Tales of Titans and Hobbits

Literature can exert a powerful influence on our ideological views.

Ayn Rand, after all, was primarily a novelist. Many people were converted to liberalism (or at least some variety of it) after experiencing in person her unquestionable charisma and magnetism, but the significance of her novels, most notably Atlas Shrugged, can hardly be overlooked.

Indeed, it is only having read that expressive story that many future libertarians – among them Walter Block – once and for all denounced socialism along with all the physical and mental bondage which it ineluctably imposes upon people. Hence, it was a narrative – a novel or, if you want, a fairy tale – that had managed to shape and contextualize the readers’ notion of such abstract matters as freedom, l’étatism, or egalitarianism.

Another novelist who also managed to gain an exceptionally wide circle of readers and admirers was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the author of a worldwide bestseller The Lord of the Rings. Even though Tolkien’s style of writing was much less obtrusive than Rand’s – he never forced upon his readers any particular reading of his book, and he overtly disliked conscious and intentional allegories – the English novelist never denied that his work concerns something more than just elves or dwarves, or that it deals with certain ideas. As he wrote to Michael Straight, the editor of New Republic, The Lord of the Rings was meant to succeed first of all as an exciting and moving tale – but a tale addressed primarily to adults, involving something more than mere chase and escape, namely some reflection of the writer’s own views and values.

Since Tolkien considered himself a conservative anarchist, it should come as no surprise that while trying to answer his publisher’s questions regarding the symbolism hidden in his magnum opus, he suggested to "…make the Ring into an allegory of our own time… an allegory of the inevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power."

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Therefore, even though Tolkien’s saga is all too often interpreted as an apolitical "road novel" or "picaresque novel for children," The Lord of the Rings could very well be the source of unending inspiration for libertarians as a belletristic dramatization of Lord Acton’s famous statement that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Both Rand and Tolkien, then, passionately tell their tales about freedom, but they resort to completely different aesthetics, and, in consequence, paint two entirely different pictures of the world, with different heroes and different challenges. Are those differences important? How do they affect the "moral" of the respective tales? Given that it is of utmost importance just what kind of story one tells, it is perhaps worthwhile to reflect upon the different world images depicted in Atlas Shrugged and The Lord of the Rings, comparing the characters of both narratives along with the predicaments they face, and asking the fundamental question, which of the two novels constitutes a better context, a better literary frame of reference for freedom and Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s idea of natural order?

The Titans

Atlas Shrugged is, shortly put, a story of a strike, although not an ordinary one. Rand does not write about labor unions or working masses, but about titans whose irreplaceable work, like that of their Greek predecessor Atlas, keeps the world alive. Titans are big capitalists, owners of ironworks and mines, men of genius, people who are creative and in every respect outstanding. Such is also the main character of the novel, Dagny Taggart, the heiress to the huge railroad company Taggart Transcontinental, which she desperately strives to save against ever more impudent government attempts to lay hands on her fortune. The society in which the heroine lives is dull, envious, lazy, essentially quite helpless, and were it not for the handful of Atlases, it would have definitely plunged into despair.

Dagny loves what she does for a living. She is an extremely talented railroad executive, and directing the whole enterprise seems not to tire her at all. The real burden for her is not work itself, but the necessity – the legal obligation – to share its plentiful fruits with the rest of society – the ungrateful mob of losers. Initially, the situation, though harsh, seems bearable, mainly because the heroine carries on with all her everyday duties with the relieving thought in mind that she is not alone, that other great achievers feel and think similarly, and though they may be outnumbered, they constitute the real engine of the world.

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Gradually, however, Dagny realizes that the very engine of which she considered herself a part has been abruptly turned off and the titans, one after another, seem to be disappearing. The kidnapper turns out to be John Galt – a mysterious, legendary hero, whose name elicits expressions of helplessness among the losers:

"How should I deal with it?" asks one frightfully mediocre worker.

"How should I know?" is the invariable, dull reply. "Who is John Galt?"

Galt used to be one of the titans, but greed, collectivist bias, and ingratitude from the society to which he had given so much in the past have induced him to go on strike – not to fight with the oppressive system, not even to try to change it, but simply to leave, taking others along. And so they go, one by one: the great composers, innovators, creators, directors, owners… As a result, the engine of the world stops, and the economy plunges into chaos, for when there is no one to prey upon, the society of insatiable vultures no longer knows what to do.

The Übermenschen find refuge in an extraordinary valley hidden somewhere in Colorado, where the dollar sign does not stand – as on the "other side" – for greed, bribery, and sneakiness, but instead symbolizes success, skillfulness, and creative powers. The one and only unforgivable sin there is altruism. So they live, far from the dying world, bound by a promise that never again will they let unproductive loafers gain from their work.

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July 8, 2009