if they couldn’t use Palantiri at all?). That’s my error.

  5. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2600380?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

    https://www.financialsense.com/contributors/christopher-quigley/kondratieff-waves-and-the-greater-depression-of-2013-2020

    Kondratiev long waves and wars, there are debates over which causes which

    Editor, I should have put a question mark after “The problem in 2020 then may be a global war as growth globally falters and we seek someone to hate/ blame?”. Not saying 2020 a war for sure, but it would be one way of uniting the people with a common enemy, shifting yet more money to the 1%, killing off the excess population and creating the grounds for a post war boom. I think it has been thought about.

    1. Just a guy,

      “Kondratiev long waves and wars, there are debates over which causes whichKondratiev long waves”

      Since there are no “Kondratiev long waves”, that’s an easy question to answer. Also, Financial Sense is not a reliable source of information.

  6. LOTR theme is immortality vs. the gift of death. From JR”s own words. Full stop.

    No speculation necessary.

    If anyone is assigng other themes and purpose to the work they are incorrect.

    1. Sean,

      “LOTR theme is immortality …”

      I hate to burst your bubble, but there have been thousands of works analyzing LoR. They find dozens, perhaps scores, of themes in its 455 thousand words.

      “If anyone is assigng other themes and purpose to the work they are incorrect.”

      If your name isn’t J. R. R. Tolkien (posting comments from the hereafter), then I suggest you give your ego a break.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: