Tolkien the Utopian

by John Holbo on November 5, 2017

I enjoyed this thread and was very proud of my own ability to stay out of it when the inevitable is-Tolkien-a-racist/fascist? arguments erupted. The thing is: I forgot to refute everyone who wrongly argued that Middle Earth isn’t a kind of Utopia. Then the thread closed. Damn.

I did start the job. In comments, I corrected cited this bit 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.” [Tolkien is quoting a social darwinist at this point] 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.”

Insofar as it seems to me quite obvious that the production of Tolkien’s own ‘fairy-stories’, from The Hobbit on, is motivated not just by the need for a place to store his made-up languages, but as a cry against the alleged ugliness of modernity – an attempt to wake people up that ugliness, by contrasting with an ideal alternative – it’s utopian. If News From Nowhere is utopian, then Tolkien is.

But, as I said, I forgot the clincher. Off To Be The Wizard is a pretty funny novel. Plotspoilers under the fold.

A nerd figures out that the world is all a simulation and that he’s accidentally hacked in at the root level in such a way that he can make edits. Not, like, everything. But a lot. Soooo he gets in trouble and figures the safest thing to do is figure out when the nicest time was way back in Merrie Olde Medieval England. He’ll go back and live as a wizard, which suits his level of hemi-demi-semi-omnipotence. Turns out a bunch of other nerds have also figured out the world is a simulation, also gotten in trouble, also figured the best escape option is living as a wizard in 1150’s England. (One of them lured the others to that date by self-publishing a book titled something like The Best Years To Live In Medieval England. So when they all Google that’s the first hit.) Anyway, it’s all going fairly well in their little nerd community until it turns out Jimmy has gone crazy and is making hobbits. And he is planning to make elves. And Scotland will be the Kingdom of the Dwarves.

Now obviously this joke is funny, and it wouldn’t be the complex irony it is if Middle Earth weren’t a Utopia. QED.

But, of course, it plays on the fact that Utopias have to be intentional communities. Otherwise it’s Eden, Arcadia, pastoral. Which is different. Feel free to start arguing again about whether Tolkien is a fascist, if you must.



Faustusnotes 11.05.17 at 2:55 pm

Can something be a romantic vision but not a utopia? The way you put it every book written as an aesthetic warning must be a utopia. This cannot be!


Glen Tomkins 11.05.17 at 3:09 pm

Tolkien’s world is a sort of Golden Age. He follows the very old idea that our best time, the time when society was organized along the lines that let us be our best, was some time in the past. Everything since has been a deterioration, a descent from that best state.

In fact, Middle Earth at the time of the events in LoTR is actually more of a Bronze Age. Within that world at the time of the War of the Ring, the wise look back to earlier eras that were even closer to the gods/elves, and so represented by even nobler metals. Actual modernity is analogous to the feet of clay. It’s not even a noble metal anymore, just a low-grade porcelain, making the whole edifice vulnerable to a rock pitched by a Hand Unseen. I take this final thought to be the definitive proof that Tolkien was actually a doctrinaire Marxist.

Whether you classify the Tolkien universe as a utopia depends on where you stand on the question of how this older idea of metallic ages squares with the new-fangled idea of utopias.


soru 11.05.17 at 3:29 pm

Is a society in a story a utopia if it is good for you, because you are a wizard? Especially if ideally no-one else is?

In which case, what word would you use for a story featuring a society that attempts to be as good as plausible for as many people as suspension of disbelief allows?


Adam Roberts 11.05.17 at 3:31 pm

Some years ago I gave a keynote at the biannual Utopiales conference: I delivered a version of this, arguing that the CBeebies TV shows “Teletubbies” is one of the most fully accomplished Utopian texts, by way if trying to tease out of the ways in which utopian thinking involves some or other degree of infantalization. Afterwards at the wine reception some of the conference came up to chat with me about my talk, and some simply blanked me, cut me like we were in a 19th-century novel: turned their backs on me as I mingled, and so on. Only later did I realise that the attendees at Utopiales is roughly half and half academics interested in utopian literature and actual utopians, often retired North American businesspeople who had made enough money to realise their dream of establishing a commune in Bangladesh or a Robert Owen style model village in Patagonia. This latter group thought my keynote had been mocking them, and they were not happy.

This, as you can tell, is by way of disagreeing with your assertion that “Utopias have to be intentional communities. Otherwise it’s Eden, Arcadia, pastoral. Which is different.” I think the intentional community angle is a very minor and, not to be cruel but, daft-o eccentric iteration of a much broader utopian fascination.

