Utopia and Fairy Tales

by John Holbo on October 17, 2017

I’m lecturing about Utopian/Dystopian SF this week. I’ve lectured on this before but I’m looking to up my game, so I’m open to suggestions. Lots of writings on or around this subject, as well as stories to choose from. We had a whole book event about Real Utopias here at CT. What critical writings in this vicinity do you find particularly insightful/interesting?

Yesterday I was browsing through The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, seeking inspiration/information. From the introduction to Kenneth M. Roemer, “Paradise Transformed: Varieties of 19th Century Utopias”:

My working definition of a literary utopia is a fairly detailed narrative description of an imaginary culture – a fiction that invites readers to experience vicariously an alternative reality that critiques theirs by opening intellectual and emotional spaces that encourage readers to perceive the realities and potentialities of their cultures in new ways. If the author and/or readers perceive the imaginary culture as being significantly better than their ‘present’ reality, then the work is a literary eutopia (or more commonly, a utopia); if significantly worse, it is a dystopia. (79)

This makes sense but has counter-intuitive implications. It’s going to follow that C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle Earth are utopian literature. There’s something just plain right about that, of course. Conservatives who mock utopians as head-in-the-clouds tellers of mere fairy tales, hence as naive, are often concerned to rehabilitate the ethics of elfland as morally improving. One of my broad themes, when I lecture, is the dominance of dystopia over utopia, in our literary imaginations. More Orwell and Huxley, less William Morris and Edward Bellamy. But obviously the 20th Century has given us not just literary dystopias, as a relatively new genre, but large-scale fantasy world-building, which might be said to fill the imaginative space – suck up the aspirational oxygen – that utopias need to thrive.

But, all the same, we don’t usually call The Hobbit – or Hogwarts – Utopia. Fairy tales and Utopian literature: not quite the same. See also: Heaven and Hell. We don’t slot all that in as socially utopian/dystopian even if we perfectly well know it’s no accident that utopian/dystopian literature arises in a Christian, or post-Christian culture.

It’s tempting to say we should narrow the definition to possible/plausible developments in our world. Utopian/dystopian literature tends to project perceived, existing social/cultural/technological tendencies in modern life into dreams and nightmares. We can’t move to Narnia, so it isn’t a candidate. Then again, some people think we can get to Heaven and Hell. Also, since ‘you can’t get there from here’ is a strong critique of many political utopias, ‘we have to be able to get there from here, possibly’ is a non-starter as a qualifying condition, starting with Plato. Utopia/dystopia is not always attempted social prediction/extrapolation. It can be exploration of values. I don’t think Ursula K. LeGuin was worried about the utility monster viability of her dystopian utopia, Omelas. Also, even when our dystopias are framed as plausible prediction/extrapolation from how things are, it seems fair to say that we typically gaze at the thing in the frame as a mirror of the present.

I’ll sign off with a bit of G.K. Chesterton, critiquing H.G. Wells, then doing precisely the thing he critiques. From “Mr. H.G. Wells and the Giants”, Chapter 5 of Heretics:

The one defect in his splendid mental equipment is that he does not sufficiently allow for the stuff or material of men. In his new Utopia he says, for instance, that a chief point of the Utopia will be a disbelief in original sin. If he had begun with the human soul – that is, if he had begun on himself – he would have found original sin almost the first thing to be believed in. He would have found, to put the matter shortly, that a permanent possibility of selfishness arises from the mere fact of having a self, and not from any accidents of education or ill-treatment. And the weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of the smaller ones. They first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon.

From “The Ethics of Elfland”, Chapter 4 of Orthodoxy:

When the business man rebukes the idealism of his office-boy, it is commonly in some such speech as this: “Ah, yes, when one is young, one has these ideals in the abstract and these castles in the air; but in middle age they all break up like clouds, and one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is.” Thus, at least, venerable and philanthropic old men now in their honoured graves used to talk to me when I was a boy. But since then I have grown up and have discovered that these philanthropic old men were telling lies. What has really happened is exactly the opposite of what they said would happen. They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics. I am still as much concerned as ever about the Battle of Armageddon; but I am not so much concerned about the General Election. As a babe I leapt up on my mother’s knee at the mere mention of it. No; the vision is always solid and reliable. The vision is always a fact. It is the reality that is often a fraud. As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.

So which is it? Is it foolish to overlook the material infirmities of actual people, or is it foolish not to overleap these, for the sake of the dream on the other side?

The rest of “Mr. H.G. Wells and the Giants” is most interesting, for Chesterton’s reflections on the Superman theme. Maybe I’ll post about that later.



Adam Roberts 10.17.17 at 7:22 am

I have much to say and many thoughts on this topic. But I don’t want to go on. A single brief thing, relating to your Chesterton quotation: when you say “It’s tempting to say we should narrow the definition to possible/plausible developments in our world” …. what is ‘world’, here? Our social and political structures? Our ‘human nature’? Which is to be developed? You might say: both, in which case the question becomes: in which order?


MFB 10.17.17 at 7:31 am

You are, I feel, dramatically oversimplifying the problems of representing a fantasy as a utopia.

The point about utopia is that it must be in some sense realizable. Of course, you may say “given the underlying assumptions”, and that’s true. So a utopia dealing with life in Heaven would be based on the assumption that there is a Judeo-Christian God, and since there isn’t, it isn’t actually realizable even though the author might believe in the existence of the God and Heaven.

A Utopia or Dystopia may not be realizable in the most formal sense. Nineteen Eighty-Four was not wholly worked out (for instance, the amalgamation of Latin America with North America, or indeed how North America was going to go socialist). However, it was based on strictly practical principles as far as the author was concerned. Ditto Looking Backward; ditto Walden Two.

Narnia and Middle Earth are not Utopias. They are not realizable and their authors did not deem them realizable. Instead they are representations of how nice things would be if only the fantasy lives of the authors could be made real. There is an obvious crossover between this and a Dystopia/Utopia, but it seems to me that doing away with the real differences in concept between them are serious.


Thomas P 10.17.17 at 8:33 am

Make sure to include Sheckley’s ‘A Ticket to Tranai” for a lighthearted example of how to pervert all the common parts of an utopia. There can be no crime in utopia, fine, we’ll just abolish all laws. No poverty? The poor can just rob the rich as a great equalizer.


SusanC 10.17.17 at 8:47 am

I would say that to be a utopia or dystopia, a work of fiction needs to have intentional political element. (As opposed to an unintentional political element).

That would probably still include C S Lewis’ Narnia (I’d consider the Christian elements political) and Tolkien’s Middle Earth (for its nostalgia for a vanishing/vanished/never really existed England).

There are of works of fantasy I don’t think qualify.

And I’m not sure whether Gene Wolf’s Book of the New Sun counts or not. The politics of his imagined world is gone into in some detail, but I’m not sure how much we’re meant to see it as a commentary on the real world. (The conflict with Ascia is based on the Korean War, presumably).


Gabriel 10.17.17 at 8:55 am

Must a utopia be realizable? Can it not simply act as exemplar of how that which is, is not inevitable?


Phil 10.17.17 at 9:07 am

Is Chesterton doing what he criticises Wells for doing? He’s certainly pledging allegiance to an ideal (which he chooses to call Liberalism, although he’s not the first person I’d go to for a definition of that word) over and above the messy compromises of politics, but he’s not saying that his ideal can be realised. Nor is it a matter of overlooking (or overleaping) people’s material infirmities; if anything, Chesterton’s arguing that Wells is overly concerned with material infirmities, and overlooks the one big spiritual infirmity. In short, utopia for Chesterton (when he’s in this particular mood) would be a vision of unqualified glory, just as present-day reality is a vision of ineluctable sin; his critique of Wells is that Wells’s present-day reality is a vision of people laboriously squabbling over who gets what, and his utopia is a vision of people laboriously agreeing over who gets what.


John Holbo 10.17.17 at 9:32 am

Adam Roberts: “in our world” …. what is ‘world’, here? Our social and political structures? Our ‘human nature’? Which is to be developed?”

Most SF worlds are extrapolations of what might happen in our world in the near or far future. We feel we are reading about OUR world. But not always. Some is set in some alternative universe in which, perhaps, the laws of physics are obviously different, so it’s impossible to say what the relation is between our world and this one. (Something like Ted Chiang’s “Tower of Babylon”, say.) Dystopias seem to be mostly set in universes that seem related to our universe in a ‘this might happen to you!’ way. But Utopias are not so regularly accompanied by a sense that ‘in a not too distant future, this might happen to YOU!’

MFB: “You are, I feel, dramatically oversimplifying the problems of representing a fantasy as a utopia.”

I think your feeling might be due to you dramatically oversimplying the point of my post. “The point about utopia is that it must be in some sense realizable.” But I’m not willing to assume this. Is it obvious that Plato thinks the Republic can be built? Has no one ever sketched out an impossibly nice utopia?


Neville Morley 10.17.17 at 9:51 am

Perhaps part of the point about a utopia is that one then debates whether or not it is conceivably realisable as well as whether or not that would be desirable – cf. what Jo Walton does with the Republic. Certainly that seems to be the point of the utopian/fantasy element in Aristophanes.


Larry, The Barefoot Bum 10.17.17 at 10:32 am

In Heretics, Chesterton is, of course, making as huge an assumption as do the utopians, that his sort of “selfishness” is not a learned but an essential part of human nature. And, in fact, he moves the goalposts: the anti-utopian argument (especially Swift’s, interpreted by Orwell) that most utopians rebut is not that “selfishness” is essential, but that even if “selfishness” could be overcome, the resulting society would collapse or stagnate. It does not seem fair to charge that the rebuttal of one argument fails to rebut a different one.

But Chesterton’s argument (at least as revealed by the excerpt; I find him far too smug to engage comprehensively) has already been comprehensively rebutted. The whole point of any kind of civilization is provide institutional support — and Chesterton’s Catholic Church is one such institution — to overcome our inherent individual shortcomings. We are, if we are to trust Freud, as ineluctably murderous as we are selfish, yet our society has, albeit imperfectly, at least mitigated our ineluctable murderousness. The idea that social institutions could moderate selfishness as well as it does murderousness seems such an obvious extension that I would want to see a positive argument for why selfishness is so much different.


Faustusnotes 10.17.17 at 11:16 am

What’s utopian about middle Earth, by the definition suggested here? It’s a fascist dictatorship of eternal war where once moral worth is racially determined and bound by class, with no technology and no progress. It takes a failure of imagination to see it as better than the world the reader inhabits, even in 1930. Imagine the infant mortality rate in a society where there is no women’s education, no science, no progress and magic is only available to demi gods who only share it with worthy nobles. The world of greyhawk is much more utopian!


JFA 10.17.17 at 11:58 am

Like Phil, I’m not seeing the contradiction in Chesterton. What he seems to be critiquing in Wells is Wells’ vision of the end point. “one comes down to a belief in practical politics, to using the machinery one has and getting on with the world as it is.” It seems what Chesterton is saying is that one cannot make the world better by being just accepting it as it is. Nothing in the quoted text suggests that Chesterton thought you could actually reach Utopia, whereas Wells (and many other writers of Utopia (e.g. Marx)) thought the world without, as Chesterton says, original sin could be achieved.

On a secondary note, what would you say the best most recent attempts at writing about Utopia have been?


bianca steele 10.17.17 at 12:06 pm

ISTM that when someone like Chesterton says Utopia assumes away Original Sin, he really means we aren’t meant to concern ourselves with the political organization of society. When he says each man [sic] will want more than their share, he really means men can’t be trusted to intentionally take the remains of government. Government happens somewhere, somehow, someplace far away, according to rules that just exist, which are implemented by people who somehow exist, or aren’t implemented, probably it doesn’t really matter, it’s just life, after all. His idea of virtue is not concerning oneself about the realms above, in that sense.


TM 10.17.17 at 12:08 pm

I’m curious why anybody would consider Middle Earth a utopia. It doesn’t strike me as a “representation of how nice things would be”. Much of the Lord of the Rings is horror, except that after terrible ordeals and bloodshed there is a happy ending. But that doesn’t make it utopian does it?


Doug T 10.17.17 at 12:16 pm

The first quote from Chesterton on Wells makes me think about the parallels, analogies, and connectedness between the more common political-focused utopias and what might be called individual-focused utopian literature, about the perfectibility of people rather than societies. Things like the Buddhist idea of enlightenment, or the Christian ideal (variously expressed through Jesus in the Gospels or via The Imitation of Christ or the lives of the martyrs), ethical systems, or heroic archetypes in literature.

To what extent do the SF utopias require or assume a personal utopia, or do they really engage with the question, or do they assume one will follow the other? (And on the flip side, do the dystopias ignore humanity’s virtues and striving for rights and empowerment? Shakier case there, I’d think, given history, but maybe still something.)

Not sure if there’s anything really fruitful to be mined in this territory, or if it would fit in your lectures even if it could be interesting prism through which to view various utopias. It does tie back into the blog name, though, and Berlin’s explicitly anti-utopian political philosophy. (Which, thinking about it, makes me believe that I’m brainstorming into well explored territory rather than finding anything interesting.)


bianca steele 10.17.17 at 12:34 pm

And following on to fn’s comment, I think we like to say, oh, well, Chesterton may be right, for *hobbits* (or women). But we aren’t hobbits, are we? We’re Men*. We may even be Wizards. We like to think that we are high-caste people who’ll get someday (if we aren’t there already, in all the ways that matter) to the place where Ruling happens. But in my reading of Chesterton, we’re being foolish if we think so. The consistently orthodox position of all that is that one doesn’t become Aragorn, one becomes Donald Trump.

* One wants to quote the utopian/dystopian “Hustle and Flow” here.


Sashas 10.17.17 at 1:45 pm

I think it’s important to acknowledge that reasonable people might disagree whether a particular work meets the criteria of “plausible/possible”. “You can’t get there from here” may be a strong critique of many utopian visions, but I would argue that where you have debate on this subject–there’s your utopian literature.

I doubt that we discard Narnia, Middle Earth, or Hogwarts due to their actual impossibility. If I possessed a magic wand and could realize them, I still wouldn’t call these settings -topian of any kind. There is something about narrative placement in the hypothetical timeline of the real world, and not in a parallel or disconnected world, that seems to be central to -topian fiction. I might say that a work of literature is a -topia if a reasonable person might offer a valid critique of it using the “plausible/possible” criteria. We might still respond that they are missing the point, but we would not react with necessary incredulity.


Soru 10.17.17 at 2:18 pm

LoTR is a utopia in the same sense the novel World War Z is a utopia; it provides an ideal environment for the display of the virtues of solidarity and valour. In both cases it does that by using the licence of fantasy to conjure an external threat it is unproblematic to fight.

The Walking Dead TV show is similarly a species of utopia; no other imaginable societal environment provides as much support for the virtues of personal responsibility, decision making and aim.


Trader Joe 10.17.17 at 2:49 pm

I’d second the comments of Neville@8….the part of utopia/dystopia that I find most fascinating is the “is this better” part of the imagining.

If a utopia setting was in fact utopia for all there’d be no book…there’s always some motivating conflict that derives from the fact that some aspect of the utopia is in fact, not utopia for everyone concerned…there is a balance that is either threatening to be upset or indeed (from the view of some) should be upset. As readers we’re usually invited to view the utopia as a preferable outcome and something that should be preserved or even enhanced, but cynics will always find flaws and as per Chesterton there will always be someone who wants something different than what they have.

Dystopian works the same way. From the perspective of the generic-overlords of the dystopian system life is good. Its only from the perspective of the common person/protagonist figure that something is obviously wrong and needs redress. The premise of the story revolves around the fact that the reader agrees with the protagonist on the need for change (even if said protagonist has flaws).

The Hunger Games illustrates this pretty well – for those in District 1, the world is a utopia, for those outside of it its dystopia – there’s a whole different series of books that could be written from the alternative perspective of why these “rebels” should be subdued for screwing up their utopia.

Its why I’d see Tolkein or Narnia as fantasy rather than utopian literature. In Tolkein’s world its not obvious that the status quo is perfection, only that under darkness it would be worse. In Narnia we see the possibility of a utopia for the Kings and Queens, but have little insight into the lives of those who support their luxury.


Glen Tomkins 10.17.17 at 3:14 pm

“…it’s no accident that utopian/dystopian literature arises in a Christian, or post-Christian culture.”

I thought that The Republic was the original utopia. It seems to meet Roemer’s definition exactly, in that the descent from the best state to democracy in Book VIII “…invites readers (Glaucon and Adeimantus, within the narrative) to experience vicariously an alternative reality that critiques theirs by opening intellectual and emotional spaces that encourage readers to perceive the realities and potentialities of their cultures in new ways.”

This intention is made programmatic by the attack on poetry, Homer in particular, in Book X. The critique of Homer is very peculiar if taken as anything but a commentary on what Plato himself has just done in The Republic. It isn’t normal now, and wasn’t normal in Plato’s day, to understand the intent of Homer’s poetry as technical, specifically a technical description of the sources of order in a society, of the sort The Republic seems more clearly to be about presenting. But Plato makes Homer into what looks a lot like a science fiction author, someone whose intent is the creation of a fictive social order. Plato basically accuses Homer of being the first utopian author.

