(urth) The Politics Of Gene Wolfe

Jerry Friedman jerry_friedman at yahoo.com
Thu Mar 19 21:04:39 PDT 2009

--- On Thu, 3/19/09, Dan'l Danehy-Oakes <danldo at gmail.com> wrote:
> On Thu, Mar 19, 2009 at 12:20 PM, John Watkins
> <john.watkins04 at gmail.com> wrote:
> > Agreed...but this is in the context of a discussion of
> Tolkien's work.

Well, I think Wolfe would have said the same thing about his
early training in any other context.

> > Tolkien veers between a benign anarchism (The Shire)
> > and divinely-appointed
> > or at least divinely-sanctioned kings.  It seems then
> that "good government"
> > is holy or ideal government--government by the best
> > (in the sense of "most moral") people.

I am by no means sure that "best" means "most moral"
(though it would be a big part of it for me).  In line
also with what people have been saying about false gods
being a way to the true one, Wolfe seems to emphasize
some other concept of "better", and the importance of
regarding one's betters with respect if not reverence.
In TBotLS, Silk reveres the false gods of the Whorl,
though most or all are incomparably inferior to him
morally, and if I'm reading it right, Wolfe sees this
as a good thing, maybe because it makes him capable of
reverence for the Outsider.  Likewise in /The Knight/,
Able kneels to Michael, but in /The Wizard/ he says
Michael is good as a good blade is good (Chapter 23),
not morally good.

To get back to government, this seems parallel to me
to the idea of respect for one's betters, such as
divinely appointed kings--and they're appointed by
heredity, not merit, even in Middle-Earth.  (Aragorn
is a coincidence of ancestry and merit, fortunate but
not fortuitous.)  I think it's clear in the history of
Gondor that rebelling against even a bad king is bad.
Even Paladin Took is "the right Thain" for no reason
but ancestry.  And Sam treats Frodo with deference if
not painful obsequiousness even in Mordor, when Frodo
isn't his employer and Sam has borne the Ring.

I think this is similar to the obedience to legitimate
authority that Wolfe was brought up with.  His heroes
are very reluctant to rebel against authority, though
they sometimes do.  Wolfe didn't say "admirable
authority"; he said "legitimate", a word used for
properly descended monarchs.

> However, the point is made at least once (by Aragorn), and
> so Gene "I hate
> it when they repeat things" Wolfe is bound to have
> noticed, that the "benign
> anarchism" of the Shire is permitted to exist only
> because of the labors of
> the Rangers, i.e., the King and his followers. Tolkien
> doesn't really "veer,"
> he's definitely in the "divinely-appointed King" camp.

Though Aragorn makes the Shire free of his kingdom, taking
on responsibility without authority.)  If that's such a
reward, why doesn't he confer it on the provinces of
Gondor that fought so bravely?)

If Wolfe noticed that, maybe he also noticed one of the
few things we learn about the governance of the Shire,
namely that the farmers between Stock and Rushey
acknowledged the authority of the Master of Brandy Hall
(Book 1, Ch. 5)--because he's the Master, apparently,
not because he's wise or impartial.

This is not quite anarchism, by the way.  And authority
in what?  Did he arbitrate their disputes?  What
happened when someone who accepted his authority had
a dispute with someone who accepted that of the Mayor
or the Thain?

Also not anarchism: the hobbits seem to like complicated
formality in their contracts and such, which suggests
complicated laws.  This would be quite different from
the "few and just" laws that "The Best Introduction to
the Mountains" promises us.  But one of the odd features
of that essay is how little overlap there is between the
societies of Northern Europe between AD 400 and 1000 as
he describes them, the "Free" societies of LotR, and
his utopian future for us.

Jerry Friedman


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