Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hobbits in Fiscal-Land (And a Nod to Daniel Abraham)

Middle Earth found itself embroiled this week in the American debt ceiling and budget negotiations, as the Wall Street Journal labeled the Tea Partiers "debt-limit hobbits." Senator McCain quoted at length from the WSJ editorial on Wednesday, sparking a series of Tolkien-inspired retorts from the Tea Party (among others, Senator Rand Paul said he would rather be a hobbit than a troll) and commentary from Stewart and Colbert, all of which led the WSJ to editorialize again yesterday about hobbits as relating to the current financial debate.

Two thoughts come to mind, one particular, one general:

* To the extent that there is a tea party and an extremely urgent time limit, and a set of definitions, principles and posturings that seem to hail from the other side of the looking glass, I think we are in the adventures of Alice rather than those of Frodo & Sam.

* Middle Earth, and very nearly all other worlds created within speculative fiction, is curiously devoid of financial elements. In most fantasy worlds-- no matter how gritty and real-- the economy is primitive, formal economic principles unstated or unknown, the study of economics non-existent or, at best, ill-defined. Middle Earth is seemingly a cash-&-carry place, without fiscal policy or possibly any taxation whatsoever-- these matters simply do not rise to the level of importance held by, say, rings of power, the flight of the elves, and the return of the king. Dragons and dwarves make terrible bankers, being content to hoard without circulating wealth, let alone extend credit. (Smaug's reaction to a withdrawal from his accumulated riches is not one intended to gain him a commercial franchise). For the most part, "the merchant" is a stock figure in fantasy, especially of the swords-&-sorcery variety, but the mechanics of wealth creation, of investment, risk, innovation, return, etc. find no foothold in the genre.

All of which is a pity because the genre would benefit from including economic and financial aspects in the plot and in the development of characters. The majority of generic fantasy worlds are modeled on medieval Europe... yet, by 1200 western Europe had built a sophisticated economy based on technological gain, division of labor, local markets, long-distance trade, nuanced and voluminous banking networks, and emerging states increasingly successful in gathering tax and creating currency. The sophistication is even greater in the medieval Islamic world and in the Chinese Empire.

(A wonderful exception to genre fantasy's economics blindspot: Daniel Abraham, whose Long Price quartet and The Dragon's Path make the workings of trade and finance integral to the plot; he has clearly studied Renaissance Italian banking and merchanting, and put what he learned to very good use.)

So, if by "hobbit" the Wall Street Journal and Senator McCain mean "economic know-nothings", the appellation is pretty close to the mark. It remains to be seen if other hobbitish traits are in evidence as well, for instance, the hobbits' great common sense and pragmatic nature, and -- above all-- their deep caring for one another, especially in times of dearth. The hobbits triumphed, not because they sought or wielded great power, but because they took pains to care for their little Elanors and their Old Tooks. In the end, their larders are full and they have in their dwellings items worth more-- as Gandalf says to Thorin Oakenshield--than those in the halls of some dwarves.

1 comment:

Doug said...

"The hobbits triumphed, not because they sought or wielded great power, but because they took pains to care for their little Elanors and their Old Tooks."--Well said!