These two ancient utopias have this difference from our usual modern taste, in that they project this society whose structure reveals the order of less ideal societies onto the past rather than the future. There was a golden age in the past that you have to understand to understand our current world, and all the ages in between then and now, as they are characterized by progressively baser metals. To Nestor this defining society derives its authority from being closer to the gods and their intermingling with humans. Since Nestor is the oldest, he not coincidentally has the greatest authority at settling disputes, because he has experienced things as they were closer to the god-time of the golden age. In the Republic, this best republic rests on the understanding that the philosopher king has of astrological eugenics. In both Homer and Plato, these two are both treated as pretty much like FTL, or extraterrestrial aliens being humanoid, obviously false assumptions that you need in order to make the genre work.

Homer’s gods are more like the charges in a particularly disorderly daycare than anything else. If such order as exists in human society descends from them, that would explain a lot.


NomadUK 10.17.17 at 3:22 pm

Synchronistically, an article on how to recognise various types of dystopia here.


Chris "merian" W. 10.17.17 at 4:04 pm

My impulse is that what makes a novel a utopia is to involve the reader in a conversation about desirability (of a social and political order). I’m thinking of Gulliver’s Travels and Flatland, which both I think have utopian (as well as dystopian) elements. But neither pass the “plausible developments of our [or any historically earlier] human society”. For one, we aren’t 2D geometrical figures. I like the “exploration [actually read: extrapolation] of values” but it can be a little more, like the means of social control that are used for their implementation.

But I don’t really see very much in the Hobbit/LotR other than somewhat underdeveloped considerations about Gondor vs. the Shire vs. the land, life and culture of the Elves.


BruceJ 10.17.17 at 4:05 pm

Kind of off in left field, but Norman Spinrad’s Riding the Torch is kind of a Utopian novel, in that it posits a society coming to grips with, and accepting their nature as a kind of traveling society, unchained to a world, free to create whatever reality they wish.


I haven’t read it in decades but it’s stuck with me.

Insofar as fantasy != utopia…I’m hard pressed to think of any fantasy that is utopian in nature; the essence of fantasy is a (often monumental or world-altering) struggle between Good and Evil, regardless of the nature of the particular story, whether it’s LOTR, Narnia, L’Mort d’Arthur, or the 5,763 books of the Wheel of Time series 8-).

Utopian stories are by their very nature polemical; dystopian less so, because they can also be cast into the Good vs Evil, ‘a plucky band of survivors work together to make it out of the badlands’ kind of trope.


SusanC 10.17.17 at 4:32 pm

@13. The Lord of the Rings has both a utopia (The Shire) and a dystopia (Mordor).

There’s a frequently made observation about utopias/dystopias that how “utopian” the society is depends heavily on one’s point of view/status within in. (cf. the counterfactual histories in which the confederacy wins the US Civil War).
Tolkien’s Mordor as utopia has been done by e.g. The Last Ringbearer.
(If you’re an orc, you probably don’t want Gandalf, Aragorn and co. to be the winners…)


Yan 10.17.17 at 4:49 pm

I’m inclined to think the interdependence of the concepts of utopia and dystopia is reason to be suspicious of utopian literature as a genre, maybe enough to even define it by it’s inadequacies.

A novel that shows a world, or a possible version of ours, as a *little* bit better or worse is not a utopia or a dystopia. But if so, then when does a grain of sand become a heap? How much better or worse must it be?

My sense is that it must be in some sense categorically different, even if it’s portrayed as a possible development of our world. This is the parallel to its theological influences: there must be pure principle of goodness that grounds the order of a utopia, or a deep, foundational flaw, a root of all evil, that defines a dystopia. Put differently, only people who believe in some fundamental distinction between good and evil write utopias.

Perhaps an interesting comparison might be made to Marx and Engel’s distinction between “utopian socialism” and “scientific socialism.” The former kind comes from some kind of moral claim: here is what we ought (a primary good) or ought not do (a root of all evil), and if we all decided to follow it, everything would be perfect. The latter sees the possibility of social happiness as deeply historically conditioned in ways that cannot be reduced to a single principle of utopia or dystopia (capitalism, e.g., is both a primary principle of good and evil), and that cannot be achieved through moral measures (“oh, that’s good, let’s all do it!”).

By analogy, utopian works mistakenly identify some key principle that defines a categorical boundary that separates them from depictions of merely “better” social orders and dystopian ones. They are defined by their identification of a primary foundation of good or evil, the fatal flaw or cure-all. Which is why the balance of such works is toward dystopia: every utopian work’s magic key inevitably inspires skepticism, appearing as a dystopia in disguise.

It’s a fun possibility: if the “utopian socialism” analogy holds, that there cannot, in principle, be a Marxist utopian novel.

Plato’s Republic, on the other hand, is not a utopia. It’s a thought-experiment, a philosophical illustration. But how to parse those differences?


Theophylact 10.17.17 at 5:25 pm

I don’t see the meaningfulness of “realizable” here. Surely Robert Graves’s Seven Days in New Crete should count as Utopian, as well as Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X.


steven t johnson 10.17.17 at 5:56 pm

Perhaps the irony in “nowhere,” aka utopia, is that it is always paired with a dystopia, the here and now, which is a very real place?

In that vein, it seems to me that it wish-fulfillment fantasy is quite different from such an implicit critique. And I think this is true of Lord of the Rings, even if most people would prefer fantasies of agency, like Elric, than Tolkien’s fantasy of being helpless but being saved nonetheless. Well, yes, Frodo gets to go to Heaven but in the main most of us would rather be that corporal who lives? A happy world for the vicarious hero I think is much different from a dream that damns reality.

For all his chatter I think Chesterton, like all conservatives, has no principled problem with an evil world, having made his peace. There is even a schadenfreude I think in Chesterton’s complacent satisfaction that he’s seen through the scams of improvement. Or that despite the disappearance of chattel slavery or the decline in absolute monarchy or the spread of woman suffrage or the relative infrequency of child labor, et cetera, he still has seen through the hubris of claims that people can do better.

The utopia proper as I say tends to hint at a critique of us. One of the more recent examples, Ted Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X, I think provides a beautifully obvious example of this, given that most people would instantly condemn its critique of our sexual mores as hopelessly outdated. The dystopia by contrast is aimed at a particular target in the here and now. It is generally more satisfactory to condemn one enemies rather than oneself. This I think explains why there are more dystopias than utopias.

But I suppose if I really understood these issues I could explicate the relationship between LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, and Delany’s Triton. (Or Trouble on Triton, as the new edition is called?)


Stephen 10.17.17 at 7:11 pm

To quote the admirably brave foxhunter Friedrich Engels on the future under Communism:

“The interference of the state power in social relations becomes superfluous in one sphere after another, and then ceases of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not “abolished”, it withers away.’

Now, was that utopian?


Mitchell Freedman 10.17.17 at 9:21 pm

How about “The Space Merchants” by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, and the sequel, “The Merchant’s War” by Pohl. It is scary accurate about the rise of global corporate power, first written in or about 1952. “RussCorp” anyone?


TheSophist 10.17.17 at 10:24 pm

Might it be possible to make arguments based upon not Middle Earth in toto but rather (eg) the Shire as being utopian? A couple of years ago I read an execrably bad book called “The Hobbit Party” (actual cover blurb -“reclaims Tolkien from the clutches of the cultural left”) which tried (and failed miserably) to make the argument that the Shire was some kind of Nozickian minimal state and therefore a form of libertarian utopia. The argument took the form of “JRRT writes that the Shire has no more governmental structure than 12 shirriffs, a postal service and a handful of honorary dignitaries that do things like preside at banquets. He also writes that no hobbit has ever killed another. Clearly a -> b.” I’m not kidding. (Of course the book also claims (three times) that Bilbo ran to Bree to meet up with the dwarves. I weep, quietly, as does Nienna.)


jgtheok 10.17.17 at 10:37 pm

Just a tiresome reminder about the etymology of “utopia” as “no place.” I may not grasp the entire tradition, but what I’m familiar with is much more social criticism than blueprint.

Living in a society composed of human beings requires compromises. (Accounts populated by shambling zombies or animatronic dummies get classified as dystopian no matter how smoothly the resulting society functions…) Utopian literature focuses on what might follow from a healthy society, assuming the associated costs to be minor. Dystopian literature is… less optimistic, but explores many of the same themes (sometimes with malice aforethought).

Some religious literature is utopian. Any detailed account of Heavenly/Hellish society trends toward utopian/dystopian narrative. Accounts of Heaven leave the details vague because, well, the blueprints tend not to be convincing. (How many people read all of the “Divine Comedy”?) Literary depictions of Hell are more dramatic – but also more compelling, because dystopia is closer to life experience.


John Holbo 10.17.17 at 11:20 pm

“LoTR is a utopia in the same sense the novel World War Z is a utopia; it provides an ideal environment for the display of the virtues of solidarity and valour. In both cases it does that by using the licence of fantasy to conjure an external threat it is unproblematic to fight.”

This is sort of what I was thinking. There’s a weird relationship between utopia and wish-fulfillment fantasy. For example, it doesn’t seem right to say that every Mary Sue story is Utopian, just because it is engineered to fulfill wishes, but there is a sense in which Utopias are Mary Sues at the level of the politics, society and the state. Beyond that, the Shire and also Gondor (properly kinged!) are idyllic. It’s obviously no objection to a story being utopian that there has to be a struggle to establish Utopia – or to maintain it. But still the Tolkien/Narnia cases are not simple or straightforward ones. Is pastoral literature utopian? Sort of.

Those critics upthread who say I may be misreading Chesterton in this instance may be right! Shall have to think about it. Thanks for all the good comments.


William Berry 10.17.17 at 11:47 pm

soru @17 has it right, I think.

Best to avoid attempts at an essentialist definition of utopia.


icastico 10.17.17 at 11:59 pm

Imagine a world in which we all agreed on which novels were Utopian and which were not. =;^)


John Holbo 10.18.17 at 12:20 am

An interesting case of receptive divisions is “Harrison Bergeron”, which right-wing readers take straight as a critique of (left-wing) egalitarianism run mad, but which left-wing readers read as an over-the-top parody of an Ayn Rand-type. I think probably neither reading quite corresponds to the author’s original intention.


J-D 10.18.17 at 12:24 am

I offer the tentative suggestion that the more prominence a work of fiction gives to the ways in which a fictional society is a systematic implementation of abstract principles, the more likely it is that people will classify the society represented (and therefore the fictional work) as utopian or dystopian; without suggesting that this is the only factor that will have an effect (on how people make these classifications).


Priest 10.18.17 at 12:43 am

Perhaps Vonnegut was doing both things at the same time? And Player Piano counts as a dystopia, maybe?


Faustusnotes 10.18.17 at 12:49 am

World war Z is not a utopia, it’s a public policy document. Have you people even read it? There is nothing about virtues in that book, just unpleasant decisions by bureaucrats and strategies for leaving faceless nameless virtueless people to die. I agree about the walking dead though (which is a second rate vision in comparison).

The shire is not a utopia even by the standards of the writers time. You could argue it is a utopia for a small number of weirdos but by that standard so is American Psycho. A utopia has to be recognisable as a utopia even by readers who don’t agree with the vision. So eg the dispossessed, everyone knows that sheveks world is intended to depict a (failing) utopia. But for the majority of people reading the lord of the rings the shire has none of the properties of a utopia : it still has suffering and no attempt to end that suffering, whether by personal action or public policy; it has no vision of itself beyond the next meal; it has no engagement of its citizens in its own utopia strivings; it has no solutions for any problems that night appear or exist (which is why saruman found it trivially easy to take over and corrupt); it has no dream of the future; and half of its citizens are implicitly inferior. It has the properties of a dream world or faerie but not utopia .

I think it’s easier to define utopias if we identify books everyone agrees are utopia and work back. I propose building a definition based on the dispossessed and the culture novels.

(I got a letter about world war Z as public policy document published in the British medical Journal so I know what I’m talking about!)


Faustusnotes 10.18.17 at 12:51 am

Also the shire is given by inequality: all the shenanigans in the run-up to Bilbo’s eleventyfirst birthday (with family politics) cannot exist in a utopia. Again, see the culture!


John Holbo 10.18.17 at 3:11 am

“A utopia has to be recognisable as a utopia even by readers who don’t agree with the vision.”

I agree that World War Z is not a good case, but LoTR is, in my opinion. I think the Shire is a kind of Utopia, and even intended as such. There are Utopias of Justice (Plato’s Republic), Utopia’ of Happiness (take your pick) and Utopias of Virtue, i.e. environments in which individuals can be the best they can be. But, paradoxically, since what allows you to be the best you can be may be strife and struggle (on a plausible view) then Utopia is a war zone (maybe). This is a reductio ad absurdum on the concept of Utopia, but it is not one that can be brushed off. We should think hard about the genuine commonalities between heroic fiction (broadly) and utopian fiction. Superheroes and superpolitics. What’s the appeal?


faustusnotes 10.18.17 at 5:07 am

This blog post makes the case that Rivendell is the utopia, and I’m inclined to agree. We don’t really even see the Shire at any point in the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings – it’s a barely described agrarian idyll, but that doesn’t make it a utopia and in the absence of description of its social order or its technology, but in the presence of voluminous evidence that it’s a heirarchical society with a lot of flaws, I don’t think it can be classed as a utopia.

My problem with describing heroic settings as utopias is that a utopian novel describes a social setting, not a place or environment. A setting where people get to express certain characteristics might be a good or important thing but it’s not a utopia. Otherwise, I should point out, xvideos is a veritable cornucopia of utopias, in which men and women display robust character and physical traits that are well beyond the normal, and we should see porn as a field of utopias. No, a utopia is a vision of a social order, not a setting for humans to excel.


John Holbo 10.18.17 at 5:45 am

Let me clarify: the post does not advocate regarding Tolkien or C.S. Lewis as utopian fiction writers. I think we should try not to arrive at that result, but it’s important to see that, technically, the definition cited in the post includes them. There is no question that both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis deliberately set out to create attractive, anti-modern fantasy worlds, to encourage healthy anti-modern attitudes (by their lights). “a fiction that invites readers to experience vicariously an alternative reality that critiques theirs by opening intellectual and emotional spaces that encourage readers to perceive the realities and potentialities of their cultures in new ways.” I have no doubt that this must include Narnia and Middle Earth. I also want to say that this isn’t just some obvious, easily correct slip by the author. It is genuinely the case that there is a kinship here. But still we should try to define them apart, if we can.

Here is a proposal. Utopias are always intentional communities. They are planned and built by humans (or other actors), not ‘found’, i.e. organically emergent in some ‘natural’ way. Conversely, dystopias are always cases in which the best laid plans go awry. Dystopias are not just disasters, but disasters that result from someone trying to make something nice. It’s tempting to add that the plans need to be rational in spirit (as opposed to some religious enthusiasm or inspiration, say). That is, a Utopia is by definition a child of reason and enlightenment. You can’t really have Utopia until you have a ethos of rationalizing human life and society. And you can’t have dystopia unless and until the sleep of reason breeds monsters. This makes the discourse of utopia/dystopia into a kind of literary-narrative sub-branch of the philosophical debate between Enlightenment/counter-Enlightenment (to a first approximation). It makes a particular philosophical debate definitional to the genre.

If so, one thing this exposes is a certain circularity in the typical dystopian argument: namely, it’s always reason that produces dystopia. Ergo, we should distrust reason. But this is just a definition point. If it isn’t misfiring pure reason that produces it – if it’s petty greed or stupidity or aggression or narrow tribalism or some other force – then it’s just a disaster, not a dystopia. We don’t call battlefields ‘dystopias’ even though they offer spectacles of deliberate social planning producing nothing but human misery. That’s mostly because we don’t think that war is typically caused by naive utopians blueprinting something they think will be especially peaceful and nice. We regard war as more ‘natural’, in a weird way.


Brett 10.18.17 at 6:30 am

The Shire isn’t a utopia, and I’m very skeptical that it was meant to be one. It’s a peaceful place, but a small, petty one, and both Bilbo and Frodo come back and find themselves unsettled there, wanting more. Sam comes back and marries his sweetheart, but after she dies he moves on as well.

Same goes for Gondor. It’s a more prosperous, happy place after Aragorn takes over, but he’ll die and that will eventually pass as well (just as with Numenor in all that supplementary stuff Tolkien wrote in his spare time). The closest thing he ever wrote to a sequel to the trilogy hinted at problems in Gondor.


John Holbo 10.18.17 at 6:47 am

Tolkien on the kind of escapism he means to encourage, from “On Fairy Stories”:

“And if we leave aside for a moment “fantasy,” I do not think that the reader or the maker of fairy-stories need even be ashamed of the “escape” of archaism: of preferring not dragons but horses, castles, sailing-ships, bows and arrows; not only elves, but knights and kings and priests. For it is after all possible for a rational man, after reflection (quite unconnected with fairy-story or romance), to arrive at the condemnation, implicit at least in the mere silence of “escapist” literature, of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable, dare we say “inexorable,” products.

