The Corner

Politics & Policy

J. R. R. Tolkien vs. The Euphemistic State

( phil_ioffe/Getty Images)

Readers of The Lord of The Rings won’t be surprised to learn that J. R. R. Tolkien was no great fan of government. The last century’s most beloved work of fiction is about a painstaking quest to abjure power instead of acquiring it. What’s more, the evil wizard Saruman is presented by the author as the consummate technocrat: One senses throughout the novel that he would very much enjoy the chance to make follow-up phone calls on behalf of the Income Revenue Service. “I gave you the chance of aiding me willingly, but you have elected the way of pain,” he says at one point. 

The good wizard Gandalf, by way of contrast, passes his time by purveying fireworks in the lightly governed Shire, and refused the Ring on the basis that he “would use this Ring from a desire to do good. But through [him], it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine.”

Tolkien wasn’t really disposed to engaging in explicit political polemics — he spent most of his time immersed in ancient languages and mythology. But we do have one letter, written to his son in November of 1943, in which he offers a few brilliant reflections on language and politics.

The letter is rather startling coming from a tweed-clad, preVatican II Catholic reactionary. He starts by declaring himself an anarchist: 

My political opinions lead more to Anarchy (understood as meaning, abolition of control and 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 its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, nor mind); and after a chance at recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!  

We might have guessed this much given nothing to go by but the text of The Lord of The Rings. The psychedelic California radicals of the 1960s, for whom Tolkien’s work was a cultural touchstone, certainly wouldn’t have been surprised to read these words from the author. They might have been surprised to learn that the same man insisted upon belting out the Roman mass in the original Latin during every liturgy in defiance of that most wretched and accursed modernizer: Pope John XXIII. 

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has described Tolkien’s great friend C.S. Lewis as a “Tory Anarchist”: someone who combines a fervent devotion to authority, tradition, and moral conservatism with unrelenting hostility towards the encroachment of state power. Tolkien belongs very much in the same camp, and he brings his philological genius to bear by offering a Tory Anarchist diagnosis of political language and its perils: 

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 write 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 & his gang, it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into theocracy.

According to Tolkien, the main malady afflicting political language is euphemism. Orwell made a similar point in “Politics and The English Language,” but he didn’t fasten onto the issue of names the way Tolkien does. “Government” is nothing more or less than a huge apparatus built to threaten and inflict violence upon people within a given locality. In democracies, we elect the people who threaten and inflict this violence upon us, but it’s still violence all the same. Tolkien is making the point that our thinking about politics would be a lot clearer if it reflected this fact; that government is, at bottom, a process whereby certain individuals wield coercive power over others. 

Euphemisms such as “the state,” “the government,” “public spending,” and “public services” mask this fact by drawing a veil of impersonal and lofty neutrality over the state that obscures what it actually does. That’s why getting “back to personal names” is so important. If, instead of saying “I’m filing my tax returns,” Americans were in the habit of saying “I’m forfeiting my property to Donald, Nancy, and Mitch at gunpoint,” we might start to think about taxation, and government in general, a lot differently. 

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