The Economic Agendas of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors, Vol. 3: The Economic Apathy of J.R.R. Tolkien, the Anarchic Anti-Industrialist

This is volume three of a very-infrequently-updated series. In previous posts on this blog, I discussed the more blatant economic agendas of fantasy and scifi authors Jack London and Terry Goodkind, as well as discussed the function of economics in other speculative fiction books in posts here, here, and here.

Finding evidence of economic systems in scifi and fantasy books is not hard. The use of economics in speculative fiction is not always blatant, of course, and more often than not it is used for world-building rather than to promote an author’s economic view point. But when envisioning their futuristic societies or when creating fantasy worlds, the vast majority of authors do incorporate some form of economic structure.

There is one glaring exception to this rule: J.R.R. Tolkien.

Because economic systems do not exist in Middle Earth.

Tolkien was — beyond all doubt — a god among world builders. But Middle Earth’s intricate mythology was simply that. A mythology. His world was not a functioning, messy, organic society, but a symbolic realm. In many ways, his detailed accounts of the history of Middle Earth are the equivalent of the Bible: the begatting of generations and the successions of kings are all accounted for in exquisite detail, but any accounts of the day-to-day life of Middle Earth’s inhabitants are left skeletal and superficial.

If you doubt that, consider the following questions: Did Gondor tax its citizens, and if not, how did it get its massive armies? Were there lawyers and judges in Rohan? Who wrote the laws in Bree? Did any race or kingdom have schools or systems of higher learning? Was there a mercantile class? Were there trade guilds at all, or tariffs, or monopolies? Could Dwarves or Hobbits or Elves freely choose their careers — and if so, were there career options beyond “farmer,” “miner,” “innkeeper,” and “soldier”? What sovereign minted the coins that occasionally appear in the books? Did people earn wages or were they paid stipends by feudal lords? Why is there no evidence of trade in Middle Earth in situations where in a real world we should expect to see some? What political and economic motives could Sauron’s human allies possibly have? How were the Rangers of the North, such as Strider, funded? For that matter, how was Gandalf funded — surely he needed some sort access to resources to accomplish all his doings? And perhaps most perplexingly, why do women, of all the races, appear to be on the verge of extinction?

No answers. (Well, unless of course the answers happen to be in The Silmarillion, I certainly am not about to read that one to find out.)

That last question should be a particular tip off, though. How can you know a civilization in any level of detail when fully one half of its citizens are essentially unmentioned?

Tolkien’s apathy towards the economy and social infrastructure of Middle Earth was by no means the result of simple oversight. It was a deliberate attempt to construct a world that conformed to his views of the human condition. Tolkien did not believe that human societies required regulation in order to function — and so Middle Earth went unregulated. In referring to his own views, Tolkien stated that,

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 anyone 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).

When creating Middle Earth, it is apparent that Tolkien had, shall we say, an eye for detail, and it would be an insult to suggest he simply forgot to factor in economics and politics. As Tolkien wrote in a letter describing the hobbits’ arrival in Bree at the Prancing Pony Inn:

The landlord does not ask Frodo to ‘register’! Why should he? There are no police and no government … If details are to be added to an already crowded picture, they should at least fit the world described. (Tolkien, letter #210).

And the world described in the Lord of the Rings is one where economics does not exist.

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How Economics Can Be A Plot Point in Fantasy Novels

In King’s Shield — book three of the Inda Series and an entertaining but otherwise unremarkable sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel by Sherwood Smith — I was very pleased to see that the existence of economics was not merely recognized, but used to advance the plot. Too often in fantasy novels, money is assumed to conveniently exist. Kings can declare wars, and they absent mindedly cover the costs “out of the treasury.” And everything is paid for in ubiquitous gold coins. Need to stay at an inn? Here, have a gold coin. Need to raise an army? Here, have some more gold coins.

