E32 -

Jacob Levy, Paul Matzko, and Paul Meany are the fellowship of returning guests to discuss the greatest trilogy of the last century; The Lord of the Rings.

Landry Ayres
Senior Producer

Jacob T. Levy is the Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory at McGill University. He writes on federalism, freedom of association, indigenous peoples, constitutional theory, and Enlightenment political thought.

Paul Meany
Intellectual History Editor

Paul Meany is the Editor for Intellectual History at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, a project of the Cato Institute. Most of his work focuses on examining thinkers who predate classical liberalism but still articulate broadly liberal attitudes and principles. He is the host of Portraits of Liberty, a podcast about uncovering and exploring underrated figures throughout history who have argued for a freer world. His writing covers a broad range of topics, including proto‐​feminist writers, Classical Greece and Rome’s influence on the American Founding, ancient Chinese Philosophy, tyrannicide, and the first argument for basic income.

Paul Matzko
Tech & Innovation Editor

Paul Matzko is Technology and Innovation Editor at Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. He has a PhD in History from Pennsylvania State University and recently published a book with Oxford University Press titled, The Radio Right: How a Band Of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement.


The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an epic adventure based on the novels written by J.R.R. Tolkien. Set in Middle‐​earth, the story follows the young Hobbit, Frodo Baggins, as he and the Fellowship embark on a quest to destroy the One Ring, to ensure the destruction of the Dark Lord Sauron. What is the Lord of the Rings story actually about? And, why is it so popular?



0:00:03.4 Landry Ayres: Welcome to Pop & Locke. I’m Landry Ayres.

0:00:05.8 Natalie Dowzicky: And I’m Natalie Dowzicky.

0:00:07.4 Landry Ayres: Joining us today to discuss one of the most successful trilogies across media in the last century, The Lord of the Rings, are a fellowship of returning guests to Pop & Locke. We have Tech and Innovation Editor for lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, Paul Matzko.

0:00:26.2 Paul Matzko: Thank you for having me again.

0:00:27.7 Landry Ayres: Editor for Intellectual History at lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, Paul Meany.

0:00:32.2 Paul Meany: Thank you very much.

0:00:33.5 Landry Ayres: And the Tomlinson Professor for Political Theory at McGill University, Jacob Levy.

0:00:39.6 Jacob Levy: Hello again, everyone.

0:00:41.3 Natalie Dowzicky: Alright guys, after nine long hours of viewing the trilogy for the second time, even to the most oblivious viewer, it’s clear that this story is about the desire for power and how power can corrupt even the loveliest of Hobbits. But is that all this trilogy is about? There has to be more.

0:01:02.7 Paul Meany: Well, I watched Lord of the Rings when I was really, really young. I think I was four or five when I first watched it. So I’ve had a long time to think about it. And I read the books later on, but I mostly watched the films, that’s what I was always into. Whenever I talked to my parents about it, they always used to say like, “Lord of the Rings is the best story because it’s about everything. It’s about all the timeless things of good and evil and power, everything else.”

0:01:22.4 Paul Meany: But it took me a long time to figure out what Lord of the Rings is about, ’cause I just watched the movies and didn’t read the books for a long time, but if we’re just gonna stick to just the movies instead of talking about the books constantly, ’cause that’s what we’re here for, the movies, I’d say it’s mostly about, in my opinion, of course. In philosophy, there’s been this challenge of why be moral, to begin with, and this is kind of picked up by Plato in the story of the Ring of Gyges, where he talks about this honest farmer who finds a ring and the ring makes him go invisible, just like the ring in Lord of the Rings, how crazy.

0:01:56.0 Paul Meany: And then when he gets… He used to be a good lad, but then he gets the ring, he goes off, seduces the queen, kills the king, steals a ton of things, he does a bunch of bad things. And then one of the interlocutors in Plato’s dialogue talks about, “Well, what if… If you give the good man, this ring, he’ll become a bad man. So morality is really just for weak people who can’t do what they wanna do.” And the ring, every time a person takes the ring of power, they have grand ideas about what they’ll be. And so, for example, Boromir in the first film and the book as well, he thinks he can use the ring for good, but eventually, he kind of lets loose that he wants to be this powerful, great warrior as well. Galadriel talks about how she’ll be loved and feared by everyone, and in the books as well, at a certain point, Sam has the ring, and he could use it to sneak into the Barad‐​dûr, but he knows if he uses it, he’ll get these ideas of Samwise the great with a flaming sword, like commanding armies, even though he’s three‐​foot tall.

0:02:53.7 Paul Meany: And so the ring gives people power that they would never have normally. I think a big part of Lord of the Rings is, is the only people who can resist the ring are those who remember themselves. And so in the first film when Galadriel goes absolutely crazy and starts talking about, “I will be a lovely queen and everyone would love me.” She rejects the ring and then says, “I will stay Galadriel.” She stays true to herself, her authentic, what she actually is. Sam does the exact same thing. There’s a whole section in the book as well, where he talks… Where he’s kinda like his inner monologue or his thoughts, and he goes through these ideas of him being a grand and great warrior, but then he goes like, “No, not a garden swollen to a realm, just a garden.” He goes back to just being a simple gardener. His love for Frodo anchors him, but also his simple Hobbit‐​like tendencies and ideas. He doesn’t want to command the world, he doesn’t wanna command everyone, he just wants to be his own gardener.

0:03:46.0 Paul Meany: And so I think Lord of the Rings is about choice and morality. And it’s about if the life you want to lead requires this much power beyond your natural abilities, you shouldn’t have it anyway. You should never want that life. The life you have should be within your grasp. It shouldn’t require this level of god‐​like power. And then you can see the question of why be moral with people like Gollum. Gollum loves the ring and really wants it, but it ruins him and even then, he’s again, going with the books, constantly in the book and the movie, blah, blah, blah. But Frodo talks about how no one in the Shire killed anyone for hundreds of years.

