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The Political Economy of Middle Earth

‘The Rings of Power’ reminds that Tolkien’s world is full of mysteries about its governance, money and sewers.

Crawford Kilian 6 Sep 2022TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Crawford Kilian is a co-author, with Silvia Moreno-García, of A Writer’s Guide to Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction and Fantasy.

I first read The Lord of the Rings in 1955, and promptly typed my own 100-page novel with myself and my friends in major roles. It wasn’t fan fiction — it was worshipful plagiarism, imitation as very sincere flattery.

Since then I’ve watched The Lord of the Rings become a franchise, sustained after Tolkien’s death by his family. Bits and scraps of Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories and histories have been coming out for decades, and then the films of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit brought in even more money.

With The Rings of Power now launched on Amazon Prime, we are back in Middle Earth once more, 2,000 years before The Lord of the Rings. We’re told the series will run for five years with an estimated budget of $1 billion.

Judging from the first two episodes, we’ll see every dollar on the screen. It’s visually gorgeous, well-acted, and not too divergent from the mood and tone of Tolkien’s great trilogy and Peter Jackson’s films. But like the trilogy, it’s as interesting for what it doesn’t say as what it does.

While The Rings of Power is set in the Second Age, millennia before the destruction of the One Ring at the end of the Third Age, the general level of technology seems no different — roughly what Europe had in the late medieval period. The Elves and Dwarves have some specialized technology, but don’t seem to improve upon it over the centuries.

Yet when they must fight Morgoth or Sauron, Elves, Dwarves and Men somehow muster formidably equipped armies. The Elves march forth fully armoured, but we never see the vast foundries where iron ore is smelted and armour forged. The clothing worn by civilian Elves must require equally vast cotton fields or sheep meadows, not to mention armies of tailors and seamstresses. Humans must have comparable industries, but again they (and their environmental impact) are as invisible as Frodo while wearing the Ring.

Saruman’s industrial revolution

When you think about it, the traitorous wizard Saruman is the only industrial pioneer we see in Middle Earth. He develops hydro power, cuts down forests to fuel his foundries, and can crank out full-size orcs by the hundreds. In the trilogy, Saruman’s agents start industrializing the Shire; Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, on their return home, put a sudden stop to such nonsense.

Yet somehow the Shire, Gondor, Rivendell and even Mordor produce and distribute what their inhabitants need. How they pay for their “pipeweed” and food and weaponry, and who backs the currency, is unclear. Dragons and Dwarves have large stockpiles of treasure, but refuse to spend it.

Nor is government very visible. The Shire appears to have none; various jurisdictions have kings but little in the way of a bureaucracy to enforce their policies and collect their taxes and pay their soldiers. (The Elves are immortal unless violently killed, which raises the question of why any sane Elf should join the army.)

An absence of political issues

In The Rings of Power, Galadriel’s hawkish pursuit of Morgoth and his servant Sauron goes on for centuries, and she’s a poor advocate for continuing the search. But ending the war is the only political issue the Elves seem to argue about, and the only vote that counts is King Gil-galad’s. In The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn’s family has been off the throne of Gondor for centuries, so the return of the king is something like the last descendant of the Kaisers ascending to the throne of Germany. Still, everyone thinks it’s a great idea.

One could argue that environmentalism is very much a political issue in Middle Earth. Saruman gets in trouble with the Ents when he cuts down whole forests. But Lothlórien, where Galadriel lives in her old age, seems to be a climax forest that decays no more than she does, and the sanctity of the environment seems to be taken for granted.

Sanitation, however, must be a problem across the millennia. The Elves like to build communities on steep cliffs with waterfalls. This must make it easy to dispose of Elvish sewage, but downstream must not be pleasant. As for Khazad-dûm, the Dwarves’ huge city carved into the mountains, the pong coming off the cess pits must be considerable.

We see few social issues dividing communities; in The Rings of Power, the Elves are suspicious of humans whose ancestors fought for Morgoth, but every community is racially mixed. (However, the Dwarves have broad Scots accents, and the Harfoots, ancestors of the Hobbits, chatter away in Irish brogues. Humans and Elves tend to speak in plummy accents like the present British government.) Inter-species racism is an issue, but it’s usually resolved with an inter-species friendship like that between Elrond the Elf and Durin the Dwarf in The Rings of Power.

The only real political issue in Middle Earth, then, is the struggle between Good and Evil. Good is defined as maintaining the current status quo in all communities, indefinitely; evil is the return to power of Sauron. Admittedly, what we see of his policies is not attractive, but he’s at least egalitarian in wanting to oppress and destroy everyone. He’s also very single-minded in pursuing his goals over thousands of years.

Of course I’m being unfair. Tolkien’s world is a franchise we can all enter and take part in (especially if we pay $250 million for the rights). Many great stories are such franchises, right back to The Iliad and The Odyssey — which are only part of a cycle of tales that critics call the Matter of Rome. Tales of King Arthur and his knights are the Matter of Britain, and have many authors spread over centuries. Now we have the Matter of Middle Earth, and it’s likely to survive as long as The Iliad has.

No one in the Matter of Rome or the Matter of Britain ever mentions the latrines, or the peasants who fed the warriors. They’re all stories, not documentaries. They show us a world we would like to live in, not the world we are stuck in. Every generation explores such story cycles in the light of its own values. For The Rings of Power, that means the inclusion of Black Elves and Dwarves (and racist backlash against this inclusion).

Are these stories escapism? Of course. And as Tolkien himself said, “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?… If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can.”  [Tyee]

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