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 Post subject: Letter 52: On Politics
PostPosted: Fri Jun 27, 2008 3:23 pm 
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[AJ, I renamed this thread, since we started a whole new forum so that we could have individual threads for each letter. Feel free to rename the subtitle if you wish - VtF]

Well, thought I would get this started and see how it goes. Not sure how to format this, but I guess we can put out one letter and then as response falls, we can post to a new letter.

I was reading about Presidential Campaign this morning and it made me think to Letter 52. In Letter 52 Tolkien writes about it is the "most improper job of any man . . . is bossing other men." He then goes on to discuss how this has worked in government ie kings and rulers, and that it "works when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient way." Tolkien also mentions how the ancient Greeks lost their empire after Alexander and came to only reflect on their glory. I took from this passage that the very war the Greeks undertook to save the Greek Empire, eventually destroyed them. Finally, how in the present world he found himself, WW II there was no longer a place to hide, but how the conflict involved the entire world.

Their is a lot in the letter and I find it fascinating to think that this notion of not bossing other men around is an interesting concept? When does a country's national interests allow them to interfere in another country (a relevant question in these days)? When does a country try to expand its power outwardly to protect itself, and then find itself losing that which it sought to protect? When will the US find itself in decline as a Superpower? For me the last two questions I believe are coming together. I think the US is entering into a slow decline as a major Superpower and I think China is going to emerge as a major threat to the US influence in the world, and I think we will see this over the next fifty years or so. I think Letter 53 would be a good continuation of this discussion also.

Feel free to disagree or provide further and much deeper insights. I have to say that I thought I was comfortable over at TORN, but I am MUCH more comfortable here and find the depth of everyone's replies enjoyable, their wit and humor laughable, and really just love reading this site. Wish I had known about it several years ago!

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1. " . . . (we are ) too engrossed in thinking of everything as a preparation or training or making one fit -- for what? At any minute it is what we are and are doing, not what we plan to be and do that counts."

J.R.R. Tolkien in his 6 October 1940 letter to his son Michael Tolkien.

2. We have many ways using technology to be in touch, yet the larger question is are we really connected or are we simply more in touch? There is a difference.


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PostPosted: Fri Jun 27, 2008 3:33 pm 
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Thanks for beating me to it and starting this thread, AJ. I definitely will want to comment on Letter 52, and as I said before, there are a bunch of other letters that would be interesting to discuss. I think this is the kind of thread that will constantly be revisited, so don't be discouraged if it drops out of circulation sometimes. We can be awfully Entish around here, but we do come back around.

And thanks for the kind words. I'm very glad that you like it here!

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 27, 2008 3:41 pm 
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Would it be practical to post the actual text of the letter under question, or are they too long for that?

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 27, 2008 3:52 pm 
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I took from this passage that the very war the Greeks undertook to save the Greek Empire, eventually destroyed them.


That's not quite the way things happened. Alexander died at only 33, having made no provision for a transfer of power or even for the administration of his conquests, which wound up split among three (or four) of his generals. Nonetheless the Macedonian, Seleucid and Ptolemaic Empires lasted for centuries before they fell to Rome (like everybody else).


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PostPosted: Fri Jun 27, 2008 4:17 pm 
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Cerin wrote:
Would it be practical to post the actual text of the letter under question, or are they too long for that?


Not sure if that falls under fair use, I know parts could be shared i.e. about 10% of the text in this case letter.

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1. " . . . (we are ) too engrossed in thinking of everything as a preparation or training or making one fit -- for what? At any minute it is what we are and are doing, not what we plan to be and do that counts."

J.R.R. Tolkien in his 6 October 1940 letter to his son Michael Tolkien.

2. We have many ways using technology to be in touch, yet the larger question is are we really connected or are we simply more in touch? There is a difference.


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PostPosted: Fri Jun 27, 2008 4:19 pm 
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Cerin wrote:
Would it be practical to post the actual text of the letter under question, or are they too long for that?


Most of Tolkien's letters would be too long for it to be practical to post the full text of them. And, frankly, I think doing so would really edge into the territory of being copyright infringement. But I think posting relevant excerpts would certainly be helpful.

I would certainly encourage those who don't own The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien to get a copy. It is very worth having.

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 Post subject: I'll add
PostPosted: Sat Jun 28, 2008 11:44 am 
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the text probably tomorrow if I am feeling better or feel free to do so.