0:04:23.2 Paul Meany: So Smeagol killing Deagol is a huge deal, and the ring is what cause him to do it. And the ring makes him decrepit, miserable, lonely, friendless, like power is isolating. In Lord of the Rings, when you put the ring on, you go invisible, you can’t see anyone, there’s voices in your head constantly, it makes you actually kind of insane. Not kind of, it makes a lot of people insane. So I think from watching this movie a million times over since I was a kid, I think Lord of the Rings is about not just a sense of integrity, but a sense that certain powers shouldn’t be touched and that it isolates you and makes you someone else. That’s my take. Now everyone can tear it to shreds ’cause I went first.

0:05:05.1 Paul Matzko: One of the hard things about analyzing Tolkien, either the movies or the books, is that he was very resistant to anybody’s attempt to allegorize his story, like he hated allegories, and this is rooted in his… Just his intellectual habits. Like he…

0:05:23.3 Jacob Levy: I’ve got the quote. Do you want the quote?

0:05:25.1 Paul Matzko: Yeah, give us the quote.

0:05:26.5 Jacob Levy: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”

0:05:44.1 Paul Matzko: But even in his resistance to allegorizing, he engages in something very similar, which is he constructs motifs and themes, and the line between allegory and theme and motif can get very thin at times. So some of it’s like to acknowledge that it’s easy to find the Tolkien quote where anyone who proposed a theory to him during his life, and he actually lived to see these books enjoy a popular success.

0:06:13.9 Paul Matzko: Any time a journalist would come to him or a fan would come to him and say, “Here’s my theory about what this means.” Whether it’s like the scouring of the shire is an anti‐​socialist parable or whatever it may be, he would always poo‐​poo the concept that it was an allegory. At the same time, there’s often some legitimate kernel that the person was picking up on even if flushing it out into an allegory kind of granted too much intent and purpose, and I think it’s because Tolkien, he didn’t like the didactic nature of allegory, he wanted it to be…

0:06:50.0 Paul Matzko: He wanted his message to be settler, not to be as mechanistic as allegory tends to be where there’s a one‐​for‐​one connection between the story and the true story behind the story. But he still did engage in… Like with Paul’s, I think, example of the rings pointing to the corruption of power, how power corrupts, that can be true, but if you had asked Tolkien about it he would have been like, “Well no, that’s not what I’m trying to do.”

0:07:18.1 Paul Meany: Well, I think a lot of Tolkien is he’s… It’s kind of like history that didn’t happen, but he pretends did. The book reads a lot like history and the movie had the philosophy of… When Peter Jackson was directing, he was like, imagine we had been sent on set to record where it actually happened, this battle. It always felt like it was very real and very grounded, but I think sometimes Tolkien…

0:07:41.9 Paul Meany: Now, there’s a quote about it but I don’t have it on hand, but it’s basically about how he loved myths and because myths are outside of time. And because they’re outside of time, their knowledge, they give us can be applied anywhere. Often like allegory and applicability are different things. I don’t think Tolkien would be opposed to people reading into it, I just think he would oppose people saying, “This is definitively what it is.”

0:08:04.0 Paul Matzko: And I think that’s true. I mean in one of his books he wrote before he wrote Lord of the Rings, was On Fairy‐​Stories and he used Fairy‐​Stories somewhat roughly analogously to how we talk about fantasy, and he was writing a particular kind of… He’s kind of one of the founding figures in high fantasy and all the high fantasies that come after, but for him, the point of a fairy story is that it must feel real. There’s no wink‐​wink, nod‐​nod… To Jacobs quote from Tolkien about how he’s writing history. Like we hear Fairy‐​Story, we think of cute little kids… Cutsey little kidsy stories that aren’t meant to be taken seriously, and that’s not what he wants to do with a Fairy‐​Story.

0:08:52.5 Paul Meany: I remember Lord of The Rings, it was like… I watched it when I was really young, it is not a film you want to show to like every kid. ‘Cause there’s a lot of stuff that I think a lot of kids would find really scary. And it’s like, you think about how people would just die or their houses are destroyed. I remember reading the books, in the third movie when they’re sieging Minas Tirith, the giant white city. In the books people are like throwing themselves off roofs. Even in the movies, there’s like civilians being slaughtered by Orcs. It’s actually so harrowing. So some people say fantasy is kinda like a big joke, Lord of the Rings was kinda dark.

0:09:22.4 Paul Matzko: Well Denethor sets himself alight, like a monk in Saigon. I mean, you know.

0:09:28.8 Jacob Levy: The treatment of Denethor there is on the top ten list of things that Peter Jackson wrecks and ruins.

0:09:35.7 Paul Meany: I’ll give you my one as well. I love Faramir. I am really sad that…

0:09:41.8 Jacob Levy: Yes also on the list.

0:09:43.3 Paul Meany: In the books Frodo and Sam come to Faramir and Faramir basically just says, “Yeah, I don’t want the ring at all, it’ll corrupt me, I have no use for this. Go ahead.” And Faramir is like a pure heart dude. But in the movies they’re like, okay we’ve got to get some more content and stretch this out. So Faramir is conflicted about it, he captures them, has a few Boromir moments. Transfer Captain Faramir to show his quality. But then eventually he yields and he knows the right thing to do is to let Frodo go. And that’s cool too, but the book did it so much better, ’cause it has some of my favorite quotes, which is about Faramir and war and how he doesn’t… It’s not that… He’s not a pacifist he just doesn’t like war. He thinks it’s necessary but doesn’t always enjoy it. And I think he’s got the exact… Oh yeah. This quote I’ve always loved.

0:10:27.5 Paul Meany: “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” And that’s why I love Faramir. But the movies, they kinda make him into a bit more of a tragic or kinda conflicted… But in the books he’s much so, “No I just… I understand pretty intuitively that the ring is terrible.”

0:10:49.8 Paul Matzko: Well Jackson cranks up the angst. I mean some of this is an artifact of the time. It’s the late 90s, early 2000s, and everything had to be angsty, whereas in the books, it’s like Aragorn never has… In the books, he knows he’s the true King, there’s no huge self‐​doubt where he has to evolve in his confidence. That’s a Jacksonian import and that’s a reflection of kind of social norms in the late 20th century, whereas…

0:11:19.9 Paul Matzko: And I think you can see that in Faramir as well. Everyone has to have their own little angsty arc. But yeah, if you’re a fan of the book first and then you watch the movies, that’s one of the things that’s just going to annoy you every time you see Faramir or Aragorn, you know, any of these characters portrayed.

