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.

The Shire, where the Hobbits lived, is in many ways a replica of Tolkien’s notion of the ideal existence. The Shire’s inhabitants had loose forms of self-government, but no police, no trade guilds, no universities, no extrinsic power that served to shape the Hobbits’ lives. As described in the Lord of the Rings,

The Shire had hardly any ‘government’. Families for the most part managed their own affairs. Growing food and eating it occupied most of their time. In other matters they were, as a rule, generous and not greedy, but contented and moderate, so that estates, farms, workshops, and small trades tended to remain unchanged for generations.

As for how the Shire’s government and lawmaking functioned, there was no sovereign — in fact, if the Shire were an earth region, it would almost certainly not qualify for statehood today — but there were laws that were followed, of a sort. In terms of Hobbit jurisprudence, the inhabitants of the Shire “attributed to the king of old all their essential laws; and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were ‘The Rules’ (as they said), both ancient and just”. Apparently Hobbits embraced Natural Law theory.

Some commentators have tried to use the Shire as proof of Tolkien’s secret capitalism, by arguing that the Shire represents a capitalist utopia, until Saruman/Sharkey instituted a form of communism in the Shire, with disastrous results.

This claim is unconvincing. Tolkien was well known for abhorring modern technologism, and for pinning many of the world’s ills on advances in global industry. Saruman’s evil, in Tolkien’s eyes, was in bringing industrialization to the Shire, not socialism. The Shire was an idealized rustic England, and Sharkey’s interference was the equivalent of the Industrial Revolution, not the imposition of Soviet gulags. If anything, Tolkien intended the Shire as a promotion of anarchy, not capitalism. The evils of the world were not to be blamed on economic theories, because in Middle Earth, economic theories do not exist.

Where did the evil come from, then?

“The evil in the world as portrayed by Tolkien has nothing whatever to do with social or economic causes. It is evil, pure and simple. Consequently there is no need for change of socio-economic conditions, the environmental conditions of life, relations between different classes, etc., etc. – all these things which make up the very fabric of a society, any society, are perceived by Tolkien as totally beyond any need or possibility of change.”

This quote is the best explanation I have seen of the economic and cultural life of Middle Earth, or rather the lack thereof. There are no intricate descriptions of societal structures because such things are not important in the Middle Earth world– it does not matter whether there is a democracy or a monarchy, capitalism or socialism, free trade or no trade, free speech or censorship. Evil is its own malignant entity, not an emergent attribute of human civilization, so the daily life of the citizens of Osgiliath, or the Dale, or Rivendell is simply unimportant. An army of good squares off against an army of evil, and what more could you possibly want to know?

The Economics of Middle Earth, as Gleaned From a Few Stray Facts

Although there is no coherent structure to the economic and political relationships of the inhabitants of Arda, occasional suggestions of economic activity do occur.

We know, for example, that money existed. References to coins appear a small handful of times in all of his tomes. More tellingly, Tolkien’s invented languages do contain reference to trade and economic activities; the proto-Elvish language had a word for “trade,” “tradesman” and “commerce.” This suggests the practice of trade did exist, since they could name it. But no clue is given as to who minted the money, nor how the trade system worked, or whether different kingdoms had different coinage.

In this excellent article on The Merchants of Middle Earth, the author painstakingly enumerates the occasions in Middle Earth’s history in which trade probably would have occurred. Because there was contact between the kingdoms and races, and because some nations and races were richer than others, with their relative status changing through time, presumably some sort of waxing and waning of national GDPs was occurring. But if each nation jealously guarded and refused to trade the most valuable goods it produced — good luck getting mined jewels from a Dwarf or a horse from the Rohirrim — what sort of trade was happening?

The single biggest tip off that some sort of large scale trade activity must have occurred in Middle Earth is the simple fact that Dwarves, according to Tolkien, did not grow their own food. For thousands of years, then, they were trading with someone to get it. But who? And what for? The Dwarves spent an awful lot of time mining for valuable things like gold and Mithril — given how rare these were in the rest of the kingdom, it is hard to imagine some dwarf never said, “Hey, I know! Instead of trading this mithril with other dwarves, who already have tons of the stuff, I’m going to walk over to the city of the Men and get a much better deal for it! Wow, I think I just invented arbitrage!”

We do know that gold had value in Middle Earth, as seen by the bickering over who would get Smaug’s treasure after the dragon was killed. But why should Middle Earth’s inhabitants want the gold baubles? “Because it’s treasure” is a meaningless answer when there is no indication that the treasure could be traded to anyone for anything. Of course, maybe the Dwarves just collected the gold so they could sit around and stare at it. Some of the Dwarves, at any rate, very clearly coveted gold, not as a medium of exchange, but rather as something of value in and of itself.