“The rawness and ugliness of modern European life”—that real life whose contact we should welcome —“is the sign of a biological inferiority, of an insufficient or false reaction to environment.” The maddest castle that ever came out of a giant’s bag in a wild Gaelic story is not only much less ugly than a robot-factory, it is also (to use a very modern phrase) “in a very real sense” a great deal more real. Why should we not escape from or condemn the “grim Assyrian” absurdity of top-hats, or the Morlockian horror of factories? They are condemned even by the writers of that most escapist form of all literature, stories of Science fiction. These prophets often foretell (and many seem to yearn for) a world like one big glass-roofed railway-station. But from them it is as a rule very hard to gather what men in such a world-town will do. They may abandon the “full Victorian panoply” for loose garments (with zip-fasteners), but will use this freedom mainly, it would appear, in order to play with mechanical toys in the soon-cloying game of moving at high speed. To judge by some of these tales they will still be as lustful, vengeful, and greedy as ever; and the ideals of their idealists hardly reach farther than the splendid notion of building more towns of the same sort on other planets. It is indeed an age of “improved means to deteriorated ends.” It is part of the essential malady of such days— producing the desire to escape, not indeed from life, but from our present time and self-made misery— that we are acutely conscious both of the ugliness of our works, and of their evil. So that to us evil and ugliness seem indissolubly allied. We find it difficult to conceive of evil and beauty together. The fear of the beautiful fay that ran through the elder ages almost eludes our grasp. Even more alarming: goodness is itself bereft of its proper beauty. In Faerie one can indeed conceive of an ogre who possesses a castle hideous as a nightmare (for the evil of the ogre wills it so), but one cannot conceive of a house built with a good purpose—an inn, a hostel for travellers, the hall of a virtuous and noble king—that is yet sickeningly ugly. At the present day it would be rash to hope to see one that was not—unless it was built before our time.”

This is clearly Utopian, by the terms of the proposed definition. (If William Morris is Utopian, this must be.)


TM 10.18.17 at 7:30 am

SusanC 23: “The Lord of the Rings has both a utopia (The Shire) and a dystopia (Mordor).”

I would argue that the social structures of both the Shire and Mordor, as well as the Elve societies, Gondor and Rohan, are not sufficiently elaborate to make them a meaningful utopia. In Mordor there is no interesting structure at all, it’s an absolute tyranny ruled by an evil despot. Gondor and Rohan are versions of feudal monarchy. The Elve kingdoms are happy places because Elves are inherently good people (although according to other Tolkien books they have also acted very foolishly), not because of any interesting social or cultural features. Also, we learn next to nothing about the economies of any of these places.

Re the definition of utopia as “a fairly detailed narrative description of an imaginary culture”. This is obviously highly subjective but how detailed is “fairly detailed”? I would expect a utopia to specify to some detail social arrangements that are to some extent novel. Many fantasy stories, including Middle Earth and Narnia, are more or less based on feudal/medieval models, with some magic and fantastic creatures thrown in. If that counts as utopian, maybe any historical novel should qualify as well. Although the culture described in the latter is supposed to be based on historical reality, not imagination, still from the point of view of the modern reader it’s a very unfamiliar reality – “an alternative reality that critiques theirs by opening intellectual and emotional spaces that encourage readers to perceive the realities and potentialities of their cultures in new ways”. Perhaps all compelling literature does that to some extent.


Mario 10.18.17 at 9:20 am


No, a utopia is a vision of a social order, not a setting for humans to excel.

Middle earth is both. Clearly it was intended as one, as John notes, but beyond that I don’t think you have the right to exclude texts from the set of utopias for moral reasons. Gor, which for the record I’ve never read, seems to be an Utopia for some. Doesn’t look like a place I would like to live in, but I think it is silly to delegitimize its utopia status because it’s not fully compliant to our ideas of how the world should be.

Also, I don’t think that a place where humans cannot excel can be an utopia for long before becoming a dystopia. The inmates of such a place will, sooner or later, set it on fire for being awfully inhuman (IIRC that is even the main thrust of A Brave New World).

Here’s Dostoyevsky on this:

Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in bliss so that nothing but bubbles would dance on the surface of his bliss, as on a sea…and even then every man, out of sheer ingratitude, sheer libel, would play you some loathsome trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive rationality his fatal fantastic element…simply in order to prove to himself that men still are men and not piano keys.

(from Notes from the Underground)

He formulates it very negatively (“out of sheer ingratitude”) so I don’t agree fully. But, certainly, I don’t want to be a piano key. Even if it somehow would be “good”, in some sense.


bob mcmanus 10.18.17 at 9:23 am

The contrast I remember vaguely from somewhere was a Gricean square (cross?) of

Utopia Arcadia and their opposites Pandaemonium and the (Land of Flies? Deadly Jungle)

All are imagined worlds but Arcadia differs from Utopia in being nostalgic and involving a return to an uncreated and essential Nature. I think the distinction is important if not critical*, and I would put Tolkien and Lewis and perhaps Morris in the Arcadian corner of imaginary worlds.

*Is racism an unnatural technology or a natural inclination, for instance.


John Holbo 10.18.17 at 10:25 am

“No, a utopia is a vision of a social order, not a setting for humans to excel.”

I think a utopia has to be a vision of a social order in which humans can excel. I don’t think there is any serious candidate for the role, from Plato’s Republic on, that doesn’t fulfill that basic condition. (Sometimes people propose experience machines that pump us full of happiness or soma or whatever, neglecting excellence in any sense, but those are usually regarded as dystopias.)


John Holbo 10.18.17 at 10:27 am

“The contrast I remember vaguely from somewhere was a Gricean square (cross?) of

Utopia Arcadia and their opposites Pandaemonium and the (Land of Flies? Deadly Jungle)”

I think you must have been dreaming, bob. But it’s important not to conflate Utopia and Arcadia. What does Grice have to do with it? H.P. Grice, the philosopher of language?


Peter T 10.18.17 at 10:30 am

Two thoughts:

Maybe Tolkien and Lewis (and Eddison) are environmental utopias? Utopias of places where human activities and progress is bounded by the natural (which includes, at least for Eddison, heroic war). One must of course have a vision of the natural – flowers rather than factories, beer rather than cocktails, horses rather than tractors, swords rather than machine-guns and so on.

Second, the post made me recall the engineer’s utopias which dotted the pages of SF magazines up to the 70s, of the world ordered, covered by machines, wholly tamed. The anti-natural as heaven (Trantor?). What do we make of utopias turned dystopias?


TM 10.18.17 at 11:57 am

“I think a utopia has to be a vision of a social order in which humans can excel.”

This to me doesn’t seem very specific as a criterion. Much, probably most, literature is concerned with human characters who excel, or fail to do so. The argument seems to be that in LotR, the excellence of the characters (some whom are very flawed of course, as they are in most literature) is somehow enabled by an archaic social order. This thesis I think requires elaboration. And again the archaic social orders depicted in LotR as well as Narnia aren’t particularly different from the real world, except for the magic.

The definition quoted in the OP btw doesn’t seem to imply a judgment of better or worse, or excellence or valor, it just requires an “imaginary culture” that provides an “alternative reality”. It seems most commenters disagree with that part. In any case Middle Earth seems too ambivalent to fit into either the utopian or dystopian category. Even after Sauron’s defeat, the world will be a better place but it won’t be paradise. IIRC, Gandalf says something along these lines in his speech before the battle.


Neville Morley 10.18.17 at 12:02 pm

“A vision of a social order in which humans can excel”: less overtly fictional, but this is a fair description of the image of Sparta produced by various anti-democratic Athenian aristocrats, with a close connection to Plato’s project, which continued to be put forward as an ideal society – believed to be historical – throughout the Enlightenment and well into the twentieth century (and still idealised by various alt-right types). Obvious point is that (this image of) Sparta is in itself, from the perspective of a different set of values, dystopian – you don’t have to imagine the plans going awry, it’s the successful realisation of those plans, and what their realisation depends on, that is dystopian. For a fictional version that draws out this tension brilliantly, see Georges Perec’s Island of W, dedicated to the Olympic ideal.


TM 10.18.17 at 12:04 pm

And Tolkien’s real utopia of course is the legendary Valinor, while Middle Earth is just as flawed as our own world.


Donald Johnson 10.18.17 at 12:22 pm

Middle Earth is several utopias or Arcadias. Lothlorien is explicitly described as a copy of the earthly heaven the elves live in across the sea, something Galadriel created with her ring. The Shire is an idealized version of pre industrial England and Saruman tries to start the industrial revolution, spoiling everything. Gondor is a country with a fairy ale city missing its true king surrounded by a bucolic countryside in the shadow of Mordor. Rivendell is a perfect mountain resort created by another elven ring.


Donald Johnson 10.18.17 at 12:32 pm

Martin and others are fantasy writers who try to make their worlds “realistic” with political squabbles and concerns about banks and loans and sadistic violence and how to pay for wars and as a result nobody thinks Westeros or Essos represent any sort of Arcadia or utopia or whatever word people wish to use. I gather Mieville is also reacting against Tolkien in a different way, but I haven’t read his fantasies.


SamChevre 10.18.17 at 1:10 pm

I think that this comment from John Holbo @ 31 captures the key best for me.

“Utopias are Mary Sues at the level of the politics, society and the state. ”

So this means several things:
1) Utopias (and dystopias) have politics, society, and the state as central rather than peripheral. (Fantasy tends to be character-centric or event-centric, not-society-centric.)
2) In utopias, politics, society and the state work as intended and solve problems rather than causing them. (The ones where they cause problems are the dystopias.)

These features make the reader think about whether the problems solved are the actual problems and the right problems and all the problems.

I like this definition better than Roemer definition in the initial post, because it makes it clear why “The Republic” and “Walden Two” are utopian and “The Hobbit” is not.


John Holbo 10.18.17 at 1:18 pm

“A true fairytale must also be a prophetic account of things—an ideal account—an absolutely necessary account. A true writer of fairy tales sees into the future.” – Novalis


faustusnotes 10.18.17 at 1:29 pm

John first I’ll respond to your quoting of Tolkien because a) I think you’re significantly misreading it and b) quoting Tolkien’s letters makes me angry. Regarding a), Tolkien isn’t arguing in that letter for a vision of the agrarian or the fantastic as superior models of social order (i.e. utopias), he’s arguing that they’re aesthetically superior. He doesn’t care that people died in Paeschendale on an industrial scale – he just cares that it was done by machine guns not men with clubs. This is the reason for the common ideal of the One Ring as symbol of industrialization. If you want to have a definition of utopia you need to separate it from a romanticized luddite ideal of country life as superior. Otherwise every noble savage novel is a utopian story instead of just a colonialist meditation on how those red folk were primitive but happy. Furthermore, it’s a common mistake to think that Tolkien was anti war because he reviled the industrial murder of the trenches (this is a common trope about Tolkien), or that his books are anti-war. He simply glorifies war through sacrifice and valiant defeat rather than triumphalism, but that whole “they do not grow old as we do” approach to war has long since been dismissed as a critique of war, rather it is seen as a grimmer form of glorification (Wilfred Owen took that idea out the back and shot it, obviously).

There’s a lot more in that quote to unpack about Tolkien. For example, what would he say to further his world under glass imagery as a dystopia, if he were alive today and read Banks’s culture novels, where entire civilizations live without limits in spaceships “under glass”? His vision of industrialization as a debasement of life is incompatible with everything in science fiction (which is the source of the majority of our utopias and dystopias, btw). It’s also a privileged white academic’s vision of life that needs to be critiqued for what it leaves out. Sure for him a world without industry is nice because he’s rich and landed, but what does he think the millions striving in the slums think of the idea of doing away with cotton mills and factories, so that they can no longer afford clothes, food or basic goods? You have seen the recent reports comparing the real price of food in South Sudan and New York – here is the real benefit of industrialization, but of course JRR Tolkien (let’s speak all his names aloud so we can remember what an upper class chappy he was, and smoke a pipe while we do it) will always be able to afford the clothes on his back, and why should he care if a couple of million people have to trudge naked behind a ploughshare so his vision of agrarian order can be restored?

Which brings me back to his vision of the shire, where we know that there are poor and undeserving folk, and backward folk, and inequality, and he makes nothing of that and has not envisaged a society that can repair that, because he’s only interested in that social order as it exists to serve one of its most privileged members, Bilbo, who has lived much longer than any of his peers on account of the fact that he is wealthy and he got hold of the one thing in all of middle earth that can prolong life and improve life – magic – but which is reserved exclusively for a tiny white elite. Consider althelas, that stupid leaf that cures anything – provided it is rubbed on the wound by a king, of whom there is just one. Or the magic of the demi-gods (Gandalf is one), almost never deployed by them in defense of the poor and innocent, but hoarded and only used in the service of the powerful and the rich. Without this we can infer (and from the descriptions of Bilbo’s family feuds, see) a life that is short, brutal and nasty for most of the residents of middle earth. Imagine if you will the ring wraiths deciding to go on a bender through the shire. There are perhaps 7 people in all of Middle Earth who can stop them, and none of them care enough to be there. But Tolkien is worried about industrial scale slaughter! What do you think happens when a beast that cannot be killed by normal weapons enters a farming community?! This is not a utopia. In comparison, it’s trivially easy to develop a vision of a D&D society in which child mortality is completely eliminated, simply because magic is not hoarded by the wealthy elite.

In that quote you give Tolkien also talks about how industrialization is a sign of biological inferiority. Tolkien is wedded to a vision of the slow decay of the west through miscegenation, a concept that is fundamental to his imagined world, and something that you can cop a lot of flak for pointing out. Here we are talking about a fundamentally conservative vision of society that has been used as a training guide for racial education amongst fascists, and these concepts continually creep through everything he writes, but for some reason we’re meant to take his work as a utopia rather than a dystopia. I would ask, if you’re black, do you think the racially segregated world of Middle Earth is a utopia or a dystopia? And should we perhaps not, given the nature of this work, consider centralizing the views of poor people and black people in deciding whether it’s a utopia or not?

Which brings me to b), this annoying habit leftists and Tolkien fans have of quoting Tolkien in defense of his work, as if his intentions have any relevance to the content of the text. If the Dragonlance trilogy have some twee racial bullshit going on with Tanis Half-elven (<- see there, it's right in the name!) we don't excuse it because the authors intended it to be some meditation on race, we point out that it's racist. But when Tolkien writes an entire fucking mythology built around racial essentialism and scientific racism that shines so bright and pure that nazis the world over use it as a training guide, people go digging back through his letters for that one time he mentioned his sympathies with the black people of South Africa, so see he can't have intended it to be racist so it can't be racist. The same thing happens with his glorification of war – the dude wrote three books about gallant sacrifice in war, and an entire prequel about massive wars between elves in which e.g. Galadriel who we all know and love murders most of her kin because she wants to be on a boat[1] – and we're supposed to believe that because he wrote a letter about how war is hell, man! his books are not glorifying war. Why does Tolkien get this consistent and widely-used out? How come Tolkien, specifically, is allowed to let his intent change the obvious prima facie content of his books? Please stop with this living author stuff!

I like Tolkien's work, I've spent a lot of time in Middle Earth as a GM and a player, but you cannot argue that it is a utopia without dealing with the very real fact that it is an unequal world ruled by monarchist absolutists who hoard the only wealth that counts and where life for the poor is hard and nasty, and there is no guiding vision except rich white dudes for the win and war! war! war! Utopia needs a better definition than this.

fn1: speaking of which, contra a commenter above, elves are not nice, they are clearly and obviously fascists.


faustusnotes 10.18.17 at 1:32 pm

Which brings me on to the definition of utopia as a setting where people can excel. It’s not enough! Most literature is about people excelling. Conan excels, Patrick Bateman excels, I’ll grant you Thomas the Tank Engine doesn’t but that’s a pretty low bar[1]. We need something else, some additional thing. I think it has to be about a social order aimed at eliminating pain, grief and suffering, or something like that. Again I say, pick books everyone agrees are utopias and work back.

fn1: Actually for Thomas it is a utopia, because he fucks up and people still love him. Maybe he’ll become president!


Mario 10.18.17 at 1:44 pm

Utopia needs a better definition than this.

I think you want to say, Utopia needs a PC definition. Is my assessment correct?


Donald Johnson 10.18.17 at 1:45 pm

I love Aragorn the character. I just want to make it clear that if someone in the real world claims to have the right to rule over some political entity based on his lineage or because he comes from a race that was granted extra longevity by the gods I will probably look on that person with some degree of skepticism and may even refuse to support his claim.


John Holbo 10.18.17 at 1:46 pm

“It’s not enough!”

I was only objecting to you not making it necessary. I wasn’t claiming it was sufficient. Perhaps I misunderstood you.


John Holbo 10.18.17 at 1:48 pm

“people go digging back through his letters”

Well, “On Fairy-Stories” is an essay and a fairly major critical statement by the author.


John Holbo 10.18.17 at 1:52 pm

How am I misreading the passage?

