Comrade Baggins? When Middle Earth met Middle Europe

It’s not difficult to Christmas shop for my nephew.  Any of an array of Hobbit-branded products drawing on the latest New Zealand -filmed Peter Jackson blockbuster franchise would do. I settled on a DVD, a map of Middle Earth and a poster-sized calendar.

But – to borrow Timothy Garton Ash’s quip about Central Europe–tell me your Middle Earth and I’ll tell you who you are.

An interesting meme has been doing the rounds of the Czech internet in the past year: a review (or so we are told) of The Lord of the Rings published in 1977 in the (then) central organ of the Czechoslovak Communist Party Rudé právo denounced Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece as a work of thinly disguised bourgeois and imperialist propaganda:

The Kingdom of Evil belching smoke and ash is transparently located in the East.  The working class, uniting to build heavy industry by the sweat of its brow, is depicted as revolting and evil orcs. (…) Those living the West – overflowing lands of milk and honey – the elves (that is the aristocracy), men (bourgeoisie) and hobbits (farmers) on the other hand live a prosperous life (although it is not explained how they get it) and their only problem is the ‘threat’ from the East.

The ‘forces of good’ are represented by a set of representatives of these reactionary circles… Their leader is Gandalf, a spreader of reactionary ideologies, which keep the population in ignorance and fear of progress. (…)

Small wonder then that Saruman, the defender of the oppressed and friend of progress, is branded a traitor and his stronghold is destroyed by a band of fanatical reactionaries. When he spread socialism to the Shire he is caught and subject to punishment without trial by the hobbits supported and paid by the capitalist powers of Gondor… But socialism cannot be destroyed by throwing its relics, not even its most sacred relics, into the fire. Hold out against encirclement by your reactionary neighbours Mordor!

It was not entirely clear if the review is real. As it turned out it was a clever pastiche. No date, scant referencing and no trace of in the archives. And, of courses, rather too much of hint of tongue-in-cheek for the notoriously humourless Rudé právo.

But that’s beside the point. It is exactly what Rudé právo could, or should have written about Lord of The Rings in mid-1970s. Moreover, the pastiche does seem to have drawn heavily on real Communist-era article published in Poland in 1971.

Because Communist regimes did have a problem with Tolkien and particularly with Lord of the Rings.The Hobbit did appear in Czech (1979) and Slovak (1973) under communism (and in Russian in the USSR) and was filmed as a cartoon in Czech as early as 1966. But, Lord of the Rings wasn’t ever legally published in Czechoslovakia under the communist regime because – as the book’s Czech translator explains in a recent online interview – a saga of small peoples uniting to take on an Evil Empire in the East was politically unacceptable. George Orwell had after all written his best of the degeneration of the Russian revolution (and perhaps all revolutions) in the form of a fairy tale.

Indeed, the regime itself specialised in filming children’s fairy tales well stocked with appropriate political messages. In the classic Proud Princess (Pyšná princezna, 1952), for example, the enlightened, harmonious kingdom of King Miroslav contrasts with the corrupt, joyless, intrigue-wracked neighbouring Midnight Kingdom. Happily, in the end uppity princess Krasomila casts off her upper class ways and learns the value of honest work when Miroslav shows up to woo her disguised as a gardener.  They fall in love and live happily ever after, but according one critic the much loved classic and staple of Czech Christmas TV can pretty much be read as ‘… short history of the Czechoslovak state in the 1945-48 written from the point of view of the post-February [1948] [Communist] victors’.

Tolkien always resisted the idea that the book was any kind of political allegory – including idea of was a Stalin figure or the Fellowship of the Ring a metaphor for the allied struggle against Nazism. However, although taken up by New Age critics of the industrial society in 1960s, Lord of the Rings has never had easy critical reception on the left. While Tolkien resolutely opposed both Nazi and communist totalitarianism, he certainly had politically conservative leanings, manifested in support for Franco in the Spanish Civil War and dislike of the post-1945 Atlee government.  And the bucolic, male-dominated pre-industrial idyll of Hobbit peasant proprietors and the implicit warnings of state socialism-gone-wrong (the ‘gatherers’ and ‘sharers’ of short-lived regime of Sharkey’s Shire) are instinctively appealing to the conservative right.

