Like a lot of people, when I first encountered The Lord of the Rings, I was struck by what seemed to be a fantasy version or allegory of the Second World War. Not that Gandalf particularly resembles Churchill or anything (…hmm, he does have a bit in common with Theoden of Rohan, but never mind), it just seemed that for someone writing in England during the Nazizeit, the ultr-evil militaristic empire, complete with team colors of red and black, had to be in some way an evocation of the Third Reich.
But reading Humphrey Carpenter’s Tolkien: A Biography, I see why Tolkien (Ronald to his family, Tollers to his Oxford buddies) was so upset by this association. He professed to hate allegory, of which I think he had a rather narrow understanding, but more importantly, he did not respond to National Socialist Germany with the visceral revulsion that we have come to think of as universal.
This is not to say that JRR was pro-Nazi, or even anti-war. But while some of us see Hitler as minipulating and exacerbating the authoritarianism, love of military violence, and racism that were already disturbingly prevalent, Tolkien saw him as perverting the great German (and Germanic) virtues of obedience and patriotism. During the Munich crisis of ’38, he was convinced that the Russians were somehow the source of all the trouble.
The idea of ebedience as one of the human virtues is deeply alien to me (actually, it’s not even at the top of my list of canine virtues), but it fits in with a conservatism that Tolkien took to breathtaking extremes. Obviously the Shire is a sort of pastoral Tory paradise, with no industry, no nasty dirty mines and no nasty left-wing miners, but did you know that Tollers organized a school debate condemning the Norman Conquest? Apparently he remained throughout his life as angry about 1066 as though it had happened during his lifetime.
He loved what he called good plain food, which meant food free from the twin modern evils of French sauces and refrigeration. He not only was suspicious of typewriters (though he eventually came to use one) he didn’t even like fountain pens, and wrote LOTR with a pen that required frequent dipping in a pot of ink.
To give him his due, his Luddite obsession also led him to abandon cars and cycle to Mass and to work until he required. This shows a real commitment to a kind of environmentalism, though it must also be said that his attitude toward driving had a certain pre-modern flavor: approacthing a crowded Oxford intersection, he was known to bellow “Charge ’em and they scatter!” Let’s hope they scattered in time.
And then there’s the class hierarchy. LOTR is sprinkled with the usual tripe about the superiority of pure upper-class “blood,” and Marry and Pippin are oddly trouble by their masterlessness, throwing themselves at the feet of the first bossy geezer they come across.
But what impressed me most, coming to the books after having seen the movies, was the difference in the relationship between Sam and Frodo. I think if you ask most viewers to describe it, they would say that Sam is Frodo’s best friend and/or his sidekick; some would pick up on the adoring glam-shots of Frodo, including closeups that would make Gloria Swanson green with envy, and suggest that Sam and Frodo might be the reason that Frodo and Sam show zero interest in girls. In the book, though the elements of friendship and sexual yearning (JRRT is shaking his fist at me from the grave) are present, the defining element of their relationship is unequivocal: Sam is Frodo’s servant. All his acts of kindness are interpreted representing the highest standards of behavior of the loyal and dutiful serving-man, not like the obsequious but treacherous (and black!–who knew?) servant Gollum.
The master-servant dynamic lends an oddly kinky angle as things get steamy toward the end of The Two Towers, as they approach the threat of Shelob, tho (IIRC) only female they encounter on their quest after they leave the larger group. The she-monster literally comes between the two bromancing hobbits, until Sam puts paid to her by thrusting his dagger up into her abdomen and causing her to ooze fluid…well, never mind. Anyway, the climactic line for me is “Master, lay your head in my lap.” Only the British could feel that this combination of passion with dominance didn’t require the participants to be dressed in leather.