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1. " . . . (we are ) too engrossed in thinking of everything as a preparation or training or making one fit -- for what? At any minute it is what we are and are doing, not what we plan to be and do that counts."

J.R.R. Tolkien in his 6 October 1940 letter to his son Michael Tolkien.

2. We have many ways using technology to be in touch, yet the larger question is are we really connected or are we simply more in touch? There is a difference.


Last edited by ArathornJax on Wed Jul 02, 2008 4:07 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 28, 2008 3:20 pm 
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I hope you don't mind if I comment some more (and post some excerpts) while you are recovering (you continue to have my prayers and best wishes for a full recovery).

Okay, first of all, let's add some context here. This is a letter that was written by Tolkien to his son Christopher at the height of World War II (in the summer of 1943) when Christopher was 18 and had been called up in the RAF. At the time the letter was written, Christopher was at a training camp in Manchester. It clearly was an emotional time and Tolkien whips out this very intense letter (which is essentially one long paragraph). I think it would be best to parse it out piece by piece.

He begins with one of the more provocative statements in his writings:

Letter 52 wrote:
My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) -- or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy.


Tolkien was clearly no fan of democracy; he didn't think it worked. He wrote in another letter 13 years later (the same letter that he made his famous statement about the "real theme" of LOTR being "Death and Immortality"):

Letter 186 wrote:
I am not a 'democrat' only because 'humility' and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power -- and then we get and are getting slavery.


I think his two models for ideal governance were the Shire -- where a group of humble folk live in peace with each other with virtually no central control --and Gondor under the rule of King Elessar -- where the people are governed by a single, enlightened leader.

Then he gets even more provocative:

Letter 52 wrote:
I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!


Okay, first of all I don't think that Tolkien is honestly advocating for capital punishment for anyone who advocates nationalism. ;) But he clearly thinks that that is the scourge of the time.

Letter 52 wrote:
If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offense to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to 'King George's council, Winston and his gang,' it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy.


I love this. I think it really gets to the heart of what Tolkien thought was wrong with modern society. It is the depersonalization of the state, of the government that he sees as the biggest problem. The potential for abuse of power is magnified greatly when its focus is an unapproachable concept of "the state" rather than an identifiable, personalized individual. Tolkien, the wordsmith, really captures this concept with his invented word "Theyocracy"

I think I'll stop there for now, since the next sentence is the one that AJ originally quoted, and I'd like to let him take if from there. I think that should be enough to chew for now.

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 Post subject: Feeling better . . .
PostPosted: Mon Jun 30, 2008 2:45 am 
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but that is relevant. My wife made homemade ravilloi today with my son who loves to cook. Needless to say I'm not ready for that at all but it sure smelled good. Still hurting but not as bad and I think I'm ready to go on.

Quote:
Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.


I find it interesting that Tolkien here does not like the idea of men governing men. I think he gives insight to his own view that very very few men are worthy of leading other men. I have to say that after spending 43 years viewing people and their leadership, there are very few that I am comfortable giving my allegiance too.



Giving the times that he lived in with Stalin, Hitler, even Churchill and the other leaders of the West, I don't think that Tolkien felt that there was much hope for the future.

Quote:
"But the special horror of the present world is that the whole damned thing is in one bag. There is nowhere to fly to. Even the unlucky little Samoyedes, I suspect, have tinned food and the village loudspeaker telling Stalin's bed-time stories about Democracy adn the wicked Fascists who eat babies and steal sledge-dogs. There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as 'patriotism' , may remain a habit! But it won't do any good, if it is not universal."


I think that is the key. Nothing on a global or national level will do any good if it is not universal. Thus perhaps why he felt the enlightened king was a positive motion, because a king could make changes lasting by making them universal. In the same sense, local communities perhaps are the best notion of democracy we have left even in our day, if they are like the Shire, run with minimal offices and those in offices do not have unlimited power. The power is really based on tradition, and social connectivity. It is easier on a local level to get universal ideas and concepts united and implemented, because it is the closest to the individual. Anyway, those are some thoughts that I have.

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1. " . . . (we are ) too engrossed in thinking of everything as a preparation or training or making one fit -- for what? At any minute it is what we are and are doing, not what we plan to be and do that counts."

J.R.R. Tolkien in his 6 October 1940 letter to his son Michael Tolkien.

2. We have many ways using technology to be in touch, yet the larger question is are we really connected or are we simply more in touch? There is a difference.