0:11:37.8 Jacob Levy: It’s my overall theory that ratcheting Aragorn down was in the driver’s seat. Jackson wanted a story that was more of an Aragon unfolding and coming into his own story because he thought that was interestingly heroic, but that means that Aragorn is much less impressive, morally much less impressive as a personality, as a character until very near the end. And so accordingly, lots of other people who in the books are almost as impressive as Aragorn and who are kind of inspired to rise to his level, have to be reduced. You can’t have Faramir morally out shining Aragorn, you can’t have Éomer, who gets reduced to this kind of side joke instead of being really someone who already…

0:12:32.4 Paul Meany: It’s a waste of Karl Urban, that’s what I say.

0:12:32.4 Jacob Levy: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. So if everybody else gets taken down a notch, even the Ents get taken down a notch. In the movie, the Ents have to kind of get tricked, kind of stumble accidentally into going to war. In the books, they decide to go to war. It takes a long time, it takes a long debate, but they eventually say, “No, even if this is the last march of the Ents, even if this is our end, we must defend the forest against the orcs, we must take down Saruman.”

0:13:08.1 Jacob Levy: In the movie, they don’t decide that, Merry and Pippin just say, “Well, go drop us off somewhere that’s so close that you’re going to see the wreckage,” but their decision was not to do it, until they get there and get angry. So this is… I think lots of the individual characters, who we look at and say, “What happened there in the movie?” It’s that they get morally ratcheted down, Elrond gets terribly, morally ratcheted down. He spends most of the movies trying to run away from the conflict instead of being, along with Gandalf and Galadriel, one of the chief captains and organizers behind the scenes.

0:13:45.9 Paul Meany: Now, I do love Aragorn in the films though, and always have, ever since I was a kid, coolest guy ever. And then the movies do such a good job of making him so much… The books are great, but the movies make him look cool.

0:13:58.5 Landry Ayres: Oh, he’s so cool. Viggo Mortensen is… He was the cool hero for fantasy movies of that era, everyone was like, “Aragorn, he’s the quintessential hero, he’s got the long white Jesus hair, he’s got the cool sword, but he’s kind of dirty, ’cause he’s like, “I’ve crawled… I’ve clawed my way back from the dirt and being out in the wild, but I’m also a king.” He’s got everything you want. He has Liv Tyler, who was one of my original crushes, when watching this movie, I have to admit.

0:14:31.6 Paul Meany: I remember though…

0:14:31.7 Landry Ayres: I was a big, big Liv Tyler fan at the time. Now, I’ve transitioned into, I am definitely an Eowyn stan at this moment. Who I think she is a much better character in the movie and is, I think, portrayed greatly, but a little nostalgic for Liv Tyler.

0:14:48.2 Paul Meany: Me and my friends, we think Aragorn is the best, so much so, in our drinking games, we have a thing where we just… Every time Aragorn does something cool, which is nearly always, he starts off smoking a pipe in the corner, then he fights a bunch of Ringwraiths, then he… What else does he do? He fights… He does some stuff in Moria that’s pretty cool, he fights like 200 Uruk‐​hai on his own, then the next movie, he’s doing… He’s just always on it. So they make him very cool.

0:15:10.5 Landry Ayres: It sounds like you only get halfway through the movie before you fall asleep, when you’re playing this game.

0:15:15.8 Paul Meany: I know, you’re doomed. There’s also one for every time there’s a a cinematic shot, that will ruin you.

0:15:20.3 Paul Matzko: I’ll give a shout out to one of the characters they made… Peter Jackson made less cool and that’s Gimli. So in the books, he’s this very stoic, determined figure, and in the movies, he’s the comic relief, it’s like…

0:15:35.8 Jacob Levy: He is the punchline.

0:15:36.7 Paul Matzko: Which really annoys me, it’s gonna annoy all the short dwarf stans out there. You did the dwarves… The elves get made really cool. Legolas is… He’s… They make him do a little… Again, this is very late ‘90s, early 2000, it’s like we gotta do some extreme sports, and so he rides the shields down the stairs while shooting, and that again, the artifact of its time. But yeah, poor Gimli.

0:16:03.9 Landry Ayres: But then they try and make up for it when they make The Hobbit films, and they’re like, “Throw a bunch dwarves in there, just throw dwarves at them.”

0:16:10.5 Jacob Levy: Well, and they take Thorin, and tell Thorin, “Go do Aragorn cosplay now.”

0:16:16.6 Paul Matzko: Yes, yes.

0:16:18.3 Landry Ayres: Yes.

0:16:18.4 Paul Meany: I knew there was a reason I liked Thorin so much.


0:16:23.9 Landry Ayres: One of the first things, especially in the movie that we get, is the story of the forging of the rings, of power, and they come with the first big… Other than the expositional details, the first big blanket statements, sort of value judgments of the people that inhabit Middle Earth, and one of the things that stands out to me so much is, they talk about how fair and wise the elves are and the hardy craftsmen that make up the dwarves in the mines, and then nine rings go to men, and their hearts are easily corrupted, which I think lends itself into the very sort of easy interpretation to see, that I think is justified in seeing it, that Paul talked about the power, that the ring of power corrupts, and the story is one of corruption and power, etcetera, etcetera.

0:17:14.4 Landry Ayres: But why single out the race of men in particular? Is it just sort of a touchstone for readers and audiences to sort of understand what this world is like? Because then, throughout the rest of the movie, we’re not following men or humans per se, for a majority of it, there are stories about hobbits and dwarves and elves and everything, and they all have very human qualities to them, but the race of men within Middle Earth, is portrayed as this generally very foolish, corruptible… Every time you go to a… They go to Rohan, they go to Gondor, they go to all these places, they are generally ruled over by a corrupt human man, who has to undergo some sort of realization, facing his demise. So what is the kind of reckoning with the racial politics of Middle Earth embedded in these texts?

0:18:19.7 Jacob Levy: So I’m gonna talk about the books for a minute first, and then I’ll make the transition to what changes in the movies. And by the books, I’m gonna include The Silmarillion and I’m gonna include the history of the first day…

0:18:32.1 Paul Meany: A man of taste and culture, yes.

