“Certainly anyone that’s seen The Lord of the Rings, for instance, at the movies knows that he was deeply concerned about the dangers and the temptations of absolute power.
"The symbol of the one ring, of course. It’s not just a symbol of the sort of corrupting possibilities of power, but the especially corrupting possibilities of power to dominate the wills of others,” Richards, who is also an assistant professor at Catholic University’s School of Business and Economics, told CNSNews.com.
“His book and the ring are not a critique of all uses of power. In fact, the good guys fight in wars and battles, and so obviously you use force. But it’s rather a critique of the perennial human temptation to acquire power to dominate others.
"And so this is what gives his books, especially The Lord of the Rings, a kind of a deeply political character and we think makes him a strong advocate both for small and limited government, but also a strong defender of freedom.”
Sifting through hundreds of Tolkien’s private letters as well as his works of fiction, Richards and co-author Jonathan Witt found many examples in which he criticized “both the kind of hard socialism that he had witnessed in the Soviet Union, but also the sort of post-World War II soft democratic socialism he saw in Great Britain, which was very much in the ascendancy” when The Hobbit was published in 1937.
“And so it shouldn’t be a surprise that a lot of the kind of official literati and literary critics panned the books. They thought they were just absolutely terrible. One critic we quote in the book says: ‘These are not the sorts of books a person will read more than once,’ which of course is exactly the opposite of the case. These are books people read throughout their lives.
“But what’s interesting about Tolkien, one sign that’s there more economic message to these texts than people realize, is that the Soviet Union banned all of Tolkien’s writings. It’s not often known, but we tell the story at the end of the book about those great days during the collapse of the Soviet Union when thousands of civilians poured into Red Square and there was this question about what the tanks were going to do. And in the middle of those crowds a sign popped up that said: ‘Frodo is with us’.
“And that’s when a lot of Americans found out that in fact, the Soviets had been passing around this sort of contraband, mimeographed version, bad translation of The Lord of the Rings for decades.”
Although both the Russian dissidents and the Soviet Politburo clearly understood the underlying political and economic message in Tolkien’s trilogy, “ordinary English readers often don’t get it because we don’t suffer in the way that they did,” Richards said.
“Contrary to what a lot of people think about Tolkien, he wasn’t a Luddite,” he noted. “He wasn’t opposed to economic trade, and in fact he used widening circles of trade as an example of human flourishing. That’s something I think a lot of people don’t notice unless they’re looking for it.
“As far as we know, he never studied economics,” Richards continued. “It was just the result of having a very good theology and a rich anthropology, and so managing to intuitively come to some very sound economic conclusions. That was surprising. We knew he would be interesting and insightful, but I didn’t really expect him to be quite as acutely understanding of economic topics, far more so than his critics and many of his fans [are aware].”
“We know he was a Tory, and so he was essentially a political conservative, and was very skeptical of state power, especially the centralization of power even to his own party. But he was also a monarchist. That’s something that makes him challenging, I think, to modern Americans.
“And so I would just call him a small government conservative who didn’t like concentrations of power and had a genuinely benign view of human creativity and trade. He would probably be a curmudgeonly conservative in the United States today, but he doesn’t fit so neatly into American political categories.”
However, the underlying economic and political theme of Tolkien’s work “taps into these universal realities of life and death, love and sacrifice, good and evil,” Richards told CNSNews.com.
“On the first page of The Lord of the Rings he starts with the Shire. He says at that time, the Shire had hardly any government. In fact, the only government is the sheriffs who walk around without uniforms, and all they really do is protect people’s property. So if some sheep wander into another farmer’s field, the sheriff moves the sheep over.
“And then you come to the end of The Lord of the Rings in the book (not the movie), and there’s a chapter called ‘The Scouring of the Shire,’ which every interpreter recognizes as an obvious critique of socialism. The fallen wizard Saruman gets some of his toadies and some other Hobbits, and they essentially take control of the shire. They take down the Party Tree, tear down buildings and centralize the means of production.
“In the beginning, there’s this beautiful, bucolic, very small government image, and then at the end you have the Hobbits having to retake the Shire after it’s been overrun by these planners and controllers.”
Because Tolkien, a Catholic, had an “essentially Christian worldview,” Richards pointed out that he did not sugar-coat the realities of life on Earth, including Middle Earth. ”He believed in the goodness of creation, but he also believed in the Fall and didn’t think utopias were possible. So he didn’t want to have these overly saccharine happy endings in which everything just got put back into place.”
Tolkien was “bemused” when hippies in America discovered him during the 1960s. CNSNews.com asked Richards why he was so popular with the far-left crowd.
“It’s hard to say what is interesting to people who are dropping acid and smoking pot, but [Tolkien’s creation] is just so mind-blowing. It’s a fascinating, complete world. It’s ironic, because the drug culture was about an escape psychologically into Middle Earth and the literature is not escapist. In fact, it explores all the perennial difficult questions of life.
“But I do honestly think it was such a complete and mystifying world that a lot of people took a liking to it just for the greatness of it. It does Tolkien a disservice not to recognize that he’s such a great artist, such a great creator of an imaginary world that all sorts of people were drawn to him.”
“The sign of a classic is precisely that it stands the test of time. Tolkien’s work already stood that test because tens of millions of people are still reading his books,” he noted.
Cultural forces similar to those at work in Tolkien’s time and the popularity of Academy Award-winning director Peter Jackson’s cinematic tribute both play a part in the recent upsurge of interest in the “moral traditionalist’s” work, he added. Jackson’s latest film, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, will be released in theaters Dec. 17.
“The kind of apocalyptic dystopian novel and movie is really popular right now, and you do get that feeling in The Lord of the Rings, which is sort of the ultimate cataclysmic battle between good and evil. And with Saruman and the Orcs, you get a really unambiguous picture. Yes, he believed even the good guys are flawed and fallen, but there are good guys and bad guys. That’s the traditional view that is supposedly out of vogue.
“But the popularity of these books has actually grown. In fact, in many polls taken right around the turn of the [21st] century, The Lord of the Rings came in only second behind A Tale of Two Cities in terms of the most widely-read English books. And after the slow-growing, cultish fascination with Tolkien, the movies brought him to a whole new generation, and not just in the English-speaking world.”
However, in making films of such complex works of fiction, a lot of things necessarily got left out, Richards said. “My hope is that lots of people who otherwise would not have read Tolkien will eventually go back and read the books and discover things they wouldn’t have expected.”