Reflecting on Hobbits and Brexit

I have much to write on the Lord of the Rings and the ways in which it has shaped my own personal mythology and character. Aragorn, in particular, has been archetypal in my development from a boy to a man. Middle-Earth, its races, lands and histories are not just words on a page or scenes in films but legends which I have wandered through, tarried in and reflected on in dreams; both waking, and sleeping. My experience, for want of a better word, of Tolkien’s epic is more imbibed than scientific. For all of my enjoyment of his worlds and characters I have always engaged with them as myself, rather than as a historian, linguist, writer or even a fan. That is to say that my reflections may at times be ‘inaccurate’ when it comes to the rote of lore, or the traditions but I should hope that they would not be considered unfaithful.

Many have tried, with greater or lesser success, to draw on the Lord of the Rings to reinforce their own political perspectives, or to detect within it some politico-allegorical interpretation to be praised or critiqued.

These are just a handful of readily available results when searching for “Lord of the Rings and Politics”. Some are acceptable, some have clearly only seen the films and not read the stories, and others, in my estimation, are an excuse for clicks.

In those examples, and in others elsewhere, much is made of Tolkien’s experiences of the World Wars. People seek to detect within the descriptions and plots a reflection on the nature of war.* Generally this is done without adequately listening to Tolkien himself in his reflections on the writing of the Lord of the Rings. In his revised preface he makes it quite clear that “The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion. If it had… then certainly the Ring would have been..” used quite differently, and the plot would be altogether different. As for its allegorical nature, he comments:

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and weary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed determination of the author”.

Any reflection on Bilbo, Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin and politics — namely brexit — must be properly understood to be an exercise of this freedom of the reader, and not of the intention of Tolkien. So, in this freedom let us turn now to look at the Hobbits and Brexit.

Brexit, properly understood, is this question:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

This has in the popular presentation of the issue by, sadly, both sides often been reduced to a perceived fear of outsiders. More explicitly, a fear of a mass influx of Muslims.

The EU reports that in 2015 2.4 million non-EU citizens immigrated to the 28 member states. By all accounts, this number has gone up each year since. The United Nations Refugee Agency has evaluated the Mixed Migration Trends In Libya, because Libya remains one of the main points of access for migrants entering the EU, and found that the majority of migrants were males between the ages of 26–30, out numbering women by more than 16:1, from Sudan, Nigeria, Syria and Eritrea — predominantly Islamic populations. This fear is then bolstered by events such as at the Bataclan, the Manchester Arena, Nice, London Bridge, and so on. These events are so ingrained in the public consciousness that simply stating the place is enough to denote what happened. One website lists over 2000 killings in the name of Islam during 2017.

In December the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament published their annual report for 2016–2017, which observed that: “The scale of the current threat facing the UK and its interests from Islamic terror groups is unprecedented… The threat to the UK is diverse as terrorist groups [predominantly Daesh and Al-Qaeda] continue to innovate and employ a wide range of tactics, ranging from simple, low-sophistication attacks, such as those involving bladed weapons or vehicles, through to sophisticated, long-term attack plans involving the acquisition of IEDs.”

Perhaps mass immigration and Islamic terror is by far and away the most pressing issue for brexit? Perhaps it would be worth the pixels talking about rates of immigration to member states and various incidents and policies pertaining to migrants and so on and so forth?

Yet the Intelligence report continues, on the next page, to say: “There is a persistent threat of terrorism in Northern Ireland, primarily emanating from… the ‘New IRA’… The threat level in NI remains at SEVERE (an attack is highly likely) while the NI-related terrorist threat to the rest of the UK was raised in May 2016 to SUBSTANTIAL (an attack is a strong possibility).” There have been four attacks in 2017, including the non-fatal shooting of an on-duty PSNI officer. This is unsurprising to those who are familiar with the ongoing political tensions surrounding Northern Ireland but does not feature in the public consciousness in general, I wouldn’t say. More significantly, where the issues presented by brexit involve Ireland/Northern Ireland it is primarily in relation to the requirement for the external border of European Member states to be monitored/check pointed — not the terror threat.

This could point towards the notion that those who voted leave are racists. Or it could indicate that the issues of borders, immigration and terror threats are more complex that commonly reported in the media.

If the complex issues, which are to be found in government, United Nations and European Union white papers rather than the media, are to be reduced to a single common denominator then I propose it would be that of sovereignty.

Again, the notion of sovereignty is often itself reduced to the idea of closing the borders and keeping the muslims out. But to do so is to emotively, and grossly, over-simplify the nuances of sovereignty.

By virtue of having had a referendum on the question of membership of the European Union the United Kingdom has professed its abiding belief in the idea of representative, democratic government. Simply put, the people elect representatives to be their Member of Parliament to represent their voice in the House of Commons. Governance therefore is predicated upon the idea of representation, and of accountability — if a representative is perceived to have done an inadequate, or even a bad, job then they will not be re-elected.

