The Matter of Middle-earth and the new Matter of Britain
Is The Lord of the Rings reactionary and problematic? I should hope so
‘I feel I need a holiday, a very long holiday, as I have told you before. Probably a permanent holiday: I don't expect I shall return.’
Many will empathise with poor Bilbo Baggins’s sense of weariness as they await the new The Lord of the Rings series on Amazon Prime. Although Jeff Bezos’s behemoth has thrown an unprecedented billion dollars into the Middle-earth spin-off, the trailers do not leave all fans in a state of wild optimism. It’s less that the Rings of Power looks bad, more that it may go against everything the great author stood for — although perhaps come tomorrow they will be pleasantly surprised.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic has come to be almost as comparable in influence and scope as the Arthurian cycle was in the Middle Ages. Like the Matter of Britain, The Lord of the Rings in many ways also stands for a worldview and a moral order. Its ideals, of nobility and loyalty, defending the small and natural against the industrial and inhumane, came to have huge meaning to many people in a late 20th century traumatised by war and increasingly sceptical of the modern world that spawned all its horrors.
Yet perhaps the difference with the Arthurian legend is that Tolkien created his fantasy just as his moral order was in retreat, and those values were becoming increasingly alien. Indeed, from the time that the First World War broke out, when the author’s gentle life among fellow scholars at King Edward’s School in Birmingham was shattered, a sense of loss has been a central theme in Tolkien’s work. It is inherently reactionary in a wistful way, yet today, far more so than in 2001 when the first films appeared, this sort of romantic conservatism is considered not just archaic but actually subversive. And modern culture, whether it’s publishing, television or film, is extremely intolerant of subversive ideas, more so than at any point in the last 50 years.