“but you cannot argue that it is a utopia without dealing with the very real fact that it is an unequal world ruled by monarchist absolutists who hoard the only wealth that counts and where life for the poor is hard and nasty”

Are you assuming it can’t be a utopia unless it’s a utopia you accept as ideal? I would tend to assume, to the contrary, that the world contains a number of dubious utopias, because people have strange taste in worlds. I don’t say Plato’s Republic isn’t a Utopia just because I wouldn’t want to live there.


steven t johnson 10.18.17 at 2:18 pm

The thing is, I cannot see that The Lord of the Rings is a critique of industrial civilization, though it has one in it. It’s not even about miscegenation, since in the long run all the other races disappear. Also, the elves are angels, or they are nothing, and that doesn’t fit the racism. So I don’t see how issues of utopianism arise at all. There is a certain tension between Christian morals and the morals exemplified in Theoden’s speech before his last battle, to be sure. But I’m not seeing this as a critique.

As for Narnia…look, if anything it’s dystopic. It starts off with the triumph of an allegorical Christ, an imagined victory over the unbelievers. Another ends with the ethnic cleansing of Narnia (all tangled up with religion and nationality, but so is ethnicity in real life.) Lewis was I gather a very quarrelsome man prone to bitterness and hate, so yeah, fictionally paying off things he doesn’t like about now, which as I say seems to me to be the essence of dystopianism. You might say, a dystopia is the ironic condemnation of the enemy. A utopia is a contrast to now.

As for Hogwarts, and other romanticizations of chldhood, or youth? They aren’t places. Utopias are places, whether nowhere to be found, whether good or bad.

Arcadian pastoral is merely a dead genre, Do literary people still go on and on about the true essence of epic and tragedy? But yes, it was the equivalent of utopian literature when a pastoral life could still pass for an improvement on the squalid “cities” of the middle ages.

By the way, re the notion that utopian literature is uniquely Christian/post-Christian? What ever then is Hyperborea? What was Aristophanes mocking in Cloud Cuckoo Land?


bianca steele 10.18.17 at 2:51 pm

I’d say it’s Middle Earth that’s utopian, if anything is, with roles for everybody, and (when things work well) no one interfering with other species. And especially knowledge not getting out of hand.

But I’m not convinced by Roemer’s definition. It sounds, at best, like a version of Frye’s kind of structuralism, where at bottom anything that isn’t “normal” (a realistic description of how realistic people realistically behave) has to be explained away, and everything is sorted into types that explain why they don’t really challenge the status quo after all, if you read them right. At worst, it sounds like a way to generate essay topics (“utopias” are books that lend themselves to certain kinds of essays).

The more I think about it, though, it looks like a reverse war novel, at least the parts about the Shire do, of the kind of novel that’s about “utopia” as wartime falling away of social distinctions and so on.


bianca steele 10.18.17 at 2:57 pm

Thomas the Tank Engine is arguably very like More’s Utopia. You very frequently have the engines ganging up on one another to teach them moral lessons.


TM 10.18.17 at 4:00 pm

65: “and (when things work well) no one interfering with other species”

When have things ever worked well in Middle Earth? I’m a bit puzzled by all the attempts at reading Middle Earth as an idyllic place.


TM 10.18.17 at 9:58 pm

I don’t think that Tolkien even remotely intended to create utopias. Middle Earth is a flawed, troubled and conflicted place and its inhabitants are flawed, troubled and conflicted, including the nobles and kings, superhuman wizards and demigods (Sauron himself is a fallen (demi)god, as was his former master Melkor/Morgoth). Rivendell is described as a happy place, especially in The Hobbit (already less so in LotR), but it’s a tiny oasis and what is it that makes it a happy place? Its ruler is wise and good and has magic powers. That is a magician’s trick, not a utopia. It doesn’t provide an “alternative reality” and doesn’t open “intellectual and emotional spaces”. And observe that at the end of LotR, the elves have left Middle Earth. Apparently, this “utopia” by author’s fiat was not sustainable.


John Holbo 10.18.17 at 11:28 pm

“Apparently, this “utopia” by author’s fiat was not sustainable.”

This is supposed to rule it out as a utopia? What about Plato’s Republic?

“It doesn’t provide an “alternative reality” and doesn’t open “intellectual and emotional spaces”.”

Are you saying the author’s attempt to do this fails, or that he doesn’t even attempt it?


Mario 10.18.17 at 11:52 pm

A thought I am having right now is that Middle Earth is an Utopia because it is a place where you have (or had, if you were a participant) meaning and purpose and magic. Not like in this world, where you are just a hapless, meaningless, and very much not magical ordinary dude. You hit the news now and then via a statistic – and that’s it.

In Middle Earth, even the grass on a plain has meaning and purpose and is magical.

A world where you are magical and have dignity. Wow.


faustusnotes 10.19.17 at 3:28 am

Mario, there are precisely 6 good people in Middle Earth who have magic, and 10 bad ones. The 6 good ones are the 5 Istar, the wizards that include Gandalf amongst their number (and of whom at least one turned evil), plus Aragorn, who can fiddle about with the athelas herb and give fine speeches to undead (this is the limit of his magical powers). The 10 bad ones are the 9 ring wraiths, and Sauron who is also a fallen demi god. So there are no humans in Middle Earth who have magic. As for meaning and purpose – sure, if you’re a king, or if you’re descended from the High Men (Tolkien has three classes of Men, who are ranked in order of greatness by how much they miscegenated with the locals).

We could count the elves as magical creatures – though we don’t ever get presented any direct evidence of them personally possessing magic, rather than being able to weave it into spaces and places. This magic ain’t being shared around though – Elrond’s speech to Arwen in the appendices (which Peter Jackson thoughtfully moved into the body of the text for the movies) is a fine piece of work, but it’s also a vehement denunciation of miscegenation, and there’s no way that the elves are happy sharing their magic or their birthright with any of the lesser races, to the extent that they took all their magic and left middle earth at the end. Incidentally, it’s made very clear that there will be no magic in the Fourth Age. Too much racial mixing, see.

If you want a world where ordinary people have magic and dignity you might try Dragonlance, or A Wizard of Earthsea, but not Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings is a world where ordinary people are the dirt beneath the boots of their hereditary rulers, who are genetically superior to them and will always remain so.

John, it doesn’t matter whether Tolkien wrote that in his letters or an essay or a presidential address (if only!), because his intention as the author is irrelevant to what his books actually say, which is that a conservative racist heirarchical rural feudal mediaeval world without magic or progress is the best thing ever. It’s a bog-standard mediaeval world, I don’t understand how anyone can complain that the fucking Dark Ages were a utopia!


John Holbo 10.19.17 at 4:17 am

“because his intention as the author is irrelevant to what his books actually say, which is that a conservative racist heirarchical rural feudal mediaeval world without magic or progress is the best thing ever.”

Suppose so. Doesn’t that just make it a utopia that we don’t think is a good utopia? We think it’s a dystopia, even. That seems fine. Suppose Plato thinks his Republic is a utopia but we think it’s dystopia. Does the fact that he hasn’t sold utopia to his audience prove that it’s actually not a literary utopia? I just don’t think we need to wait for the sales figures to come in to decide if it’s a utopia. (But we do need to know whether it’s satire. I think authorial intention matters for that.)


Neville Morley 10.19.17 at 7:07 am

Is heaven utopian? I’m inclined to say not – ‘utopia’ surely implies something intended to speak to this world rather than the next, making heaven a place on earth etc., rather than something that simply *is* perfect by definition. I would then rule out the Elven bits of Tolkien on the same grounds; Rivendell, Lothlorien may be idyllic, but that’s simply because they are reflections of the West.

The Shire seems different, more of a rustic back-to-the-golden-age utopia in the spirit of Morris’ News From Nowhere. Yes, primitive, rife with inequality and class distinctions etc – but that’s not a drawback for some people, and Tolkien’s depiction is full of good honest sons of toil who know their place and like it, just as Plato’s Republic assumes that lesser souls will be *happier* if kept in their appropriate station. The fact that I wouldn’t want to live in the Shire doesn’t automatically make it non-utopian.

Possibly off-topic, but I’m reminded of the Alfred Bester short story ‘Hobson’s Choice’: it’s about travelling to different times in search of one’s perfect society rather than trying to construct it, but punchline is that everyone’s heaven is someone else’s hell, and vice versa. Middle Earth is fantasy wish-fulfilment for some because it promises freedom from constraints of modernity, exercise of virtue (sic) etc.; we wouldn’t want to love there, but for some (who of course assume they’d be in the heroic agent category not the background peasantry) this is indeed utopian.


TM 10.19.17 at 7:10 am

69: As I said in 68, I don’t believe Tolkien attempted to create utopias. If anything, the Middle Earth saga is a tale of fallen creation (as a conservative Christian might put it). The initial state (this goes way back before LotR) was a paradise or golden age that was increasingly corrupted by hubris, greed and so on (but observe that this initial paradise isn’t much talked about – it would be boring). Nobody is immune from this corruption, neither elves nor gods (or whatever one wants to call the Valar and Maiar).

Tolkien was a conservative cultural pessimist who may have believed that things used to be better before factories and train stations, but he would have rejected any notion of utopianism (as I think most conservatives would).


Robespierre 10.19.17 at 7:13 am

I mean, More’s Utopia isn’t exactly a nice place to live, what with slavery, draconian punishment for premarital sex and adultery, and no privacy…


TM 10.19.17 at 7:17 am

70: As fn points out, only few of Tolkien’s characters have meaning, purpose and magic. Maybe one can argue that Middle Earth is Tolkien’s idea of a perfect place because he approved of the inherent racism, inequality and so on and perhaps even the bloodshed because that is how the good characters can turn out their “excellence” and “valor”. But then, this is just a version of our real world of racism, inequality and bloodshed – minus the train stations!


Mario 10.19.17 at 7:47 am

Lord of the Rings is a world where ordinary people are the dirt beneath the boots of their hereditary rulers, who are genetically superior to them and will always remain so.

For some reason it doesn’t feel so. I very clearly isn’t the way the Hobbits and the men seem to see things. So there is that.

I was sloppy with the term ‘magic’. Sorry for that. I was thinking about the mood, or some kind of larger than life feeling that permeates everything.

Your facts are correct, as far as I can tell, as well as you assessment of the social order, etc, etc. It all just doesn’t help, because despite all that, Middle Earth clearly feels good to a lot of people.


John Holbo 10.19.17 at 9:55 am

“As I said in 68, I don’t believe Tolkien attempted to create utopias.”

Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that Tolkien attempted to create utopias. I’m merely pointing out that Tolkien’s Middle Earth seems to count as a literary utopia by the terms of the definition I was working with. He intended it to do the job and readers persist in feeling that it does the job. My conclusion is that we should acknowledge that there is indeed a kinship here between this sort of fantasy world-building and utopian fiction. But we should probably still try to adjust the definition of ‘utopia’ to rule Middle Earth out. I would suggest insisting that literary utopias be intentional communities – planned societies: planned not just by the author but by characters in the fiction – and that the plans be ostensibly ‘rational’, for a broad sense of rational. Utopia has to be about someone thinking they know the good, right, in a rational sense, and that they can deliberately optimize society to produce it. Obviously that’s not Middle Earth.


John Holbo 10.19.17 at 9:55 am

“Is heaven utopian?”

In lecture today I argued: not!


TM 10.19.17 at 11:12 am

77 “Clearly feels good to a lot of people”

Your criteria for what constitutes utopian literature are getting wider and wider. Anything with magic in it, anything with heroes fulfilling meaningful tasks in it, anything that makes readers feel good. That has nothing to do with the conventional meaning of utopianism.

Those who argue that Middle Earth is a literary utopia: would you agree that all or most fantasy literature fits that definition as well? If not, what is the distinction? Is magic and heroes enough or does the author also have to write dismissive diatribes about train stations? What about any literature set in an idealized or romanticized past, does that also count as utopian? If you think so, fine, but I disagree. If not, then I’m curious to know what criteria you are employing.

78: Once more the definition: “a fairly detailed narrative description of an imaginary culture”. I think “fairly detailed” implies a narrative elaboration of what makes the utopian society different from ours and what makes it better or worse, and the “imaginary culture” implies some real novelty in terms of social arrangements. With those qualifications (which I already explained in 44), fantasy literature doesn’t fulfill the definition. It’s not enough for a story to be set in an imaginary world if that world is based on a conventional social organization.


bianca steele 10.19.17 at 11:28 am

TM@67: Arguably, since we’re told (I think–it’s been a while) that things went wrong at this or that specific point in time, because of this or that specific choice by a mortal, it’s implied that things once went better, and could still have, absent that choice.

I agree that isn’t a Utopia by the standard definition. But I think Tolkien obviously had a sense of what “utopia” would be, and everyone who reads the books knows what it was. (He even arrived at it by rational thought, obviously, though he might deny that.) I don’t agree it’s best, but it’s silly to pretend it isn’t what he had in mind.

It’s a world where “little people” barely know their betters exist, and don’t worry their minds about them, where no one tries to arrange things to avoid suffering or unfairness, and people with special knowledge or fancy possessions (the hobbits react to Rivendell kind of like peasants with some taste who are visiting a great house for the first time) don’t tell their lessers what to do, or use their magic to interfere with the “natural” course of events.


Z 10.19.17 at 11:40 am

I would suggest insisting that literary utopias be intentional communities – planned societies

I agree. The way I see it, a utopia (and to some extent a dystopia) is a depiction of the answer to a particular political question, and in particular, a utopia has to have a conceivable opposition in the political sense, or, just like Neville Morley and Trader Joe pointed out above, it has to be debatable (in political terms).

“Is heaven utopian?” In lecture today I argued: not!

And by so doing, I think you followed the classical political theorists of the Renaissance who argued that politics (conceived by them as the exercise of sovereign power) started after the Fall, as there could be no conflict, and else no politics in the Garden of Eden (I can dug out the precise reference if you want to, it is a beautiful text but it slips my mind at the moment).

But, all the same, we don’t usually call […] Hogwarts – Utopia.

If we follow the definition of utopia above, Hogwarts would in fact be an anti-utopia (not a dystopia). A utopia is an illustration of the answer to a political question, Hogwarts is an illustration of the fact that even if magic were real and more importantly but in a more subtle ways even if all Muggle/adult values were subverted, then all the political questions we are familiar with would remain pretty much unanswered in exactly the same ways.

What critical writings in this vicinity do you find particularly insightful/interesting?

Not critical writing per se (though maybe the second qualifies) but there are two famous French sources you might want to have a look at if you don’t know them already: one is chapter 52 of Rabelais’s Gargantua – which is probably one of the earliest anarchist utopia written – and one is Perec’s novella W (which I now notice Neville Morley mentioned above already) which, if you don’t know, I really suggest you read (and which I really suggest you don’t rush to look at the Wikipedia page, it is really the kind of book you want to start reading with the minimal amount of prior knowledge).


kidneystones 10.19.17 at 12:03 pm

@73 is one of better comments on the thread and precisely on topic. The notion that a subset of individuals in one particular time can establish limits upon what a utopian society might be for everyone is precisely the same arrogance Plato displays thousands of years ago. More at least allowed for parody. Equality for everyone under some form law is one thing, and is present in many of the societies under discussion. Absolute equality in a classless society is another again. Academics and intellectuals stripped of their status? The same rights to self-respect and public acclaim as clerks, and cabdrivers? Who’d want that?

I can’t think of a soul anywhere who would want to live in absolutely equal society. No looking down one’s nose at anyone, ever, except those in the past? I’d say that would be a form of hell for one or two names that come to mind.

John and NM have it right, I think, – utopias as constructed societies, idealized and possibly unworkable and riddled with imperfections in the eyes of peoples of a different time and culture.

Not my area so I’ll ask. Were there any contemporary complaints about the Republic because of the hierarchies and slavery. I’d think not. Indeed, from my very limited understanding of antiquity I’d guess that both slavery and hierarchies would be seen as necessary and desirable features of contemporary societies. I’m thinking particularly of the distinction between citizens and non-citizens in Athens.


John Holbo 10.19.17 at 12:12 pm

“Anything with magic in it, anything with heroes fulfilling meaningful tasks in it, anything that makes readers feel good. That has nothing to do with the conventional meaning of utopianism. ”

Nor is it what I’m saying. I’m taking a proposed definition and arguing that Tolkien satisfies it. I’m not saying that ‘anything that makes readers feel good’ is a utopia.


bianca steele 10.19.17 at 12:13 pm

TM: ” conventional social organization.”

You said something like this farther up the thread, too, but I didn’t notice it until last night. Do you mean Middle Earth and/or the Shire are basically the same “social organization” as mid-20th century England? That seems . . . not correct.


TM 10.19.17 at 12:24 pm

bs 81: “it’s implied that things once went better, and could still have, absent that choice.”

Yes, see 74. There once was a golden age. But Tolkien’s literature isn’t concerned with how life and society were in that golden age and how we could get back there, which I would think is the point of utopian literature (to show us a better world).

Also, it wasn’t a mortal that messed up the golden age but one of the gods, and the way I read it, the world from that on was irredeemably corrupted. LotR makes it very clear that there is no way back.


TM 10.19.17 at 12:28 pm

84: I was quoting Mario 77: “feels good to a lot of people”.

I have now explained several times why I think LotR and fantasy literature in general doesn’t fulfill the definition you quoted. If you disagree, you haven’t really explained why.


Katsue 10.19.17 at 1:10 pm

@71 I don’t agree that there are no humans other than Aragorn in Middle Earth who can use magic. Denethor, Gríma Wormtongue and the Mouth of Sauron were all humans who worked magic in the course of the Lord of the Rings.

The assertion that women aren’t educated in Middle-Earth is no more than that – an assertion. There’s no evidence to suggest that any of the women in the Lord of the Rings were denied an education.

I can’t agree that Tolkien condemned miscenegation either. Of the three weddings in Lord of the Rings, one is between a human and an elf, and one is between a Gondorian and a Rohirrim. And of course in the Silmarillion, the major love story is the Lay of Leithien, about the love of Beren and Lúthien – which is also a reversal of one of those mediaeval stories about a knight going on a quest to prove himself worthy of marrying a princess where the princess has to repeatedly rescue the knight from trouble.

Pureborn Númenoreans are hardly paragons of morality in Tolkien either. Even before Númenor turned to Morgoth-worship and human sacrifice, it notoriously subjugated and oppressed much of mainland Middle-Earth.


steven t johnson 10.19.17 at 1:13 pm

John Holbo @84 writes “I’m taking a proposed definition and arguing that Tolkien satisfies it.”

In the proposed definition, we see “a fiction that invites readers to experience vicariously an alternative reality that critiques theirs…” The Lord of the Rings does not give us the Shire as a critique of our reality. That is why we readers spend so little time there. Mordor gives us the trenches and No Man’s Land of the Great War, but that is not significantly worse than the reality, it’s a remembrance in fictional form. And I’m sorry, but the essentially Christian ethos in the novel only counts as a critique if you think Christianity counts as critique. I suppose you could, but that strikes me as wrong-headed. So I’ve never agreed with the OP’s proposition that Tolkien fit the definition.

I suppose this is equivalent to saying utopia/dystopia is a species of satire, which, as a form of aggression we associate with humor. But if you insist on implying there is some sort of humor or wit in satire as a genre, that leaves us with a greater need for utopia/dystopia as a genre label to use in discussion, no?

Roemer’s definition I think fails very badly on “dystopia,” failing to see I think that dystopias aim at particular targets in the here and now. That’s why so many are cautionary fables about what will happen “if this goes on…” In the utopia, whether or not the reader agrees with the critique, the dystopia is all of here and now. In my opinion.


bianca steele 10.19.17 at 2:15 pm

86: I agree about the definition of “utopia.” It feels like an attempt to “rescue” the critical purpose of utopian fiction for people who object to the premise of utopian fiction. Though maybe just an answer to the question “why can’t I read LotR as a utopia novel?”–“well, go ahead, if that’s what you want.”


faustusnotes 10.19.17 at 2:28 pm

I think Z points out the additional characteristics required of a utopia, the purposeful political organization to solve a political problem. Tolkien’s work identifies only one political problem – miscegenation – and doesn’t propose any solution except exterminationism, which is what we see carried to its logical conclusion in later implementations of his vision (e.g. D&D, where all the Orcs must die). The entire point of LoTR is that it’s too late, that all the world is crumbling under the weight of previous generations’ mistakes and those mistakes are always based on mixing their “blood.”

Katsue, I think you’re wrong in almost all these points. First of all, Denethor and Grima Wormtongue aren’t using magic – Denethor is a victim of Sauron’s, and Grima Wormtongue is a conduit for Saruman’s. You can see this more clearly later where Saruman is Sharkey and Grima has no powers at all, he’s just a bootlicker.

You’re right that there is a wedding between a human and an elf – a wedding that was opposed by Elrond, whose speech against it is the most eloquent piece of writing in all three books (and which, because Tolkien has no sense at all, got buried in the appendix). A wedding between a Rohirrim and a Gondorian isn’t miscegenation because the Rohirrim and the modern Gondorians are both Middle Men, humans at the same stage of racial debasement due to inter-marrying between Dunedain and the Middle Men. It would be miscegenation in the Second Age, but any Gondorian in the Second Age would have been a Dunedain, and thus racially superior to the Middle Men. Not any more! This is a central theme of the entire world and its history.

Yes, the Numenoreans are often said to be imperfect, but then so are the elves (I think Galadriel was a kin-slayer, for example, as I mentioned above). The issue in LoTR, often mistaken, is not that the “high folk” (i.e. white people) can do evil, but that the debased folk – the “Men of Darkness”, who are often actually black-skinned – can do no good. This is why the story isn’t utopic, because it’s a world of inevitable wars between racially varied stock, and no one has a solution to this problem. It’s probably a nice allegory for Europe in the first half of the 20th century, but it’s not a functioning utopia.

(And yes, we have little evidence of whether women were educated or not because Tolkien simply didn’t write about women, but we know they must have been dying in childbirth at a horrible rate, because there is no magic in the world and no technology beyond the water wheel. And we also know that there are no female wizards, no female scholars referenced anywhere, no female leaders except Galadriel, and no female leaders anywhere in the history of the Silmarils – what do you think this tells us about that world?)

Re: Harry Potter and utopias, I can’t conceive of a private boarding school as anything except hell, even if there isn’t much bullying in the Potter stories. But in my review of Fantastic Beasts I discuss the way that the world described in the Potter stories is incomprehensible and close to evil once it extends beyond the walls of Hogwarts. Rowling’s vision is of a small clique of arseholes denying a utopia to the whole world. No wonder they hide themselves away from humanity – having kept the secret to ending world hunger and poverty from billions of people, they can expect short shrift when they’re finally found out!


bianca steele 10.19.17 at 3:06 pm

I think it’s entirely possible Tolkien knew less than nothing about childhood mortality or death in childbirth and believed basic cleanliness and “virtue” (sobriety, basic cleanliness, sensible diet, hard work to acquire a minimally decent income, acquisition of basic social norms to allow a job to be gotten and kept, etc., etc.) were sufficient. I don’t know whether death in childbirth was still frequent enough among the middle classes to make it seem as random as it must have been a century or two earlier. Even the idea that trains are the heighth of technology, regimentation, conquest of the countryside is inherited wholesale from the 19th century. That wasn’t Tolkien’s talent, to make original statements about modernization and its discontents. He wrote a novel, with unreconcilable points of view presented, unreconciled.


M Caswell 10.19.17 at 3:11 pm

“Were there any contemporary complaints about the Republic because of the hierarchies and slavery. I’d think not.”

Not sure there are slaves at all in the Best City of the Republic.


TM 10.19.17 at 3:34 pm

fn: I agree with a lot of you say but I would also allow more nuance to Tolkien. Not everything one of his fictional characters says expresses his personal opinion (re Elrond’s speech).

I think the worst Tolkien has done is to invent humanoid races that are inherently evil and must be killed whenever possible. After initially enjoying his work, that part is what put me off forever.

Re “purposeful political organization to solve a political problem”, “intentional communities”: It seems to me those criteria are needlessly restrictive. As I stressed, I expect utopian literature to expose us to alternative, novel social arrangements. Those arrangements are obviously purposely invented by the author but in the narrative, they don’t have to be planned or purposeful. It doesn’t necessarily matter how they are arrived at IMHO.


TheSophist 10.19.17 at 3:48 pm

“Is heaven utopian?”

In lecture today I argued: not!

— anybody watching “The Good Place”? It’s rather fun – my Theories of Justice students (US HS seniors) think it’s a hoot! (Brief precis of season 1: Kristen Bell’s character believes herself to be in The Good Place due to some kind of clerical error. She’s afraid of being found out and sent to The Bad Place so she recruits a professor of ethics and moral philosophy to teach her how to be good. Different episodes invoke Kant, Plato, Aristotle, Rawls, Scanlon et al and hilarity ensues. Then the twist happens…)


Sebastian H 10.19.17 at 4:37 pm

On one level I hate how this thread is turning from talking about utopia to talking about how horrible Tolkien is. Also, why can’t I ever spell his name right? I know that I get it wrong every time, but even when I try to be careful it is always Tolkein. GACK.

Anyway. It is frustrating to see Tolkien repeatedly thrown into the “people like him so he must be torn down” barrel. But at least if you are going to do that, stick to what he actually did instead of terrible literature analysis. A lot of it seems to be trying to shove motivated readings in, or confusing character voice with authorial voice, or failing to attend to the fact that it is a work heavily informed BOTH by Christianity AND by other myths.

So for example the orcs. Tolkien offers various explanations for their origins: that they are captured and enslaved elves which were magically and technologically twisted into a race of slaves, that they are captured and enslaved humans which were magically and technologically twisted into a race of slaves, or that they were both. First of all this is clearly a part of the recurring Christian influenced theme that the Devil can’t really make anything of his own but instead has to twist good things into bad things. That is almost certainly the main purpose of that type of origin. If you absolutely must shove a political meaning into that, it is only a reflection of that fact that you don’t like Tolkien that you settle into a “it proves he is such a racist who hates black people” idea. It seems an even more natural interpretation to see it as showing the evils of colonizing and enslaving people. Oh look, now he is an anti-colonialist and anti-slavery! I don’t actually think that is a particularly good interpretation either, but once you see it there is evidence for it in the way that kings who try to rule beyond ‘their’ people seem to get into serious trouble in Tolkien’s world. (Is ‘their’ people an inherently racist trope? Maybe, but it isn’t the kind of orcs=black people=evil thing that you were peddling earlier). Also, as far as internal tropes go, it is much easier to argue that orcs are another case of how technological meddling enslaves people (see also The Ring and how it twists its bearers).

And reading the whole Elrond thing as being straight forward authorial support for a racist concept is the kind of thing that we make fun of when someone watches a play and thinks that the villain is going to actually kill the actress. It is a classic story: he’s the father trying to get between lovers so of course he is going to throw whatever he can to try to convince his daughter to stop. He’s a king who doesn’t want his daughter marrying the wrong guy. We aren’t supposed to think that everything he says is uncomplicatedly endorsed by the author. The fact that he chose Elrond to be the father is genius. Elrond is the well meaning, relatively powerful king who nevertheless just retreats into his (very nice) hole and assumes that eventually his kingdom will be choked to death until it turns out that the Ring is dropped into his lap. He is wise, but like all wise characters in Tolkien he has enormous blind spots–see also Gandalf and Saruman the Wise!!! It is almost the whole Christian thing shading the story. Huh…

And the class thing. Yes it doesn’t fit with the modern sensibility, but lets not overplay it. If Elves are high class, Hobbits are low class. Guess who saved the world? Frodo is at best middle class. If you want to criticize class dynamics there is always Sam, and there at least you are really dealing with the text. But even there Sam has a vast amount of nobility that stands in direct contrast to the much more whiny Frodo. If you think it was Tolkien’s intention that we valorize Frodo and dismiss Sam, you’re not looking closely enough.

Which brings us back to the utopia question. I would tend to say that trying to read it as a utopia is a false reading which leads to weird misinterpretation. If you’re reading “the most evil character in the book captured and enslaved people, manipulating them ‘genetically’ through magic, torture and technology to control them better THEREFORE Tolkien didn’t like black people” you’re falling along the interpretative wayside somewhere. TLOTR is much closer to “in a fallen twisted world, by grace sometimes things turn out sort of ok even though we are still scarred by what we lived through”. Which still isn’t perfect, but is a lot closer.


OldJim 10.19.17 at 5:52 pm

As a Roman Catholic on the left, I feel especially well qualified in addressing myself to the seeming contradiction you’ve found in those two Chesterton quotes. I don’t see any necessary contradiction, and I think that I can explain why!

So the first, timeless insight/baseless assertion is that people aren’t wholly malleable; more specifically, that there is something perverse, antisocial, contrary to their own ultimate interests (even if congruent with their most immediate and unreflective preferences) in the motives of human beings. This thing may express itself in different ways at different times, but is nonetheless irreducible to upbringing or circumstance, and therefore ineradicable as long as human beings dwell on the earth. Any political scheme which neglects this or assumes it away is doomed to experience some failure by token of that neglect; the failure being proportionate to the severity of the instance of neglect. In the case of ‘utopias’, the neglect is most often highly severe and the failure is accordingly catastrophic.

The second is a critique of ‘abstract’ or ‘idealist’ ideologies in favour of ‘practical politics’: and it is true that there is a not insubstantial amount of overlap between rhetoric or arguments emphasising the limits of what can be done in politics due to the malevolent presence of original sin, and arguments emphasising the proneness to failure or corruption of attempts to legislate for or to enact abstracted ideals. How often have we, the children of the fall of the Berlin Wall, heard that the Soviet Union “was a nice idea in theory”, but failed because “it didn’t understand the nature or motives of human beings” (Chesterton actually uses an early version of this argument against Wells somewhere: instead of throwing the bathwater of his ideal society out to save the baby of humanity, he declares, Wells would rather, if they were to prove incompatible, throw out the baby to save the bathwater). Likewise, the whole Public Choice Theory propaganda exercise that is ‘Yes Minister’ is filled with different instantiations of the observation that, whatever the naive intentions of even the most angelic legislators, any policy or change of policy (and therefore all government) is almost of its nature one vast collection of perverse incentives for public servants and political or labour representatives, appointed to enact that policy, to change it, or to represent the interests of a constituency, with motives and interests, personal, financial, political, to do so, or not: policy interacts in awkward and unintended ways with the human capacity for corruption and instinct to seek self-interest. Out of the crooked timber of humanity, you could say, no straight thing was ever made. Finally, anyone who has seen Adam Curtis’ documentaries will have seen endless demonstrations of these sorts of problems, the one that comes to my mind as most fitting being the discussion of the attempt to introduce pseudo-markets via ‘targets’ of the New Labour government: tell the police that reductions in crime will be rewarded through pay incentives, and recordings of crime fall; tell hospitals that they will be judged by the length of their waiting lists, and doctors’ time is wasted giving patients useless but speedy preliminary appointments the better to erase them from those statistics.

But the advocacy of ‘practical politics’ doesn’t have any necessary connection to this kind of claim to cynical psychological insight. In fact, in recent years, it has had almost none. I should know, because if it did, I would by both my temperament and my convictions be a great deal more inclined to take it seriously. As a Corbynite, the demands to return to a practical politics that I most frequently hear revolve instead around ‘electability’ – demands to remain on an ostensible ‘centre ground’ that has less and less to do with the stated preferences of the median voter by the day; ‘responsibility’ – demands not to promise anything that the person making the demand considers undeliverable or the delivery of which they consider undesirable; ‘realism’ – by which is meant a set of rival intellectual commitments which had modest successes in the ’90’s, in the wake of the New Right revolution occasioned by the breakdown of the postwar order, but the cracks of which are now visible even to institutions that made their name for their ruthless insistence on deregulation, privatisation, labour law reform et al.

So I would suggest that Chesterton was in possession of ideals the implementation of which he felt he had already rendered consistent with his belief in deep human fallibility, and the sort of advocacy of ‘practical politics’ which he is dismissing as humbug isn’t of this kind, but instead has more to do with these sorts of handwaving appeals to the present order, to hardheadedness and reason and electability and responsibility and all the rest. If you follow. Though I make no claim to be an expert on the currents in liberalism of Chesterton’s time, and someone who can throw light on that would most likely possess the most valuable key to the interpretation of the passage.


Ogden Wernstrom 10.19.17 at 6:00 pm

@83 kindeystones 10.19.17 at 12:03 pm:

I can’t think of a soul anywhere who would want to live in absolutely equal society. No looking down one’s nose at anyone, ever, except those in the past? I’d say that would be a form of hell for one or two names that come to mind.

That’s the first thing that comes to mind as the downside?

This sounds like the need/desire/impulse to dominate others – to have a clear, even-if-arbitrary, hierarchy – that Corey Robin describes in The Reactionary Mind. (In the Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin edition, anyway – I have not seen the new edition yet.)


OldJim 10.19.17 at 6:16 pm

(which is, it turns out, just to belabour a point that several other posters had already made more succinctly. In my defence, I read the comments this morning and felt that I nevertheless had something to contribute – so this evening I wrote this, which I felt was what I had intended that contribution to be. Rereading the other comments, it seems markedly less original now than I had then intended. I can only hope that the forgiving reader finds cause to disagree.)


Lidl Janus 10.19.17 at 8:38 pm

Perhaps an interesting test case for -topian fiction (and maybe it’s not surprising it hasn’t come up in 100-odd comments, because it’s left no cultural impact despite producing three big-budget films) is the Divergent series: no real political statements, no real worldbuilding (from what I’ve heard and seen of it), no real plausibility or sense that said future is going to happen – but clearly a work of dystopian fiction. Perhaps the whole subgenre is at root a set of signifiers, and LOTR isn’t utopian or dystopian because it lacks those signifiers.


J-D 10.19.17 at 8:48 pm

Ogden Wernstrom

@83 kindeystones 10.19.17 at 12:03 pm:

I can’t think of a soul anywhere who would want to live in absolutely equal society. No looking down one’s nose at anyone, ever, except those in the past? I’d say that would be a form of hell for one or two names that come to mind.

That’s the first thing that comes to mind as the downside?

Does your question mark express surprise? On my reading of many past comments, kidneystones regularly treats looking down one’s nose at people as one of the chief pleasures in life.


J-D 10.19.17 at 9:06 pm


Also, it wasn’t a mortal that messed up the golden age but one of the gods, and the way I read it, the world from that on was irredeemably corrupted.