However, this is not the case with the European Union, as I wrote in this summary of structure of the EU at the time of the vote.

The European Union has seven authoritative bodies; the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council, the European Commission, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Central Bank and the Court of Auditors.

To simplify this down, we — the average person on the streets in the UK — only have influence over the European Parliament and the Council.

We vote for our Member of the European Parliament (MEPs) and our elected government is represented on the Council.

The Council is made up of 28 representatives, one for each member state. These representatives for each state changes depending on who the national state minister with the appropriate portfolio is for any given discussion, i.e. for agricultural discussions all 28 ministers for agriculture would be present, but for education the education ministers would be present. As such, we indirectly influence the council by electing our own MPs.

We have direct influence over the European Parliament because we vote for our MEPs.

The European Parliament is a ‘legislative’ body which passes and enacts EU Laws.

However it does not have ‘legislative initiative’.

It can only affirm or reject legislation proposed by the European Commission.

This means that it is the European Commission, which we have not democratically elected and which is not electorally accountable to ‘the people’ of Europe, which drives the European political discourse and agenda. Furthermore, while the European Commission is made up of one member per member state, members are bound by their oath of office to represent the general interest of the EU as a whole rather than their home state.

As such, remaining a member of the European Union is to remain in a political system of governance with reduced capacity to either elect a representative with legislative initiative or to hold the government to account. Further, laws of member states must comply with regulations of the Union. This limits sovereignty, which can also be understood as self-determination; the ability to make our own laws across every area of life from industry and fishing and trade, to teaching and health care and the military, to borders, employment law and criminal justice.

The key and routinely overlooked element of sovereignty is this:

Sovereignty is amoral.

The popular reduction of sovereignty to closed borders is absurd. A sovereign Britain would be able to set its immigration targets to anything it likes. If there are aspects of legislation and principles which are beneficial and found within the EU then there is no reason why a self-determining state couldn’t determine to do them as well.

If opposition to Brexit is predicated upon the notion that we as a nation should allow more refugees to find shelter and protection here then that mandate, once agreed electorally, can be implemented by a sovereign Britain.

Sovereignty is amoral because it is neither left-wing nor right-wing, progressive, liberal nor conservative; it is instead potential to act in accordance with an electoral mandate, which can be given to any platform which is persuasive enough to get an X in the box at the polling station.

“‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

How would Bilbo, Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin have responded to Brexit? As outlined above, we cannot try and force Middle-Earth into our contemporary political boxes, as fans of #orcposting are want to do.

These memes make a point using Lord of the Rings Imagery, and some of them parody the media’s responses to terror attacks with an uncomfortably penetrating humour.

Yet they artificially flatten the nuances of Tolkien’s narrative. It would be too crude to reduce the Shire to England, the Elves to the EU and Mordor and the Orcs to Islamic countries. Even as I write these examples I wonder if Britain could be the Elves with America as Gondor and Rohan as the EU. Isengard as Islamic and Mordor as Russia. But wouldn’t the American/Russian divide work well with the Eleven/Dwarven one? (And would that make Trump and Putin, Legolas and Gimli?!). And who on earth would be Tom Bombadil??

No, an allegorical interpolation of Brexit into the Lord of the Rings would be to bastardise both.

We have five hobbits, let’s take them in three stages.

Bilbo Baggins: The Hobbit

The original hobbit, the unlikely burglar who finds himself at an unexpected party before being drawn from his happy life of sunshine and pipe tobacco into a world of comically fearsome trolls, riddles in the dark, fortuitous prison escapes and an alarming encounter with a dragon. He returns home to the shire to resume ‘normal life’, yet is considered quite peculiar — a reputation he shall pass onto his nephew Frodo (along with a certain ring).

The role of the Shire and Bag-end, Bilbo’s home, plays in his adventures and character is partly functional, and partly by its absence. It’s functional in that it represents a place and state of peace from which he leaves, and to which he intends to return. It operates, narratively, primarily by its absence. He misses it, and yet when he returns the scale of the dramas have shifted from the Battle of Five Armies down to stolen spoons.

Bilbo eventually retires to Rivendell before passing into the Grey Lands. While the majority of his life is spent quite happily in the Shire, it is when he leaves that he finds meaning and respite.

For Bilbo, then, I should venture that the notion of barricading the Shire off from the rest of Middle-Earth would be an alien one. He certainly would not be considered passive; he has a role to play in the events of the world, perhaps a sometimes under-celebrated one. As such, Bilbo would be willing to work with any allies which he might encounter, and having conversations with opponents (Gollum and Smaug) while focusing on the benefit and success of his companions first (think killing the spiders and rescuing the dwarves) without succumbing to blind loyalty, not even to Thorin.