0:18:34.2 Jacob Levy: We’re diving deep.

0:18:35.9 Natalie Dowzicky: Oh, great.

0:18:38.7 Landry Ayres: Alright, strap in, Natalie. Natalie has never read the books and has only seen these movies all the way through for this podcast. So strap in, Natalie, there will be a quiz after.

0:18:48.4 Natalie Dowzicky: Okay. Ready to take notes. [laughter]

0:18:52.9 Jacob Levy: The Silmarillion, which is the posthumously published collection into kind of novel shape that Christopher Tolkien was able to put together of what had been Tolkien’s real, most serious life work, which was the history of the First Age. Lord of the Rings is set in the Third Age of Middle‐​earth. J. R. R. Tolkien’s real heart, real sense of mission, lay in the grander history of the First Age. And in the First Age, the Elves are corrupted. The Elves are corrupted by what?

0:19:23.8 Jacob Levy: The Elves are corrupted by lust for the really pretty jewels that the finest craftsmen among them made, the Silmarils. So we get this structurally similar story of corruption, and unlike with the ring, the Silmarils don’t corrupt. Why not? Because Sauron had no part in making them. But the corruption is internal to the Elves, which is to say Tolkien has a vision in which anyone can fall. And let’s go in The Lord of the Rings. In The Lord of the Rings, you have Elves around who remember this. Galadriel actually took part in it. She was one of the Elves who came back from Heaven to Middle‐​earth in pursuit of the Silmarils. This was her family. The men can be tricked. Why? Not because their souls are intrinsically more fragile, not because there are racial differences about morality, just because they don’t have the same first‐​hand memory of it.

0:20:24.6 Jacob Levy: Elves and Dwarves in their different way can be corrupted. Men and Dwarves can be corrupted. And Hobbits can be corrupted, in so far as we remember that Gollum was originally Sméagol, and that Sméagol was of a kin to the Hobbits. In the books, in The Lord of the Rings, we don’t see Elves being genuinely corrupted, but that really is just because they’ve already gone through their version of this. The books do have racial politics around the difference between on the one hand Elves who can’t be corrupted, on the other hand, Orcs who are wholly irredeemable, and then this spectrum of men, where the men who descend from Númenor, the men who are of the same line of descent as Aragorn. Within the confines of The Lord of the Rings, everyone is temptible. Everyone can fall prey. Not everyone is redeemable. There’s no sign of Orcs and Trolls being redeemable because their corruption or their creation was corrupted.

0:21:25.2 Paul Meany: On the topic of Orcs, I’d like to step in real quick, that Tolkien kinda has an idea of good and evil, a bit like Aquinas, in that he doesn’t believe that evil exists. Evil is more like it latches onto things that were good and makes them worse, but evil doesn’t exist on its own. It’s kind of like the way a shadow can only exist with light. There will always be light, but there won’t always be a shadow. And so in his world, good is bound to win, because evil has to subsist off good to begin with, so it’ll always be parasitic and always eventually fail.

0:21:57.2 Paul Meany: And all of the bad things in The Lord of the Rings are corruptions of formerly good things. So the Orcs are supposed to be a cheap parody of Elves; Elves are tall and graceful, Orcs are bow‐​legged and small. Uruk‐​hai are a mutation of men and Elves put together. Then you have the Ringwraiths used to be the kings of men, but then they became the Wraiths. Everything becomes something worse.

0:22:18.1 Jacob Levy: And the Ents at least believe that Trolls are corrupted Ents.

0:22:22.0 Paul Matzko: There is this… I think, on Paul’s point about shadow and light and corruptibility, catastrophe, to Jacob’s as well, that there is a catastrophe that lurks in the background of The Lord of the Rings that’s not… The Silmarillion’s not published till after Tolkien’s death, by his son combining together his notes. So it was in the background of Tolkien’s mind as he was writing The Lord of the Rings, but not for the initial generation of readers. If I had to pick one theme to go back to the original question, that it’s at the core of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, it’s this concept of what Tolkien coined “eucatastrophe”, and Tolkien coined it because in his mind, you have… Everyone recognizes that in drama there is tragedy, and a tragedy is what happens, or to use another Tolkien phrase, a discatastrophe, like when something sudden intervenes and it’s bad, that thus this, it’s bad or crooked.

0:23:26.0 Paul Matzko: And so, a dramatic element is when like, oh, suddenly Oedipus finds out that actually he did kill his father and sleep with his mother. That’s… So very old Greek tragedy has that discatastrophic element, where suddenly life seems normal and it takes a really sharp sudden turn for the worse. But what Tolkien wanted to do was take the stories of discatastrophe that he studied professionally, and he loved Norse tales, he loved… He loves Finnish, he actually pulls the character of Éowyn from a Finnish Valkyrie. He loves old Anglo‐​Saxon stories, so he takes all the Beowulf and the like. He takes all these old stories of discatastrophe and inverts it, where instead of a sudden tragic turn for the worse, in the midst of a catastrophe, there is a sudden reversal to something unexpectedly good.

0:24:25.1 Paul Matzko: And to use a Tolkien quote from On Fairy‐​Stories, “It is the mark of a good fairy story of the higher or more complete kind, to that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to or indeed accompanied by tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.” And you’ve got examples of this throughout the book, The Hobbit’s example, Frodo and Gollum, right at the last moment where you’ve been expecting him to get the ring there and finally throw it in, and then we have this disastrous turn where he is corrupted by the ring and decides to keep it, and then the surprise joyful turn is when Gollum seizes it and falls in.

0:25:14.9 Paul Matzko: You have another moment when Sam and Frodo are rescued by the eagles. These are eucatastrophic moments.

0:25:54.8 Paul Meany: I was gonna build off of that, on the idea of Anglo‐​Saxons. So Tolkien had a love of the Anglo‐​Saxons and their great thing was that they never gave up, they would always fight till the very last. And so when Beowulf fights one of these monsters, what was it called again, the woman who…

0:26:10.0 Jacob Levy: Grendel?

