What was Aragorn’s Tax Policy?

by on April 25, 2014 at 11:30 am in Current Affairs, Political Science, Television | Permalink

Excellent interview with George R. R. Martin at Rolling Stone:

How did you come up with the Wall?
The Wall predates anything else. I can trace back the inspiration for that to 1981. I was in England visiting a friend, and as we approached the border of England and Scotland, we stopped to see Hadrian’s Wall. I stood up there and I tried to imagine what it was like to be a Roman legionary, standing on this wall, looking at these distant hills. It was a very profound feeling. For the Romans at that time, this was the end of civilization; it was the end of the world. We know that there were Scots beyond the hills, but they didn’t know that. It could have been any kind of monster. It was the sense of this barrier against dark forces – it planted something in me. But when you write fantasy, everything is bigger and more colorful, so I took the Wall and made it three times as long and 700 feet high, and made it out of ice.

and some political economy:

A major concern in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones is power. Almost everybody – except maybe Daenerys, across the waters with her dragons – wields power badly.
Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer. You had to make hard, hard decisions. Sometimes what seemed to be a good decision turned around and bit you in the ass; it was the law of unintended consequences. I’ve tried to get at some of these in my books. My people who are trying to rule don’t have an easy time of it. Just having good intentions doesn’t make you a wise king.

August April 25, 2014 at 11:37 am

I think he’s confusing boobs and overly tortuous prose for sophistication …

PD Shaw April 25, 2014 at 11:41 am

But its true that Tolkien didn’t ask the question, what are the implications of the sex practices of dwarfs?

John Thacker April 25, 2014 at 11:51 am

Ah, aren’t you forgetting Appendix A to the Lord of the Rings, specifically the part about Durin’s Folk and the note on dwarven women? Specific comments about how the monogamy of the dwarves, low percentage of children outside marriage, and the relatively small percentage of women (and some of those women refusing to marry because they could not marry whom they had their heart set on, contrary to any assumption about forced marriages) was responsible for slow and indeed on occasion negative population growth among the dwarves?

Unless this was a subtle joke about how Tolkien himself did not use “dwarfs” but “dwarves,” (possibly his own invention because he liked strong nouns) in which case, well played.

PD Shaw April 25, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Geek. (I forgot the correct spelling of dwarves, and I think Tolkien’s explanation for his spelling is in Appendix F)

Brett April 25, 2014 at 8:32 pm

I always wondered about that. Did the being who created the Dwarves (Aule in the backstory) screw up the gender ratio on his own, or did the setting’s equivalent to God do that?

The Anti-Gnostic April 25, 2014 at 11:51 am

I think the orcs were either corrupted elves or man/orc chimeras created by Saruman. No orc infants harmed in the making of those movies.

I read something apocryphal once that, according to Christopher Tolkein, his father couldn’t think up anything past Aragorn. All he could come up with was the Kingdom falling apart and men becoming bandits in the hills, pretending to be orcs.

Locke April 25, 2014 at 2:26 pm

It’s true actually, and the idea only made it into about a dozen pages or so before Tolkien got bored with the idea. You can find it along with Christopher’s notes in one of the Book of Lost Tales editions, under “The New Shadow”. It sounded pretty terrible. Much more interesting is a second unpublished work that accompanies that volume called “Tal-Elma”, which is basically about the Numenorean colonization of Middle Earth from the perspective of its ‘pre-civilized’ inhabitants. That would have made a more interesting novel.

There’s always been a lot of speculation as to where Tolkien could have taken Middle Earth into the 4th Age (and beyond?). There’s one camp that would have preferred he followed his buddy CS Lewis and tied Middle Earth to a pre-historic version of our own world, along the lines of a Judeo-Christian mythos where Aragorn’s line hold an allegorical connection to Jesus or something. I guess Elendil == Noah and the swarthy Southrons need salvation, or something. I don’t find that particular narrative very interesting. Besides, Tolkien had already constructed his own metaphysics and mythology.

Trying to carry on in an increasingly human-dominated world absent elves and Dark Lords and the rest of the Faerie Legendarum no doubt creates tons of challenges, but I think they way to do it would have been to gone back to the roots of his mythology found in the origin story of Silmarillion. Western literature mandates that the bookends of any saga tie into the moral fabric of the universe or some nonsense, and so some kind of point needs to be made. Again, I don’t think Tolkien was much inspired by the Judeo-Christian angle that his peers in his writing circle seemed to enjoy, but Tolkien did have a cause in the struggle between nature vs industry (or agrarian society vs industrial society) which made its way into a lot of his work. The origin story of Middle Earth is basically one of creation and harmony that becomes discordant with the corruption of Melkor through his ambition and greed, along with other themes such as the relationship between Aule (basically Prometheus) and Yavanna (Nature goddess). These divine interactions then basically interweave themes throughout the rest of the world, such as sewing the distrust between the crafty Dwarves and the nature loving Elves. Reenacting these themes in a Middle Earth dominated by Man could have been interesting, perhaps with one of Aragorn’s descendants having a pair of sons who play out a Kane vs Abel retelling of the Manwe vs Melkor feud.

Ok, I’ll put away my 20 sided dice now.

Marie April 25, 2014 at 7:36 pm

“Ok, I’ll put away my 20 sided dice now.”

Hah!

Brett April 25, 2014 at 8:36 pm

This is 2014, you don’t need to apologize for knowing a ton of Tolkien Lore.

I think it would have been interesting to read “New Shadow”, if only to see how things were going in the post-Aragorn/Galadriel/Rings Middle-Earth. But I don’t think he probably could or should have gone much farther than that, since the point of the 4th Age is that it’s becoming more mundane and recognizable.

J April 25, 2014 at 12:03 pm

I think this, in a nutshell, is why people tend to be less interested in fiction as they get older and mature. You just sort of learn that the world is vastly more complicated than you can fully appreciate when you’re young, economically, politically, geopolitically, culturally, morally, etc. There are no planets of hats in the real world, to use a TV Tropes reference. Most fiction starts to come off as trite and cliched, a thinly veiled fable laid onto an overly simple narrative.

To use a sci-fi example, I loved Foundation as a kid, and still do really, but the idea that there can be an entire functioning planet of scientists, like a giant WW2-era Los Alamos, is just kind of ridiculous. That’s something I notice immediately as an adult but you miss as a kid.

Or to use an example of a real modern classic, I couldn’t finish The Grapes of Wrath. I gave it a shot recently and it was just so obvious what Steinbeck was trying to do that I just couldn’t finish. And since in my opinion he really didn’t understand what he was talking about with the banks and the economy and all that, I just thought, what is the value in reading this? and stopped. Don’t get me wrong, nobody really understood the Depression at that time, and you might even say still nobody does, but I got nothing out of TGoW. It was a book written by a socialist deliberately trying to rile people up against the banks. I’ll pass.

PD Shaw April 25, 2014 at 12:15 pm

OTOH, I know a fantasy kid lit writer that was surprised to discover that around half of the readership in that genre are working moms. I think there is an appetite for stories, even fantasy stories, but no so much for lengthy world-building indulgences.

Tom West April 26, 2014 at 9:54 am

There are plenty of adult readers who enjoy the fantasy genre, but are not much interested in explicit violence and/or sex. Unfortunately, publishing has a tendency to look at what’s hot at the centre of the market (i.e. Game of Thrones), and aim almost everything at that, which leaves substantial numbers of readers in the cold.

Luckily, the Young-Adult genre has grown to cross-over with a variety of other genres, and has grown in both intellectual and emotional complexity. About the only “rules” are the protagonist has to be young and the sex and violence non-explicit.

Adrian Ratnapala April 25, 2014 at 12:15 pm

I didn’t know that Foundation involved a planet full of scientists. But around mid-century it was not just fiction authors thought technocracy was workable. And it still isn’t.

And there is no reason to read novels as prescriptions for how political economy should work. Especially not when the author calls his own work a “fairy tale”.

Douglas Levene April 27, 2014 at 12:00 pm

It’s interesting that both Roger Myerson and Paul Krugman say they were hugely inspired by the Foundation series when they were young. But I think the technocratic ideal has faded a bit in the past half century.

Donald A. Coffin April 25, 2014 at 12:18 pm

But Steinbeck was fundamentally a reporter, not a writer of fiction. Hard as he tried, he really didn’t create a world, he simply reflected the one he lived in. I think Updike’s fiction holds up better in that respect, because it doesn’t try to do too much. (Also Jane Austen’s, for that matter.)

Curt F. April 25, 2014 at 12:21 pm

When I read Grapes of Wrath as an adult a few years ago, I noted the same deficiencies that you did, but I still enjoyed the book. It seemed a relatively honest depiction of the challenges faced by “Okies” as they migrated to California (except for perhaps the ending).

I’m sure instigating ire towards “the banks” was part of what Steinbeck wanted to do, but to me the main purpose of the book was to describe the ruination and desperation stemming from the dust bowl. Knowing what we now know about agricultural best practices, the book can be taken as a harsh reminder of what can happen when (through ignorance) we are poor stewards of the land in which we live.

Z April 25, 2014 at 12:56 pm

I agree with a lot of this, but there are loads of exceptions too. I’ve re-read a lot of fiction and found it more enjoyable now that I’m an old guy. I missed a lot when I was young and reading it the first time.

Agree on Steinbeck, but I was never a fan even when I was young.

Adrian Ratnapala April 25, 2014 at 1:09 pm

“My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.

C.S. Lewis in his dedication for The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”. I expect he is right, but it is still true that children are drawn more to fairy tails than grown-ups.

Z April 25, 2014 at 1:22 pm

Perhaps, but TV and movies would argue against that claim. As a form of middle-class entertainment, the serialized drama on TV has replaced the novel. Educated adults are watching Game of Thrones, which is just a fantasy tale.

Adrian Ratnapala April 25, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Yes. But I said fairy tails. As I write, children are racing around my back yard, catching fairies, wringing their necks, and keeping their tails as trophies.

Z April 25, 2014 at 3:27 pm

That sort of homophobia has no place in civil society.

Jeff April 25, 2014 at 1:26 pm

Agreed. Most stories, unless they’re about alien civilizations or something, just seem shallow, plastic, and lacking in one or more kinds of realism. But in defense of fiction writers, I think they tried to achieve greater depth, they’d lose a big chunk of their audience. “Exposition” is usually the least fun part of reading a book, really, and the more of it there is, the more likely people are to get bogged down in it.

Marie April 25, 2014 at 8:05 pm

@J,
You’re picking the wrong fiction, if you find Steinbeck’s broad strokes cartoonish, go with Sigrid Undset or Herman Melville. Fiction as a category is huge, you can usually get what you want out of it with a little digging. I don’t think that’s age related, it’s just that the standard high school “classics” list often isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Brett April 25, 2014 at 8:39 pm

I actually grew to appreciate good examples of world-building (A Song of Ice and Fire, Tolkien) in fantasy all the more as I grew up and studied more real history and politics, because they really are rare and you can have fun discussing aspects of it with like-minded fans. Like how the lack of gunpowder in Essos might be due to the Valyrian’s dragons rendering most conventional warfare pointless, or how the dates are wrong in-universe in Game of Thrones.

Ryan April 26, 2014 at 7:38 am

Maturity is overrated.

J April 26, 2014 at 8:56 pm

I don’t mean to write off all fiction. There’s obviously plenty of fiction that I love and is great. I guess I just find myself increasingly drawn to history and other nonfiction as an adult, whereas the bar just seems to move higher for fiction. But admittedly that’s just me.

In fact what drew me to ASOIAF was the way it read like real history; it was a well-built, detailed, and internally consistent world, almost like the real world we live in. Though of course sometimes it’s the real world that seems like the fantastic one.

Tracy W April 28, 2014 at 5:11 am

I think one of the things that’s engaging about LOTR is that, at least amongst the good men, there’s lots of moral complexities. Eg Frodo morally fails at the end and the ring is only destroyed because of Gollum’s intervention.

As for classics, I think every reader has some classics that they just don’t get, or at least don’t get at their stage in life. I’m a big fan of Jane Austen but Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre both left me cold, I enjoy Anthony Trollope but Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities struck me as utterly boring, despite the latter having a far more dramatic setting.

Adrian Ratnapala April 25, 2014 at 12:07 pm

While it’s plain that Hadrian’s Wall was an inspiration, his musings about the Romans seem like bad history. The Romans would have had a fair idea who lived north of the wall and if anyone was calling them Scots in those days, it would have been the Romans themselves. All this is reflected better in Martin’s fiction than in the quote above.

The thing about Lord of the Rings is a little harsh, since the story is trying to use bright fairy-tale colours to clarify moral points. Arguably Martin’s book is using multi-layered complexity to obscure them. Both approaches are good, but if I had to pick one, I would choose Tolkien’s.

That said, Tolkien really did seem to think that barbarian political morality + Christian personal morality was a good model. He wrote: “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)—or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy.” I guess that means Kings mostly leave subjects and perhaps orcish neighbours alone, but the subjects give gifts and seek favour. Rex doesn’t start fights, but extracts tribute if he wins them. Taxes are mostly local.

Better than asking about Aragorn’s realm is to ask “Is the political economy of the Shire sustainable?” That’s JRRT’s real Utopia — and it seems a good deal more workable than Moore’s.

PD Shaw April 25, 2014 at 12:26 pm

Agreed, the Roman history bad. The Romans had gone to Northern Scotland and fought battles there, and the Wall was erected after they withdrew back to the South. Perhaps his point is not that “the Romans” didn’t know, but that once the wall was put in place, after a while it would not be surprising if individual Roman sentries, originally from various places in the Empire, stood guard without really knowing what was “out there.”

ohwilleke April 25, 2014 at 1:12 pm

The Roman soldiers of the 2nd century CE may have had experience north of the wall, but thinking of them as modern worldview scientific materialists is an overstatement too. For all their bureaucratic organization and engineering prowess, they still lived in a world much more demon haunted than our own. It was a time when the Christians who are the ancestors of the Roman Catholic Church, Arian Christians, Jews no more removed from the diaspora than modern Jews are from the Holocaust, and numerous Roman pagan, Norse pagan and Celtic pagan worldviews rubbed shoulders on the frontiers, when no human had ever crossed the Atlantic Ocean or even reached Iceland or Hawaii or New Zealand, where roaming nomadic pastoralist tribes filled much of northern and central Europe and Central Asia and now and then raided civilized lands, where no Roman had ever seen a tundra or an iceberg, and when much of the map of the known world was terra icognita. Exorcism was a leading form of mental health treatment. The germ theory of disease was unknown making diseases mysterious and possibly supernatural in nature. The line between legendary history and factual history was thin and people were writing “Lives of Saints” every bit as fantastic and monster filled as modern superhero literature.

Peldrigal April 25, 2014 at 2:00 pm

It is not the place for this, but you are conflating Medieval worldview with Roman worldview, bot filtered through your vision of history. Neither one was so naive, when we are speaking of educated people.

Govco April 25, 2014 at 2:15 pm

“…or even reached Iceland…”

That is not true, Pytheas the Greek probably visited Iceland around 350 BC when he circumnavigated England. You will loooove this book.

Sigivald April 25, 2014 at 1:26 pm

What I was going to say, yes.

The Romans knew damned well that what was beyond the Wall was picts, not monsters.

That’s why they build the wall.

Marie April 25, 2014 at 7:40 pm

+++

TallDave April 26, 2014 at 12:05 am

Monsters, Scots, potato, potahto.

