Tolkien’s Art and Politics: Is Middle-earth Real?
The world of Middle-earth is real.
Professor JRR Tolkien created a work of literature which has highly developed cultures with workable languages and complex political/social organizations. It also includes an expansive geography populated by forests, marshes and mountains which animate the narrative and help complete the visitor’s entrance to this secondary world. His artistic creations featuring Middle-earth, through his published visual art and narratives, have received extensive critical and public acclaim, especially The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Others have documented the astounding success of these works; some have even claimed that Tolkien is the greatest English-speaking author of the 20th century (see Shippey, 2000 and Mathijs, 2006).
It is incontestable that these works has reached a wide audience and birthed a multi-billion dollar industry, but on what basis may I claim that Middle-earth is real? This thesis rests on the strength of Tolkien’s art (writing and visual) and its ability to create meaning and shape values in the mind’s eye of the reader, thus making his invented world very ‘real.’ In short, powerful visual and literary art impacts real world values/culture and can lead to the creation of political beliefs and public policy. I know this is a lot to accept, but please follow with me (if you will) as I make this case through the remainder of this essay.
Tolkien’s Visual Imagery
A legion of Tolkien scholars have attempted to dissect how his art and literature were created and what accounts for their appeal. Much attention has been paid to the design element of his work; that is, the construction of his various invented languages, the creation of maps of Middle-earth, family lineages of its characters, the etymology of its key names and the like. Others have pointed to the metaphorical and allegorical features and connect it to larger values that they suggest evoke spiritual and religious reflection (see Dickerson). Indeed, the scholarly energy applied to understanding his creative process in forming Middle-earth is remarkable; however, less attention has been paid to the Tolkien’s writing craft. I use craft here to mean the specific style, prose and ‘voice’ the author uses to frame his narrative. I argue that there is a high value in examining the presentation of Middle-earth (i.e. its design) through the scope of his literary craft in that it provides another layer for understanding the work’s appeal and opens valuable insight into the process of secondary world creation through this artistic device (see MacLeod & Smol, 2013).
Tolkien’s talents as a poet, narrative designer, philologist and visual artist (drawer and painter) were honed over a lifetime of devotion to his art; he was variously a scholar, father, husband, soldier, Catholic, teacher, artist and numerous other identities in his rich and long life. It is clear that all of these aspects of his personality contributed to some extent to the creation of his artwork, literary and visual.
While not diminishing any of these influences, I propose that his imagery is mainly activated through his skill and talent as a painter/drawer, which supplied a constant source of inspiration for his visual imagination and directly inspired his writing craft. In essence, I maintain that JRR Tolkien’s enchantment springs from his ability to employ the power of the written word with the observational skills of the visual artist. The connection of light (hence, colour) with the metaphorical use of language is used to such effect that it moves the reader to secondary belief; that is, one can feel the world Tolkien imagines, not simply have it described to us.
It has been shown elsewhere that Tolkien was a skilled drawer and painter and enjoyed a lifelong interest in making pictures (MacLeod & Smol, 2008 and Miller, 1981). It is clear that he was an accomplished visual artist; he employed a variety of techniques and mediums and rendered a wide range of subjects. His artwork was published during his lifetime and he had at least one posthumous solo exhibition. One can only imagine the prices his artwork would command if they were available in the market today.
“In the style of’” for a visual artist may describe artistic content and link it to an artistic movement or ‘ism’, but just as likely it could be a commentary on the artist’s technique or craft. Using the theoretical paradigms associated with the visual arts can provide insight into his drawings/paintings and it can also comment on the form of his writing style. Therefore, I argue that Tolkien’s painting and drawing technique (and his writing technique or craft) can be described in terms of an artistic movement, such as: Impressionism, romanticism, medievalism and pre-Raphaelitism. As Hammond and Scull note Tolkien’s artwork has been described as “Post-Impressionist, Expressionist, even a cubist!” (Hammond and Scull, p. 11) I go further and remind readers that he was a competent designer (book jackets) and calligrapher.
Tolkien’s impressionist label seems appropriate when you see his work. Hammond and Scull describe it thusly: “A simplification of natural forms and the use of flat colour for pattern effect rather than modelling” (Hammond and Scull, p. 9). I’m not sure I would describe his use of colour as flat. Rather, colour is applied loosely with visible brush strokes and bright primary colours – a hallmark of impressionist technique (Impressionism was first recognized in France between 1860 – 1900, painters such as Monet, Renoir, Morrisot, Degas, although some have argued that Impressionism is really of Italian origin).