0:26:11.8 Paul Meany: That’s the one. Yeah, Grendel. He fights him with his bare hands. It’s like, why the… He fights him naked, but basically no armor, no weapons, and I always wonder why’d he fight him naked to begin with. And the whole point of it is is that in the Anglo‐​Saxon of the world, the world’s bound to end and fall into chaos, there’s no way to win, but there is a way to embarrass the forces that fight us by fighting them on equal terms with honor. And the whole point that the Anglo‐​Saxons had that Tolkien admired so much was that raw sense of will to overcome. But just being good at fighting and having will power wasn’t what Tolkien wanted; he wanted to combine military victory with moral victory.

0:26:48.5 Paul Meany: And so in The Lord of the Rings, people don’t win because they’ve got better strategy or they’re better at fighting, they win because of a moral integrity that they have. Théoden wins the Battle of Helm’s Deep because he rides out and finally fights for his people. And then Éomer and the boys come in and do the rest of the work. But the whole point is that there’s always a moral victory.

0:27:06.6 Paul Meany: And then people like Éowyn, when she’s supposed to die, she doesn’t die, she spent all of her life trying to find a way to valorize herself and die in war, but then she finds out the importance of love with Faramir and growing… Everything about Tolkien is about taking away the harsh edges of the… Not like everything, but everything about the fighting is about taking away the harsh edges of Anglo‐​Saxons and replacing it with kind of a much more, kind of a little more humility and a lot more about morality and personal character.

0:27:34.3 Paul Matzko: It has religious significance, so he… When he talks about this in his letters, he sees the eucatastrophe, the ultimate eucatastrophe that the true capital Myth of which all the myths that he’s writing and the myths that he’s pulling characters and concepts from in the human past are all in his mind reflections of the eucatastrophic moment of the incarnation, of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

0:28:02.2 Paul Matzko: So, Tolkien is deeply Catholic. And it’s actually this concept of eucatastrophe that leads him to convert CS Lewis to, well, ultimately to Anglicanism, to Tolkien’s disappointment, but converts him to Christianity during a late night walk at Oxford. To me, that’s kind of the key theme of what he’s trying to do. And again, it’s not an allegory because eucatastrophe is a theme. And I think that’s why he was very resistant to allegorization. But no, I think your point’s well made Paul, and you should recognize that turn, and he talked about that turn throughout his writing about why he wrote these books.

0:28:47.8 Jacob Levy: And then there’s a clear Christian thread woven in part of what we’re getting when we read The Lord of the Rings and think about their relationship to the Norse myths and so on, is the attention to humility and the moral value of humility that… And Frodo’s ultimately humble self‐​sacrifice, that clearly has Christian connotations that weren’t present in the Norse original. But Tolkien’s version by contrast with CS Lewis’s overtly allegorical Narnia books is never gonna be reducible to that. There’s one sense in which The Lord the Rings trilogy looks like the story of the triumph of Aragorn, there’s one sense in which it looks like the story of the ultimate self‐​sacrifice of Frodo, but we most hear Tolkien’s voice through these funny nature‐​oriented side characters, through Tom Bombadil, through Treebeard, through Sam, and through Faramir in that speech about what the swords defend.

0:30:01.5 Jacob Levy: Those are the most Tolkien‐​y moments, not actually Frodo’s Christ likeness. Tolkien is deeply attached to the old, the traditional, the comfortable, the natural. There’s this tremendous sense of villainy attached to Saruman for Saruman’s building factories that belch out smoke and make stuff. The Shire is not a Christian place, and it’s also not a Norse place. It’s a very Tolkien‐​y place.

0:30:32.7 Paul Meany: Small is good.

0:30:34.5 Paul Matzko: Yeah. Well, he quotes William Blake frequently in his letter, so he was a Blake… Romantic poet that… I mean, every Englishman of his generation would have read. And there’s the line and did the… From his famous poem, “And did those feet in ancient time”, “Was Jerusalem builded here among these dark Satanic mills? I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.” And you can see that dark Satanic mill concept… Industry in modernity kind of in general, that’s Saruman. Saruman is who would use the tools of the enemy to try and defeat Sauron.

0:31:13.8 Paul Matzko: The Scouring of the Shire is to remove these grim factories, which in Tolkien’s letters, he says that the grim mills in the Shire, when the Hobbits return, he kind of had in the back of his mind his childhood hometown of, I think it’s pronounced Sarehole, being swallowed by industrialized and expanding Birmingham, and the old mill was decrepit, and he saw a photo of it. And so there’s that pastoral sentiment that’s very strong in the books, which helps explain why it was so popular that it got embraced by the counterculture in the ‘60s.

0:31:54.7 Paul Matzko: That was one of the bits. If you were concerned about the effects of industrialization on the environment or on society, then you would read The Scouring of the Shire, you would read Tom Bombadil, read about Saruman and be like, “Yeah, this is a parable for all the stuff I hate.” So it’s easy to see why it was received in that light as well.


0:32:19.3 Natalie Dowzicky: While I was watching the first movie specifically, I was like, “Wow, there aren’t a lot of female characters in this story, [chuckle] and they don’t really have prominent roles,” but as Paul Meany pointed out to me in my notes by the third movie, I was like, “Oh, yeah, a strong female character, put it in the notes.” [chuckle] So I was kind of curious, can we talk about why her role, especially in, if you look at fantasy film in a larger context, was so legendary, and how it kind of changed the way females were portrayed in future fantasy films too?

0:32:56.4 Paul Matzko: So some of this is that we’re coming out with the kind of expectations of our place and time, and that runs up against the expectations of his time. The inklings, his society, where he read out chapters from Lord of the Rings to Lewis and Williams and other members of the club, they just would go and do “boys and brews” in the back of a pub and it was all boys, it was boys only. And so, it’s not like when he was getting notes on the chapters and someone was like, “You know, have you thought about introducing a female character here?” And also, he’s working off of a lot of myths and legends from across the… Mostly across Europe, which tend to skew heavily male representation. But he’s not trying…

0:33:44.6 Paul Matzko: There’s no intent… I don’t think he is thinking about gender very explicitly in here at all. It’s just this is his source material, and he has an example… Now, it is important though, again, as part of that… The humility we were talking about earlier, and the sense of it’s not always about the person with the biggest sword who swings it the hardest, that it’s about grit and determination, that eucatastrophe can come from the most surprising of sources. It’s not gonna be Boromir who saves the world, in fact, not even Aragorn who saves, even though he is the true king.

