Saturday, March 4, 2017


Furnish, Timothy R. High Towers and Strong Places: A Political History of Middle-earth. Oloris Publishing, 2016. Print.

I ordered this book off interlibrary loan, highly suspicious that it might be one of those vapid, dreary productions for a general audience, but Furnish only needed two pages to win me over with his intelligence, insight, and assiduous scouring of the secondary literature. His book is a "political history" of Middle-earth, which means that he examines the structure and organization of the various political entities that mark Middle-earth. Much of this information, of course, can already be found in Tolkien's texts and appendices, but Furnish collects them together and situates them inside a theoretical context provided by contemporary political science and international relations. The result is a highly accessible, highly enlightening examination of how wide and varied Tolkien's sub-created polities actually are.

Between the Elves, Dwarves, Men, and so forth, there are "some 50 or so polities on both the Good and Evil sides, across racial/species lines" (57). One of the more interesting distinctions made isbetween state, pre-state, and post-state peoples. The state-organization is most common -- all the various kingdoms, such as Gondor, and additional polities, such as the Shire. Several groups, however, are organized at the pre-state level -- such the Men in the First Age or the Wainriders. Post-state peoples are relatively rare (as in Primary World history), but the Dunedain can be categorized thus.

In terms of "types of governance," Furnish provides the classic division according to Rule by One, Rule by a Few, and Rule by Many. He hits upon one of the key features (at least for me) of government in Middle-earth: the unquestioned acceptance of monarchy. Monarchy is never questioned as the de facto best form of government (just think of the title of Tolkien's third book in LoTR), and Furnish says, the "system of monarchy is never really questioned; nor, for that matter, is the right of the descendants of Númenor to rule benevolently over all of Middle-earth. . . . Thus, the Sub-Creator’s approval of monarchy is clearly reflected in his creation” (90). Nonetheless, examples of absolute monarchy are relatively rare. Aragorn, for example, delays entering Gondor partly out of consideration of the people. Hence, although Tolkien polities never reach the level of true democracy, there does exist an element of accountability in his various leaders -- and accountability to the people is a thoroughly modern political principle.

I also greatly enjoyed Furnish's account of international relations in Middle-earth. He offers a great account of First Age politics, which he describes as the domination "by Morgoth’s hegemony, which the Noldor attempted to counter via a balance-of-power strategy” (93). Incidentally, here's a nice description of the Elven kingdoms during the First Age:

“In a certain sense, then, Beleriand south of Thangorodrim was under almost total Noldorin rule and can plausibly be seen in toto as Elven feudalism writ large, with the various Elf nobility ruling their own realms under the overall sovereignty of Fingolfin [the High King] (and Thingol existing as a separate, Sindarin power base). Alternatively, since Maedros was Fëanor’s eldest son, his brothers can be viewed as ruling realms that were feudal ancillaries to him” (78).

In terms of Third Age international relations, Gondor is the hegemonic power as well as the best bulwark against the aspiring hegemony of Mordor (94). Furnish supports the interpretation, first offered by Tom Shippey, that “Middle-earth’s history, in terms of international relations, seems more reminiscent of medieval and even early-modern Primary World history than of ancient times" (95).

Overall, this is a worthwhile contribution to Tolkien scholarship (despite its production design as a coffee table book, which is one of the things that initially made me skeptical of its value), and I'll certainly be checking out Furnish's follow-up volume on the military history of Middle-earth.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Wise: thanks for the kind review! But would you be so kind as to correct my name? Furnish, not "Burnish!"
    Tim Furnish