Also Tolkien was a conservative, Catholic traditionalist, what we might call ‘right wing’ (even: very right wing) in many ways. But he was no fascist.


Plarry 11.05.17 at 3:41 pm

I am sorry that I completely missed the earlier thread, it sounds great. However, didn’t you just lose your argument in the last paragraph? In what sense can Middle Earth be called an intentional community as opposed to an Eden? All the human “utopian” societies of Middle Earth were established with help from the reigning deities; all the elvish “utopian” societies societies were either established with help from the reigning deities (Valimar), were doomed from the start (Gondolin, Nargothrond), or were booby-trapped (Rivendell, Lothlorien).

What I think is missing from the analysis (and why utopian concepts don’t well apply to Middle Earth) is that Tolkien was a Christian apologist and was not working in the ideal of creating a utopia in society where everything was imperfect. He was working in the framework that there was moral imperatives that impel one to act, and that good society will arise when people act in the proper way.


William Timberman 11.05.17 at 4:46 pm

Glen Tomkins @ 2 (11.05.17 at 3:09 pm)

What a quirky, delightful comment! (And the fact that it may be true for more than one value of true makes it even more delightful.) If it weren’t for wonderful comments like these, I might actually be able to overcome my addiction to CT threads that don’t, at first glance, seem to be my cup of tea.


Scott P. 11.05.17 at 4:59 pm

Tolkien needed to watch some Star Trek.


nnyhav 11.05.17 at 5:13 pm


bob mcmanus 11.05.17 at 5:58 pm

You are still completely erasing the difference between Utopia and Arcadia; between the engineering of a world that improves on the present, and returning to the Golden age of our ancestors; between the “natural” and human-designed; between much of the argument between conservatism and progressivism. And I remembered you being a fan of Empson and the “pastoral.” Why are you insisting on this?

Tokien was largely a conservative and reactionary, writing in part in as argument against progressives, Marxists, and fascists. The difference with Bellamy, Wells, Stapledon, or Morris is glaring and obvious and intentional.


bob mcmanus 11.05.17 at 6:18 pm

Sorry, I didn’t get this far.

But, of course, it plays on the fact that Utopias have to be intentional communities. Otherwise it’s Eden, Arcadia, pastoral.

Okay, if you saying that Midde-Earth is the intentional community of the migrated Elves, decayed and degraded by ambition and greed, you should be more clear. But there are too many other players and stories, and in most cases the fall of Utopia is a fairly natural process only assisted by Sauron and the Rings (Moria for ex).

In which case most of Middle-Earth is a dystopia, or fast on its way. It is still entirely nostalgic and melancholic in its themes and attitudes, ie, conservative and Arcadian not Utopian.

There may be interesting and important questions here. Were Brigham Young and Joseph Smith Utopians? Hell, even Marx thought Capitalism was a corruption of human nature. But LoTR is not a work that lends itself to their development. It’s too big.


bob mcmanus 11.05.17 at 6:30 pm

I just don’t understand how anyone who read about the empty Halls of Moria, the Siege of Gondor, the Scouring of the Shire, the disempowered Rings leaving, and Arwen dying alone as the Last Elf can see LoTr as a Utopia. Its tragic, melancholic, dystopian…and anti-utopian in intent.


John Holbo 11.05.17 at 7:49 pm

“However, didn’t you just lose your argument in the last paragraph? In what sense can Middle Earth be called an intentional community as opposed to an Eden?”

In a way yes, in a way no!

bob mcmanus: “You are still completely erasing the difference between Utopia and Arcadia; between the engineering of a world that improves on the present, and returning to the Golden age of our ancestors; between the “natural” and human-designed; between much of the argument between conservatism and progressivism. And I remembered you being a fan of Empson and the “pastoral.” Why are you insisting on this?”

Jokes don’t really work on the internet, do they?

Here’s a clue: I don’t actually regard the existence of “Off To Be The Wizard” as, in itself, quite the knock down argument I say it is in the post. My tongue was in my cheek. But more seriously: when you design an Arcadia to be a model community, there is a sense in which it is an intentional community and a sense in which it’s not. (I’m a fan of Empson who also wrote a book about ambiguity!)