0:34:21.6 Paul Meany: What saves the world is mercy. It’s that Bilbo didn’t kill Smeagol. What saves the world is a quiet, nice virtue, not a bombastic battle.

0:34:32.2 Paul Matzko: Exactly. And Eowyn fits in with that theme as well. Who is it… Now, Jackson gets this wrong. My understanding is that the prophecy was not that the Witch King can’t be slain by a man, but it’s that… It’s also worth noting that it’s Merry who sticks him with the Barrow dagger that weakens him, and then she slays him with a sword thrust. But in both cases, I think they’re even joining a Hobbit and Eowyn, it’s a reminder that it doesn’t take some mighty man of valor to slay.

0:35:09.7 Paul Matzko: So there was a certain degree where he’s subverting expectations. There is a feminist reading of this, and that is done all the time, which is to look at that general theme of the subversion of expectations, that it’s not gonna be up to your Aragorns and Boromirs, it’s up to the Hobbits, to the marginalized, to the people who are looked down on and dispossessed in society, that’s who… So there are feminist readings of the book, but I don’t think it’s at the forefront of his mind as he’s writing here. Well obviously, yeah.

0:35:41.1 Paul Matzko: But which is annoying, and it’s annoying in Jackson, when he gets his chance to just like… I mean in The Hobbit trilogy, he is… The Hobbit is shorter than any of the individual three books in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and he still makes three movies out of one of them, and so he’s packing all this stuff in, but… And that’s fine, pad it out, pad out the runtime, whatever floats your boat, but it’s annoying that he subverts then what Tolkien is trying to do, it becomes all about the action, it becomes all about Bilbo, Martin Freeman takes… He actually takes on Azog with his sword drawn and has a little fight, and it becomes about martial courage, it becomes about, rather than grit and determination.

0:36:26.8 Landry Ayres: But there’s also their… What does Peter Jackson do? Well, he inserts in a stereotypical strong female character. He invents Tauriel, who is just kind of… But at the same time, is she really… She falls in love with the dwarf just because you need a frisson of romantic…

0:36:47.6 Jacob Levy: Can we please not talk about these movies?


0:36:49.3 Landry Ayres: It’s so bad. It’s bad.

0:36:50.9 Jacob Levy: Those movies didn’t happen.

0:36:52.4 Paul Meany: Where Lord of the Rings doesn’t do well… Lord of the Rings doesn’t do great on gender. That’s… It doesn’t do great. There’s not many female characters. Arwen does some cool stuff, Eowyn does some cool stuff in the movies, but even then, Eowyn’s story is more about her coming to grips with a different kind of life and not being a militaristic person. But I said earlier, what I think is very true about Lord of the Rings is…

0:37:09.7 Jacob Levy: People skip over Galadriel, by the way.

0:37:12.0 Paul Meany: Oh yeah. She’s great too.

0:37:13.3 Jacob Levy: There is an important woman character.

0:37:15.4 Paul Meany: Yeah, but in the movie, she’s barely in them. And we’re on the movies. What I was gonna say is that Lord of the Rings… What I think it does have, especially in the movies, is a very important message, of a very different kind of masculinity. ‘Cause all the characters in the movies, they cry, they embrace each other, they kiss, they sing, there is no… That’s a bit girly, or that’s a bit effeminate, they’re very emotional. And from a young age, I kind of watched Lord of the Rings, I had a very different perception of what manly meant, ’cause manly for me meant Aragorn, and Aragorn has the full range of emotions in the movie. He cries, he has happy at the moment, but he embraces all of his friends.

0:37:52.6 Paul Meany: I remember in the third movie, when I was really young watching it, Sam and Frodo just hugging each other as they thought they were going to die. I was like, “Oh my God.” I just… I remember reading some people talking about it and they were saying, “I had never seen two men, two not gay men so lovingly embrace,” and the fact that you can love the homies too. So I think that’s what Lord of the Rings, for me, has excelled at as a movie. The books do a great job, but the movie really cements it for me, as a non‐​aggressive, not toxic or chauvinistic, but a very nice, humble masculinity.

0:38:25.8 Paul Matzko: Though there is a… The Sam and Frodo relationship, one of the things that the movies strip out, is that it’s very clear in Tolkien, that it’s as much a commentary on social hierarchy and stratification as it is on male friendship. It’s very clear in the books that he is Frodo’s servant. That’s emphasized, he calls him master. A friendship, might develop between them, but whereas in the movies, well, they’re just best friends for life, they’re besties, and so there is some, again, some stuff that would have made a lot more sense in the context of 1930s, upper‐​middle‐​class Britain, that doesn’t translate. And yeah, I’m fine with Jackson changing that.

0:39:05.9 Jacob Levy: Both Merry and Pippin and Legolas and Gimli have very loving male friendships without the master servant relationship.

0:39:14.0 Paul Meany: But isn’t Sam supposed to be based off the batman from World War I? He used to protect officers. They’re called batmen, they were kind of like officers, body guards in World War I. If you read stuff like Murder on the Orient Express, as the character was like, “I was this guy’s batman”, but a batman was just like a bodyguard, but Sam’s based off Tolkien’s own experiences with lower‐​class men guarding officers and it was something he would have observed first hand and they’re always very loyal, apparently. So it makes sense that Sam was based off of them.


0:39:45.6 Jacob Levy: Can we talk about the cutting of The Scouring of the Shire?

0:39:48.3 Landry Ayres: Oh, of course.

0:39:50.1 Jacob Levy: So Natalie, the books end with the denouement where Saruman and Wormtongue have gone and taken over the Shire, and they are running it as their own little thug‐​ocracy with the help of Saruman’s, semi‐​Orcish human serpents. They’ve corrupted some of the hobbits a little bit, but fundamentally, they’ve just taken over and they’re looting it for all it’s worth, and they’re fouling and polluting everything, and they’re cutting down trees for no good reason.