One of the aesthetic strengths of Impressionism is that it allows room for the viewer to participate with the artist in completing the picture. Unlike a highly detailed photo, or hyper-realist painting where most everything is described for us, Impressionist work demands a different reaction from the audience - the simplified forms are more universal and the direct colour choices present a world, allowing for the possibility of the viewer to complete the details in his or her mind’s eye. In short, Tolkien’s ‘Elvish Craft’ dances in his expression of colour and form as an artist and writer.
On another level, it is interesting to reflect on the content of his pictorial images – that is, the combination of technique with the subject of the composition, including the values, ideas and feelings present. For me, many of his pictures evoke a spiritual and meditative quality (see MacLeod and Smol, 2008 and Hammond and Scull, 2004). Tolkien bids us enter a world of vivid colours and fantastical shapes and forms suggesting other-worldly landscapes, seascapes, creatures and people. Other than his early work, compositions drawn and painted from direct observation of nature, his formative pictures at the height of his creative power suggest a deep reflection on the afterlife and spiritual realms. I purposely separate spiritual from Christian in this context; Tolkien’s work does not seem to reference standard Christian (including Catholic)iconography. I have found no examples of Tolkien’s artwork that portrays the Biblical narrative or Catholic imagery that he no doubt would have been well familiar. Moreover, Tolkien does not present a safe, clean world of child-like naiveté – not at all; his bright palette and compositions show us beauty and despair. His use of simplified forms and colour does not mean his art is simple; rather the opposite, he presents deeply felt values and emotions that ask for a response from the viewer, like Impressionist paintings.
Some critics try to dismiss his art (and creative writing) as naive, prepubescent and sexless, perhaps a fantasy best suited for adolescents who have yet to discover their sexuality and sophisticated moral insight. I counter that’s unfair – his art and writing provide portals to deeply moving spiritual expressions of love, courage and sacrifice, every bit as satisfying to the adult mind as an artfully expressed sexual encounter.
A visual artist whose work contrasts nicely with Tolkien’s is Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The interesting point of comparison is that Caravaggio was hired by patrons to paint on walls and canvases to illuminate the spiritual (i.e. Catholic) world view, but often he ended up showing us visceral, bold yet base compositions of street life in 16th century Rome as Catholic iconography. His work is violent, even brutal in its portrayal of lust, greed, hate, etc. He shows us decapitations, torture and various other physical forms of assault. All of this is laden over with a heavy dose of barely veiled sexuality; indeed, painted figures (often young males) ask us (the viewer) to approach and be treated to sexual pleasure (for examples, see Franklin and Schutze, 2011).
Not only is Caravaggio’s content removed from Tolkien’s, so is his technique. Caravaggio’s scenes are carefully rendered figures placed on darkly tinted canvases, dramatically lit in chiaroscuro light (Caravaggio is credited with inventing the chiaroscuro technique). My point is that both artists can awaken equally powerful feelings in the viewer. One draws its energy from a spiritual/meditative source the other from bawdy, lusty, raw humanity. Both express beauty and ugliness.
Tolkien’s Writing Craft
The link between Tolkien’s visual art and his writing style is apparent in the techniques which effectively evoke a rich secondary world. Tolkien has variously been applauded and criticized for the amount of detail in his creative writing. However, I argue that the key to unlocking his Elvish Craft is linked to understanding his writing style and is acknowledging that specific phraseology and word choices are far from being overly detailed, in fact they are layered with ambiguity, vague suggestions of form with a simple colour palette applied in broad brush strokes (identical to his visual art, just expressed through text).
Even in his earliest published works, such as The Hobbit, his Impressionist style is evident. Consider the following examples:
“…a wide land the colour of heather and crumbling rock, with patches and slashes of grass-green and moss-green showing where water might be.” (p. 45)
“The last green had almost faded out of the grass, when they came at length to an open glade not far above the banks of the stream.” (p. 46)
The Impressionist lilt of Tolkien’s prose is fully realized in The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, so effective is his use of this technique that often close examination is required to show the opposite; overall, ambiguity and vague impressions manifest themselves in his framing of geography and characters of Middle-earth:
“Outside everything was green and pale gold.” (FoftR, p. 135)
“…on such a morning: cool, bright and clean under a washed autumn sky of thin blue.” (FoftR, p. 135)
“…the mountains: the nearer foothills were brown and sombre; behind them stood taller shapes of grey, and behind those again were high white peaks glimmering among the clouds.” (FoftR, p. 187)
“…the sky away westward cleared, and pools of faint light, yellow and pale green, opened under the grey shores of cloud.” (FoftR, p. 387)
“…chimneys of grey weathered stone dark with ivy.” (FoftR, p. 187)
“He [Aragorn] went forth clad only in rusty green and brown, as a ranger of the wilderness.” (FoftR, p. 279)
“…he threw back his hood, showing a shaggy head of dark hair flecked with grey and in a pale stern face a pair of keen grey eyes.” (FoftR, p. 156)
[Gandalf] “In his aged face under great snowy brows his dark eyes were set like coals that could leap suddenly into fire.”(FoftR, p. 227)
[Elrond] “His eyes were dark as the shadow of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars.” (FoftR, p. 227)
Again, I maintain that a careful reading shows that Tolkien’s descriptions are not overly detailed, he uses a simple palette and the viewer is left to insert the details through their mind’s eye (see Miller, 1981 and MacLeod & Smol, 2008, 2013).
