Mastery Without Dominion: Anarchist Thought in Tolkien

“My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs).” —J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings is my favorite book. I’ve been reading it since I was a kid, and at this point I think I’ve made it through it at least eight times, not to mention all the supplemental material contained in The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and the massive twelve-volume History of Middle Earth series that exhaustively covers early drafts of the ever-evolving saga of elves, dwarves, men, and hobbits.

As details have begun to emerge about Amazon’s upcoming Rings of Power series, the internet has risen up in a frenzied combination of anticipation and anxiety about what the series will look like, whether the creators will be faithful to the source material, or whether it will become just another cheap vehicle for virtue signaling and political posturing. While I have my own concerns, I’m choosing to refrain from too much speculation, and instead prefer to go back to the author’s own words, to look at some of the philosophical concepts that underlie the world of Middle Earth that most inspires and motivates me, even after all these years.

One of the reasons I am drawn to The Lord of the Rings, while fairly indifferent to most other modern fantasy authors, is the timeless themes that Tolkien explores throughout his story. While famously resisted the kinds of one-to-one allegorical interpretations of his work in which clever critics attempted to cast Sauron as Hitler and other such nonsense, it is impossible to deny that there are a huge number of real-life lessons to be drawn from what some unimaginative detractors have dismissed as a work of silly escapism. Tolkien’s love and respect for nature, for England, and for God shine luminously through the text, as do his warnings against the dangers of power, materialism, and complacency. The Lord of the Rings is not exactly a political work, but many aspects of the story are applicable to politics, even the politics of 21st century America, distant as they are from Tolkien’s own concerns at the time.

For example, I have always believed—and the more time I spend in Washington D.C. the more entrenched this belief becomes—that Sauron’s One Ring is a perfect metaphor for the problem of government power.

The Ring promises the wearer the ability the remake the world as he sees fit, to help those who need help, to right wrongs, to ease suffering, and to substitute order for chaos. What could be more appealing or more tempting? And temptation is indeed that Ring’s primary weapon against those who would resist it. It tempts Frodo to use it save himself and his friends; it tempts Gandalf and Galadriel to use it to depose the Dark Lord and bring peace to Middle Earth. It tempts Boromir to use it to protect and defend his beloved homeland of Gondor. There’s even a brief moment when the Ring tempts no less a person than Sam Gamgee—Samwise the Brave!

These temptations are perfectly understandable, but the wise know that to use the power of the Ring for good is not possible, not in the long run. When Frodo offers the Ring to Gandalf, the wizard rejects it, saying: “With that power, I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly. Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good.”

Gandalf understands that the best of intentions will run aground on the fact that the Ring is altogether corrupted, and will inevitably corrupt whomever tries to wield it. So too seems to be the case with government office. Every two years, a fresh crop of Congressmen and Senators march to the Capitol with the best of intentions, vowing to keep their campaign promises and serve the people who elected them rather than their own interests or those of Washington. And just as regularly, the idealism and integrity they took with them crumbles under the weight of political pressure and the overwhelming fear of losing reelection.

This is not simply a matter of character. It can’t be the case that everyone who manages to get elected is fundamentally weak, spineless, craven, and self-serving. There are plenty of good, honest people who have sought to make their country better through the utilization of public office. Their failure is not a reflection on their quality as individuals, but on the nature of power itself which, as Lord Acton so acutely observed, tends to corrupt. We should no more criticize legislators for failing to govern well than we should criticize Gandalf for not being able to use the One Ring. Their only real failing is the failure to realize, as Gandalf did, that such things are impossible from the start.

When Frodo offers the Ring to the elf queen Galadriel, she too is tempted, but she points out that the personality behind the power matters little, and that the power itself is what should be feared. She says: “You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!” Galadriel understands that a good person can be the worst sort of tyrant, for their subjects cannot help but love their oppressor even as they should hate and resist them.

I am not the first person to make this analogy, Thomas Massie, the libertarian-leaning congressman from Kentucky, refers to his Congressional Pin ironically as “the Precious” and refuses to wear it except for when he has to. It is no coincidence that Massie also happens to be one of the wisest and most principled Members of Congress, but even he is not wholly immune from its temptations.

When I encountered the quotation that heads this article, however, I was somewhat shocked. I had no idea that Tolkien had ever spoken this way of politics, and had assumed that my Ring analogy was more of a coincidence than anything else, rather than a deliberate message on the part of the author. That may still be the case, but the parallels with Tolkien’s broader thinking about the nature of power, or “control” as he puts it, are inescapable. Of course, Tolkien was not an anarchist in the same way that someone like Murray Rothbard or Emma Goldman was. It would be absurd to ascribe such a position to him, but his casual distaste for “control” over other men, and his definition of anarchy as the mere absence of such control, is something that rings very true, and which I think deserves more consideration.

