by Ian Stewart
Sometimes it is a good thing to have obsessions other than politics. There are times when your interests can coincide, and that’s good too, but we all need to have an escape from the world – even an atheist needs his “heart in a heartless world.”
Only a few days to go now comrades, and I am reaching a level of excitement normally only reached at election time, or during the six nations. Soon we will see the results of all that had work for ourselves.
Not a by-election, not a mayoral race nor even one of those exciting composite motions at the TUC, but the imagining of the wilds of Mirkwood. Yes, Mirkwood, across The misty mountains of middle earth, with Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf and thirteen dwarfs, led by Thorin Oakenshield. I really, really cannot wait to see what Peter Jackson has made of this children’s classic.
From December the thirteenth, we will finally get to see if the waiting has been worth it. The production has been fraught with controversy, from Gulliermo del Toro being in, then out, to accusations of animal cruelty, to taking a pretty slim book and expanding it into three full-length feature films.
On top of this, the Conservative New Zealand government drove a horse and cart through workers rights to enable Warner Brothers and New Line to pay actors and extras below scale. From the outside, it has sometimes looked like a production doomed to failure, and what with the anti-union practices and threats, a deserved one at that.
Yet we all watched the Olympics, knowing full well that the companies who built the stadia were engaged in blacklisting health and safety reps, that the founder of the modern games was a proto-fascist who admired and applauded Hitler in 1936. All I will do is cut the films and Jackson a little slack.
JRR Tolkien, born in South Africa at the high point of empire, grew up in the midlands. He was deeply scarred by the Great War, losing almost all of his closest friends. His love of language and saga led to a career in medieval philology, and he was also driven by his disgust at creeping industrialisation and modernity.
Today most of us find Peter Hitchens pretty reactionary when he declares that the country has gone downhill since 1914, for Tolkien, history took a wrong turn for England in 1066. It was his frustration at the seeming lack of Anglo Saxon literature in comparison to its Nordic, Finnish and Germanic counterparts that led first to his creation of languages and then the writing of tales like the Hobbit and the Lord Of The Rings.
It is true that Tolkien was a catholic, Franco-supporting reactionary, yet he also opposed the race politics of apartheid and refused publication of his works in Nazi Germany after being asked if he was “aryan”. Revolted by Stalin, he still clearly stated that neither the Hobbit nor Lord of The Rings were any kind of allegory for world, or indeed British, politics during his lifetime. His love of countryside and tradition would make him at best a very uneasy Tory today, with the coalition’s attempt to sell off the forests and bonfire of planning regulations for the greenbelt.
Tolkien was highly influenced, both in style and subject, by that other great technophobe, the hirsute Marxist polymath William Morris and the arts & crafts movement. Tolkien’s shire perhaps encapsulates not only his, but a fairly common, idealistic vision of England – in his case very much like west midlands and Oxfordshire of his early and academic life.
It has certainly pleased generations of children and adults alike. The shire is a paternalistic, small “c” conservative paradise, one in which both AE Houseman and retired (John) Majors across the home counties would feel comfortable. Everyone is happy because everyone knows their place (before you non-geeks scoff, how many of you are secretly addicted to Downton?) and rights and obligations flow freely both upwards and downwards.
It is a middle England before cars, before steam even, yet with a free, happy people. It is total nonsense, of course, but it is surprising how inspiring fantasy can be. Especially when you turn to the pamphlets and debates of the English revolution, with their assertion of ancient rights, or Tom Paine describing William the conqueror as some “French bastard”…
Essentially, The Hobbit is a high fantasy saga for children mirroring, in many ways, the old English tale of Beowulf. Bilbo Baggins begins an unexpected journey – one in which he changes from a self-satisfied, insular being into an unselfish, noble soul.
Ethically this is a thousand miles away from modern conservatives, with their emphasis on rugged individualism (still, that gives them Conan the Barbarian – lucky them). During the adventure he meets other races, has to learn co-operation with others (as do they with him) and learns much from outside his little corner of Middle Earth. The enemy, even more than Orcs, Wargs and Smaug the dragon, is what Smaug the magnificent represents – conceit and greed. For that reason alone it is still a book, and hopefully a film, to treasure.
Ian Stewart is a Labour party member and blogs at http://clemthegem.wordpress.com/