Archives for 13 March 2010

Gondor, Byzantium, and feudalism

A reader on LiveJournal, who goes by the name of ‘dirigibletrance’, asks:

How exactly is Byzantine politics different from feudalism, other than taking place earlier and not in Western Europe? How are the politics we see of Gondor outside of the bounds of what we know as feudalism, both the narrow and broader definitions?

As it happens, Mr. or Ms. Trance is in a certain amount of luck: Byzantium and Tolkien are two of the subjects I have studied in some detail. However, I shall approach the matter in my own way, which means answering a lot of questions that were not asked, but that may, when answered, give meaningful context to the answer that was asked for.

To begin with, Tolkien at various points made both explicit and implicit comparisons of Gondor with Byzantium. The terms ‘North-kingdom’ and ‘South-kingdom’ for Arnor and Gondor are deliberate echoes of the Western and Eastern Roman Empire. In his famous letter to Milton Waldman (Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien no. 131), Tolkien writes:

In the south Gondor rises to a peak of power, almost reflecting Númenor, and then fades slowly to decayed Middle Age, a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium. [Read more…]