After opining at great length a while back about the political subtext of superheroes — OK, it was admittedly more of a gratuitous indulgence of my favorite comic-book characters than a serious discussion — I’ve entertained a number of recommendations for follow-up discussions of other pop-culture icons. I’ve already taken the bait on one reader’s idea by writing a comparison of the Star Trek universe (left-wing) and the Star Wars universe (right-wing) for a previous “Daily Journal” column.
Now, after some entertaining and intriguing e-mail correspondence with people who desperately need a real job (look who’s talking, right?), I have decided, with the due amount of gravity and deliberation, to weigh in on one of the weightiest issues of the day: the politics of fantasy. With the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter film series tearing up the box office, commentators across the political spectrum have attempted to attach their personal preferences to these popular characters and stories.
Is J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic a story about the need for bravery or the futility of war? Is Harry Potter the agent of a pagan conspiracy to undermine religious faith, or is he an exemplar of morality that children would be well-advised to emulate?
After painstaking research involving the original sources, film and audio adaptations, critical reviews, and other resources, I have come to the following plausible, but hardly unassailable, conclusions:
The Conservative Fantasy
The easiest case to make is that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy creates a conservative fictional universe. In various interviews and writings, Tolkien pretty much made this clear from the word go. Eschewing any talk of allegorical meanings — the Ring is nuclear weaponry, Sauron is Hitler, etc. — the author nonetheless couldn’t help but comment on the trends of his day through a mythological world he spent much of his adult life devising.
Tolkien’s is a profoundly conservative fantasy. His favorite characters, the Hobbits and Elves, live in the agrarian Shire and the untouched forests of Middle-Earth, respectively. The Hobbits represent the “salt of the earth” country folk that Tolkien grew up around and venerated greatly. He was nervous about modernity, critical of urban life, and suspicious of technological “progress.”
It is the villains in his piece who make the most use of tools and technology. Sauron forges the one Ring and others to channel magical energies and bend opposing kings to his will. Dwarves burrow “too deeply” into the mines of Moria and devise too many intricate treasures, indulging their avarice and inviting their disaster. The evil wizard Sauraman employs black magic and, apparently, genetic engineering to mass-produce a race of super-Orcs to form the nucleus of a conquering army. And in the pivotal battle of Helm’s Deep in the second book, The Two Towers, Orcs use military technologies such as catapults, undermining, and battering rams to attack a fortress defended only by stout humans and Elves with hand weapons.
Moreover, Tolkien’s strong religious faith is never far from the surface in The Lord of the Rings. As more than one critic has observed, the good wizard Gandalf at a pivotal moment in the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, faces off with a very Beelzebub-looking demon called a Balrog. Both standing on the brink of a yawning precipice, Gandalf shouts that he is a servant of the “Sacred Fire” and proclaims: “You shall not pass!” He and the Balrog then fall deep into the Earth, and later he is resurrected as Gandalf the White. Doesn’t take a theologian to see the shades of Biblical imagery in this powerful story.
On war, Tolkien’s depiction certainly isn’t a celebration but neither is it a call for pacifism. There is a stark resignation in Lord of the Rings about the end of innocence, the inevitability of dark conflict, and the search for bravery and hope amidst death and destruction. There is much that is Homeric about the story, both in the horror and the glory of combat, which should be no surprise since Tolkien was inspired by epic poetry to write The Lord of the Rings in the first place (though his primary muse was located far to the north, in the Finnish epic Kalevala).
The Libertarian Fantasy
I claim no originality in observing that the Harry Potter series creates a libertarian fantasy world in which those endowed with magical abilities live in a complete, and largely privatized, world of their own that is parallel to, and usually invisible from, the world of ordinary humans, the “Muggles.”
While the stories are largely an extrapolation of author J.K. Rowling’s novel idea of combining the traditional English boarding-school story with elements of myth and magic, they also provide readers with surprisingly positive portrayals of private enterprise, personal freedom, and even such ideologically austere notions as private banking and a gold standard.
Writing in the journal Ideas on Liberty, Professor Andrew P. Morriss observed that Harry Potter and other wizards keep their savings in Gringotts, a private bank run by goblins who are “quite ruthless in protecting the money entrusted to their care.” There’s no government-sponsored deposit insurance at Gringotts. And there’s no government-fiat money allowed — the currency consists of Gold Galleons, Silver Sickles, and Copper Knuts (one wonders hopefully if the latter might be the namesake of Knut Wicksell, the Swedish economist who pioneered monetary theory and was influenced by the free-market Austrian School).
The imagery in Harry Potter is infused with capitalist messages. Diagon Alley, the cloaked corner of London where wizards congregate and sell their wares, is a wildly disordered and bustling hub of hucksterism that would horrify any good Smart Growther. On the other hand, as my friend Sam Staley of the Buckeye Institute points out, the cruel Dursley family that hosts and torments Harry during each summer vacation lives in a depressing, cramped townhouse — made cramped and expensive by England’s growth boundaries — that exemplify precisely what the planning community has in store for unsuspecting Americans. “If Harry and the Dursleys lived in the United States,” Staley writes, “they would certainly have their own house and a yard to boot. They would also have a garage, probably attached to the house.”
Rowling’s wizards have their own government bureaucracies, of course, but these are held up to ceaseless ridicule. The minister for magic, Cornelius Fudge, is depicted as a “pompous buffoon,” Morriss writes. Lower-level bureaucrats are either incompetent or corrupt or both. And Hogwarts, where young wizards like Harry go off to get their secondary education, is obviously a charter school with its own board of governors and headmaster.
The Socialist Fantasy
I’ve let my sons watch The Wizard of Oz on several occasions, but they are too young to be corrupted by Frank Baum’s subversive but entertaining bit of socialist agitprop. Oh, didn’t you know that Baum was trying to use his book to teach left-wing propaganda? Actually, most people don’t realize it, either, which is why The Wizard of Oz is one of the most spectacular failures, on its own terms, in American literature.
During the 1880s and 1890s, Baum’s sympathies were with the Populist movement and William Jennings Bryan, who tried and failed to challenge Eastern industrialists and Wall Street through the coinage of silver, which would have inflated the currency and bailed out farmers and other with large debts at the expense of savers.
In the original book, Baum tried much too much subtlety in promoting his views on political economy. Dorothy represents the honest people of the Heartland. The Scarecrow represents farmers, the Tin Woodsman industrial workers, and the Cowardly Lion is Bryan himself, who Baum considered to be too timid a politician. Oz is supposed to represent Washington under the control of monied interests (remember the green-tinted glasses?), and the role of the gold standard is emphasized (the Yellow Brick Road, the use of the common abbreviation “oz” for gold ounces, etc.).
Good thing we didn’t adopt Baum’s crackpot and socialist economics. Made for a delightful children’s tale, though.
The Liberal Fantasy
Keynesian economics. ’Nuff said.
Hood is publisher of Carolina Journal, president of the John Locke Foundation, and obviously in desperate need of broader social contacts.