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Old 11-07-2021, 01:11 PM   #1
Boromir88
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Tolkien and Isolationism

With the pandemic and lockdowns I've used the opportunity over the last year+ to reread all the Tolkien books I own. And with the current state of the world, I've been thinking a lot about Tolkien's views on isolation coming through in his books? Is isolationism viewed negatively? What are its pitfalls?

This is more random, unconnected observations about Tolkien and isolation, but I hope it spurs some interesting discussions...

My first thought goes to the pitfalls of isolationism, because I immediately think of what Gildor says to the hobbits:

Quote:
"The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out."~Three is Company
At the same time, hobbit society, their way of living seems to be portrayed as an idyllic society. In hobbit society, isolation appears to be portrayed as an ideal, but the real world makes isolation unsustainable. As Gildor alludes to, whether they like it or not, events in the wider world will threaten the Shire and hobbits will eventually be forced to make choices.

But isolationism, at least in Book I of Fellowship of the Ring, feels like it's portrayed more as a positive ideal, than being associated with something evil. In The Two Towers and Return of the King, there seems to be a noticeable change.

Gandalf is the biggest mover and shaker in the events of the Third Age, the "wandering wizard," who never stays in one place for long, is the beacon of what is good. And those who fortify, isolate themselves in one place are evil (Sauron, Saruman and Denethor).

Quote:
Denethor lauged bitterly. "Nay not yet, Master Peregrin! He will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won. He uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling. Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons? For I can still wield a brand."~The Siege of Gondor
Denethor is trying to make the argument that locking himself in a tower and spending even his sons as pawns is a positive thing. It's something "all great lords do." We know this to be false, because he compares the decision to "sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait" to "Sauron does it!"

So, there seems to be a change in Tolkien's views of isolationism, from The Fellowship of the Ring to The Two Towers and Return of the King. Bombadil is an isolationist (Gandalf refers to him as a "moss-gatherer") but Bombadil is quite the opposite of Sauron or even Denethor. He is a helpful figure and key to getting the hobbits through the Old Forest. Any thoughts on why this change? Was it intentional?
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Old 11-20-2021, 04:29 PM   #2
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1) I wouldn't take Denethor's remark that "So do all great lords" as affirmation, I rather read it as bitter irony. His office required him to put his own safety first while sending his sons into danger, but I find it difficult to imagine that he was fine with that (witness his snapping when he thought he had sent Faramir to his death).

2) The theme goes back much further. Both Turgon and Thingol reigned over realms guarded against the outer world, Doriath by the Girdle of Melian and Gondolin by the Echoriath, although Turgon was the more extremist in his isolationism. Both were eventually overrun by forces from the outside, and it was Turgon's refusal to heed Ulmo's message and leave his fortified refuge that led to his downfall.

3) Bombadil I think wasn't really an isolationist because while he himself never left his circumscribed domain he was still hospitable to strangers.
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Old 11-20-2021, 07:04 PM   #3
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Considering nearly every effort at isolationism in the books ended in disaster, or came to a terrible end: The Girdle of Melian, Nargothrond, Gondolin, and even the Shire with the takeover by Sharkey and his ruffians, it would seem Tolkien often offers cautionary tales on isolationism.

After all, Ulmo warned Turgon through Tuor:

"Love not too well the work of thy hands and the devices of thy heart; and remember that the true hope of the Noldor lieth in the West, and cometh from the Sea."

And speaking of the Valar, even their well-intentioned detainment of the Eldar in Valinor eventually resulted in unmitigated disaster.

