[Mark Safranski / “zen“]
High Towers and Strong Places: A Political History of Middle-Earth by Timothy R. Furnish
The hundredth anniversary of the terrifying and tragic Battle of the Somme seems a fitting time to review a new book about Middle-Earth, as it was born at the Somme from the imagination of a young British officer who survived it, J.R.R. Tolkien. From the death and destruction of the Western Front, Tolkien wrought a deep and elegant mythology that has entertained and fascinated hundreds of millions of readers for decades, spawned a sword and sorcery genre of popular fiction, major motion pictures, video games and even an academic field, “Tolkien Studies“. It is to the latter that High Towers and Strong Places by Dr. Timothy Furnish belongs and it represents a major analytic contribution; Furnish takes that which is well-known and widely read and breaks new ground.
Departing from the tradition of analyzing Tolkien’s works as literature, poetry, linguistics, mythology, culture and even roots in Christian theology, Furnish applies the disciplinary lens of political science and opens up into view the geopolitics of Middle-Earth; Sauron as tyrannical theocrat, Gondor as hegemon and Gandalf as the grand strategist of the West. Furnish, a former Arabic linguist and Army chaplain with a PhD in Islamic history, emphasizes that J.R.R. Tolkien, as a scholar and “subcreator” was deeply concerned with history and historical realism as a substantive basis for his fictional world that he took to “amazing lengths” of detail. This makes Middle-Earth a prime candidate, Furnish argues, to be analyzed in “real-world fashion”:
….The Silmarillion and LotR are both shot through with politics – whether about the intrigues of noldorin princes of the First Age, the even more byzantine plots of the Second Age Numenorean kings, or the dynastic struggles of the rulers of Arnor and Gondor in the Third Age. But the latter two are in even larger measure books about wars, while even The Hobbit contains a major, and important, battle before its end.
Furnish looks at Middle-Earth from the wars of Beleriand to the War of the Ring in the Third Age in terms of “Races and Realms” all demonstrating three basic “Types of Rule” from which flows politics, policies and to some instances, strategy, manifesting in “The Physical, Cultural-Political and Economic Aspects of Middle-Earth Warfare”. To some degree, the early part of the text is a review of the major components of Tolkien’s legendarium, enjoyably familiar to the rabid Tolkien fan but absolutely useful to the more casual reader, who has read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings but not The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, the more recent The Children of Hurin, or the twelve volume The History of Middle-Earth by Christopher Tolkien. Having laid the groundwork, Furnish then begins to examine Middle-Earth with the disciplinary lens of political science and IR.
Heavily footnoted and charmingly illustrated by Anke Eissmann, where High Towers and Strong Places really shines is in Furnish’s detailed analysis of the realms of men and the critical role of the Edain and their descendants – the fierce Numenoreans and the Dunedain of Gondor and Arnor play in Tolkien’s universe. It is conventional to interpret the history of Middle-Earth through an Elvish perspective given the events of The Silmarilion and the individual power of the greatest of the Eldar – Feanor, Luthien, Fingolfin, Finrod Felagund, Thingol, Galadriel, Celebrimbor, Elrond – which overshadow all but a heroic few men in Tolkien’s legendarium. Timothy Furnish is the first scholar to put the true scope and scale of the rise of Numenor and it’s armed might into perspective; Numenor was a true global empire and the mightiest military power of not only the Second Age, but perhaps of any age. The Numenoreans eclipsed the power of the Noldorin Elf-kingdoms of Beleriand, ruled the Seas and vast swaths of Middle-Earth and easily humbled Sauron at the pinnacle of his strength. It is an open question if Numenor at its height would have rivaled the power of Angband, but under Ar-Pharazon the Numenoreans invaded Valinor, a feat even Morgoth never dared to do. As Furnish writes:
Numenor was clearly modeled on the Atlantis myth, the importance and the centrality of which to Tolkien’s own view of his legendarium’s history having already been noted. For some 3300 years, these “Kings of men” dominated the political and military dimensions of Middle-Earth, because of their being “more like to the Firstborn [Elves] than any other of the kindred of men”. Elven aspects of these men included not only extremely long lifespans….but also great bodily stature, usually reaching 6 1/2 to 7 feet. In addition, the Numenoreans….became the most technologically advanced people in Middle-Earth – particularly in ship-building and as mariners and, eventually, in terms of military technology and weaponry
While there are many points of interest in High Towers and Strong Places, such as the nature of Orcs or the relationship between Hobbits and Men or the political characteristics of Elven lordships vs. kingdoms, another strength is Furnish’s examination of ” the realms of evil”, Angband and Mordor and their satellites and clients. While differentiating between the strategic ambitions of the dark lord Morgoth and his chief disciple and successor Sauron, Furnish characterizes them both as “theocratic tyrants”, albeit Sauron was the more rational and calculating of the two. As incarnated evil, immortal in nature and possessed of immense personal powers, the dark lords were aspiring “god-kings” seeking not merely political rule of military dominance, but “worship” and total domination of the wills of others and – Morgoth’s case – over the very substance of Arda itself.
This supernatural despotism has no genuine analog in the real world, of course, but their mad striving for “unipolarity” and reaping the consequences of counter-balancing and downfall is a familiar pattern. Furnish does a thorough job with the waxing and waning of power between the “states” of the West (of Elves, Dwarves and Men but especially Numenor and Gondor) and Sauron’s eastern hegemony headquartered in Mordor. The flow and rhythm is one recognizable to anyone who has studied the Cold War or the empires of the ancient world. Furnish intends to build upon this political history with a second volume, a military history of Middle-Earth that will delve deeply into how Tolkien conceived of war and warfare in his legendarium.
High Towers and Strong Places is a must-have tome on the shelf for every dedicated fan of J.R.R. Tolkien.