Orwell and Tolkien_med

On first looking at J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) and George Orwell (1903-1950) they appear to have little in common, as men or writers, other than being peculiarly English authors with evergreen book sales.

The year 1937 was a seminal one for both men and useful for highlighting their different lifestyles, politics and literary experiences.

Tolkien, the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford published The Hobbit – a quaint novel for children with dwarfish miners, dragons and wizards – in a modest print run of 1500 copies. Orwell was serving with a Marxist militia in the fight against fascism, in Spain, when The Road to Wigan Pier was published that same year. Commissioned for The Left Book Club, it examined the appalling living and working conditions of miners in the North of England.

Vagabondish and restless, Orwell was iconoclastic, eschewed academia and rejected religion. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic. Orwell could not have despised this tradition more vehemently, often mocking adherents with jibes such as:

‘In theory it is still possible to be an orthodox religious believer without being intellectually crippled in the process; but it is far from easy, and in practice books by orthodox believers usually show the same cramped, blinkered outlook as books by orthodox Stalinists or others who are mentally unfree.’

Orwell especially doubted the usefulness of this faith to novelists:

“The atmosphere of orthodoxy is always damaging to prose, and above all it is completely ruinous to the novel, the most anarchical of all forms of literature. How many Roman Catholics have been good novelists? Even the handful one could name have usually been bad Catholics. The novel is practically a Protestant form of art; it is a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual. No decade in the past hundred and fifty years has been so barren of imaginative prose as the nineteen-thirties.”

Tolkien, being a good novelist and a good Catholic, disproved Orwell’s waggish rule.

JRR Tolkien signature - from Commons.svg
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Shared Beliefs

On closer examination, it is evident the two writers shared many beliefs and values. Both men were eccentric and held idiosyncratic points of view on a wide range of topics. Orwell’s brand of democratic Socialism (he always capitalised the “s”) was founded on a belief in the fundamental decency and commonsense of the English working class. Tolkien’s experiences in WWI led him to admire the private soldiers he met in the trenches.

Tolkien in 1916 (Creative Commons)

Both men were nostalgic about their Edwardian childhoods in the period prior to WWI. They were both relatively poor scholarship boys who read incredibly widely and published in their school magazines. They developed a profound love of nature which lasted their entire lives. Both men had abhorrence of industrialisation and machines and a love of handmade things. Tobacco became a lifelong addiction.

Orwell claimed in 1940 that:

“Outside my work the thing I care most about is gardening, especially vegetable gardening. I like English cookery and English beer, French red wines, Spanish white wines, Indian tea, strong tobacco, coal fires, candle light and comfortable chairs. I dislike big towns, noise, motor cars, the radio, tinned food, central heating and “modern” furniture.”

Tolkien told a correspondent towards the end of his life:

“I am in fact a Hobbit in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanised farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible).”

It is hardly surprising that writers would have long interest in literature and language. Tolkien worked on developing artificial languages (and fictional worlds to house them) his whole life. Orwell’s devised Newspeak for his final novel. Both had a patriotic love of Englishness which led to a strong preference for Anglo-Saxon rather than the French vocabulary which had colonised the language after 1066. One of his biographers emphasises how much Tolkien bemoaned “the medieval take-over of the English language by Norman French”. Orwell railed against this too:

“One mystery about the English language is why, with the biggest vocabulary in existence, it has to be constantly borrowing foreign words and phrases. Where is the sense, for instance, of saying cul de sac when you mean blind alley? Other totally unnecessary French phrases are joie de vivre, amour propre, reculer pour mieux sauter, raison d’être, vis-à-vis, tête-à-tête, au pied de la lettre, esprit de corps.”

Tolkien had particularly fond childhood memories of the rural idyll that was his life prior to being orphaned by the premature death of his mother. In Orwell’s 1939 novel, Coming Up For Air, the protagonist reflects:

“I am sentimental about my childhood—not my own particular childhood, but the civilisation which I grew up in and which is now, I suppose, just about at its last kick. And fishing is somehow typical of that civilisation. As soon as you think of fishing you think of things that don’t belong to the modern world. The very idea of sitting all day under a willow tree beside a quiet pool—and being able to find a quiet pool to sit beside—belongs to the time before the war, before the radio, before aeroplanes, before Hitler.”

There are many similarities:

  • hatred of authoritarianism
  • deep concern over the corruption of language and politics by lies, propaganda and poor writing
  • propensity to value clarity of language and honesty of intentions
  • vehement rejection of totalitarianism of any hue, left or right
  • genuine belief in equality and democracy
  • love of private life and all its pleasures and joys
  • distaste for supervision and intrusion

manifestly evident in their most popular novels.