As Pitchwife mentioned, I don't think Bombadil was an isolationist so much as a stationary manifestation -- in Latin a genius loci, the protective spirit of a place (or as Tolkien inferred in his letters, the embodiment of the vanishing Oxfordshire countryside). He has relations with outsiders who are worth relating to, such as Farmer Maggot and Gandalf, and aids Frodo and the Hobbits (saving them from both Old Man Willow and the Barrow Wights). Since isolationism and xenophobia usually go hand in hand, I don't think that defines Tom at all.
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Old 11-21-2021, 07:50 AM   #4
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As a bit of a counter example, what of Aragorn refusing to enter the Shire uninvited after his coronation and prohibiting the Big Men from doing so? It is meant as a sign of respect for the Shire's independence, and a gesture of goodwill, in both present relations and an example for future interactions. But by doing so, he facilitates the Shire's isolationism. I suppose the difference is that after his coronation, he has allies in the Shire who would make sure that there are some in that country who would remember to seek out contact with the Big World, and thus interactions will still occur. Without such allies, the gesture would fall flat, as who would even know about it in a place that was so turned inwards that it didn't see the neighbours right across the border?
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Old 11-21-2021, 08:25 AM   #5
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I think I rather clumsily wrote my thoughts out in the original post.

First I'll start with Bombadil because I agree that he is not an isolationist. I was primarily thinking about Gandalf's comment about Bombadil being a "moss-gatherer." And I failed to realize Morth's point that this makes Bombadil stationary. I think Tolkien has criticisms towards characters who remain static, because Gandalf is the primary good figure and he is a "stone doomed to rolling." Being stationary can lead to isolationism, but not necessarily.

As far as some of my other points...I think I should have began with the different ways isolation turns up. I kind of just spurted out my random thoughts in the first post.

I would say there is political isolation (isolationism, as a policy). This most clearly shows up with Gondolin and Imladris, who chose isolationism as a policy out of an instinct of survival/to outlast the enemy. As mentioned by Pitch and Morth the dangers of this choice (even if it is well-intentioned).

There is also societal isolation, which is found in The Shire. And I would argue this is different than the isolationism of Gondolin, Nargothrond...etc, because hobbits seem to have made the choice to make their society isolated. It's not out of an instinct to survive, or out last an enemy. I actually think the opening chapters Tolkien describes the Shire's isolation idealistically. It may be an ideal but the reality of the world makes the hobbits' isolation unsustainable. As Gildor hints at:

Quote:
"The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out"~Three is Company
And then there is personal isolation, this can be seen with Denethor (and there are other examples). But Denethor makes the choice to personally isolate himself, not just in the way he describes arm-chair leadership, but he chooses to cut himself off from everyone. It seems to begin when his wife dies, and then quickly escalates with Boromir's death and Faramir's injury:


Quote:
'After her death Denethor became more grim and silent than before, and would sit long alone in his tower deep in thought, foreseeing that the assault of Mordor would come in his time.
...Thus pride increased in Denethor together with despair, until he saw in all the deeds of that time only a single combat between the Lord of the White Tower and the Lord of the Barad-dur, and mistrusted all others who resisted Sauron, unless they served himself alone. ~Appendix A - Gondor and the Heirs of Anarion
Perhaps this is the isolation Tolkien is most critical of? To fence your society off from the rest of the world is an ideal, but it's also ignorant. The real world makes it unsustainable. However, to personally isolate leads to despair, hopelessness, and Denethor descends into madness.

I've always thought of Theoden as a foil to Denethor, because they go through similar trials but Theoden escapes from despair in the end. Grima's whispers are isolating Theoden from his kin, and keeping him confined in Meduseld.

Quote:
"Now, lord' said Gandalf, 'look out upon your land! Breathe the free air again!'~The King of the Golden Hall
Edit: x-post with G55
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Old 11-25-2021, 10:43 AM   #6
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But then (just to play Devil's Advocate), Numenor's corruption and downfall can be traced directly to its expansion back to the Great Lands and their endemic infection with Morgoth/Sauron taint. Had the Dunedain stuck to their island, it wouldn't have happened.
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Old 11-25-2021, 10:10 PM   #7
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In my view it is the act of trying to close oneself off from the evils of the world and create an inviolate fastness that seems to most consistently lead to disaster in the narratives, especially in the First Age, because when things inevitably do go wrong in Nargothrond, Doriath and Gondolin, they go badly wrong very quickly. In the Third Age, Rivendell and Lórien were able to keep the evil of Sauron out, but their real enemy was time, which defeated them just as Elrond and Galadriel knew it would.