0:40:18.3 Jacob Levy: And the hobbits, and particularly Merry and Pippen, who have, at this point, risen to the rank of being a knight of Rohan, a guard of Minas Tirith, and are figures of martial virtue. They go and they raised the Shire in rebellion and without Gandalf’s help. Gandalf takes some boundaries at the Shire and says, “I’m going off to talk to Tom Bombadil. You guys have grown up now, you get to deal with this for yourselves”. And they go back to the Shire and they rid the Shire of Saruman’s rule. This is politically important and politically valuable as well as being a sign of the hobbits having matured in a way that the movies don’t wholly let them. It’s a sign of a self‐​governing society, cleansing itself of autocracy and corruption and it pains me so much that we didn’t get the Scouring of the Shire in the movies.

0:41:14.4 Paul Meany: But also a part that’s important to think about the Shire and the Scouring, was what it looked like before that, and before that, there was a mayor who didn’t really do anything in the Shire, and there was also sheriffs who looked after stray animals. There was basically no crime, there was no real government at all, there was just people kind of working together and living in pretty much harmony, in a very idyllic and gorgeous setting with eight meals a day. So it’s a big transformation, what happens to the Shire.

0:41:41.3 Jacob Levy: Yeah, Saruman’s regime introduces taxes and the taxes are bitterly resented as perfectly well understood, the taxes are just confiscation.

0:41:48.8 Paul Matzko: But it is possible to make it overly libertarian‐​sounding, which is, you know, Tolkien was no libertarian. He was a critic of… He didn’t like politics. He talks in his letters about how little interest he has in the argument over whether the Socialist Labor Party is gonna win or the Conservative Tories, like how just completely disinterested he is in the politics of his time, and he was always very resistant to people trying to impose a political vision.

0:42:22.5 Paul Matzko: But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a political vision, he did, and it was this kind of, yeah, a romantic, pastoral, even communitarian. I mean it has something closer in form to probably to the 19th century communitarian, or even Georgism than it does to 20th century political movements. ‘Cause Tolkien’s kind of a man out of time. At his heart, he’s a 19th century romantic pastoralist. So it is there, but it’s possible to… ‘Cause like a libertarian reading, I’m sensitive to ways in which he’s anti‐​modern. He writes about how… Tolkien, in his letters, talks about how he doesn’t like cars, cars helped destroy the pastoral landscape, he doesn’t like heavy industry, he likes old simple industry like mills, water‐​powered mills.

0:43:11.2 Paul Meany: Have you heard the story about how when he was given a voice recorder, he said a prayer before?


0:43:16.4 Paul Meany: Yeah, they gave him a voice recorder to record some of The Lord of the Rings, him reading it, and he did a quick prayer beforehand, just in case [laughter] ’cause he was that… He had advertisement even too. I think Tolkien’s no libertarian, but I think there’s a lot of good themes in him. One the things I really like is in one of his letters where he says as follows, “If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun, meaning the process of governing and it should be an offense to write it with a capital G or refer to it as people. If people were in the habit of referring to King George counsel or Winston and his gang, it would go a long way, clearing thought and reducing frightful landslide into they‐​autocracy”.

0:43:49.8 Paul Meany: I love the idea that it’s… You have to talk about people ruling other people, and then in the books, a lot of people might criticize The Lord of the Ring for being monarchisty, like all the great monarchs come and rise, but the monarchs actually don’t have a lot to say with the day‐​to‐​day governing of their cities, they actually act more like judges who interpret difficult cases in the law.

0:44:09.0 Paul Meany: And in Lord of the Rings it is a lot more about small is good and knowing who’s ruling you and knowing everyone around. I think libertarians could take a lot of… Tolkien, of course, was a Catholic and he believed in subsidiarity, the principle that everything should dealt with on the lowest level possible. I think that’s where Tolkien… Not a libertarian, but we can look at him and say, “Those are some good ideas, my guy”.


0:44:30.0 Natalie Dowzicky: Alright, I have a fun question that I wanna ask [chuckle] I wanna know who everyone’s favorite character is. [chuckle]

0:44:39.5 Landry Ayres: Sam. Sam is the true hero…

0:44:41.9 Natalie Dowzicky: I was gonna say that.

0:44:42.7 Landry Ayres: He’s the true hero. It’s because of him that everything is actually… Gets to happen. In the context of the films? I think… There was a lot of times where, while things were set in the right direction, that without Sam intervening and showing his love and devotion for Frodo, he would have been put in a lot more situations where they wouldn’t have been able to accomplish their task.

0:45:09.9 Landry Ayres: And I think just in particular, I love his character in the way that he is portrayed by Sean Astin, who I think does, I think one of, if not the best performances in a series of films that are generally acted extremely well. That the cast for the most part, is great. Just phenomenal casting, but I think Sean Astin’s Samwise Gamgee is number one for me. It’s the top.

0:45:39.3 Natalie Dowzicky: I agree with that. Anyone else wanna throw a contender in?

0:45:42.4 Paul Meany: My favorite character, since I’ve watched the movies since I was very young, has changed. It first started as Aragorn, then I moved to Legolas, back to Aragorn, then I went to Sam when I got older, then as I got a little older, it changed to Theoden. Theoden, the King of Rohan, has become one of my favorite characters, because he is a… Same with Boromir too, I love him as well. They’re both tragically human and they have so many failings and didn’t always get things right, but they’re always trying to set things right. I find Bernard Hill, who plays the captain in Titanic as well, but I remember the bit where his son Eodred, dies and he talks about how child should have to… Or no father should have to bury their son, absolutely breaks you.

0:46:20.7 Paul Meany: And then kind of his whole coming out of being brainwashed by Saruman, and regaining his confidence, I think that’s a brilliant story. And I love Boromir, I’ll always love Boromir for his flawedness, but also his sacrifice at the end, I love that speech, “I would have followed you to the end, my brother, my captain, my king,” admitting all of his failings. I love them all, but I’d probably say, right now, I’m feeling Theoden, in two years, I’ll probably go to someone else.

