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The Struggle of Good against Evil

Letter by Joe Hartney, March 2002

John Molyneux's attempt to explain the popularity of Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings' from a left perspective is, I think, a little dubious (Letters, February SR).

Firstly, it isn't necessary to seek out a left wing justification for why some on the left might enjoy a work of fiction. If a novel is well written, engages you with the characters and draws you into its story, then surely this is justification enough. Secondly, Molyneux's thesis of a critique of capitalism, arising from the contrast with a 'feudal communism', doesn't fit this novel. Tolkien's model is not feudalism as such, but the myths and stories of the Middle Ages, indulging in all the respect for heroic royalty which come with them.

The inspiration for his invented creatures, the Hobbits, is middle class suburban Britain. They are conservative, suspicious of change and adventure, they crave respectability, and they love their home comforts and possessions. This is hardly a model of even a 'feudal communism', and certainly there is no emphasis on the dignity of peasant labour, characteristic of some Romantic literature which harks back to feudalism as a response to industrial capitalism.

However, it is worth considering why this novel has proven to be so popular. My own view is that it is a Second World War story displaced to the realms of magic and mythology. Tolkien's tale of the reluctant hero suddenly drawn into a global struggle of good against evil reflects the official presentation of the Second World War still familiar to us today. The sense of menace and threat, especially in the first book of the trilogy, surely reflects the anxiety of the liberal world faced with the military successes of the Nazis.

Tolkien was able to combine some aspects of the mythology and circumstances of the Second World War, a period he lived through, with the legendary world of chivalry and magic, a subject he knew a lot about as an English scholar.

No matter how fantastic the subject matter, a writer needs to convince the reader that the world being described is real and persuade us to 'willingly suspend our disbelief'. Tolkien's ability to do this, coupled with a story which has a real (if distorted) resonance in the popular psyche, goes some way to explaining why his novel has been so popular.

Joe Hartney

Edinburgh

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