Donald 11.05.17 at 7:59 pm

I agree LOTR is a kind of utopia. That’s why so many readers initially wish they lived in Middle Earth even if they recognize the real Middle Ages were not so pleasant. It is a fantasy utopia, not a blueprint for how it could work here. Galadriel explicitly constructed a elvish utopia in Lothlorien using a magic ring.

The Golden Age in Tolkien fell apart very fast, because Melkor/ Morgoth got busy destroying it from early on. I was very surprised when I read the Silmarillion to find so many of the elves behaving with cruelty and arrogance. They were having their Fall. LOTR shows that at least some elves had learned their lesson and in Galadriel’s case were deemed worthy of being allowed to return to the earthly paradise.

Tolkien’s universe is basically a combination of Christian theology with a pagan fantasy gloss ( gods with a small g, wizards, demons, dragons, giants) to make it interesting.


Gareth Wilson 11.05.17 at 8:39 pm

It’s interesting that Tolkien includes priests alongside kings and knights as examples of archaism. Don’t we have priests now?


steven t johnson 11.05.17 at 8:48 pm

John Holbo@12 ” when you design an Arcadia to be a model community, there is a sense in which it is an intentional community and a sense in which it’s not…”

A Golden Age (childhood) is not designed, it’s remembered. Eden is not imagined, it’s quoted from scripture. A pastoral is not somewhere else that shows how bad our world is, it’s a vacation in the country. Utopia is, literally, nowhere: Arcadia is a district in Greece. Yes, I suppose you could argue the Shire is a Utopia, but then you have to concede the restored Kingdom of Gondor is a Utopia too…and then explain why essentially none of Lord of the Rings takes place in either, it its a Utopia.

Again, the conservative utopia is the society designed to conform to Human Nature, be it Galt’s Gulch or that alternate world in L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach. Conservatives can simultaneously maintain this world is a vale of tears and the Best of All Possible Worlds. And also that the Golden Age is earthly, though in the past, and yet to come, in heaven. I think the thing about Utopias is not that they are intentional communities, but they are constructed on a new plan. Romances are cobbled from old stories on old plans, so that they are on a deep level reassuring. Tolkien was pretty explicit about rejection of modernity as the justification for escape via fantasy, but if that’s Utopian, so is pornography. (Everyone willing and able, sounds pretty Utopian to me.)

And I’m not much for literature, but the idea that Lord of the Rings is something like Utopia; News from Nowhere; The Coming Race; Looking Backward (and its sequel, Equality,); Herland; The Traveler from Altruria; any part of Gulliver’s Travels; Ralph 124C41+; Venus Plus X; Woman on the Edge of Time; The Female Man; The Stone Canal; The Sky Road, and of course, the aforementioned Atlas Shrugged and The Probability just seems unhelpful, at the very best.


Peter K. 11.05.17 at 9:17 pm

I agree with the idea that the better instincts of Sci-Fi and Fantasy are utopian and good, not fascistic. Think of Star Trek: TNG’s luxury, fully-automated gay space communism. Star Trek: Discovery even has openly gay characters (one of whom accused Kevin Spacey of harrasement and assault).

Turns out reality is as rapey as Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin was a realist. I think are partially drawn to the world of Thrones b/c characters believe in honor and duty unlike the mercenary nature of late capitalism where the dollar nexus has dissolved all institutions. Thrones is more realistic than some fantasy although still cartoonish, but it dwells on the horror of war and of being lowborn or born into the wrong class.


jinnipen 11.05.17 at 9:23 pm

See Michael Moorcock “Epic Pooh” –


Macklin 11.05.17 at 9:26 pm

After a cursory read through the previous thread, as well as this one, it seems to me that there a number of commentators who are rather missing the point of LoTR in regards to Tolkien’s purported feudal, aristocratic, quasi-fascist mindset.

Tolkien clearly loves and admires the valor and glory of his various heroes. Whether we’re talking about the angelic Elves, the demi-gods such as Gandalf, or the aristocratic humans such as Aragorn or Faramir – their’s a beauty, nobility, and power ascribed to these characters that is deeply troublesome in the way it invokes the innate superiority of certain classes of beings. Middle Earth is deeply hierarchical. This hierarchy extends even into the lower orders of the lesser Hobbits, where Frodo is persistently portrayed as more noble and magnificent than the standard-issue Hobbit.

But, but, but, but . . . the whole point of LoTR is that all these magnificent beings are either utterly corruptible or have already been corrupted by power. Every one of them either fails the test of the Ring, or is only praiseworthy to the extent that they are *just* wise enough to refuse to ever carry it. All the might of our heroes is basically irrelevant to the real task at hand – the destruction of the Ring. All the military valor on display at the Pelennor Fields is a mere holding action that cannot accomplish the final task of the destruction of the ring.