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PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2008 1:43 am 
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Edit: Deleted my post for later so more can discuss Letter 52.

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1. " . . . (we are ) too engrossed in thinking of everything as a preparation or training or making one fit -- for what? At any minute it is what we are and are doing, not what we plan to be and do that counts."

J.R.R. Tolkien in his 6 October 1940 letter to his son Michael Tolkien.

2. We have many ways using technology to be in touch, yet the larger question is are we really connected or are we simply more in touch? There is a difference.


Last edited by ArathornJax on Tue Jul 01, 2008 2:29 am, edited 2 times in total.

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2008 2:17 am 
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That's really fascinating, AJ, and I'm definitely interested in discussing that letter. But I still have things to say about Letter 52, and others might as well. We might want to try to stick with one letter at a time, particularly in the same thread. Otherwise it'll become utterly confusing.

Of course if it's just you and me discussing them, it might not matter anyway. ;)

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2008 2:44 am 
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Some of us are reading, but not really smart enough of brain or experience to venture contribution :D


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PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2008 3:43 am 
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Hogwash (she said politely). :D

I expect to chime in now and then. I've read the Letters, although it has been a while, and I have my copy at hand.

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― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King


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 Post subject: Re: Feeling better . . .
PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2008 4:20 am 
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AJ, thanks for holding off on moving on to another letter. I did have some more to say about letter 52.

ArathornJax wrote:
Quote:
Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.


I find it interesting that Tolkien here does not like the idea of men governing men. I think he gives insight to his own view that very very few men are worthy of leading other men. I have to say that after spending 43 years viewing people and their leadership, there are very few that I am comfortable giving my allegiance too.


I think this really hearkens back to my observation earlier that the ideal governments for Tolkien were either the Shire (enlightened anarchy) or Gondor under Aragorn's rule. I think Tolkien really believed in the concept of divine authority, and that the men that could successfully govern men were those who were chosen by God to do so.

Quote:
Giving the times that he lived in with Stalin, Hitler, even Churchill and the other leaders of the West, I don't think that Tolkien felt that there was much hope for the future.


I think his fatalistic view went back further, to the loss of both his parents during his childhood, and then his horrific experiences during World War I.

Quote:
"But the special horror of the present world is that the whole damned thing is in one bag. There is nowhere to fly to. Even the unlucky little Samoyedes, I suspect, have tinned food and the village loudspeaker telling Stalin's bed-time stories about Democracy adn the wicked Fascists who eat babies and steal sledge-dogs. There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as 'patriotism' , may remain a habit! But it won't do any good, if it is not universal."


I think that is the key. Nothing on a global or national level will do any good if it is not universal. Thus perhaps why he felt the enlightened king was a positive motion, because a king could make changes lasting by making them universal. In the same sense, local communities perhaps are the best notion of democracy we have left even in our day, if they are like the Shire, run with minimal offices and those in offices do not have unlimited power. The power is really based on tradition, and social connectivity. It is easier on a local level to get universal ideas and concepts united and implemented, because it is the closest to the individual. Anyway, those are some thoughts that I have.[/quote]

I agree that is the key. But I do want to highlight one part of that last part of the letter, which shows just how radical Tolkien really was:

Quote:
There is only one bright spot and that is the growing habit of disgruntled men of dynamiting factories and power-stations; I hope that, encouraged now as 'patriotism' , may remain a habit! But it won't do any good, if it is not universal."


Despite Tolkien's earlier protestation that his adherence to anarchy did not mean whiskered men with bombs, he really wished that he could wipe out all signs of "progress". He really, truly believed that technology was the scourge of human civilization. A part of the middle portion of the letter which neither AJ nor I have quoted I think is very telling about Tolkien's true attitude. He said:

Quote:
The mediævals were only too right in taking nolo episcopari* as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop. Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers. And so on down the line. But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that -- after all only the fatal weakness of all good natural things in a bad corrupt unnatural world -- is that it works and has worked only when all the world is messing along in the same good old inefficient human way. The quarrelsome, conceited Greeks managed to pull it off against Xerxes; but the abominable chemists and engineers have put such a power int Xerxes' hands, and all ant-communities, that decent fold don't seem to have a chance.

* "I do not wish to be made a bishop."