But the Men wanted the gold too, and not merely so they could sit around and stare at it. But why, then, did they want it? Was gold used for currency? If so, who accepted it?

Possibly Hobbits. True, Hobbits were self-sufficient, and lived in a rural agrarian society, primarily growing crops for their own needs and not interacting with the outside world. But there was one glaring exception to their isolation. While imports to Shire did not seem to occur, Hobbits had at least one notable export: good old pipeweed. The richest families in Hobbiton dealt in pipeweed, too, suggesting there were gains to be had from its trade.

Likewise, the only kingdom in Arda that dealt extensively in trading with other lands was also the richest kingdom. The Rhûn (that’s Middle Earth for “Asians”) apparently did have trade networks, and Rhûn-based trade resulted in the only occasion in Tolkien’s novels in which economic activities was used to advance the plot. The scene comes about when Bilbo and the rest of the Dwarves escape from the elves of Mirkwood, by means of a unique trade pathway:

The men of Esgaroth traded with Dorwinion (a human realm on the fertile coastal plain on the west shore of the Sea of Rhûn) in a unique way; wine barrels were floated down from Thranduil’s caverns in Mirkwood (the Elves were known as copious wine drinkers, as found in the Hobbit) along the Celduin down to Esgaroth, where they were redirected to Dorwinion. The wine was then paid for and filled with the necessary goods before being shipped north once more, and the cycle of trade resumed once more. These barrels were also quite large, for they could easily fit a Hobbit and 13 Dwarves (even the extremely fat Bombur).

And, finally, although it is a minor footnote, there is at least one race in Middle Earth that is well known for its economic activities. The Beornings (a race of shapechangers, Men that turn into bears) specialized in baking, and at least before they suffered some unpleasant experiences and became isolationists, they were famous for selling their delicious cakes to other races.

Why the One Ring Had To Exist, or Why The Lack of Economics in Fantasy and Scifi Novels Does Matter

The emergent social systems resulting from human interactions on a large scale — economics, politics, law, culture, etc. — are not just world-building minutia that provide useful trivia facts for science fiction and fantasy geeks to share among themselves. Every story is necessarily dependent upon the constraints of the world it is set in, and so the economic structure of a fantasy world determines a novel’s outcome.

With contemporary literature, the human infrastructure behind a story’s setting is obvious: it is an approximate version of our own. We already know what the rules are and how to apply them, so there is no need for an author to be explicit — we can assume that the character is operating in the same system that we ourselves operate within every day. If a character shoots someone, she better have a good excuse or else a good escape plan, because in our world the police will take action against her. If a character is going to make a round-the-world trip, he better have an explanation for how or where he got the funds, because we know plane flights are not free.

In speculative fiction, however, we do not have the benefit of our own first-hand experience to know what the applicable societal rules are. If one character shoots and kills another, we cannot assume there is some system there to react, or if so, how. Perhaps the murdered character is a species or class for whom killing is acceptable and not a subject of official interest, or perhaps the relevant law enforcement authorities possess mind reading technology so making up an alibi is not even an option. Or, for fantasy novels, if one character gets stranded in a neighboring kingdom, we have no idea whether that will cause any financial problems. We need to know if all the lands use ubiquitous gold and silver, or will the character instead need to find a money changer?

That is why virtually all science fiction and fantasy authors do provide information about the economic system of their worlds, even if some do so unintentionally. The authors cannot help but explain it, at least a little.

For all my complaints about the silliness of the Sword of Truth series, Terry Goodkind was very aware of the economic model of his world. Goodkind even makes the disparity in resources a central theme of the battle between the North and the South. In the novels, Richard’s forces react to being on the losing end of an asymmetrical war by attempting a campaign to destroy the enemy’s supply lines, in order to slow the approach of the invading Southern hordes. Other tiny clues are offered, too — how the governments function, what the mundane laws of the lands are, how the economies of the smaller villages sustain themselves. None of that sort of detail is present in Tolkien.

I am certainly not arguing that the economic systems of fantasy worlds need to be made blatant. Harry Potter, for instance, never makes the economics of the wizarding world explicit (not counting, perhaps, an adventure or two in Gringotts, the wizard bank) — after all, for most of the series, the characters are children, and unlikely to be cognizant of such things. But whether or not Harry and Hermione ever sit down and discuss the intricate details of wizard fiscal policy, little indications abound that there is a larger world around the characters, one in which economics, politics, law, and the other ordinary infrastructures that civilizations have do indeed exist. From a scene with Hermione’s parents, for example, we know that it is possible to exchange wizard money for the British pound, indicating not only that there is economic integration between the magic and non-magic financial systems, but that something at least resembling normal human economic models also applies to the wizarding world. We also know entrepreneurship exists, from the Weasley twins’ opening of their own joke shop. We also get fed occasional hints about the secret interactions between high-level muggle officials and the wizarding world’s leaders, suggesting treaties and some sort of “international” law that applies not across national borders but within the same territory but across the muggle and wizard divide. The list goes on: We learn about the Wizards’ prison and justice systems, their media, and their charitable causes (such as house elf liberation).