The concluding words of the Silmarillion (in the published version edited by Christopher Tolkien):

Here ends the SILMARILLION. If it has passed from the high and the beautiful to darkness and ruin, that was of old the fate of Arda Marred; and if any change shall come and the Marring be amended, Manwë and Varda may know; but they have not revealed it, and it is not declared in the dooms of Mandos.

I can’t figure any way to reconcile that with a classification as a utopia. Tolkien was a Catholic, and there are references not only in the Silmarillion but also in The Lord Of The Rings that Middle-Earth is a world affected by a Fall in the conventional Catholic sense.


Faustusnotes 10.19.17 at 11:18 pm

What is it about Tolkien that he brings out this defensiveness in his admirers? I think it’s unique in genre literature! Two more commenters piling on to defend him from accusations of racist intent whne I have twice now decried the ascription of authorial intent and made a point that it is unnecessary and gives me the shits. What does it matter whether elrond represents Tolkien’s voice or not? He said what he said and it has meaning inside the story, regardless of whether elrond is Tolkien’s personal representative (do you think he is? I think you sell Tolkien short suggesting that dodgy little Nazi is his rep – Gandalf is most purely intended as Tolkien’s voice and most clearly when he cautions Frodo against killing Gollum). Once again: it doesn’t matter what Tolkien believed or wanted to write, what he wrote was a textbook on scientific racism that is used as such by scientific racists. Also I’m not trying to test him down because I don’t like him or because he’s popular – I have read Tolkien’s works extensively and several times and I have played and GMd his world multiple times. His popularity is important because he has had a pernicious effect on fantasy as a genre but I’m not attacking him be ause I resent his popularity.

Regarding the origin story of the orcs – it doesn’t matter the reason they are evil, what matters is that they are racially evil. Do we excuse Christian views of women’s innate evil because Satan made it happen? Do we say a racist is less racist because they say black people are inferior due to evolution not genesis!? No, we point out that saying moral traits are racially immutable is racist. Especially so if some races are only bad (orcs, southrons and Easterlings). Tolkien’s fundamental structure – something that hasn’t changed across all the iterations of his book – is racially immutable moral traits. Consider his dwarfs, which shifted personality several times over years – he never considered the possibility that their personality was not racially determined, he just improved the traits.

Next, the claim that Frodo is middle class is laughable. He is the child of one of the richest people in the shire, endowed with huge inherited wealth and a servant who was passed down the family line. I’m sorry but there is no leftist critique of that beyond the obvious.

I’m going to paraphrase xi Jinping here and say that we leftist s need to ruhlessly analyse our own characters to make a better world. Ask yourself why you’re so defensive if a bunch of 100 year old stories written by a rich white dude about a world where everyone’s fate was determined by their birth and race. Is it because you loved the books? Not good enough. You can love them despite their flaws, and analyse them with a clear head when asked whether the shire is a utopia, and if so what utopia it represents. It’s not, and if there is any utopic element in lotr it is fascist, authoritarian and extremely depressing.


Faustusnotes 10.19.17 at 11:21 pm

Which brings us back to the point that a book is not a utopia because a few characters show great personality in the breach. A books is utopian if it is about a society striving to get rid of the breach.

(And dystopias don’t just happen from good intentions gone wrong – the rulers of 1984 are evil and they know it).


kidneystones 10.19.17 at 11:33 pm

@ 98 Where did I say that was the first thing I thought of re: inequality, or the the post in general? Of course, you’re not stating directly that’s what I did, you’re simply asking, perhaps, if I did by implication, and then engaging in an amateur psychology exercise at a distance of the sort that adds so little to any discussion.

The first thing thing I thought of reading the thread was interesting OP, a broad appreciation of the discussion, and some severe criticisms of a tiny? percentage of the comments. All of which I kept to myself.

When I saw a comment I really liked, I chose to respond. And it seems to me that NM is entirely correct. One of the comments I could have made and will now is that blogs are themselves utopian by design and intent according to the definition employed by JH. The effort to establish utopian communities in real life is definitely a topic for another discussion, although we might argue that the discourse of some communities should be seen most accurately as a collective effort to design, construct, and police a fantasy utopian republic with it’s own hierarchies and underclasses, goblins, and do-gooders.

More (sorry) on topic is the broader question of establishing utopian norms for a particular time and place as a set of ideals. Dante describes a Paradise that might or might not be utopian, but he certainly regards the Inferno as a place where the wicked of his own world finally get their just deserts. I stand by my original observation re: NM @ 73. It’s entirely fair to react with hostility towards that which we read in fantasy, but entirely unreasonable to accuse the author with failing to adhere to the requirements of a different place, time, or culture. That goes for real people and figures constructed out of our imaginations. The time police are of course watching and are quick to pounce upon Plato, Tolkien, and other similar offenders. Finally, on heaven and utopias, I suggest David Byrne and the TH song on the topic. At least as good as much of the discussion here.

Pray continue.


kidneystones 10.19.17 at 11:43 pm

Sorry, and of course ‘Nothing But Flowers.’ Cheers.


faustusnotes 10.20.17 at 12:13 am

Are there any conservative utopias? I don’t think I’ve read any, unless you count the Turner Diaries, which I don’t think is a utopia. Someone above mentioned Gor but that handwaves around the utopian question by simply asserting that women biologically love being slaves – I think it would be a utopia if it posited a social order in which women are forced into slavery and happy with it, which it explicitly doesn’t do. Also it doesn’t address the obvious social problem of lots of women being locked up with a few rich men, so I don’t think it covers its bases. Are there any others? Lots of lefty utopias try to address the idea of a society that finds ways to eliminate inequality and suffering (and in the case of utopias like in the Dispossessed, discover unforeseen consequences that the heroes attempt to solve). Is that libertarian tosh from Orson Scott Card a utopia? Surely libertarians have spewed out a few?


John Holbo 10.20.17 at 12:56 am

“Are there any conservative utopias?”

Galt’s Gulch? Which was also called Atlantis, if I recall.


J-D 10.20.17 at 2:16 am

I have not read The Probability Broach by L Neil Smith, but from what I have read about it I suspect it may count as a libertarian utopia.


Kantorovich 10.20.17 at 2:21 am

@107 Faustusnotes

There are many libertarian utopias, most of them unreadable. The Probability Broach is I guess one of the more classic, where Shay’s rebellion won, a true libertarian America was formed, and some how this all leads to communicating with Dolphins, the end of slavery, isolationist America with no standing armies always winning wars with militias etc.


John Holbo 10.20.17 at 3:49 am

“The Good Place”? That sounds good! (I didn’t know it existed.)


TM 10.20.17 at 7:17 am

Thanks for the quote J-D 102!


TM 10.20.17 at 7:26 am

108: Conservative is not Libertarian-in-the-US-sense. Those are totally different and mostly incompatible ideologies (I know US political terminology is screwed up but we don’t have to contribute to it). I would say a conservative utopia is implausible. Conservatives prefer to talk about the impossibility of utopia.


Z 10.20.17 at 7:33 am

The Good Place is great (and like W, the less you know about it, the better).


Mario 10.20.17 at 7:51 am

What is it about Tolkien that he brings out this defensiveness in his admirers?

Let me explain.

We live in very moralistic times. In the name of a “greater good” all sorts of beautiful and nice things are marred and defaced, and those doing that feel virtuous while clearly making the world a worse place. This facism thing you bring up, again and again, and the way you bring it up, has something talibanesque to it. Why don’t you just let it be? Tolkien wrote very beautiful, inspiring stories that still are read and enjoyed decades later, and will probably continue to be enjoyed for many decades to come. Id est, Tolkien plays in an absolute top of the top league. There is something to his world that is obviously great and noble – enough so that many consider that world, however flawed, an Utopia (for evidence, if you need any, this thread). In this light your accusations against the book just feel sad, grey, and narrow minded.

Additionally, it is always annoying when people wield that ‘fascism’ club with such abandon, because it (a) it is often factually wrong, as in this case, and (b) it slowly erodes the association of the word with the very real evil it originally designated. After all, if middle earth outside of Angband is a fascist landscape, then how bad can fascism really be?

Which brings us back to the point that a book is not a utopia because a few characters show great personality in the breach. A books is utopian if it is about a society striving to get rid of the breach.

I find this definition too narrow minded. Why do you discard the case when society manages to be happy despite the breach, or by embracing the breach? Or simply by managing to not give a shred of a damn about it, as is the case in middle earth?


SusanC 10.20.17 at 8:30 am

One possible difference between utopian/dystopian fuction and Tolkien inspired fantasy is that fantasy often treats evil as being the product of a supernatural entity, rather than human agency. That’s a Christian influence on fantasy, of course, though you could debate whether certain fantasy works fall into a Christian heresy by overly reifing Satan.

Hmmm… is utopian literature necessarily pre Christian or post Christian? Plato was a pagan. The idea that utopia might be achievable on this earth, by human agency, without Christ, is not particularly Christian.


TM 10.20.17 at 9:20 am

Mario 115: I don’t think a story in which “races” of people are depicted as inherently evil can ever be enjoyed innocently. The question isn’t even whether the author approved of racism. He has created a world in which racism is depicted as entirely justified, even necessary, as part of the natural order. I don’t know whether people become racist from reading Tolkien but I very much suspect that latent racist tendencies which most of us hold are confirmed and reinforced when we read stories in which a racist world view is taken for granted. To make matters worse, Tolkien’s inferior races are all associated with dark skin and geographic South and East, and if we didn’t know it we could all guess how the superior races look. To claim that all of this is entirely innocent story-telling and has nothing to do with real world racism is beyond naive. And how anyone can describe that kind of world, separated in inferior and superior races, as beautiful and inspiring and great and noble – I’m sorry but you can’t be serious.


Faustusnotes 10.20.17 at 9:48 am

Mario, are you aware that there are criticisms of lotr from a black perspective that say, hmm, this world seems to think black people are bad and should be exterminated? Have you noticed the fantasy genre is very white, and wondered why? Do you know why the Syfy channel made ged white? Could it be that what is “great and noble” about the books is only great and noble from a very narrow perspective? Now sure if we’re talking about what a cool character Aragorn is or if we’re arguing about whether Peter Jackson wrecked the character of faramir or improved Sam hanger, this stuff is not relevant, but here we are asking if the writing is a utopia and to do that we necessarily must ask about the social content of the stories. I’m sorry but if you dont like that don’t read a thread about whether a book is a utopia. You don’t get to say “oh it’s great and noe so it’s a utopia” and walk away. You have to explain why an authoritarian feud society where everyone’s morality is racially determined is a utopia. That means engaging with the politics and the fact that the racial model at the heart of Tolkiens worldview (by this I mean the world he created because I refuse to use the wanky word ” legendarium” ) is fascist. If you can’t deal with your favourite writer being criticized don’t propose him as a model for a social novel in a critical forum.

I’m happy to admit my definition of utopia is too narrow, and to add to it. But you can’t just say that Tolkien’s characters don’t care about the breach. Aragorn is a king for fucks same, and Gandalf is a demi god. They created the social order, which means choosing not to give a damn is the same as accepting it. Which brings us back to my point: lotr is a world of authoriarian racists who don’t care about the vast majority of their subjects and aren’t interested in making their world better. That cannot be a utopia!


steven t johnson 10.20.17 at 12:37 pm

Yes, Probability Broach is a conservative utopia. I don’t know if we can usefully see Atlas Shrugged as a utopian novel, since we spend so little time in Galt’s Gulch. But Rand’s conceiving Galt’s motor and Rearden’s metal and Wyatt’s shale oil as a way to make it all possible fits it in very nicely with Ralph 135C41. The thing about conservative utopias is they’re about how the True Knowledge of Human Nature will lead the best of all possible worlds. It’s just that the reader is apt to think they are utopian in the same way Shakespeare’s problem comedies are comic, or end happily.

Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution series starts with a dystopia (The Star Fraction), ends in three utopias, two libertarian (on Mars, The Stone Canal and in a sort of sequel, The Cassini Division, on Earth liberated from the Commies who end up lurking in exile in outer space,) and one pastoral (The Sky Road, an alternate ending.) Poul Anderson if I remember correctly played with this too, but I don’t find him memorable enough to recall any specific titles.

As The Probability Broach shows, SF tropes like alternate worlds, alternate histories can be used to contrast utopia and dystopia, with our world being one of the dystopias, in one and the same novel. Other examples would include Joanna Russ’ The Female Man, Marge Piercy Woman on the Edge of Time and Terry Bisson Fire on the Mountain. I suggest that it is the utopian element that gives these novels their emotional heft. I know this is directly contrary to received wisdom about boring utopias.


Trader Joe 10.20.17 at 1:30 pm

@107 “Are there any conservative Utopias”

I’ll nominate William Faulkners Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha counties.

While I myself would hardly dub them utopian (using the same reasoning as many above have against LOTR) they would undoubtedly meet JH’s proposed definition (and have similar helpings of racism and classism).


JFA 10.20.17 at 1:37 pm

I think a few people got a bit too riled up about this subject. This is why I’m glad I didn’t go into academia.


Placeholder 10.20.17 at 2:54 pm

There are no conservative Utopias. As Oscar Wilde said correctly:

‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.’

There are no conservative utopias because they don’t believe a better world – never mind perfect one – is possible. In fact, they believe their perfect world has already failed.


Sebastian H 10.20.17 at 3:27 pm

Yes. LOTR does not depict a utopia. And trying to treat it like it does is part of what is leading you into deep misreading. Things like “Gandalf and Aragorn” made the social order are just crazy. Gandalf is routinely hanging on by his fingernails. You know who made the social order of orcs that you are so critical of? Sauron. You know who is depicted as the biggest villain? Sauron. You know what the most natural interpretation for that is from an author raised as Catholic? That the Devil corrupted and enslaved the human race through the fall and the introduction of evil. You know what comes to ALL HUMANS through parental inheritance according to that worldview? Original sin. The natural reading is right there if you don’t feel the need to force it.

And even if you need to force it, the anti-slavery/anti colonialism reading is still more natural than your racialist reading. An evil being captures and enslaves good people, corrupting them with evil technology which twists their genes to make them and their children bend to his will. That reading has far more support than your reading (and even then I think it is a stretch–the devil/original sin one is much clearer.

None of this is a utopia of course.


bianca steele 10.20.17 at 3:55 pm

I think the idea that Middle Earth is “Catholic” is too simple, and frankly, odd. It’s my understanding that Tolkien based this on Norse–pagan–mythology. Is it that he imported the “Catholic” (obviously, Judaism, Protestantism, and other religions share this concept) of the Fall into Norse legends? Or was he making a point that other cultures have similar concepts to our own? (Even going full Campbell and claiming that there’s only one culture, really, and we all share it, no matter our local language or myth system?)

The idea that Middle Earth is “conventional feudalism” doesn’t fit, either. There’s no secular Roman imperium shading over time into an international church. There’s no ruling class sanctioned by the church; there are no schools and hospitals instituted by the church; there is no church. Just as there are no prisons and judges and magistrates sanctioned by the state. What passes for a “ruling class” (sanctioned by the church) is instead a bunch of foreign “races” (actually, separate species), vaguely sanctioned by wandering wise men.

From a specifically English point of view, this looks like the world as it might appear to a provincial village–though one that somehow avoided having any churches or magistrates visible to any of its inhabitants. It looks like a preoccupation with distinguishing between Celts, Normans, and Anglo-Saxons, such as in Drabble’s “The Peppered Moth.” The “good” villagers are thus seen as Celts or Anglo-Saxons, and the rulers are Normans, or whatever. But this is pretty obviously racist.

Even before you get to Orcs (who, I admit, I remember little of). But if you’re proposing that a reasonable analogue to our world is one in which different human characteristics and social roles–and cultures–are organically, genetically, physically baked into groups of “humans”? That’s the definition of racism.


bianca steele 10.20.17 at 4:00 pm

Racism is much more obvious in Narnia, where real-world geopolitics seeps in directly, in the form of battling obvious Turks and Muslims. But maybe if I read it now, I’d see that Tolkien also uses some traditional language related to the Crusades, or something.


steven t johnson 10.20.17 at 4:13 pm

Staircase memory! Poul Anderson Brain Wave and, even more, Shield.


TheSophist 10.20.17 at 8:15 pm

John and others: Sorry to keep harping on about “The Good Place”, but last night’s episode, “The Trolley Problem”, was superb. Major plot points included not only multiple trolley problems (with Philippa Foot being appropriately namechecked) but the discovery of a previously unknown Kant manuscript!


kidneystones 10.20.17 at 11:42 pm

The exegesis of Tolkien, Plato, More, and Lewis seems to focus on subtext and structure at the expense of narrative and explication via various voices. The subtext values in pretty much all western literature in the first-half of the 20th-century are the anti-thesis of utopian with some notable exceptions, unless we are willing to re-cast romantic re-imaginings of the past, or future, as utopian. I like the Wilde quote above very much, as I do Wilde in general. He’s responding to worlds that are very much in crisis – the treatment of the poor in the west was almost as dismal as the treatment of the poor in Africa and Asia. Eugenics and racialism were accepted as scientific fact in contemporary societies, so we shouldn’t be too surprised to discover similar phenomena described as fixtures, in a sense, to make fantasy worlds recognizable to readers. Hierarchies of culture with their attendant values according to ethnicity and gender were/are fixtures of this world and virtually impossible without conscious effort on the part of the writers. Which is why I think JH’s description is too broad for objective classification, but excellent for discussions.