Tolkien’s Political Imagery
It is worth spending some time examining how visual and writing craft (aided by design) evoke imagery, because they inform an understanding of how an image works to evoke a narrative, which in turns actives a frame (an amalgam of values). By a careful reading of the imagery evident in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (what Tolkien would call ‘Elvish Craft’) it is possible to draw conclusions about the use of the author’s political imagery and suggest the deeper values they activate.
The Lord of the Rings has been characterized by some as a depoliticized work, in the sense that political power in all its forms is seen as a corrupting influence, indeed, it is manifest in the Ring itself the apex of evil (Arvidson). The ‘good’ characters shun political power and strive over a thousand pages of text to unmake it (power as represented by the Ring) through an immense, if not hopeless, quest. This directly opposes the tenets of realist theory, where the very goal of the state is to achieve as much power as possible through economic and military might. This is no way the goal of the Fellowship of the Ring; this narrative is as much about a spiritual quest for the characters as it is an attempt some sort of strategic victory in the temporal world.
I argue that Tolkien’s Middle-earth is not so much depoliticized as it is asking the reader to re-consider the composition of political authority. It presents an alternative world-view to political structures that simultaneously seem familiar and utterly unrecognizable, even implausible. Moreover, the main ‘states’ and cultures in Middle-earth resist an allegorical comparison to contemporary politics. The main characters in The Fellowship of the Ring do not operate within the realm of “bounded rationality” expected of political and public policy actors of the 20th and 21st century.
Gandalf uses feelings, or his heart, to make judgments. For example, when the company becomes lost in the Mines of Moria, he does not want to take a certain tunnel because his heart warns him against that way, and it doesn’t feel right. Elrond, when selecting the composition of the Fellowship of the Ring, abandons wisdom to allow Frodo’s friends, Merry and Pippin to join the quest. Again, the main factions for good are following a different path than direct political expediency. The Istari (Gandalf) are striving to defeat the ancient devil, Sauron. The elves are suffering the ‘long defeat’ where they willingly give up their realms in Middle-earth to rejoin their kin in the undying lands and allow other races (humans) to rule. The Dunedain are the race from which Aragorn hails and they are descendant from the Numenorians who have a direct relationship with the Valar (gods of Middle-earth). Like the elves, and Istari, they are seeking a spiritual redemption from their sundering from the Valar.
The only groups and characters which resemble modern political institutions and leaders are the ‘evil’ factions: orcs, goblins, trolls, Saruman (after his fall), Sauron and his lieutenants (Ring-Wraiths). The orcs are organized into a conscripted army where they’re given numbers and are bullied by sergeants into following orders. Saruman employs his main power, his voice with soothing tones (but peppered with deception) to convince others to serve his narrow agenda. Sauron uses his all-seeing eye to maintain order in his ranks and spy on his enemies, whilst his emissaries travel Middle-earth seeking alliances; these ambassadors employ Orwellian double-speak to confuse and enslave others.
Indeed, the one ruling Ring was forged by Sauron, and it controls all of the other rings of power; it corrupts nine kings of men into becoming Sauron’s wraith-lieutenants. In short, Sauron and his allies and minions are entirely motived by greed, lust and attaining political rule through military conquest (a familiar trope to modern eyes). Moreover, Tolkien’s clear view on power is that it is a corrupting force, in the vein of Lord Acton’s assertion that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I agree with Shippey’s claim that Tolkien is arguing that it is not so much a king could be a good or bad, but the mere act of becoming king (or the desire) will make you corrupt. (Shippey, 2000).