Even Frodo, who does a hell of a lot better than the higher order of beings, ultimately fails and claims the Ring for himself at the last. Indeed, in some ways, it is the even lower status, much overlooked Sam who comes out as the true hero of the final sequences in Mordor. The end is an incredibly bleak. The Ring is not destroyed through any intentional act. Rather it is destroyed because even the lowliest of the low, a Hobbit and his corrupted cousin, Gollum, are fighting for its possession on the edge of the precipice. It’s hard to imagine an end to the quest less lacking in valorous triumph, or one which takes an even bleaker view of the natural aristocracy’s capacity for managing the true threats faced by Middle Earth’s society. As is made clear, the more heroic characters would never even have made it close to Mt. Doom, as the betrayal of Boromir makes clear, along with the (analogous) corruption of Saruman. Galadriel is notable only because she is modest enough not to ever go near the thing – she is willing to resign herself to the slow decay of Middle Earth.

The construction of Middle Earth might be racist and hierarchical, and Tolkien clearly places great emphasis on the innate beauty and superiority of his various might warriors and demi-gods. But the Christian element of the story – the emphasis on the fact that it is only the lower orders who can save the earth – seems to me the overall thrust of the story. And even then, its notable that *no one* completely succeeds through valor or heroism or innate dignity alone. Not even Frodo.

Whether that makes Middle Earth a utopia or not, I don’t know, but its pretty essential to understand the entire society in the light of the utterly corruptible nature of the ruling classes (whether human or semi-divine). Tolkien clearly loves those ruling classes, but part of what he loves is their tragic, often grotesque failures.


bianca steele 11.05.17 at 10:22 pm

I feel like I was thoroughly bamboozled by the construction of the earlier post. I thought we were trying to prove Chesterton’s (another Catholic apologist’s) definition of “utopia”. Isn’t a mention of Chesterton in a Holbo post always a recommendation?

“The Once and Future King” is a utopia, if LotR is, but “The Idylls of the King” is not. How can this be! Put me down for “unhelpful.”


Michael 11.05.17 at 10:44 pm

What strikes me as romantic/idealised — but neither utopian nor arcadian — about LotR is the certainty throughout that, in this world, we know good from evil plainly and straightforwardly. And we can watch as good is corrupted or corruption is resisted. This might amount to utopian if the perfect dystopia were a world of twining ambiguities, with greying highlights and dusky darks … a world rather like our own, now that I think of it.


steven t johnson 11.05.17 at 11:14 pm

Macklin@18 is I think correct. But I would note for completeness’ sake the scene set before the Black Gate where Frodo tells Gollum that he must never touch the Ring again, or he should tell Gollum to throw himself into the fire. The text notes that Frodo, like Gandalf speaking to Bilbo in Bag End, or Galadriel speaking to Frodo in Lorien, assumes an aura of majesty. This scene is omitted from the movie.

Tolkien and Peter Jackson could have profitably read their Wells, speaking of the scene where Gollum ends up in the lava. A reading of The Invisible Man would have made it perfectly sensible, rather than convenient, that Gollum could have found the invisible Frodo clearly outlined by smoke. Peter Jackson’s smokeless volcano photographed easier I suppose.


Mike Furlan 11.06.17 at 2:55 am

Some time not so long ago, 500 or maybe just 200 years ago human population growth went exponential and everything changed. Tolkien was clobbered by some of the more brutal consequences of this like WW1. And he responded with beautiful story of a time gone by that will never return.

We are left with the choice to either “boldly go where no man has gone before” or perish.


Omega Centauri 11.06.17 at 4:40 am

In fact most fictional and especially movie fire and volcanic stuff is smokeless. In the real world more often then not, it is the noxious fumes that will get you rather than the flame/lava.

Of course Frodo’s invisibility is a type of magic, so ordinary rules of physics/optics need not apply. I suppose Jackson could have made it imperfect, like the camo-mode for the alien Predator. But we usually see imperfect cloaking in Sci-Fi where the means is supposedly science-based technology. But, in stories of magic, low observable is almost always non observable.


TheSophist 11.06.17 at 5:26 am

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
His ring made its bearer unseen
“Is it utopia?” asked John Holbo
Replied Crooked Timber resoundingly “no”


Z 11.06.17 at 9:14 am

Geo, come back, John Holbo is talking nonsense about William Morris! No? Damn, if that won’t bring you back, nothing will.