Europe_middle_earth

Map: FrankNStein via I09.com

The latest celebration of Middle Earth ‘s conservative values, well timed for the latest film, being Jay Richards and Jonathan Wit’s The Hobbit Party with a similar set of arguments  from the other end of the political spectrum to be found in party-pooping commentary by Damien Walter in The Guardian.  And from a UK perspective, it would certainly possible to see the Hobbits as a UKIP-ish Little Englanders with contemplating the EU’s One Ring to Rule Them – although for liberal Cold Warrior’s Putin’s Russia also makes a reappearance as Mordor for some internet mapmakers (and the whole saga is helpfully re-told from a Mordorian perspective in now translated The Last Ringbearer by Russian author Kirill Eskov.

 But in late socialist Czechoslovakia Lord of the Rings in samizdat or smuggled in foreign language editions was read as anti-totalitarian and anti-communist parable. Indeed, as KieranWilliams’s recent article on Havel’s intellectual entourage records, the Catholic philosopher and biologist Zdeněk Neubauer urged the future president to read Lord of the Rings in the hope it would serve as a communal mythology for the intellectual underground (a recommendation Havel appears not to have taken up). As Williams notes (quoting cultural historian Martin C. Putna) Catholic (-influenced) dissidents’ “…. attraction to Tolkien’s saga is understandable, (…) for it represented a re-enchantment of industrial modernity and thus a form of resistance to the official scientism of Marxism-Leninism.”

 The Czech translator Lord of the Rings notes that she loosened up some of his stodgier prose in her Czech rendition of. But dip into the Czech translation and it is clear that book undergoes subtler transformations. When Hobbiton becomes Hobitín, the deeply English associations of the original fall away and we are left with a distinctly Middle European Middle Earth, which is less heartily Anglo-Saxon and more akin to the imaginative universe of Josef Lada’s idealised depiction of Czech villages and landscapes.

 But the appeal of the book was, of course, wider and deeper than a dissident elite seeking popular-cultural ballast for its philosophical reflections or samizdat readers seeking out forbidden book that could be read as an anti-communist parable.  Despite his conservative and traditionalist leanings, Tolkien was an opponent of Empire and a proponent of small nations – writing in 1936  for example that he had “… the greatest sympathy with Belgium — which is about the right size of any country! I wish my own were bounded still by the seas of the Tweed and the walls of Wales”.

 For both in stature, geo-political power and ambitions, the Hobbits are small and it is perhaps sense of smallness that strikes a chord for some Central European readers.  Canonical national Czech thinkers from Masaryk to Patočka have identified the Czech nation (and its problems) in terms of its smallness and, as the anthropologist Ladislav Holy demonstrated, the self-perception of the ‘little Czech’ (Malý český člověk) and of ‘a nation of common, ordinary, and unexceptional people which generates a feeling of egalitarianism’ is deeply rooted (but – it should be said contrasted with the equally rooted perception of the Great Czech Nation as a repository of historical achievement, culture and values). The characteristics of pragmatic, prosperous, middling, egalitarian nation rooted to home turf that Tolkien attributes to his Hobbit heroes are, as Holy finds, are also to be found in the Czech self-image.

 Some Czech intellectuals have railed against such perceived provincialism. Others such as Václav Klaus have seen little wrong with such qualities: Klaus, for example, argued that ordinary Czechs superficial self-interested conformity under communism obscured  ‘…resistance, substitute individual activity [and] mere passive existence behind propaganda that no one believed in any longer’ undermined communism and left them well equipped to dispatch it in 1989.

 But as one Czech discussant pointedly argued on Facebook, Lord of the Rings can be read not as a conservative tract – or a vision of hard-headed petty bourgeois Central European nationhood – but a narrative leading us ultimately to realise of the limitations and costs of politics and power: even when good triumphs: at the end of the trilogy the Ring is destroyed and evil overcome, but at heavy and not-to-be-remedied costs, ushering in a more prosaic, less heroic, less contented world.

Looking back over the 25-year history of the flawed democracy and deflated expectation that followed the annus miribilis of 1989 – more striking in the Czech case by the fairy-tale  ending of Velvet Revolution seemingly fulfilling the presidential motto that Truth Prevails – it is hard not to be struck by this newer, deeply Central European take on Tolkien.

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