Lewis is much more interested in Christianity than any other issue. At least part of Lewis and more of Tolkien must also, imho, be seen as explicit opposition to totalitarian utopias (USSR, Germany) states which were/explicitly utopian in nature. In fact, if the question is authorial intent, I believe there’s a great deal more evidence suggestion that both Lewis and Tolkien are much more anti-utopian, than utopian, and intentionally so. I feel we can reasonably cast the efforts of Sauron, or the Witch, as efforts to remake Middle Earth and Narnian as societies of sort foreign and terrifying to contemporary readers, but nonetheless utopian and totalitarian in structure. There’s plenty of talk of removing the ‘foreign’ shadow from the lands so that the various different critters and species can live in diverse harmony under a benign and holy ruler (implicitly the British Empire). However, the elimination, or enslavement of species and of all knowledge and warmth is explicit and springs from the mouths of characters committed to imposing totalitarian utopias upon everyone, as was occurring in the world at that time. Narnia is much more a romantic present and past that involves, preserves, and appeals to a constructed innocence of childhood.

Suggesting there’s something evil in taking pleasure from reading Tolkien, or Lewis, is the utterance I’d expect only from a 17th-century puritan, or an avowed fascist, keen to ban, or burn the offending text and, perhaps, the readers as well. Indeed, there are a number of modern critics who regard Tolkien, in particular, as satanic. Birds of a feather, perhaps?


kidneystones 10.20.17 at 11:45 pm

Should be “fixtures of this world and virtually impossible to remove without the conscious..”


soru 10.21.17 at 12:39 pm

two libertarian (on Mars, The Stone Canal and in a sort of sequel, The Cassini Division, on Earth liberated from the Commies who end up lurking in exile in outer space,)

As I’ve argued here before, New Mars is Libertarian, but definitely not a utopia. A 17C Frenchman in contemporary North Korea would say ‘wow, awesome technology’, and maybe convert to Juche thought. But they wouldn’t be justified in doing so.

And the Solar Union of Cassini Division is about as far from libertarian as it is possible to be. It’s more or less what you would get if you took a Usenet libertarian FAQ and added a ‘not’ everywhere it was grammatically possible.


SusanC 10.21.17 at 12:44 pm

On the original post’s mention of heaven and hell: surely heaven is a utopia, just the plan for getting there from here used some out of the box thinking.


steven t johnson 10.21.17 at 2:57 pm

soru@130 Presumably soru was posting as Richard M in the link. First, as to New Mars, the libertarian utopia is producing the technology, because it liberates the human spirit to perfection. That is is techno-Faustian rather than pastoral/static is not the kind of distinction that makes the difference you want. New Mars is not an outlier mining inherited or borrowed or stolen tech to put up a facade, to wildly erect an unsustainable, ergo unreal, illusory, mockery of a real society. That is what people thought about economic development in the USSR and other socialist countries, to be sure.

Second, the Solar Union is destroyed by the awesome moral and spiritual and intellectual superiority of New Mars, which is sort of the point of The Cassini Division. The lesson is the Solar Union’s inferiority.

As to the “general point that the interesting part of Ken’s fiction is not merely working out which _meant to be_ dystopia and which utopia, but which is actually _is_…” I must start by reminding you that there are ironies meant to subvert, and ironies meant for plausible deniability. When MacLeod plays The Restoration Game and brings back capitalism, is it really an ironic subversion of the reality?

It’s like The Taming of the Shrew, you can read it at face value to make perfect (if obnoxious) sense. If you try to read New Mars’ explosive dismantling of the Solar Union as some sort of irony about libertarianism, sorry, not seeing it. Also, that would mean we are to see Ellen’s final defiant words as real promises, and a heartfelt and eloquent outpouring of the human spirit. That reading doesn’t make sense, because it all sounds hollow. This is overwhelmingly obvious if you contrast it to the end of Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, which was sincere.


Soru 10.21.17 at 6:54 pm

Heh, it’s fittingly ironic that you are apparently posting from a parallel universe identical in every way execpt the contents of a few Scottish sf novels.

In the books I read, the threat the solar union was arrayed against was the Jovian posthumans, equally a threat to the News Mars colony, hence the ending with arguably a higher death count than the rest of space opera put together. The key self-justification of New Mars may have that they had the best toys; it’s true nothing in that one book contradicts them.

What do your version of the books have to say on the toys available to the Solar Union?


MisterMr 10.21.17 at 9:55 pm

First of all, an “utopia” is a narrative genre where the author explicitly and clearly describes a perfect world, and by “perfect” I mean perfect from the point of view of the author who is using it as a ideal comparation to his/our real world, and by “author” I don’t mean the really existing guy/gal who wrote the story but the narrative figure that is implicit in the text, known as “model author”, a concept that was proposed AFAIK by Umberto Eco as part of interpretive semiotics (I did have to study some semiotics at univeristy, and in fact for one year Eco was nominally one of my teachers, even tough one of his aides did all the lessons).

Basically the idea is that in the normal process of interpretation of a text, a reader has to make various inference about what the author is pointing to just in order to understand the basic meaning of what he/she is reading. The “model author” is the figure that is inferable by the text through various hints disseminated in the text so that the reader can understand what he is reading, and is a very different thing from the meat and blood author who actually wrote the text.

In other words “utopias” are such only if and to the degree that they are presented as utopias in the text, that clearly disqualify the LOTR and many other stories.
(Plus incidentially the Shire is clearly the best place in Middle Earth, and is also the place that is closer to our own world, so I really can’t see how one can view the rest of ME as an utopia).

Second, about Tolkien, there are two things that from my point of view are totally obvious, but for some reason everybody gets it wrong (IMO):

1) LOTR is set in the PRE ROMAN Great Britain + Ireland (that will be divided later by the sea god in a fit of rage). Tolkien says this explicitly. Why does everybody say that it is a middle ages setting? Were middle ages Britons politeists? Middle ages != pre-roman mythical past.
Howard too set his stories before the fall of Atlantis, and there are tons of references to the classical world in early sword and sorcery stories (even the elephants in the LOTR are totally a citation of Hannibal). What is this fixation with the idea of the middle ages? I blame Arthur (although note that there are no knights in ME).

2) So Tolkien writes a novel in the middle of WW2, while Germans are continuously bombing his head, and in the novel there is a really evil population that is bent to world conquer and in fact more or less bombs Gondor, and this population represents… blacks??? Seriously? I mean isn’t it obvious that the orcs if anything are the nazis? The “evil kingdom” is in the south-east and, while there are really a lot of countries that are south and east from the point of view of the UK, the first one is Germany.
This is not to say that T’s political opinions were necessarily the best, but the idea that orcs=black people has no basis in the novel.


Mario 10.21.17 at 10:02 pm

What about dubious Dystopias?

I think A Brave New World is pretty weird, once you look closely.

For one, if we manage to get to 2540 like that, we certainly manage to solve, along the way, some very serious problems in a way that nobody can claim wasn’t damn, and i mean damn, successful. No nuclear Armageddon, no mayor ecological disaster.

And now suppose you read that book after being released from prision, in Lagos, having grown up there poor. Or after growing up a child of poor illegal immigrants to Saudi Arabia. How on earth are you going to see the world depicted there as anything but a fantastic Utopia? Free drugs, free and excellent health care, food, plenty of sex. And women don’t have to live through the ghastly horrors of childbirth (oh yes, it’s often quite bad, even today with optimal healthcare). And, to boot, that society is even benign enough to have a reservoir for the misfits, for fucks sake! Where they can continue being whatever they want!

What would you make of John’s (the protagonist of ABNW, not our gracious host :) ) stubborn insistence of messing his life up? Is there not something deeply wrong in our understanding of A Brave New World?


Donald Johnson 10.21.17 at 10:30 pm

“I think a few people got a bit too riled up about this subject.”

Yep. Mario and Sebastian speak for me, if I were to get into this, but there are so many real issues where we could be screaming at each other it seems a shame to waste all this emotional energy on the ethics of orc slaughter.


Donald Johnson 10.21.17 at 11:13 pm

Oh, I can’t resist. If you want a fascist totalitarian racist utopia, it is Banks’s Culture series. The Minds are vastly superior to humans and it is stated that their lives are worth more than those of a mere human. Out of the sheer goodness of their hearts they do their best to make the inferior beings happy, but many of them look down on us. They also take it upon themselves to manipulate other societies for their own good and at times they do this to people who are Culture citizens. The fact that humans largely admit the machines are better is presented as something good and alien societies that don’t want to be ruled by their machines are backward reactionaries. The Minds generously allow humans to vote on things, but nobody thinks humans are in charge. This is Utopia run by liberal humanitarian interventionists who are vastly smarter and superior in every way to their subjects.

I enjoy the Culture series, probably because it is fun to read and I see it as a fantasy.


kidneystones 10.22.17 at 5:43 am

137@ Glad you couldn’t resist!


kidneystones 10.22.17 at 5:58 am

And speaking of Utopias, Thomas Frank opens a can of worms at the Guardian.



kidneystones 10.22.17 at 9:39 am

Finally, on fantasy dystopias – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIVTpSYt9wk

I spend my weekends researching, among other things, the construction of a set of ‘ideal’ aesthetic values in the early 19th century, and normally listen to youtube as diversion. My tastes vary, but given the need of some to vent I decided to listen again to the dystopian vision of America and the world articulated by our intellectual and moral superiors on election night when the world effectively came to an end last year.

Where does fantasy writing begin and end? The linked broadcast begins quite literally with an animated discussion anticipating a ‘fully-blue eastern seaboard.’ That would be a vision of Utopia. Unfortunately that sandcastle doesn’t survive the first hour of coverage as waves of results pour in. The narrative quickly morphs into a vision of a dystopian America replete with variations of Aragon’s speech before the gates of Mordor spilling from the lips of millionaire bubbleheads, and predictions that all the good hobbits will be chained together beneath the burning trees of the Shire before being marched off to work in Sarumen’s mines. Scary stuff! Cormack McCarthy here we come.

Fast forward to this afternoon parked before my computers, where the arena of combat is not in the streets, or before one of the many internment camps of Rachel Maddow’s election night imagination, but a comment debate over Trump’s snipe with America at peace, a booming stock market, and record unemployment. On college campuses symbols of oppression are being torn down, not erected, as universities finally find the backbone to protect all speech. Even one or two of the truly sacred cows of the corrupt establishment (HW) are now in the public stocks.

We’re a very long way from paradise, to be sure, but neither are living the dystopian reality of hate and fear defined as an absolute certainty less than a year ago. Clear confirmation of that is the topic of discussion on JH’s other thread. And other nations are noticing America’s imperfect prosperity under the new President and voting why not?


Thanks for the reading suggestions one and all.


Donald Johnson 10.22.17 at 1:15 pm

Footnote to my previous comment
You could look at both LOTR and the Culture series as fantasies about alternate worlds where some species of intelligent beings really are better in some objective ways than mere humans. The Silmarillion is a bit of a letdown because there the elves seem as morally petty as humans, but maybe 7000 years of regret over their bad choices taught them something by LOTR’s time. This is certainly true of Galadriel. Both Banks and Tolkien also depict species who are collectively more evil than humans.

It is not that difficult to tell we don’t live in a world like the ones that contain the Minds, the Valar, drones or elves, orcs or the Affront or the Idirians. If people wish to think they are the real life version of elves or Minds and that other humans are like orcs, that is their problem.

Now I have let myself get sucked in. Must back away.


steven t johnson 10.22.17 at 7:09 pm

Soru@133 “What do your version of the books have to say on the toys available to the Solar Union?” That the libertarian utopia of a single city on New Mars has cast the communist stasis of the Solar Union into the shade, because “toys” are weapons are life. The Solar Union can’t compete.

As I said before, a conservative utopia is one that pictures a social order conforming to Human Nature. As described by conservative ideology (pejorative sense meant,) to be sure. It may still simultaneously see the now as the Best Possible World, and the Golden Age somewhere in the past too. This is inconsistent but conservatism proper has no use for consistency, a hobgoblin of little minds shrunk to fit reason.

As to why MacLeod insists on two genocides of the Fast Folk for his happy endings… I tend to think MacLeod is not really in control of his material, which is undermined by a powerful covert commitment to reaction. This is probably unknown to himself, but the dude has spent years putting the “-ite” in Trotskyite. That takes a toll. I don’t think this is coherently handled. You do, no doubt because you can explicate it all.

MisterMr@134 To the best of my knowledge, Numinor was taken from the poetry of Charles Williams, and respelled. It is Atlantis. I’ve only read Williams’ occult horror novels, so this is second-hand knowledge, to be sure. Also, The Lord of the Rings was begun before WWII. As I recall, The Hobbit was something of an excerpt from his longstanding hobby. And that was published in 1937. Lastly, sorry, but I’m convinced Mordor is the western front from WWI. By the way, if you or anyone else wants to examine fantasy for unwholesome ideas, you really must read Charles Williams. His version of T.S. Eliot in his ghost story is an unintentional hoot.

Mario@135 Yes, I think you are correct. All the really bad stuff is done by the Savage. The thing is, though, that without human suffering, there is no true Art. And therefore Brave New World is a dystopia, not a utopia. You may object that validating a cruel world for the sake of Art is kind of reactionary. I can only reply there is a reason by the novel has been paired with 1984 as reactionary propaganda for teens for decades. How any of this fits with Ape and Essence, Island and The Doors of Perception is beyond me, as I haven’t read them.

Donald Johnson@137 Or the Minds are the administration of things, rather than the State, which has indeed withered away. I don’t hold with a Corey Robinesque reduction of everything to psychological/aesthetic moralizing, but the Minds show no sign of fascist chic, or even David Bowie’s Thin White Duke. On a more mundane level, fascism without imperial conquest seems an absurdity.

kidneystones@140 “America at peace, a booming stock market, and record unemployment…” I think record unemployment would be marked by a rapid increase in real wages. Nor do I think a booming stock market is really a sign of a strong economy, rather than a strong finance sector. Were John Quiggin to condescend, he would probably scorn me, but I’m not even sure Adam Smith would have agreed with you. And lastly, the idea that the US is at peace borders on contemptible. The wars never stop.Also, we are years away from having escaped from Trump without a general war. At this point, the strongest safeguard we have is probably that sinking feeling in a general’s stomach when expected to actually win real victories with a quasi-mercenary army stiffened with a cultivated caste sensibility.


kidneystones 10.22.17 at 9:26 pm

@140 Fair enough, but the Clintonite DNC head is still screaming ‘end of the world’ to demand ‘unity’ in the war against Sauron.



Faustusnotes 10.23.17 at 12:19 am

Donald Johnson, I agree regarding the culture, and it’s one of the reasons I like that series so much. The ambiguous nature of the society’s perfection is a lot of fun.

MisterMr, yes you could read the orcs as a placeholder for Nazis if you want to draw Tolkiens experience and personal history into the text in order to draw a certain conclusion, but it’s not the list obvious conclusion , and the most obvious interpretation is not that orcs =blacks. It’s that the world is divided into races whose morality is entirely racially determined, they can’t live together and interbreeding is bad where it is possible. Furthermore most of the evil/bad races are black or brown, the map vaguely resembles Europe/Africa and the southern part full of evil black people is obviously geographically like Africa. Black people coming from the south to attack white people, black people being evil – all in the text. There are no bombs, no Nazis, and if you want to draw geographical analogues it looks much more like Germany is the old arthedain (everything east of the branduin is probably Russia) .

There are no perfect geographic similarities but the Aryan racial theory and scientific racism are fundamental to the history and the story. I’m sorry but you can’t escape this by dubious European interwar historical analogies.


TM 10.23.17 at 7:37 am

bianca 124: “The idea that Middle Earth is “conventional feudalism” doesn’t fit, either. There’s no secular Roman imperium shading over time into an international church.”

I may be going out on a limb here but haven’t feudal structures existed outside Christian Europe, e.g. Japan? Although I don’t want to claim that Middle Earth is feudal in any technical sense. Part of the problem is that we don’t know all that much about social structures in ME. We don’t really know in any detail how Gondor for example is ruled. What is the role of the nobility, what is the economic basis of the ruling class, etc.? About religion, LotR is almost silent, although Tolkien did give us some hints in other writings. To me, the absence of this background information simply means that Tolkien didn’t feel it was important to the story. And it wasn’t important because he had no interest in utopian speculation. If he had intended to tell us – “this is how to me a ideal society looks like” – he would at least have made an effort describing that ideal society and what makes it special. That is one reason why I think conflating the fantasy genre with utopian literature is just silly.


Peter T 10.23.17 at 10:17 am

I can’t agree with faustus on Tolien’s views on race. They seem to me to reflect only the notions of race accepted as common sense at the time, and too undeveloped to carry much intellectual weight.