Bilbo would vote to remain in the European Union if it works properly as a team of allies united with a common purpose, and would not be afraid to vote leave if his conscience felt that it had lost its way.

The Hobbits: Lord of the Rings

Bilbo may have been the finder of the Ring, but Frodo is the ring-bearer in all fullness. Bilbo stumbles through his adventures with growing confidence and conviction, yet Frodo finds himself thrust into the midst of a complex and multifaceted political situation where he represents many things to many people, and their desires are often detrimental to his purpose. At the council of Elrond many want to use the Ring against their enemies. Boromir seeks the approval of his Father and his people, Aragorn amd Faramir have to resist their desires to fulfil their own moral codes, Gollum seeks his precious which is precious for its own sake, while Sauron seeks it to regain his bodily form and exert his power once again. Not even Gandalf nor Galadrial are immune to this temptation. Frodo himself almost fails at the last hurdle.

With all of these ulterior motives surrounding him and with compassion for those he’s putting in harms way on his mission to Mount Doom, Frodo finds himself compelled to head off alone. He was fortunate for the stubbornness of Samwise Gamgee, his stalwart companion who even, for a spell, bears the ring himself.

Samwise accompanies Frodo all the way to the end, yet they are markedly different in their optimism. Frodo, mind and vision clouded by the ring, doesn’t expect to survive while Sam rations the food as carefully as he can — so there’s enough for the journey home.

Their journey takes them as far away from the Shire as they could possibly get, and all seems hopeless. As Frodo lies exhausted on the side of the mountain Sam asks,”Do you remember the Shire, Mr Frodo?”

Everything is done for the Shire.

Frodo and Sam may have to strike off on their own, but Merry and Pippin remain fully embroiled within the complexities of the relationship between Rohan and Gondor, and of these against Isengard and Mordor. At one stage they find themselves trying to persuade the Ents to help them defeat Saruman. They say no, and Pippin suggests they head home.

If they do, Merry says: “There won’t be a Shire, Pippin.”

Pippin then asks for them to be taken near Isengard to continue their journey, and the sight of felled woods stir the Ents into Action.

Together Merry and Pippin are present at the final stand outside the Black Gate, and witness the fall of Mordor.

If one has only seen the films, one could spin the story either way. The hobbits stand on the right side of history, defending good and decent folk from the sinister, oppressive enemy — which ever side you may view Brexit from, this would work.

Return to the Shire

Yet the penultimate chapter of the The Lord of the Rings doesn’t end with the destruction of the evil ‘out there’. Instead, of Saruman being killed by Grima Wormtongue and falling to his death from the Tower at Isengard, the novel has him being set loose. It is mistakenly believed that now Gandalf has taken on the mantle of being the White Wizard that Saruman is weakened, pathetic and harmless.

The Hobbits return to Bree, to the Inn of the Prancing Pony only to discover that there is a ‘Chief’ now installed in Bag End. There’s a gang of men and hobbits under the direction of “Sharkey”. They have imposed curfews, cut down trees, damaging the land. and terrorising hobbits.

What Frodo saw in the mirror of Galadrial has started to become reality.

“This is worse than Mordor!” said Sam. “Much worse in a way. It comes home to you, as they say; because it is home, and you remember it before it was all ruined.”

They rally the hobbits around them and stage a resistance, defeating groups of ruffians as they advance towards Bag End to confront Sharkey, to turns out to be none other than Saruman who gloats:

“I have already done much that you will find it hard to mend or undo in your lives.”

He then threatens them, “Whoever strikes me shall be accursed. And if my blood stains the Shire, it shall wither and never again be healed’. The hobbits recoiled. But Frodo said: ‘Do not believe him! he has lost all power, save his voice that can still daunt you and deceive you, if you let it…’”

Saruman’s lies and manipulations come to a dramatic climax when he accuses Grima Wormtongue of murdering Frodo’s cousin, which he did on Saruman’s orders. He snaps, and kills Saruman and dies in the process.

How would Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin vote in the referendum? Their concerns are clearly for the benefit and preservation of the Shire, but they do so by being instrumental in benefiting the whole of Middle-Earth. Then they return home, not to a hero’s welcome but to the damage and impact of lies and manipulation enforced violently. It’s worth noting that they don’t themselves kill Saruman, but only witness his demise having exposed him and cut away his structures of support.

I don’t think that we can say that they would have voted for Brexit in the sense of closed borders — but I think that they would embrace a self-determining democracy, the electoral will of the people; and decry the biased and absurd simplifications and manipulations of a media which presents bad news as “because of Brexit” and good news as “despite Brexit”. And these hobbits, of all people, would know that just because there’s been a turning point in a war it doesn’t mean that there aren’t still battles to be fought.

“I sharn’t call it the end, till we’ve cleaned up the mess,” said Sam gloomily. “And that’ll take a lot of time and work.”

*One good reflection on Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, and Just War Theory can be found here

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