How Faithful Is The Rings of Power to J.R.R. Tolkien's Anti-Statism?
Between the books and the new TV series, we see two different visions of freedom.
Film and TV adaptions of literary works typically take one of two paths.
They either try to be faithful to the events and themes of the source material, or they creatively reinvent the work to make a different point or even mock the original story. Denis Villeneuve's Dune would be an example of the former. The 1997 adaption of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers is in the latter camp.
Sitting somewhere in between these two poles is Amazon's new The Rings of Power, which debuted earlier this month. The show depicts J.R.R. Tolkien's writings about the pre–Lord of the Rings history of the fictional Middle Earth's Second Age.
As someone who has only skimmed the appendixes at the end of The Return of the King, and not read the much lengthier, posthumously published Silmarillion, I can't weigh in on the show's fidelity to the Second Age's history and characters.
The consensus seems to be the show is mostly succeeding at presenting a Middle Earth in its Second Age, in the words of National Review's Jack Butler, "at once familiar to viewers and novel."
I can, however, weigh in on its faithfulness to a theme that bookends the story in The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien's celebration of freedom against arbitrary government interference. Here too, it appears that The Rings of Power echoes the books' anti-statism, but from a novel angle.
Notwithstanding all the wars and kings and whatnot, The Lord of the Rings is not primarily a political text. The real conflicts in the books either transcend the political to focus on a more elemental war of good and evil or center on internal personal struggles of virtue and vice.
Fleshing out any political themes requires some interpretive license.
It's not helped by Tolkien's real-world politics defying easy characterization beyond anti-modernism. The author described his own views as somewhere between anarchy and "unconstitutional" monarchy. One Twitter user speculated recently that the author would be a swing Green-Tory voter in the U.K.
Tolkien did rail explicitly against the evils of statism, something almost totally absent from his idyllic Shire. It's a close-knit, largely closed community that manages to run itself in a remarkably anarchistic fashion.
"The Shire at this time had hardly any 'government.' Families for the most part managed their own affairs," reads the prologue in The Fellowship of the Ring.
There's a mayor, but it's mostly a ceremonial position. A police force of "Shirriffs" exists, but they wear no uniforms and don't seem to do much policing either. They're described as "more concerned with the straying of beasts than of people."
The Shire's certainly no lefty commune either. There's no collective project all the hobbits are working toward. Private property exists, as do money, trade, and wealth disparities. This is all presented as rather benign, and even idyllic.
The libertarianism of the Shire becomes even more apparent at the end of The Return of the King when our heroes return home to find that evil (possibly part-orcish) men in league with the wizard Saruman have taken over and imposed a grim statism on its unwilling population.
Free travel within the Shire is replaced with a system of internal checkpoints, all manned by once-harmless, now-armed Shirriffs. The ale houses are forcibly shuttered, the weed exported, and dank holding cells start cropping up in town.
Fortunately, the hobbits band together and oust these statist interlopers.
That all sounds pretty anarchistic. The Shire's isolation also makes it similar in kind to other libertarian visions of an externally closed-off, but internally free society; another Galt's Gulch or ocean seastead.
And yet, many of the things that allow the Shire to operate as an internally free community also demand a conservatism and isolationism that conflict with the dynamism, change, and general openness we associate with freedom.
It's not a particularly entrepreneurial or industrious place. "Estates, farms, workshops, and small trades tended to remain unchanged for generations," reads The Fellowship's prologue.
That's a far cry from a free-wheeling free market where old modes of production are constantly giving way to new ideas and ways of doing business. Economic disruption is anathema to the Shire's staid stagnation.
Indeed, the mills and industry that Saruman establishes during his stint running the Shire are portrayed not as engines of wealth generation, but as ugly, polluting monstrosities.
There's a cloistered, almost xenophobic attitude among the Shirefolk too. In addition to Shirriffs, there's a larger, irregular force of "Bounders" tasked with keeping an eye on outsiders and making sure they don't become a nuisance.
This fear of foreigners goes so far as to occasionally trump characters' own clear self-interest. Toward the end of The Return of the King, Gandalf explains to the skeptical innkeeper Barliman in the Shire-adjacent town of Bree that the new king will make the roads safe enough for travelers to return.
"We don't want no outsiders at Bree, nor near Bree at all. We want to be let alone," responds Barliman, who would seem to have a vested interest in outsiders patronizing his inn.
That fear of outsiders ends up being mostly justified in The Lord of the Rings. (Barliman's comments come just before the protagonists discover that the Shire has been invaded and taken over.)
The Rings of Power makes clearer what this isolationism costs societies.
The show, like the books, is not really about anything political. It's primarily a serviceable fantasy adventure about elves and orcs. That makes it a different animal from a show like Game of Thrones that's obsessed with palace intrigue and dynastic power plays.
But the most recent episode of the show, which aired last Friday, deviates from this trend. Much of the episode concerns itself with the elf warrior Galadriel and human Halbrand's arrival as shipwrecked refugees in the island kingdom of Númenor.
Immediately, the two find themselves running up against the kingdom's litany of rules and regulations designed to exclude outsiders.
Galadriel's very presence is controversial given that elves aren't typically allowed by Númenor's racist immigration restrictions. Trade with the outside world has also apparently been discontinued. Galadriel glumly mentions that elves and Númenor once freely exchanged gifts and knowledge for their mutual benefit. No longer.
The island kingdom also has a robust occupational licensing regime designed to exclude not just non-natives, but non–union members as well. When Halbrand looks to ply his trade as a blacksmith, he's told membership in the blacksmith's guild is required before he can do even the most basic tasks. Like real-life licensing laws, the sole purpose seems to be protectionism and exclusion: Halbrand isn't even given an opportunity to demonstrate his competence before being rejected for a job.
To be sure, Númenor shares the Shire's isolationism, but not its statelessness. There's a queen and uniformed military. The exclusion of foreign disruptors doesn't guarantee the kingdom's internal freedom.
The more interesting question is whether the Shire's peasant anarchy could exist with a greater degree of openness to the outside world.
Tolkien would probably say that the answer is no; the Shire's cultural homogeneity is necessary to keep order without a more proactive state.
The libertarian answer would be an obvious yes. Free societies require both the Shire's absence of internal despotism and openness to trade, migration, and economic competition that Númenor lacks.
Such a world would be a lot more turbulent than the tranquil Shire. But it would also be a lot more interesting. Tolkien maybe recognizes this himself. His characters are always leaving the Shire in search of a little adventure.
Neither The Lord of the Rings nor The Rings of Power give us a positive vision of what this open, stateless might look like. Apparently, that requires a bit more imagination.