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Tolkien’s Animal Farm

May 26, 2010

The Lord of the Rings is famous for all the right reasons. It is epic. It is legendary. It created a mythology. It was the most read fantasy of the twentieth century until Rowling came along with Harry Potter. But there is an aspect of the novel which should be given more importance that it is: Tolkien’s treatment of Communism. Tolkien parodied a Communist totalitarian state in his epic fantasy. Tucked at the end of The Lord of the Rings, there is an animal farm.

Tolkien created a mythical world, which albeit set in medieval ethos, reflects the events of the twentieth century. The novel is full of symbols, though Tolkien asserts that there was no conscious effort on his part to put any. As a devout Catholic, he had a keen sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and his work is imbued with Christian morality. But he claimed that he had no direct political message to convey:

As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical.[1]

He asserted that the situations described in the novel maybe applicable to real-life conditions and readers are free to draw conclusions, but he has not made any specific political references.

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations… I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.[2]

If his words are to be taken true, he is different in this regard from many authors, who consciously put allegorical references in their work. This, in a way, makes his work great, as his beliefs seldom come in the way of good storytelling. Symbols or none, The Lord of the Rings is a great story. Same is true about Rowling and the Harry Potter series.

The Chronicles of Narnia is different. Lewis is too much of a Christian to let the story become supreme. Hence, we get Christian sermons in the most unexpected of places. Quite a few books of the series are ruined by his preachy tone and crusader like zeal to spread the Christian message. Similarly, the Communism of Maxim Gorky ruined his otherwise brilliant genius in pen picture and storytelling.

Other works like Animal Farm and 1984 are political satires, with the author consciously aiming at the political message. These works are known, not for their story, but for the message they deliver.

Nevertheless, at times, the ‘applicability’ in The Lord of the Rings becomes too appealing to resist drawing conclusions and as per Tolkien himself, the readers are free to do so. For example, the ways of Sauron and Saruman resemble the totalitarian tendencies of Hitler and Stalin. The fall of Gandalf the Grey and the rise of Gandalf the White remind us of Crucifixion, Ascension and Resurrection. Saruman’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge has too many similarities with the zeal of Dr. Faustus. His desire to control and organize mirrors the tendencies of dictators.

These similarities are well-known. A rather underappreciated part of the novel is the Scouring of the Shire, though a few researchers like Alberto Mingardi and Carlo Stagnaro have talked about it and Marxist critics like David Oberhalman have fretted about it in the J R R Tolkien Encylopedia.[3] After the battle of Barad-dur, there is yet another battle to fight after the four little hobbits reach the Shire. It is called the Battle of Bywater.

Saruman, also called ‘Sharky’ by the Shire, escapes from Treebeard. He goes to the Shire, bandies the goons escaping from the South, and builds a totalitarian regime with the help of Lotho, the Chief. Movement is regulated. The old inn at the entrance of the Shire is brought down and in its place a gate with a watch tower is built. Economy is planned. Farmers are no longer independent to consume their own produce. Distribution of grain is centralized, with the ‘gatherers’ and ‘sharers’ of the Chief taking over surplus grain from every farmer. A quick glance at the history of Soviet collectivization campaign will recall the memory of the Food Procurement Brigades of Communists.[4]

There are rules for everything and like the Seven Commandments of Animal Farm they are all over the Shire. Even talking is regulated with some things allowed and others not. The thought police come to mind. There are ‘sneakers’ who tell on people talking against the Chief, just like the Communist spies. People are not sure if even laughing is allowed. There is state police in the form of Shirrifs. People are arrested for fabulous crimes:

‘You’re arrested for Gate-breaking, and Tearing up of Rules, and Assaulting Gate-keepers, and Trespassing, and Sleeping in Shire-buildings without Leave, and Bribing Guards with Food.’[5]

Sam says that if hears not allowed more often, he will get angry.[6]

The old storage at Michel Delving is converted into state prison, resembling the labor camps of the Soviet Union.[7] People critical of Sharky and the Chief are hurled into them just as ‘enemy of the people’ were sent to the gulag. First they are just imprisoned, but later physical violence becomes customary, just as the things got worse after the Kirov murder in 1934 when physical torture was taken to extreme.[8] Ruthless industrialization is under way with absurd projects scouring the green countryside, like the fatal construction projects of Stalin. Farmer Cotton says:

“They cut down trees and let ‘em lie, they burn houses and build no more. Take Sandyman’s mill now. Pimple knocked it down almost as soon as he came to Bag End. Then he brought in a lot o’ dirty-looking Men to build a bigger one and fill it full o’ wheels and outlandish contraptions.”[9]

Like Muriel, the wise old goat of Animal Farm, Farmer Cotton is critical of the rules framed by Sharky and the Chief:

“Everything except Rules got shorter and shorter, unless one could hide a bit of one’s own when the ruffians went round gathering stuff up “for fair distribution”.[10]

At last the four plucky hobbits raise the Shire against the dictatorship and overthrow the goons of Saruman. If only the overthrow of Communism in real life had been so easy.

As Mingardi and Stagnaro have mentioned, J R R Tolkien opposed Communism as much as Nazism. According to him ‘the choice was between two evils rather than good and evil’.[3] While the ‘mainstream literature’ and the establishment of literary criticism became more leftist after the Second World War, fantasy writers like Tolkien avoided the extremes of the Left and the Right. Contrary to the absurdity and uncertainty of the ‘mainstream literature’, Tolkien’s characters have very clear moral choices.

The uncertainty of the ‘intellectuals’ was just a shroud for the support of Communism. Famous literary figures like Sartre and Pinter were die-hard supporters of socialist ideas and regimes. On the other hand, Tolkien was honest in his choices and openly embraced his Catholic image.

It is amazing how the critics have chosen to ignore the Battle of Bywater and its symbolism. While Tolkien’s portrayal of the Right is readily accepted and his Christian symbolism is sufficiently discussed, his condemnation of socialism is rarely talked about. Perhaps a clue to how much the Left dominates the literary establishment.

Tolkien’s answer to the problems of the world was Catholicism. Many, including me, would disagree with him, but one thing which can be learned from him, is how to keep equal distance from both the Right and the Left. I hope the Battle of Bywater and its symbolic opposition becomes more famous among the readers.


[1] Tolkien, J R R. The Lord of the Rings. London. HarperCollinsPublishers. 2007. p. xxv.

[2] Ibid. p. xxvi.

[3] <http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig2/stagnaro6.html&gt;

[4] Conquest, Robert. The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror Famine. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 1987.

[5] Tolkien, J R R. The Lord of the Rings. London. HarperCollinsPublishers. 2007. p. 1310.

[6] Ibid. p. 1311.

[7] For information about the gulag, read Anne Applebaum’s The Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps. London. Penguin Books Ltd. 2004.

[8] For Stalin’s Reign of Terror, read Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror: A Reassessment. New York. Oxford University Press USA. 2007.

[9] Tolkien, J R R. The Lord of the Rings. London. HarperCollinsPublishers. 2007. p. 1325.

[10] Ibid.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2010 7:57 PM

    Well put.

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