As for Hobbits, the Shire may have been somewhat wilfully isolationist, but this was only achieved because they were protected by the Dúnedain, which they weren't aware of. And it also made many hobbits fatuous, stubborn and narrow-minded.

I think Professor Tolkien recognised the appeal of isolationism but always moderated it with drawbacks, some relatively mild and others extremely severe.
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Old 11-27-2021, 09:26 AM   #8
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But then (just to play Devil's Advocate), Numenor's corruption and downfall can be traced directly to its expansion back to the Great Lands and their endemic infection with Morgoth/Sauron taint. Had the Dunedain stuck to their island, it wouldn't have happened.
The only ban the Numenoreans faced was sailing West to Aman, and the westward ban itself was the germinal factor leading to their eventual downfall -- long before the Cult of Morgoth accelerated the process.

There was never a prohibition on them sailing to the East, nor did the Valar insist the Dunedain stay locked in the harbors of their island home (as the Valar had proscribed the Eldar from leaving Valinor); therefore, Numenor was never isolationist.
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Old 11-28-2021, 10:43 AM   #9
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I believe WCH's point in bringing up Numenor (and please correct me if this is wrong) was to point out there were consequences to becoming too expansionist as well. Because if Elves were generally isolationist, I would say the Numenoreans (and their descendants, the Gondorians) were globalists. They sought to expand their influence and bring 'enlightenment' to Lesser Men. I'm thinking about Faramir's comments:

Quote:
"Yet now if the Rohirrim are grown in some ways more like to us, enhanced in arts and gentleness, we too have become more like to them, and can scarce claim any longer the title High. We are become Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with memory of other things. ~The Window on the West
Faramir talks about the southern kingdom didn't care as much about mixing bloodlines, as Faramir puts it they have become "Middle Men" because of their mingling with the Rohirrim and Harad and Umbar when Gondor was at its height of expansion.

If I'm recalling correctly, the Dunedain did not mix their bloodlines, they did not mix with say the Men of Bree, as an example.

So there would appear to be consequences for being expansionists, as well. Perhaps Tolkien was cautioning about being on the extremes of either end?
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Old 11-28-2021, 04:33 PM   #10
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Well, there were two consequences, or three. The first was really metaphysical or spiritual: whereas Elenna was purified, Middle-earth was tainted by the marring of Melkor and the ongoing evil of Sauron, so simply going there resulted in a sort of inchoate moral contagion. More practically, Numenorean colonization both raised the ire of Sauron, and started Numenor down the slippery slope of imperialist pride which led eventually to Ar-Pharazon.
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Old 11-28-2021, 04:52 PM   #11
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So there would appear to be consequences for being expansionists, as well. Perhaps Tolkien was cautioning about being on the extremes of either end?
Well, yes. Don't be exclusive, but don't force your way onto others, let's just all be friends. A balance that is easier said than done in a real life scenario.

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'Well do I understand your speech,' he answered in the same language; 'yet few strangers do so. Why then do you not speak in the Common Tongue, as is the custom in the West, if you wish to be answered?' -TTT, The King of the Golden Hall
...But how long would Rohan and Dunland and all the various other ethnic pockets maintain their own languages that are separate from the Common Speech after Aragorn's globalization? Assuming that the globalization continues after his death and the North and South don't fall apart again, that is.
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Old 11-29-2021, 08:33 AM   #12
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...But how long would Rohan and Dunland and all the various other ethnic pockets maintain their own languages that are separate from the Common Speech after Aragorn's globalization? Assuming that the globalization continues after his death and the North and South don't fall apart again, that is.
They still speak Cantonese in Hong Kong, Swahili in Kenya and Hindi (and 599 more) in India
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Old 02-05-2022, 04:59 PM   #13
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Your post reminds me of something another fan wrote the first time she read The Silmarilion. The Elves described in that book are more real, with their own bad deeds and jealousies to deal with. For instance Feanor and his sons. For the most part good, but so blinded by what they want that they stoop to do really nasty things, including attempted kidnapping and murder.

As for them being isolationist. I always point out that Tolkien wrote from the perspective of the middle ages. In those days the average man did not leave his village his entire life except if his master called him to war.

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