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Tolkien’s guide to contemporary politics

April 11, 2019   7 mins

Good news: a new season ofΒ Game of Thrones starts next week. Bad news: it’s also the final season. But fans of fantasy with a political edge can look forward to a new TV epic. Amazon Prime is developing a series set in JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Reports suggest it will be a prequel – the action taking place long before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But luckily Tolkien’s wizards and elves are more or less immortal, meaning that some familiar characters may be appearing as their younger selves. I wouldn’t be surprised if another ‘character’ makes an appearance too: the One Ring.

Arguably the most famous piece of jewellery in all of fiction, the Ring is not only a brilliant plot device, capable of linking events that take place centuries apart; it is also the focus of one of Tolkien’s most important themes: power.

Unlike his friend C.S. Lewis, Tolkien was not fond of allegorical fiction. He had no time for the idea that the Ring – extremely dangerous but hard to get rid of – was an allegory of the atomic bomb. Rather, it was exactly what he said it was: an embodiment of power and the corrupting effects of power.

Tolkien shows us that the only people who can be trusted with great power are those who don’t really want it – or who do, but have the moral strength to reject it. Even then, it’s touch-and-go, the burden of responsibility taking a terrible toll on the reluctant bearer.

Numerous commentaries have been written on this aspect of the story – often summed up by the Lord Acton quote: “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Which is trueΒ enough. But Tolkien was onto a whole lot more than that…

Let’s begin at the beginning. The Ring was made at great cost to Sauron, its creator. He poured much of his own strength into an external object – one from which he could be separated, which in due course he was. So why take the risk? Sauron, though evil, was possessed of great cunning – why did he expose himself to such a vulnerability? Did old JRR just not think it through? Does the Ring actually represent a massive hole in the plot?

Not a bit of it. When you understand what Tolkien understood about the nature of power, it all makes perfect sense.

In a letter, he once wrote that the Ring was a “mythological way of presenting the truth that potency… if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalised and so as it were passed, to a greater or less degree, out of one’s direct control.” This is a crucial insight into the way Tolkien understood power to work.

Power in politics is like power in physics: always on the move, a flow not an object. That’s why holding on to power is so difficult – literally so, in the case of electricity. We can generate, transmit and consume vast quantities of the stuff. However, unlike other resources – such as water or grain or coal – it’s very difficult to store in any great quantity.

If only it weren’t. For one thing we’d be able to save up electricity generated in the summer months, when demand is low, for use in the winter. Unfortunately electrons are energy not matter. We can’t stack them up like logs in a woodpile. The closest we can get are rechargeable batteries – but those are limited by the cost of capacity. The best hope for affordable long-term storage lies in using surplus power to make a fuel, like hydrogen, which can then be used to generate electricity at a future date – in other words, the best way to hold onto electrical power is to convert energy into matter and back again.

Which brings us to back to the One Ring. It can be seen as power in material form – power you can hold onto, ready to be used as and when required. To a power-mad being like Sauron – unwilling to rule within limits – forging the Ring was a smart move.

Here’s another analogy: think of the difference between cashflow and capital. If all you have is cashflow – money which you spend as soon as you earn it – then any interruption leaves you helpless. It doesn’t matter how rich you were up until that point.

However, if you save a portion of your income, then you accumulate capital. And that gives you options – not only a reserve to fall back on, but also a means of boosting one’s own economic power and of acquiring control over that of others.

So that was what the One Ring was to Sauron: an investment of his magical power. You might still think he was foolish to put it all into a single object, small enough to lose down the back of a sofa; but his investment was protected. For a start, the Ring was virtually indestructible. Furthermore, it was so imbued with the identity of its creator that it had a kind of homing instinct, should it get lost. And then there was the effect it had on anyone coming into contact with it.

When energy becomes matter, it acquires mass. Enough mass in one place has a warping effect on time and space, which generates gravity, pulling other things towards it. There’s a parallel process in finance. Great accumulations of capital can distort entire economies. Certainly, they exert a gravitational pull: money comes to money and the rich get richer.