Brett April 25, 2014 at 8:41 pm

I thought he was a little hard on Aragorn and Tolkien, too. It’s not that the monarchy of the Reunited Kingdom is good – it’s just that Aragorn is a good King (like some in real life), and when he dies things start to get a little more complicated and problematic (Tolkien hinted at this in an unfinished story he wrote about the post-Aragorn period called “The New Shadow”).

dearieme April 25, 2014 at 12:27 pm

“We know that there were Scots beyond the hills, but they didn’t know that. It could have been any kind of monster.” As AR says, that’s utter rubbish. Hell they’d even performed a census on one area north of the eventual line of the wall. (An actual census, as distinct from the fairy-tale census of the New Testament!)

dearieme April 25, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Oops, I forgot the make the point of my point. Doing a census implies a tax policy – namely, let’s make the buggers pay tax.

ohwilleke April 25, 2014 at 12:48 pm

FWIW, the Old Testament also includes a fairy tale census (in the Book of Numbers that describes how the Jewish People under Joshua, the pious, totalitarian and genocide perpetrating warlord under whom the Jews purportedly conquered the Southern Levant), although the figures in that Biblical census suggest that the numbers actually reflect data gathered close in time to the drafting of the Book of Numbers (ca. 5th-7th century BCE), rather than at the time claimed in the story itself (ca. 15th-20th century BCE), presumably because the authors assumed that extrapolating backward was a good way to estimate this and because they weren’t aware that populations tend to grow exponentially.

The New Testament Roman rulers of the Levant were quite bureaucratically sophisticated and did gather census-like data, although not necessarily involving precisely the circumstances of the Nativity story (which was almost surely made up and ret-conned into the original story because it seemed to make logical sense in light of the theology that had emerged in early Pauline Christianity). Census like data make up much of the earliest written records where it was used to maintain centralized food distribution systems of strong, copper age and later city states, for example, in the Palace states of the Minoans in Crete, and later, for example, in the bread and circus economy of Rome.

ohwilleke April 25, 2014 at 12:32 pm

Well put. One of defining aspects of the better speculative fiction these days is the abandonment of black and white worlds with clear cut battled between good and evil. Some witches and vampires are good, others are not. A book like 1984, written today, would flesh out why the people imposing the totalitarian regime sincerely felt that they were doing so for the greater good and that the alternative was chaos or misery – something you see in dystopian novels like Lauren Oliver’s “Delirium”, the Divergent trilogy, and the “Matched” trilogy. You are starting to see it in non-fiction as well in memoirs of prominent figures in the Soviet Union and Communist China. Stalin and Mao may have been horrible, but the technocrats a couple of generations later are far more complex figures incapable of changing the system itself without heroic efforts carrying huge risks. Even memoirs of the Rwandan genocide are full of people who can’t even fathom why they did what they did themselves in a rational sense. WWII encourages black and white thinking, but the experiences of the couple of generations since them have reminded us that the world is a more complicated place than that.

“Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. . . . In real life, real-life kings had real-life problems to deal with. Just being a good guy was not the answer.”

We are indeed not told about his tax policy (thank goodness, who would read that?).

But, if you look at history, probably the most reliable factor that distinguishes good kings (and queens) is that they took the throne at a young age and ruled for a long time, rather than differences in “competence”.* This would suggest that stability, an ability to address policy issues over a long time horizon, and the confidence that flows from always having had great power all their life is more valuable than expertise or good intentions. It might also be that young rulers learn out of necessity to rely on the expertise of more knowledgeable advisers, while older rulers rely too much on their own imperfect policy expertise rather than trusting the experts to do their jobs (proving that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing). Historically, a king or queen’s effectiveness has rarely seemed to matter except in the rare cases when that person is pretty much capable of being diagnosed with a mental illness, is retarded, or has some other sort of profoundly disabling condition. Good policy may matter, but nothing suggests that the king or queen needs to be a seminal source for that expertise.

If these observations do hold true, one wonders if some core political economy assumptions of our system are basically wrong. We elect leaders who tend to be advanced in age, who campaign based on personal policy expertise, and in the executive branch elect Presidents and Governors who serve for just four or eight years, served by department heads who also tend to be gray haired and serve for only a fraction of the terms of the politician who appoints them with most departments having intermittent periods without any duly appointed top executive. There is clearly a learning curve to running big organizations that make important policy decisions. We might be better off with a system like that of Planet Naboo in the Star Wars saga where we periodically elect a Queen in her twenties to serve as ruler for a very long term.

* Royal competence has also not been much of an issue by design. If every rule is quite competent in some narrow sense, other factors predominate in distinguishing one ruler from another. One important reason for monarchies and aristocracies in early state societies was the economic scarcity present in pre-modern societies with only a little excess beyond subsistence food production. Suppose your society has only enough resources after feeding, sheltering and clothing its people to provide a half a dozen or so people with sufficient training and education to be as good ruler as your society can get, and you have to make the call about who to start training and educating at an age of five or six years old before you can make meaningful decisions based on their track record about who is best suited to benefit from that train. In that case, a hereditary model is a good way to make sure that the leader who will ultimately take office will be one of the handful of best trained and educated people in the state. Only a few people in the jurisdiction, if any, will have similar levels of competence and the rest will be woefully unprepared. This is what happened historically. For example, Alexander the Great’s mathematical training included basically everything taught in pre-calculus today (e.g. the mathematics of conic sections and trigonometry), at a time when few people were even functionally literate, let alone numerate at an advance level. Only now that secondary and higher education are widely available to the masses (a phenomena only a couple of centuries old and coinciding closely in time with the rise of democracy) does opening up the opportunity to hold higher office more widely make good sense.

Alex' April 25, 2014 at 1:31 pm

But, if you look at history, probably the most reliable factor that distinguishes good kings (and queens) is that they took the throne at a young age and ruled for a long time, rather than differences in “competence”.* This would suggest that stability, an ability to address policy issues over a long time horizon, and the confidence that flows from always having had great power all their life is more valuable than expertise or good intentions. It might also be that young rulers learn out of necessity to rely on the expertise of more knowledgeable advisers, while older rulers rely too much on their own imperfect policy expertise rather than trusting the experts to do their jobs (proving that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing). Historically, a king or queen’s effectiveness has rarely seemed to matter except in the rare cases when that person is pretty much capable of being diagnosed with a mental illness, is retarded, or has some other sort of profoundly disabling condition. Good policy may matter, but nothing suggests that the king or queen needs to be a seminal source for that expertise.