But in King’s Shield, the king goes broke fighting a war and is facing the possibility of his kingdom turning to anarchy if he can’t pay for anything. That alone earns the series some points — far too many books simply gloss over the fact that wars are, well, expensive. So the King’s busy fretting over his empty treasury, and in typical fantasy fashion, the main character — who has spent most his life as a pirate — announces he has a solution to the problem. To paraphrase, “Not to worry! There’s a big old treasure trove full of pirate gold out on an island I know of, let’s just go and fetch that.”

Then the king’s cousin informs him, “That won’t work.”
“Why not?” The pirate asks, dumbfounded.
“Because treasury isn’t treasure.”
“Treasury isn’t treasure?! What the heck is it then?”

The king’s cousin launches into an explanation of how finances work in the land. The pirate is appropriately baffled when he is informed that the “letters of credit” they often use are not actually referring to piles of gold, but are themselves used as money — there’s no gold standard in Iasca Leror. “So you’re telling me,” the pirate says, “we’re just trading letters all over the place? Just pieces of paper with writing on them?” Welcome to fiat currency, Lord Inda.

In fact, the character’s dialogue sort of suggests that in this world, the monetary system operates under Chartalism. The king accepts payment of taxes from each nobleman in the form of established rates of men, horses, supplies, etc., and these taxes of soldiers and supplies can also be measured and paid in ‘kind’ — fantasy-speak for trade between two different goods of equal value.

And in Iasca Leror — where King’s Shield takes place — it turns out that a pirate’s treasure trove has very little value in kind. Because of the years of wars that they’ve been through, interkingdom trade has grinded to a halt. And gold and jewels are useless to Iasca Leror– you can’t eat them, live in them, or ride them, after all.

And thus economics becomes a plot point in high fantasy. As a result of the conversation, the king’s cousin jaunts off on his next adventure — a quest to re-establish interkingdom trade in the world, so that they might export their gold and jewels and turn them into new ships and letters of credit.

Maybe he’ll accomplish this by gathering all the other kingdoms’ representatives together in a place called the Brettonska Woodlands.


The Economic Agendas of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors, Vol. 2 — Terry Goodkind

conanlibertarianTerry Goodkind

I realized that there is one author, at least, who I am totally competent to critique even without the benefits of having his books before me: Terry Goodkind. That’s because you don’t actually need to read The Sword of Truth series to understand what they’re about, you can just go type “libertarian porn” into google and you will probably get the same experience.

Okay, they’re not quite that bad. After all, I did read all of them, and at ~800 pages a pop times 11 novels, that’s 8,800 pages I bothered to get through. Admittedly, that was over the course of 12 years, beginning in seventh grade when I first picked them up because I got bored waiting for Robert Jordan to crank out his next book, and finally ending this past summer when I was studying for the bar, and therefore procrastinating with a Terry Goodkind novel was marginally less frustrating than the BarBri books I was actually supposed to be reading.

But in between the decent chunks of sword-and-sorcery fantasy in The Sword of Truth, Terry Goodkind seizes every possible opportunity to turn his characters into hoarse mouthpieces for the Libertarian War Against Communism. It’s kind of funny, the first dozen times it happens. And then it starts getting annoying, when you find yourself wondering if the speeches were simply copied and pasted from a speech that same character gave two books ago. And then finally by about book 6 or so, every time you see a character launch into a major speech, you just skip ahead six or seven pages until you find where the quote marks stop and everyone goes back to stabbing bad guys.

A rough synopsis of the series [SPOILER ALERT] is that Hank Roark Richard Cypher, a simple woods guide, is actually the leader of the D’Haran Empire, and the beautiful Dagn- Domini- Kahlan has been sent to fetch him. After securing his title as Supreme Commander of the Old World, he then must fight the rampaging horde of liberal democrats in the New World that wish to destroy individualism and promote the idea of from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

Anyway, they all live in a world where it is possible to conquer the forces of evil simply by demonstrating to them your noble, liberty-loving spirit and your adamant refusal to live your life for another.

Read More: In Libertarian Land, you can always tell which women love freedom the most. It’s the hot ones »