Tolkien, Fairy-stories, and Utopia, part 1

The Big Question on the back page of the September issue of The Atlantic asks, “What fictional city (or other locale) would you most like to inhabit?” The first answer is from Howard Shore, composer of the film scores for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: Rivendell. I think that would be my pick too, though I’d want to make long visits to Lothlorien, and the Shire, and Rohan, and Dale….

Tolkien’s imagined places and communities are one of the most appealing aspects of his fiction, all the more so when gifted artists help us further imagine them. They are one of the clearest examples of what he means, in his essay “On Fairy-stories,” by the making of a Secondary World, the most comprehensive product of the heightened “sub-creation” for which he uses the term Fantasy.

Rivendell2Secondary Worlds, especially when they are idealized, set works of fantasy at the greatest distance from reality and from more “realistic” literature. At the same time, though, this world-making only intensifies what all literature does. A detour through the philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s understanding of utopia, its relation to ideology, and his notion of distanciation will shed light on the importance of Tolkienian fantasy and how his essay makes a fundamental contribution to literary theory.

For Ricoeur, utopia—a word coined by Thomas More from Greek roots meaning both “no place” and “good place”—opens a perspective from which ideology can be seen for what it is and critiqued. Ideology is, most basically, all of the meanings and stories by which members of a community, society, or culture make sense of things together. In a more particular sense, ideology justifies a social order, especially its relations of power. This has a negative side (the original, Marxist sense) when ideology distorts reality in order to legitimate violence. Utopia, by thinking otherwise about how a society might work—especially with regard to power—makes it possible to think about ideology and choose differently.

A pure utopia, like More’s original one, simply invents a place that operates according to a new ideology, with a different kind of political order, economy, family structure, and so on. Secondary Worlds in fantasy literature do a lot of this, though it is less noted, even by Tolkien himself, than the ways they change the laws of nature, adding magic and talking animals and other marvels. What’s most marvelous about hobbits, though, is not their furry feet and ability to walk silently (despite eating six meals a day) but the way they live together. The Shire is not a complete utopia, but it is shaped by an ideology and other conditions that nurture healthy community and inhibit negative kinds of desire and the resulting rivalry. (See Anna’s piece on positive desire in the Shire.)

By making the Shire his home base and hobbits the main characters of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien begins to construct something like a utopian perspective from which readers can begin to see their own reality differently. The hobbits’ adventures then put them among peoples and places that either intensify familiar ideologies in order to hold them up for recognition and satire, or imagine unfamiliar wonders (though still based on things we can recognize) that open up ways of relating to the world and each other. Tom Bombadil and Goldberry distill the harmony with the natural world and mutual delight in its abundance that is also basic to hobbit culture. At the other end of the spectrum, Sauron and Mordor distill the essence of envy and desire for domination and the ideology of slavery and resentful servitude they lead to. In between are the cultures of men: Rohan with its heroism and desire for glory, come under the shadow of Saruman’s fixation on power and fear of futility; Gondor with noble dedication to the defense of civilization but temptation to idolize its own strength and hate rivals. In all of these, Tolkien represents strands in the real ideological heritage of Europe: the ancient dream of empire, the heroic culture he admired in texts like Beowulf, the utilitarian ideology of industrialism, the ideals of Rome, modern totalitarianism.

Of course this is just the beginning of a lot of analysis that could be done, and has been. What matters more than identifying particular real-world connections, though, is the effect they have within Tolkien’s larger aims. Tolkien is not writing allegory, as he made very clear. He preferred what he called applicability. Elements of his world are applicable in that they make newly visible the ideological air we breathe. This is part of what all literature does, and something fantasy can heighten. At the beginning of the modern literary tradition in English, in fact, William Langland’s Piers Plowman combines allegorical representations of contemporary ideology and visionary, proto-utopian scenes, all with what seems to have been revelatory effect.

Shedding light on the Primary World through a combination of ideology and utopia is just a first step, however, toward the further purposes of fantasy that Tolkien treats under the headings Escape, Recovery, and Consolation—my next topic.


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