Not exactly. Roman Emperors who took the purple young were almost invariably disasters. Caligula, Nero, Commodus, Caracalla, Elagabalus etc.

Of course the Roman Empire prior to Constantine had a much different concept of legitimacy than Feudal Kingdoms did.

Adrian Ratnapala April 25, 2014 at 2:09 pm

I expect long reigns were prosperous reigns. By our standards, those societies would have been corrupt, stagnant and inefficient. But thats a huge improvement on corrupt, stagnant, inefficient and wracked by civil war. In addition, the mere fact that a monarch can hold his thrown shows she is probably not /too/ incompetent.

So if you look among monarchs in prosperous reigns, you will find many started young. If you look at monarchs in who started young, the results will be more mixed.

ohwilleke April 25, 2014 at 5:33 pm

“So if you look among monarchs in prosperous reigns, you will find many started young. If you look at monarchs in who started young, the results will be more mixed.”

Good point. Previously, I’ve done the former, but you illustrate cogently why this might be a biased way of looking at the issue in a way pertinent to what makes policy sense.

Slocum April 25, 2014 at 1:56 pm

We are indeed not told about his tax policy (thank goodness, who would read that?).

But Martin *does* actually tend to include details at that level and a lot of people still read the books. For example, the Lannisters borrow from the Iron Bank of Braavos. And then they default. So the Iron Bank sends a team over to Westeros who decide the best way to collect (or at least disincentivize future defaults) is to provide funding for the Lannister’s adversaries. What other fantasy novels have ‘international banks collecting on bad debts’ as plot elements?

Peldrigal April 25, 2014 at 2:02 pm

Anyone who describes ASOIAF as a “fairy tale” has clearly never read the books. Besides, let’s not forget that Martin is an author of classical science-fiction, multiple Hugo winner.

ohwilleke April 25, 2014 at 5:42 pm

FWIW, Martin and Tolkien can both get a bit dreary and slather on unnecessary detail that slows down the story at times. But, even though Martin does sometimes manage to bring alive the political and human import of public finance, I can’t imagine that a similar attempt by Tolkien would have been even modestly successful.

Tolkien was a man who could have described a revenue agent’s office and outfit and mannerisms with exquisite detail, but he didn’t have a great knack for creating worlds that were plausible at a nuts and bolts macro level. His stories were about varieties of cultural expression and exotic lands and individual heroism – all very pre-modern stuff like the literature he taught at his day job – not about the inner workings of large complex organizations and economies. There is a reason that he portrayed industrial activity in Middle Earth in the tradition of England’s “dark satanic mills” while idealizing the peaceful agricultural hills of the Shire. The modern industrial world was not one that he either understood or admired. Modern biographical accounts laud him as a proto-environmentalist warning us of the evils of modernity, not someone who understood the dismal science.

Marie April 25, 2014 at 8:20 pm

Tolkien isn’t anti-industrial, his characters have mithril coats and magic swords — very high tech industrial products for that world. If you consider it, there’s nothing the Sauron side has that is more technologically advanced, more industrially productive (unless you want to count the rings), than what the good guy side has. They both make stuff. The dwarves are big time productive, and miners, to boot.

The difference between the two sides is more in what you note, in the “large complex organizations and economies” aspect. Both sides were productive, even industrial when they wished. But the “good guy” side had a diversified economy based on many, many small individual players. There were tons of producers, elves making crafts and clothes, dwarves making weapons, men breeding horses, everyone making cities and homes, and, yes, farmers. But the “bad guy” side had few producers, just central pits of production of basically one thing — armies. There’s not even any good food and water, nothing useful in the landscape, even their fortresses were stolen from what men had made before. None of the “bad guy” characters — not the Nazgul, not the Southern men, not the orcs, not the trolls — ever produce anything or do anything themselves, they just follow central direction to one end.

I really think it’s a mistake to read him as an environmentalist. His world was bound to be less industrial because of its setting, just like Asimovs were bound to be more because of theirs. But within that world, there’s plenty of manufacturing going on by the good guys. They just do it the right way, as individual entrepreneurs.

VanL April 25, 2014 at 5:58 pm

It isn’t fantasy – its SciFi – but the plot of the entire second half of “Battlefield Earth” by L. Ron Hubbard is driven by the actions of a bank trying to collect on a debt due to a liquidity crisis. It’s a surprisingly good novel, considering both the movie and the other stuff produced by Hubbard.

cthulhu April 26, 2014 at 1:11 pm

One of Robert Heinlein’s best novels in his “juvenile” series – “Citizen of the Galaxy” – has as its climax a shareholder proxy fight. SF not fantasy, but still…

Brad April 26, 2014 at 9:01 pm

Charles Stross has a book in which the entire plot revolves around interstellar banking in a universe with no FTL travel.

Rob42 April 25, 2014 at 2:12 pm

Reminds me of what a missed opportunity the Star Wars prequels were; they started to show some hint that Anakin was doing what he thought best for the worlds of the republic, but then they dropped that and went with Anakin/Darth Vader as the petulant monster.

Thor April 25, 2014 at 4:49 pm

+1

Indeed. That’s Lucas for you.

