After watching just the first few episodes, fans of “The Lord of the Rings” may still be making up their minds whether the Amazon-Prime prequel “The Rings of Power” is a worthy successor to the three LOTR films and most important, whether it does justice to J.R.R. Tolkien and his powerful anti-authoritarian themes.
But Reason magazine has weighed in with an insightful column that offers a nuanced answer to the question of how faithful is the epic new series to “Tolkien’s Anti-Statism.”
The answer, fans of the Prometheus Hall of Fame-winning trilogy will be happy and relieved to hear, is mostly yes.
Like the LFS members who voted to induct Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 2009, Reason columnist Christian Britscchgi seems well aware of the ways in which The Lord of the Rings celebrates “freedom against arbitrary government interference.”
What makes his Reason column especially interesting for LFS members to read in full is the way he develops one of his most distinctive threads of observation and argument: that “The Rings of Power echoes the books’ anti-statism, but from a novel angle.”
In its no-expense-spared and visually beautiful dramatization of the Second Age of Middle Earth, thousands of years before the events of LOTR and The Hobbit, The Rings of Power highlights different libertarian themes than the ones that LFS President William H. Stoddard outlined in his seminal Prometheus Blog essay about the stateless Shire.
Before taking a different focus on the TV prequel, the Reason essay begins by acknowledging many of those libertarian aspects of the Shire.
“Tolkien did rail explicitly against the evils of statism, something almost totally absent from his idyllic Shire. It’s a close-knit, largely closed community that manages to run itself in a remarkably anarchistic fashion,” Britscchgi writes.
“The Shire at this time had hardly any ‘government.’ Families for the most part managed their own affairs,” reads the prologue in The Fellowship of the Ring.
“There’s a mayor, but it’s mostly a ceremonial position. A police force of “Shirriffs” exists, but they wear no uniforms and don’t seem to do much policing either. They’re described as “more concerned with the straying of beasts than of people.”
“The Shire’s certainly no lefty commune either. There’s no collective project all the hobbits are working toward. Private property exists, as do money, trade, and wealth disparities. This is all presented as rather benign, and even idyllic…
“The libertarianism of the Shire becomes even more apparent at the end of The Return of the King when our heroes return home to find that evil (possibly part-orcish) men in league with the wizard Saruman have taken over and imposed a grim statism on its unwilling population.
“Free travel within the Shire is replaced with a system of internal checkpoints, all manned by once-harmless, now-armed Shirriffs. The ale houses are forcibly shuttered, the weed exported, and dank holding cells start cropping up in town.
“Fortunately, the hobbits band together and oust these statist interlopers.
“That all sounds pretty anarchistic. The Shire’s isolation also makes it similar in kind to other libertarian visions of an externally closed-off, but internally free society; another Galt’s Gulch or ocean seastead.”
In its most distinctive argument – which I’ve not seen anywhere else – the Reason essay goes on to explore how the Shire community’s tendencies toward isolationism and conservatism conflict with the openness and dynamism historically and philosophically associated with freedom.
“The Rings of Power makes clearer what this isolationism costs societies,” Britscchgi writes.
A recent episode, focusing on the elf warrier Galadriel and human Halbrand’s arrival as refugees in the island kingdom of Númenor, finds plausible and gripping drama in the obstacles they face – including the kingdom’s rules and regulations excluding outsiders, racist immigration restrictions and occupational licensing regime.
“When Halbrand looks to ply his trade as a blacksmith, he’s told membership in the blacksmith’s guild is required before he can do even the most basic tasks. Like real-life licensing laws, the sole purpose seems to be protectionism and exclusion: Halbrand isn’t even given an opportunity to demonstrate his competence before being rejected for a job,” Britschhgi writes.
In all the initial reviews and commentary that the ambitious Tolkien prequel has sparked, I doubt that any non-libertarian publication has noticed this key ingredient in statism and the foundations of bigotry and injustice – and if they did, they certainly haven’t highlighted or condemned it, even though such authoritarian tendencies typically have inhuman consequences and are omnipresent in the real world today.
Sadly, perhaps that’s why no other publication appears to have commented on it: Because most people take such restrictions on freedom for granted, while such harmful and unjust policies have come to seem normal by the unaware mainstream.
The Reason essay also draws provocative parallels and contrasts between different societies within Tolkien’s fictional universe of Middle Earth.
“Númenor shares the Shire’s isolationism, but not its statelessness. There’s a queen and uniformed military. The exclusion of foreign disruptors doesn’t guarantee the kingdom’s internal freedom,” Britschhgi writes.
“The more interesting question is whether the Shire’s peasant anarchy could exist with a greater degree of openness to the outside world.
“Tolkien would probably say that the answer is no; the Shire’s cultural homogeneity is necessary to keep order without a more proactive state.
The libertarian answer would be an obvious yes. Free societies require both the Shire’s absence of internal despotism and openness to trade, migration, and economic competition that Númenor lacks.
Such a world would be a lot more turbulent than the tranquil Shire. But it would also be a lot more interesting.”
Check out the whole Reason essay for more – and consider rereading Tolkien while watching the series, which hopefully will boost sales and readership of his Prometheus-winning classic.
* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.
* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.
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Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital, and in some ways even more powerful than politics in the long run, by sparking innovation, better ideas, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights and differences.
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