I see several important ideas reflected in this passage. First is the idea that the the most efficient times would be if all leaders were men who did not want the job, and preferred to be elsewhere. But that only works when technology has not given those who want the power the ability to exploit it. The bottom line is that Tolkien wishes to return to an older, simpler time.

He confirms this in the concluding paragraph saying to Christopher "We were born in a dark age out of due time (for us)." But then he adds the following, more uplifting words:

Quote:
But there is this comfort; otherwise we should not know, or so much love, what we do love. I imagine the fish out of water is the only fish to have an inkling of water. Also we have still small swords to use. 'I will not bow before the Iron Crown, nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.' Have at the Orcs, with winged words, hildenæddran (war-adders), biting darts, -- but make sure of the mark, before shooting


I would guess that he is referring to his (their) love of England (which he explicitly refers to in the following letter). The idea of only the fish out of water have an inkling of water is a fascinating one: he is basically saying that only those who have lost what they love and need can truly appreciate what they love and need. The quoted words are two lines from the poem Mythopoeia that Tolkien wrote for C.S. Lewis. I'd love to hear what others might think of what they mean in this context.

Griffy, I agree with Prim. I know how smart you are, so I can't really accept that excuse.

AJ, let's see if anyone else has anything to say, and if not let's move on to the next one. But I'd like to at least folks a chance to ponder these complicated concepts before leaving it behind.

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PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2008 9:38 am 
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Voronwë_the_Faithful wrote:


Then he gets even more provocative:

Letter 52 wrote:
I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!


Okay, first of all I don't think that Tolkien is honestly advocating for capital punishment for anyone who advocates nationalism. ;) But he clearly thinks that that is the scourge of the time.



But is it aimed at 'nationalists'? This is the time of the Beveridge Report which was the foundation of the welfare state. Look at how 'State' is used in the quotes in the linked article.

Arathorn Jax wrote:
I think that is the key. Nothing on a global or national level will do any good if it is not universal. Thus perhaps why he felt the enlightened king was a positive motion, because a king could make changes lasting by making them universal. In the same sense, local communities perhaps are the best notion of democracy we have left even in our day, if they are like the Shire, run with minimal offices and those in offices do not have unlimited power. The power is really based on tradition, and social connectivity. It is easier on a local level to get universal ideas and concepts united and implemented


Or alternatively, Tolkien supports a monarchy because a monarch was simply constrained to govern according to ancient custom, rather than in the maelstrom of legislation unleashed by democracy.

The problem, I think, that Tolkien sees with democracy is that it harnesses a supposedly popular will to bring about massive, uprooting, change which he sees as undesirable. Far from beeing radical, he prefers the roots to be left where they are.

I think you're falling into the trap of seeing monarchy as equivalent to dictatorship. I suggest that far from Tolkien seeing a monarch making universal changes as a good thing he saw it as a bad one. If he had thought upon those lines Galadriel or Gandalf wielding the Ring would not be terrible.


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PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2008 5:16 pm 
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Aravar wrote:
But is it aimed at 'nationalists'? This is the time of the Beveridge Report which was the foundation of the welfare state. Look at how 'State' is used in the quotes in the linked article.


Aravar, I think that you are trying to extend your own views on to Tolkien. There is no reason to believe that he was referring to the "welfare state" when he says "State". What does the Beveridge Report have to do with Tolkien? I don't he was even aware of its existence; it was not the kind of thing that he concerned himself with. But he was very disturbed at the rise of nationalism. As Prof. Bradley Birzer stated about Tolkien in a lecture entitled "'Both rings were round, and there the resemblance eases': Tolkien, Wagner, Nationalism,and Modernity"

Quote:
Tolkien originally hoped that his legendarium would serve as a mythology for England, a land devoid of all but the Arthurian myth. Even Beowulf, written in Anglo-Saxon, dealt with the history of the Danes and the Geats as opposed to the Anglo-Saxons. But, from its original inception as a myth for England, the legendarium grew much larger in scope and significance. The story, especially The Lord of the Rings, became much more than a myth for any one people or nation. It, instead, became a myth for the restoration of Christendom. With the return of the king, Aragorn, to his rightful throne, Tolkien argued, the "progress of the tales ends in what is far more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome." Considering the intense religiosity of Tolkien and his belief that God led him to and through the mythology, it would be difficult for the devout Roman Catholic to conclude otherwise. His myth, he hoped, would help impede the rise of nationalism. Witnessing unification in the United States, Germany, and Italy, Whig historian Lord Acton stressed that the rise of nationalism would quickly mean the end of Christendom and western ideals regarding the sovereign person created in the image of God. "Christianity rejoices at the mixture of races," he wrote in his famed essay "Nationalism." Paganism, however, "identifies itself with their differences, because truth is universal, errors various and particular." Though writing in 1862, Acton seemingly understood that a Nietzsche would soon arise. "By making the State and the nation commensurate with each other in theory," Acton continued, those deemed inferior will be "exterminated, or reduced to servitude, or outlawed, or put in a condition of dependence."