The Lord of the Rings and Nineteen Eighty-Four

“The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare.”

“On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.“

The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) thematically have much in common and the authors employ similar symbols, images and motifs to represent their ideas about the individual and society. This is hardly surprising considering the troubled period in which Orwell and Tolkien lived and the humanist values they shared.

Both novels are deeply concerned with integrity, propaganda and the perversion of language by individuals seeking unbridled power. Neither the honeyed words of Saruman or the sloganeering of Big Brother prove effective against the respective protagonists in the novels. Winston Smith and Frodo Baggins, like their creators, value individualism and freedom and reject authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

The most pervasive intrusion into the lives of the characters in both novels is the sense of being watched via the apparatus a despot has at his disposal and the apparent inevitability of being captured and tortured by his servants.

Avoiding the frightening Black Riders, and the Nazgûl overhead is challenging enough but remaining unseen by the omniscient, lidless eye of Sauron is the only way Frodo’s quest can be fulfilled as he struggles through Mordor to destroy the ring in the fiery Cracks of Doom.

Winston is completely cognisant that:

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.“

He does not have wraiths to contend with but helicopters and two-way telescreens. The terrifying Thought Police are omnipresent:

“In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the police patrol, snooping into people’s windows. The patrols did not matter, however. Only the Thought Police mattered.”

The covers of both books often feature eyes.

In both novels, places of natural beauty heal the protagonists. Winston makes illicit visits to the countryside with Julia, his lover. Frodo and his companions enjoy sanctuary with the elves of Rivendell and Lothlórien.

After all the terrors Frodo and his companions face in their epic journey to destroy Sauron’s ring, it is on their return to the natural beauty of the Shire that they face the real existential horror first hinted at when Frodo and his companion, Samwise Gamgee, peered into Galadriel’s mirror.

“The travellers trotted on, and as the sun began to sink towards the White Downs far away on the western horizon they came to Bywater by its wide pool; and there they had their first really painful shock. This was Frodo and Sam’s own country, and they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world. Many of the houses that they had known were missing. Some seemed to have been burned down. The pleasant row of old hobbit-holes in the bank on the north side of the Pool were deserted, and their little gardens that used to run down bright to the water’s edge were rank with weeds. Worse, there was a whole line of the ugly new houses all along Pool Side, where the Hobbiton Road ran close to the bank. An avenue of trees had stood there. They were all gone. And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End they saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air.
Sam was beside himself. ‘I’m going right on, Mr. Frodo!’ he cried. ‘I’m going to see what’s up. I want to find my gaffer.’”

This despair at the destruction of the countryside is evident in both Orwell’s and Tolkien’s work. In Coming Up For Air, Orwell conveys the protagonist’s shock at discovering a special place from his childhood has been desecrated:

“Finally I stopped and said: ‘There used to be another pool, besides the big one. It can’t be far from here.’
‘Another pool? Oh, surely not. I don’t think there was ever another pool.’
‘They may have drained it off,’ I said. ‘It was a pretty deep pool. It would leave a big pit behind.’
For the first time he looked a bit uneasy. He rubbed his nose. ‘Oh—ah. Of course, you must understand our life up here is in some ways primitive. The simple life, you know. We prefer it so. But being so far from the town has its inconveniences, of course. Some of our sanitary arrangements are not altogether satisfactory. The dust-cart only calls once a month, I believe.’
‘You mean they’ve turned the pool into a rubbish-dump?’
‘Well, there is something in the nature of a——’ he shied at the word rubbish-dump. ‘We have to dispose of tins and so forth, of course. Over there, behind that clump of trees.’ We went across there. They’d left a few trees to hide it. But yes, there it was. It was my pool, all right. They’d drained the water off. It made a great round hole, like an enormous well, twenty or thirty feet deep. Already it was half full of tin cans.”

Closing Thoughts

During 1937, Orwell survived a sniper’s bullet. If that bullet, which incised through his neck was a couple of millimetres in either direction, he would have died. Tolkien also survived his war experiences against the odds, as a junior officer on the Somme from July to October 1916, one of the deadliest periods of WWI. Contracting trench fever undoubtedly saved his life as he was hospitalised back in England, on and off, for the rest of the war. He later reflected that all but one of his friends was dead by 1918.

