Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tolkien and the Distributists

So, a few days ago I learned through a post on the MythSoc list that the St. Austin Review, a Catholic journal (of "culture, literature, and ideas"), has a new Tolkien/Lewis themed issue out (TOLKIEN AND LEWIS: MASTERS OF MYTH, TELLERS OF TRUTH). Here's the link to the Table of Contents:

Most of these are names I don't recognize (but then I don't keep up with Lewis studies the way I do with Tolkien studies); of the rest, James Como and Thomas Howard are the best-known aside from the issue's co-editor, Joseph Pearce, the most prominent advocate of the Tolkien-as-Catholic-writer meme. I'm particularly curious to see Como's review of Barfield's EAGER SPRING, which I worked on.

It was also interesting to be able to read the sample article on Tolkien and Distributism ("Distributism in the Shire", by Matthew P. Akers), which they've kindly made available online:

I enjoyed reading this article--having long heard that Tolkien is supposed to have shown affinities with Chesterton's Distributism without seeing any detailed explanation of what this means, it was good to finally have that rectified--although the references Akers dropped in about "global markets" and "free trade" sounded a gratingly anachronistic note without seeming to have any relevance to Saruman's plans. I wish, in offering up the Scouring of the Shire as a model for reforming the modern economy, Akers had taken into account that the 'industrial' changes Tolkien disparages had only been imposed on the Shire for a matter of months, not years/decades/centuries as in the modern world--it seems like it wd be easier to roll back unpopular changes imposed from outside quite recently than to achieve systemic change of long-standing practices. I also found myself thinking, in reading his description of what Saruman's goons had done to the Shire, as if I were reading an account of Colonialism from the point of view of the colonized (say, the Boer War from the point of view of the Afrikaaners*).

But I realized at the end that there are some things about Distributism I still don't understand --most of what I know being the result of having read I'LL TAKE MY STAND by the Agrarians (also known as The Fugitives, among other titles) back in a Southern History class in college.** If the basic idea is to have land distributed as equally as possible among the populace, what's Distributism's approach towards breaking up large estates? For example, Gaffer Gamgee gets his little bit of garden back, which is all to the good, but taking the ideals of Distributism to their logical conclusion would seem to suggest the vast holdings of the Tooks and the Brandybucks, et al, ought to be broken up as well and redistributed.

So, if there's anyone out there knowledgable in Distributist theory, here's my question: what is Chesterton's position on breaking up those with huge landed estates (especially given that, in England, many of these were the result of local squires enclosing commons two centuries before)? Clearly Tolkien himself was not in favor of it, since a return to the status quo marks his happy ending for the Shire-folk.

Perhaps the issue's not so moot as we might think. Just this morning I saw a piece on CNN (I think) in which a self-identified expert on Haiti was discussing how agriculture had collapsed there since the 70s, sending large numbers of people from the countryside into the city. With the current crisis, many are returning from Port-au-Prince to their old villages, and he was suggesting that one of the best long-term things folks could do for Haiti wd be to help them rebuild their small-farm family agricultural system.

In any case, I'll probably be ordering a copy of this issue and will be keeping my eye out for future issues in hopes they have more Tolkien content.

--John R.

*relevant in the case of Tolkien, of course, because the little country in which he was born had ceased to exist by the time he was ten years old, having been forcibly (and violently) incorporated into the world's largest empire.

**including, most notoriously, the essay "Forty Acres and a Mule" which, if I remember rightly, decried black migration to the industrial north and instead suggests they be repatriated from the cities to rural settings as small independent farmers in the South.

1 comment:

Extollager said...

Could you check your edition of I'll Take My Stand? Does it have the "Forty Acres and a Mule" piece that you remember? Could that be from some other book?

A friend who's more knowledgeable about these matters than I am said the Distributists were not into "REdistribution" & he doesn't think that Distributism would have advocated the breakup of large holdings of private property a la the Tooks.

On the other hand, they might well have figured Orthanc PTE was too big and too impersonal.