Brett April 25, 2014 at 8:43 pm

I liked the idea that he was more motivated by people and personal loyalty than any sort of heart-felt fondness for governments or politics. It explains why he eventually turned on Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, and does a pretty good set-up for why he turns into Vader in the novelization of Revenge of the Sith (the movie is mostly awful).

Corey April 25, 2014 at 3:24 pm

Mightn’t you have this backward, due to selection bias? Monarchs that assumed power young but did a terrible job tended to get conquered/assassinated/overthrown. The long reign is just as plausibly the result of competent government, not the other way around.

dan in philly April 25, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Tolkien probably fancied Aragorn would rule like a Byzantian king, and have a standing bodyguard but not an army.
As far as him being a good person, did I misread the book? Aragorn wasn’t a well intentioned weakling, but a laser focused killer when need be. He was old and wise and would no doubt have been an excellent ruler for his time and place. I find the speculation here a bit historically inept. In those days, wisdom was quite important and being clever was not as useful as it is in modern times.

Adrian Ratnapala April 25, 2014 at 1:19 pm

Your description of Aragorn is correct, but he is still a fairy-tale warrior. More like Galahad than would be good for anyone in the real world. Aragorn as King would have been similar. Not a literal description of how a medieval prince should rule, but still a good picture of the personal character expected of such a prince.

Jeff April 25, 2014 at 1:59 pm

He needed to be pure of heart; otherwise he’d have been corrupted by Sauron and/or the Ring, just like Saruman, the Nazgul, and Aragorn’s own Numenorean ancestors.

Adrian Ratnapala April 25, 2014 at 4:56 pm

I hurl myself against the foe with courage and avidity,

And maybe just a soupcon of inherited stupidity.

So if you want a sherpa for a toddle through the Hithaeglir,

Or need a human champion who’s not a jerk, like Boromir,

Check out the heir of Isildur with any good historian;

He’ll tell you I’m the model of a modern Numenorian.

Marie April 25, 2014 at 8:24 pm

That would have only been good if it hadn’t had that fourth line, which pushed it over the top. . . .

msgkings April 25, 2014 at 8:48 pm

Nerdiest post of the year but really excellent work. Outstanding.

Marie April 25, 2014 at 11:47 pm

Darn, my comment was confusing. I meant it was good. Then that line made it really good.

Adrian Ratnapala April 26, 2014 at 2:00 am

I think I have done something confusing, by seeming to claim “Modern Numenorean” as my own work. It is not. Google and you shall find.

On the other hand if you ever find “Gladdy the Red-Nosed Noldo” buried somewhere in the dark halls of the Usenet, then you shall have found my work.

Tracy W April 28, 2014 at 4:53 am

Actually, have you heard of William Marshal, the 1st Earl of Pembroke. He seems to have both been an impressive warrior and a successful regent. Of course he was never actually king, but his example indicates it might not have been impossible to be both a successful monarch and a great warrior.

PD Shaw April 25, 2014 at 3:30 pm

Since Tolkien was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon, Aragorn was probably modeled after King Alfred the Great, and perhaps Beowulf. I too dispute the notion that Aragorn is simply a “good man.” I think its more that he was a good warrior, exhibiting the best martial virtues of loyalty, leadership, and knowing when to press the offense and when to wait for the right to time. And being a good military leader is seen as making a good king. The truly good people in the LOTR are hobbits.

Dan Weber April 25, 2014 at 1:34 pm

How does The Great And Powerful Turtle apply for limited liability?

RV April 25, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Aragorn rules! First time anyone gives him shit he’d just call that army of ghosts back and regulate!

msgkings April 25, 2014 at 8:49 pm

LOL!

Govco April 25, 2014 at 2:24 pm

I liked the interview more than the book and a half of SOFAI that I read. (They don’t suck, but I exhausted interest in that type of story after reading Gregory of Tours, Froissart, Joinville, and their ilk.)

Eugene April 25, 2014 at 2:34 pm

The nice thing about Japanese historical fiction is that the size and wealth of a domain back then was measured in koku of annual rice production (1 koku equals about 5 bushels). And size really mattered, with domains ranging from 10,000 koku up to a million. That measurement alone provided a good approximation of how many farmers were working the land, how many soldiers could be sent into battle (and when), and how many samurai could be maintained on the payroll. The reigning warlord or shogun kept track of those numbers very carefully.

Millian April 25, 2014 at 2:38 pm

Yet which will be the better and more resilient myth? Tolkien’s, surely, despite the absence of public works policy. The purpose of myth is not really to describe the detailed complexities of life.

Adrian Ratnapala April 25, 2014 at 4:39 pm

And Millian gets the prize!

Frodo Baggins and Luke Skywalker are our best contenders for joining in the pantheon with the likes of Rama and Odysseus as characters who will still be remembered in 1000 years time. Only copyright can stop them now.

Thor April 25, 2014 at 4:58 pm

Not entirely mutually exclusive, however…

Myths work better when the scaffolding is serious, not adolescent or simplistic.

Look at the Iliad. Sure, the war, the heroes and the battles matter, but what makes those matter are the details, including those that challenge us (and the Greeks) to rethink things.

E.g., the rethinking of the idea of the hero (Achilles is petulant etc), the rethinking of the idea of the suitor (Paris is a sneaky coward), the rethinking of the idea of the canny leader (Odysseus is a cunning bastard), the rethinking of the majestic king (Agamemnon is a selfish archaic warlord about to lose his mens’ trust), the rethinking of the idea of the enemy (Hector is humanized), etc.