It is notable, for example, the Shire which seems to serve as the analogue to Tolkien’s ideal conception of England is almost wholly without a government. There appears to be a small volunteer police force for dealing with troublemakers, and there are a couple of oblique references to the Mayor of Michel Delving, but one cannot escape the impression that hobbits, on the whole, live in a state of virtual anarchy. There are no real politicians, not in the way we think of them. There are no books filled with laws—most hobbits are not even literate and regard the writing of books as somewhat suspicious in itself. Best of all, there are no tax collectors. Everybody mostly minds their own business and order is kept through the social pressure than emanates from the hobbits’ rather close-knit community.

Granted, we are told of kings of elves, dwarves, and men. Rohan has a king and so does Gondor (eventually). But we never see these kings exercising any legislative authority, and one gets the sense that, as monarchies go, they are pretty passive, mainly concerned with national defense against potential orc invasions. For the most part, the free peoples of Middle Earth are allowed to govern themselves, and that is regarded in the text as a good thing. The only times in which monarchic power is really flexed are portrayed as tyrannical, usually under the evil influence of Sauron (himself a being whose crime consists in wanting to rule and dominate others).

A more subtle demonstration of Tolkien’s thinking about these issues can be found in perhaps the most unexpected place: the house of Tom Bombadil. A mysterious and controversial figure, Tom often divides readers. Some argue the he is tonally inconsistent with the rest of the work, that he stops the narrative dead in its tracks, that he is overly whimsical, and that he is too much of a deus ex machina, a lazy plot device for getting the heroes out of trouble. It is likely for these reasons, as well as the inherent difficulties of capturing a presence like Tom on film, that his chapter was cut from the film versions of The Lord of the Rings. But Tom also has his defenders, myself among them.

It is true that the whole Bombadil episode feels somewhat out of place in the broad context of The Lord of the Rings, and there is reason for this. The character derives from an earlier poem of Tolkien’s, and he was inserted into the early drafts of The Fellowship of the Ring before the precise nature of the book had become clear to its author. At the time, Tolkien was imagining the sequel to The Hobbit as being similar in tone to that book, which is to say essentially a silly children’s story. It was only in later drafts that the story became so much larger and more epic in scope, incorporating elements of Tolkien’s legendarium that would later be published as The Silmarillion. And while Tolkien was fastidious in his revisions, going over the text with a fine tooth comb to remove inconsistencies and contradictions, for whatever reason, he left Tom.

Tom Bombadil doesn’t really fit into Tolkien’s larger world, at least not in a way that is easy to understand, and this has given rise to endless fan theories about what in fact he actually is. Is he one of the Valar, the gods of Middle Earth? Is he a Maia, a sort of demigod whose ranks include both the balrogs and the wizards? Is he the supreme deity, Eru himself? Despite being asked this question many times, Tolkien refused to give a definitive answer, stating that some things were better left as mysteries. In one of his letters, however, he does give some insight into the nature of Tom’s relationship with his surroundings.

In the text, Tom is often referred to as “Master” but Tolkien clarifies that this mastery is unlike the kind we might be familiar with. Tom “has no desire for possession or domination at all.” Indeed, when the Hobbits ask whether Tom owns all the animals and plants surrounding his house, his wife, Goldberry, is repulsed at the notion and explains that each thing belongs to itself, not to Tom.

I think here we can get a sense of what Tolkien means by anarchy: mastery without domination.

Tom leads a free and easy life. He can do as he pleases, and he would never allow himself to be dominated by another, yet in this freedom he lacks even the faintest desire to impose his will on others. He is content to live and let live. Although he has the power to defeat the sinister Old Man Willow, or to drive out the bloodthirsty barrow wights, he has no interest in doing so except when these things pose an active threat to his friends. Note that Tom’s pacifism must not be confused with weakness. He will not allow himself to be used by any other power, and he will act to protect and defend those who are important to him. Tom shows what it means to be powerful without being a bully.

This kind of attitude may be somewhat foreign to many of us today, the idea that a powerful force for good should be content to mind his own business and leave even wicked things alone unless absolutely necessary. We tend to imagine heroes going out into the world and actively defeating evil, because that’s what good guys do. But Tom is a different sort of good guy, and one with whom I think Tolkien had more sympathy on the whole than for the dragon-slaying types.

There are many reasons why I love Tom Bombadil and am glad that he was preserved in Tolkien’s final manuscript, but certainly not the least of these is the way in which he illustrates the folly of seeking to control others, and the joy of living a life free from such desires.

I’ll conclude with one more quote from Tolkien’s letters, again demonstrating his skepticism of governmental power: “The most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.” Tolkien may not have been what we would call an anarcho-libertarian today, but he certainly had a lot of the right instincts. And no matter how Amazon decides to handle their own adaptation, I will always be able to take comfort and delight in the world he created, a world that fundamentally celebrates freedom and condemns domination in all its forms.

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Logan Albright

Logan Albright is the Head Writer and Sound Engineer at Free the People. He is the author of Conform or Be Cast Out: The (Literal) Demonization of Nonconformists and Our Servants, Our Masters: How Control Masquerades as Assistance.

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