Corruption of absolute power vs. the stateless Shire: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the 2009 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

Here is the Prometheus Blog Appreciation for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the 2009 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction:

“Power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” – Lord Acton (1834-1902)

“One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all,
and in the darkness bind them.”
– The Ring inscription in The Lord of the Rings

By Michael Grossberg and William H. Stoddard

The Lord of the Rings is not only one of the greatest works of fantasy but also a cautionary libertarian fable about the inevitable temptations of power.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic trilogy – a three-part novel (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King) published in 1954-1955 – charts a social, political, personal and supernatural struggle between freedom and absolute tyranny.

The epic adventure centers on a quest by the Hobbit Frodo and his Companions of the Ring to prevent the Ruling Ring of Power from falling into the hands of Sauron, the Dark Lord.

Among works of fantasy and science fiction over the past century, Tolkien’s classic trilogy ranks very high in its dramatization of the perils of power and the evils of unlimited power. In particular, Tolkien perceptively focuses on the tendency of flawed human beings – even the best – to give in, bit by bit, to the corruptions and seductions of power.

The one ring that so many covet – and whose terrible burden the hobbit Frodo must bear as he journeys to save Middle-earth from  terrible evil and destroy the ring – becomes a potent mythic symbol of Lord Acton’s axiom that “Power tends to corrupt; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The heroes of the story (the decent and modest hobbits) are Everymen, but they rise above their humble station and struggle to ensure that their world will not be dominated by an absolute dictator.

The trilogy dramatizes libertarian themes in another, less obvious, more subtle and more positive way – as Tolkien explores the many positive aspects of the Hobbit community.

Largely stateless and free, the Hobbit world of the four Farthings is portrayed as having developed peacefully over the generations through the cooperation of agrarian free trade and mutual aid – the farthest thing away from the legalized coercion of the State.

This theme was richly explored by LFS leader William H. Stoddard in his essay on “Law and Institutions in the Shire” (published in the Summer 2009 issue of the LFS former printed quarterly Prometheus, Volume 27, Number 4):

“As a fantasy writer, Tolkien is distinguished by… a peculiarly high degree of realism in his imaginary worlds. One aspect of this realism is a vivid sense of how societies work, derived from the same source as the more scientifically intended studies of classical sociologists such as Weber…
In anthropological terms, the Shire is in transition between two forms of organization: the chiefdom and the state.

“…The state level of organization is reflected in the presence of a Shire-wide civil government, which maintains safeguards for property boundaries (the Shirriffs) and communications (the mail carriers); in the widespread literacy of hobbits; and in the obvious presence of a thriving market economy.

“…We may guess at the outlines of an earlier time in Shire history, when the great families were more powerful and also more tied to specific folklands.

“At such a time the Shire’s excellent systems of roads and internal communication would have been little developed… and each region would have been very largely self-sufficient. Indeed, the Shire may for much of its history have had nothing very similar to government, not even the very limited government of Bilbo’s and Frodo’s time.

“Note Tolkien’s remark about the comparable situation in Bree (part of the large shire, estimated as an area of some 21,400 square miles… supporting some 3,852,000 hobbit farmers, with perhaps 10% as many in other occupations.)”

“The landlord does not ask Frodo to ‘register’! Why should he? There are no police and no government… If details are to be added to an already crowded picture, they should at least fit the world described.”

“Nominally the Shirefolk owed allegiance to the King of Gondor and Arnor from whom they had received their land grant, but realistically generations might go by without any contact between the Shire and either of these states. And the Shirefolk showed no inclination to appoint their own king, nor to engage in large collective ventures apart from the occasional defensive war.

“We are approaching one of the most difficult questions in anthropology: the origin and functions of the state. Whether the state is a functional entity that becomes useful at a certain stage of economic development, or a predator or parasite that becomes able to support itself when the people it controls take up a certain way of life, has been debated since anthropologists a century and more ago clearly recognized that many peoples through the world lived well enough without states.”

Tolkien’s trilogy, itself a sequel to The Hobbit, has delighted readers of all ages for decades, and set the standard template for a quest novel.

As lovers of freedom, peace and civility understand and appreciate, a key part of that quest in The Lord of the Rings is the struggle of decent people to fight tyranny, resist the seductions of power with all their might and thereby hope to remain uncorrupted, moral and free.

Note: J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), best known for his best-selling high-fantasy works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was an English writer, poet, academic and philologist who was a professor for decades at Oxford University.

In the BBC’s 2003 “Big Read” survey, The Lord of the Rings was ranked at the top as the United Kingdom’s “Best-loved Novel”.

J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1940s (Creative Commons license)

Tolkien wrote several books and stories about Middle Earth, including The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-earth, and The Children of Hurin, published after his death by his son Christopher along with a series of other works drawn from his father’s unpublished manuscripts and notes.

Tolkien is widely hailed as the father of modern fantasy because the great success of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, led to a popular resurgence of the genre.
In 2008, the British newspaper The Times ranked Tolkien sixth on the list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.

* Read William H. Stoddard’s full essay on the Shire’s largely stateless society in The Lord of the Rings in a PDF of that Summer 2009 issue of Prometheus.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: William H. Stoddard’s Appreciation of Poul Anderson’s novella “No Truce with Kings,” the 2010 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

* See related  introductory essay  about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”  an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join  the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as (or more) vital as political change in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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