Adrian Ratnapala April 25, 2014 at 6:13 pm

The Illiad is a world away from attempting to mirror “real” geopolitcs the way ASOIAF does. In that sense it is much closer to Lord of the Rings which is also not a straightforward tale of hero-bashes-monsters. It’s true that Tolkien is morally prim, in that mixed characters like Gollum, Denethor and Boromir all fail.

I don’t think this is because Homer valued psychological depth. He was simply less morally serious. Unlike Lord of the Rings, the Illiad was composed by an actual primitive bard, singing to please actual dark-age warrior-lords to help them celebrate the actual barbaric deeds of their ancestors. He did very well to get his jibes in edgeways.

That said. I suspect myths work better when they are both adolescent and simplistic, like the Ramayana. Or at least as much of it as I have ever been able to wade through. Rama has many more fans than either Hector or Achilles.

Tracy W April 28, 2014 at 4:54 am

But also in LOTR, Frodo fails. And Galadriel and Gandalf both badly fear failure.

ohwilleke April 25, 2014 at 5:48 pm

LOTR is really closer in genre to a saga than a myth, and sagas are every bit as complex as the story lines of American soap operas that have been running for three or four decades straight.

whatsthat April 25, 2014 at 3:09 pm

Pretty sure most people who watch Game of Thrones aren’t thinking about what makes a good ruler.

I like the show, but it’s really a bit of a political soap-opera dressed up with nudity and violence. Not that I mind it!

“Oh you know I’ve always been a fan of war. …. War’s interesting. When you learn about history you don’t hear about medieval agrarian reform do you? You want to hear about Attila the Hun. Those are the interesting bits.” – Lemmy Kilmeister, bass player and “vocalist”, Motorhead

dan in philly April 25, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Attila is interesting, but not as interesting as the kinds of sweeping historical currents such as agrarian reforms and the resultant population explosions making him possible. Then again, I’m a history buff, but a violence buff.

whatsthat April 25, 2014 at 3:41 pm

It isn’t violence that’s interesting, it’s placing people in a situation where they are forced to exercise it. War’s an extreme situation and people react in unpredictable ways, which is why it will interest more people than agrarian reform. And that is why I believe Game of Thrones has an audience. Easily the most boring person is the dragon woman who just keeps walking around and freeing people.

I put that quote in mostly because rock musicians don’t very often use the phrase “agrarian reform” in their interviews.

Adrian Ratnapala April 25, 2014 at 4:51 pm

The Danaerys thread is much more violent than all the others put together. But it also has the most fantastical things in it, from dragons, to eunuch armies to the great and cruel pyramid cities of the Fabled East.

Westeros feels like medieval western Europe, but Dany’s adventures feel more like the fantasies of medieval Western Europeans. And somehow that makes her less interesting than the rest. Reading in print, it is exciting to ponder the glory Qarth in the abstract, but the actual Dany stories are less full-blooded than, say, the Arya stories.

Xmas April 26, 2014 at 10:26 am

The Dany storyline in the books does seem a bit lightweight when compared to the rest of the book. That said Dany is probably one of the most powerful young female characters I’ve seen in a book. By the end of the last book, she’s maybe 15 years old and she’s grown to match the bluff and bluster she’s been running with since the death of her husband.

Zach April 25, 2014 at 4:44 pm
Zach April 25, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Regarding the “good king = prosperous kingdom,” Martin is overlooking the effects of political stability or lack of it.

Take a look at England after the Norman Conquest up to around the Wars of the Roses (obvious parallels with Martin’s books). Constant low-level conflict occasionally escalating into high level conflict. Frequent rebellions and threats of invasion. The armies are all living off the land, and a popular tactic is to burn and scour a lord’s territories as a way to force him into the field. Weak central government and strong regional houses means frequent conflict even within the boundaries of a single kingdom. Meanwhile, 80% of the economy is agrarian, and rents are fixed.

In that kind of political system, the best thing a strong king can provide is stability. Strong enough to deter invasions or rebellions, not so ambitious as to seek foreign wars, a “good king” gives the realm 10-15 years of peace and quiet.

Adrian Ratnapala April 25, 2014 at 6:31 pm

A kingdom needs less than this. Especially England. Strong English kings were able to fight wars in France. They didn’t often win, but at least they were not forced to fight in England.

So we have the strangely modern spectacle of England having its biggest wars just when it was actually doing well. England lost the 100 years war, which was ill conceived in the first place. And yet England never really suffered much, while it was a horrific string of disasters and humiliations for France.

Zach April 25, 2014 at 8:08 pm

True.

And the economic policies of the Middle Ages were even simpler. Award large grants of land to your supporters. Punish opponents with fines or loss of land. A large fraction of the land in the country is tied up in inheritance disputes; settle these in favor of supporters, or extract concessions for a favorable ruling. Noble marriages require the consent of the king; don’t allow concentrations of power that rival the king’s.

Middle Ages politics were all about patronage and inheritance. Even when conflicts were about other things, they would be framed as disputes about inheritance, or about the king’s choice of advisors.

“Realism” in fantasy writing is often a tough concept. Grim and gritty is an aesthetic choice, not a reflection of reality.