And yet, in the Lord of the Rings, we do not have the answer to even so simple a question as “Do elves use money?”

This utter lack of economic structure is a severe constraint upon Tolkien’s stories, and is the primary reason Tolkien’s works will always be, at least for me, more equivalent to the Bible than to novels.

The law of scarcity is, by all appearances, inapplicable to Sauron. Need a million orcs, trained and armed, by tomorrow? Sure thing. Need to raise some cities for all those orcs to live in? Bam, there you go. Need something better than orcs to use as infantry? All right, we’ll suddenly invent Uruk-Hai and claim Saruman magically figured out how to raise an army all by his lonesome self at the isolated outpost of Isengard.

In the Lord of the Rings, the characters conveniently and inexplicably have access to resources when the plot requires them to, and conveniently and just as inexplicably do not have resources when the plot requires that they do without. The War of the Rings cannot therefore be resolved in any fashion that would be familiar to our own world: no war of attrition ending in Mordor buckling, no staging of a revolution among the enemy’s civilian population, no tactical victory on the battlefields, no political maneuverings that result in the enemy’s allies becoming your allies. Because no tactical victory is possible against an enemy with unlimited resources, and no peace can ever be negotiated with an opponent whose motivation is based on the desire for evil for evil’s sake alone, rather than a desire for more substantial aims which can be bargained for.

In a battle against an evil with unscarce resources, then, the only victory that is possible is a symbolic one. Not a victory based on strategy and macroeconomic trends, but a victory that can be set in motion by an individual character’s discrete acts and then carried out by forces inexplicable to science. Such a victory could be accomplished, for instance, by introducing a token imbued with magic properties — a token that, when destroyed, just so happens to simultaneously destroy the bad guy’s unlimited empire as well. Because a token, unlike a war, can be completely controlled by an individual; and a token, unlike a civilization, can be destroyed without reference to the larger socioeconomic structure of the world in which that token exists.

The Fellowship could never have raised an army big enough, nor designed battle plans clever enough, to defeat Sauron. Sauron is not bound by scarcity, and Sauron’s only utility is evil; the laws of economics do not apply to him. As such, Tolkien’s good guys could never have achieved the sort of victory that would be recognizable on Earth as we know it — the forces of good might have won a battle or two against Sauron, but they could never have won the war.

So instead of having Sauron defeated through conquests or strategic alliances, Tolkien just had two hobbits walk for a long time and drop a ring into a volcano.

It’s not a bad ending. But it’s the ending of a mythology, not a novel.


See Also: Vol. 1, Jack London, & Vol. 2, Terry Goodkind.

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

  1. Pingback: The Economic Agendas of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors, Vol. 1 — Jack London « The View From LL2

  2. Pingback: The Economic Agendas of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors, Vol. 2 — Terry Goodkind « The View From LL2

  3. Interestingly enough many of the questions asked by author of this essay CAN be answered. I attritbute this fact to not enough research on the side of author. The reference to trade is in the very first chapter of Lotr, after the famous Bilbo’s birthday party we learn that: “The purchase of provisions fell almost to nothing throughout the district in the ensuing weeks; but as Bilbo’s catering had depleted the stocks of most stores, cellars and warehouses for miles around, that did not matter much.”

    Of course there is a reference to money, in Bree-land and Shire (as well as most likely entire Eriador at least on territories of the old North Kingdom of Arnor) were used “silver pennies” (additionally in the drafts of texts that were supposed to come into appendices of Lotr that we can find in tomes of HoME, we have another reference to currency: “In Gondor tharni was used for a silver coin, the fourth part of the castar (in Noldorin the canath or fourth part of the mirian).” – HoME XII) and Gandalf once says that he can reward Barliman Butterbur with a “gold-piece” for good news, not to mention that gold found in Troll’s hoard in The Hobbit was in form of…golden coins. Here are relevant quotes:
    “Bilbo gave a few pennies away; but not a single squib or cracker was forthcoming, to the disappointment of the onlookers.” – Long-expected Party, LotR,
    “There was, however, no sign nor mention of money or jewellery: not a penny-piece or a glass bead was given away.”(on the gifts to relatives after Bilbo’s disappearance, not to mention that there is also reference to hired workers ordered for clean up, that come after the party)
    “Bill Ferny’s price was twelve silver pennies; and that was indeed at least three times the pony’s value in those pans.[…] Mr. Butterbur paid for it himself, and offered Merry another eighteen pence as some compensation for the lost animals.[…]He was an honest man, and well-off as things were reckoned in Bree; but thirty silver pennies was a sore blow to him, and being cheated by Bill Ferny made it harder to bear.”- A Knife in the Dark, LotR
    “…among an untidy litter of plunder, of all sorts from brass buttons to pots full of gold coins standing in a corner.” – Roast Mutton, The Hobbit.

