You really know your political career is in trouble when people start comparing you to Gollum. Poor Theresa May was on the wrong end of some Tolkien-inspired satire last week, when the actor Andy Serkis released a spoof video with the title “LEAKED: Footage from Inside No 10 Downing Street!” Serkis, who played Gollum in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, had the inspired idea of combining the characters of the prime minister and Tolkien’s cadaverous, covetous, conflicted villain.
“Our precious, our agreement, our deal,” hisses Mayllum to herself. “Yes, yes, we takes back control, borders, laws, blue passportses . . .”
Just as in The Hobbit, the novel that introduced Gollum to the world, Mayllum has a split personality. Part of her craves the draft withdrawal agreement as obsessively as Gollum craves the magical golden ring. But part of her — the remnant of the person who 2½ years ago half-heartedly campaigned to keep Britain in the EU — resists.
“No!” she moans. “It hurts the people, makes them poorer . . .” Yet the allure of the agreement is as irresistible as the allure of the ring. “But I finds it,” she hisses back at herself. “I negotiates it, we wants it, we has to do it.”
Serkis’s spoof struck a chord in our household not because we are diehard remainers (as all actors appear to be). Brexit has divided our family in unexpected ways. My wife is a committed leaver; a majority of the children are, like most of their generation, remainers.
Having campaigned against Brexit and lost, I came to terms with the referendum result, but I confess to having my own Gollum-like moments of inner struggle, which is probably why the Serkis video didn’t make me laugh.
The funny thing is that our family is equally divided over Tolkien. As a boy, I read and re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. My daughter is just as addicted to the films. My third son is a fellow hobbit. At the tender age of two, he responded with complete fascination when I first read him The Hobbit. Now six, he is immersed (as am I) in the spellbinding audio version recorded in the 1990s by the Australian-born actor Rob Inglis.
The scientists in the family remain baffled by our Tolkien mania. My mother and my sister — both physicists — have long regarded any book containing either elves or dwarfs as unfit for consumption by rational beings. They have been mocking me on this subject for close to half a century.
They and their ilk, however, are losing the argument. Leaving aside the great monotheistic scriptures, the Bible and the Koran, The Lord of the Rings is the most popular book in the history of publishing, having sold more than 150m copies since its publication in 1954.
Its influence is ubiquitous from Oxford, where JRR Tolkien spent most of his life, to Silicon Valley, which is full of Tolkien enthusiasts. The tech investor Peter Thiel named one of his funds after mithril, a fictional metal dreamt up by Tolkien. A palantir is a kind of crystal ball in The Lord of the Rings; it’s also the name of Alex Karp’s pioneering big data company, which hands out “Save the Shire” T-shirts to visitors. I could go on.
There is, nevertheless, a puzzle that has only just struck me. Why, if his books are so immensely popular, has Tolkien’s deep-rooted conservatism had such a tiny influence? For nearly all Tolkien’s millions of readers seem somehow to have missed the fact that the great edifice of his fiction stands on a foundation of profoundly Tory philosophy.
A devout Roman Catholic who preferred the mass in Latin and looked down on his friend CS Lewis’s Protestantism, a tweed-clad Oxford don who despised central heating and abhorred the advance of the automobile, a pipe-smoking reactionary who refused to touch French cuisine or visit the United States, Tolkien was a little Englander to the point of self-parody. In prosperous old age, he crossed a cheque to the Inland Revenue with the words “Not a penny for Concorde”. Even the Norman Conquest struck him as a contamination of his country’s Anglo-Saxon essence.
Though Tolkien himself dismissed all attempts to find contemporary meaning in The Lord of the Rings (“I dislike allegory wherever I smell it,” he once said), it is hardly accidental that his diminutive heroes inhabit an idyllic Shire, while “the enemy” is based in industrial-totalitarian Mordor, located in the east of Middle-earth.
Tolkien hit on the title The Lord of the Rings in 1938, about the time of the Munich agreement. He was contemptuous of Hitler — “that ruddy little ignoramus” — but much more suspicious of Stalin. As war drew near, Tolkien reflected that he had “a loathing of being on any side that includes Russia” and believed that Stalin was “probably ultimately far more responsible for the present crisis and choice of moment than Hitler”.
“People in this land,” he wrote in 1941, “seem not even yet to realise that in the Germans we have enemies whose virtues (and they are virtues) of obedience and patriotism are greater than ours in the mass. I have in this War a burning private grudge against . . . Hitler for ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.”
Tolkien was first and foremost a linguist and philologist of exceptional ability. But the spirit that infused his work was so conservative that, if he were still alive today, he would be no-platformed on every campus in the land. “I am not a ‘democrat’,” he once wrote, “if only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanise and formalise them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power — and then we get and are getting slavery.”
A veteran of the Great War who modelled the character of Sam Gamgee on his batman, Tolkien even defended deference. “Touching your cap to the squire may be damn bad for the squire,” he once remarked, “but it’s damn good for you.” The central storyline of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is of a pilgrimage, full of trials, tribulations and temptation, not to mention self-sacrifice. The books are only multiracial in the sense that there are hobbits, elves and dwarfs as well as men. Yes, men. In Middle-earth women are occasionally seen, rarely heard.
We are left with a profound paradox. The most popular author of modern times filled our imaginations with unforgettable characters such as Gollum — and yet failed completely to instil in us an iota of his Tory principles. The bitter irony that remainers now use Gollum to mock Brexit would not have been lost on Tolkien. Never in the field of English literature was so much misunderstood by so many.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford