Tolkien’s childlike world

The Tolkien books are “restful,” as A. S. Byatt is said to have remarked,* because they are free of sex, and of money. In this respect they are childlike. The people in the stories are seen in the ways that children—privileged children, at any rate—see people. Money exists, but without much regard for where it comes from or how it is earned. Travellers are welcomed into comfortable homes where abundant food appears on the table and soft beds await them when the evening meal has finished. Everyone seems to be independently wealthy, or on summer holiday, without any hint of a servant underclass. The hobbits seem to be farmers, mostly, but we never see them working. Butterbur runs his inn, but who prepares the food, and who washes the dishes or cleans the rooms or launders the linens? Like young children, we readers rarely or never consider such matters: we unthinkingly accept the delicious food and comfortable lodgings. We are grateful and happy, but we do not inquire into the sources of all these comforts.

The people in Tolkien’s stories fall into the categories used by children to classify grown-ups. Old people are either gruff and grumpy, or kindly and wise; some of them start out appearing to be gruff but are revealed in time to be kindly. Men are sorted by their jobs: farmer, gardener, innkeeper, soldier, etc. Unmarried women are young and beautiful; married women are nurturing and motherly; old women are wise and caring, with an occasional witchy character like Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Many modern readers and critics have pointed out that these roles and stereotypes belong to an era and a culture and a social class that can be traced to Tolkien’s own life as a middle-class Catholic and an Oxford don nearly a century ago..

Children today, no doubt, see adults rather differently. But there remains that period of life before adolescence when one sees the world without thinking about sex or money. That innocence, much regretted once one crosses the threshold into the adult world, naturally appeals to us when we have had some experience of the stress, anxiety, and heartache that follow inevitably from becoming a sexual creature who must earn a living and pay for everything. Tolkien’s world offers a respite from such concerns. We imagine the delight of being welcomed as guests and never needing to think about who pays for it all or who cleans the toilets (another item completely absent from Tolkien’s world). We take a holiday from lust, jealousy, and sexual envy. It is, as Byatt says, restful.

And then, the kings and queens. Fathers and mothers. Aged, in the child’s eyes, and yet ageless. All-wise, all-powerful, always protecting their children, their people. Sometimes we have stories recounting the child’s nightmarish fears, stories of evil kings, evil queens, reassuring stories that always end with the overthrow of the wicked and the establishment of a new order under new, benign monarchs. The true king is restored. All is well. The child in us does not long for democracy, but for the benign rule of a father-king and mother-queen. This longing explains much of what we read in the news. We long to be ruled by the true king.

*Byatt is quoted in this Wikipedia article, but the source is not clearly indicated.

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