I characterize the fundamental political tension in The Lord of the Rings, and to some extent in The Hobbit, as manifest in the enchantment vs. magic dichotomy. Tolkien addresses both of these concepts in his seminal essay On Fairy Stories ‘OFS’ (2001).
Enchantment can be described as the use of creative energy, academic curiosity and simple wonder to explore the world around you, with no greater motive than to experience and learn how things are on their own terms. Or, put differently, the ability to see things through another’s frame/values.
Magic, on the other hand, is the quest to seek knowledge in order to serve a desired predetermined end. Through experiments, one attempts to bend natural and human resources to achieve the objective of the hypothesis. In essence, magic allows for the alternating of the thing being studied to suit the experimenter’s purpose. It is really about trying to control the ‘other’ through study and craft to expose the subject in order for it to serve the magician’s intent.
It is clear that the elves and the White Council (wizards) embrace enchantment: elves, who are essentially immortal, achieve their insight and excellence through art-making, long study and practicing craft. Existing in harmony with nature allows them to achieve remarkable results as foresters, gardeners, makers of music, wine, poetry, etc. Indeed, they are able to create beautiful artifacts, and they allow themselves the possibility to be changed or re-created by the beauty they encounter in their environment.
Enchantment is apparent in the operation and management of the Fellowship of the Ring in its approach to power: Elrond calls for a volunteers to attempt this perilous quest, stating “…no oath or bond is laid on you to go further than you will.” (FoftR, Ch. 3, book 2 The Ring Goes South,p. 281). The Fellowship, chaired by Gandalf, debates at length whether to take the pass in the mountains or proceed through the mines of Moria. In the end, the final vote is left to one of the least qualified to judge (at that point in the story) but maybe the one with the most at stake, Frodo, the hobbit.
Aragorn shows continual humility and reluctance to use power when faced with perilous decisions. He shows mercy and compassion at every stage of the narrative, even allowing his own troops, who have lost their will, to abandon their post as they approach the Black Gate for the final battle.
Consider Gandalf: he is a powerful wizard but placed by the Valar in the body of an old man in order to constrain his angelic-like power. His role is to guide and encourage virtuous resistance, not to fight the battle himself (video games and Peter Jackson’s misreading of this character in the film version of The Lord of the Rings notwithstanding).Overall, the Fellowship of the Ring is an egalitarian and multi-ethnic association, constituted under a freely given alliance.
By contrast, Sauron and his allies are governed by a strict authoritarian hierarchy. Orcs are governed through verbal abuse and corporeal punishment (where there is a whip there is a way); Saruman employs slave-orcs he’s bred (quasi-genetic engineering) and he verbally and physically abuses his chief lieutenant, Grima Wormtongue. Sauron’s most powerful captains have had their will overthrown through magic and are bound to servitude through his cruel domination. Moreover, no tactic or strategy seems to be beyond consideration by this alliance: mass genocide, chemical weapons, and destructive sorcery are all at play. Whereas Sauron’s approach is victory at all costs, the Fellowship seeks survival, but only through virtuous means. (Shippey, 2000)
Regrettably, modern bureaucracy and military organizations tend to follow the model employed by Sauron and Saruman rather than Aragorn and Gandalf. Civil servants are expected to swear an oath not to reveal government “secrets” and to follow process and conform to corporate “mission statements”. Employees who violate these codes risk dismissal and even prison terms. Military “education” and socialization is even more humiliating, new recruits have their identity assaulted and are forced to change their appearance (uniforms and rigid hairstyles). Also, training can be abusive with drill instructors berating and yelling at recruits – techniques that would make any orc-sergeant proud.
It is important to recall that Tolkien’s creative writing around Middle-earth is more of a spiritual reflection (Tolkien once described The Lord of the Rings as a Catholic work) and art-making exercise. When it strays into political imagery it is to treat naked political power as an insidious evil; it is a corrupting influence in and of itself (Tolkien occasionally refers to it as the ‘dragon sickness’; an addictive desire for wealth and power (see The Hobbit, Ch. 1). I postulate that to the contemporary political analyst, schooled in the tenets of realism, modern governance structures and the philosophy of Machiavelli, Tolkien’s reflections on political authority must seem hopelessly naive. Hierarchical structures are evident in corporate, military and governmental structures and are deemed essential to maintaining social cohesion. Accompanied by an economic system governed by the postulates of the ‘dragon sickness’ Tolkien’s voice strikes a shrill, unfamiliar chord. His critics call his work unrealistic, childish fantasy and archaic. Moreover, the genre of writing he has inspired is labeled ‘escapist’; but Tolkien himself mused as to whether it is the flight of the deserter or the escape of the prisoner? (Tolkien, OFS). What Tolkien offers us is insight into values, not a literal prescription for contemporary political organizations.
Middle-earth is real.
It is real because it evokes a frame that allows viewers to enter its world; it affects real world beliefs and can inspire primary world political action. Indeed, the brain makes no distinction between frames activated by real or imagined imagery; therefore, the beliefs created through Middle-earth can be just as powerful as a speech delivered by a president, often more so. However, I have argued that this is not a unidirectional manifesto Tolkien is imposing on us through the ‘magic’ of his art; in fact, he offers an alternative – perhaps it can even be described as a democratic partnership, through enchantment.
This enchantment also works at a more subtle level; indeed, it is not only evident through the actions of the characters and in the design of the plot, but is expressed in the craft of the writing style and visual imagery. In essence, to express imagery is not simply a matter of what you say, it is how you say it – it is the melding of content and form. Tolkien’s style of writing and visual imagery, through the artfulness of its form, allows us an easy portal into his invented world; while we are there we are treated to his deepest reflections on spirituality, and of course, his political thought. But through enchantment, we (the visitors to Middle-earth) have some power to image, and re-image, the feeling of the whole. Thus, Middle-earth becomes in a very real sense a creation of a collective, others have taken this artwork and re-made it in ways Tolkien may not have foreseen (and likely would not have approved).
Magic in art (and science) relies on control and attempts to restrict the imagination and participation of the viewer. Enchantment does the opposite: at its best, it allows the participant to be a full partner with the artist in making the artwork – maybe that is a lesson in democracy Tolkien can show us. The apex of enchantment is the creation of a believable secondary world through art; when done with care and attention to beauty it can stir millions to enter and maybe allow us to see our own world a little clearer – perhaps that is what JRR Tolkien was able to achieve.
Arvidson, Stefan. ‘Greed and the Nature of Evil: Tolkien versus Wagner’ Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Volume 22(20: summer 2010).
Carpenter, Humphrey (2000). J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Dickerson, Mathew (2003) Following Gandalf: Epic Battles and Moral Victory in The Lord of the Rings. Brazos Press.
Flieger, Verlyn (2002). Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. Rev. ed. Kent, OH: Kent State UP.
Franklin, David and Sebastian Schutze (2011) Caravaggio & His Followers in Rome. Yale University Press.
Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull (2004). J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist & Illustrator. London: HarperCollins.
Jackson, Peter, dir. The Lord of the Rings. Screenplay by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. Perf. Elijah Wood et al. New Line Cinema, 2001-2003. Special Extended DVD Editions. United States: New Line Home Entertainment, 2002 – 2004.
MacLeod, Jeffrey J. and Anna Smol. “A Single Leaf: Tolkien’s Visual Art and Fantasy.” Mythlore 27.1/2 (#103) (2008): 105-26. Print. Available for download: http://ec.msvu.ca:8080/xmlui/handle/10587/566
MacLeod, Jeffrey & Anna Smol. “Tolkien’s Painterly Style: Landscapes in The Lord of the Rings” Conference paper for the Mythopoeic Society, Michigan State University, East Lansing (July 12, 2013 ).
Mathijs, Ernest, ed. (2006). The Lord of the Rings: Popular Culture in Global Context. London and New York: Wallflower Press.
Miller, Miriam Y. “The Green Sun: A Study of Color in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the
Rings” Mythlore 1.7 [4.26] (1981): 3-11.
Rosebury, Brian (2003). Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon. 2nd ed. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Shippey, Tom (2000). JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century. Harper Collins.
Tolkien, JRR. “Leaf by Niggle” (2003). Tree and Leaf, including the poem Mythopoeia. London: HarperCollins, pp. 93-118.
Tolkien, JRR. (1995). The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Eds. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien. London: HarperCollins
Tolkien, JRR (2004). The Lord of the Rings. 50th Anniversary Edition. London: HarperCollins.
Tolkien, JRR (2001) “On Fairy-Stories.” Tree and Leaf, including the poem Mythopoeia. London: HarperCollins, pp. 3-81.
Tolkien, JRR (1999) The Silmarillion. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: Allen & Unwin, 1977. London: HarperCollins.
Tolkien, Priscilla. “My Father the Artist.” Amon Hen: Bulletin of the Tolkien Society 23 (1976): pp. 6-7.
 See Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” for a complete description of the concept of Elvish Craft. In brief, it refers to the process an artist uses to create a believable imaginary/secondary world.
Featured image by John Howe.
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