It is unlikely Tolkien could have ever written the Dead Marshes chapter unless he had witnessed not just the horror of trench warfare but the terrain in which men were slaughtered:

“Hurrying forward again, Sam tripped, catching his foot in some old root or tussock. He fell and came heavily on his hands, which sank deep into sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mere. There was a faint hiss, a noisome smell went up, the lights flickered and danced and swirled. For a moment the water below him looked like some window, glazed with grimy glass, through which he was peering. Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry. ‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water,’ he said with horror.
‘Dead faces!’ Gollum laughed. ‘The Dead Marshes, yes, yes: that is their name,’ he cackled.”

Generations of readers may have never had the pleasure of Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four nor The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings without both men having more than a mere modicum of luck in surviving their war experiences.

This blog post is a brief opening foray into writing more about Orwell and Tolkien’s work in an effort to compare and contrast how their worldviews are represented in their fiction.

I wonder, if you are not familiar with the quote that follows would you be able to tell who wrote it, Orwell or Tolkien?

“I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.”

Eric Blair ("George Orwell")
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Carpenter, Humphrey (1977) J.R.R.Tolkien: A Biography, London: HarperCollins
Carpenter, Humphrey (1981) Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, London: George Allen and Unwin
Garth, John (2011) Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, London: HarperCollins
Garth, John, The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Places That Inspired Middle-earth, London: Francis Lincoln, 2020
Orwell, George (1998) The Complete Works of George Orwell (20 volumes), edited by Peter Davison, assisted by Ian Angus and Sheila Davison, London: Secker & Warburg
Shippey, Tom (2010) J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, HarperCollins Publishers
Tolkien, J.R.R.R. (2001) The Hobbit, London: HarperCollins
Tolkien, J.R.R.R. (2004) The Lord of the Rings, London: HarperCollins
Tolkien, J.R.R.R. (1977) The Silmarillion, London: HarperCollins
Tolkien, J.R.R.R. (2016) A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Languages, London: HarperCollins



    • Steven Evans

    • 2 years ago

    But the Catholic Church, like any major organised superstition, is authoritarian, corrupts language, is built on a lie, is unclear in language, has dishonest intentions,, is totalitarian in its control of people, is neither equal nor democratic, and interferes in people’s private lives (going through your list of qualities of the books).

    So if Tolkien despised all these qualities, why was he a member of the Catholic Church that embodies all of them? The Catholic Church has perpetrated the greatest criminal fraud in the history of humanity, gathering in tens of billions of dollars by telling ludicrous lies – did Tolkien not notice?

      • Darcy Moore

      • 2 years ago

      Hi Steven, I agree. JRRT’s relationship with the Roman Catholic Church is hard to understand until one realises the emotional ties he had to the faith due to his mother’s untimely death. I suspect the loss of all his friends in the Great War also bound him to something he perceived as an unchanging story. It is interesting that there is no religion – as such – in Middle-earth, although, if you look closely it is clear even their is a very catholic underpinning to the narrative eg. check out the dates of Frodo’s departure and return. My point – which should have been made more clearly – is that Tolkien’s fiction showed his opposition to authoritarianism although one would have needed to be very obedient in Gondor, considering the feudal nature of the regime. 😉

        • Greg Skinner

        • 2 years ago

        Hmmm … Although there was no organized religion in Middle-Earth, the Noldorin Elves and Númenorean Men (to some extent) held Ilúvatar and the Ainur in reverence as deities. Sauron arguably fell from grace.

      • Erik Brickman

      • 2 years ago

      To have a belief in something with a higher purpose than simple human earthly living and it’s daily decisions, even under such authoritarian rule as the Catholic faith, is not necessarily bad. And, at least in my own life and my personal thought processes and longings, there often are conflicting beliefs. Life itself is never so simple that you always can adhere to just one set of beliefs all your life. For instance, becoming a father changed my views on so many things, not least the ways of the world’s deadly industrial and military complexes that lay waste to so many wonderful parts of this world, and which surprisingly often can be found under “civilized layers” of our own western societies.

      So being religious isn’t automacially the same as stopping to think for yourself. Many times, especially when reading about different faiths and comparing them to one another, make for wonderful insights into other times, other customs which are not so unlike our own systems of behaviour and reminding us of how much alike humanity is, even being separated by oceans of time.

        • Valerivs Antoninvs Pretorivs Gælicvs

        • 2 years ago

        Something authoritarian as Catholic Church? but I guess the Socialist Church of Diversity/Inclusion/Equality (DIE) is pretty happy, ain’t it?

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