As for LoTR and utopias, it seems to me to reflect a rather medieval view of what utopia might look like – the ordinary person snug in their cottage, ruled over justly by the rightful king, well-advised. I’m reminded of the middle period Egyptian view of heaven – they were embalmed and buried with dolls called shabtis – “and when in the afterlife I am called to work in the fields, my shabti will arise and work for me”. So utopia was no field-work, and all the barley, beer and onions one could want.


TM 10.23.17 at 10:36 am

Surprise surprise, kidney disease is once again spewing laughable propaganda for the ruling plutocracy. Surprise surprise, he’s once again totally off-topic. Surprise surprise, moderation is once again silent.


MisterMr 10.23.17 at 11:43 am

@steven t johnson 142
“To the best of my knowledge, Numinor was taken from the poetry of Charles Williams, and respelled. It is Atlantis.”
Cool. Well Numinor really looks like Atlantis, it’s quite obvious that T took the idea from there. It still counts as pre-roman.
“Also, The Lord of the Rings was begun before WWII.”
Wikipedia saiz ” Written in stages between 1937 and 1949″, so it was written before and during WW2.
“Lastly, sorry, but I’m convinced Mordor is the western front from WWI.”
Might be, I don’t think that Mordor really “is” anything, but I think it was influenced by T’s experience, and since he wrote before and during WW2 I think WW2 has a big place in it, although other experiences certainly intermixed.

@Faustusnotes 144
“MisterMr, yes you could read the orcs as a placeholder for Nazis if you want to draw Tolkiens experience and personal history into the text in order to draw a certain conclusion, but it’s not the list obvious conclusion”
well, it’s what looks obvious to me.
“and the most obvious interpretation is not that orcs =blacks. It’s that the world is divided into races whose morality is entirely racially determined, they can’t live together and interbreeding is bad where it is possible.”
well yeah, and in facts no carachter that stars evil at the beginning ends up good in the end (even Gollum whose moral drama is a big part of the story in the end relapses into temptation).
I agree that LOTR has a very conservative ethics, I just don’t think that the “races” are a big part of it, neither that LOTR “races” can be compared to “races” in “scientific racism”.
I think that quite evidently the idea of the various races comes from various “fairy people” of ancient mithology, stuff like the “Fir Bolg/Fomorians” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fir_Bolg follow the link to the Fomorians), or Kobolds, and many other types of fantastic creatures and populations that exist in ancient legends and folklore.
Generally, as fairy people are more like religious beliefs than “peoples”, you don’t worry wether it is possible to intermarry between humand and leprechauns, or humans and japanese foxes for example: it’s just not the point of the story.
But T raionalized these fairy people into bone and meat population, thus creating this ambiguous thingie that often in modern fantasy is called “demihumans” (whereas it doesn’t make sense to call fairy people as demihumans, they are more like ghosts and spirits).
Because I see the “races” in LOTR as this kind of fairy people, I don’t think that the lack of intermarriage is a case of racism. Also the idea that the races cannot live together is false, it’s just the elves that are arseholes and despise all the others (and are often depicted as such). And then there are the orcs, but again the orcs aren’t really a “race” but something warped and corrupted by the evil god – in general I think that the only “race” in the modern sense are the Numenoreans, and they also look as insufferable pricks.
Compare this to those middle ages/early renaissance epic narratives about the crusades, and you can see how middle earth is way less racist that a “modern epic” could be. Or compare it to stories where white explorers meet “savages” or things like it.
Now maybe T was racist, but on the whole his fault was that of writing a story that could be misconstructed as representing racial division and that he didn’t see the problem, not that he wrote a story about racial division.
“Furthermore most of the evil/bad races are black or brown”
From the point of view of a Briton, an Italian could be brown – it just happens that the men from the south are from the south. As I already said, ME is supposed to be Great Britain + Ireland, so the other people necessarily have to come from the south.
“the map vaguely resembles Europe/Africa and the southern part full of evil black people is obviously geographically like Africa.”
Again, T stated explicitly that Middle Earth is Great Britain + Ireland. Where do you see that it looks like Africa?
“Black people coming from the south to attack white people, black people being evil – all in the text.”
IIRC they southerners are never described as blacks.
“There are no perfect geographic similarities but the Aryan racial theory and scientific racism are fundamental to the history and the story.”
Not really. Celts weren’t Aryan, and T is explicit about the setting so nobody in ME is Aryan in any way. The closest thing to the idea of a superior brand of humans is the Numenoreans, and they don’t look very Aryan (they are black haired for example).
“I’m sorry but you can’t escape this by dubious European interwar historical analogies.”
I think I can by matching it to pre-roman Britain instead than to middle ages Britain (which had Saxons who were actually “Aryans”).
Again I don’t understand why everybody reads the middle ages in the LOTR when T explicitly states in various writings that it is a pre-roman setting. I think it’s just a reflexive idea because many people link fantasy to the Arthurian cycle, but in reality the Arthurian cycle had very little influence on modern fantasy stories, most stuff comes from pagan mythology (that 19th and early 20th century romantics loved, including but not limited to the nazis).


MisterMr 10.23.17 at 2:13 pm

This is a bit OT, but I think that fantasy novels, and largely the LOTR, fit in a particular cultural movement of the 19th and early 20th century that is linked to a perceived “loss of values”, like in Nietche’s “God is dead”, and it is reductive to see it as just the description of an alternative (and racist) world.
I’m quite facinated by this, hence my insistence on Tolkien.

I’ll try to explain my point starting with Giacomo Leopardi, a major figure of italian romanticism that I had to study to boredom in high school:


Leopardi was the son of a noble family in the Papal States, and since childood he was very cultured (he could read/write Greek, Latin, Aramaic and various european languages).
During his times european romanticism started to be fascinated with Celts, ancient Germans and other cultures, while the roman and greek antiquity become slightly devalued relative to the really high esteem they enjoyed during renaissance and enlightenment.
This fascination had often strong nationalistic undertones, so Leopardi, being Italian, couldn’t switch to the Celts and had to stick with the Romans.
However the Romans Leopardi idolized were not the rationalistic Romans imagined by the enlightenment, rather Leopardi had this idea of the romantic Romans, who did see the world to through “child eyes” and saw a world full of gods, monsters and heroes. Later in his life he took a very nihilistic view, where human life was just suffering devoid of any meaning, pleasure and joy were only temporary illusions, and progress too was an illusion.

Where did this nihilism came from? And what does it mean that human life is devoid of “meaning”?
For a long period before enlightenment, the “meaning of life” was conceived in christian terms, as a way to get nearer to God, and God himself was perceived as the higest reason, or logos. So the universe was conceived as a somehow rational and structured entity, and this rationality was a moral rationality, where humans had a clear and distinct, if arduous, path to follow.
Enlightenment in itself didn’t put this idea much in question, but just substituted faith in a “natural law” to the faith in old religious dogmas, but this natural law was also rational and divine in nature.

Early romanticism also in my opinion assumed a “deeper moral world”, although it was conceived as something to be reached through intuition and emotion and not “cold logic”. This deeper world is still some sort of hyperuranium, although conceived in a very different way than Plato’s.

However later romantics (like Leopardi) took this idea further, and came to the conclusion that this deeper world, truer than reality, didn’t really exist, but rather that it was an expression of the inner nature of man.
As a consequence, in Leopardi, the ancients who didn’t have our modern scientific understanding of the world projected their inner world of gods, monsters and heroes on the material world, and therefore were happier.

Note that this is a very nihilistic view, but a very modern one, in which all “meaning” only comes from inside people’s hearths. This idea of gods monsters and heroes goes very near to the later concept of “archetypes”.

I think that this way of thinking is close to that of many modern philosophers and writers, and the “pop” side of this movement is represented by people like Lovecraft (also a very nihilistic view of the universe where the truth is devoid of meaning and makes people go crazy), Dunsany where the “meaning” of a sword cannot be expressed by the material description of it, etc.

I think that part of this ends up in Tolkien too.


bianca steele 10.23.17 at 3:03 pm

TM @ 45

Of course. But not “conventional” ones from the perspective of a conservative Catholic in a time and place preoccupied with a “fall” specifically from the Middle Ages to Modernity, where all the religious buildings and many of the secular ones dated from that European feudal period. Why do you even suggest Tolkien might have had Japan or China in mind when he wrote that?


TM 10.23.17 at 5:33 pm

“Why do you even suggest Tolkien might have had Japan or China in mind”

I’m not suggesting anything of the sort.


bianca steele 10.23.17 at 11:54 pm

TM: Then why did you bring it up? If you want to speculate randomly on topics someone might take offense to, don’t attach your speculations to my comment, please.


Faustusnotes 10.24.17 at 12:45 am

MisterMr, all your points about races fall apart because you are ignoring the racial determinism applied to human races. This is an essential part of the text and it is common for people denying Tolkien’s racialist perspective to ignore this and focus on elves and orcs. The next step in denial is to deny the haradrim are black. I’ve dealt with this comprehensively on my blog, I can’t be bothered finding the many links with quoted but yes the haradrim are black and they ride elephants. And they are evil, they follow Sauron and this is a racial inheritance from their creation.

Peter T and I often disagree on the importance of facilities narratives so it’s no surprise he disagrees here but I must take issue with his claim that Tolkiens racial theories are undeveloped. They’re a very strong theoretical structure that carefully.atches Aryan racial theory that was very strong at the time. Sure those ideas have faded somewhat but they are front and centre in Bannon’s worldview and the various western Nazi movements use lotr as an educational text precisely because the racial theory is so well developed. You cannot understand Tolkien’s work without dealing with the combined issues of civilizational decline and racial moral herirarchies, and the link between them that is explicitly stated repeatedly in the text.


Faustusnotes 10.24.17 at 12:45 am

Also what TM said about the moderation.


TM 10.24.17 at 5:57 am

bs: You said there can’t be feudalism without the church etc.


bianca steele 10.24.17 at 11:10 am

TM: No, I said LotR doesn’t work as medieval nostalgia because it presents a white working class utopia with no significant interactions with the visible elite, in a hierarchical society, so beloved of medieval nostalgists.


faustusnotes 10.24.17 at 11:46 am

Bianca, you said
The idea that Middle Earth is “conventional feudalism” doesn’t fit, either. There’s no secular Roman imperium shading over time into an international church. There’s no ruling class sanctioned by the church; there are no schools and hospitals instituted by the church; there is no church. Just as there are no prisons and judges and magistrates sanctioned by the state. What passes for a “ruling class” (sanctioned by the church) is instead a bunch of foreign “races” (actually, separate species), vaguely sanctioned by wandering wise men

the implication being that feudalism is related to the church. TM responded by pondering that surely other societies have had feudalism without the church, citing China and Japan (which definitely did) as examples. So basically he/she was engaging thoroughly with your point, and replying that the church isn’t important for feudalism, so it could be a vision of feudal society without any nods to catholicism. I think you’re getting your wires crossed.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to fathom how people could infer that a feudal vision is a possible utopia; or what they think of Tolkien, that he might have imagined a feudal society was utopian.

And people say *I* hate Tolkien …


Katsue 10.24.17 at 1:14 pm


I’m not sure it makes sense to say that the Haradrim in Lord of the Rings are evil. For one thing, unlike orcs, who do get speaking roles and come across as bad eggs, there are no Southron characters at all. (The Mouth of Sauron is a Númenorean, and any Southron Nazgul are no longer human.) Their only appearance in the story is as spear carriers, and there’s no reason to believe that they’re any more evil than any human soldiers. In fact, Tolkien goes to the trouble of having Sam remind us of this.

There aren’t many Easterling characters in Tolkien either, and none in the Silmarillion.


bianca steele 10.24.17 at 1:27 pm

Why the fnck would I suddenly, in a discussion where half the people have been talking about Catholicism for days, and how Tolkien was indulging in nostalgia for the past, suddenly start talking about non-European feudalism? It was obvious that TM was not “engaging,” just slinging a rhetorical question at me before continuing onto a different topic.

Neither you or TM is ever worth engaging with. Your veneer of reasonableness conceals an unwillingness to engage with people who won’t defer to you (or if it’s just me, or women in general, CT doesn’t pay me enough to do a statistical survey to figure it out), and often to allow them to participate in the same discussion as you.


faustusnotes 10.24.17 at 2:10 pm

Katsue, there is a whole history behind the lord of the rings, it’s not just three books. And in the rest of the history he makes clear that the “men of darkness” are bound to Sauron, because they weren’t enlightened by the Light of Ardor or whatever it’s called, and as a result they’re evil, and all their ancestors are evil. This includes the easterlings (the “wainriders” of The Return of the King, whose physical characteristics are only given to the extent required to establish that they’re mongoloid or somesuch, but whose depraved moral characteristics are described in detail) and the Haradrim, who are confirmed as dark skinned in the same book, and whose moral characteristics are outlined in great detail in many of Tolkien’s works.

Also, if you want an insight into how Tolkien presents non-white characters, consider two races that are crucial to the action of the main novels: the Dunlendings and the Woses. The Dunlendings are universally nasty, they’re brown skinned (“dun”, even) and they are servants of Saruman down to the last man. The Woses, the original people of the land the Rohirrim inhabit, are in decline because they’re weak and woeful and don’t have the vigor of whites (they’re indigenous), and their land was given away to the Rohirrim by some old Dunedain King. They’re classic noble savages.

Really, this shit is plain as day. I don’t understand why people insist on denying it.


TM 10.24.17 at 2:10 pm

bs 156: “I said LotR doesn’t work as medieval nostalgia because it presents a white working class utopia”

I’m not aware that you ever said that but it surely is an interesting thesis.


steven t johnson 10.24.17 at 2:18 pm

Yes, well, in Tolkien, elves are angels and orcs are demons. Wizards are something like archangels, like Morgoth and Sauron were. Ents are trees. Of the other species, the dwarves have so few women it’s not clear in what sense they can be said to be a race, which is something that involves begetting. And the hobbits, well, the racial exaltation of hobbitry is where? Whatever are the fascist implication in the images of Harfoots, Fallohides and Stoors, and why are they relegated to those deranged appendices? The actual races are the Dunedain, the Rohirrim, the Beornings, the Easterlings, the Haradrim, the Khands, the Variags, etc.

The Return of the King is the Millennium. If there is a racial utopia in Tolkien, it’s there…but it’s not there, it’s just announced. Real utopias are on the page.

The Lord of the Rings is about Sam and Gollum helping Frodo and God via his agent, despite his last minute personal failure, to be brave and destroy the Ring, in a trial arranged by God through the providential discovery of the Ring, with vicissitudes managed by his agent Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel. Contra the OP, I’m still not seeing how this is utopian. All the silliness about blood is in there, but that’s not what the story is about. If you can’t ignore that, then the experience of the book is ruined. But it is I think a strange reader that focuses on Aragorn’s skin.


TM 10.24.17 at 3:31 pm

I have said above that “Tolkien’s [morally] inferior races are all associated with dark skin and geographic South and East, and if we didn’t know it we could all guess how the superior races look”. It seems that the dark skin isn’t so clear in Tolkien’s writing (Orcs aren’t generally dark, apparently more sickly-yellowish) although the light skin and often blond hair of most of the good guys is conspicuous. (Even more so in the movies, where Jackson chose to feature dark-skinned Uruk-Hai as well as Haradrim dressed like Bedouins in contrast to the blond Rohirrim; btw if I recall correctly, Tolkien liked to use the adjective ‘fair’). Tolkien himself once described Orcs as “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.”

To me the offensive fact remains the existence of a racialized, at least in part genetically deterministic moral hierarchy, whether or not people are explicitly black or slant-eyed or whatever. And I ask you to honestly ponder whether you could even imagine the elves black and the Orcs blond.

Tolkien’s geography is clearly a mirror image of his imperialist world, where the further East and South you went, the less “civilized” and also less human the people were. The Germans must have been ambivalent. Tolkien romanticized the Nordic/Germanic “race” (I think he thought in those terms) but tall blond Teutons also were the enemy during much of his life. Isn’t that why they got the nickname “Huns” (and that would fit the slant-eyed Orcs)?


MisterMr 10.24.17 at 4:19 pm

@Faustusnotes 153

I’m ignoring the racial determinism applied to human races because I don’t see it.
Tolkien says in the Silmarillion that humans are the only ones with free will (the elves are predestined, whereas the dwarves and the hobbits are purposedly left in mistery, and the orcs don’t know).

I don’t see any race to be more good (ethically) than the others, with the exception of the orcs who are worse than the others, and for the humans I really don’t see this racial determinism (other than the really strong moral determinism that pervades the whole story: if someone looks an arsehole at the beginning, he is certain to be a source of evil in the end, regardless of his race).

PS: about the Aryan theory, this theory was about a well specified racial group, and, Tolkien being a folklorist, he certainly knew who the Aryan were supposed to be.
Now again everything in the Silmarillion and in the LOTR hints to a pre-roman celtic setting, and T confirmed it explicitly.
Now Celts were not Aryans as far as I know, so even if T was writing about a nazi-like race theory, this would have been a different theory from that of Aryanism, or at least a version of the theory that I don’t know.


Katsue 10.25.17 at 12:33 pm


I should have said that all of Tolkien’s Easterling characters are in the Silmarillion or, more precisely, in the Tale of the Children of Húrin.

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