0:46:47.8 Jacob Levy: In the books, it’s hard for it not to be Treebeard, “I’m not all together on any one side, because no one is all together on my side. I just want to be here alone in the woods, thinking in my long, lovely language.” And Tom Bombadil also sits alone in the woods, but he’s… Tom Bombadil is fundamentally silly and Treebeard is fundamentally…

0:47:13.6 Jacob Levy: I’m going to sit here and think my deep thoughts. And there’s something lovely about that. But I’ll say, an underrated character in these conversations in both the book and the movie, is Merry. Frodo has been raised by Bilbo the adventurer and has been cultivated in an important way by both Bilbo and Gandalf, that you are going to be someone who is going to go off and be important some day, the only question is when. And early in the book, it’s already clear that Frodo knows that this is probably more or less what’s expected of him.

0:47:48.9 Jacob Levy: Legolas is the son of a King, Gimli is born to a family of adventurers, who’ve retaken the Lonely Mountain, and Pippin is a fool of a Took, until near the end. But we go through the books, and when the hobbits are being treated as fundamentally child‐​like, they’re literally being carried around a lot of the time, and even Frodo hasn’t yet fully come into any sense of leadership, Merry is steadily maturing and he’s paying attention, he’s reading the maps in Rivendell. When Merry and Pippin get separated and get kidnapped by the Orcs, it’s Merry who has his wits about him and says, “Well, if Gandalf’s not here and Aragorn’s not here and Frodo’s not here, we have to do for ourselves.” And without having been raised with the expectation that he was going to be a leader, someone who had presence of mind in combat, someone who was going to see the world, he just figures it out.

0:48:51.9 Paul Matzko: I’ll second. Merry was… You took mine. But I… On the underrated theme, and maybe this gets into a common complaint by people who only ever watched the movies. So you’ve probably heard the one where it is, “If the eagles could fly them away from Mount Doom, why couldn’t they fly the hobbits to Mount Doom?” Just obviate the entire necessity for this long trilogy of films and bada‐​bing, bada‐​boom, it’s all over just like that, is that it’s rooted in a change that Jackson makes, to a lot of the non‐​anthropoid characters. So the Ents… What he does with the Ents is of a piece with this. The same thing is true with Tom Bombadil getting cut out. And again, I don’t fault Jackson for moving Tom Bombadil, because even Tolkien acknowledged that Bombadil didn’t really fit with the plot, but he wasn’t… The movie’s not just… The books weren’t just about plot, there were stuff in there that he put in, because he liked it, he had worked on it in other places, and Bombadil is kind of a foil for Sauron. Both of them are masters, Bombadil is considered a master, but Bombadil is… He lives in harmony with the forest, whereas Sauron wants dominion.

0:50:12.7 Paul Matzko: So they’re kind of foiled characters. He takes Bombadil out, ’cause Bombadil doesn’t fit in the kind of an epic story, struggle between super powers, between good and evil, and Bombadil is someone who sits apart, literally, from the plot in the sense and from that struggle that defines so much of the rest of the trilogy. And same with the Ents, he kind of… Jackson changes the Ents, to make them frankly less interesting and impressive in the movies, versus in the books. But the same thing he does with the eagles, and so the eagles end up being underrated, because in the movies, the eagles are just these… They’re essentially just dumb birds who Gandalf can summon, he sends off a moth and like, “Send the moth, get the eagles to come act as a Deux Ex Machina, move the plot forward.”

0:51:06.1 Paul Matzko: But in the books, it’s very clear the eagles are intelligent, just like the Ents, and they have their own society, they have their own conversations, and they have their own motivations. In the movies, they just exist to help the human, elvish and dwarf… To move the plot along, for the people that really matter to Jackson. But in the books, they’re their own separate society, it’s not… They fly high above, so what happens, whether Sauron wins and the elves lose, and what happens, they’re removed from that, they have their own sets of concerns and interests, and that kind of gets stripped out of the movies.

0:51:42.3 Paul Matzko: So I would say the eagles are underrated… Properly rated by the books, but underrated by the movies, and that also explains why they don’t fly to Mount Doom, because that’s just not… They have their own interests and their own set of motivations, their own society, they don’t just serve at the beck and call of Gandalf and when you make them do that… So Jackson introduced an unnecessary question, by making them into essentially dumb birds.

0:52:08.0 Jacob Levy: People would always ask that question about the books too, and the answer is, the Nazgul would have ripped them to shreds.

0:52:12.9 Paul Meany: Exactly, that’s what I always say. They have a bunch of dragons there. Why would they just go, “Oh yeah, I’m gonna suicide charge into this for people I don’t know and don’t care about.” It has always frustrated me, that question. The second you said it, Paul, I was about to cry, really. As a huge fan I’ve just had to answer it for years, and it makes me more and more miserable every time I do.

0:52:30.0 Landry Ayres: Every time a journalist wrote a review of the movie, that somehow seemed to make its way into the review, “We don’t get why it was all so necessary it had to be so long.”

0:52:40.2 Natalie Dowzicky: Yeah, nine hours of your life, or more. Slightly more than nine hours of your life.

0:52:44.2 Paul Meany: I watch the extended edition every Christmas, so it’s 12 hours.

0:52:47.7 Jacob Levy: So I’m a little concerned, Natalie. It doesn’t sound like you watched the extended versions.

0:52:52.5 Natalie Dowzicky: No, I did not watch the extended versions, and there’s just some things I can’t devote time to, and that’s one of them.

0:53:01.2 Paul Meany: Just the most popular book and movie, for the last 100 years. Yeah.

0:53:04.7 Landry Ayres: You’re lucky we’re only doing one episode on this.

0:53:07.5 Jacob Levy: So Natalie, what you need to do now, is go watch the Ralph Bakshi version, the animated version from the ‘70s, that’s the next level of fandom.

0:53:20.0 Landry Ayres: Thanks for listening. If you wanna challenge Natalie, a true Tolkien head, to some Lord of the Rings trivia, make sure to hit us up on Twitter, @PopNLockePod. That’s pop, the letter N, locke, with an E, like the philosopher, pod. Also make sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. We look forward to unravelling your favorite show or movie, next time. Pop & Locke is produced by me, Landry Ayres, as a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. To learn more, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.