The Lord of the Rings: The Pros of Oligarchy
Tolkien’s world is one where the natural state of the world is decay. Every good thing in Middle-Earth is fading. The time of the Elves and Ents and great heroes - the time when Gods and men and magic resulted in fantastic tales of bravery and heroism. Heck, even the bad guys are getting less badass then they used to be - no more armies of Balrogs or shapeshifting hellhounds roam the land by the time we get to the tale of Frodo Baggins.
(This video by wisecrack does a really great job explaining the depressing state of decay that permeates Tolkien's fallen world, as well as the silver lining that may exist due to divine interventions)
When looking at the governance of Middle-earth, we have a few cultures we can look at. Firstly, the Shire. The home of hobbits is, by most accounts, a sort of Utopia for Tolkien. It is based in no small part on his childhood home, and is protected by a strong sense of innocence and disregard for the rest of the troubles of the world. In the Shire, the populus does have an elected mayor, but he doesn’t do much. They have Sherriffs to keep the peace, but for the most part, they’re only called upon to help find lost pets and the like. In the Shire, there is no need for a strong government of any kind, because the society itself functions based on traditions and earthy goodness. Shire folk share with their kindreds, as evidenced by birthday parties (where hobbits give gifts, rather than receive them) - and because of their love of growing things (and good tilled-earth), there is no scarcity of food or drink for the lot of them.
Henry David Thoreau said:
Government is best which governs least.
However, can we take this laissez-faire approach to our own governance? I submit that we cannot - and I think Tolkien would agree with me. Why? Because his ideal world is based on some very strict social contracts that we simply do not have in place in modern society- social contracts regarding hospitality (even of uninvited dwarves), neighborship, and shared values.
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
In short, because greed exists, we cannot have the idyllic, laid back lifestyle of Hobbiton.
What other governments are explored in Middle-Earth?
Well, like it or not, oligarchy and monarchy seem to be top contenders. Take for instance, the realms of Elvenkind. By the time we meet them in the Third Age (the era of Lord of the Rings) there are only three Elfhomes left on Middle-Earth; Lothlorien, Rivendell, and the Grey Havens. (Mirkwood is also a realm of the Elves, but the wood-elves have a different government and culture altogether)
Each of them are ruled by a leader who has proven themselves capable - these individual elves have long histories and come from special lineages, although their rule is not necessarily a monarchy. Elrond leads Rivendell - he founded it as the Last Homely House, and it is his. We do not actively see Elrond command troops or dictate law, but we do see him as a leader at the Council - a sort of medieval fantasy United Nations, as it were. He gains this position by coincidence (or Providence, depending on your point of view) - but he has respect from all parties involved due to his renowned wisdom and power. This is a sort of meritocracy, or maybe even an oligarchy. The rulers and decision makers for each of the free-peoples of Middle-Earth who meet at the Council of Elrond are all beings of some import - Legolas is a prince representing Mirkwood, Boromir is the son of Gondor’s Steward, Gimli is the son of Gloin, a great adventurer and cousin to the King Under the Mountain, Gandalf is of the Maiar (the closest allegory to the uninitiated is that he is essentially an angel sent by the Gods). These people together make the decision to take action against Sauron, the Dark Lord, only after carefully discussing and weighing their options together as a collective.
Another Council at play in Middle Earth is The Council of the Wise. While they aren’t seen in the books, they are mentioned in the appendices and played a pivotal role behind the scenes, driving out Sauron (The Necromancer) from Dol Guldur during the events of The Hobbit. The White Council includes the Istari (Wizards) - Saruman, Gandalf, Radagast- as well as the Elven Ring Bearers, Elrond, Galadriel, and Ciridan the Shipwright (who later bequeaths his ring to Gandalf). This Council is kind of the Justice League of Middle Earth - the superheroes. Each member of the council has incredible foresight, insight, magical prowess, and yes, wisdom. They are the ones playing directly against Sauron, while many others, even kings, are merely pawns in the true battle against evil.
Looking at the monarchies of Middle-Earth, we have quite a range to choose from. Some, like the Kingdom of Rohan in the Third Age, were ineffectual due to placing trust in the wrong people. Others, like the Kingdom of Doriath, were bastions of strength and prosperity where a righteous king and queen ruled together for ages before treachery undid them. We have the bizarre kingdom of Mirkwood (the only non-meritocratic elf realm) - where darkness constantly creeps at the borders, and also noteworthy is the Kingdom of Numenor - an island nation that grew so proud of its accomplishments that its king was tricked by Sauron (read: Evil) into attacking the realm of the Gods. It did not go well for the Numenoreans.
Of course, one could not fail to mention that the third book in the Lord of the Rings series is The Return of the King - wherein the rightful king who has long been estranged from his people finally returns to set things right again in the world after vanquishing the latest incarnation of evil (read: Sauron). Aragon, as king, has some supernatural prowess, namely in healing people by laying his hands on them, along with herblore. He is incredibly brave and seeks to regain his family’s honor (and right to rule) by succeeding where his ancestors failed - namely by resisting temptation to seek powers beyond that which were rightfully his. In short- he was a reluctant king, and if Douglas Adams says that craving power makes you inept for it, then being reluctant to take power is a strong indicator of a great leader.
So what are the advantages of a monarchy? Well - for starters, little to no bureaucracy. In fact, in the failed kingdoms of Middle-Earth, a bad adviser who interferes with people’s access to the King is regularly what causes the inevitable downfall of the monarchy. (Grima Wormtongue, Sauron). Meanwhile, a good king or queen significantly impacts their entire domain, even to the point of nature itself being more fertile and beautiful because of their righteous domain.
Does Tolkien think we ought to have a meritocracy? A monarchy? A polite anarchy?
I must admit, having to not worry about politics and trusting in a super capable awesome superhero of a king sounds pretty appealing to me - but we have to remember, Middle-earth is in decline. The “blood of Numenor” (the Kings of Men) is “all but spent” - meaning that the right to rule is diminishing and fading,even as far back as the third age (which, in theory, is an ancient myth about the world we live in today). Even if we could suddenly appoint a monarch, finding one who is destined to lead or rule righteously would be phenomenally difficult to locate.
(This is where I point out that the correct connections to be made here may be more religious than practical. #coughcoughJesuscough*)