If News From Nowhere is utopian, then Tolkien is.

I really, really fail to see how that implication supposedly work.

News From Nowhere is (very explicitly) the scheme of a disgruntled socialist who failed to convince the comment section of a left-leaning blog his comrades at the League with his particular flavor of anarchism, complete with a Karl Marx action-figure giving lectures on declining rate of profit, imperialism as the last stage of capitalism and a detailed history of the three (I think) successive revolutions and counter-revolutions that brought them there (plus a Mary Sueish illustration of how everything looked better before Raphaël ruined everything). It is tongue-in-cheek through and through in tone.

Lord of the Rings is the story of how everything has been wrong since the Fall (plus a Mary Sueish illustration of how everything sounded better before Latin ruined everything). It is apparently dead serious, though I always have a hard time to completely convince me of that.

Lord of the Rings is all about how the celestial City on the Hill is too good for us – so forget about it – and anyway only divine (yet doomed) people belong there to begin with. News from Nowhere is all about how no celestial City on the Hill could hold a candle to the banks of the river Thames, and is designed to illustrate how actual Humans will build and live in a new society. One is about how supra-human beings far superior in every respect to anyone that could ever live will make a last ditch effort at saving the world (if they can be bothered to do anything at all) and will just about avoid complete Hell on Earth, but will otherwise fail, whereas the other is the story of Dick and Clara having two children out of wedlock and that’s no big deal.

One is a fiction-form expression of the longing of the author for a time when political tracts were unnecessary, or at least unheard of, but written in a age where political engagement has become unescapable, so it relies on the reader’s suspension of disbelief that politics can be hand-waved away and if you don’t like that, just take a Grey Ship or go to Mordor. The other is a political tract, but written by an author who had already realized that political tracts never quite achieved their political goals. One pines for Valinor, the other takes joy in the the fact that nobody pines for Valinor anymore.

Not the same. Maybe they are bot Utopias, but if so The Odyssey, Candide, Moby Dick, Les Misérables and Journey to the West also are Utopias, at which point I suspect the word we are looking for is fiction.

Now obviously this joke is funny, and it wouldn’t be the complex irony it is if Middle Earth weren’t a Utopia. QED.

The joke is funny either if Middle Earth is a Utopia or if the bulk of the geeky fanbase of Tolkien just got him completely backward and the joke is about the Middle Earth as readers remember it and not as it is (the movies, with their delicious toeing of the self-parodic line, bringing the process to completion, probably). Funnily, I seem to recall reading a good post on that topic entitled Walton’s Republic, but now I don’t remember where. Probably in Utopia.


RichT 11.06.17 at 10:33 am

I would say LotR is definitely not Utopian (in that it contains no blueprint for the construction of an ideal society), though it does contain three varieties of ideal society, none of which are actually practical even within the terms of the imagined world:

– the Shire is the standard conservative rural idyll, where rules and regulations (inherently evil) are rendered unnecessary by common sense, and social cohesion is maintained by a benevolent upper class and a lower class that knows its place. But such a society has only been able to survive in the face of external threats because other (better) men have been fighting unseen to protect it.

– Gondor is a typical Philosopher Kingdom, where (after the return of the King) society is organised toward the ideal by a wise, benevolent ruler, who is the way he is because of his birth, blood and inheritance. But in the past, neither the perfection nor the continued blood line of such philosopher kings has bene maintained, and there is no guarantee it will be maintained in future (always the big problem with philosopher kings).

– The Elvish kingdoms are just hangovers from the Golden Age they hark back to, clinging on against the inevitable march of time, and fatally compromised by their dependence on corruptible (magic) power.

For Tolkien any true Utopia could only lie in the past, and the story is one of inevitable, irreversible decline toward the hateful present. The Fourth Age, the Age of Man, will eventually see its factories, its upstart lower orders, its power-corrupted rulers, its self serving bureaucracies.

Since all this is pretty much anathema to my own political and historical views, I prefer to just read LotR as a well written heroic fantasy and not get too caught up in what Tolkien’s political views might have been (but one thing is for sure, he was no fascist, whatever the racial overtones of the story may be).


ph 11.06.17 at 11:22 am


Lee A. Arnold 11.06.17 at 2:44 pm

Glen Tomkins #2: “a sort of Golden Age”

I agree. It seems like Golden Ages and Utopia are two sides of the same coin — perfection — one before and one after the inversion of the Great Chain of Being by modernism.