    What’s more in Return of the King we have a reference to market in Minas Tirith (and disparities in resources in general, and trouble in getting them): “‘Yes, lord,’ she answered; ‘but not enough, I reckon, for all that will need them. But I am sure I do not know where we shall find more; for all things are amiss in these dreadful days, what with fires and burnings, and the lads that run errands so few, and all the roads blocked. Why, it is days out of count since ever a carrier came in from Lossarnach to the market!” (and these are referring to medical supplies but most likely are general statement of current situation)
    Not to mention of the economic background of Minas Tirith, the “rich townlands” of Pelennor (that of course got burned down by plundering Orcs and Men of hostile army that encamped before the walls of the city during siege).

    Another important point is…the basis of economy in Middle Earth is always: the land, private property, land-owners, farming and producing food (and I guess even in real world in time of high finance that is true as well) and craftsmen, free men with freedom of movement, commoners even, free husbandmen that produced things and supplied them to others who did not, as well as small trades, merchants and peddlars transporting goods at great distances (dwarves are noted as the ones most successful, agents in providing metals and resources from their mines and works of craft) and services, people get hired to do things, the popularity of inns, taverns, ale-houses, eating-houses is telling that services in accomodating or feeding travellers are thriving (we have even an unnamed hobbit “stranger on business from Michel Delving” staying at an inn the Ivy Bush). As simple as that (sure there are also two scant references to moneylenders, Bilbo as wealthy hobbit often was asked to borrow money and so he has worked out his “business manner” for the talks, and dwarves “even the poorest of us had enough money to spend and to lend” at least in their good days at Erebor before the dragon came and they had to face poverty and scorn of men wandering after work).

    As for Sauron, my goodness, he has entire economic background in not only the Black Land itself, the slave worked fields providing food for armies, enough water supply, tributes and loot from conquered territories. He has entire ever growing empire to rule (from lands of East and South/Rhun and Harad) and enough manpower, his Orcs were also breeding for decades to reach those numbers (and are even mind controlled to some extent). Isengard bought supplies from Shire (adn probably Dunland as well as most of the Dunlendings were in service of Saruman) and Saruman provided money for Lotho to buy everything (and here one might speculate that this ‘monopolizing’ hostile take-overs, increased export without restraint is the true source of bad things that lead to scouring of Shire, of course later on when Saruman arrived in person he just wanted petty revenge so ordered everything destroyed left and round).

    Last but not the least here is what Tolkien himself wrote: “I am not incapable or unaware of economic thought; and I think as far as the ‘mortals’ go, Men, Hobbits, and Dwarfs, that the situations are so devised that the economic likelihood is there and could be worked out. Gondor has sufficient ‘townlands’ and fiefs with good water and road approach to provide for its population and clearly has many industries though these are hardly alluded to. The Shire is placed in a water and mounyain situation and a distance from the sea and a latitude that would give it a natural fertility, quite apart from the staed fact that it was a well-tended region when they took it over (no doubt with a good deal of older arts and crafts)……..” (about elves here we have take in mind their ‘magic abiltiies’ as seen on example of Galadriel’s gift of soil from her garden that cause famous year of plenty in Shire) and there’s more, so much more but I won’t bother to say, hell even legal system of hobbits is developped they have regulations on inheritance, adoption, auctions, sale transactions, contracts and agreements, there is mention of ‘bargain price’, ‘proceeds from sale’, ‘compensate’, ‘weregild’ which all relate one way or another to economic matters (weregild is restitution of sorts, a recompense for death of one’s relative, we have for example info that after sons of Rohirrim’s king Folcwine were killed in battle, Gondor paid rich weregild in gold because they died giving military assistance). Oh, and Beornings not only sold their cakes (most likely they sold all kinds of foods, their specialty: honey, mead, bee wax, they were considered best bakers but most likely they also provided services and accomodation for travellers especially dwarves and they charged HIGH TOLLS for passing through their territory, the fords on Anduin and mountain passes they controlled, keeping roads safe).

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