In parallel fashion, the Ring – Β as a great accumulation of power – enabled Sauron to bend the will of others to his own. In seeking to exalt themselves, they became his slaves.


Of course, we’re talking about magical power here – in a fictional, fantasy world. But Tolkien’s story is highly relevant to the real world, where power is political.

Most of the time political power is merely exercised. Successful politicians get the chance to direct the flow of power – but only for a while. They are either in power or out of it – and when you’re out, there really is nothing left of what you had. As is sometimes said in Westminster, “there’s nothing more ex than an ex-MP”.

Sometimes, however, power is invested – poured into some external but enduring form. I don’t mean an Ozymandian statue left broken and lifeless in the desert, but something still thrumming with influence – perhaps even long after the death of its creator.

The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975. His authoritarian regime did not long outlive him and democracy was soon restored. In 1940, however, Franco ordered that work begin on a vast project – the Valley of the Fallen, which was a memorial to the dead of the Spanish Civil War and supposedly an “act of national atonement”. It took two decades to complete, with some of the work done by prisoners. The site consists of a complex of buildings – including a Benedictine abbey, a basilica and a 500 foot high stone cross.

To its many critics, the bleak grandiosity of the complex suggests an apparently Christian monument possessed by the spirit of Fascism. And though meant to honour the dead of the Civil War, it also contains the tomb of someone who did not die in the conflict: Franco himself.

The Valley of the Fallen is still a focal point of intense controversy. Spanish governments have gone to great lengths to stop the site being used as a rallying point for Francoist sympathisers – and debate rages as to how the monument can be re-invented.

However, there’s no question of pulling it down like those statues of Lenin after the fall of the Soviet Union. The physical challenge alone would be enormous – the basilica is literally built into a mountain. It is also consecrated ground – a place of worship and the final resting place of 40,000 of the fallen, including some from the Republican side. Whether or not Franco’s remains are moved elsewhere (as the current Spanish government wishes to do), the monument is embedded in the substance and memory of the nation.


An investment of power doesn’t always have to take an architectural form. It can be something more diffuse than that. In the back story to the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien tells us that, in addition to the One Ring, 19 subsidiary ‘Rings of Power’ were created and distributed among the movers-and-shakers of Middle Earth. The recipients thought they were getting a free gift; in reality they were plugging themselves into a network under the ultimate control of the One Ring, which Sauron retained for himself.

Now can you think of anything like that in our own world? A networked service whose benefits are given away for nothing and yet which amply repays the ‘generosity’ of those who control it? Doesn’t that sound like certain big tech companies one could mention? I’m not saying that Mark Zuckerberg is Sauron, just that the business model of Mordor isn’t entirely unknown in Silicon Valley.

Though we’re not forced by law to use social media, the technology is so enmeshed in the way we live that it’s getting harder to do without it. And that’s without taking into account its addictive qualities. Even when we don’t actually need it, we wants it. Yesss, we do, my precious. Now, where did I put my phone?


Another way of solidifying power is through constitutions and treaties. Unlike ordinary laws that can be passed and repealed by whoever happens to be in power at the time, constitutions and treaties are intended to have a binding effect – perhaps lasting for generations. Such arrangements can provide a foundation for fundamental rights or a predictable set of rules for international trade; but beyond a certain point they begin to crowd out the normal democratic process – and the need of governments to seek and renewΒ a mandate from the governed.

Of course, constitutions can be amended and treaties abrogated. But when they’re allowed to proliferate and entangle themselves around the life of a nation, breaking free of their binding power can only come at great cost. It is what the Greeks found out in the Eurozone crisis and what the British are finding out as we struggle through Brexit.

The EU and its project of ever-closer union is nothing if not an attempt to accumulate power, acquired from sovereign states and deposited layer by layer. It represents decades of political investment, initiatives taken and compromises made – often with the best of intentions.

One has to understand how those who have invested so much for so long feel about the idea of throwing it all away. However, so much power solidified in one place exerts a force that disrupts everything around it – and so one must also understand the motivations of those who wish to resist.

The stars of the EU flag represent the coming together of nations. But one can’t help but notice the shape that they form.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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