The Return of the King: Emotional Monarchy in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings

"I am not a 'democrat' only because 'humility' and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some orc gets hold of a ring of power--and then we get and are getting slavery."
--Draft of a letter to Joanna de Bortadano, April 1956

"I am not a 'socialist' in any sense--being averse to 'planning' (as must be plain) most of all because the 'planners', when they acquire power, become bad--but I would not say that we had to suffer the malice of Sharkey and his Ruffians here. Though the spirit of 'Isengard', if not of Mordor, is of course always cropping up."
--Draft of a letter to Michael Striaght, Jan/Feb 1956

The Lord of the Rings

The political sympathies of Tolkien are present in various ways throughout LOR.  His beliefs have sometimes been associated with the third way of Roman Catholic Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton's decentralized, agrarian, "small is good" distributism, and he also shared the Vatican I Roman Catholic hatred of communism, inspired by attitudes like Pope Leo XIII's "Prayer to St. Michael." He, at points, had emotional and moral sympathy for Catholic activist poets like Roy Campbell, who reported on the communist and socialist violence against Catholics in civil war Spain, though Tolkien was no ally of the Franco-fascists. What was most important for Tolkien was a spiritual and social ideal of an unplanned civic polity that produces good communities, that encourages personal responsibilities and accountability, and that has as its ideal the virtuous person rather than the simply "free" person. Notice how these ideas work themselves out in this letter:

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) - or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy.  I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and it's inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantations, execute them if they remained obstinate! If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good.  Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and process of governing and it should be an offence to written it with a capital G or so as to refer to people.  If people were in the habit of referring to 'King George's council, Winston and his gang', it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy. Anyway the proper state of Man is anything but Man; and 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.  And at least it is done only to a small group of men who know  who their master is.  The mediaevals were only too right in taking  nono episcopari as the best reason a man could give to others for making him a bishop.  Give me a king whose chief interest in life is stamps, railways, or race-horses; and who has the power to sack his Vizier (or whatever you care to call him) if he does not like the cut of his trousers.  And so on down the line.  But, of course, the fatal weakness of all that- after all only the fatal weakness of all good natural things in a bad corrupt unnatural word - is that is works and has worked only when all the world is messing long in the same good old inefficient human way. 
--Letter to Christopher Tolkien, 29 November 1943

Politics should be personalized, not cloaked in the abstract language that cordons off an unapproachable power--" theyocracy," as he names it. Tyranny, at its heart, is the one who desires power and to rule others. Power too easily detracts from the real business of living, and planning becomes the cloak for abusive policy. While Tolkien's politics pervades his treatment of Orcs, Sauron, Saruman, and nature in general. I'd like us to focus on the following five topics for our discussion:

Aragorn the True King

  • The most important one is Tolkien’s treatment of monarchy through Aragorn. In what ways does Tolkien present him as an ideal king?
  • Bilbo’s verses about Aragorn (213/ I.x, 307)
  • The fear belonging to a good man (214/I.x)
  • Aragorn (and Arwen’s) typological connection to Beren and Luthien (239ff./ I.xi)
  • His role as a healer (248ff./ I.xi; 1072ff./ V.viii)
  • Care for Boromir/ Lament for Bormoir—concern for his people’s loss (523ff./ III.i)
  • Wisdom & moral understanding (419ff.; 436ff./; 543/ III.ii; 700/ III.xi)
  • Love of Gondor (523/ III.i)
  • Revelations of kingliness (Pillar of the Kings 488ff./ II.ix; In Rohan 537ff./ III.ii; 622/ III.v;  Helm’s Deep 670-671/
  • Heirlooms and signs (Elfstone 466/ II.vii; Andúril 643/ III.v; Palantir 738/ III.xi; 969ff./ V.ii)
  • Malbeth the Seer’s Words (973/ V.ii) & the Paths of the Dead (979ff./ V.ii)
  • The people receive their king; Aragorn’s great reign (1205ff./ VI.v)

Some have suggested that Aragorn is more like a quasi-Christian king, while Denethor and Théoden are bad and good pagan kings respectively. Is there any merit to this proposal?

Denethor versus Théoden

If we do see them as the the good and bad pagan king, then the contrast they represent in LOR takes on political implications. Two sets of important passages:

  • The way they receive the hobbits’ service (941/ V.i; 968/ V.ii)
  • Approaches to despair (1043-1044/ V.v; 1063ff./ V.vii)

What does each comparison suggest about personalism in Tolkien's politics?

Role of the White Rider

Gandalf is the steward of Eru; he represents the rule of Illuvatar above any earthly  polis

Aspects of the White Rider (330/ II.ii; 673/ III.vii; 724-725/ III.x;  1031/ V.iv)

Faramir the True Steward

What does Faramir reveal about the character and spirituality of submission to rightful authority, its political and emotional purpose? (1008/V.iv; 1079/ V.viii; 1205/VI.v)

Politics of the Shire & the Realm of Arnor/ Eriador

The Shire (and Bree) are agrarian anarchic economies and polities which benefit from the King and depend upon Rangers to protect them, but not otherwise interfere. 

  • Passages worth considering: (308/ II.ii) 
  • Coming back as king’s men (1249, 1251, 1253/ VI.viii)


Neither a capitalism nor a socialism, distributism was inspired by the teachings of Leo XIII in encyclicals such as  Rerum Novarum and in the 1930's by Pius XI in  Quadragesimo Anno. While not all distributists were Catholics, the position was most often associated with Catholic thinkers and activists, such as G.K. Chesterton, Hiliare Belloc, Eric Gill, Vincent McNabb, and Dorothy Day. Its key teachings included:

  1. The distribution of property across the widest possible number of people. This was thought to be maximized by small farms, independent shopkeepers, craft guilds, and so on.
  2. The principle of subsidiarity, which holds that all power and action should be carried out at the lowest level of organization necessary. Big government should be strictly limited to matters of national concern. Not all distributists were anti-monarchical.
  3. Centralization is the least efficient way to take care of things--"Small is beautiful." Act locally.
  4. The Napoleonic division of property among all heirs is best.
  5. Workers should all have disposable shares in a business.
  6. House and homeland are more important values than race and empire. Family is at the center of production and social life.
  7. Economic and political arrangements should maximize human freedom and its responsibilities.
  8. All human beings are equal and made in the image of God. All the above follows from this truth.
  9. Distributists were divided over the role of machinery in work and common life. 
  10. Likewise, not all distributists were agrarian in their ideals. Some were more comfortable in town life.