Half of Ayn Rand Fans Should be Reading J.R.R. Tolkein

I’m partly inspired here by the following internet meme comparing the literary achievements of Ayn Rand, minimum state pro-capitalist evangelist, and J.R.R. Tolkein, literary critic and scholar of  Anglo-Saxon literature. 


There are two novels that can transform a bookish 14-year-kld’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large chunks of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book about orcs.

I’m also partly inspired by the coverage of Paul Ryan’s selection as the Vice-Presidential part of Mitt Rpmney’s Presidential for the November election in the US.  This has given the meme above another lease of life, because Ryan has claimed that Rand’s novels were a great transformative inspiration for him.  He has moderated this claim in recent years, as he mentioned that he disagrees with Rand’s atheism and materialism.  Ryan is apparently a practising Catholic.  His proposals to cut public spending have made him bit of a hero with small government advocates, and something of a villain for active or big government enthusiasts.  He does have socially conservative impulses along with those of hawkish national security conservative who favour a very big military.  Ayn Rand herself disapproved  social conservatives in the Republican Party, leading her to oppose Ronald Reagan as has been frequently pointed out recently.

For small government conservatism, rather than secular libertarianism, J.R.R. Tolkein is a much more relevant writer, though he does not have the influence that Rand has had on conservative-libertarian synthesis people like Ron Paul, or like Dan Hannan in Britain, the arch-Euro sceptic Member of the European Parliament.  In a widely quoted passage to his son Christopher he defines himself as a kind of anarchy-conservative.

My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control 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, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!


I’ve had more success in reading Tolkein than Rand.  That is I have read all of Lord of the Rings, but failed to get past about the first hundred pages of Atlas Shrugged.  I have see the film version of The Fountainhead, based on Rand’s novel of that name, as I have also seen the film version of Lord of the Rings.  I can say that Tolkein’s anarcho-monarchism expresses itself there in his belief in traditional ways of life, natural communities and natural leaders who happen to be hereditary leaders of possessed of supernatural knowledge.  The good side in Middle Earth is that of individuals living lives free of state interference and where authority is so natural and so steeped in aged tradition they is is obeyed unconsciously.  What is lacking is much sense of change, or of trade, or of capitalism of any kind.  

Tolkein’s stereotypical fans are eco-socliasts with a belief in the merits of pre-industrial ways and small self-governing communities.  The above makes it clear why that should be the case, which sort of explains why pro-capitalist conservatives have largely not picked up on Tolkein.  Nevertheless, anyone who favours a mixture of conservatism and anarchism or minimal state thinking, is going to find some sympathetic elements in Tolkein, and Tılkein does not condemn capitalism, he simply prefers self-contained communities which are not very concerned with commercial interests, though they have some.  

Certainly Rand’s liking for large than life individual towering over everyone else with their energy and self-regard, is not necessarily a great fit with conservatism, which surely advocates humility before tradition .  Classical liberal and libertarian thinking does not really benefit from the Randian model of not very introspective money making heroes, who turn capitalism into a self-satisifed celebration of genius, rather than a way in which individuals of all personality types can live in freedom both as economic actors and as individual self-creating characters.  

In the end I would not put forward Rand or Tolkein as ideal writers,or ideal creators of literary versions of political positions.  Literature of the highest quality  does not really lend itself to strident advocacy of a clear political position, though literature always has a political aspect.  Rand’s literature reads like a parody of 19th century heroic individualism in literature.  Tolkein showed that is it not possible to create modern epics or romances of the same level as the great models from the past.  They are maybe the two most successful literary figures of the 20th centıry in the breadth, and continuing breadth of their audience.  Unless I am missing something, the limits of their literary talents means they are likely to decline in popularity some time this century.  It does seem like a remote prospect right now though. 



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