As Tom Shippey as pointed out, Tolkien was well aware of and influenced by Lord Acton's writings. I am quite sure that when he used the term "State" he was using it with the same meaning that Lord Acton used it.

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Not at all. I'd be fairly sure that Tolkien was aware of the Beveridge Report it was well publkicised at the time, as a what is to be done after the war. It did deal with educaiton, which he had some role in.

The quotes in the article linked represent political discourse at the time of writing this letter. It is noteworthy that in talking about State he is talking about contemporary English usage, not the Nazis. There was no comparable movement in England at the time of writing. Mosley had been interned.

It is arguable that the Scouring is at least part inspired by what happened after the war.

I am not suggesting that State is being used purely in the sense of Welfare State, but rather in the context of the (ab)use of political power.

That would extend to State socialism.

Tolkien's use of the word 'Reds' in some of his writing is not entirely positive.

Can you also be sure that you are not extending your political views to Tolkien?

EDIT to ad Tolkien was may have been an anarchist, but like Swift, he was a Tory one.

Michael Moorcock wrote

Micahel Moorcock wrote:
He claimed that his work was primarily linguistic in its original conception, that there were no symbols or allegories to be found in it, but his beliefs permeate the book as thoroughly as they do the books of Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, who, consciously or unconsciously, promoted their orthodox Toryism in everything they wrote. While there is an argument for the reactionary nature of the books, they are certainly deeply conservative and strongly anti-urban, which is what leads some to associate them with a kind of Wagnerish hitlerism. I don't think these books are 'fascist', but they certainly don't exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times. They don't ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what's best for us.


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Aravar wrote:
Can you also be sure that you are not extending your political views to Tolkien?


Pretty sure, because I'm not projecting ANY political views on to Tolkien. He was certainly no Socialist (I'll probably discuss a letter in which he critiques socialism at some point), but there simply isn't any reason to believe that is what he is discussing here. It just doesn't make any sense within the context of the letter.

And you certainly aren't going to win any points by citing Michael Moorcock of all people about Tolkien. He despised Tolkien's work, and his critique of the Lord of the Rings revealed an almost total lack of understanding of that book.

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Voronwë_the_Faithful wrote:
Pretty sure, because I'm not projecting ANY political views on to Tolkien. He was certainly no Socialist (I'll probably discuss a letter in which he critiques socialism at some point), but there simply isn't any reason to believe that is what he is discussing here. It just doesn't make any sense within the context of the letter.

And you certainly aren't going to win any points by citing Michael Moorcock of all people about Tolkien. He despised Tolkien's work, and his critique of the Lord of the Rings revealed an almost total lack of understanding of that book.


You do seem unwilling to contemplate that Tolkien's target was something wider than nationalism. The context makes perfect sense, summer 1943, it was at the heart of the debate at the time.

Nationalism, in England, wasn't, and it is to England, not Germany that Tolkien refers.

Michael Moorcock's views on LOTR are flawed. Nevertheless he is English born and knows how our political tribes work. He clearly knows, as I do, that the two were in different tribes and correctly identifies which one Tolkien was in. Why do you think Moorcock dislikes it?Politics

While part of the leftwing critique of Tolkien, such as attirbuting racism, is clearly incorrect. Some of the others aren't.[/b]


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Aravar, read the whole letter. Your argument simply makes no sense, particularly in the context of Tolkien writing to Christopher just as he is going off to war. Tolkien isn't talking about any particular political policies, he is talking about the danger of the depersonalization of government, and the resulting misuse of power. Or rather, he is talking all political policies, from fascism to communism, and everything in between. To repeat what I quoted before, the key is this statement:

Quote:
But the special horror of the present world is that the whole damned thing is in one bag. There is nowhere to fly to.


We'll have to discuss Moorcock's "flawed" analysis of LOTR in some other context.

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