Before, the perfect age was irretrievably lost in the past, the Golden Age. Afterward, the perfect age might be invented by humans in the future, the (scientific) Utopia.

Before, the promise of redemption by the monotheisms gave you (as an individual or member of a chosen group) the chance to escape the corruption and degradation of the rest of the world, because the Golden Age was irretrievable.

Tolkien, a devout Catholic, looks like a conservative Golden-Ager who split up the Christian myth of redemption into different character parts: The meek one is the only one who can overcome the evil. The wizards and elves are in quasi-angelic hierarchies are able to read the hearts and minds of others. The human king reclaims the throne and marries eternity (Arwen) as an age of peace is ushered in.

Modernism made profound changes in possible narrative themes and character meanings. For Tolkien, the weakening of absolute control by the Church allowed fiction which the devout might have deemed uselessly silly, or else dangerously heretical, a few centuries before.

Yet other essentials like plot types (tragedy, comedy, quest, burlesque, etc.) and plot necessities (protagonists, antagonists, battles, revelations, climaxes) have not changed at all.

Fiction plots need always conflict. This leads to a structural distinction between Golden Ages and Utopia. A Golden Age needs to be re-memorialized or enshrined against a new resurgence of the evil which effectively destroyed it. On the other hand, a Utopia needs to fall via interior contradiction (i.e., it is revealed to be a dystopia), either to be corrected or destroyed.


Donald Johnson 11.06.17 at 8:44 pm

Also, what Macklin said.


lampoon 11.06.17 at 9:40 pm

I do not see how LoTR is in any way a utopian novel or even one that admits of its possibility, if one defines utopia as a place, state or condition of ideal perfection, and therefore devoid of tragedy and evil and unintended consequences. Gandalf infers that he, at least, has no expectation that utopia is possible to achieve in Middle Earth. Inherent in utopia is that all true questions have only one true discoverable answer; the universe being rational, all true answers are compatible and fit together in perfect complement, knowledge of which would allow the wise to foresee and ultimately achieve perfection. But Gandalf denies this vision at least twice. The first is when Gandalf replies to Frodo’s exclamation that Gollum deserves death and it was a pity Bilbo did not slay Gollum when he had the chance: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” Later, in The Last Debate, while acknowledging that the fall of Sauron would remove a great evil, Gandalf goes on to say: “Other evils there are that may come; for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.” It does not seem to me that striving for a better future by combatting evil alone is utopian, even if one assumes a shared definition of evil.


Dero 11.07.17 at 1:25 am

LotRs really only offers anything resembling a Utopia as maybe only a very personal one to the reader. A utopia for you. Wouldn’t it be incredible if little me could get plucked out of my tedious life and go on an extended, magic-filled adventure with some good friends, where the entire fate of this broadly built world, that involves no cubicle space and monthly reports, hangs on our actions? Beautiful and powerful people are counting on us to persevere and the stakes are tremendously high, everyone doubts we can do it, but there may the slimmest of a chance, that we … “What? sorry?… no I was reading… just something I found upstairs… oh was that tonight? Well lets just order in then , Ive got a pile of work I have to get done and I really need to get in early tomorrow.”

It’s an exceptionally well done escapist fantasy. Middle Earth (even without a Simillarion background reading) is openly painted as a dystopia. There are a few deeply imperiled pockets of beauty and sanity surrounded by a broken world of decay, enslavement and cruelty where everything that was originally intended has long since been corrupted and the fallen past can only be gawked at with sentiment and regret. The central quest of LotRs is not to restore a slipping utopia, its trying to prevent what little goodness is left from sliding into a complete hellscape.

Even the end speaks only to you as an escapist vicarious reader – you Bilbo/Frodo/Sam, can cut out early because of your triumph against odds and enter a timeless world of beauty with the Gods. As for the rest, we suspect that the Age of Men will mean ring roads and chain restaurants across Pellenor Fields within an age or two.


DCA 11.10.17 at 1:27 pm

Macklin@18: completely agree about the Christian element. Plus the importance of Sam, who was Tolkien’s tribute to his fellow Tommies of the Great War. I’d say, if there was a Utopia in LOTR it was the Shire–otherwise, LOTR is a Catholic, conservative [small-c] Christian philologist’s re-imagining of Beowulf, but with elves.

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