Just another MR Commentor April 25, 2014 at 7:03 pm

An important question would be “What was Aragorn’s Immigration Policy”

msgkings April 25, 2014 at 8:57 pm

Not nearly as important as why he didn’t use the blockchain to defeat Sauron sooner and more easily

jorod April 26, 2014 at 12:23 am

Both sides had their conjurers. The followers of Sauron were twisted, misbegotten souls. The dwarves, elves and hobbits were the disappearing mini states of Europe caught in the power struggle of bigger forces and a brave, new world.

Marie April 25, 2014 at 7:50 pm

I wrote some plays, and if anyone interviews me I’ll explain why they are better than any of Shakespeare’s.

jorod April 26, 2014 at 12:24 am

Both sides had their conjurers. The followers of Sauron were twisted, misbegotten souls. The dwarves, elves and hobbits were the disappearing mini states of Europe caught in the power struggle of bigger forces and a brave, new world. – See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/04/what-was-aragorns-tax-policy.html#comment-158171224

DensityDuck April 26, 2014 at 1:23 am

” Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple.”

And Lord Of The Rings was never meant to be real history. Tolkein was right from the start inventing a mythology, and he said so, and he never implied or pretended that he was doing anything but. Of course a “real king” would have more trouble being a good ruler than Aragorn Elessar. That’s because one of the chief tenets of Middle-Earth is that there really are Better People.

I mean, to be frank, the closest Middle-Earth comes to being like reality is Gondor under Denethor; soft, cynical, advanced in technology and standard of living, but through complacency bordering on senescence it’s losing the will to strive for its own survival against even so obvious a thread as actual no-equivocation capital-E Evil. And Tolkein was, again, pretty clear in showing that this was bad.

Boonton April 27, 2014 at 6:37 am

I’m not sure LOTR wasn’t meant to be ‘real history’. The story itself is presented as real history (the world of Middle Earth somehow ‘merged’ into our own at some forgotten period of time). The endless family trees, constructions of various languages, backstories etc. indicate someone trying to make a real history….not simply tell a fairy tale.

DensityDuck April 28, 2014 at 3:22 pm

“detailed” and “realistic” are not synonyms.

Ari April 26, 2014 at 2:52 am

I think the interview was great, but I think Game of Thrones is lacking. It has its moments, but has too much deus ex machina, irrelevant sidescenes and substandard dialogue. I guess some of it has to do with fantasy geek trying to do real drama. It is nowhere near what Battlestar Galactica did to science fiction. Too much absurdity, and play with shock value.

Shame, I think it had more potential.

andrew' April 26, 2014 at 6:42 am

I broke down and watched BG. Even it seemed jv. I’m not here to make friends.

Ari April 26, 2014 at 5:31 pm

That is what I though the first time, but when I watched BSG second time years later I just realised what a masterpiece it is. I think Tyler likes it a lot too.

andrew' April 26, 2014 at 6:39 am

Lotr 4, 5, 6. JJ Abrams to direct.

jorod April 26, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Battlestar Galactica was an allegory for the Jews and the Nazis.

Boonton April 26, 2014 at 4:35 pm

In thinking about the Harry Potter series, something I noted about it was how sophisticated the adult world was presented. Not only were there the usual good guys vs bad guys, but there were a lot of people who compromised and rationalized away evil because their job depended on it, or simply because they were afraid. I’ve noticed superhero stories too have become much more sophisticated in trying to depict how actual human society might view a superhero (see, for example, the Batman and last Superman movie).

I’m wondering if this is because the reading and writing public has become much more knowledgeable of both institutional economics and sociology. For example, the takeover of the ‘Ministry of Magic’ institution in Potter looks quite a bit like ‘regulatory capture’…even before He Who I Dare Not Spell started taking over everything…(the ‘Defense against the Dark Arts’ job too seems quite a bit like social planning…..either ineffective at best or counterproductive at worst)

rjh57 April 26, 2014 at 9:37 pm

What Tyler doesn’t seem to get is that charisma (“leadership”) counts for a whole lot. Aragorn may not have been able to maximize economic output (get the right tax policy), but he would maximize overall utility by convincing subjects he was right, regardless of what the economists said.

rjh57 April 26, 2014 at 9:38 pm

Sorry, Alex, not Tyler.

Andrew M April 27, 2014 at 1:36 pm

Is Game of Thrones coasean? Lord of the Rings isn’t. The Hobbits have the ring, Sauron wants the ring, but they can’t find a price at which they are willing to exchange.

Brett Dunbar April 27, 2014 at 10:46 pm

To be a little pedantic during the Roman era there wouldn’t have been Scots north of Hadrian’s wall. The Scots were resident in Ireland at the time of the great conspiracy (367-368) and what is now Scotland north of the Antonine wall was Pictish. Between the walls were mainly a number of British tribes. The Scots kingdom of Dál Riata in western Scotland seems to date from the fifth or sixth century.

Krigl April 29, 2014 at 10:57 am

Ugh, seriously. There were no “lions” behind Limes Romanus, there were well known barbarians, against whom the wall was built. Roman cultural and military influence and oikumené indeed stretched quite far from the wall, which itself made the export/import/immigration/invasions manageable not impossible. Roman soldier on Hadrian’s Wall didn’t look for unknown monsters but for signs of Pict raid.

As for more interesting and realistic look at Tolkien’s world, I strongly recommend Kirill Yeskov’s “The Last Ringbearer,” written as a historical novel from the world where Lord of the Rings is an old saga vaguely inspired by an actual history, by a geologist whose world building chops are few levels above Tolkien’s. It’s also bound to make enjoyable reading to anyone who thinks that Ted Sandymans of our world do more for the civilization than nobly speaking Gandalfs.

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